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Winter Reading

These are a few of the books I've been reading over the holiday break. I've also had the privilege of hearing almost all of the poets read from the books as well. There's been such warmth and renewal in coming out again after the last few years. It feels as though a there's a certain tinge of brightness to the world's horizon; just enough to look for amidst the floods, rain, and waves of pandemic. These books certainly provide some of that light, reminding the reader always of the eternal elements of humanity, the world, and chapters of all of our lives. From the top:

Dimitra Harvey, A fistful of Hail (Vagabond, 2018)

John Foulcher, Dancing with Stephen Hawking (Pitt Street, 2021)

Jennifer Compton, the moment, taken (Recent Work Press, 2021)

Anita Patel, petals fall (Recent Work Press, 2022)

Theodore Ell, Beginning in Sight (Recent Work Press, 2022)

Damen O'Brien, Animals with Human Voices (Recent Work Press, 2021)

Mark Tredinnick, A Beginner's Guide (Birdfish, 2022)

Dimitra Harvey, A fistful of Hail:

This chapbook is a delight and if it's any indication of what's to come from Dimitra, her full length collection will be spectacular. Having won the Vall Vallis in 2021 and placing third in the Newcastle with her poem 'Triptych'. Dimitra's writing is already stirring the currents of Australia's contemporary poetry landscape. I especially liked her 'Calyptorhynchus Funereus (Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos)' which I heard her read at Smith's Alternative a few weeks ago. It's a testament to her vast range of diction and her sheer attention to the image; lines like "I'll learn that the ridge of its underside is a craquelure of lemon" and "my tongue smarting with the honeyed-metal piquancy of rain" are a rare joy and pleasure against the banality of modern speech. Other poems like 'Acrocorinth', which charts a reflection on her grandfather and Greek heritage, show her deft ability to navigate deep emotions in the taut and sparse lines of a poem. The couplet form almost marries the persona and the reflection, allowing her to play with line length and image with the touch of a master. There is music and beauty in each line,

My grandfather's people


clusters of bitter-and-sweet jade fruit

from the vines, while time—like a god's

hand on the hill — tapped off seams

of limestone with the rain's pick, or pounded out...

If you haven't got a copy or your haven't read Dimitra's work, do yourself favour and grab one.

John Foulcher, Dancing with Stephen Hawking

This collection shows a master, sure of himself and his work. Each poem is finely wrought and shaped, with a precision of language and craft. I loved the "calm chiselling of fate" in 'Medusa', the longer forms of "Babel" and "Among the Pines", especially in its changing stanzas; their richness of characters. Many of the poems take on the voices or are reflections of other people, a skill that John has honed sharply here. "Pilate Wakes" struck me as an wonder; to think of Pilate waking the next day after the judgement of Christ, wanting to be home. Others like "Berryman's Leap" bring home the poignant observation of the vastness of our lives, the sense that our actions have ripple effects not just for the subject of the poem, but the breadth of people in their lives—a constant theme in this collection. This seems a focal point of a number of poems here, that no person is an island and all of our actions have far greater reach than we tend to imagine, often to those closest to us, often over generations. John often delivers this deftly, in between the lines, with sparse sampling of dialogue, behind the words. 'Pines' is a tragic sequence in prose, one that I will revisit often for its desolate beauty and despair. In "Ritual" the tension is palpable and thick in the lines,

Her sister sits on an old wooden crate, draped in a pale pink towel, her hair wet and lacquered down, ready to be cut. But the girls are empty-handed. There are no implements, no scissors or comb. They are wondering what to do next. Nearby, trees lean from a mound like a pagan barrow I once saw, that was filled with the dead...

There is a haunting sense of regret in many of these poems. One that we all carry; of the what ifs, the moments of choice that were taken the wrong way, the moments of neglect. 'Pilates' last line resonates like this, "I want to go home / but something has happened in the night."

But there are also others that are an antidote to these emotions, those like the titular "Dancing with Stephen Hawking" and "Revising Casuarinas" that won the ACU Prize for Poetry in 2019. In these, there's a tenderness to the lines that reveal a delicate love for others, in 'Casuarinas', the poets long time friend Robert Gray, his parents, set against the merciless passing of time. What is left? And what is gained? We are asked to reflect,

Their names are all that's left,

that and their love, spanning separate lives—

his thirty six years, her sixty seven, those

thirty one eternities denied them. I touch the letters,

each and era, the ring of a Californian redwood,

and leave them to get on with being gone.

I think of my poems, how time will burn them.

What's gained, other than all that I've learned.

These are poems that will live long after the first read—in the reader's mind, in the growing legacy of one of Australia's finest poets. The book was launched in the quiet days of COVID, but it is roaring with life and deserves to be read by all.

Jennifer Compton, the moment, taken

I haven't met Jennifer except via facebook, her poetry, and her growing list of television game show appearances. This is her 11th book of poetry and one that takes on the task of 'Beginning Again' similar to that of Mark's in its essence. There is a sense of a life in reflection, but also that of renewal in all its circularity. I have not read all the poems yet, and tend to fall into the pattern of hopping between the poems, like lily pads, without any particular sense of the books intended structure, of which there is a stated purpose. Instead these poems like my reading habit most of the time, stand alone. But in this, their brilliance shines individually, as poems are often written, and in turn, read.

The poems span the memories of the poet's life, in many forms and moments. They are razor sharp reflections on the peculiarities of life, our intentions, our ignorance, and at times, our folly. Every line is intentional, not a word wasted, each hanging just as the author intended, adding just enough to the weight of the poems. There are a number of reflections on war, on the strength of women, of our indigenous peoples, of childhood naivety. Jennifer has long mastered the playfulness of language, the vastness of meaning, and the careful precision of diction, to which all of these poems are a testament. Her images are at once striking and homely, slightly out of reach, but deeply felt in their pondering, and the clarity that comes with contemplation. Take for instance the poem, "a jellyfish quilt, shaped like a family" and the lines,

say imagine a patchwork on a daily tide billowing


a colony, incapable of loneliness, each of each


and you will start to see what I mean. The poems carry moments of beauty, "(A curious and trenchant / child.) And then the long, slow, five miles wide / smile of experience" (in Over the Fence) and stark drama "in the belly / of the war / then, sudden, a flurry of jargon / pinging through the cabin" (in in the museum of wars). Like the title, these poems offer moments, each rich in meaning and implication, each, the author as dexterous and poignant as ever.

More to come....


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