Voice was published as a printed magazine from 2002 to 2012. It was edited by Bill Tully, Ian McFarlane and Stephen Matthews. The last print issue, number 41, was published in March 2012.

This online version is updated occasionally.

To submit contributions (articles about social, cultural, political and historical issues; reviews of non-fiction books, novels, poetry collections and films; and poems with a social justice slant) please

Of Light, Shade and Half-light. William Cotter. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne
Of Light, Shade and Half-light is William Cotter's eighth collection of poetry with Ginninderra Press, following The Darkness of Swans, The White Blood of Moonlight, Cloud Gazing, Refractions, Light Within the Stone, Pen Points and Of Forms and Shapes. The poems in Of Light, Shade and Half-light also sport some fancy calligraphy.
With or without calligraphy, Cotter has natural ability and writes well. He writes with modesty also (‘Writer’s Block):

The clipped limerick bound to cause a laugh And the bawdy ballad with its verses
Are beyond my wit. Just give me a thought, however brief, to which I can resort.

Here, Cotter's humility is shown clearly. He also evinces descriptive power (‘Storm Over Betka Beach’):

Lightning slices the clouds and the grey waves, hardened into knife edged lines, are lurching, Row after row, upon the rocks and cliffs, Bursting, retreating, grinning in the half light And reforming, ready to bite again.

Cotter writes about the ocean beautifully. In his description of the ocean, he utilises personification. This is under-utilised in poetry.
His poetry is sometimes conceptualised (‘Coming By Boat’):

Waves forge ringlets of dreams along the hull. Behind, lurk traipsing ghosts, the glint of guns, bewildered children. Here the shearwaters spear ahead and the sun steeples.

Here, Cotter's vivid imagination takes over. The reader is left with a convincing poem.
Cotter also has a social conscience and an environmental one. In another poem, Cotter writes about how humans have decimated a place (‘The Pilbara’):

We wrench out its heart, bore into its guts, Spread mullock that bleeds black blood And conjure grotesque, unstable mountains to put our toys upon.

It is clear that Cotter has a passion for the conservation of this area. This poem also ends well. Cotter has a knack of doing this. In another ending, he deftly uses tactile imagery after using visual imagery for the rest of the poem (‘Picaninnie Ponds’):

But with the fading of the limestone shelf from white to green to black, The mind claws back And hands grasp more firmly the smooth pontoon railing.

In his use of tactile imagery, Cotter varies his poetry.
Cotter has written a refined collection. It gives the impression that he has generated momentum in his poetry. While mostly serious, Cotter displays some lightness of subject matter and instances of wit. He gives his subject matter the treatment it deserves. Also, in this sense, his verse is not slight. But, overall, it is Cotter’s worldliness and his pleasant poetic disposition which make his verse memorable.
Pendulum. Kylie Harrison. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

In Pendulum, Kylie Harrison writes poetry about her journey with bipolar mood disorder. According to Wikipedia, bipolar mood disorder (originally called manic-depressive illness), is a mental disorder characterised by periods of elevated mood and periods of depression. Harrison has also suffered from psychosis. According to Wikipedia, psychosis refers to an abnormal condition of the mind and is a generic psychiatric term for a mental state described as involving a loss of contact with reality. In addition to this, Harrison has also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Wikipedia, post-traumatic stress disorder may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events. The diagnosis may be given when a group of symptoms continue for more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event.

Harrison is candid about some of her life experiences. For example, she is forthright about her experience with mania, when she is capable of being elevated in mood (‘My brain thinks’):

My brain thinks, too much I think,
but you don’t know when to let go.
I’ve put up with you, been told what to do.
A whispering whirlwind, my brain thinks that’s you.

There is a sense of echo within some of the lines, here, that is technically different. Mania appears to have altered Harrison’s approach to language. The result is a very original poem.

If Harrison is conscious of what she is going through in her poetry, on other occasions in Pendulum she is conscious of what others are going through (‘Suffocating in darkness’):

My love, I cannot sleep for thinking of you.
How dismal to think of you drowning in melancholy.
Pounding abruptly, fierce and relentless,
despairing in torment, frantic to find energy again.

This poem is empathetic. Harrison knows what it is like to feel this and tries to alleviate suffering in someone else.

Sometimes Harrison expresses her interest in another person romantically (‘Your gentle touch’):

Your kiss is like a thousand compliments,
each more gentle and sweet than the first.
I know your lips are both charming and true,
enchanting me like the beckoning sea.

Harrison is something of a romantic. Her romantic poems are both generous and passionate.

She is also technically sound in a poem of six lines that describes a traumatic childhood event. At fourteen, Harrison fell into a coma and was airlifted to a hospital (‘Blackness of the coma’):

With panic in my heart
I hear the urgent voice of the doctor.
There is a piercing silence
within the blackness of the coma.
There is a terrifying noise as I hear the whir of a helicopter.

The consonance in the last line of the poem is deft. There is a vividness about the poem too.

Harrison’s journey does not end there. It is neatly compartmentalised in a book of poems that is comprehensive. It is also constructive in that Pendulum could help a wide range of people and interesting in that Harrison has had an amazing life. It is captured in poetry that is natural, substantial, clear, different, educative and fantastic.

Upon Reflection. Antony Fawcus. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Antony Fawcus was born in 1943. He is an ex-RAF navigator and junior school teacher. He now lives on the South Australian Fleurieu Peninsula, where he runs a hobby farm and bed and breakfast. In addition to Upon Reflection, Fawcus has another collection of poetry out with Ginninderra Press called Time to Stand and Stare.

Fawcus claims to have found much poetry in a life of flying, teaching and farming. It is poetry with intelligence. Fawcus is a poet of ideas (‘I Believe’):

When I see an act of love, I see God.
When I perform it, I am He - that’s odd.
Man-made religions often hide this fact;
You build your own god through your every act.

Fawcus thinks well, here, in verse. His couplets also display a technical competence which extends to the wider collection (‘Puppet on a String’):

The puppeteer makes her dance his tune,
Pulling her strings this way and that
Not heeding her heartfelt pleas.
While forcing her to bend
He pretends that she’s
His mere plaything;
Which is rot.
She is

Fawcus writes with such control, here, in this nonet. He adheres to the diminishing syllables in each line, but the poem does not seem forced. Fawcus also incorporates a rhyme scheme of sorts. There is also the cleverness of the last two lines.

Such cleverness surfaces in other parts of Upon Reflection, such as when Fawcus appreciates the visual art of Hans Heysen (‘Old Man Collins’):

Youth strides out across the canvas,
Eager to start on life’s journey,
Keen to get to the other side.

He pauses midway, impeded,
And lights his clay pipe to ponder
The ghost of himself, old Collins,
In no hurry to leave the picture.

The double entendre of the last line is certainly clever.
Fawcus is also ingenious in the various forms he dalliances with. In the last poem in the collection, Fawcus describes dead seabirds and a certain beach in a quatern (‘Dead Seabirds’):

Dead seabirds cast upon the shore
Did overreach themselves like words
Poets set down in rhythmic waves,
To gradually decompose,

Clawed from the air where once they flew.
Dead seabirds cast upon the shore
Floating, listless, aloft no more,
Then thrown up by the gaping maw

Of an incoming tide, flotsam
Rejected by the restless sea.
Dead seabirds cast upon the shore,
Their weed-strewn sentence scrawled in sand,

A lonely place where poets come
To capture moonlit silver pools,
But find their verses often are
Dead seabirds cast upon the shore.

The disharmony of the half-rhyme at the end of the last two lines is apt. The reader could hardly describe this quatern of Fawcus as a dead seabird.

Fawcus deserves kudos for trying this form and others. Some of the forms that Fawcus has utilised in Upon Reflection are the sonnet, rispetto, pantoum, villanelle, rondeau and terzanelle. There is something likeable about a poet who shows an interest in craft (and tradition). But not only does Fawcus utilise various forms in Upon Reflection. He pulls them off, as he does with his other poems.

Magical Sputnik. Geoff Graetz. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

The poems of Magical Sputnik are divided into six sections. The first, Dear Mother Earth, finds the poet in various places in Australia. The second, All Creatures, describes various animals. The third, Flowing Water, describes various waterways and beaches. The fourth, Everyone of Tender Heart, is do with people. The fifth, The Cosmos, is to do with space. The final section, The Spirit, consists of religious poems.

Faith, for Graetz, is something important. He has a quiet belief in God (‘Give me oil in my lamp’):

In me the Spirit’s fire
faces wind and mire.
Lord, let your oil pour,
my torch refill,
ignite my burning will.

Graetz has a devout but not overbearing faith in Christ. He has a pious, serious side and an inventive, playful side as well (‘Grand piano hoedown’):

Look! The patio’s on the lean
I heard a rumbling in the night
I know it wasn’t a bad dream.

Now the grand piano is in the pool
floating around with a mouse on top
waiting for someone to play the fool.

The kids jump in with a belly flop
Gran paddles out; plays a fast hoedown
while the mouse dances round on the hop.

With a wobble the piano begins to sink
the mouse jumps onto Grandma’s head
and the kids all cheer when she gives them a wink.

Graetz has the imagination to write such a poem. In it, he displays a pleasant poetic disposition. His other poems also have this (‘Monarch of the garden’):

On high the monarch’s beauty
rises and falls like a biplane
below a pale blue summer sky
a sign of hope, of life
beyond human habit
life of the planet
visible in a single butterfly.

Graetz has a refreshingly gentle, placid voice. When he uses it, he is technically sound (‘Sydney in lights’):

I see a jewelled web
of far-flung diamond strands
filaments of golden red
draping darkened lands.

Tracery of sparkling lace
a place of beauty, or so it seems,
visible from outer space
through my starboard window gleams.

Down we float to silken net
of beaming runway lights
secure on darkened earth and yet
I long to stay in astral heights.

Graetz has no trouble maintaining an ABAB rhyme scheme. The poem does not seem forced or cumbersome. There is also a visual element to it. This is true for other poems in Magical Sputnik (‘Nuriootpa Oval’):

Figures in white stride purposely on
the game begins
like the game of life.

Bowler bends
fielders crouch
batter swings, a crack resounds, the ball
boundary borne
run tally rises.

The poem has a strong visual aspect to it: the reader can see the cricket game. Also, Graetz has gone to the trouble of making indentations in his lines. This exemplifies the collection as a whole - Graetz has put a lot of effort into Magical Sputnik. The effort Graetz has put into the book is also apparent in how all of the poems seem finished. It is also apparent in how each individual poem has been categorised and in the sketches Graetz has proffered in the pages of the collection. After witnessing his visual art and reading through the poetry of Magical Sputnik it becomes obvious - Graetz is good at more than one medium.

The Serendipity of Doubt
by Ian McFarlane

My first published book review appeared over thirty years ago in the sadly long defunct National Times, with its focus falling on Graham Greene’s ‘fragment of autobiography’ Ways of Escape, which, unsurprisingly, since I was already a lifelong fan, I loved unconditionally, and it probably showed. In mitigation, my career as a critic had just been launched in a reasonably big-end market, and I was feeling rather pleased with myself. I’m far more cautious these days, but curiously - despite having won an award for book reviewing - still embrace doubt when asked to critically comment on a new book.

However, having just taken Ways of Escape from its crowded bookshelf and blown away months of accumulated dust before reading a few paragraphs, followed by the yellowing newsprint clipping containing my review, I have to say that there is not a lot that I would change. A little less eagerness to accept the master at face value, perhaps, and a little more determination to place Greene’s idiosyncratic Catholic angst in a contemporary literary context, but, overall, my first review retains the resonance of honesty.

I’ve always considered doubt to be a usefully creative imperative, but I’ve reviewed far too many writers, particularly those with elevated tertiary qualifications in creative writing, who are so sure of themselves, the confidence seems to ooze across the page like hair gel or suntan lotion. And this can foster an inner circle of complicity, particularly when the going gets precious, and the fear of being too easily understood, coupled with a desire to demonstrate cleverness, helps spawn the ludicrous assumption that literature is diminished by being comprehensible.

As a literary intellectual, D.H. Lawrence mocked socialism and democracy because he thought they celebrated the average rather than the pinnacle, which might sound attractive in theory but, in practice, soon invokes elitism and the disengaging sourness of alienation. Poaching the perfect egg might be usefully compared to writing a Sufi poem: a series of gradually diminishing failures in search of serendipitous success, and I suspect this process has a lot more to do with literature than self-indulgent confidence.

In my long experience as a professional book reviewer, I have on occasion found cause to mark a book down, but was always honest, and never deliberately omitted (or invented) evidence to support my argument. And the notion of using a review to settle a score is totally abhorrent to me. I was therefore deeply saddened and hurt by the condescendingly snide and disingenuous way my new collection of poetry, The Shapes of Light (published in March 2014 by Ginninderra Press), was treated in the Weekend Australian book pages. And this has nothing to do with simply being upset with a negative critical response. I really couldn’t give a donkey’s diphthong for the lofty views of a member of the Oz-poetry elite, but the primary purpose of this particular review was obviously designed to slap me down as payback for having the cheek to occasionally suggest - over many years as an award-winning book reviewer, essayist and fiction writer - that too much contemporary poetry doesn’t really care if its catch-me-if-you-can cleverness is mostly inaccessible.

