Fusion of the Personal and the Imagined: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘Lilies and Stars’ by Rebecca Law

Lilies and Stars by Rebecca Law, Picaro Press 2013

Lilliey-coverIt seems rare in modern verse to see a poet approach language traditionally, or at least follow the university-taught guidelines of how to construct a poem; be that through a refusal to use capitalisation or experimentation with form, it seems now the traditionalist might be the one breaking the mould.

Filled with a deep sense of romanticism, desire and longing, Rebecca Law’s second collection of poems achieves this in its evocation of a charming series of landscapes where the correlation of the imagined and ‘real’ world runs through the lines.

Law seems to be following a tradition of romantic poets, using sometimes familiar imagery but with a unique and expressive originality.

Constructed musically and always bearing an assured, clear grace, it is as if Law has crafted a unique theology, drawing on her own beliefs as a practicing catholic, and there is a kind of sacred atmosphere one inhabits when reading Lilies and Stars.

The collection opens with the question ‘what can one make with a bucket?’ (“The Shivering Song”), proceeding to reveal a love poem filled with stunning imagery of water and a subtle exploration of connection.

A great sense of longing underpins the lines and human relationships are dealt with carefully, constantly using the land and the elements to frame them.
The shorter love poems within this collection are by far the most effecting and employ a level of honesty often rare in much modern work. “Form of” simply and effectively recounts a former love, expressing longing and an aching desire:

Last night
I wanted not to love you
your distance and silence:
then conversely
it was this howling
I wanted to love forever,

heaving my backbone
in my sleep.

Regardless of the content of the poem, the real strength of the work is its precise rhythm, like Yeats, where the personal and the natural exist as one and aren’t afraid to dream: ‘The world/is everything/within azure/reaching higher’ (“The Road”)

Although Law now resides in Sydney, these are poems that could be written about any environment and there is a timeless quality in the traditional approach of the verse. This lies in the fact that, although Australian, Law seems to write outside of any existing timeframe, combining the personal with an expert understanding of mythology. The presence of symbolists such as Baudelaire and Verlaine as influences contribute to what Law has described as an “[interest] in the surreal, the symbolic and the sublime as romantic concepts that displace and liberate the word from a human preoccupation with living and dying” (Overland, September 18 2012. ed. Peter Minter).

This careful use of imagery that comes as a result is both powerful and mesmerising. A beautiful example of is displayed in “Ocean, Sky & Wreath” in which the poet plays with images, creating an atmospheric music for the reader:

Where the whale sinks,
stars are a floor,
ceilings, cloud,
daylight an aura

Family is a constant source of light and dark shades and runs below the surface of much of the work, as the poet recalls people and times, asserting that ‘The flight away and back towards home [is] an exercise in learning grace’. 

“Infusions of Shoreline Fauna” is a moving tribute to the poet’s mother and one of the finest examples of what Law manages so well in her approach to her subjects:

This lowly tree reminds me of mother,
white pebbles and sprouting grass….

Mother you are always old
for your years, my own growth
distanced more and more
into adulthood

A highly confessional and moving piece, the careful use of spare verse to describe the personal entwine with natural imagery to create a beautiful balance and resonance. Again a haunting longing seeds the lines as ‘lavender bouquets outlast/hours of any starry night/for whomsoever mutters a wish.’

A startling marriage of the earth, the sky and the imagination, with this collection Law’s touch is gentle and affecting, consistently displaying a polished sense of line and metre.
With such assured lyricism, perhaps the ultimate triumph of the work is the blending of personal experience with fantastic imagery.
It is as if Law is attempting to recapture the romantic notion of poetry so many fall in love with, however unfashionable this kind of writing may appear beside other contemporary work.

With its mystical imagery and passionate lyricism, Lilies and Stars is extremely effective in achieving what it intends to.

-Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 in Melbourne and grew up in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria. He has published a collection, Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013), as well as several chapbooks and pamphlets – Before Bone and Viscera (2014) is available from Rochford Street Press – https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/07/18/ rochford-st-press-is-proud-to-announce-the-publication-of-before-bone-and-viscera-by-robbie-coburn/. His latest chapbook is Mad Songs (Blank Rune Press, 2015). A new collection of poetry The Other Flesh and a novel Conversation with Skin, are forthcoming. He currently resides in Melbourne and can be found at www.robbiecoburn.com.au

Lilies and Stars is available through Rebecca Law’s website http://rbcclaw.wix.com/rebecca-kylie-law

Fate of the Modern Soul: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘Sunset on Santorini’ by David Foster

Sunset on Santorini by David Foster. Puncher & Wattman, 2012

‘Am I not seeking my own oblivion?’

sunset_on_santorini_310_445_sDavid Foster is best known as one of Australia’s most respected and lauded novelists, with accolades from the Miles Frankin to the Patrick White Award. It is always interesting, then, when a writer of this calibre publishes a work of poetry.

Often it seems writers of prose can struggle with the confines of poetry, though Foster is a writer who harnesses language effectively into whichever form he feels is required of the work. It also important to note that this isn’t Foster’s first collection of poems and he has often incorporated poetry into his prose writing in the past, such as in the brilliant The Glade within the Grove.

Sunset on Santorini is Foster’s third collection of poetry and a stark portrait of place, employing a unique poetic sensibility. Using various poetic modes and forms, from rhyming to free verse, this book is a rewarding read.

The poems are presented as a collection of ballads, and serve as a poetic journal recounting Foster’s stay on the island of Santorini, the site of one of largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history some 3,600 years ago.The poems explore the fall of the Minoan civilisation following the eruption, religion, myth and the state of current culture and social behaviours in the modern 21st century world.

Each of the short, numbered poems within the collection are filled with natural and mythological imagery evoking the landscape and the perceptions of an artist’s observational eye, recalling history and exploring the human condition as it was and is.

The opening poem describes Helios, the personification of the sun in Greek mythology, as he ‘Struggles across the sky/Dragging himself from his comfortable bed/Inclined to die’. The poet describes watching the tired sun from his bedside, when Helios must depart ‘bleeding into the day’ in order to ‘return bleeding into the night. Several Greek characters, such as Helios, reappear throughout the text, and this progression works nicely, despite lacking a clear narrative.

The ultimate strength in this collection is the way Foster creates small time-capsules in each poem, and the reader can open at any page and be transported and handed a portrait. Although clearly using the poet’s travels as its stimulus, the works dart in many directions and jump from past to present, reality and mythology, freely. This book is filled with an excellent knowledge of cultural history and mythology, while also employing a personalized lyricism that makes for truly unique poetry.

Santorini as a landscape exists as the remains of a volcanic eruption, a metaphor Foster employs to reflect on the landscape of our current civilization, and the possibility of an impending demise runs through the poems.

The comparisons between ancient and modern culture are provocative, personal and intelligent, as Foster compares the concerns of a civilization destroyed by natural disaster with the Western culture of the present:

‘I weep to think of all the tears that must have been shed
By convict eyes regarding this cover shoot for ‘Vogue”

Foster’s lyricism is very effective, and his personal commentary creates an atmosphere in itself. Although a series of personas are presented in many of the ballads, the reader also hears the poet, although never the direct subject, asking questions and reaching for impossible answers, where ‘there must be more to life/than thus far I have found’.

