Anything But ‘Prosaic’: John Jenkins reviews ‘Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry’ edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington

Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry, edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington. Melbourne University Press, 2020.

Considerable work has gone into this wide-ranging anthology, which the editors describe as ” a representative and compelling selection … written by Australians since the 1970s… (and including) a generous selection of twenty-first-century prose poems.”

Put simply, the book contains 149 prose poems, mostly a single page in length. Eleven contributors have two separate poems published; six have a single poem spread over two pages; and one has a three-pager.

I am also a contributor, but will try to remain objective in this review.

The oldest published example is by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, from 1971. Seven additional pieces date from the 1970s, including a 1973 prose poem by Vicki Viidikas. There are fifteen from the 1980s and eight from the 1990s; but most are from years 2000 to 2020. Pieces are numbered alphabetically, according to author’s surname, yet also seem to cohere around theme and content, in a series of stepping-stone-like groupings.

Editors Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington are widely experienced poets and academics. Both are writers and scholars of prose poetry. In their 16-page introduction, titled ‘A Strange Magic’… they mourn “…the relative neglect of prose poetry by critics and editors in Australia…” But this book certainly helps to offset any perceived imbalance.

Considering the ‘prose” part of its name, it seems reasonable to say (as the editors do) that prose poetry “… does not employ stanzas (but instead) makes use of sentences and paragraphs…” Furthermore, the general consensus, as to a definition of prose poetry, is that “…it is pithier and more condensed…” And “…almost always fragmentary and brief…” and generally confined to less than a page or two.

Common to all the pieces included is a quality of huge compression, of a great deal being said, hinted at, inferred, evoked, in a relatively few sentences. Then all squeezed into a small container. Prose poems might, indeed, be “put in a box”, but only as to their overall visual conformity; however endlessly they might be interpreted.

The editors also point to prose poetry’s resurgence and growing recognition in recent years, following the search for new forms in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. Rudi Krausmann’s From Another Shore (1975) is a prime example, with its arresting lines such as:

When a butterfly lifts its wings, a bulldozer throws a museum on the floor.

This anthology also looks to the evolution of prose poetry in world literature, glancing back to Gertrude Stein, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and beyond, as the prose poem continually re-shoots as a gnomic branch of poetic utterance, yet remains close to the main trunk of poetry, yet always capable of a surprising re-efflorescence.

Turn-of-the-century artistic France is summoned in a dream-like piece by Jen Crawford, titled ‘Ma Mere L’Oye’ (or ‘Mother Goose’, referencing composer Maurice Ravel’s well-known musical suite). It evokes the Valvins area south of Paris, which was also dear to symbolist poet Stephané Mallarmé, all beginning with a quote from Ravel:

‘The dragonflies have thrived. They look like winged sausages.’

Despite contending influences upon the form, the editors note how “…antipodean works have their own flavor and tone…” This distinction is hard to pin down, but some pieces do leave an agreeably piquant Oz tang and twang.

For example, Raelee Lancaster’s ‘Wha’d I Tell Ya?’ contains Oz idioms aplenty and seems an extended metaphor, about making the very poem Lancaster is actually making here, as a child narrator relates how kids sat around a big table trying to weave baskets from wisps of dyed, dried grass and with their ever encouraging “Auntie” (perhaps inner critic) looking on.

When I finished, I gave my wonky basket to Auntie. She gave me a kiss and said, ‘Wha’d I tell ya?’

There’s also Louise Crisp’s ‘from ‘Remnants’ (Gippsland Red Gum Plains (I of XVII)’, dotted with “yertchuks” and red gum trees, all within a memorable landscape meandering with a long, eye-catching, chain-of-ponds creek.

On the debit side of the specifically local, there are also scars and stains; those arising from re-telling the historical accounts of dispossessed First Nation families, including Judith Nangala Crispin’s poignant ‘On Finding Charlotte in the Anthropological Record’.

The book’s first poem is by Carolyn Abbs, titled ‘Poet on Train’, in which an astute observer notes the body language and preoccupations of a fellow passenger:

…out the corner of my eye, an olive skinned hand, black notebook on lap, profile in glass like a ruffled blackbird…

Already, with this first piece in the anthology, we have instant characterization and acute observation. Yet, by the final full stop (or absence of it, in this case) everything is left up to the reader.