The review completely ignored my book’s preface (based on a well-received essay on poetry previously published in the Australian Literary Review) as well as a foreword written by Stephen Matthews. Apart from being offensive, this approach arguably falls professionally short of the mark as a review but, even worse, it is also dishonest, since it suits the reviewer’s purpose in making (mostly wrong) assumptions about my ‘perception’ of poetry, rather than bothering to address the reality of my opinions, as clearly expressed in the preface, or perhaps even getting around to considering some of the poems; specifically rather than generally. A fair-minded review, particularly of poetry, will usually include enough direct quotes to perhaps allow readers a chance to form their own opinions, but this doesn’t happen - except with the few lines chosen to whip me with (from a selection of over 120) - and the minority of poems written in free verse are cast aside as mere prose, without bothering to explain why they are of less poetic value than most of the contemporary free verse poems I have read. This treatment, I suggest - together with denying the existence of a preface and foreword - provides telling evidence of the degree of prejudice involved, and the heat of anger generated by my perceived attack on the sacred citadel of inner circle poetry.

The review scornfully implies that I have little knowledge or experience of a list of worthy Australian poets (whose books, incidentally, are well-represented on my shelves and frequently read) and draws a curiously tenuous comparison between lines from one of those worthy poets, ‘As I was going through Windy Gap / A hawk and a cloud hung over the map’, and lines from one of my poems, ‘The dreaming mountain moves above / and steals the sunlight from our love’, to demonstrate a spurious claim that the worthy poet’s lines (which sound a bit jingly to me) possess a ‘confident lyricism’, while mine merely represent a ‘too-easy resort to personification and various sound effects’. Oh, come on; who is kidding whom here? Isn’t most contemporary poetry often intensely personified? And aren’t ‘sound effects’ usually involved?

The reviewer then casually brushes aside my social justice poems as ‘short, explicit homilies to make political points’, despite knowing that they have represented many years of highly regarded work in defence of social justice issues, such as the environment, refugees and indigenous rights, before twisting the knife even deeper by dismissing poems on my horrific experience of clinical depression as ‘informative’, when they have been described elsewhere as beautifully perceptive, and welcomed by mental health organisations such as the Black Dog Institute.

People like the author of that vindictive review have been calling the shots regarding poetry in this country for far too long, and their peer-group self-validation has reinforced the supercilious tone of a ‘gatekeeper’ status, whose so-called ‘mainstream’ is likely to be little more than an exclusive club of like-minded insiders, disinclined to open the gates, lest the poetic purity of their lofty ideas be contaminated by the great intellectually unwashed. Meanwhile, out in the grass-roots real world, there are many intelligent and literate people who feel confused and excluded by the precious isolation of much contemporary poetry, but would love a chance to re-engage with some of the traditional elements remembered from the past. And I suspect that most of them would be likely to share my view that accessible poetry celebrates the senses before the cerebellum. The Shapes of Light has a deliberately provocative subtitle: rediscovering poetry in a post-poetic age, which was intended, at least in part, to be a playfully based invitation to a debate about how best to broaden poetry’s acceptance in a complex and dangerously disengaged world. This would have been obvious from the preface but, by refusing to let readers know of its existence, the reviewer is able to make me appear arrogant, as well as incompetent.

John Shaw Neilson, arguably Australia’s finest lyric poet, had little formal education and chose to describe himself as a ‘simple rhymer’, but he was much more than that; a truth that I have tried to remind people of over many years, in essays, book reviews and elsewhere. I included a poem about him in The Shapes of Light, as well as a more extensive reference in the preface. Based on this, presumably, the Weekend Australian’s reviewer decides that Neilson is my mentor, who becomes ‘the benchmark, after whom poetry in Australia became “unbearably modern”.’ What tosh! I have long admired Neilson, but he is no more a mentor than my early English teacher, who memorably recited to a gently dozing class Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’ one long ago lazy summer afternoon.

The Weekend Australian book pages included a photograph of John Shaw Neilson to head the review, rather than using the front cover my book, as is normally the case; perhaps because this would have prevented readers from wondering why the mentioned foreword was ignored in the review. Like the missing preface, it contained facts that would have got in the way of the reviewer’s chosen story.

Henry Lawson, although a lesser poet than John Shaw Neilson, aptly summarised the implicit belief that poetry is a subjective concern of the heart rather than the head, in his poem ‘The Uncultured Rhymer to his Cultured Critics’, and the fact that Lawson remains such an iconic figure in Australian literature makes it impossible for me to resist the delicious irony of quoting him as a metaphorical raspberry directed at the Weekend Australian’s book pages:

‘I must read this, and that, and the rest,’
And write as the cult expects me? -
I’ll read the book that please me best,
And write as my heart directs me!...

I’ve never made any claims for my poems, other than for their honesty, but recognise the immediately warm audience response they receive when read aloud as an emotional and cultural resonance with a wide cross-section of Australians. And - whatever its critical value - my writing occurs as a result of creative doubt, rather than singular self-confidence; which, in turn, would suggest an engagement more favourable to the potentially humanising possibilities of a genuine literary mainstream than the self-fulfilling expectations of cloistered connoisseurs.

In my view, poetry begins with a conversation with the imagination of anyone prepared to listen, and its essence is more akin to dreaming than thinking. I’ve never much cared for the arithmetical connotations of metrical structure, and seldom count syllables as a means of finding cadence. A possibly unique quality of the English language is an inherent structural beauty that tends to find its own compass. In other words, just as a passage of prose that looks and sounds grammatically correct will, more often than not, actually be so, a few lines of poetry achieving a pleasingly visual and aural balance will most likely also possess poetic rhythm.

I honestly believe that a widely perceptive engagement with literature can enhance emotional empathy in a world awash with fundamentalist hatred and weapons of war, and a fair-minded debate about poetry today could be helpful; although - as I have discovered to my cost - an attempt to demonstrate the proposition can risk being unfairly clobbered by a preciously entrenched literati; which makes me seriously doubt that much will change. Wherefore your petitioner will humbly pray...

Ian McFarlane’s latest book - The Shapes of Light – rediscovering poetry in a post-poetic age - is published by Ginninderra Press. Despite suffering the frequently misconstrued affliction of clinical depression for much of his life, Ian has always been a passionate advocate for social justice and this has influenced his writing. He lives with his wife, Mary, near Bermagui, on the far south coast of NSW.


Lines Continue Forever. John Egan. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

John Egan was born in 1924. Apart from being a poet, he has taught English for Academic Purposes at Sydney’s Uniworld College. In addition to Lines Continue Forever, he has a Pocket Poets chapbook out with Ginninderra Press titled Reworkings. Egan has also published a number of individual poems in Australian journals and anthologies. Some of these appear in Lines Continue Forever.

The title of the collection appears as a line in the poem ‘One White Cross’. Here, Egan meditates on the death of a woman he once knew and death in general:

Draw a line from the trees
towards one, white, defiant cross
which intersects your grave
and then it stops,
as your life stopped.

Egan makes a good observation here with the parallel he draws with the line stopping and the woman’s life stopping. This observation takes thought and Egan is good at thinking logically in his poetry (‘Every Train’):

Every train’s an uncertainty,
departing here from the present
to a destination
that could be sweet
or could be sour as hurt
or disappointment,
somewhere as huge
as the future
or as tiny as yesterday.

This poem displays succinctness and brevity. It also displays control over form. The last line also has an apt simile.

In ‘Delphi’, Egan proffers another good one:

The priestess plunges down
through creation’s mind and myth
to where the belly of the earth
still sings to us in oracles
that riddle our lives like truth.

In this last line, we have the deft melding of two ideas. The simile here is more abstract. Egan goes into abstracts about two sisters in another poem (‘Here to far’):

a ball of ribbon thrown
each to each in time
to all that cascades in the wind
like a cat, like love, like a poem
unfolding in their arms.

The penultimate line is interesting. Egan’s more abstract thoughts are very inventive. This poem and others are better for it.

Egan has a voice that is worldly, a voice that displays good general knowledge and precision of detail. Lines Continue Forever is consistent, intelligent and quietly assured.

Diehards in Adelaide - August 2014
by Brenda Eldridge

There was such an outcry
When the budget came down
A protest march was organised
And surprisingly well attended
I thought ‘Revolution at last’

The political wrangles continued
Another march was set
Fewer people attended
And I wondered if the comfortable
Old apathy was still alive and well

The political system seems to be working
Some proposals won’t be passed
There were even fewer at the next march
But the spirit and passion of the speeches
Was more gut-wrenching and thought-provoking

The old man saying
‘We didn’t create our country for this’
The fifteen-year-old migrant crying out for help
For his lost friends snatched from school
And put in a detention centre - future unknown

The man who asked us
‘What values are our government
And are we teaching our children?’
Yes, we were diehards marching
But it was better than watching the footy

Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call. Melinda Smith. Pitt Street Poetry.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Before Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call came out in 2013, Canberra poet Melinda Smith published three books of poetry with Ginninderra Press - Pushing thirty, wearing seventeen (2001), Mapless in Underland (2004) and First... Then... (2012).

Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call is varied in terms of content. There is the dichotomy between the comic and the serious. Smith does both well. Take one of her witty, twitter poems (‘bittertweet’):

your mistress/tells her friends/about your enormous/
bank account/I tell mine/about your tiny/

This poem is subtle. It also has succinctness and brevity, as does her more serious poem about poetry’s cafe culture (‘What am I?’):

A long rolling roomful of frost-brightened faces,
or strangers to sweat with at forty degrees;
a bubbling babble of crossed conversations;
a crowd to get lost in and be at your ease;
a lumbering oblong of light in the darkness;
a half-hour of freedom to do as you please.

This poem is realistic and is also notable for its technical competence - both in terms of composition within and at the end of lines.

Smith’s free verse poetry is also technically competent (‘BabyHowl’):

I saw my mind denied re-generation
frayed by madness
sleep-starving, hysterical, stonkered
dragging my body out to the shed at dawn looking for an hour’s kip

Here, Smith is deft with her parodying of the start of the classic Ginsberg poem ‘Howl’. There is also the originality of word use in ‘stonkered’.

Other poems in the collection are original in other ways (‘Confess’):

When push comes to shove
Tell the one you love
Tell whoever’s in control
I promise not to tell a soul

This poem creates an eerie or spooky atmosphere. Again, it is original. There is not enough poetry like this.

Other, formal poems by Smith are also different, for other reasons (‘A conga-line of servants’):

(Homage to Les Murray’s ‘Comete’)

It’s the Departmental Event today:
even the mail-room have washed their hair.
Into the hall they stumble, or sway;
the Minister’s wishing they’d omitted her.
She gives them a speech with a fired-up title
(cursing her choice of a large-patterned dress)
- she can tell that the dolts are not listening at all
except when she mentions some Cabinet largesse.
Team-building, a ‘cultural performance’, then out.
What a slovenly rabble. Ashamed to be seen
she lingers, appalled at the wealth of detail
in which she can hear them forgetting about
all she said. Time to split. At her back shines the sun.

In examining the poem’s form, the reader would find the poem has an octave reminiscent of a sonnet. However, the poem lacks a sestet after it. Instead, Smith proffers a five-line stanza. This is Smith in a nutshell. She is original. It seems that after four books, Smith is yet to be regimented. This is a good thing. Her style of writing poetry is a blessing. Her originality and her sense of humour make for a pleasurable reading experience.

The Sun Behind the Sun. Adrian Rogers. Ginninderra Press
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Adrian Rogers was born in England in 1940. He became an Australian citizen in 1989. In addition to being a poet, he is well known as a writer of fantasy novels. The Sun Behind the Sun (his first collection of poetry published by Ginninderra Press) has concerns like those of a novel - journeys, the nature of time, the four seasons as well as what is real and what is illusory. These concerns give the collection a focus (‘The train - high summer tyranny’):

February midday
over forty
is a scorching flail
metal on metal’s
slide and hiss
is a train rolling in.

This poem captures something of the nature of time. Rogers makes a good point in that we have to endure lengths of time sometimes.

Rogers also writes in an effective stream of consciousness fashion, derived from the deep subconscious (‘Between and beyond times’):

Between two waves
eternity is
the measureless moment
a gap between breaths
a silence of awe
a motionless wait
and immeasurably
the dying fall
of a foam flecked
curl-topped transitory hill
through a cosmic cyclical

Here, Rogers is surfing in the right area - the best poetry comes from deep in the subconscious. His poetry comes from abstract thoughts derived from this area (‘Reflections on time - 2’):

Flesh is
though diminished
still flesh until sublimated
by spiritually cathartic realisation,
a passion of waiting
on balanced returns
evolving subliminally
into sublimely
androgynous maturity

Rogers thinks in verse and does it brilliantly. There is so much prose meaning in the collection.

