Succinct and poignant with “a clear eye on the future”: Anna Forsyth reviews ‘We the Mapless’ by Ian McBryde

We the Mapless: new and selected poems by Ian McBryde (Bareknuckle Books, 2017)

We-the-Mapless-Ian-Mcbryde-1-657x1024In the long-awaited collection from Melbourne poet, Ian McBryde, We the Mapless we are treated to a retrospective of his work, spanning over twenty years. Organised into sections showcasing poems from six of his collections, unlike the people of the title, we have a map to trace the poet’s trajectory chronologically from 1994 to the present, with the addition of an entire section of new work.

Something that may have gone un-noticed to readers of his other collections is the recurring motif of titles, particularly, ‘Reports from the Palace’ that also acts as the end piece for the book. It is as if McBryde has released them episodically over all these years and only now are we treated to the full narrative they create. The palace is a hospital or institution, where the narrator must hide photos of his loved ones in his clothing. The well-guarded drugs are echoed in the poem, ‘Coming off Morphine’ in the final section. The mapless ones of the title are referenced in the final episode.

McBryde has a forensic eye and because of the timespan covered here, his fascinations and fixations are brought to light. Particularly notable are the vignettes of broken men enacting violent fantasies. There is a hyper-masculinity to the work. McBryde is not one to indulge in sentimentality or flowery, romantic language. In his poem, ‘Moon’, he is at his most poetically transgressive, calling this often-praised heavenly body, ‘predatory…venomous…a brittle light…’ with ‘no vestige of salvation’.

As we delve deeper into the work, we find love poems peppered amongst the rubble of war, murder and general mayhem. The tenderness of these poems is almost palpable and at times, as raw as a nerve. His odes to Melbourne hum with an obvious adoration for the city. In ‘Melbourne 4 a.m.’, he compares the city to a woman in repose, ‘…draped around the bay’. It describes a town comfortable in its allure and comforting in its shape and form. McBryde shows his skill here, weaving through vignettes of Melbourne’s inhabitants in each suburb going about their sleepy business.

In ‘Satellite’, we have a portrayal of desire and unrequited love, bordering on predation, where the suitor is aware of the unspoken feelings of the love object:

Below, on your surface,
nothing alters,
but with each pass

you stir in your core,
aware of me out there,
orbiting, orbiting.

His poems are always succinct with signature short lines and stanzas leaving us wanting more. We are treated to a poignancy; the works are potent. His is simultaneously a poet, journalist, documentarian, and novelist. His love of the narrative form shines through clearly, despite occasional attempts at obfuscation. The poems from slivers are of course, a collection of one-line poems.

The two concrete poems seem slightly out of place. It is common for poets to include concrete poems to add interest, many of which don’t reveal more than the words could tell us. However, the poem ‘Dresden’ works in this format. Through its shape, the reader experiences the claustrophobia of a war trench, a bombed out hollow, or a bunker.

It is obvious after reading the collection that McBryde has always been a muscular and exacting poet. If there is any faltering, it is in the typos and hum drum cover that don’t quite do the work justice. Often with a retrospective, the reader can observe the growth and development of a poet. Here, it is as if McBryde never had to stumble before he could walk. He is strident, with a clear eye on the future; map or no map.

– Anna Forsyth


Anna Forsyth is a writer and freelance editor, originally from New Zealand, now living in Melbourne. Her poems have appeared in FourW, Landfall and other journals. She is the convener of the monthly female driven poetry event and refugee fundraiser, Girls on Key.

We the Mapless: new and selected poems is available from Bareknuckle Books

Amanda Anastasi launches We the Mapless by Ian McBryde


Strange Beauty: Amanda Anastasi launches ‘We the Mapless’ by Ian McBryde

We the Mapless by Ian McBryde, Bareknuckle Books 2017, was launched by Amanda Anastasi at Collected Works on 16 February 2017


Ian McBryde reading at the launch of We the Mapless, Photo by Melbourne Spoken Word.

Making my way through these poems – and I say “making my way” because there is never a feeling, at any point, of having to work the poems out. It is much like walking through a gallery of striking paintings – each beautiful, savage, tender and stark. These word paintings and snapshots resonate long after you have put the book down.

We are eased into the collection softly with selections from Ian’s 1994 collection The Familiar, with the very slight and quiet ‘Cat to Antelope’. The poems from The Familiar imprint some unforgettable lines upon us. The moon as “a venomous shrunken nun”, for instance. One can faintly hear “the music from the south tower” in ‘Reports from the Palace’, and the faint music still plays in each of Ian’s Reports from the Palace poems thereafter. Upon reading the selection from Flank, I swear that I could hear the muted horses of the “blind cavalry”, each camera click in ‘The Still Company’ and an exquisite music emanating from ‘Prelude’. Then, there is the Westgate Bridge collapse depicted as “a terrible child splitting the insect.”

McBryde captures, in his characteristically minimalist way, crimes and disasters of history – many clear, detailed and razor-sharp reportings, dense with atmosphere. Dallas’ 63 documents the JFK assassination, Melbourne Bitter the Julian Knight shootings. And of course, there are the poems from Domain, the 2004 collection based on the events of the Holocaust.

Here, McBryde hones in on the ordinary, human things occurring around the inhuman atrocities – Himmler retiring for the night; Heydrich dining out, the piles of clothes carefully labelled. It is an insightful view into the emotional distance of the criminal mind. The most striking image here is the flower blooming in Auschwitz – the stubbornness of beauty and life amid the obscenest human ugliness.

Similarly, the poems from Equatorial often depict the dark side of the human psyche. Here we have an arsonist, a sniper, a “fallen priest, defrocked.” In so many of these poems, there is a fascination with the mindset of the outsider, the deviant, the broken. And yet, there is always a searing beauty even in the most disturbing recollections.

The Adoption Order poems take a softer turn. Here we are presented with the tenuous, yet immovable presence of biology and family. From the bitterness of ‘Songs for Paul’ to the surrender of ‘Motherlode’ containing the repeated line “I will die with your name in my mouth”. Here, the loud silences that exist between us and those who birthed us, are perfectly conveyed.

The strange beauty contained in many of McBryde’s poems lies in what is not said. There is always room to wander, and there is always just enough unresolved to keep you thinking afterward. The selection from Slivers, lifted from an entire collection of monostitch poems, aims to create a complete poem within one line. Each contains its own mystery. Each is a hook; a door slightly ajar. Yet, each is complete.

We are also gifted with new poems, which I will not talk about. These are the surprise of the book and, as Ian does, I will not say too much. It is in the final poem of the collection – the last instalment of ‘Reports from the Palace’, that puts the title of the collection into context. It reads: “We the mapless are here, knowing that this pale house is ours.”
It is with pleasure, that I declare We the Mapless by Ian McBryde…launched.

 – Amanda Anastasi

 Amanda Anastasi is a Melbourne writer, and the curator of La Mama Poetica. Her writing has been published in magazines and anthologies both locally and internationally, including The Massachusetts Review, FourW and Cordite Poetry Review. Amanda’s poetry collections include 2012 and other poems and The Silences’(Eaglemont Press). a chapbook with Robbie Coburn.

We the Mapless is availabe from