Reviews of poetry written for the Australian Women Writers Challenge are always a joy to read because their writers are so attentive to language, ideas and form, and the 12 reviews penned between June and November are no exception.
Author Magdalena Ball reviewed Bread of the Lost by Philomena van Rijswijk, a book full of food, music, visual textures, smells and elements of the body. ‘Moving between desire, hunger, overwhelming beauty and hideous loss,’ Magdalena writes, ‘there is an underlying, unapologetic intensity in every one of these poems … Bread of the Lost is a beautiful and moving collection that can be plundered and indeed eaten whole or tasted in small sweet mouthfuls like exquisite arsenic kernels.’
Over at GoodReads, Magdalena also wrote a detailed review of Hotel Hyperion by Lisa Gorton, a book which ‘takes the notion of a room to the grandest of metaphorical extensions, turning rooms into universes, into compartments in the brain, into moments of time and pockets of space.’ While each of the poems stands alone, they are also linked by ‘a story of memory, loss, history and hubris’.
Two reviews were posted of the verse novel Limen by Susan Hawthorne, a writer in many genres, and director of publishing house Spinifex Press. Marilyn, of Me, You and Books, refers to it as ‘An elegant little book of simple poems that tell the stories of two women and a dog who get caught in a flood when camping.’ Although she confesses she’s not a reader of poetry, she ‘literally started reading and didn’t stop until I finished it.’ Sue of Whispering Gums was similarly enchanted, finding ‘lovely imagery referencing female lives (“the river is a necklace of pools”, “paperbark/ruffled as a frilled ballgown” and “clouds are crocheted close/threatening”) but when the tension is highest the language becomes terse and plain.’ Having just finished writing a paper on Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone, I’m keen to read more verse novels, and have added this lovely book to my list.
On this note, there were two reviews of The Sunlit Zone. At GoodReads, David mused about the work’s form, observing that ‘the primary function of the verse form is to allow Jacobson to present a very spare, highly imagistic narrative, one which would be regarded as sleight, choppy, and perhaps even more experimental if it was made into a short story or novella’.
Verse novels are a fantastic introduction to poetry. Reviewers sometimes confess they are hesitant about poetry, but then pick up a verse novel and find themselves drawn in. Lauredhel of Hoyden About Town was similarly reserved, but gave The Sunlit Zone a go and came out with a fantastic review: ‘It’s got slowpocalypse, Aussie sense of place, beautiful (and sometimes heart-wrenching) description, genepunk, family drama, terrorism, sexuality, humour, even echoes of future-tech almost-selkieness – and all in deft, delicious verse. Nothing wraps up neatly, yet it feels satisfying.’
Sue of Whispering Gums also penned a review of another fascinating verse novel, The Petrov Poems, by Canberra poet Lesley Lebkowicz. The Petrovs were a Russian couple who worked at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra in the 1950s, and who defected. Using a variety of forms, such as sonnets, couplets, poems with multi-line stanzas but closing on a single dramatic line, Sue writes, ‘Lebkowicz gets into the heart of these two characters, bringing them back to ordinary human beings who were caught up in something that was both of and not of their own making. It is a rather pathetic story. There are no heroes here – and yet, as happens with these sorts of things, it captured the world’s attention for a short time.’ Yet, from the sounds of things, the story is still capturing writers and readers.
Eileen Chong was born in Singapore and emigrated to Australia, and her work Burning Rice was reviewed by Jonathan Shaw. Chong’s first poem, which begins, ‘I did not mean to burn the rice tonight’, prompted a beautiful description of Jon’s own heritage:
four generations of my family – great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother – have been sugar farmers. Substitute marmalade for rice, and there I am in my inner suburban kitchen, trying to get the quantity of sugar right, enough to make the marmalade set but not too sweet, and lurking not so very far in the background the memory of cane paddocks, cane fires, cane knives and all they meant in my childhood. My personal story is very different from Chong’s and the history of sugar in North Queensland has little in common with that of rice in east Asia, but that’s where the poem touches me, brings part of my mind alive.
It shows how poetry brings forth memory and connections, not just with one’s past, but also other poets, as Jon was struck how ‘Chong’s poems about her parents and grandparents, the family’s food traditions, her childhood memories of Singapore streets, even Chinese history and classic Chinese poets, are part of a similar project to Heaney’s when he writes about his parents and forebears, his childhood memories of Irish fields, his tales of Irish saints and scholars.’
Jon also reviewed Parker & Quink by Jennifer Compton, which he found ‘by chance, as one still can in bricks-and-mortar bookshops’. Fittingly, part of the work is about writing with beautiful pens, as he comments: ‘Parker & Quink: the young might stare at these words blankly, but for us sexagenarians they have unmistakeable nostalgic power to evoke the sensual feel of a fountain pen, the aroma of quality ink, the dubious joys of blotting and smudging, perhaps even the quiet pleasure of receiving one’s first Parker pen as a reward for doing well in a school exam’. It’s not just sexagenarians who are fond of pens: I’m in my mid-30s and once won a Parker for a piano piece I played in the local Eisteddfod, and cherished it. I write in my journals with a Cross, but I use cheap pens from the supermarket for my novels and essays, because I go through them so fast. For Jon, the poetry in Parker and Quink is like this old technology — these pens — that we use for writing: ‘the kind that needs the reader to come and sit with it for a while, rather than providing instant hits, instant links.’
It was good to see another review of Anita Heiss’ I’m Not Racist, But …. For Shannon of Giraffe Days, this was an at times confronting read, and she shared her honest thoughts on the work, that she ‘felt the injustice of [Heiss’] inequality like a stab to the palm, but with all these feelings came that usual, typical sense of uselessness. There was no opening, no slender gap in the door, that offered a way to change things, to make amends, to prove my own worthiness as a being who genuinely cared’. At the same time, she recognised and appreciated the poems for ‘brimming with passion and, at heart, a love for the country and for being Aboriginal.’ Shannon concludes that ‘this is a very emotional collection of poems and so I couldn’t help but respond emotionally, with empathy’ and this, I think, is one of the core functions of poetry: to move its readers and to make them think.
Each of these reviews shows how poetry does just that – it prompts readers to muse, to recollect, to be stirred (whether to anger or nostalgia). This, in turn, demonstrates the skill and talent of Australia’s women poets, and I hope that our readers will continue to absorb, muse upon and review their poetry over 2014.
I’m Jessica White, a writer and researcher. I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007) and Entitlement (2012). My poetry has been published Overland, Verandah and Muse, and won the Matthew Rocca Poetry Prize. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.