In addition to the multitude of ideas in The Sun Behind the Sun, there is cleverness (‘Perception of an echo’):

Smother-scatter waves
break into evening
on a breeze soft-spoken,
a subtly elemental
living resonance
echoing bird songs
the infinitesimal interval
of the echo perceived
in passing, leaving
like white foam in its wake
all things renounced,
recollection and release.

The simile here is particularly deft. Rogers links it back to the previous subject matter of the poem and renews its imagery in an alliterative way. This is good. As are the other nuggets of gold to be found in The Sun Behind the Sun (‘Illusions observed from a moving train’):

is larger than life
and darkness
the belief enhancer
that nothing is
as it is.

Again, Rogers proffers good poetry with good ideas.

The novelist in Rogers is prevalent in his poetry. His poetry has the consistency of a good novel and is primarily concerned with ideas - ideas that the reader will find stimulating, interesting and different.

In the Breathing Space. Pam Morris. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Pam Morris dedicates In the Breathing Space to her family (then and now). There is a sense of the past, the present and a consciousness of people in this dedication. The reader would also get a sense of these things in the collection. There is also a sense of self in the mature female poet at the helm. She was (and still is) practical. This was apparent when she helped make apple tarts in Essex in 1952 (‘Apple Day’):

Two pans for the tarts, each small cavity
greased with a brush, the dough dropped softly in,
the fragrant apples sacrificed. Each tart firmed at the edge
and given to the oven’s dark heat.

Here, Morris deftly grounds her poetry in particularity. She has her wits about her. Her descriptive powers are good (‘Old Bara’):

Today we heard men calling in the distance
and saw black steers run down the slopes, coming
and going among the rocks until they slowed
at the causeway to stream across, the men and dogs
following, their whistles and cries clustering after
and disappearing with the running herd.

Morris achieves a level of metaphoric density with her poetry, although the technical aspects of her craft are not overdone. In other words, she writes quite naturally (‘The Shape of it’):

You hadn’t come before, it was
usually by train, but this time
we drove, Bondi to Nyngan,
overnight in Orange. Strange
how everyone waited after dinner
for the evening news, the solemn
announcement about being at war.

The details of the places here (Bondi, Nyngan, Orange) would be mere scaffolding to many poets. But Morris uses alliteration and consonance to good effect in the fourth line of this stanza.

She has a good aesthetic and a certain sageness when it comes to relationships (‘Speaking of Love’):

On the drive back the old car seized
and you went for water, troubled

that you had to walk away. I watched
your figure disappear, then come back.
Closer I could see your clothes, your hair,

your smile. And so it was. That way
ever since: coming, knowing, going.

Morris’s poems are insightful about relationships of all kinds - not just her lovers and immediate family but others (such as those who work for her) and animals (such as cats). She treats the people and animals she interacts with well. When she makes light of people it is good humour. For example, in ‘Once in the city’, Morris gives a brief description of a white-plumed honeyeater. She then notices a man in an art gallery with similar traits to the honeyeater:

Grey hair, rose cheeks, blue beanie, a taste
for honey. Loves the particular eye,
the pulsing plume, the sudden flight. Scattered,
endangered. Rare.

The ending to this poem is very witty.

Morris has a sense of fun in In the Breathing Space, but the most rewarding aspect of the collection is her voice. It is benevolent, has a sageness and abounds in practical and emotional intelligence. In these poems, the reader gleans the wisdom of Morris’s years as well as her dignity and integrity.

Moving with the Times. Cynthia Hallam. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Cynthia Hallam grew up in Lismore in the Northern Rivers district of New South Wales. Her poems, short stories and articles have appeared in magazines and anthologies. Moving with the Times is her fifth book of poetry with Ginninderra Press.

As a whole, the collection is mostly image-based where its author is normally observational (‘Play’):

I see the new kids’ playground has opened,
an icon of politically correct caution
and clever psychological planning.
All stimulating red, yellow and cobalt blue.
A climbing frame with non-slip rungs
and reinforced static webbing.
Swings with seat belts firmly anchored.
Bubblers to facilitate hydration.

Hallam’s images speak for themselves. She knows how not to say too much. For instance, when she ushers a butterfly outside (‘The Visitor’):

Released onto a camellia bush
it pauses,
uncertain where to go
until an opportunistic magpie
swoops from above.
Directs it to its stomach.

Hallam has an eye for interesting people, animals, situations and events. She goes to various places and observes (‘Saturday on Main’):

The baristas are brewing at full steam.
Friends crowding an outside table sip lattes,
butter banana bread while a Labrador
wolfs chips and gravy from the takeaway.

Hallam observes a lot of people in her poetry and rarely devalues them. She also values humour (‘Whatever’):

At the end of the day,
whether jumping on line,
surfing the net,
blogging, plating up
or whatever floats your boat
it sounds like a plan
so nail it.
Like, it’s all good.
A game changer.

Here, Hallam is suitably playful with language. Just as this poem has some good technical aspects to it (such as assonance and alliteration), the forms that Hallam dalliances with in Moving with the Times are also technically sound (‘Volcano’):

With stinging eyes I reach your crumbling lip,
view your lifeblood simmering below,
my heart is pumping, fearful I might slip,
that magma will explode and start to flow.
I pull away triumphant, wiser-headed,
but your dormant threat no less dreaded.

This is the sestet of the sonnet in the collection. The consonance of the last line is technically deft.

In Moving with the Times, Hallam proffers a variety of forms - including a pantoum (indeed, a rhyming one) and a ghazal, as well as some bush verse (with nice long lines). She also displays control and mastery over her imagist poetry. All this smacks of a poet who knows what she is doing.

Painted Souls. Barbara Olds. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Barbara Olds grew up in California. She moved from the United States to Canberra in 1992 to join her Australian husband. Her first book of poems, Boundary Rider, was published in 2003 by Ginninderra Press. Painted Souls, her second collection, was published this year. Olds has by no means rushed her second book. Painted Souls maintains a high standard. Although the poems are not compartmentalised, there is a deliberateness in the order of the poems. The poems are of a mind that is intelligent (‘South China Sea’):

lights, in twos and threes,
perhaps boats or buoys
or islands unknown

beyond them
dimmer lights,
mere pinpricks,
I imagine to be the shore

There is thinking in verse here, as Olds fills in the gaps of her knowledge.

In ‘Parisian Tapestry’, Olds already has knowledge of Paris from art, but goes to the city to experience Paris for herself. She ends the poem well:

Now my Paris
is woven from the romance of the past
the sights and sounds of the city
and the realities of
joy and sorrow
wonder and fear
light and shadow.

The abstracts that Olds uses in the last three lines are apt. The ending has the proper resolution needed for a longer poem. Other endings in Painted Souls are more succinct (‘Predator’):

Within the killer’s clawed grasp
the heart, no longer beating,
the carcass lying still
bloodied sands drying
beneath the burning sun
and the hawk
soaring high,

Here, Olds uses an appropriate one word summation in the last line. There is an art to this, as is being humorous in verse (‘Stevie Whittaker’):

I loved Stevie Whittaker
He was an older man,
his first grade to my kindy.

There is a charm about this poem, where two young kids of the opposite sex get on well. It evokes a certain innocence. There are various technical subtleties to this poem and others in the collection (‘Nympheas’):

What was I?
fourteen, perhaps,
when I saw my first
Monet - water lilies -
adorning the chimney breast
of a friend’s home.
Love at first sight.

If the line ‘Love at first sight’ is examined more closely, there is consonance between the last three words. This makes it both poetic and technically quite deft. And like this line, Painted Souls rewards closer inspection.

The Shapes of Light. Ian McFarlane. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Ian McFarlane was born in England in 1937. He arrived in Australia at the age of sixteen. He worked as cipher clerk in the Defence Signals Division and in Australia’s Diplomatic Service, with postings to Tel Aviv, Hong Kong and Canberra, before taking up writing full time. He is the author of three well-received novels and has won awards for fiction and non-fiction, including a prize for book reviewing. He was contributing editor of Voice for ten years, and has a lifelong love of cricket, classical music and lyric poetry.

In his preface to The Shapes of Light (his latest collection of poetry), McFarlane argues that poetry generally has humanity. His own poetry has this in abundance. He also argues that poetry should have clarity. His own poems are clear but have challenging subject matter. McFarlane also has a technical competence. He cites Tennyson and Shaw Neilson as influences.

McFarlane’s own poetry is also earnest (without being dry) and current. He achieves a certain verbal music with his formal verse (‘Imagination’):

There is no shape, no closing wall,
no boundary fence to ride.
Its kingdom is that other world
where Gods are said to stride.

This is the poem’s first quatrain. In its fourth line are the words ‘said’ and ‘stride’. The consonance created by these two words is an example of McFarlane’s technical nous. In this poem, he is conscious of what is happening within this line as well as the end of it. Such technical assurance extends to his free-verse (‘Some Sunday Afternoons’):

The whisky bottle is empty;
your wife is doing the ironing, and definitely
NOT thinking what you’re thinking,
and you’ve just remembered
that tomorrow is Monday -
when the whole damn charade begins again.

This poem utilises assonance, alliteration and repetition. McFarlane utilises these devices to deftly express a certain dissatisfaction with his lot.

McFarlane also suffers from depression. His black dog is written about wonderfully (‘On being weary’):

I’m weary of being part of a common perception
that this is something I should be able to shake off
by simply choosing to do so.

‘On being weary’ lists complaints about McFarlane’s depressive illness. The complaints are captured in poetic language. Above all, they are insightful.

McFarlane’s poems about his political affiliations are also insightful (‘The Sentimental Socialist’):

My left leaning stance has always been emotional
rather than intellectual, since my head
follows pacifism, but my heart the revolution.
But I’m damned if I’ll be patronised
by some right-wing bastard
who thinks everything begins and ends
with economic theory, and money
always constitutes the bottom line.

Here, McFarlane presents a very convincing argument on his convictions. He even offers an opinion about various social groups that exist at the moment (‘The Philistines’):

They’re impervious to reason or example;
try telling them they’re wrong; that the way
they do things is not how civilisation works
and they’ll tell you to piss off; accuse you
of being a Chardonnay socialist, a bleeding heart
or part of some intellectual elite
that wouldn’t know its arse from its elbow.
These people are untouchable. They rule the world.

This last line would be funny if it were not true.

What is also true is that McFarlane, as a poet, should be better known. As a poet, he practises what he preaches. The book’s preface is useful for its ideas, which go from theory into practice. McFarlane’s poems have point, but also a good aesthetic. They have integrity and character. Hopefully, The Shapes of Light will go some way towards redressing the neglect of his poetry.

Early Frosts. Janette Dadd. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Early Frosts is Janette Dadd’s second book of poetry published by Ginninderra Press. She is brave enough to confront some intense emotional experiences in her poetry. She is also interested in Eastern philosophy, culture and religion. There are a number of poems which evince this interest, such as the sequence of haiku titled ‘My Geisha’:

My Geisha laughing
revealing flawed logic
Silly man, she says.

In her writing about Eastern philosophy, culture and religion, there is the sense of Dadd being refreshingly different. Writing fourteen haiku while keeping up the standard is tough, but she handles it well.

Dadd also writes about relationships well. In one poem, she explains about how a man has come into her life - after guarding against this. Dadd goes into abstracts to describe it all (‘Hate That’):

Your Arctic world
has been explored,
your ice shelter thawed
and when the explorer is gone
you’ll have to build that igloo all over again.

This is a deft analogy to describe what is going on. It is original.

Dadd shows originality in other ways, such as subject matter (‘The Land With No Birds’):

Unexpectedly blown off course I arrive.
He tells me, this is the land of no birds.
What a strange place to find myself.

Here, Dadd’s imagination is on full display. Both the idea and the execution of the poem are outstanding.

What is also outstanding about Early Frosts, as a whole, is its spirit. Dadd describes herself in a prose poem as being middle-aged but young at heart (‘Mutton Thighs’):

A mutton-thighed Friday-night fucker - drink a little booze, smoke a little pot - it’s ok at the end of all the thought and striving to be totally out of fashion.

There is a sense of fun about this poem and indeed others in Early Frosts. But Dadd’s tone changes when she writes about her son, Levi, who committed suicide in 2006 (‘Love Not Enough’):

Love is not enough to hold you
but how can I say goodbye?

This poem is moving, as are others in the collection. Some of the best poems are a celebration of Levi’s life, having a good time and individuality. Early Frosts honours a life, has a sense of fun and dares to be different.

Rummy. Laurie Brady. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Rummy is the fifth book of poetry by Laurie Brady. Until recently, he was an academic at The University of Technology, Sydney, and Rummy has a strong intellectual presence.
The poems in the collection are meditative, each one a logical progression of ideas.

Brady thinks in verse (‘Sloth’):

just as action is sustained
by its adrenalin,
inertia feeds itself.

Some of the poems are particularly abstract (‘Wisdom’):

is it just that wisdom’s ally
is rapture’s nemesis.