The poet’s comparison of cultures and time periods is particularly interesting. Christianity is dealt with carefully yet uncompromisingly, as Foster explores heresies in early religion and faith as a means of control:

‘Three times Rigby the church we march
Onward Christian soldiers
Christ has gone to visit hell
There’s a place we know full well
None of us would need rappel’

This kind of visceral imagery is used sparingly, and its impact is hard to ignore when it does appear.

In fact, the most effecting ballads face religion squarely, and the myths surrounding the Bible, in order to retell, question and criticize. When writing of the Virgin Mary, Foster asks for the church to ‘spare us an icon of her’. And when reflecting on the Christian beliefs of mortality and an afterlife, the poet determines the story of Christ to be ‘something to ponder when we die/The boy they couldn’t crucify.’

In this foreign land of ancient civilization where ‘a crucifix ascends the sky’, the poet is displaced, possibly due to being a foreigner or due to his ability to only imagine Minoan life so long ago. Evoking the surrounding terrain of rock and ocean, Foster creates a strong sense of this kind of uncertainty through simple, sharp lyricism:

‘Unspecified, unsung
Is where we belong
We do not know this place’

Undeniably a master of his craft, David Foster should be celebrated not only for his skill and achievement as a novelist, but for his contribution to Australian poetry. We can only hope there is more poetry to come from him.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn is an Australian poet. His latest chapbook, Before Bone and Viscera, is published by Rochford Street Press. (https://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/). He lives on a farm in Woodstock, rural Victoria and can be found at robbiecoburn.com.au

Sunset on Santorini is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/sunset-on-santorini


Rochford Street Review relies on donations to cover costs. Any funds left over are used to pay reviewers.


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Anthony Lawrence – the blog post Southerly refused to publish.

Each month Southerly (the Journal of the English Association, Sydney)  asks a writer or critic to write a number of blogs for its website (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/). In February the Southerly blogger was the poet Anthony Lawrence – he was introduced on the Southerly website on 10 February in the following terms:

Anthony Lawrence has published fourteen books of poems and a novel. His most recent collection is ‘Signal Flare‘ (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).

His books and individual poems have won many major awards. In 2013 he won the Blake Poetry Prize.

He teaches Creative Writing and Reading Poetry at Griffith University, Gold Coast, and lives at Cabarita Beach, on the far north coast of NSW.  (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2014/02/10/next-monthly-blogger-anthony-lawrence/)

Over the course of the next few weeks Southerly ran a number of Lawrence’s blogs:

Lawrence’s final blog was due to be published last Friday (7 March). It was to be an interview with Lawrence conducted by the young poet Robbie Coburn. Southerly, however, refused to run the interview claiming, according to Lawrence in a post on Facebook, that the interview shifts Lawrence “into the third person” and that the form of the blog “presents as self-promotion”.  Lawrence also claims that another reason Southerly refused to run his final blog as he was critical of an aspect of John Kinsella’s political poetry.

Given that the final Lawrence blog will now not appear in Southerly and that it does fit together with a number of the other blogs published during February (particularly the Adamson piece where Lawrence describes the influence that meeting Robert Adamson and a number of other poets had on his development as a young poet), Rochford Street Review has made the decision to publish Lawrence’s final banned Southerly blog in full.

Comments maybe left at the bottom of the article.


Robbie Coburn interviews Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence reading at the Sydney launch of Signal Flare (Photograph – Robert Adamson)

Anthony Lawrence’s poems capture the Australian landscape like a photograph. His viewfinder captures nature, and with vivid imagery instills clear visuals in the mind of the reader.

One of Australia’s most important contemporary poets, his work has been widely published in Australian and international journals, magazines and newspapers, and represented in anthologies. He has published many books of poetry since his first Dreaming in Stone (Angus & Robertson, 1989), edited anthologies such as The Best Australian Poetry for UQP, and has published one novel In the Half Light (Picador, 2000). His poetry has won numerous prestigious awards, such as the inaugural Gwen Harwood memorial prize, the Peter Porter Poetry Prize and the inaugural Judith Wright Calanthe Award.

With the land changing so drastically, and the state of the world altering, it is inevitable that nature will be viewed differently by later generations. But Lawrence is a poet who creates somewhat of a time capsule for future readers in his studies of nature, combining this with a controlled lyrical intensity and explorations of relationships and lives. His latest collection Signal Flare was published by Puncher and Wattmann in 2013.

Nature is a consistent element of your work. Do you think nature can be preserved through poetry?

The natural world has been a central focus in my work since I began writing poetry. The first (written evidence) of a poem that references nature can be seen on a sheet of white cardboard. I must have been about 9 or 10. The poem is called ‘Currawongs’ and is written in red crayon. It’s a rhyming poem about currawongs trying to navigate a strong wind while returning to their nests. There is a description of a tree, most likely a eucalypt. The sky is mentioned. I had recently discovered, by way of my maternal grandmother, Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman,’ and I was filled with the need to tell a story in rhyme. Currawongs were frequent visitors to our back yard. I’d sit and watch them after school. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, as I was just following my nerve and desire to create something, but I was making a big claim, from my nine years on the earth, that these birds are worth close scrutiny. I didn’t consider that anyone would ever read it. I felt compelled to record details of wings, sky, wind, nest, tree, eggs, and their calls.

Years later when I discovered Crow by Ted Hughes, many of the poems of George Mackay Brown, the poems of Philip Hodgins, Robert Adamson, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, James Dickey, Charles Wright, Mary Oliver and others, I realised how profoundly the best of their poems about the natural world have helped readers maintain a fierce interest in ecology, the minutiae of species, the underside of what seems obvious. I’m not interested in reading or writing poems that take the natural world at face value, where one or two physical elements are isolated and turned into verse. The only way poetry can invite or instigate serious debate about the natural world is to engage with it’s variousness: weather, the earth itself, flora and fauna, rivers and oceans and, personally, how humans interact with these things, either individually or through the changing filter of a relationship. A very early poem ‘Whistling Fox’, which you’ve mentioned and which I’ll address again later, involves a father-son relationship, Australian landscape, and the killing of a fox. It’s a poem that moves swiftly through these elements, but which I hope conveys a deep engagement with the natural world, while at the same time there is trespass, and sadness. It’s a paradox that surfaces frequently in my poetry: I’m here, and I’m involved, but in order for me to get close, I’m going to interrupt, briefly, the natural order of things. It’s what happens when we step out of our comfort zones and confront what’s happening beyond the window. Many know what a corella looks like. Many have seen a hawk floating at the side of the road, or riding an updraft over a headland. The difference between acknowledgement and serious study is to make the time to be still, to be watchful, to notice how a spangled drongo feeds and becomes a part of the shifting light in a tree. Poetry can offer us these things in unique ways. The poetry I love most is that which offers me different ways of seeing the natural world, and which challenges my perceptions of how things live and grow and move. This kind of poetry preserves and highlights what we can’t afford to ignore.

The poet John Kinsella professes to be one whose work is largely that of protest, of ‘disobedience.’ He has written that he ‘employs language in unexpected and ‘disobedient’ ways,’ and that it ‘jar readers into different modes of consideration, to reflect not only on the themes but on what poetry actually means.’ That sounds impressive, but much of Kinsella’s ‘protest’ work gets caught-up looking inward at itself, and this self-awareness strips the potential for reaching out to readers and can feel almost secondary to its intentions. Protest lost in language. The British poet Sean O’Brien, however, understands poetry’s potential for sharpening our awareness and our obligation to be vigilant, and demonstrate our desire to preserve what can so easily be damaged, and erased. Unlike Kinsella, he’s not afraid to be transparent, while employing a complexity of syntax and rhyme that add to, not subtract from, the poem’s intensity:

‘Be with me when they cauterize the facts.
Be with me to the bottom of the page,
Insisting on what history exacts.
Be memory, be conscience, will and rage,
And keep me cold and honest, cousin coat,
So if I lie, I’ll know you’re at my throat.’

