The Late Poems of Stephen Lawrence (1958-2012) curated by Aidan Coleman

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family

I met Stephen for a beer the day before he took his life, and for the next couple of weeks replayed our conversation. He seemed calm and cheery. We talked then, as always, mostly about poetry. As he left, he gave me some new unpublished work, most of which I include here, with the permission of his family.

Known to South Australian readers as a columnist for The Adelaide Review, Stephen was building a reputation nationally as a poet and critic. His sharp reviews appeared frequently in Overland, Cordite, Wet Ink, Australian Book Review and Rochford Street Review, among others, and he had recently received news of his inclusion in The Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2014).

Stephen published three volumes of poetry with Wakefield Press: Her Mother’s Arms (1997) – a sequence of poems in the voice of a female medical student – Beasts Labial (1998), and How Not To Kill Government Leaders (2002). He edited the Adelaide-based journal Wet Ink and a number of anthologies, and judged the John Bray Poetry Award for a decade. In 2010 he completed a PhD in Creative Writing. His research, A Poetic of Disunity: Selves and Silence, was accompanied by what proved his final collection, A Spiritual Problem is a Chemical Problem – a title that might sum up his metaphysics.

Stephen’s poetry is dense with allusions to politics, classical and renaissance literature – his Master’s thesis explored ornithological imagery in Shakespeare – and, above all, science. He was watchful for any debasement of the language, and harvested the worst excesses of advertising and government cliché with more gusto than horror. His poems vary widely in length from monochords to monologues, and teasingly elliptical narrative poems, that stretch over many pages.

The bureaucratic and corporate monologues that end How Not To Kill Government Leaders, are a genre Stephen made his own. Set against the backdrop of the rise of digital media in the late-nineties and early noughties, they anticipate the spin and weasel words epitomised by The Thick of It and Utopia:

 

No-one’s going to be performance-managed out of their job. No.
Boy, some days I wish someone’d ask me to retire!
But no such luck.
Sure, systematising your knowledge will mean outplacements.
But that’s good!
You’ll be leaner, meaner and stronger for tomorrow –
Outplacement? No, it’s not sacking.
It’s de-layering.
It’s not forced redundancy.
It’s re-tooling the organisation.
No, it’s not minimising staff numbers. It’s optimising.
No, it’s not Downsizing.
It’s Rightsizing. It’s Redimensionalising.
It’s overcoming your entrenched paternalism, gentlemen.
It’s overthrowing constrictive in-house paradigms.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders, (119-120)

Such poems parade a cast of recognisable characters and many of the jokes and sleights are cumulative. Stephen worked in a number of government roles, including communications and speechwriting, and the book’s final monologue, in which the speaker – or “Knowledge Manager” – identifies as Stephen, might hint at some complicity. “THE TOWN HALL MEETING”, included here, is an answer to such monologues, from the other side of the desk.

Stephen also specialised in short forms, particularly haiku and gnomes. The majority of these poems inhabit long sequences: “Hazardous Accumulations” in How Not To Kill Government Leaders stretches to 66 haiku, “Is This Poetry?”, in the same book, to 117. As with the monologues, these shorter forms show Stephen to be a poet of rhetoric more than image.

Emotions stop you
from seeing that they are all
that is important.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (44)

I respect the church
and grieve, for the human thought
that’s gone into it.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (50)

These, and most others, obey the strict five-seven-five prescription. Every syllable is counted as much as it counts, and poetry is often the butt of the joke:

This line of haiku –
Squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched, squelched,
is the longest plod.

 – How Not To Kill Government Leaders (43)

A similar playfulness informs “HAIKU” below. As with the monologues there is a sort of circular movement reminiscent of last century’s absurdist dramas. The metaphorically precise “Fallujah”, is a perfect tanka:

I fire a bullet
at my horse’s head, because
a fly lands on it.

My horse drops dead, and the fly
buzzes off to the next horse.

 –  A Spiritual Problem is a Chemical Problem (89)

Much of Stephen’s work could be described as found poetry: some gnomes – as the John Howard poems do here – use politician’s words (or something very like them); some earlier poems, if not lifted from Hansard, have perfectly mastered its cadences, but such material – where not invented – is trimmed, recast or amped up.