If these ideas are understood figuratively, then they scan. Brady challenges the reader to think in this way. Brady is a thinker but above all he is a poet. Part of his repertoire is an imagist bent (‘Happiness’):

a dipping sun of roasted orange
runs towards me like a ribbon
on the metal stillness of the lake.

Here and elsewhere, Brady recreates the familiar well.

Brady is also a social poet and writes about those familiar to him (‘Death’s Intimacy’):

yet again
the innocence of sleep disarms
as i observe the chasteness
of your face
ensconced in pillow white,
and feeling spills in tears.

Brady writes with passion in a number of poems. He also writes in a stylistically bohemian way (‘What If’):

we hug,
a mandate of the missing years,
and counting back the time,
retreat to early repartee to feel at ease,
yet furtive sentiment
is stalking us like ghostly shadows
in the winter sun
as twenty years of potted lives are swapped,
the devil in the detail
that divides lives lived apart.

Here and in the rest of the book, Brady uses lots of long, drawn-out sentences and generally sets out his poems in free verse clumps. This writing style suits the logical progression of ideas that are at the heart of his poetry. Each poem not only has substantial prose meaning but has the emotional intelligence to match. Emotional and general intelligence are in high abundance in Rummy. It makes for an outstanding book.

Endlessly Passing. Angela Johnson. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Endlessly Passing is Angela Johnson’s third book with Ginninderra Press. She has a visual arts background, which brings with it a propensity for striking imagery (‘Walk to the Point’):

The ocean roars, manic
over wind and tide
twists and clutches at the cliff

while down in Pittwater, two yachts
are slashes of white
erect before the wind.

Johnson has an artist’s eye, as demonstrated by ‘slashes of white’. It brings a strong visual element to her writing. This is backed up by good word choice (‘A Distant Shimmer’):

The horizon is a shimmer
keeping its distance.

Corrugations rattled the truck
like a foxie with a rat.
Dust circumvented door seals
and seeped into our mouths.

Here, ‘circumvented’ is exactly the right word to use.

With her good endings, Johnson delivers her final words in each poem well (‘The Gardener’):

He stooped to the protective leaves,
stirred the earth with his fingers
revealed new furled blooms
bent on slender stems;

like his daughters as children
heads prayer-bowed for braiding
their bodies leaning in, the trust given.

This is a neat ending that ties everything together. Here, Johnson invents characters in a conceptualised scenario. It is good to do this - poets can write about themselves too much.
In this spirit, a child is the focus in ‘African-born’:

Soon you will lie
in a row of mummies.

Your legacy;
A face beamed around the world.

Johnson shows admirable empathy here.

The last poem in the collection is more cheerful. The reader shares the joy of this poem (‘Milk’):

Today the sky is milk.
It pours over my garden
fills buckets to the brim.

I could run unclothed
bathe in its warmth
open my mouth

and drink my fill.

Instead, I return to my room
where light spills white on walls
slakes my thirst of days

so I can write these words.

Johnson finishes well with this poem, reinforcing her vocation as a poet. It is refreshing to have such a visual poet. But she has numerous other strings to her bow. Endlessly Passing is an accomplished collection.

On Wisdom’s Wings. Sarah Agnew. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

On Wisdom’s Wings is a very professional first book. It is immaculately categorised into five parts, each with subsections. The reader is conscious of the fact that it is a young woman writing. Sarah Agnew is something of a romantic, sometimes she gets quite depressed and she has an unwavering faith in Christ (‘A Psalm of Thanks’):

I will praise you God -
you lifted me up
away from the black dog that plagues me

This psalm is suitably liturgical. Agnew has a knack for coming up with good religious poetry. It all seems very natural. Her poetry on secular topics is also very natural (‘Death of a shoelace’):

I string another lace
into place.
New, white,
clean, bright.
Life goes on.
Even after the death
of a shoelace.

Here, Agnew shows originality in subject matter. She also displays technical verve later in the collection (‘So long Shakespeare’):

so long as
people dance and seek romance
under the darling buds of May, and wish
for time to hold each moment, stay each kiss
as for Romeos and Juliets,
for shepherds and fairies, kings and their queens,
on pages and stages and movie screens -
so long as hearts can love and souls can bleed,
we will tell your works, and thus give life to thee.

The poem has rhyming lines that make it aesthetically original. The sentiment in the poem is apt. Indeed, Agnew is good with ideas (‘The black dog’):

The black dog sniffs, twitches its nose,
and one paw, then two, flex the toes.
As the torso rises then falls, rises, falls,
the head turns, ears on the ball,
eyes open, back arched. The dog stands
steady, focused and ready - for the next stab
at you.

The usage of ‘the black dog’ as a metaphor for depression rings true, as does the last poem in the collection (‘what the butterflies taught me about life’):

fragile, beautiful,
fleeting - but to have held it -
ah, that is the gift

This haiku is outstanding. It is technically deft, has succinctness and brevity and it sums up the subject matter of previous poems in the collection so well.

Another thing Agnew does well is liken writing poetry to flying. Agnew flies well in On Wisdom’s Wings. With her final poem, she makes sure she lands on her feet.

Palace of Dreams: Selected Poems 1973-2012. Peter Strawhan. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Palace of Dreams outlines Peter Strawhan’s development as a poet. It proffers his work as a street-smart observer of himself, his family and wider Australian life.

In ‘Bird in the Park’, Strawhan notices an attractive woman walking through a park making strange noises:

Head thrown back mouth wide
And open she ululated her wild call to nature
With another series of barking shrieks
Somehow crossed through the midday
Maelstrom of Elizabeth Street
Without pausing and disappeared
Still briefly calling as she went
We may have been the only ones who noticed

Here, Strawhan lets the strange and comical nature of the woman speak for itself until the wit at the end. He also displays descriptive nous in describing the woman.

In ‘Queensland Journey’, Strawhan displays similar nous when his subject matter is dour:

The corpses litter the roadway
For a thousand miles or more
Lying with obscene abandon
Their bloated guts fine pickings
For the black-suited undertaker crows

Strawhan is deft in his usage of personification to describe the crows. His descriptions of the carcasses of kangaroos, wallabies and a pig are also adept.

If ‘Queensland Journey’ is about death, ‘On Marriage’ is about Strawhan feeling close to it:

You drain me
Suck the life force
From me
Now only the shell
Bitter remnant remains

Strawhan is honest about his feelings here. He also speaks his mind about Australia (‘Smart-arse Society’):

It occurs to me
That we will never be
The clever country
While we remain
The smart arse society
Singleton Murdoch Packer et al.
Have seen to that

Strawhan also has a sense of fun (‘TT Race’):

Two men with their machines
Pitted against the mountain course
Protagonists Mike and Alex
The bets are on
Grunt and heave patter of feet
They roar away screaming fours

The reader goes on an exhilarating journey with these two men. The reader also goes on a journey with Strawhan from youthful adventures (such as the TT race) to work, travel, marriage and raising children. Strawhan has captured it all in poetry that is honest, has a larrikin quality and above all has something to say.

Walking the Black Dog. Elizabeth Lane. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Walking the Black Dog is a candid book of poetry about Elizabeth Lane’s four-year struggle with bipolar disorder. As The Australian Drug Guide explains, in bipolar disorder a mood stabiliser can be taken both to treat and prevent episodes of sustained mood swing, either up (mania) or down (depression). During mania a person is liable to bring ruin on their personal relationships, finances and job in a spree which lasts for weeks followed by a deep depression that often continues for months. Lane mostly writes about the depressive side of the illness.

Lane writes a number of poems about the illness that act as extended metaphors, such as ‘Slipping’:

I start to run
I am galloping
gaining speed.
But then I lose control
I am hurtling along
everything is a blur.
I stumble
lying flat on my face.

Lane writes about running and falling but the poem also works on another level. When she is running, this is like experiencing mania. Then something happens (falling) during mania that brings her down into depression (lying flat). All this is very clever. But while Lane can be self-referential, she also writes poems that are detached from the self (‘Vincent’):

Your inner suffering
called to you
and urged you
to cut off your own ear
and make your pain visible.

A danger of having a mental illness is that you become too self-centred. Lane is not in her poetry - she pens a number of well-written portraits of Vincent Van Gogh and others. As well as writing about her heroes, she can conceptualise (‘The actor’s disappearance’):

A bad review
that’s all it took.
After failed attempt
at suicide
he fled
- on a boat.
Through sea spray
and thick grey fog
atmosphere mirroring
his mood.

Conceptualising a scenario requires creativity and imagination. Lane certainly has this. She also has a propensity for finding and writing about the poignant situation. Certain things also have a poignancy for Lane (‘Weed’):

You are not conventionally beautiful
Your form and structure not as appealing
In comparison to the grace of those around you
You are ordinary, plain and overlooked
But you will outlast the glamour of their bloom
You will not wilt and fade against the elements
You will continue to grow and adapt to your environment
Long after their beauty withers.

This is a microcosm of having an unfashionable viewpoint. To have an unfashionable viewpoint requires courage and conviction, even on this scale. Lane has these qualities. She also has a good aesthetic (‘Irritation’):

You constant annoyance
niggling, nagging
You continual nuisance
poking, prodding

Here, Lane utilises repetition, rhyme, assonance and alliteration. She does this in an abstract way, thus the poem is technically original.

Irritability is also a symptom of mania. Lane has experienced this. She has bipolar disorder. She also has her poems. They prove worthy and enlightening companions to the reader.

Glimpses. Margaret Reichardt. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Glimpses is varied in tone, form and subject matter. Margaret Reichardt has organised the subject matter of the book into thirteen sections, which group together alike poems. The alike poems are all ‘glimpses’ of people, animals or things.

The last ‘glimpse’ in the fourth section of the book is ‘On Being There’. It is about a nativity play.

The goat is trying to eat the wiring again,
Having already tried the baby’s fingers, the calf’s tail,
A dusty shrub, and the shepherd’s loose sleeve.
Then out of boredom, she decides to butt the dog,
Whose alarmed yelp rises easily above the grumble of the camels.

Goats can be funny animals and this one is no different. In addition to the humour, the poem displays considerable descriptive nous. This is also apparent elsewhere in the collection. The third section of ‘After the fire 1983’ describes a bus journey that goes where a fire has been:

It staggers on in the hot afternoon,
boils down the gully along the scorched black road,
past the skeletons that were scrub,
dead heaps of sheep still to burn,
stumps still to smoulder.
The bus jars out another passenger
left bereft on hot baked gravel.

The reader, having finished the poem, also experiences something of the fire. This is very clever.

Reichardt is clever in other ways also (‘The Spring Wind’):

Maybe the wind is desperate for a friend,
It tugs at my coat
removes my
rolls it away...

Here, Reichardt’s usage of indentation and personification is deft. Both are underutilised in poetry.

Reichardt utilises an abstract rhyme scheme in Glimpses (‘Conversation with my cat’):

I said to my cat as he lay on his back,
‘Why are you always whingeing?
What do you lack?’
It can’t be asparagus, you ate it for tea -
You’re just greedy it seems to me.

The abstract rhyme scheme proffered here is original. The poet also displays a sense of fun.

Reichardt also has imagination on show (‘Brown River’):

I dream of a river of chocolate
gently swirling, deep and dark,
set with ginger stepping stones
in the landscape of a park.

Reichardt offers escape from the real with this poem.

Some of Reichardt’s more adventurous poems are in the tradition of Spike Milligan or Lewis Carroll. Other poems have a more conventional, reflective voice. However Reichardt chooses to use her voice, it is outstanding. She has the most placid, gentle, humble voice. It is down to earth. It is one aspect, among many, which makes Glimpses such a likeable collection.

Days of Azure. Jane Vaughan Donnelly. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Days of Azure is Jane Vaughan Donnelly’s first book of poetry. A number of poems in the book were first published in Studio. The poems are generally substantial (with meaty stanzas and often more than one page long), they have clarity and they are varied in subject matter (travel and childhood are common themes). A number of them are not only poems but acts of remembering. ‘Thank you, Ludwig’, for example, recalls Donnelly’s childhood in the forties when she and her fellow siblings jumped around the family home listening to Beethoven.

Small chubby bodies bounced on beds, bounded On rebounding wooden floors, hurtled Along the veranda, jigged, turned somersaults, Leaped clod-hopping in circles, spun In a ring around the kitchen, till the cat Sprang squalling out of the firewood box, and fled.

Donnelly has a gift for remembering things vividly. She also has technical gifts (‘Country Schools’):

The yard was huge. Space for cricket, space for vegie gardens, Tracts of untouched bushland - so we had Visits from the occasional kangaroo, resident possums, The odd snake lurking on the step, goannas, And a blue-tongue lizard lounging under the tankstand.

Donnelly uses alliteration, repetition and consonance to good effect here.

Her style is very natural. She has just the right amount of adjectives and technical fireworks in her poetry, and she writes with intelligence (‘Last Things’):

For the red death of war Comes with clangour of iron fanfares And the black death of pestilence With wailing and lamentation But the white death at the world’s end Steals silently, stopping the breath And words cease.