There are also poems with a strong backbone of old-fashioned (and timeless) story telling, such as Kate Fagan’s aptly named ‘from ‘Book of Hours for Narrative Lovers’’.

The editors point out, however, how the somewhat elusive form of the prose poem is “…never completely driven by narrative…” even though pieces can commandeer narrative devices as part of their often many dimensions, they still “…resist closure” and “gesture towards ideas, topics or concerns…”

These concerns often lay beyond the borders of conventional or familiar story-telling as the prose poem is often more deliberately “…connotative…evocative… (and) … ambiguous. ”

And many pieces in this collection, are downright “…neo-surrealistic…dream-like (and) weird…”

For example, Philip Hammial perhaps also hints at the writer’s art in his ‘No One Knows I Do This)’  by constructing a strange scenario, of a sick girl lying in bed who teases a piece of mysterious white string from a cardboard box and then – using only a pencil – goes on to charm her transformed ‘snake’ in its waste paper basket.

The elusive self-hiding of a writer’s endlessly fertile mind can also become more explicit subject matter, as in Matt Hetherington’s ‘Publisher: How to Hunt Writer’; where shy writers are often found hiding in underground bunkers, pot holes and mine shafts.

Susan Hawthorne’s ‘mediaeval’, however, then puts the weird into a much wider context. The ‘surreal’ she says is not a new thing at all, just look

…at a Mediaeval manuscript up close…(where) Monsters inhabit every letter….” (And) “Snake-bodied women crawl through the letter S.

In several pieces throughout, the surreal partly conflates with religion; with a dream-like other-worldliness, that of wishful/magical thinking and a timeless, old-fashioned love of story-telling that’s probably behind all traditional myth-making.

This dimension, however, is given a darkly humorous twist, one that hilariously hits the Marx (sorry for my dreadful pun!) in Rae Desmond Jones’s ‘Karl in the Underworld’.

There is also much excellent naturalistic or realistic description in closely observed pieces; with the natural world and its wonders never far away. For example, Dominique Hecq’s ‘Today’s word is fire’ engages all the senses, immersing one in a special place where,

You can smell it in the air.

Here, the narrator says,

I begin to swim. Long strokes upstream towards the fall.

The reader is also carried along, with

Dappled glare on the surface of the water, then brush of hair-like roots…

She continues up this cool, toe-numbing river, until a cascade starts

…drumming on my back…

then enters a secret cave on the other side of the waterfall, its walls revealing

…a splash of fingernail moons.

There is also much careful observation and character study in Chris Mansell’s ‘Bus notebook 4’, as an anonymous narrator notes two 16-year olds and deduces they are twins, because: “

She, and he, have a little turned-up nose each.

A “black crow” priest then pushes into the picture, completing Mansell’s succinct triple portrait.

Maggie Shapley’s ‘Riding the Lanes’ is similarly lucid and deftly written; a snapshot of kids riding their bikes

…in the old part of town where pot-holed lanes split the long blocks of houses and shops…

As more joyous lanes widen out into an entire lost world – that of childhood.

Pam Brown’s ‘It’s Light’ is a real sunbeam, or is that ‘stun-beam’? Because it exactly captures the summery feeling of, well, of high summer; its elevating mood flooding out of personal memories into new and keen anticipation. And yet, simultaneously, there’s a sense of passing time, a sort of sad shadow, of further moments that might have been: wisps now forever lost.

Speaking of shadows, Jennifer Compton’s ‘Very Shadows’ beautifully evokes tragic emotions arising in a mysterious narrator who we learn is very close to

…the mad old lady that lived on the hill…

We are informed how the old lady’s daughter killed herself and a grandson was left bereft. Next, a similarly stricken

… palomino mare who lay down in the paddock…

is revived

…out of the air…

in a moment of dream-like consolation. The narrator then finds herself surrounded by

the very shadows of hundreds of horses… their fine eyes watching me taking the light and making it live… (and) walking with me.

Shady Cosgrove’s ‘Visiting’ seems to be about a deep confusion of memory, identity and chance perception, as the narrator sees, while idling in slow traffic, a woman who looks so like his mother that, emotionally at least, she miraculously becomes that missing other.