– ‘Cousin Coat’

I’m not advocating that all poetry be protest, yet if we’re going to preserve anything we’re passionate about, or care enough about to want to set down in a poem, then surely we owe it to potential readers to be fierce, engaging, challenging and understood.

How do you think the human world reflects the natural world in poetry and can you give me some insight into how you use nature as a basis for an exploration of the self when approaching the writing of a poem?

My responses will no doubt cross over and under each other, and I can see how much of what I’ve just addressed will be relevant to this question… so let me be circuitous. There’s no point in offering a personal response to any aspect of one’s own work unless influence is summoned to put things into perspective. I can speak with confidence about the poetry of others whose work has involved and engaged with the human/natural/worlds, and I can speak with authority about how I see these things as being reflected in, and totemic of, my own work. I’ll begin with the poetry of James Dickey, since I’ve already mentioned him as an influence, and also my last blog post for Southerly was a poem-review of some of his (early) poems. Next I’ll discuss your question in terms of the poetry of Philip Hodgins.

Like many poets, James Dickey was someone who made mythologies from experience and wrote so convincingly of them that we enter his landscapes and rivers under the spell of his images and his control over the flow and shape of syntax. Whether he was in a canoe on a South Carolina river or recalling a story of killer whales tracking humans from under the ice, the raw human details are inextricably linked to the unfiltered details of the natural world in which these dramas and wild observations are played out. Dickey understood the power of narrative, and he cut his stories back to their essence. Certainly with his first three books, an intense lyricism was his defining gift: water, fish, trees, even a vast Antarctic scene – whatever aspect of the natural world he felt driven to define was done so through the eyes and pulse of a man for whom being alive was, for a long time, a hands-on, fully-lived adventure. Dickey’s images could be visceral and real, or surreal and playful, yet whatever he attended to had a vein of authenticity running through it. There was always a sense that this might have happened; that Dickey may have been there. If we sense that Dickey has invented a scene or situation, no matter how surreal the circumstances he evokes, there is almost always an accompanying sense that he had discovered something, about the natural world or himself, in the process of composition. Wallace Stevens wrote “The problem with surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play the accordion is to invent, not discover.” When Dickey invented a heaven for animals or an eagle mating to death with a wolverine at the top of a sub-Antarctic spruce… you know he’s discovering things about what it means to engage in a raw, human way with the inventiveness of the natural world. I learned early from James Dickey that when writing about the natural world it’s okay to have a wild imagination and to engage with subject-matter some might find uncomfortable or confronting, as long as human involvement, whether peripheral or central, is part of the fabric of the poem.

I first read the poems of Philip Hodgins while studying at Charles Sturt university in Wagga. Back then it was the Riverina College of Advanced Education, set among dry hills and massive river gums. I loved the Riverina landscape – the greys, browns and pale greens of the plains and Murrumbidgee River, the irrigation canals and dusty light, the extremes of temperature. Discovering Hodgins’ poetry was a pivotal moment – here was a man writing out of the urgency and pressure of a diagnosis and ongoing treatment for leukemia, and his poetry was often simultaneously an indictment and invocation of wonder at the Australian landscape and farming methods. Hodgins’ personal trauma heightened his vision, and his poems that deal with dairy cattle, pigs, termites, invasive livestock treatment, or rural landscapes often have metaphors of illness or death woven into them. Philip Hodgins was a master at using an Australian vernacular in such a way as to disguise, not conceal, his intricate half-rhymes and sonorous tones, often leaving the bell-notes of the sounds of words to ring of each other from five or six lines away, such was his intuitive control over the language at hand. Hodgins’ poems have been a constant source of inspiration. His best poems are brilliant examples of how human influence ebbs and flows within the context of the natural world.

Almost all of your work revolves around vivid landscapes, particularly ocean imagery, and the relationship between nature and humanity.

Your 2009 collection The Welfare of My Enemy was quite a change of subject for you, exploring the terrifying circumstances involving missing people. What drove you to write about this? Even reading the work is terrifying when one considers how regularly disappearances occur…

lawrenceThere were well-defined landscapes and oceans in The Welfare of my Enemy too. As Frank O’Hara couldn’t enjoy a blade of grass unless there was freeway nearby, it seems I wasn’t able to enjoy a good mystery and disappearance unless there was a desert scene, mountain range, or sea spray blowing in from somewhere, and not infrequently.

On Friday night, August 25, 1978 Stephen Lapthorne and his partner Michelle Pope vanished while driving in Stephen’s lime-green Bedford van. I knew Stephen well. They disappeared somewhere between Pymble, on Sydney’s north shore, and Berowra in the Kurringai area. They’ve never been seen. My long sequence of poems (untitled) tried to engage with the phenomenon of missing persons in ways that embraced both narrative and lyric poetry, and using mostly half-rhymed end-words. The majority of situations are fictional, though many are informed by fact, especially the details of Stephen and Michelle’s disappearance. I believe Ivan Milat is responsible. He was working on the Kurringai council at the time. My theory is that he staged a breakdown in a stolen car on the Old pacific Highway, and when Stephen and Michelle pulled over to help, he overpowered them and drove the van to where it could be buried. I also believe that the van containing their remains may be buried on a property near the Wombeyan caves road. The Missing Persons unit seem loathe to act on what they see as wild conjecture, especially after thirty six years.

The Welfare of my Enemy was a difficult book to write. The subject-matter saddened me. Writing from the perspectives of victims, family members and perpetrators of crimes took its toll, and I stopped reading and writing poetry for awhile. If it’s true that writing poetry can be hell on our mental health, I wouldn’t recommend Missing Persons as a theme for anyone. I do feel it’s an important book. It was a long time in the making, and when it came to the writing, it happened fairly quickly. The poems fell into place, the voices announced themselves, and I had a good first draft in six months.

You have consistently written in a more ‘traditional’ style, compared to what is being done by some contemporary poets in terms of form. While some experiments lose feeling and sincerely, your style lends itself to great evocation and is consistently in line with the reputation you have already built. Your collections, throughout your career, have advanced this style, using free verse to create your syntax and music within the lines.

When considering this, do you think the quality of the work is in its syntax, rather than the form in which the poem is presented to the reader? And how much do you think the visual presentation of the poem on the page affects its reading?

Many poets change their style. Some do this consciously, and the reasons for this can be complex. James Dickey made the decision to leave behind the ‘night-rhythm’ (written from the pulse, not a calibrated syllabic placement) of his first three or four books, and instead focus on a long line with gaps to represent pauses in breathing. Dickey was disingenuous in that he criticised the ‘Projective Verse’ of Charles Olson, then went on to employ in his own poetry much of what Olson was advocating. ‘Projective Verse’ involved the natural run, extension and end to the breath in a line of poetry, thus freeing the line from metrical constraints. Dickey called Olson’s theory ‘creative irresponsibility,’ yet he embraced the long, broken line, using the typewriter to great effect to shape both the line and its visual power. The appropriation of ideas is nothing new, though Dickey was not one to hide behind a device or theory and hope no-one would notice. His use of Olsen’s methodology worked. It became a part of his thinking and breathing, in the composition and editing, and the majority of his books used this long line.