Here, Donnelly shows complexity in her ideas. Sometimes, she sensibly lets the subject matter take over, though. For example, there is the case of the ex-soldier who every night is taken back to the battlefields of the Somme in his dreams. At the Somme he was ordered to look for the dead - each of whom he identified. He relives this process in his civilian life (‘Minus One’):

Rocking himself, snail trails of tears Sliding down his silver stubble, he asks, every day The same question, But why, why Do I always think it’s my fault?

This poem is moving - the reader can quite easily empathise with the man. Here, Donnelly is writing about something that matters.

Donnelly finishes off the book with a poem about the dawn celebration on 1 January 2000 in Sydney Harbour. It utilises eloquent language, as in this last stanza (‘Shakuhachi, Didgeridoo’):

Shakuhachi, didgeridoo And a child’s pure voice From a mighty building, by the gardens, On a headland, in a harbour The song soars round the world To people in all nations and all climes. Saying with joy, we are all One people, and our world is one, and beautiful. So let us cherish each other and the world As the music rises in benediction And the light Shines.

This is a unifying way to finish the book, which is a fine debut.

Caged Without Walls. Anthony J. Langford. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Caged Without Walls is different. What we have is a poet who is less concerned with metaphoric density and more concerned with prose meaning. What is missing from Anthony Langford’s poems is the concentrated language that most poets utilise. Making statements about his subject matter seems to be his primary concern.

He writes in a conversational style that is simple, direct and ultimately effective (‘Hinged on sex’):

There’s nothing quite so disturbing As waking up To a place You do not recognise.

When Langford makes his points, he can be really candid, as in ‘Addiction’:

The separation Like having veins removed Peeling threads From your entire body The worst kind of lover Can’t live with it Can’t live without it.

While Langford writes in his usual conversational style in this poem, he is a good enough poet to mix things up. He notices the people and nature around him in ‘Musings in an inner city park after a hospital visit’:

A heron glides by Two sweaty men jog past Capitalising on a late lunchbreak Talking about football.

Point is introduced later as Langford fills his poem with imagery. Here, he writes an Imagist poem and the collection is better for it. The collection is also better for a narrative element within it. In ‘Her teenage universe’ a fourteen-year-old girl gets a boyfriend. She loses her friends and ultimately him:

And when her day Finally came There was no concern In his eyes As he walked away.

In this poem, Langford demonstrates he can move the reader. In ‘Preferences’, he also demonstrates a sense of fun:

Give me a flash Ferrari Or a donkey with dermatitis Give me beer-swilling yobbos And flutes of champagne

It is adventurous poems like ‘Preferences’ that make Caged Without Walls so readable. The collection is also worth reading because of Langford’s enigmatic nature but, most of all, because he tells it like it is.

When the Light is Right. Shirley Ireland. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

When the Light is Right is divided into five sections. The first, ‘Even a Sparrow’, deals with rural life. The second, ‘It’s not Cricket’, deals with human interaction. The third, ‘Droughtbreaker’, deals with the harshness of life on the land. The penultimate section, ‘Picking Stemless Blooms’, deals with family life. The final section, ‘Eden’s Gate’, has a number of meditations on Christian faith.

Faith is an important term to keep in mind when considering this collection (‘Passover Moon’):

The fiery moon that lit the night of the Last Supper rises in my rear view mirror.

In this poem and others, Ireland exhibits a devout but not overbearing Christian faith. She has lived in the South Australian Mallee as well as the Riverland district (‘Why I Live Where I Live’):

I love the roar of the sea, the sweep of rich green valleys. I could be lured to city lights but I live here in the Mallee.

There is a sense of place about When the Light is Right. The poetry is both distinctive and educative. The subject matter is captured in a pure voice. After being pessimistic about how she could contribute to the CWA, Ireland writes in ‘Lament’:

When handing out domestic gifts God shut the door in my face - I exaggerate a little but I think I know my place.

I regard them all with great respect The Country Women’s Association and pray that these domestic sins won’t send me to damnation!

Here Ireland displays humour, modesty and character. But while she can be humorous, Ireland also has the ability to move the reader. For example, ‘For Laura’ gives an account of a young girl who died not long after her third birthday:

Late at night, turning pages of the year, Word sketches take form, scroll across my mind. I pause to smile. Amongst the lines I find You peeping out, your laughing face so dear. Glimpse little hands - stirring cake, chocolate smeared, picking stemless blooms - reaching out for mine.
The reader cannot help but be touched by this sonnet.

‘For Laura’ is one example of the formal verse found in When the Light is Right. Ireland has the boldness to attempt certain forms (‘Sheepyard Blues’):

Behind the success of many a man a good and stalwart woman may stand with tenacity, patience and grit. They stand in the town, they stand in the city but in the country, Lord have pity they stand in the mire and - that’s it!

Ireland maintains an AABCCB rhyme scheme for seven stanzas - including this final one. She does it with ease. Nothing seems forced or cumbersome. It ends up being funny and charming. Ireland’s humorous poems balance her more serious ones. All of them contribute to a collection with purity of voice, charm and emotional intelligence. It is these qualities that make When the Light is Right so endearing.

Extravagance. Irene Wilkie. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

Extravagance is the second collection of poems by Irene Wilkie, who has been widely published in Australia.

One of the best poems in the collection is ‘Flotilla’. Here, jellyfish, ‘drift / with fluorescent certainty /afloat /domed and clustered / as they always are’. Wilkie deftly plays with assonance here. Also, the poem is devoid of punctuation. With very free verse and short line lengths, Wilkie allows the poem to breathe.

Another poem that breathes is ‘Cocoon’. It plays with language. Wilkie writes, ‘some / kind of spotted frog / bops in weeds’. The usage of the verb ‘bops’ is charming and adds a certain coolness to the poem.

The reader would get the sense, when reading Extravagance, that Wilkie is passionate about certain causes (‘Cosmos’):

I expect the mountain to melt, the sea to thirst, the incineration of sky. I walk sharp blades, my heart certain this earth cannot last.

Wilkie displays an admirable environmental conscience in this poem.

In other poems, Wilkie displays technical nous. In ‘Opera’, she describes music on a train. She ends with ‘heavy the heart / but what the hell / music is the thing / and the talk talk talk / talk talk talk / talk’. Here, Wilkie utilises alliteration and repetition to good effect. Indeed, the repetition she utilises to end the poem is original and surprises the reader.

In the sequence ‘The Mountain Has Many Faces’, Wilkie utilises the connotative power of words. In ‘3. Two worlds at once’, the poet is conscious of the fact that her immediate environment was once a beach. She writes, ‘We hear our blood / pulse arteries like a tide’. This simile, with its connotations of the ocean, is clever.

Judging by the development Wilkie’s second book has shown, it will be interesting to see what she writes next.

The Love Procession. Suzanne Edgar. Ginninderra Press.
Reviewed by Michael Byrne

The Love Procession is a collection of formal and free verse. There is something happening in almost every line in Suzanne Edgar’s free verse vignettes and in her formal verse, she displays a heightened sense of craft.

It is possible to describe Edgar as a New Formalist. New Formalism, or Neo-formalism, was a late-twentieth century development in world poetry that sought to draw fresh attention to traditional forms of verse in terms of metre, rhyme and stanzaic symmetry. New Formalism, of course, derives from Formalism. The tradition in Australia is most notably found in the bush ballads of ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson.

Some forms which Formalists and New Formalists work (or have worked) with are sonnets, villanelles, ballads and couplets. Edgar utilises all these forms in poetry that is honest (‘The Pact’):

Still you and I possess the love we found
when first we tasted lust which made it clear
we had to share one bed: we were spellbound,
the spell has kept its force through time and tears.
Many have tried to undermine our pact
and run away with you, or sometimes me,
thinking the cheated one would not react
with rage, revenge or even jealousy.

Here Edgar is admirably candid about her relationship. She also writes poetry that is detached from the self in subject matter. In this case, it is about the painter Vincent Van Gogh (‘Vincent’):

At his wits’ end, these were no help.
No wooden bed or towel on its nail,
nor all the stars in the starry night
could change his mind or would prevail
when he fired a pistol into his chest.

There is nothing as serious as a great artist taking his own life. But Edgar balances the serious with the more trivial (‘Song of the Crestfallen Pigeon’):

The pigeon on the outer ledge
believes he woos a dove
and cannot comprehend the glass
that keeps him from his love.
If only I could speak with him
of love’s elusive flame
I’d cure his sad obsession with
the bird he cannot claim.

Edgar can be touching about her subjects (‘Two Pianists’):

My husband plays the Rheinberg now:
some jazz and Jelly Roll
then the blues, a bit of soul,
that thing from Acker Bilk
I love, ‘Stranger on the Shore’.
It always melts my thighs
until I sigh, ‘Again. Encore!’
He has the hands. Undone,
and rising from my mother’s chair,
I bend to kiss his hair.

This is lovely sentiment. As is the poem about her Aunt’s funeral (‘A Burial’):

Trembling, I stood and read the lines,
hopeth all things...endureth all things...
for now we see through a glass, darkly ...
The day was dressed for a funeral
and closed with a whining gale.

The last two lines here convey a sense of atmosphere, which is just another string to Edgar’s bow. For her, everything in her aesthetic counts - such as the titles of the poems (she is good with these) or their metaphoric density (there is usually something happening in every line). Even the stanzaic nature of the majority of the poems is important.

The aesthetic is the most winning aspect of The Love Procession. For the artistry of her poems, Edgar should be read - especially those poems she dresses up formally for the reader to admire their beauty in a book.

Sundry notes on Capitalism
by Ian McFarlane

Frankly, I find it bizarre that freebooting capitalists
are frequently also God-fearing Christians,
since - apart from anything else -
I have little doubt (based on what I’ve heard)
that Christ today would be at least a socialist,
and possibly (God forbid!) a communist.
Capitalism has three fatal flaws that hardly
anyone bothers to notice, let alone consider:
firstly, it presumes that everyone wants to take part,
and penalises those who don’t (or can’t);
secondly, it claims that everyone can succeed,
which is nonsense, of course, since the system
wouldn’t work if all of us made vast amounts
of money. Capitalism requires a fall guy,
and every bean-counter knows that the best way
to make sure the rich stay rich
is to make sure the poor stay poor.
And thirdly, the essential function of capitalism -
making money from money - is ethically vacuous,
since it nourishes greed, celebrates self-interest,
and fosters aggression, division and war in a world
desperately in need of cooperation and community.

In Your Absence. Stephen McInerney. Indigo.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

In Your Absence was launched in 2002. Stephen McInerney was in his mid-twenties when the collection came out. It is assured for a first book.

McInerney can be loosely defined as a New Formalist. New Formalism, or neo-Formalism, was a late-twentieth century development in world poetry that sought to draw fresh attention to traditional forms of verse in terms of metre, rhyme and stanzaic symmetry. Some forms New Formalists work with are sonnets, villanelles, ballads and couplets.

To be a decent New Formalist requires a sense of craft. McInerney certainly has this and it also extends to his free verse poetry. Take 'Police Nightshift at the Gap' (the Gap being a popular Sydney spot for suicides). McInerney describes two policemen in a car on a quiet night, one searching for 'something' on the car radio:

any music, any news, any
talkback point of views,
anything to fill in the gaps
between pizza, Patience, small talk...

It is worth noting that the phrase 'any music, any news' contains seven syllables while the phrase 'any talkback point of views' also contains seven syllables. Thus McInerney cultivates a couplet within the confines of his free verse. It is this deliberateness that is such a feature of the poetry in the collection.

McInerney displays an Eliot-like ability to incorporate rhyme and metre into his free verse. His free verse and formal verse are unmistakably intelligent. This manifests itself in describing droplets and a particular place ('Jamberoo in Spring'):

They drop and splash and widen
in the pool below
to the edge of the garden
where flowers and hours begin to awaken -
a movement that spreads into town.

The usage of 'flowers' and 'hours' is wonderfully assonant and clever.

McInerney evinces cleverness in other ways ('Once'):

Shot like an arrow
through quivering distance -
not caring for the target - simply
glad to be released
from the tense, drawn bow
of one moment and the next; we are making our journey . . .

This simile is sustained for just the right length. It is entirely appropriate.

McInerney's wit is also appropriate in a few of his poems. The funniest poem in the collection, 'After Wendy Cope', finds McInerney and A.D. Hope ('a renowned womaniser') competing for Cope's affections in a dream:

'Mr Hope,' I said, 'Have you lost your wits?
Men like you are the problem! Can't you see?
If you would raise your eyes above her tits
You'd realise that she needs someone like me.'
She caught my eye: 'Alas,' she said, 'It's you,
The one whose love could prove my verse untrue.'

This poem is suitably facetious in a collection of poems that are mostly earnest. In one earnest poem, McInerney describes an elderly man - surrounded by his son and two schoolgirls ('From My Bedroom Window, Canberra'):

Alone, he and the trees stand still and sigh
The wisdom of the old.
Like Solomon they are surrounded by
Rare beauty, and its airy weight in gold.