Not wanting to play Bridges to Stephen’s Hopkins, I have preserved inconsistences in capitalisation, and only been bold with the most obvious of typos. I know of no “Gnome 223” but have gone with Stephen’s numbering. Biographical readings should be undertaken with caution – if at all – remembering that Stephen’s is a poetry of multiple voices, and any number of selves.

 – Aidan Coleman

Stephen Lawrence with Dash Taylor Johnson at SA Writers’ Centre – Photograph supplied by Heather Taylor Johnson

Stephen Lawrence: Rochford Street Review

——————————————————————————————

Late Poems by Stephen Lawrence

 

THE TOWN HALL MEETING

Never mind that it was not in the Town Hall.
I found a front row seat. My mind remained open.
My job’s safe. I do not worry.

When the CEO flapped his sportsman’s hands
cufflinks semaphored from his sleeves’ stiff flags
caught the spotlight.

The CEO shook his sportsman’s head.
He gave us opportunity. We were not on the block.
We were not to worry. We did not worry. We listened.

Carl Jung, he sparkled, proudly.
Jung showed the way to accept change.

We were going forward. And Jung gave it meaning.

There were animal pictures used in the focus groups.
They were important to select the path,
the way forward.

Don’t think about it, he told us. I do not think.
The CEO will let me keep my job. I do not worry.

.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

.

MY FAULT

When I say it’s your fault
I don’t mean it’s your fault
I mean [that] it’s your fault
When you say it’s my fault

 

GNOME 221.

Emily Dickinson made
her room the universe.

 

GNOME 222. — Creation

Creation, flawless, evolved
to meet its own end.

 

THE WRITERS’ WEEK FLOWER

This is a sedentary festival. One-way.
Nodding in the same chair for days
papery bonnets and programs
crunch into crepe fist-tissues.
I spoke to a tree far up the slope
behind blurred rows of sun hats.

Electrified, I held their consideration
talking to a pen-thin microphone
of poetry. “Voice makes verse alive:
it is not enough to stroll in gardens
recline in your comfortable trance
on benches, cast out a line, catch
observations; then, fish-slippery
jot them into your notebook,
lay silver words out in rows
like arranging sticks in sand.

Cathartic, not amounting to poetry,
at best half a thought, without
something to animate these words.
What to do” – a wheelchair sneezed –
“is rouse the poem with your voice,
the voice will find a story, have ideas.”
Does the audience have thoughts?

I gave my last minutes to smiling at trees,
fielding questions about earlier books,
the new book, my travels, anything.
An intelligent sun-hat posed this:
flowers are life and conduct us to death.
Flowers from next to her backyard seat.

I answered another question. No return.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

NEIGHBOURS

when they can be heard
we note their bass registers
their percussive life

 

HAIKU

why you no pay me
why you no pay me pay me
why you no pay me

 

IT IS WHERE I LIVE

“Why did she phone here?” asks my wife.
I’ve forgotten. In love with her fair skin,
I try to answer, but now can’t think why.
Tight black curls of innocence engorge me.
No, I have not forgotten, but cannot imagine.
I did think I knew, but have nothing to retrieve.

I am erect with honour and care. Reason aches.
The peace of purity downs me with a punch.
It reveals the culpability of this friendship
with a woman who has telephoned me.
My feeble eagerness breaks forward
into a further moment of innocence.
Moister than parting lips, as clean of conscience
as one who knows he breathes deception.

I am a good man, guileless, without outrage
and so very stupid, without plan or graph.
My wife’s pale downy face entrances me.
The only way she can answer my pleading,
“Let’s kiss,” is to slap me. And she is right.
When the phone rings, I try to kiss her again.

.

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

.

The Harrowing of Hell

a wristwatch brings light into the tank
my reflected spot travels solar minutes

to strike off glass and become a tiny boil
blisters, plays against their sides, gilding

the fish who have nothing else to live for
but find eye-brain company in this smudge

tagged by the twitching luminous coin-probe
they convulse and lift against their glass wall

this play is to enliven the unnatural sphere
a glum box ribboned with trailing skin-rags,

but I brought Hell to Hell: lucent glimpses
torture hopeless souls in their dwelling

swinging sun-mirrors drill the caged spirits
spray them with flames of unbearable time

the fish gape horribly in drenched air
mop water-clouds with their mouths

the Damned remain mute, strain silent,
my whim of sun twitches away a last time

after the light drops from sight, souls
hitherto unregarded by light and time
have had eternity added to their sentence

Stephen Lawrence with daughter Georgia – Photograph supplied by his family

.