The main problem with a deliberate attempt to change one’s style is the sudden shift in register, the general tone and shaping of the poems. On a surface level, this seems fine: why not cut the finely-crafted lines that connect stanzas and pack up the well-worn and second-skin twists to syntax? Anyone can make the decision to dramatically change how they write, yet by doing this, the essential deep unknowing that comes from many years of allowing association, chance and diffuse intuition free-play can be hobbled, or even cauterized.

There is no one way poems are made, yet most go through many stages. My poems generally begin with a line scribbled down with no thought as to what it might mean or where it’s likely to go. I will run with what arrives, extending the line, shaping it, teasing out its visual and aural possibilities, delighting in what emerges, word by word. I treat every line as a poem, and I’m not able to move on until I’ve taken it as far as it can go. Then I’ll start another. The process begins again. By working this way, each poem develops with a series of startling surprises and challenging problems. While I don’t over-think how a poem will look on the page, I do play with form as I go, concentrating, even in the very early stages, on where to end the line. This helps with structure and so assists with rhythm. Investigating the variousness and possibilities of syntax, a poem’s music begins to surface, and this leads to its shape. Eventually, when a poem has gone through many hand-written drafts; when the table and floor are patched with blackened pages; I’ll start to craft a poem into its final shape. The process begins again, though this time its a one made while being fully-conscious, and its done on the screen. Poems can go through fifty or sixty visual versions before I set them free. Finally, after putting constant pressure on each line, a poem will crack open and reveal its shape. My hope is for a poem that achieves the best possible balance between how it sounds, feels, and looks on the page. Given the precision and constant vigilance I bring to each new poem, I’ve never been able to step away and decide to change the way I write just for the sake of it. I don’t see the point. I’m told that my poems and books have changed anyway, over the years, in structure and tone. This might not amount to being experimental, and I’m fine with that.

A poem’s visual arrangement can be a major part of its ability to engage a reader, or it can be a distraction. Poems should never be fashioned from couplets or sestets just for the sake of it. If, after many combinations and variations, realignment of lines and how to end them, a poem demands a certain form, stay with it. It will be the right one. The poems in my new collection Signal Flare went through many drafts at the final, shaping stage – some as many as eighty versions – before I was able to cut them free. The puzzle-solving is something that both delights and distresses me. Its hard-work, especially when it comes on the back of having spent weeks trying to end a poem. But that’s what it’s all about. There is so much to consider. When I tell my Creative Writing students that putting words down on a page is just the first step in what could well be months of work before a poem is finished, they are bright-eyed, bristling with adventure, and they think I’m joking. By the end of the semester their expressions are dark. They arrive at workshops wringing their hands. They speak in careful, enjambed sentences. Their bags are heavy with drafts. They get it.

Do you find your influences have changed considerably throughout your years of writing poetry? One generally starts by reading the classics and those more well known international poets of old, moving on to contemporary Australian poetry later on. Are you influenced these days by new work you read as much as that which inspired you as a young poet?

My influences range from poets whose work I return to frequently for sustenance and inspiration, to investigating the poems of new writers. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s being published in Australia, the UK and America. The Best Australian Poems, Best American Poems, Best New Poets from the US, and Best British Poetry anthologies are always at hand. There are some wonderful new, young writers out there. The secret is to read constantly and widely. If you’re not an active, engaged reader of poetry, you’re work is unlikely to develop beyond its surface-tension. To break through, we need to embrace the past and present. A competent poet will remain within that competency if wide reading is abandoned. Recently I wrote a piece on Ambition for this blog. I mentioned poets who love the idea of being known as poets but who aren’t prepared to put the time and serious effort into craft, the nuts and bolts and false-walls needed to make poetry that stands out. Sadly, this is a common thread in poetry. There are young poets who just don’t extend their reading beyond the work of their peers. Big mistake.

Some poets actively distance their true self from their poetic self, so to speak, using characters. Your work is often extremely personal, addressing particular life experiences openly. Pieces that come to mind are ‘Whistling Fox’, ‘Home After Two Weeks Away’, ‘The Drive’ and your chapbook of love poems Magnetic Field. Do you think these pieces are written as a means of coming to terms with experiences, out of necessity, or do you think the poetic and true self should be separate? I’ve heard many poets say they believe poetry is not supposed to be therapy. Do you think there is still a place for catharsis even if the ‘work of the poem’ is the main focus?

In my course The Spellmakers – a dedicated poetry-reading course – I give a lecture on the so-called Confessional poets, where we read a number of poems by Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, WD Snodgrass, and to the list up to date, Sharon Olds. Many of these poems address intimate, often disturbing details from the poet’s life. For Sexton and Olds, especially, there seems little doubt that the poems chronicle personal events and scenes, and at their best the poems are captivating and brilliantly conceived.

With some poems I have not tried to conceal myself. The I is me, and for whatever reason I felt compelled to place myself front and center within a poem was of its place and time. I don’t regret this. The poems you’ve mentioned are, indeed, a lyrical recording of personal experience. I have tried, when addressing experience directly, to find a balance between the shock of the human presence and the best possible language with which to frame these experiences. When experience overrides the poem, it fails palpably. I also find the dramatic monologue a wonderful way to come to terms with experience. This form allows us to investigate personal issues while wearing a mask, or while standing off to one side, offering a list and commentary. It’s a powerful form but should be used sparingly. You’ve used the word ‘necessity’ and that’s exactly why these personal poems were written. They announced themselves. They needed to be written. I’m not interested, as mentioned previously in these blog postings, in poetry that works as therapy only, as catharsis. I’d rather stand in front of a mirror and play charades with myself. And while I love many of Anne Sexton’s poems, there were also a number that failed because she couldn’t harness the personal to the extent where it married the lyrical detail. The intimate or brutal details overextended themselves, and so the poems became like diary-entries in verse. In Signal Flare, many details of my life are there, yet I chose different vehicles with which to carry the details. And don’t forget the power of the lie. In this book I’m more interested in a close look at the lives of others. Aligning myself with the experience and emotions of others in a way that diminished (not removed) the raw effect of the I was my main objective here. Even when I was there, it might have been an embodiment of myself and others, or someone imagined completely. I don’t have a sense of where my next poems will lead me, but my bags are packed, my passport is current.


Robbie Coburn

Robbie Coburn

Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 and lives in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria, Australia. His first full collection of poetry Rain Season (Picaro Press) was published in 2013. He is well into a second collection, The Other Flesh. A chapbook, Before Bone and Viscera, will be published by Rochford Street Press later this year. He regularly reviews books for Rochford Street Review.







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“Perception and Memory”: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Empty Your Eyes’ by Robert Adamson

Empty Your Eyes by Robert Adamson, Vagabond Press, Sydney, NSW. 2013.

empty your eyes“The eye altering, alters all”, Robert Adamson quotes William Blake in the front of his new chapbook Empty Your Eyes, a line that characterises the poet’s work as his perceptions have matured and developed throughout his career. From the startlingly raw prison poetry in the early books to the romanticism and the stunning reflections on life on the Hawkesbury River in the multi-award winning The Clean Dark, Adamson has seen many things in his life most of us never will and expressed them through his poetry beautifully.

Published as part of Vagabond Press’ impressive “Rare Objects” series, Empty Your Eyes captures the essence of Adamson’s expert command over the lyrical that has been the basis of much of his reputation.