Here, as in all his poetry, McInerney demonstrates a nobility and purity of voice. It gives his poetry dignity and integrity. His poetry also has clarity and intelligence. The intelligence does not get in the way of the clarity. The clarity does not get in the way of the intelligence. McInerney thinks in verse and does it well. With In Your Absence, he established himself as one of Australia's best young poets. He certainly deserves to be anthologised more.

Lilies on the Tongue. Lorna Thrift Brooks. Ginninderra Press.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

Lilies on the Tongue is the first collection of poetry by Lorna Thrift Brooks. The poems were written between her seventy-third and eighty-first years. However, her usage of figurative language aligns her with the current generation of young female poets writing in Australia at the moment. These young female poets are building a reputation for breaking strictures and rules in their poetry. They tend to be just as interested in the figurative as the literal and their work often utilises abstract thought. They are in a sense going for more and the reader has to make a leap of faith and ‘believe’ in what the poet is doing.

Brooks’s figurative style is apparent in the first poem (‘4 a.m.’):

Call of a mopoke
I wake from a dream,
the bones of dead love
rattle in dark corners.

Literally, there are no such things as ‘the bones of dead love’. But when the figurative nature of it is understood, it scans. The reader, in making the leap of faith, is rewarded.
The discerning reader, when reading Lilies on the Tongue, would be conscious of the poet’s aesthetic (‘The Thimble’):

The thimble sits on my shelf,
after so many years a hole worn through.
A legacy left to remind me
of a family of five woven together
with threads of mother love.

This final stanza is cohesive. It also has succinctness and brevity.

Brooks also has strength, without overkill (‘A Point of View’):

There was always only one angle
a simple one point of view
never considered how others might see it
as selfish or uncaring
but when others called it deliberate cruelty . . .
I am speechless
feet literally gone from under me
defences destroyed
a room full of unsaid words.

Brooks evinces strength in her poetry but shows fallibility (like here) every now and again. She knows that overdosing on strength does nothing for a poet. Brooks is hard-minded but tender when she needs to be (‘For Tj’):

The world awaits you beautiful one
time and quiet unfold slow motion

deep music around the heart
poems of precious things

all imaginings are suspended
like breath held

divided in two by the road you travel
and love for a boy with fuzzy hair

rest and let your blood slow
let life slip into place as it will

walk this world smiling
as I sing for you

Brooks proffers a touching poem here.

In other poems she is brave (‘The Grieving’):

This lethargy, this ache without saying
grief is hard work no one speaks of.
Healing will wait for us
next year or tomorrow.

Brooks confronts her pain directly in her poetry. But in addition to some intensely personal poems in Lilies on the Tongue are a number that are detached from the self. It is this diversification of content as well as the usage of figurative language that makes Lilies on the Tongue interesting. It is an impressive debut.

Hunters’ Place Smith’s Road, Tharwa. Brian J. Brock. Ginninderra Press.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

Brian J Brock's Hunters’ Place Smith’s Road, Tharwa smacks of being done the right way. For starters, the poetry is ‘of this world’ as Paul Depasquale writes on the back cover. Also, there is the striking picture of a spider web on the front cover. Finally, on the back cover are incisive imprimaturs from three men involved in poetry. Brock was deeply involved in poetry during the writing of this book. It is very much poetry as routine or poetry as rural day-to-day living. Occasionally, the reader is given a glimpse of what goes on inside Brock’s house or an insight into his relationships with friends. But most of the time, he gives little away about himself. The place is bigger than he is.

The first noticeable thing about Brock’s writing is its descriptive power (‘The Crook’):

The Bishop’s Crook is low in the west.
A meteor slices north to south.
The Cross is plumb-bob down.
Magellanic Clouds, Canopus and Sirius aligned.
Lightning plays below the horizon.
Mopokes call by the Murrumbidgee.
Still the night.

Brock’s general knowledge about the constellations is useful for poetry here. He is knowledgeable about the place where he lives, also. His poetry is the beneficiary of this (‘Stalky’):

There’s a keen breeze.
Killer cats have culled the birds.
Drought survivors of the Hereford herd
close-crop grass and weeds in the house paddock.
Roos graze the sunny side of southern hills.
Fences are no barrier with wombats' help.
You don't even need a wombat in your pouch if you are a
determined roo.

Note the last word: kangaroo is shortened to roo. Hunters’ Place Smith’s Road, Tharwa utilises this colloquial language well (‘Blowies’ in ‘Murrumbidgee Vignettes Continued’):

Nought degrees.
It’s warming up.
Long frost shadows shrink back across the paddock.
Thick ice sheets on the troughs.
I coax heat from the slow combustion stove.
Nature calls.
I beat the blowies.

Here, the last line is delightfully unpretentious. Brock balances this unpretentiousness with technical nous (‘Trapeze’):

I walk up a little hill
head bowed in homage to the rising sun
watching single cobweb silks
trapezed between grass stems
play the spectrum as I climb.

There is something happening technically in all five lines of this poem. For example, the first line has the adept consonance of ‘little’ and ‘hill’. And the last line has the deft consonance of ‘spectrum’ and ‘climb’.

In other poems, there is some verbal horseplay (‘Wednesday’):

The grass will grow;
and roos will know
it’s time to move that embryo.

Brock's sense of fun extends to some short poems that are consciously humorous. But his best humour comes from acts of spontaneity (‘Taro's Fire’):

The back-burn has begun.
Our buckets and slop mops are primed.
I do my bit
peeing on the fire side
of a yellow box.
The lichens are pleased.

Hunters’Place Smith’s Road, Tharwa does not take itself too seriously. The title says it all - it is less about Brock the man and more about the place itself. And the place is evoked wonderfully. The collection shows how dedication to poetry, finely observed and crafted, can result in great enjoyment for the reader.

Daniel Yammacoona. Damian Balassone. Ginninderra Press.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

Daniel Yammacoona is Damian Balassone’s second collection of poetry. Balassone is a poet who seemingly takes his craft seriously. He has successfully published a large number of poems in local and international literary journals, magazines and newspapers. He also demonstrates in his poetry that he has read or read about a number of important poets. His poetry is the beneficiary of this.

His poetry achieves a certain verbal music through his use of rhyme and metre. Take his third footy quatrain (‘Marquee Player’):

On the field he played it hard -
a ruthless Genghis Khan,
but off it he aspired to be
a dashing Don Juan.

This is an example of Balassone's rhyming verse. There are enough technical effects (in this case alliteration, consonance and assonance) to keep the poetry from being pedestrian.

Balassone also uses half-rhymes as well as full ones (‘The Last Bison’):

Once I ruled the northern plains,
my clan roamed free and wild,
the lush Dakotas were my home,
the gods were on my side.

Here we have the half-rhyme of 'wild' and 'side'.

The effects and subtleties of Balassone's poetry make for lively and entertaining reading. He also has a sense of humour ('The Stonefish'):

Naively you'll at first presume
that I'm a stagnant stone.
I'll warn you with a callous stare:
do not infringe my zone!

Balassone’s wit is accompanied by the deft alliteration of ‘stagnant’ and 'stone'.

‘The Young Man at the Bus Stop’ also uses alliteration, and its originality is shown by the following four lines:

But school was now a distant star
and Rosa's face, a teary blur,
and loneliness became his scar
whenever he remembered her.

These lines are tacked onto the end of the first stanza. Then the four lines are replicated at the end of the poem. It is this ability to surprise that is one of the hallmarks of a good poet. As is saying a lot in a few words (‘The Stage’):

Every actor aspires to play the role of Jesus;
if the part is taken, they will set their sights on the role of Judas.

Here Balassone writes with poise and precision, sharpness and brevity. But he is equally adept over longer distances in his narrative poetry. Here he has complete control over his rhyming verse.

It may seem anachronistic to proffer a book of (mostly) rhyming verse these days. But Balassone pulls it off. Daniel Yammacoona is an outstanding book of poetry. Balassone can be proud of it.

Villanelles. Jill Sutton. Ginninderra Press.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

Jill Sutton’s Villanelles is in five sections. Each section contains a number of villanelles. The villanelle was originally a French form. Brought into English by Edmund Gosse in the nineteenth century, it is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets (or three-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (or a four-line stanza). A villanelle has only two rhyming sounds. The first and the third lines of the first stanza are rhyming refrains that alternate as the third line in each successive stanza and form a couplet at the close. Perhaps the most famous villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. Unlike most villanelles it is absolutely true to its form.

Generally Sutton deviates from the true-to-form villanelle. This deviation and a lack of punctuation give her villanelles variety and originality. Take the first tercet of her sixteenth villanelle (‘On appreciating Myrtle the chook’):

Verily I say unto you chooks chat
The gentle clucks of Myrtle were most kind
Her feathers lifting slightly made her fat

The lack of punctuation here allows the poem to breathe. It also does this in the final stanza of the poem:

Her death in laundry basket leaves us flat
Her will unwritten so sadly unsigned
Verily I say unto you chooks chat
Myrtle we miss your warmth full-fluffed and fat

Here the last line should, in theory, be the same as the third line of the first tercet. But Sutton has tweaked it so it achieves greater resolution.

Sutton enhances her poetry in other ways (‘On appreciating the reticence of kiwifruit vines’):

They had a quiet wedding side by side
They’d grown with dignity and twining grace
They didn’t want the fuss to spread too wide

The repetition of ‘side’ works as does the alliteration of ‘grown’ and ‘grace’ and the consonance of ‘spread’ and ‘wide’. Sutton has a technical flair and a flair for language (‘On the comfort of my partner’):

The tick of the rain as I snuggle soft-soothed by your breathing
Twenty-five years of this tight curling up into spoons
The warmth of your bum a sustainable thing to be needing

Here Sutton uses a colloquial word (‘bum’). It is refreshingly original within the confines of a very formal form. Sutton's poetry is also refreshingly cerebral (‘On the eve of the vote for the carbon tax’):

But perhaps one wise group with the power for a reasonable stay
Would garner our workshops and govern with zeal and with zest
Could we trust them once chosen by tried old democracy’s way?

Sutton is a thinker. An original thinker, also. But her poetry also eschews politics and world events and captures moments of sheer joy (‘On hearing Neruda’s watermelon poem’):

Each weekday I listen to Ramona
The watermelon poem makes me drool
Oh Pablo how famous is Neruda

The reader would acknowledge Sutton has proven the villanelle to be a versatile form. There is such variation in subject matter. There is also variation from what is deemed to be a traditional villanelle. Sutton has the best of both worlds: the song-like formalism of the rhyme scheme with the freedom of the lack of punctuation synonymous with very free verse. Her idiosyncratic mix of the formal and informal in Villanelles comes up trumps.

Flame in the Fire
. Susie Utting. Ginninderra Press.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

Susie Utting's Flame in the Fire is a poetry book of two cultures. Utting was a volunteer with a relief aid team at an orphanage in Southern Zimbabwe in 2006. There are two sections in the book (the first and the third) allocated to poetry about this Zimbabwean experience. Between this (the middle section) is poetry Utting has written about living on a small farm in Gippsland, Victoria.

The first noticeable thing about Utting's poetry is its perceptiveness ('The Rancher's Wife'):

Your life is pinned

fast to a faith
fixed on the cross
at your throat.
You smile with your eyes -
proud golden globes
of a leopardess

poised to destroy
whatever threatens your cubs.

Utting's observations are sharp. The analogy of the leopardess is also apt, with its connotations of Africa.

With all that is going on around her in Southern Zimbabwe, Utting is most focused on people ('Back-row Boy'):

This one resembles
my elder son so

hunched over his books
in the sleepy classroom.

He lifts his eyes
and throws me the smile

I loved to love down the years.

Utting's observations are interesting. Her subject matter is engaging. Take the truck driver going from Jo'burg to Harare ('Truck Driver'):

She clocks on at 5:30 p.m.,
climbs in and tweaks the ignition

plunging her 30-tonne truck
through the African night.

Utting describes the time the truck driver begins and the weight of the truck. This is precise writing with attention to detail.

In other places she displays technical nous ('First Light'):

I took in a full face of Africa and fall
instantly into a fever.

The alliteration of 'full face', 'fall' and 'fever' is deft.

Utting writes well in other ways ('Old Shona Foreman'):

I see him now
by the river seeding

vegetables and more children
with his shrivelled hoe.

The double entendre here is clever. Utting sustains this cleverness throughout Flame in the Fire, which educates and enlightens as well as entertains. It is both interesting and moving. Utting is the intelligent witness to some really good subject matter which is captured in gritty and realistic poetry. Flame in the Fire is a lively debut.

Glass Bicycles. Brendan Doyle. Ginninderra Press.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

According to a recent bio, Brendan Doyle grew up in a house without books and now wants to build a house of poetry. His first collection, Glass Bicycles, is one of mostly free-verse vignettes. Some of them have been published in a number of magazines, journals and newspapers. Varied in subject matter, they have clarity, humour and are technically competent. However, Doyle's greatest poetic attribute is his ability to understand society and politics and to then write about it ('Memorial at Kuta'):

gaudy flags
draped over flowers
smothering them
and in the background
a pile of burnt shoes

shoes that will not dance
will not be flung off in abandon
or slipped under the bed
will not wear down on one side,
be left to dry on the veranda
or spattered with rain
from running
through a summer storm

This is a poignant poem with a clarity shared by the other poems in Glass Bicycles ('Warm Wind, a song'):

I feel a warm wind blowing
Growing in fury and strength
And it's building to a heated hurricane
That will blow down the citadels of war

Doyle’s technical competence is clearly shown in the last stanza of 'Rings of Saturn':

We packed up the telescope,
finished our muscat
and felt a little closer.
Etched on my memory's glass,
stately, unmoved, the rings of Saturn.