 

HOWARD ON GILLARD

A total failure.
In my view, real people don’t
need to say they’re real.

 

Gnome 224

In my view, real people don’t
need to say they’re real.

 

HOWARD ON ABBOTT

Mr Abbott is
an authentic believer,
a family team.

 

Gnome 225

an authentic believer
A family team.

 

My Last Thoughts

To bring time into the universe.
Four dimensions. Four last thoughts.

I lay, on the slab of city square paving.
Snow eddies. Self goes first.

I lay, dying, cold, on a Budapest square
face receiving the crystal snow.

What is the last last thought? My love?
I’ll leave that until last. Last last last. Ha ha ha.

Snow lava drops enter me, through skin.
Hot is a bad sign.

Each livid burst gouges me from me.

Why is there not room in the universe and (for) me?
Asking is why. Consciousness resist life.

Bits of me are going.
All limbs have been sacrificed to zero.

Are my arms and legs now visible elsewhere?

As my ears and nose and penis burn away
I bring a toe or finger back.

As my brain sleeps against forever
I squeeze my heart awake.

All of me has gone, but each part has returned.

The universe has seen me whole
but over four dimensions.

Saved, by time and logic. Ha, ha.
No, I am not.

Existence needs me all, simultaneously.
I am without function if not at once.

My cock does not imply my brain.
My thumb does not imply my lungs.

Cold zero-one me one-zero.
Or perhaps I have got it all wrong.

Outside looking in, the world has won.

Absolute implies the universe.
I have brought the world to meaning.

At last. Oh, my love.

Stephen Lawrence on Houseboat – Photograph supplied by his family

SHE REFUSED LOOKS

fades, passes from sight
blurs, becomes unseen

vision shapes light
eyes slip from her body

not noting scrutiny
she eludes being viewed

___

not quite a shimmer
a human thought in time

might have snapped
her back into sight

but she was invisible
for not thinking of us

____

the atmosphere allows
tiny breaths to gleam

her radius shifts
a question unasked

leaving her presencePhotograph –
I feel myself inhale

Stephen Lawrence with son Joe –  Photograph supplied by his family.

anchors vision

curled under brush
sale for forty years until now
in full view by the roadside

relying on landscape
to deter human will
from entering this vista

_____

our car mocks solidity
the windows we breathe against
curse their diaphony

a road train bursts by my head
resets the country flow
sound changes forever

a gate now open
white-green scrub muddied
time smeared across space

bushes’ tongues bivouac
shades flattened by perspective
daub and stain pasturePhotograph – 

can no longer be held as knowledge
parsed or thought
into homely understanding

thirsty salt-erect tussocks
take colour from rubbed plinths
erupted out of this instant

behind falling and catching fence-wire
fields of parallax blue
melt apart in two directions

bent in winds lasting all their lives
stands of trees accompany us
for relative time

_____

hills barricade clouds
sky-shapes whittled by geology
carve apart elements

slowly progress away
to dialogue with root and sky
about borders, about time

Stephen Lawrence – Photograph supplied by his family.

A Tribute – Stephen Lawrence reviews ‘the new black’ by Evie Shockley

Stephen Lawrence was working on a review for Rochford Street Review at the time of his death and we had exchanged a number of emails discussing the structure of the review. In his last email to me he discussed, with some excitement, his review of  Evie Shockley’s 2011 poetry collection, the new black that had just been published in the New York’s Poetry Project Newsletter. Stephen wanted to publish the review in Australia and asked if he could send it to me for consideration to be published in Rochford Street Review. I agreed and waited for him to send it through. It never arrived.

After  I heard of Stephen’s death I approached Paul Johnson from the Poetry Project Newsletter for a copy of the review. He kindly forwarded a copy of the review which is republished below as a tribute to Stephen.

Reading this review one is struck by Stephen’s keen poetic mind and his understanding of the political context in which poetry operates. It reinforces just what a loss his death was to poetry.

—————————————————————————————————-

the new black by Evie Shockley. Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Reviewed by Stephen Lawrence.