Ted Hopkins (who was also an illustrious AFL player in his younger days) puts on his witty poet’s hat for ‘Turkey Run’, where imagination and reality strangely coincide, or is that collide? In this two-part piece meaning runs riot, as an American astronaut (and perhaps his would-be Antipodean double) aspire to orbit the Earth eighty-one times; although the second contender must first make a special application

…to NASA and …the Australia Council.

Robert Kenny, in his ‘The Best of All Detectives in the Best of all Possible Worlds’: One, clearly nods to genre fiction as a Poirot-like gourmet goes to an island frequented by eccentric English tourists; but is this detective’s real intent to solve a pressing case or – after he

smoothed the moustaches

– to enter a

…small French restaurant and (order) a meal of exquisite excellence.”(?)

Other fiction genres represented or touched upon include mystery stories, dark tales bordering on horror, even fantasy, the uncanny and speculative fiction; as readers are whisked away on numerous voyages – whether into the sky or roving the high seas in history’s awakening wake.

Horror becomes all too real in Penelope Lanland’s ambiguous ‘Every single piece of plastic ever made still exists, scientists say’. Here, optimism is tempered by pessimism (and vice-versa) with both moods adhering in an uneasy bond. Yes, plastics have some important uses, even a crucial, life-saving one. Like so many things, it remains double-edged, as Lanland says:

I cannot swim out far enough into my future to feel exactly the drag or the buoyancy.

Travel, sex, and the English class system become all mixed up in Philip Neilsen’s ‘Arthur’s Seat – Edinburgh’, its crisp story telling full of surprises and sudden mood changes. In this piece, two Australians, who were once lovers, climb a stone path, lying breathless and dreamy in a field. Later, after separate nights out, they catch up again, and the girl relates a shocking incident, of an attempted half-rape by her smarmy professor. But she easily overpowers this ‘crawling’ seducer. The tale becomes a sort of faded love story interrupted by a lust story, before double-twisting into a very happy ending for the ex lovers, with laughs all round.

In a seriously somber mode, Leni Shilton’s ‘Prison Prose’ engages us with an unwanted revelation, when a seemingly casual phone call delivers a random and shocking blow that changes a young boy’s life forever.

Then, in a somewhat philosophical vein, Melinda Smith’s aptly titled ‘Slippage’ celebrates freedom, yet a question obliquely hovers:

(Is)…the freedom to forget, which is, like all freedoms, beautiful?

Contingency, the uncertainty of memory and fusion of perceiver and what is perceived by a wandering mind all merge as a brief confusion of multiple identities in David Stavanger’s ‘Reflection’. Here, a man walks past a shop while talking to himself. As the narrator watches him from within the store, their reflections merge briefly in the front window glass, so

…voices come from within and without…

Then we learn how

…even the four security guards stayed still as they stole glances at the man, who was now a dot or a cloud, depending on who you asked or the season

Moya Costello also finds a whole world, not in mirrors or a grain of sand, but something suitably miniscule, in her ‘hold’. Here we must contemplate

Shrunken Spanish olives…

and other small delicacies, as a series of mind-shifts take one to what these restorative condiments might conjure, to succinctly transport us from fruit on the stem, even to galaxies and back, all

…altering favourably the course of any ailing. Restoring. Restoring.

Alex Skovron’s ‘Surrender’ is agreeably awash with references to the city of Venice (whether on screen, in music or in reality) as

…the night sky (is) trailing behind their vaporetto like a forgotten kite…

(and with)

…infinite pigeons lifting…

Submerged beneath its recurring currents, however, is a tragic story, concerning a woman

…forever returning to Venice, returning to reclaim herself…

who would find some resolution while mourning a man who dreamt of becoming a conductor, except that

…the black waters that swallowed him knew better.

David Brooks in ‘A Piece of Sheepsong’ contemplates language itself, namely the exquisite care one might take when writing a piece of literature; a regard similar to the centuries-old devotion craftspeople, artists and artisans have always lavished on what they meticulously fashion

…at a table in a workshop, in a small pool of light.

Aspects of language are explored in several other pieces, including Tricia Dearborn’s ‘The pouch of Douglas’, which refers to a

…little space between the back of the uterus and the front of the rectum…

– as her sprightly sentences deftly highlight the quaint usefulness of medical eponyms.