I see this chapbook as one of perceptions, which range from those of a young Adamson to an older, more mature Adamson.

Birds fly and life on the river runs through some of the lines, people walk and speak, though we also see the poet return to his early influences such as Saint Augustine, who’s Confessions Adamson first read while incarcerated. This is a brilliant poem spoken in Augustine’s voice narrating his decline into sin:

‘Living alone, Una took
wild honey daily
an attempt to ease her pain.

There’d be no healing for anyone.
Her absence was my wound-
A slave to lust, I took

another mistress’

 -(‘The Confessions of Saint Augustine’)

Adamson also reflects on several figures he knew as a young poet in the sixties, such as Charles Buckmaster and Michael Dransfield, as well as the works of other contemporary Australian writers such as Sonya Hartnett.

The Buckmaster poem is particularly moving, focussing on The Great Auk magazine published by Buckmaster briefly as an outlet for unpublished poets writing outside of the conservative mainstreams. It also serves as a tribute to a talented poet who never saw a long career, following his death at 21 in 1972:

 ‘…Charles spoke of auk bones
discovered in Florida, fragments put back
together by the Archaeologist of morning, the kingfisher
of poets. Charles wrote for the lost forest,
and opened new pages as he
walked the streets of Melbourne.’

 – (‘The Great Auk Poem’)

The personal nature of this poem, as well as ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, written upon years of reflection and calling on Adamson’s friendships and interactions with both poets, are an important contribution to the history of Australian poetry and the study of the so-called “Generation of ‘68”. We see how Adamson’s perceptions have changed since the sixties and seventies, and I believe there is almost a subliminal questioning of how the views and works of the likes of Buckmaster and Dransfield may have altered, had they not been swept away so young.

 ‘A lagoon reflects low sky-
clouds seen are clouds
as seen-words open
their shells in his brain-’

– (‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’)

Rereading this poem brought to my mind something Adamson wrote recently about Dransfield in a lecture he gave where he said: “I believe Michael Dransfield took a wrong turn when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet”. (http://www.rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/01/28/the-ultimate-commitment-the-poetry-of-michael-dransfield-vicki-viidas-and-robert-harris-by-robert-adamson/)

It is difficult to disagree with Adamson on this, as Dransfield would have likely altered his views and ambitions as he developed and matured as both a poet and a person. Luckily, we have been able to see Adamson enjoy a long and sustained career in comparison.

I think Adamson’s work in Empty Your Eyes would rival his very best, showcasing poems that preserve people and places, and even through the eye altered by time, he breathes life into that which has passed. The Dransfield poem, built on excellent imagery, is a lovely portrait of a young poet living for poetry, finding poetry in each waking thing. In it, Adamson references things such as James McAuley and ‘the loft’ where Dransfield lived with his girlfriend.

Prose poems open and close the chapbook, the title poem written after French poet Pierre Reverdy providing a brilliant note to end on.

“The Suffering has ended. Empty your eyes, a new era begins” writes Adamson as if in the present, but concluding by reflecting on a child in the early trappings of life:

‘on the far ramparts, a boy
with a thousand dreams, cries because he feels he is ugly.’

– (‘Empty Your Eyes’)

Through all of his changing perceptions over time, Adamson has remained an exceptional poet, and there is a certain solitude found in this book, as if he sees all things now in a clearer light.

A beautiful (though only slim) volume of lyrics, we are fortunate to have Robert Adamson, one of the finest and most interesting Australian poets we have produced this century.

Empty Your Eyes is a rewarding book and a fine addition to Adamson’s impressive bibliography.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn lives in the small farming district of Woodstock in rural Victoria. His first full collection of poems Rain Season was published in 2013. He is well into a second book. For more go to: http://www.robbiecoburn.com

Empty Your Eyes is available from Vagabond Press: http://vagabondpress.net/collections/rare-object-series/products/robert-adamson-empty-your-eyes



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“Let There Be War Between Us”: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Decline and Fall’ by Rae Desmond Jones

Decline and Fall by Rae Desmond Jones, Flying Island Books. 2011

Decline and fall098When I got a hold of Rae Desmond Jones’ pocket-sized collection Decline and Fall I knew from the moment I opened it and began reading I was in for an interesting and affecting ride. Yes, I’m a fan, and I was excited at the prospect of a small gathering of his previously published works (this was, of course, prior to his recent New and Selected Poems, It Comes from All Direction Grand Parade Poets, 2013).

To those who read Australian poetry, Jones is a fascinating presence, who has carved out his place in our literature as a unique, important and challenging voice, simultaneously relevant and visionary, often writing outside of the usual subjects or taking them from an obscure angle, and addressing those that are so often shied away from. Just look at Jones’ infamous poem “The Deadshits”, for example, which narrates a gang rape through the eyes of one of the perpetrators. Not Wordworth’s usual choice of subject, that’s for sure, but this is what distances Jones from the pack and makes him increasingly special, if that’s the right word. Although this poem is not included in Decline and Fall, there are plenty of others that address the unaddressable in a way that is intelligent, beautiful, humorous and more often than not, haunting.

Jones has a few bones to pick within these pages, and he wages these wars through his words very convincingly. “i hate them/the truth is out! & they hate me.” begins the title poem of Decline and Fall. The poet directs this piece at the youth of today and the decline and fall of our society. Jones, born in 1941, isn’t a young poet anymore, and his view is one shared by many older generations (and those with brains from the younger) observing the changed attitudes, self-destructive and anti-social behaviours of newer generations, while also being conscious of how these views are seen by those in question. The poem goes on to address the lack of interest in history and education, which contrasts with Jones’ own generation:

do you know why the roman empire fell? i ask.
who cares? A boy giggles.
that is the reason, i say

Jones’ lines are evocative and powerful, and his signature style is original and startling. The work showcased here is dark and doesn’t stray from controversial topics, which has always been Jones’ approach to poetry. I’ve learnt since reading this that Jones was at one stage a secondary school teacher, which could explain how he built these clear views.

Released by Flying Island Books, Decline and Fall is a beautifully presented pocketbook that gathers a collection of work written over a number of years, some of the pieces previously collected in Jones’ 2008 book Blow Out and his earlier collections Orpheus with a Tuba and The Palace of Art. Each poem is accompanied by a Chinese translation on the opposite page, and the message in the poem is universal, spoken directly to the youth who’s behaviour Jones despises:

go back to your bad videos & your hopeless dreams.
be unemployable.
daub graffiti on trains
& put as many needles in your arms as you want.
die if it seems romantic.

An important wakeup call from a voice well worth listening to, it’s tragic to realise this message will more than likely never reach the generation Rae Desmond Jones is calling out to, which just so happens to be my own. Our culture really does appear to be on the decline, and the fall depicted here is truly devastating.

Even with the recent publication of Jones’ New and Selected Poems at last in print, Decline and Fall is still a fine introduction to the work of one of our finest poets, consistent and filled with standouts.

Another of the strongest poems is “The Poets”, exploring the niche audience modern poetry attracts, mainly made up of other poets, and alluding to the fact that those who do not read poems are worse off for it. Jones believes that poetry understands us, a notion I can get behind wholeheartedly. The use of deceivingly simple language is raw and confronting, and as a reader of poetry, you begin to further appreciate the art form as Jones so obviously does:

they speak to a vast audience
consisting mainly of one another
all of whom nervously shuffle
manuscripts and wait their turn
meantime the masses who are
as usual blind deaf & stupid
just keep walking to the bus or
into the office reading newspapers
& quite obviously don’t give a fuck.