Issue 231 of the Poetry Project Newsletter – April/May 2012

Throughout the new black, Evie Shockley summons African American artifacts and artworks by actors, sculptors and photographers. She invites readers to search out, or revisit, artisans and poets such as Louise Bourgeois, Anne Spencer, Langston Hughes and Lucille Clifton. Shockley also exhibits Frida Kahlo, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald— even friends and colleagues Amy Chavasse, Aimie Meredith Cox, Mendi Obadike and Lisa Crooms.Shockley invites mostly black artists into her gallery, as steps in discussing a cultural landscape that weaves the artistic, the intimate and the political. It is unavoidably a personal trajectory—”race is not biological: it is / the way the wind blows when you enter / a room, how you weather the storms”—but the new black is a comprehensive argu­ment taking a poetic route. Her personal is indisputably political.She starts with the “miracle” of Barack Obama’s presidency:

a clean-cut man brings a brown blackness

to a dream-cawed, unprecedented

place, some see in this the end of race,

.

like the end of a race that begins with a gun

To the poet, this event is the (re)rebirth of her country, and it also obliges a renewal of her artistic approach. In a way, Obama’s manifes­tation creates the new black. But “the hard part comes afterwards.”

In her collection’s first section, “out with the old,” she begins with the exquisite “my life as china”: mineral elements mined from moun­tains, then fired as clay and glass, come to human lips. It is lovely; yet through the poem’s limpid, Schubertian depths one can read of racial passages from another continent, market transactions, bodily altera­tions, shameful deals.

The poet’s visit to Monticello, in “dependencies,” inflames complex, uncomfortable reactions. Her personal response to the curated Jefferson is always evident: “i hear you loved / wine (we have that in common).” Manifold approaches lean upon each other in this multi-voiced dramatic poem—it is almost a theater piece, dividing selves into different speakers as part of the search for understanding and qualified acceptance.

The rest of Shockley’s collection continues to source artists, various branches of knowledge and her personal history to explore blackness and nationhood. She skillfully and provocatively opens up the com­plexities, disputes and schisms that will remain with the U.S. until the end of culture. Although she unseals then coldly peers into wounds, at other times hers is a warm, sympathetic approach.

On her dedications page, she offers “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This oscillation between positions of victim and op­pressor keeps her collection in jittery motion. Nothing is cozy, even at the poems’ most relaxed. Demanding words (“maquette,” “fugacious,” “callithump”) stalk her comfortable-seeming winter poem, “on new year’s eve”; it ends with a stern cut “that severs soul from bone.”

She bends slogans to her purpose (“it was a dark and nightly / storm”) and coaxes nouns into verb drag (“baroqueing / libraries”). Triplets of puns and rhymes skip through her last sequence, “the fare-well letters.” And Joycean wordplay peeps from lines in “the cold”: “merritory,” “sunly.” There are also uneasy conceptual standoffs in this poem, as climate, literary theory and religion edge around each other. The skittish dance hints at bravado, and sometimes feels like a misstep. But Shockley’s intentionality can’t be disallowed. The quarrels of knowl­edge are held in concert, and converge beautifully, pivoting at the poem’s center:

the footprints didn’t sully

the snow         until

they doubled                     back

As well as gaming with words and phrases within the poems, the collection’s title echoes playfully, bitingly, throughout. “New” becomes an acronym for “not especially white”; “murk was the new black”; “abnormal is the new natural”: all piece together the puzzle of her book’s naming.

Shockley tours a wide range of poetic forms, never settling on a single formula. The variety is so broad that this, her second book of poetry, has been accused of resembling a first collection’s stylistic “grab-bag,” intent on showing off formal flair. Too-easy subjects— such as her shrill Halliburton-in-lraq poem (its title, “in a non-subjunctive mood,” attempts to validate its inclusion)—seem unnecessary to her thesis. She relies heavily on responses to art and photography: “gold chain hang­ing over a worn collar, / a thick textured ring bright on the finger / beside the one she gives the photo- / grapher.” Common advice to blocked poets is to visit a gallery and transcribe what you see there, as a means of resuming writing.

Kahlo tacked her self-

portrait to canvas with oil to give herself

nerve, nerves

Shockley’s poems can be disarming, and are always clever, but petitioning museum art and pop culture may not be trying hard enough.