Some pieces are strung together out of very short phases, bursting across the page in staccato rhythms, where sound is valued as much as sense, and possibly more so. There are many variations on this approach, sometimes incorporating free-wheeling word associations peppered with recurring or favorite phrases; multiple variations on a theme; semi-repeated tropes and imagery. Sometimes the true subject matter of a piece suddenly crystallizes out of the fog and weave of it all, into something uniquely liberating.

Anna Couani’s ‘what a man, what a moon’ relies on the explosive power of words. A hypnotically rhythmic tour de force, it consists of single-syllable words in triplets, all beginning with “what a” and pounding out a beat-box pattern that gathers pace and becomes increasingly more compelling. What a piece! The portrait of a lover sharpens, as you re-splice bits of this jigsaw, feeling the thrill, disappointment, joy, anger – the sudden reversals and repairs – of a dynamic and evidently exciting ‘relationship’.

Lucy Dougan’s ‘Basta/Enough’ has such a delicate slippage of meaning, it seems not only subtle but deliberately elusive, perhaps telling of an ‘ordinary’ day of youngsters collecting cockle shells, when

…the shells sat closed tight within their own pearlescent mysteries…

A day that soon becomes extraordinary, with an only-half-hinted and perhaps slightly shocking awakening of nascent sexuality.

Back to the grand textbook of logic, the narrator in Michael Dransfield’s ‘Chaconne for a solipsist’ seems sucked in by a classic philosophical error, inventing a prism (or prison) of the self that one can seemingly never escape, and in which everything – both internal and external – is deemed completely imaginary and unreal. Yet, as the usual refutation of solipsism logically points out, the external world is never subject to any imaginer’s instant will… Even so, the last sentence poses a fatal test:

An exit glitters brightly in my hand.

Quinn Eades focuses on more hair-fine and intimate things in ‘What grows’, neatly balancing the objective and the personal, as belly-hair becomes his ‘personal clock’ creeping a bit further up his chest each year. With a rare and detached objectivity, plus a half laugh, he says

…this is how I measure time and transition…

An upbeat and generous tribute piece, ‘Tranteresque’, by John Forbes seems to celebrate dumb luck and random pleasures, as a mob of good-time partygoers are marooned on an island paradise, forever

…watching the spectacular sunsets over the reef.

There’s endless lazing around all day, after

…the non-appearance of the crews and the tons of copra rotting on the decks.

When one castaway asks a certain Lola what’s going on, she leans forward to kiss him and whispers,

‘Don’t worry, hard work and misery will return…’ (just as) … the evening rain started thudding on the roof.

Stephanie Green, in ‘December’, also strongly evokes the seasons: namely, the desiccating heat of summer; and conjoint inevitability of aging.

Travel is another theme fully explored in this anthology. Of course, journeys can be real or imaginary, or both. Places that seem exotic to some can also be dangerous, such as soaked streets after a typhoon clips the coast, particularly when one must

…slip past the riot shields lingering in the park…

As the narrator does in Siobhan Hodge’s ‘Hong Kong Resident’.

Travel almost plunges into travail in Javant Biarujia’s ‘Icarus (from Virilities)’ as a sight-seer in the French Alps takes a trip in

…a kind of chairlift, with the chairs encased inside a perspex embryo…

Previous to this womb-like enclosure, our footloose tourist had contemplated a sort of dangerous imaginative ecstasy:

At the fort above Grenoble, I peered over the precipice and imagined how wonderful it would feel to leap into pure space and be carried away…

He daydreams how climbers have always imagined they were

…incarnations of eagles.

But, suddenly, in a state of fragile suspension, he comes squarely back to earth, as it were:

… (what)…if the cable were to break?

John Hawke’s ‘The Weave’ points to the cultural dominance of signifiers rather than critical content, particularly at airports, where race and wealth and glaring social status – plus a lurking background fear of terrorism – might segregate passengers into different queues. On the plane, too, there is

…something about the careless ease of wealth…

that one always notices. This piece refines astute observations of a realistic sort, as one is also suspended – at least for a few hours – in the high-flying world of international travel.

In a fair sampling of pieces, there’s a recurring mood of brooding melancholy, sometimes because of the death of loved ones, or loss of religious or half-grasped mystical beliefs, with the tone often registering a fragile hold on remnants of that loss.

