Eclectic and Very Satisfying: Peter Boyle reviews ‘Mood Lightning’

Mood Lightning – an anthology edited by Ten Ch’in Ü. Imaginal Press 2004


Mood Lightning
is, I believe, a remarkable book. With just over 300 pages it offers an eclectic and very satisfying sample of poems and brief prose writings on poetry. An anthology of various poets, mostly from Australia but with New Zealand, English, Malaysian and American poets as well, it gathers an unusual collection of finely made, sensitive poems that demonstrate the sheer extent of extraordinarily beautiful and moving contemporary poetry that all too easily can be neglected and lost. Of the 87 poets and writers represented in the book only some fifteen were previously known to me at all, and I would have thought I had a reasonable knowledge of contemporary poetry, at least in Australia. Fame of any kind is clearly such a perilous guide to merit.

The anthology has been organised along roughly thematic lines with section titles that highlight the role of nature and the spiritual in poetry. Among the highly accomplished poets represented here are the Australian-based Arabic-language poets Shawki Moselmani, Wadih Sa’adeh and Anis Ghanem. They seem to form a frame through which the rest of the poetry in this book is seen, providing a tone of plain-speaking, intimate directness that is not at all sentimental or conventional but rather marked by strong individuality and a delight in the unusual moment or specific detail. The intense precision of this poetry is well illustrated by the following two poems – the first by Wadih Sa’adeh, the second by Shawki Moselmani

Life there

There she buried
her child, and waited
to lie beside him for years.
When finally
they lowered her down
into that soil,
she was only one day old
while he was already an old man.


A meal

Who is pecking my head
patiently and thoroughly:
the birds of prey
or the birds of slumber?

This standard of poetry as meditative weapon, as intimate moment of reflection captured with the utmost clarity is echoed time and again across the anthology.

Turning almost at random to one of the few names in the anthology well known to me, I have the delight of reading a beautifully understated poem by Robert Adamson, “The Greenshank”. A tribute to Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, the poem combines a wide-sweeping sense of distances traversed – Hungary, the Hebrides, Australia – with a painter’s precise eye for the “acrobatic twist” of a solitary bird above a mudflat. Likewise finely attuned to nature are the many poems here by Danny Gardner and Pat Pillai. Danny Gardner’s poems especially have an enigmatic core to them, as if speaking from a deeply held centre. One of my favourites is “Motels”:

Not quite far enough towards the dream,
not quite near enough to call home,
their beacons are suspended animation, intangibility,
a harmless enough stasis.
Yet some among us who are told we’ve made safe ground,
release their hold too soon, and fall,
there, for the camera, in Nobody’s Room,
a final smudge against the canvas,
stopping for the night,
before, we or they, are ready.

This is a very diverse anthology. If it contains gnomic poems of a markedly spiritual tendency and poems that might seem the accompanying notes for a painter intent on capturing the natural world, there are also numerous witty or sad reflections on human relationships. Bogdan Koca’s terse dramatic creation of difficult relationships in poems like “Olga” or “Maria and Henry” shows a real flair for using the rhythms and breakages of conversation to catch the failure inherent in so much yearning. In the second poem repetitions and jagged syntax create a strong sense of a failed love, as in the closing lines:

Maria with dawn
between her arms
Maria with shadows of
half broken blinds
Maria with Henry
in a looking glass
Henry and Maria
that have never been

Another especially strong poet represented here is Richard Deutch. A poem like ‘No exit’ places the speaker against nature in a dynamic immediate tension. I love the way this poem keeps moving from its initial precise insight: “Daub-painted sea, with just enough/of the start of eternity to strike fear in//my navel.” – to its conclusion: “waking’s precipice,/the closed-off side of me,//angry,/the north coast sealed.” Deutch also reveals himself as an inspired and engaging translator of poets as varied as Horace and Rilke.

As well as more traditional looking poems with line breaks there are several prose reflections and prose poems within the Anthology. One that caught my attention for its quirky humour and sheer delight in language is Ray Wittenberg’s ‘English’ but equally there are imaginative extended prose pieces by Bogdan Koca and Miranda Su Lan Harding. Perhaps one of the strongest, most compelling pieces in the entire anthology is an extended prose poem by Wadih Sa’adeh ‘Bringing back a melted person’. The bizarre opening sets up a world of its own that the rest of the prose poem explores and elaborates:

………….This lake is not water. It was a person with whom
I spoke at length then he dissolved.

………….And I am not trying now to look at water, but rather
I’m trying to recover a dissolved person. How do people become
lakes like this with tree leaves and algae tops?

………….Drop by drop, the dead descend on my door.

………….A boat stops for me under the sun.

………….And a wretched fit of trembling returns to sand . . .

The terror that emerges in the poem, the sense of a self totally at risk, is built steadily skilfully through all the twists and turns of this remarkable poem. If poems should speak of what is essential, this poem fulfils the task of poetry in a way few poems do.

Clarity, precision, an absence of poeticising or posturing seem more the conditions for entry into the anthology than any one aesthetic or creed – those qualities of writing combined with a human openness and depth. There is a marked absence of the kind of poem that might prompt you to say: “This is beautifully written and has quite striking images but I don’t know that it says much, or says much that’s interesting or new.” By and large these poems pass what is quite a difficult test – that the words justify themselves as more valid not only when compared to other words that might have been used, but more valid than silence itself (to paraphrase a saying of Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo).

As an Australian poet and one who has been involved in creating several anthologies, I especially admire the independent spirit with which Mood Lightning is put together. There is a beautiful sense of placement, of poems echoing off poems and an absence of any concern with names or reputations. The work of poets whose original language was Arabic or French or Spanish or Chinese offset the range of Australian voices from Les Wicks and Danny Gardner to Sue Hicks, Phyllis Perlstone, Brook Emery and many more. The anthology seems to suggest a new way to see present day Australian poetry from a truly multi-cultural perspective – but more than that, from a refreshingly un-academic, spiritual perspective. I appreciated the fact that almost everything and everyone in the anthology was new to me. It is a humbling reminder of how much extraordinary poetry there is in Australia and elsewhere that all too easily gets neglected. Ten Ch’in Ü deserves all credit for compiling an anthology that is a delight to read at the same time as charting a very different map of poetic possibilities for the early 21st century.

 – Peter Boyle


For information on ordering Mood Lightning please email

Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. He has published six collections of poetry, most recently Towns in the Great Desert (2013) with Puncher and Wattmann. Among other awards, he received the Queensland Premier’s Prize for poetry in 2010 for his book Apocrypha and in 2013 was awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for Literary Translation. His translations from Spanish, Anima by José Kozer and The Trees: selected poems by Eugenio Montejo, were published in the UK.


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