However, responding to artworks that in other circumstances should speak for themselves is a necessary part of her inspection of political and cultural landscapes. The poet passes meaning beneath various microscope lenses, and across the face of carnival mirrors. Shockley’s broad cultural resource, combined with her poetry’s relaxed intentionality, helps give context to, position and display pieces in the vast puzzle of race and politics in America. Her argument is fulsome, convinc­ing, seductive, but can never be complete.

_________________________________________________________________

Stephen Lawrence has a PhD on political poetry, is the author of four poetry collections, edits compilations of South Australian writing, and has two poems in the Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (University of Louisiana, 2012).

Stephen’s review of Mascara Issue 10 and Jacket 2, ‘51 Contemporary poets from Australia’ appeared in Rochford Street Review Issue 2.

Vale Stephen Lawrence

It was with sadness that Rochford Street Review learnt of the recent death of Stephen Lawrence. I had only gotten to know Stephen over the last few months. He was the first person to ‘volunteer’ to write reviews for Rochford Street Review and I gave him the difficult task of reviewing two online publications – Mascara Issue 10 and the first installment of Pam Brown’s ’51 Contemporary poets from Australia’ on Jacket 2. He accepted this challenge and produced an insightful review which is still attracting traffic to Rochford Street Review – https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/01/19/all-dressed-up-stephen-lawrence-reviews-mascara-issue-10-and-jacket-2-51-contemporary-poets-from-australia/.

Over the past few months Stephen and I had exchanged a number of emails and he was looking forward to doing some more reviews for us. We discussed poetry and poets and he was always happy to offer comments and advice on the reviews and articles on Rochford Street Review. He had requested to review Chris Mansell’s collection Spine Lingo together with David McCooey’s Outside and was working on this review at the time of his death.

As a small tribute I am sharing a copy of Stephen’s last email to Rochford Street Review:

Hi Mark

I hope it’s going well with you. I enjoyed your recent piece – ah, the gestetner revolution!

I’m getting a piece together concerning the McCooey and Mansell collection you kindly sent over. Sorry, I didn’t ask whether I might combine them, or review the books separately – and word count, roughly (a number to aim for)?

In the meantime, you may be interested in my review last month for New York’s Poetry Project Newsletter, of Evie Shockley’s 2011 poetry collection, The New Black. (Evie is a black American academic poet, and may be of interest to local readers.) If it suits RSR, you are welcome to use this piece (my copyright) for the site.

.Please sing out if it might be useful to you, and I can send it over.

.All the best,

Stephen.

.

Our condolences go out to Stephen’s family and  many friends.

– Mark Roberts
Rochford Street Review

___________________________________________

The following tributes to Stephen were posted onto Facebook. I trust that there are no objections to them being reprinted here:

Jill Jones

I am shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Stephen Lawrence, poet, friend. It is hard to believe we will never speak again, about poetry, about ideas, about music, and more. Apart from all that, I supervised Stephen’s PhD and had got to know a lot more about his ideas about poetry, as well as the work itself. Am finding it hard to say much more at the moment. Farewell Stephen. Thinking of Celine, Georgia and Joseph.

Deb Matthews-Zott

“I am saddened to hear of Stephen Lawrence’s passing. It is difficult to believe, when I only saw him last month and sat chatting to him at Writers’ Week. Stephen and I were co-editors of the Friendly Street anthology ‘Beating Time in a Gothic Space’, no. 23, the last Friendly Street anthology of the 20th century. So we spent a lot of time working together during 1999 and I have fond memories of how well we worked together on the collection, meeting in each others’ homes, taking photographs for the back cover in the Botanical Gardens, and surprisingly agreeing on most of the editorial choices. I was unable to attend the launch of the anthology due to a family illness and came under a fair bit of criticism for not being there; I want to thank Stephen for defending me against those criticisms and for hosting the launch without me.

Stephen was also an inaugural member of the poetry group I started in 1995 – A Passion of Poets (a group which still meets today, although the membership has shifted over time).

I hope no-one will mind me posting Stephen’s poem ‘Circuitboard’. It is the poem I selected for the 1999 anthology and I think it captures the nature of Stephen’s work very well, and shows something of Stephen himself. His collection ‘Beasts Labial’ is also a must read. My sincere condolences to Celine, Georgia and Joseph.

Circuitboard

.

The charge

Of thought

And intellect

Passes through structured ether, receiving

.

The glow

Of instant,

Experience,

In return for the intensity of the outlay.

.

The ghost

Of awareness,

The mind’s electricity,

Traces varying pathways across the board.