Sometimes the story telling is deliberately elusive, subject to the deft art of suggestion able to generate multiple narratives, as seems the case in Julie Chevalier’s very clever ‘a used band-aid stuck to the august 13, 1955 saturday evening post’.

There is much dark wit in these pages, and more than a touch of parody and satire. For example, Susan Hampton’s ‘Women Who Speak With Steel Knives’ is about a take-no-prisoners ensemble of fury-ous ‘performers’ determined cut away all convention and share their wildly transgressive ‘artistic’ life.

Bruce Beaver’s ‘The Lovers’, however, is a sort of ode to the healing power of selfless love, as the narrator reveals a rapt admiration for those for whom

The leaf of love has split the adamant of selfhood…

This heart-felt paean to love’s plenitude fully acknowledges life’s hurtful contradictions. Even so, he reminds us,

They who have never loved have never lived.

Returning to witty satire, Bruce Dawe re-sharpens his focus in ‘A Flexible Approach’. There’s much piss-taking and send-up here, as a journalist questions a certain Secretary of Defense, only electing a mind-numbing series of interchangeable obfuscations, empty clichés, pre-packaged clap-trap, ho hum non-sequiturs, vague Americanized buzzwords, all rolled-out in the moldy salad of officialese. This would be very funny – particularly as Dawe makes his pollie slip up occasionally – if it were not also familiar and convincing, just as one might

…consider/believe/trust/hope, etc.

Jessica L. Wilkinson’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ borders on concrete poetry, in her response to a Balanchine ballet of the same name, with her tightly written field of text sprinkled with single letters, all a-twinkle around it like stars.

There are adroit tone and mood shifts in ‘By the sea (retired)’ by Michael Aiken, when a game played by children in a bamboo grove – or perhaps simultaneous memory of it in an older person’s mind – widens to include the surrounding landscape, then life-and-death struggle of sea creatures and other animals, suddenly striking a very serious register, as…

Butcherbirds circle a broken nest

then

…baitfish… fleeing tuna fleeing dolphin… the whole scene circling in on the breakers and the sand

(and all without a concluding full stop).

Luke Beesley’s ‘Audible’ explores several possible narratives. Is his narrator making a low-budget home movie, or half awake/asleep while watching TV in some high-rise apartment? And is his apparent literalism really a metaphor when he says

I was running a marathon…

Or vice versa? Oh, and much else besides. And are the solutions to this puzzle, if puzzle it is, equally valid? Well reader, put on your Sherlock hat and decide.

Judith Beveridge, in ‘My Name’, outlines the fragility of personal identity, here objectified as an inscription

…in a gold frame that hangs on the room’s wall…

yet it remains as vulnerable as venerable, and perhaps one day will be robbed by prowlers, by lost relatives or even a deeper, darker – and still completely unknown – self.

Peter Boyle, in ‘Missing Words’, deeply respects

…things there are in this world that have no name…

The narrator confesses how:

I was looking for… the secret dictionary of all the missing words. I wanted to consult its index and find what I could have become…

The domestic setting of the poem has a particular poignancy, when the narrator notices

The look of old socks drying on a rack in the kitchen all through a winter night, hanging starched and sad opposite the wedding photographs.

Judith Bishop, in ‘Definition of a Place’ clearly evokes particularity and atmosphere – the actual detail and mood some places can uniquely amplify – with great focus and efficiency, not to mention the pleasure of her redolent descriptions; particularly when we learn that this ‘simple’ setting enveloped a pair of lover’s first trysting, where

…the human and inhuman knitted in the summer heat.

There remain many fine pieces in this anthology I haven’t mentioned, but hope my review gives some idea of the collection’s depth and range. Of course, readers may also interpret pieces I have mentioned in equally valid ways. It is a strength of the prose poem itself that this is possible, even necessary. Finally, there is much here to savor, re-read and ponder – to fully engage readers and to enjoy.

 – John Jenkins

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John Jenkins is a widely published and much traveled writer now living on Melbourne’s semi-rural fringe, near the Yarra Valley. His latest collection, Poems Far and Wide, was published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2019. Meanwhile, John is working through a filing cabinet full of unfinished projects, including a ‘quadrella of novellas’, plus collection of short stories. He can be found at www.johnjenkins.com.au

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The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry is available from https://www.mup.com.au/books/the-anthology-of-australian-prose-poetry-paperback-softback

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