The poem is most concentrated in the last line (with its two adjectives together). This works.

Doyle writes in free verse for most of the book but does mix things up ('Tantaloup'):

'O bloomsy tantaloup,' said I,
all quevelling and queet,
'please stay, I'll gloon without you'
but it just pobbled down the street.

So if you see a tantaloup
a-skooning by the sea,
please take a photo of it
and send it off to me.


This poem is adventurous in its play with language. It is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's ‘Jabberwocky’ and it could appeal to children. ‘Tantaloup’ also works well as a humorous poem.

Doyle evinces a sense of humour in other poems in Glass Bicycles ('Looking after Uncle Bill's house'):

Lightning struck the TV antenna
and shorted the computer, the DVD and the TV,
but the toaster wasn't affected at all.

The floods (you heard about those?)
ruined the carpet
but Mum rescued most of the furniture
except the lounge suite.

Doyle is also good at touching the reader ('Lunch with my son'):

He eats with relish
and a man's appetite,
asks if he can borrow the laptop.
I'd gladly give him all I own.

This is lovely sentiment.

Doyle writes other poems about his son in Glass Bicycles. But his poems on society and politics are his best. He does not always flag the populist view. This is a good thing.

Glass Bicycles is a solid first collection.

The Sunset Assumption. John Foulcher. Pitt Street Poetry.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

John Foulcher was born in Sydney in 1952. He has taught English and Drama in secondary schools in NSW and the ACT. In 1988, he was joint winner of the National Library Poetry Competition for his poem 'Kosciusko in Summer'. In 1994, Foulcher won the ACT Book of the Year award for his New and Selected Poems (his fourth collection of verse). The Sunset Assumption is his ninth collection. There are a number of poems set in Australia, which mostly deal with common Foulcher themes including the loss of his Father in early childhood. The Sunset Assumption began when Foulcher obtained an Established Writers Grant from the Australia Council in 2004. Foulcher also undertook a residency at the Keesing Studio in Paris during 2010 and 2011. Consequently, there is a majority of Parisian poems in The Sunset Assumption.

Foulcher proffers quite a few prose poems in the collection. They are nicely balanced between poetry and prose. Take 'History', which mentions significant events and people in Paris over the centuries, such as 'The Place des Vosges, the place Henri took an age to make, the age taking him before he moved in.' Here Foulcher is clever with his phrasing. He is good at turning history into poetry. Take his sequence, 'The Revolutionary Calendar' about Maximilien Robespierre. The last poem in the sequence is an account of Robespierre at six years of age ('Fruit'):

Even now you come to know the fruit of perfect work,
and while the others rush and play, you educate,
you tighten rules, you talk to them of punishment,
you reason with their hearts. Your genius is order,
your passion cold control. The citizens of Arras
will know the fruits you bear, the goodness of your earth.
Maximilien Robespierre, the lawyer and the judge.

Foulcher's poems about history are never dry. Through his imagery, the poems convey a sense of atmosphere. Also, 'The Revolutionary Calendar' jumps around a bit chronologically. This creates a deft cinematic effect - the whole sequence is like a biographical movie in verse.

Foulcher also writes poetry about his own life ('Funeral'):

In the warmth of our apartment,
we take off our clothes
and lie by the window,
holding each other.

Foulcher is remarkably candid about intimacy in his poetry but he writes about it well, justifying its inclusion. Take the assonant words 'lie' and 'by' as well as the alliterative words 'off' and 'our', how they symbolise two people being intimate. Foulcher is just as clever with his last lines ('Funeral'):

The snow is like a painting
by Pissarro, where all things are made
from a single point. We cannot see the street.

Foulcher really goes for his last lines. Often they are the longest in the poem. This creates more potential for poetic effects. Take the last line of 'Funeral'. The first part 'from a single point' is five syllables long and the second part (the final sentence in the poem) is six. Also, 'point' and 'street' are only half rhymes. Thus a sense of slight unease is created through the two parts of the last line being in discordance.

Foulcher is not only a deliberate poet but an original one ('Fragments from Home'):

The moon swims
to the surface of the sea,
dries itself down with a starry towel.
It lays the bed
with a still, silver light.
Your breath swirls
in and out of the dark, pooling on the sheets.

Note the originality of the description of the personified moon here. Foulcher, on a number of occasions in The Sunset Assumption, recreates the familiar in a deft way.

Foulcher does a couple of other things well in the collection. The metaphoric density is there, as is the commitment shown to prose poetry with his prose poems. They are neither prose nor poetry and thus are nicely balanced.

Overall, Foulcher writes beautiful and soulful poetry. He is one of Australia's best poets and certainly deserves to be anthologised more.

Collected. Rosemary Dobson. University of Queensland Press.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

Rosemary Dobson was born in 1920 and died in 2012. Shortly before her death in June her Collected was published. This is said to expand significantly on her 1991 Collected Poems. Dobson, when alive, was said to be the last of the poetry queens (this is a label reviewer Kate Llewellyn put on a group of Australian female poets in a recent review in The Canberra Times). The other queens were Gwen Harwood, Judith Wright and Dorothy Hewett. Dobson is widely held to be on the same level as these other women poets (as well as some of her male contemporaries including David Campbell and Francis Webb). In other words, she is a major Australian poet.

Dobson has a placid voice that is endearing. It is intelligent without being pretentious, it is never mocking or vindictive, it has strength (but not too much), it is noble and pure, it has dignity and charm ('Country Press'):

When I shall die
Set me close against my fellow-men,
Cheer that cold column headed 'Deaths' with flowers,
Or mix me up with Births and Marriages;
Surround the tragic statement of my death
With euchre-drives and good times-had-by-all
That, with these warm concomitants of life
Jostled and cheered, in lower-case italics
I shall go homewards in the Western Star.

There is no snobbery about what Dobson advocates. Her passion for community journalism is evident. So is the joy in the poem. This also surfaces at a much later stage ('Aspects of Holiness'):

Ghislebertus, Sculptor of Autun,
Carved on one capital in relief
The journeying Kings' humility -
Three in one truckle-bed asleep,
Each with his crown upon his head.

Wonderful, oh wonderful!

The reader shares Dobson's child-like joy in creation here.

In other poems, Dobson displays a sense of humour. Her reaction to being in hospital with the manly and rugged Captain Svenson evinces this ('Captain Svenson'):

The Mariners' League is on the phone,
When is the Captain's operation?
Tell them Tuesday, early in the morning.
And I thought: has he strayed from a Slessor poem?

Such is the humour, the reader does not need to have read Slessor in order to glean something from it.

While humour exists in Dobson's verse, she has larger preoccupations. One of these is painting and painters ('In a Café'):

And Botticelli, painting in the corner,
Glances absorbed across a half-turned shoulder
Thinking of lilies springing where she walks
As now she rises, moves across the room,
(The yawning waitress gathers up the stalks,
The ash, the butt-ends and the dregs of tea).
Pausing between the gesture and the motion,
Lifting her hand to brush away her hair,
He limns her in an instant, always there
Between the doorway and the emphatic till
With waves and angels, balanced on a shell.

One thing noticeable about this stanza is the abstract rhyme scheme. A number of Dobson's poems have this technical originality. Dobson is technically accomplished and her poems have a wonderful sense of craft.

What is also wonderful about Collected initially is that Dobson hardly writes about herself at all. Her objectivity works well as she remains an enigma for some time. Then she gives away more of herself in her poetry. Dobson does this well, satisfying curiosities of the reader and becoming more intimate with him or her. But it is Dobson's poetic voice that is the outstanding aspect of Collected. Dobson's nobility and purity of voice are there for the duration of it. Collected is substantial and superb. Dobson deserves her status as a major Australian poet.

I'm bored with the USA, I'm bored with the USA, I'm bored
by Julian Woods

America, that soul of promise, delivering nothing,
Mark from what torrents of tornado's frothing
Fair doctrines whirl and flatten all to wreck
And with laudable remorse then writes a cheque.
Only by accident a pennyweight of good
As a great massacre may fertilise with blood,
The farmer reaping bounty, this atones
Believe it, for a valley full of bones.
Indians first shuddered, none too nice themselves,
Mere ignorance in fluid passion dwells,
Simple violence, short temper, quick to pity again,
Knowing who one can trust and when,
Unacquainted with kind cruelty, false oaths
Worn underneath imposing hats and clothes,
Passions unalloyed, the type of honesty
No indignant rhetoric could give for fee.
Pilgrim gentlemen fleeing from persecution
Took all, for who could deny their right?
The Winner is the one that proves God's might.
Abraham had slaves and if we baptise ours,
Duty's done, we're master of their hours.
What we give now, later we must take,
Doomed race die quickly for your own sake,
Your remnants like beetles in the dust
- this last gesture then for harmony and trust,
Come over this Thanksgiving won't you, Chief?
To thank God you're just alive, forget your grief.

This, of a great state set the manifest,
And gutted nations, conquered, are now blest,
Greed elevated to a feverous pitch,
And Europe fell into its own foul ditch,
Bolsheviks their own destruction hastened,
A billion yearnings cruelly dashed and wasted:
And there they are, the great God-favoured race,
Of varied crimes delivered with God's grace,
That drives, kills, dominates by degrees
And sends poor men to fine deaths overseas.
Exulting barbarians ride the Congress
While the learned and the civilised digress.
Oh I'm so bored with the USA
And its quack-medicine ranting every day.

(Julian Woods is a New South Wales essayist, novelist and poet.)

First... Then... Melinda Smith. Ginninderra Press.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

Melinda Smith is an accomplished Canberra poet. She has read at The Gods (on the ANU campus) and has published poetry in Quadrant. She has previously published two collections of verse with Ginninderra Press (Pushing thirty, wearing seventeen and Mapless in Underland).

The cover of the book is interesting - the title, with a subtitle ‘poems from planet autism’. Smith promises us something left of centre and indeed we get it. The poems are unified by them all having something to do with autism. There is such a variety of styles (some unusual, some more orthodox) in such a small book. There are a number of monologues but also a fugue, an acrostic, a song parody and a couple of 'sculptures'. Of course, Smith's play with language and colloquialism are there - they have been the hallmarks of her writing to date.

The poignant and moving title poem is the best in the collection. It utilises repetition and the harrowing experience of having a child with autism ('First... then...')

First astonished he could read at eighteen months
Then astonished at his shrieks every time his baby brother cried
First proud of every fact he could recite about the planet Jupiter
Then wondering why he needed twelve weeks of physio to learn how to jump

Other poems in the collection include simple and complex ones. In 'A prehistory of autism', Smith reduces her poetry to an eloquent simplicity:

This one can run and run, never tiring;
climb trees and cliffs until the gibbons are afraid of him.
Even when he falls he feels no pain. He has little need of sleep.
He speaks only repeating what he hears
but he is the best of night watchmen
and in the hunt he is magnificent.

This poem is both technically deft and inventive.

Among the more complex poems is the monologue about someone with autism searching for God ('Shechinah - or God and Temple Grandin'):

I discover Him also in libraries: my serene heavens of silence
and infinite shelving. My dearest wish is an afterlife of browsing,

tasting the bliss of the Great System - the halt and the lame
in the silent reading corner; angels bringing them books.

'A Prehistory of Autism' and 'Shechinah - or God and Temple Grandin' are about the extremes of clarity and opacity that the reader is likely to encounter in the book. Most of the other poems are in the middle ground. They are accessible yet they challenge the reader to varying degrees. Smith challenges herself in her rhyming verse ('On holding the baby of a friend'):

I wonder whether mothers get a store
of child-affection, swelling in the chest
like milk come in, demanding to be used.
Does having to suppress it make you sore?
MyWebMD has nothing to suggest.
I borrow babies. They reduce the bruise.

This sonnet has a tight rhyme scheme, but Smith manages the poem well internally also - with assonance and alliteration. She also manages a simile in the sestet.
In another poem, Smith is game to try bathos. In this poem, the child with Asperger's gets the final word ('Asperger's diagnosis: a fugue'):

We called for hours and hours, why didn't you answer?
The elephant bird was the biggest bird that ever lived.

We called for hours and hours, why didn't you answer?
I knew where you were.

This ending is effectively flat, deadpan, monosyllabic and low-key. It gives real insight into how someone with autism thinks. The reader does not know whether to laugh or cry.
First… Then… is by turns educative, different and charming. In short, tight poetry and well worth reading.

(Michael Byrne is a Canberra poet, editor and reviewer.)