.

The mindfield

Of each reader,

Each reading,

Determines the quality of induction.

.

The oceans

Of electrons

Catch and swirl

Consciousness in their eddies and flux.

.

The current

Lights up

What it touches,

Illuminating one route each time through

.

The maze

Of the grid,

And passes out,

Changed from when it entered.

.

From Friendly Street Reader No. 23

Issue 2: January – February 2012 Contents.

Rochford Street Press

All Dressed Up – Stephen Lawrence reviews Mascara Issue 10 and Jacket 2, ‘51 Contemporary poets from Australia’

Internet sites are replacing journals. Beyond this clear fact, there exists little consensus about whether it is a good or bad thing – let alone how one defines ‘journals’ and their impact on culture – according, for example, to the (online) discussion in Overland, September 2011, and this month’s review piece in The Australian.

Mascara, out of the University of Newcastle, began as, and remains, an e-journal since 2007. It started publishing poetry only; now they have a long review list, and it is growing lengthier with each new edition. Mascara’s tenth issue, ‘Prose Poetry,’ is the first themed edition.

The site’s pages employ a simple, effective interface, leading us in with a solitary striking image; for the tenth issue, it is Tamryn Bennett’s text cityscape, ‘Aneki.’ This visually primes the reader for Alistair Rolls’ featured essay, ‘Baudelaire’s Paris: A New, Urban (Prose) Poetics.’ Rolls’ piece argues that prose poetry is an urban form – indeed, embodies the modern metropolis. He does this by using Baudelaire’s artistic response to Modernist Paris’ urban renewal. (I am glad Woody Allen didn’t encounter Baudelaire in his insolent tour of Modernism, ‘Midnight in Paris.’)

The featured essay also alerts us to Mascara’s tone and editorial choices. The journal is “interested in the way poems locate individuals, and how they connect cultures and languages.” To say Mascara hopes to “challenge the way we position ourselves… renewing the way we imagine ourselves and the world,” reads as a nebulous mandate – although this allows the journal to evolve in any direction it pleases.

Intimations of literary theory wash through the essays. And French Modernist art is never far away; Toby Fitch translates two pieces from Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Theorising also infests some of the poetry – although it is often takes the form of playful nods within a palpable landscape, such as Tim Wright’s:

Boxes in the landscape. The assumptions of architecture. A different beach. The longer a trend takes to reach one. The grimy inner city becomes an idea. Patterns of light through the curtains. The Bolaño effect. Packets of mud.

(‘untitled’)

Mascara’s very general brief is made more specific by announcing its interest in Australia’s interaction with Asian regions. Half the advisory board is Asian; however, the journal is more ‘international’ than its advertised focus on Asian/American texts. There are only two Asian poets in the current issue, although other works address Asian culture, and a few of the translations are of Chinese prose poetry. Chen Li’s fine pieces, for example, translated by Chang Fen-Ling, are sharp micro-narratives built around cores of meditation:

…she borrowed money and bought him another car without my knowledge. That was a white car, white as the morning fog on winter days.

(‘Black Sheep’).

Prose poetry invites off-centre composition and grammar, showing itself qualitatively distinct from verse rhythms. Overall, the poems are varied, and generally fine examples of the genre. Some take the form too far, though. Michael Farrell’s shrilly gestural spacings around punctuation risk the reader seeing only empty hocus-pocus rather than interactive nuances. Most other poets get it, though: sparing use of devices imply mastery, such as Kate Waterhouse’s poised slashes, and Bella Li’s censorship of selected proper nouns. Or Jaimie Gusman’s mastery of cock-eyed, sometimes shocking syntax: “No one wants me as in desires me goes fang-thirsty to the hole in the ground” (‘Everything is For Seen’). These mechanisms are effective not just for the power of their sparse use, but also for their lucid intentionality, setting up clear exchanges with the reader.

The quality of reviewing is mixed in this issue. Heather Taylor Johnson’s piece on Pam Brown is insightful, and a model of how authors can conversationally appear in their own reviews and still come up with engaging criticism. However, Roberta Lowing’s critique of Jenny Lewis’ After Gilgamesh is clumsy and self-praising. It is laudable that so many poets are given the opportunity to review other poets in Mascara, but some employ ungainly prose. This may be either an inadvertent editorial irony – “this issue’s about prose” – or it could be intentionally opening up a complex dialogue on the artistic forms and grammatical elements of prose poetry. One can buy in or buy out of this.