Despite the dark reflections that make up some of Decline and Fall’s contents, Jones also presents us with his unique take on natural imagery in poems such as “Ice & Fire”: ‘When the moon drops/Like a biscuit/It might be time/To dab your lips/With a napkin of cloud’.

But the bleak is never far away, such as in another of Jones’ best poems “We are in a Mess (O Lord)”. Although he’s always had a great sense of humour, Jones’ most important poems are the ones that reach into the darkness and pull out something that speaks for the masses, even if the majority of them sadly don’t read it.

Even the artwork of Decline and Fall is bleak, showing a skeleton in ancient armour waving to a man of a future civilisation on a beach. This pretty much sums up what the future looks like through Jones’ poetry.

So who is Jones declaring war on, really? Youth, a society gone wrong as a whole, or is he simply writing about that which we prefer to leave in the dark, because it is important for poetry to say something?

I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand what makes Rae Desmond Jones tick, but I do understand that he is one of the most important poets writing today, one of my favourites, and one that should be a permanent staple in the reading of Australian poetry.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn lives in the small farming district of Woodstock in country Victoria. His first full collection of poetry Rain Season was published by Picaro Press in 2013. Find him online at http://robbiecoburn.wordpress.com/

Decline and Fall is available from Flying Island Books: flyingislands.org/books/flyling…/rae-desmond-jones-decline-and-fall/



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All Features Great and Small: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘Between Giants’ by Ashley Capes

Between Giants by Ashley Capes, Ginninderra Press. 2012

betweengiantswebTo read Ashley Capes’ poetry is like standing on your veranda or in your lounge room, or anywhere for that matter, and simply finding the poetry that lies in the every day. In fact, Capes acknowledges this fact in stating he will ‘keep sucking poetry from small things” (‘a table set for thousands’), a statement that sets the tone for his latest offering Between Giants nicely.

This type of work is expertly balanced and a breath of fresh air amidst the countless collections of difficult and unnecessarily thesaurus-laden modern poetry. Capes has an impressive ability to reflect on the every day and make it so much more in his lines and sentiments, sourcing beauty and food for thought in even the most mundane of things, in a voice that feels genuine, assured and intelligent. As Jane Williams states on the back cover, Capes’ poetry “[favours] sincerity over artifice and meaning over wordplay”.

Finely tuned, vivid and accessible, Between Giants goes further in expanding the reputation he has established in his previous collections, Pollen and the Storm, Orion Tips the Saucepan and Stepping Over Seasons, exploring a range of experiences, topics and landscapes.

The fantastic opener ‘transitions’ displays to the reader that they are about to be taken to a different cultural landscape by the poet, and as the collection progresses, it is clear this landscape is Italy, namely Rome.

The standout poems in the collection are derived from these overseas travels, such as the excellent “St. Mark’s Square” which closes the collection:

we eventually have to stop,
as people invariably halt
to stare up at bronze, replica horses
and unhook
their jeep-like cameras
right in the middle of the flow

Here he applies his unforced, Australian poetic voice with the unfamiliar and beautiful imagery of Italy from his point of view. This creates somewhat of a poetic travelogue and is possibly Capes’ best work to date. This view is verified by the inclusion of his poem ‘archaeological moment’’ in John Tranter’s The Best Australian Poems 2012 (Black Inc.), where the simple discovery of an old coin in the dirt while on holiday in Italy becomes a brilliant exploration of the changing in the land, and the monumental travel of lost objects through time:

a penny has come thousands of miles
to hibernate in the dirt

it’s not worth much
but neither is it worth nothing

The poem then forwards into a future where the coin is left behind, waiting to be rediscovered by future travellers:

 years later when moving house
and neither one goes back for it

the penny can close its tiny eyes
and wait for a more archaeological moment.’

The non-travel poems are also strong, always keenly observed, exploring connections between people and places, and deriving beauty from streets, nature and even popular culture, such as in ‘stubble’, which references Clint Eastwood’s facial hair in A Fistful of Dollars, and ‘the colour purple’, which compares Australian nature to ‘a lost set piece from The Wizard of Oz’. It is this ability to find poetry in virtually anything that makes Capes such a fine observer of our modern world and the way we inhabit it.

The subtle and comical monologue ‘acceptance speech’ is a standout in which Capes thanks several acquaintances from his life for their various contributions to his wellbeing, displaying the range of his work and drawing from things generally not associated with poetry:

actually, while I’m here
I’d like to thank my dentist
for standing up to my recklessness,
even if the remorse
of the sugar-junkie never lasts

This piece is an interesting take on something we have all witnessed, and demands to be re-read and paralleled with our own lives.

 Between Giants, a reference to witnessing the old structures of Rome, is a fine title for this collection, as there are plenty of big and memorable moments within the covers, and also an appropriate representation of Capes as a poet: between the famous names, the giants of Australian poetry, Ashley Capes stands most impressively.

More importantly, Between Giants reminds us that wherever there is life, in Rome or in Australia, there is always poetry and vice versa.


 Robbie Coburn is a poet and writer from country Victoria. His first chapbook Human Batteries was published in 2012 and his first full collection Rain Season is forthcoming from Picaro Press this year. For more go to: www.robbiecoburn.com

Between Giants is available from Ginninderra Press: http://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/poetry.html


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A Warning in the Water: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘The Sunlit Zone’ by Lisa Jacobson

The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson, Five Islands Press, 2012.

the-sunlit-zoneIts no secret the verse novel has a strong tradition in Australian poetry, approached with varied and mixed levels of success. Lisa Jacobson’s strikingly original verse novel, The Sunlit Zone is by all means a successful contribution to this field, using a controlled and accessible writing style that holds appeal beyond the general Australian, poetry-reading public.

Following Jacobson’s excellent earlier collection Hair & Skin & Teeth, published as part of 5 Islands Press’ New Poets series, The Sunlit Zone goes far in asserting her importance as a poet.

Focused primarily on sea change, Jacobson presents the reader with a dark and vivid look into the future of a fast changing earth through the eyes of North, a researcher at a Melbourne marine laboratory, exploring love, loss and the different aspects and dynamics of her past and family. Through her visionary imagination and extensive research, Jacobson reflects on the concerns of our modern world, such as the drastic alterations to technology and the environment, and in The Sunlit Zone, these fears have been fully realised, shaping the day to day lives of her characters’ generation. The verse novel’s warning is all the more haunting as the reader begins to comprehend the realistic nature of the vision Jacobson is presenting.

The Sunlit Zone stands out immediately due to its future setting and fuse of accessible, everyday language and evocative sea imagery, with a strong narrative drive. Using the constant lapping of waves to represent each verse, the ocean is present throughout the book, and reading the lines becomes a memorable visual experience as well as a written one. The ever-changing rips and tides are present in the water as North’s mind traces her memories, throwing her into different emotional states.

The poet’s personified voice is honest and personal, drawing the reader into her world immediately:

all Saturday afternoon I watch
through my front window
the blue whale that’s beached itself
amidst drifts of kelp on the foreshore
of Angler’s Bay…

The Sunlit Zone is described in the front of the book as “a shallow but complex layer of ocean in which vegetation flourishes most prolifically, and which the deep sea diver must keep in her sights if she is to return to it”.

