Poetry in Canberra has a long and honorable history, even if we're less familiar than we should be with the Ngunnawal song cycles that long preceded the great days of A.D. Hope, David Campbell, Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson.
In the past five years or so, poetry in Canberra has been booming. There are three regular readings, one of them weekly and two monthly. There are at least two performance poetry venues. As for literary poets, there are some 60 of them in this city publishing nationally. The four books under review here are a reasonable cross-section of the current richness.
Owen Bullock's Summer Haiku, published by the small press that has played an important role in this resurgence, reflects the popularity of haiku, tanka and associated forms among at least a subset of our poets. Summer Haiku is Bullock's fifth book in this form and it ranges widely in tone. Some are haiku that Matsuo Bash (1644-1694) would certainly have recognised; others are effectively senryu, an urban, witty variant. Among the more traditional haiku would be the following: "an afternoon / without any wind ... / voices in the river". Closer to senryu are: "young man / bouncing a rugby ball / as if it were round" and perhaps: "farm tour / a llama cleans its teeth / on the fence wire".
Paul liff's Canberra Light is a rather different book from the well-received A Constellation of Absurdities just two years ago. That collection distilled the best poems from 15 years of work and was something of a signature volume. This new one deliberately has a narrower range in both subject and tone. In an "afterword" Cliff surmises that Canberra Light might well be "a livre composé of sorts". All of its poems are set in Canberra or its surrounds (including the NSW South Coast) and a mostly jokey or whimsical tone is its default setting.
It's may be paradoxical then to report that the most memorable poems in Canberra Light tend to be those where the humour implies something deeper. "Salmon Trout", with its sardonic account of a "big bull seal of a man in Adidas shoes" finishing off a salmon trout he's caught, is just one example. The man "pulls his knife / and pushes its silver tip deep into the animal's neck." Soon "the flesh (is) slackening, its life distils to its glassy, round upturned eye, / as if photographing this final, resting moment of itself".
Anita Patel's first collection, A Common Garment, adds a salutary olfactory dimension to the poetry of Canberra. To judge from the poems here, Patel would seem to have grown up with Indian and Malay antecedents in Malaysia and then emigrated in time to adopt "the blue jeans worn by a skinny, brown teenage girl growing up in 1970s Australia".
In the past five years or so, poetry in Canberra has been booming.
It's no insult to say that some of Patel's poems could be used as recipes. Among these would definitely be "Cooking Rice", "Your Voice" and "Fried Bread and Mango Juice". Something of Patel's preferences can be sensed in a few lines from her poem, "Apples and Chillies". "Apples," opines Patel, are "Fine for fairy tales and picnic baskets - / rosy sweet, neatly sliced, baked in a pie, / delicious no doubt, but too cosy / for those of us who grew up with the / scarlet spite of chillies on our tongues ..." Less playful, but no less engaging, are poems such as "That's Their Story" and "Sita" (retelling Hindu myths with a mildly feminist slant), "Don't Be Afraid" and "Wearing Red for Hanuman" (about the tensions between the outer and inner life of a girl or young woman adapting to a new culture). No less important too are poems such as "Navigating Gija Country and "Colours of her Country" detailing the poet's encounters with a culture rather older than the three she has already.
Lesley Lebkowicz is essentially a poet of implication and indirection. Her use of metaphor is sparing. Mountain Lion, her second full-length poetry collection, has an encouragingly large number of forceful poems. It's divided into five sections, three of which conclude with an "interlude" where the poems seem a commentary on what's come before. Some of the book's best poems are to be found here. They would include, among others, the wryly humorous "Butter", the subtly feminist "On the death of a famous poet", and the amusingly ingenious "By Magritte",
Many of Lebkowicz's poems are concerned with the small, accretive details of the dying process, often in a hospice. They are unfailingly moving - in slightly different ways each time. Most are filled with memorable lines. These, from the end of "Getting the Angle Right", are indicative: "When I said crying was OK / he looked at me as though I had a lot to learn. / Visitors came - mobs of ten or more at a time. / Small black kids did cartwheels past the rooms / of other dying people. / He didn't pretend anything: / not that he wasn't dying, not that it wasn't hell."
To readers raised on Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins these lines might seem flat but their authenticity and incremental revelation of detail are fairly sure leave a disturbingly vivid impression on most readers. In poetry we've come to expect metaphoric energy but there is also a place for the plain and Lebkowicz locates it very well.
Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.
- Summer Haiku, by Owen Bullock. Recent Work Press. $8.95
- Canberra Light, by Paul Cliff. Recent Work Press. $12.95
- A Common Garment, by Anita Patel. Recent Work Press. $12.95
- Mountain Lion, by Lesley Lebkowicz. Pitt Street Poetry. $25