A core review is Ed Wright’s, of The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems edited by Michael Byrne. He notes the drawback of so many Australian anthologies: defaulting to established practitioners instead of (a more difficult editorial task) venturing a stance on the future of such poetry by offering more new voices. Wright also usefully summarises weaker contributions as “cute but ultimately throwaway thought pieces”; this gives us a neat summary of prose poetry’s pitfalls, at the same time providing a measure of its uniqueness as a genre.

Jacket2 is the new incarnation of the original quarterly Jacket – another early example of an all-online poetry magazine. The original Jacket was founded by John Tranter in 1997 and while Jacket 2 moved is now maintained from the University of Pennsylvania, it has maintained its Australian connection by keeping Pam Brown as its associate editor.

In Jacket2, as with Mascara, the layout problems and bugs are minor. (In the latter, reviewers’ bios go missing, one is twice as long as the poet’s contribution, and another poet is given a blank page instead of a poem.) However, Louis Armand’s opening image is so large it takes a few seconds to download each time one navigates back to the page. And in both magazines, essays or core works do not announce themselves until one either scrolls down further page-lengths or searches a couple of layers in.

Pam Brown has recently put on this site a ‘collection’ – the editors hesitate to call it an ‘anthology’ – of fifty contemporary poets from Australia. This collection is buried partway down the ‘Features’ pages, at the bottom of a side-menu. Although it is a pity not to be visible closer to the surface, the purpose of Jacket2 is to be – at least in part – an ongoing report on the state of poetry. The site’s banner proclaims that it publishes articles, reviews, interviews, discussions and collaborative responses, archival documents, podcasts, and descriptions of poetry symposia and projects. Not unlike a daily news forum, we will publish content as it is ready.

Given this ambitious brief, articles and reports come and go, and the viewer is encouraged to browse randomly rather than more actively search through the site’s dendritic pathways.

The anthology’s introduction rightly suggests that to peruse literary journals can provide a better indication of a “country’s poetic,” and the collection only aspires to be “broadly representative.” However, although they do not discern any current ‘schools’ of Australian poetry, this doesn’t prevent Brown from noting “trends” – a “lyrical resurgence,” and poetic responses to technological and financial changes.

This is not an anthology that proscribes ‘Australian poetry,’ and Brown consider this a form of cultural cringe: defining this country’s poetic resembles a spurious postcolonial seeking after national identity. Besides, “nobody knows how to answer it.”

Though it is titled “51 Contemporary poets,” at present only about ten are evident in the contents. It is an evolving list, Brown tells us in her introduction, and forty more poets will join them in “four subsequent installments.” This first batch is in reverse alphabetical order (claimed as a “recently developed ‘downunder’ method”). Mark Young, a broad-ranging poet from New Zealand, is therefore up first. We are obliged to go to another page for poets’ biographies, and then are distracted by advertisements for the magazine on the right hand side. Marketing increasingly encroaches in our world – and poetry is not exempt from this influence, in its content as well as its backdrop.

The first ten poets also include Alan Wearne and his hilarious ‘Sarsaparilla: a Calypso’:

On through Menzies’ days and Holt’s,
Patrick logged up minor faults:
countless friendships never stick
(what a temperamental prick!).
Laboured syntax? Let it pass.
Can’t quite “get” the working class.
Down at the dump though, smoking pot …
Riders in the Chariot!

And there is Tranter’s own exceedingly long poem, ‘The Anaglyph.’ (Commissioned a stale five years ago, it is garden-fresh compared to featured poet Joanne Burns’ 2003 offerings in Mascara.) In terms of length, several of the poets are pleasingly allowed space enough to provide a sense of their methodology – although briefer entries often create a more intense and satisfying impact.

I was searching for weak links amongst the first offering, but found that all entries are of a high quality and representative of the editors’ themes. Brown takes no risks: every poet here is established or active in the literary community. Even though we only have ‘Y’ to ‘T’ surnames so far, this first sample presages a fine and comprehensive online anthology.

Given the inevitability of internet productions, these two journals – Mascara and Jacket2 – have taken the technological lead, and look like they, and others emerging even now, will continue to use the medium to produce effective and collaborative products.

– Stephen Lawrence