Jacobson cleverly uses this as a metaphorical basis to structure her complex narrative.

The metaphor is powerful and extremely evocative, and it appears this future, and North herself, has lost sight of the sunlit zone, and must return to it before it is too late.

The sequences incorporate modern devices such as mobile phones, significantly advanced in this future, while still upholding consistent and effective poetic form:

Then my skinfone rings.
-Cello, I groan and answer it
through a fog of sleep. Silence, except
for the exhalation of someone’s breath.

Jacobson’s description of the damaged natural world in this future is a disturbing warning to our developing civilization, reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. There is an emotional numbness that runs through the characters, as hopelessness wrestles with resilience throughout the journey. In this future, manufactured humans, genetically modelled and enhanced, exist along with “Dream Babies” (designer embryos) creating a paradoxical paranoia of what is truly reality, causing the atmosphere to often be haunting in Jacobson’s lines:

Dream Babes, they called them on iTV.
Fertility Clinic and other soaps like this
sprang up quickly. On Quantum
and 60 Minutes, the older scientists
thrashed it out with the newest wave
of graduates, already rich on GM profit.
Genetic, Robotic, Nano, InfoTech.
Whatever it was, my mother ignored it.

The verse focuses largely on trauma and its persistent effects: the silent and taxing pull of the past as it follows North throughout the text. She relives memories of her twin sister Finn, born with a series of fish-like physical traits, such as gills and webbed feet, needing “water the way most of us need air”, and her first love, Jack. This is primarily the source of North’s numbness and seeming emotional detachment, as she feels guilt for the loss of her sister, recounting the early months of her sister’s life as she was analysed and reviled due to her mutations. Her memories of Jack are also significant, light thrown back on their shared youth as North is reunited with him. His appearance has altered from her memory, and he has since become a husband and father, but the sting of their former relationship is still present in North’s mind as she relives their intimacy, emotional connection and experiences together:

waves tossed the dinghy up like a paper
boat, a cheap trinket, the oars useless
as two matchsticks. So I did what I had
not done for years: I prayed.
-Please keep him safe, God. I’ll do anything.

There is distinct desperation present in the lines that addresses the inability of the present to alter the past, and the inability to escape haunting reminiscence. Jacobson explores inevitable cycles of life through North’s eyes, and the reader is drawn into her internal pain and fear:

At home the past floods me too fast
to combat it. What the sea takes out
it washes in; mottled, gaping, fish-like
things that fall apart as I grasp at them.

Jacobson’s tale of longing is a powerful and compelling book, and an essential warning to humanity. It is defined by its gripping accessibility that bridges the allusive gap between prose and poetry, although the true accomplishment in the work is its consistent control and balance. The narrative and message is gripping and affecting, and the poetry, simply as poetry, stands on its own as powerful work.

The Sunlit Zone is an important contribution to both the fields of Australian poetry and fiction.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn is a poet and writer from country Victoria. His first chapbook Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012. He can be found at  www.robbiecoburn.com

The Sunlit Zone is available from http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/the-sunlit-zone.

Recording Images: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Flying Low in the Minor Key” by Anthony Lawrence

Flying Low in the Minor Key by Anthony Lawrence, River Road Press, 2011.

Anthony-Lawrence-CD-cover-image-21-150x150Anthony Lawrence is unquestionably one of Australia’s most important contemporary poets. Flying Low in the Minor Key, released on CD as part of the excellent River Road Poetry series, brings together 30 of Lawrence’s finest poems spanning from his first collection to his most recent and uncollected work, read by the poet himself.

There is much to enjoy here, and it is clear this fine compilation has been delicately chosen to be listened to either in its entirety or simply as individual tracks.

The blurb for the release sums up Lawrence’s style perfectly, as “perhaps the most Romantic of Australian poets” but the true appeal in Lawrence’s work is in his stark imagery and diversity, and this collection is a wonderful display of his command over the lyrical, and the clear drive of narrative that runs fiercely through his verse.

This is evident from the moment the listener presses play in the fantastic opener “The Drive”, which recounts a childhood incident involving the firebombing of a car, beginning with Lawrence remembering the drive to the police station with his father:

My father could not look at me as we sat in the back of a white Sedan
on our way to the police station
But I looked at him.
He was staring straight ahead through all the years his son
had disappointed him.

It is this no-holds-barred, controlled lyricism that separates the poet from many of his contemporaries, tackling less glamorous topics with clarity while still upholding his use of description, creating an atmosphere that is honest, confessional and compelling. The poem continues:

When the detectives arrived I was having a family portrait taken…
I ran behind the Sunday school buildings and confessed
to the lawn scraping currawongs,
I watched black smoke, like useless prayer, gutter into the Sydney sky.
The sirens were a long time coming.

While ultimately being an appreciation and acknowledgement of family that is hidden during the angst and turmoil of adolescence, as the poet and his parents now “talk… about the violent spirit of a teenage son”, while sharing “their names” and “blood”, Lawrence consistently manages to intertwine experience with evocative imagery, creating a visual element most written poetry fails to achieve.

Another standout is the award-winning and hauntingly atmospheric “The Rain”:

Rain, and driving thoughts of rain, miles
and hours of it, inches and yards of light
and dark rain, where seamless cloud has been
stitched and gathered into a great undoing
of itself…

A heavily descriptive piece, water is a consistent theme in Lawrence’s work, particularly in earlier collections The Darkwood Aquarium, Three Days Out of Tidal Town and Cold Wires of Rain, and becomes a foundation for much of the work presented here.

The poet has a particular appreciation for the alluring qualities of rivers and oceans in poems such as “The Trawler” and “Oceanography”, while the title poem, far different in subject describes “the night’s paint being prepared or still wet on the leaves and grass”, as a change unexpectedly occurs.

The latter poem breaks away from Lawrence’s usual take on the lyric, written in the 2nd person, creating vivid imagery that causes the listener to ponder its deeper meaning, revealing the impressive range and control of the poet’s voice. Lawrence characteristically writes from the point of view of a naturalist, and this piece effectively summarizes the collection as a whole.

Ultimately, this is a brilliant CD, presented in a beautifully printed cardboard sleeve that demands to be heard again and again, and would be enjoyed by any regular readers of Lawrence’s work and indeed all lovers of good poetry.

To hear the poems is an experience far more intimate than simply reading in silence, and Flying Low in the Minor Key is moving and memorable listening, reaffirming why Lawrence, all these years on, remains at the forefront of Australian poetry.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn is a poet and writer from country Victoria. His first chapbook Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012. He can be found at  www.robbiecoburn.com

Flying Low in the Minor Key is available from River Road Press: http://www.riverroadpress.net/?page_id=331

Poems for the People: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Stepping Over Seasons’ by Ashley Capes

Stepping Over Seasons by Ashley Capes, Interactive Press. 2009

stepping over seasonsVictorian poet Ashley Capes has been a favourite of mine for quite some time now, beginning when I got a hold of a copy of his chapbook of Haiku Orion Tips the Saucepan (2010) and his collection Pollen and the Storm (2008). His second collection, Stepping Over Seasons, does not disappoint.

Capes’ work is distinguished by its searing honesty, uncharacteristic of much contemporary Australian poetry, or any modern poetry for that matter, touching on themes of love, loss, death, marriage, struggles of living in rural Australia and the placement of the poet in the modern world.