The Keeper of Fish. Alan Fish (edited by Philip Salom). Puncher & Wattmann.
Keeping Carter. M.A. Carter (edited by Philip Salom). Puncher & Wattmann.
reviewed by Michael Byrne

The Keeper of Fish and Keeping Carter are the final two volumes of the Keepers Trilogy, written by Australian poet Philip Salom. Salom, who was born in 1950, has won numerous awards for his writing. He resigned from lecturing in 2008 and has since been writing full time. Many of his books have depicted imagined worlds or explored conceptually contained sequences. In these latest two books Salom creates heteronyms and sustains them for the length of the books. Heteronyms are fictional characters made up by the poet. The poet then writes poetry under the guise of these fictional characters. Also, Salom acts as editor for the two heteronyms he has created.

In The Keeper of Fish the heteronym happens to be the earnest Alan Fish. Salom creates a believable character in Fish. Salom, through Fish, demonstrates a strong intellectual presence - such as in the last two free-verse couplets of 'Not expected to be a poet in any language':

Alan Fish, a speckle-face-and-world aquarium, his fish-
like lyric poems. For beauty, he says. And her loss of it.

My words (not easily) labelled this. If I am one who lost
my love, my images, my poetry is sunlight on her face.

Salom, through Fish, is capable of quality abstract (or figurative) thought here. In The Keeper of Fish, Salom often writes a lucid poem with an ending that is loaded with meaning, quirkily abstract or somewhat enigmatic (or a combination of those). This often happens in free-verse couplets. Salom, through Fish, makes these his own ('One of those days. If you ...'):

One of those days the colours
of children and their liveliness.

If it stopped, or if you stopped
it there, a day like a maquette.

Note the meticulously even couplets here. These suggest a good sense of craft and concern for the visual aesthetic of the poem. The poetry itself is concentrated ('Ambition and'):

And so I love my little coloured fish: stunned
by their exactness, their speed, their stillness.

I am the still words, but I am always merging.
My ink is ever smudging. I am my imagined.

Salom, through Fish, has something happening in almost every single line in The Keeper of Fish. Note the subtle assonance of 'coloured' and 'stunned', the Dransfieldian repetition of 'their', the subtle repetition of 'I am' as well as the subtle alliteration of 'ink' and 'imagined'. The reader is also treated to poetry with originality ('To my daughter as a small one'):

Pretend the sound of the rain is your mother reading to you
in bed, in the night made shorter by her careful phrasing

And the way her warm body finds music in every sound
so you begin in trance from her, from lying in experience

Then listen only to the story hand in hand and walking
through the wind or the sunlight or the autumn streets

of Melbourne, with the characters and story now so open
you leave them for trance again, your mother, the rain

The cyclical nature of this poem is effective in surprising the reader. Salom also uses effective narrative devices that make Fish seem more authentic and credible ('Faces in the street'):

Once, on the corner TV screen, I saw
Adam Gilchrist smack a century off 57 balls.

I screamed as loud as anyone, will not forget
his magisterial knock, or his (for a cricketer)

rare intelligence. (If Gilly was out he walked.)

In Keeping Carter, Salom has created another believable character in the upstart M.A. Carter. One of the charms of Salom is his sense of humour, expressed through Carter - a warped individual ('Portrait of a Portrait Painting'):

Picasso sat as a satyr, as a bull-man Minoan.
Stanley Spencer hung his dick above his mistress,

and a bare leg of lamb. Whitely. Yes, and Whitely.
Their wankerdom: they want to have their cock

and eat it too. And that's why I don't like painting.

Salom's humour, expressed through Carter, works. Another charm of Salom's, expressed through Carter, is his breezy and chatty style of writing in Keeping Carter. Carter hates vegans and expresses this hate in a breezy and chatty way ('I really care'):

Yes, bloody vegans, because there's always going to be some
blood around them. Or naïve as sun-flowers, their big open

faces turned by the sun. God, they are seedy and stupid
all in one. Kick them. And then kick them again.

Salom's usage, through Carter, of colloquial language gives the poems a refreshingly conversational feel. The poems also capture everyday life in the twenty-first century ('Saturday Night'):

Two mid-twenty lads dance around a girl whose face
is blue from her mobile, a totem pole, she is tinted blue.

Indifferent to the fifteen year old emotions leaping from
their long legs and de rigueur muscular torsos. Texting.

Keeping Carter is like a useful historical document. It mentions many aspects of modern life - such as texting, tweeting, Viagra and Facebook. Salom, through Carter, also comments on a number of real people in his poetry ('Freud and the Aria'):

I'm in love with Elina Garanca. In love with
all great singers when they sing, but singing
gone and the heady image of the orchestra
fading, I am left with her face her lips and
the edible sound of her chest. These frontal
shivers, and strong. I want to weep. I long.

Another likeable aspect of Carter (there are not many) is that he has passions. Also, in writing about this particular passion, Salom cleverly humanises a little the wretch that is Carter. He does this by making him feel love, in poetry that is technically good ('Unaccountably'):

Unaccountably. They said that and frowned
as if adverbs have another sin: frowning.

I frown upon them, they frown upon me.
Trying to explain she killed him, frowning.

There is something happening in almost every single line in Keeping Carter. Note the subtle assonance of 'said' and 'frowned', the subtle alliteration of 'adverbs' and 'another', the subtle repetition and assonance of 'frown upon', and the subtle assonance of 'trying' and 'frowning'.

Salom has a good aesthetic and maintains a strong intellectual presence. The poems of Carter are funny at times, while the reader is charmed by the flaneur that is Fish. Salom is brilliant in conceptualising believable heteronyms. As the heteronyms retain some considerable trace of the editor (such as his musical taste), Salom kindly offers something personal to the reader and should be commended for that.

(Michael Byrne is a Canberra poet, editor and reviewer.)

Democratic fallacies
by Julian Woods

That it is a good thing, in the abstract, that populations vote on common issues (to decide on elected representatives or plebiscites on particulars) cannot be denied. The main benefit of a democratic system is that inhabitants of a state with belief in the democratic system are reconciled with the results of elections against particular wishes to the contrary. Thus, much conflict is harmonised. Given the incompetence of human beings to organise societies as populous as modern nations along rational lines with justice and equity, this resulting reconciliation of opposing views should not be undervalued. It is precious.

However, this quality is and has been for many years confused with the doctrine of the infallibility of the general will which may be identified through elections. Since Rousseau in the eighteenth century, this has been the strand of democratic thinking opposing in practice the rights of minorities and justifying tyrannical rule through the ballot box. Worse, the general will once found must be the political good, the best policy. That is, as defined in modern times, the majority are always right. Our politicians in Canberra voice this very thing – especially when they win. How anyone could contemplate this for a moment is a wonder in itself.

In countless individual decisions by governments, the general will cannot be ascertained and in most cases is impractical as hundreds of decisions are made yearly and daily as crises arise. On examination, the whole vanishes like a phantom. Thus politicians of all kinds, right up to the Stalins and Hitlers ‘interpret’ the general will and use democratic rhetoric when it suits them. Barak Obama can declare war tomorrow without reference to the voters or indeed to anyone and, because he was elected two years ago, he is merely expressing the will of the people. Logically, and in any real sense, this is nonsense. Each issue as it arises has its own special qualities needing fresh assessment and calculation. The threads linking his decision to any kind of democratic election result in justification are non-existent. In fact, what democracies do is relinquish the power of the people to governments for a set period of time to make decisions for them. This is wishy-washy stuff, hardly political involvement. But Western populations cling to the doctrine of the general will as expressed in periodic elections possibly to delude themselves that their input into everyday politics is real. A result also is that many think that nothing further is required of a citizen than to stuff ballot papers into ballot boxes every few years when required. If only it were that easy. The bad results of the great mass of people leaving thought and action to the few in political parties can readily be seen.

Since World War II, a further complacent doctrine has evolved, unquestioned and with no attempt at analysing its truth either by governments or those who extol democracy. This idea in essence says that if a decision to act or support an action is made by an elected government that results in war, deaths, oppression or exploitation, the mode of the decision absolves the culpability of the crime or the error especially vis a vis a dictatorship. If a dictator invades, this is criminal; if a democracy decides to invade, it is the form of government that justifies the decision. But historical evidence linking democratic governments by nature with justice and fair play is lacking. Democracies over the centuries have varied from the benign and tranquil to the ruthless and aggressive just like monarchies, with good kings following bad and vice versa. The democratic fallacy is used in foreign affairs to mask aggressive war.

Ancient Athens swiftly converted its alliances among equals into an oppressive empire. And who more democratic than the Athenians? Athens and the United States both instituted slavery.

A military government like Indonesia can introduce democratic reforms and this immediately means our abandonment of the West Papuans and others to exactly the same kind of oppression and killings as they endured under Suharto. But now it’s OK; it’s a democracy. A further limp hypocrisy says, ‘Oh, it will get better in time.’

The enormities of what democratic governments have done to foreign nations and their own populations shows us that there is no correlation between ethical and humanistic behaviour and the type of government. France in the 1940s and 50s slaughtered and tortured countless Algerians, Vietnamese and Cambodians by measures voted for in the democratic government in Paris. (France the home of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.)

Great Britain, that great free nation, the envy of the world in the nineteenth century spread its rule over others as never before. The revenge and slaughter following the Indian Mutiny (let’s call it a revolt against a foreign oppressor) was barbaric and indiscriminate. In the 1950s by mass killings, atrocities and concentration camps, an attempt to hold onto Kenya for a few thousand English settlers was accomplished in the best democratic tradition by debate and votes in the House of Commons.

The Reichstag in Germany in the early 1900s, then in many ways a model democracy, approved the extermination of whole tribes in South-West Africa, what is now Namibia. One of the worst aspects of democratic government lies in the tendency to relegate distasteful, violent and oppressive measures to proxies or special agencies like the military. Thus many evils are not known at the time. Many, sometimes all, of the elected representatives can be innocent of clandestine decisions such as in the Iran-Contra Affair. This too excuses democracy and both the public and their representatives don’t believe any guilt sticks to them.

Barbaric force has been used on countless occasions to ‘open’ reluctant nations to Western trade and influence. The Opium Wars and the forcing of the Chinese into trade and to accept opium and allow privileged places for Europeans like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Foochow are an example. However the enthusiasts for democracy are undeterred.· Japan was also ‘opened’, by American fleet bombardments at first, followed swiftly by English reprisals, and theirs and French and Dutch bombarding of Japanese cities until they gave in to superior force. Because there is vocal opposition at home, repeal and amelioration in some cases and years later, the mere fact of a minority allowed opposition openly is seen as some sort of justification. If this helps the oppressed, the bombed or the colonised it is poor comfort indeed. Smatterings of words and chestbeating by an impotent few to salve the conscience of the nation.

In many democracies, the military have been called out against a country’s own population particularly against striking workers. The United States is one instance where the private armies of giant enterprises like Camegie Steel have terrorized and assassinated union leaders and strikers and been allowed to do so by the elected government. General Macarthur’ s troops fired on the hunger march to Washington in the 1930s. France’s massacre of 20,000 Parisians following the Paris Commune went far beyond the actual armed conflict.

Australians should know that we are guilty of aggression in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. But being a democracy we cling to the talisman of sincerity at the time, and even if we are wrong this is a minor thing compared to the evil (non-democratic) government of the nations we invaded. In the case of Afghanistan simply because one of the regional powers there (the Taliban) is an enemy of the United States. Morally it is so easy. We are better so we can do as we please. We kill people in these nations but their killings, because they had a dictatorship or contained forces we don’t like, are, by definition of their government, worse, and must be avenged. Ours are excused. Along with the United States and Europe we have turned the idea of aggression on its head. One can be sure the relatives of the innumerable dead in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t agree that bad government justifies such thinking and actions on our part. The powerful West manipulates the United Nations to give the appearance of a disinterested intervention following world approval. Ours is political morality of the most hypocritical kind, especially as Saddam Hussein’s regime was given the West’s full support.

The ‘move to democracy’ is repeated ad nauseam in all sections of our media when ‘referring to places like Burma and Libya. This is the cover that lets us off examining the actual political realities and in particular the motives and actions of our own Western governments in pressurising others. Democratic advantages can be enjoyed by citizens in the flimsiest of democratic systems but to many of the world’s nations we are just as unscrupulous and predatory as many tyrannies.

When it suits we apply the democratic doctrine of Equality rigidly. A local minority such as Australian Aborigines can be reviled as they violate the idea of equality by showing us past injustices needing redemption, needing extra assistance. Perfectly well-off Australians feel they are being neglected, prejudiced against by ‘do-gooders’, ‘bleeding hearts’, by the attention the government gives to Aboriginal problems. We all have suffered! You just have to get over it and carry on! Which of course, for individuals, has a thread of truth in it. By this reasoning (laissez-faire gone mad), we don’t have to help anyone. That so many Australians don’t share in this indignation is a tribute to their civilised values and has nothing to do with whether we vote and have political parties. Majority rule is simply that. It has nothing to do with equity or justice.

(Julian Woods is a New South Wales essayist, novelist and poet.)