As a poet, Capes does not attempt to dazzle or confuse with an elaborate use of pretentious wording that eliminates everyone but scholars, rather presents a series of short poems that remind us of poetry’s true purpose and paint a picture with skilful simplicity.  It is no surprise that Mark William Jackson has stated Capes’ work “will appeal to both lovers of poetry and readers who have been burned by poetry in the past” (http://overland.org.au/blogs/not-assigned/2010/05/review-%E2%80%93-stepping-over-seasons/).

The collection focuses on depicting “the finer details of life” with an emphasis on “change within people and places as seasons change”, creating a broad and powerful body of work.

Capes has the ability to create an evocative poem from something as simple as an object or place, such as his wedding ring in ‘other objects’:

my wedding ring is a plain silver
barrel band. same as dad’s, very modest
and very hard to keep smooth,
with scratches I can’t keep track of
and don’t want to hide. It’s no good pretending

There is something fresh about the feel of this poem, as with the entire collection, with a perspective only observed by the active creative mind.  This is also demonstrated in the award winning ‘farm’, that explores the hardships of drought in small towns with a chilling use of metaphor:

dawn comes like someone embarrassed
to bring bad news, sunlight
very soft on weatherboard.

Perhaps the most moving and clearly relatable poems of all touch upon the darkness and hardship attached to the existence of a writer, such as ‘fujin’s bag’ and ‘late night’. ‘Late night’ discusses the limitations placed upon the artist in poetry with only words to produce an emotion or image. ‘fujin’s bag’ reflects on the displacement of the poet in the modern world while he sits at a desk writing late into the night, calling upon the happenings around him while still confined to the page:

still moulded
to the desk, blinking
back sleep, convincing
myself, somehow
that all this
darkness is necessary.

Personally the greatest triumph in the collection is one of the longer pieces ‘on the road’, that centres on the idea of death as a possibility in day to day routine when driving, and that the bustle of existence and force of habit eliminates thought:

you don’t think about
yourself just behind the glass
in the supposed repose of the white sheet,
belongings in a plastic bag:
one that’s somehow meant to sum you up
or give comfort to loved ones.

This poem also analyses the footprint that is left by the dead, how disposable a life seems to those not personally involved, and the realization that death is an inevitability.

Even when Capes is discussing darker topics such as a lifeless, empty town in ‘small town’, he manages to create and capture atmosphere with masterful simplicity and beauty:

marks on the footpath
don’t fade and the cemetery
never shrinks, only the town around it.

Capes’ output is truly remarkable, publishing high-calibre work consistently in almost every good lit journal in the country and I would go as far as to say this is his best release yet, and one of the best books of Australian poetry I’ve read in quite some time.

Simply put, this is a wonderful collection of astounding work that was recognized with a Commended Award in the 2009 IP Picks Best Poetry Competition that joins Capes’ other poetic achievements for individual pieces, such as commendations in the 2008 MPU Poetry Competition,  the 2009 Rosemary Dobson Prize and a prize in the 2008 Ipswich Poetry Feast Open Poetry Section.

For me, at least, this is a book that demands to be read again and again. I look forward to more work from Ashley Capes, who stands up with the best as one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets.


Robbie Coburn is a poet, writer and performer from country Victoria. His first chapbook Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012. He is currently working on a book for children, a verse novel and a volume of memoir entitled Years of Skin.He can be found at: www.robbiecoburn.com

Stepping Over Seasons is available from Interactive Press: http://www.ipoz.biz/Titles/SOS.htm


Searching for the Past: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘On the Circumvesuviana’ by Lucy Dougan

On the Circumvesuviana by Lucy Dougan, Picaro Press, 2012

On the circumvesuviana136


Lucy Dougan’s collection On the Circumvesuviana is very much a journey.
Although not quite narrative poetry due to the disjointed fragments of story between poems, Dougan creates an intelligent blend of confessional and indirect verse to tell her story from her perspective as a “love child” tracing her origins back to her homeland of Naples.

Many of the poems are narrated from a Neapolitan perspective as the poet recounts her native history, but still uphold a contemporary Australian viewpoint, creating an eclectic, fresh and distinctive voice. This presents a strikingly original standpoint to the reader, in which Dougan is both personally involved in the pieces while still remaining consistent in her introverted observations as a bystander. An example of this is an early poem in the collection “Beneath Us”:

The Lost ones
in deep watery chambers
tread a wheel
of encrusted walls
holding signs
like those left
waiting at airports.

The more direct focus on family and placement makes for some of the strongest poems in the collection, such as “I Went…(That Words Can’t), in which Dougan confronts and interrogates various members of her family in an attempt to put the pieces of her story into a cohesive sequence:

I went to my mother at the Trade Winds Cafe
and she said this is my story, not yours.
There and then the winds turned South.

Her mother’s statement perfectly highlights the place of the individual within both a family and a personal history, the piece becoming darker and more confronting as it progresses:

I went to the ashes of my
father that I call father
and my mother’s lover
and asked them if they thought
we could all rub along together.

The poem then draws to an unexpected and extremely evocative conclusion, a fine example of Dougan’s skill at poetic narration:

Finally, nobody said anything
and I was happy with that.

Dougan’s willingness to openly confront her position in her family as an illegitimate child is constantly combated by an introverted voice, leaving the reader to decide which parts of the story fit where, creating somewhat of an interpretive, non-linear verse novel.
She refers to both her biological father and mother’s husband as “my father that I call my father”, the latter stating ‘‘don’t make me get that DNA test” as a result of their meeting, the poet’s suffering evident as the journey progresses.

These interactions are just a select example of the many Dougan describes throughout the collection in her search for answers, another being with her ”uncle in the Mountains” who reaffirms her status as a “lovechild”, referring to her coming to be as:

a fairytale,
a chance meeting on a bus without suspension,
a cabin full of roses.

In comparison to this, Dougan is accepted and adored by her ”sisters and brother in San Giorgio” who say:

we have no word for half,
your face belongs here.

Dougan also explores this relationship with her half-siblings in Naples in other poems like the excellent “Thickly Then”, but often simultaneously alludes to an isolated childhood coupled with an internalized segregation from those around her:

I learned to love loneliness
and hugged my singularity close,
the last child – big gaps.

Although this initially reads as an exploration of sorrow, Dougan shows a subtle resistance against the forces of her anguish and an admirable willingness to confront both her personal past and that of her family in order to lay it to rest and move on. Her resilience is demonstrated in the poem “Wayside”:

My body wants
the dark of a city
when paths were lit
by shrines, by love,
their frail flames
petals no-one owns.

The overall standout component of this book is the unflinching honestly and intelligence Dougan upholds when recounting distressing elements of her life and journey, a factor that makes for some truly powerful poetry.

The final stanza of the title poem that concludes the book brings her search for answers in recounting her past in Naples to an end, while also acknowledging her inability to control where she comes from and the need to appreciate both the good and bad aspects of her heritage:

this damned theatricality
of selves- this constant circus
of being wedded
to a place, a story
as worn out and
full of grace as this.

This poem and the collection as a whole will leave few readers unmoved.
Despite being only a slim volume, On the Circumvesuviana is a compelling and unrushed book of poems that effectively explores the confusing and inevitable rift between the eyes of the past and the present within both families and cultures.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn is a poet and writer from country Victoria.
His first chapbook of poems Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012.
His website can be found at: http://www.robbiecoburn.com/

On the Circumvesuviana is available from http://www.picaropress.com/page1/page1.html