Melbourne University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Andrew Leggett, StylusLit
Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington offer us this anthology of 160 prose poems by 149 Australian poets, including Bruce Dawe, Bruce Beaver, John Blight, Vincent Buckley, Michael Dransfield, John Forbes, Rae Desmond Jones, Rudi Kraussman, Tatjana Lukic, Vicki Vidiikas and the late Ania Walwicz.
The collection is preceded by their scholarly essay: ‘A strange magic: Australian prose poetry’, in which they attempt to define this chimeric genre and recount a history of its development from the 1970s.The poems are arranged alphabetically, by author, and followed by contributor biographies. Many of the poems live up to the promise that they will conjure ‘a strange magic.’
In the last section of the editorial that Atherton and Hetherington address the problem of defining prose poetry. They acknowledge ‘it’s difficult to find a clear consensus, nationally or internationally, on what constitutes a prose poem.’ They suggest that prose poems are distinguished by the dreamlike characteristic of being ‘pithier and more condensed’ than poetic prose, that they are ‘usually shaped like a rectangular box,’ and that ‘prose poems are almost always fragmentary and brief,’ but should make use, intensely, of all poetic devices.
To me, that means that a poem should involve intense imagery; be emotionally and sensually evocative; possess musicality, rhythmicity and oneiric qualities; and be formally arranged such that these devices have a transformative impact.
I first encountered that in the prose poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, in translation from the Polish. I am loath to consider poetry any piece of prose that does not approach Herbert’s standard.
I also found all of these poetic characteristics in the more intense prose passages of some fiction writers, especially Michael Ondaatje, but Atherton and Hetherington tell us that even the most poetic prose, if it’s book length, isn’t poetry. In spite of this, they include an extract from Bella Li’s Argosy. I would have found them remiss to have excluded it, or any of their chosen extracts from longer works.
Not all Australian editors and critics of poetry are ready to acknowledge the validity and merits of the rectangular blocked form. Might it be that poetry in the blocked form can only be experienced by those whose eyes and ears are open, by those susceptible to the form?
When we travelled with Atherton and Hetherington, as John Tranter puts it, in the extract ‘# 27’, from The Alphabet Murders,
… we had left poetry behind before this trip had even
begun, and all the while we have been bereft of it’s silly promises
of beauty …
… and it is one promise
that shall come through: that the slate of verse shall be washed
Atherton and Hetherington may be wise to remain averse to rigour in defining and exhibiting Australian prose poetry. They have left poets freedom that can be expressed within the limits of these rectangular boxes, short of a page, functioning like Prithvi Varatharajan’s
… pale red flag high up on
a flagpole that meant ‘definitely do not swim’ …
while provoking some to risk breaking out. Rosanna Licari’s ‘Arrival’ presents the poet as vicarious witness to those who
… sit on ledges, hang by their hands, look straight down
No safety harness; nothing. A free fall down the street.
as they, like
… young people race down desert roads. They
live the dare. Lie on their bellies along the backs of their
motorbikes. No legs, all hands.
While many of the works chosen might raise a voice of protest from Zbigniew Herbert, against their lack of passionate intensity, against their seemingly apolitical nature, others subtly critique Australian complacency. For Ouyang Yu,
… Love is
not enough, not elove. To merely love someone is not enough stimulus to
write about him. And I don’t have that intensity of love in me. I just have
this urge to write …
And Micheal Sariban, in ‘Bushfire Weather, Brisbane/Sydney,’ says:
We kill the flames with a flick of the switch but our restlessness
needs fuelling. Well into the night, the black & white noise of
talkback radio rises and falls like sirens, distant stations caught
then breaking free again. ‘Take it Easy’, urge The Eagles from
somewhere free from flames, till another frequency, another
song, elbows them aside.
There is one voice, though, that will not let the form blur the songlines and lull the reader into any comfortable dream of Australian prose poetry. Samuel Wagan Watson, in ‘Blacktracker … Blackwriter … Blacksubject’, tells us firmly that
… it’s with the pen that the lies are
used to overwrite the Dreaming, and the written word will never be
worth the country it’s written on.
Atherton and Hetherington’s anthology ably represents the diversity of prose poetry written in this country since the 1970s, while leaving prose poets of the future free to weave their restless magic without definitions and boundaries so tight as to betray the possibility of Watson’s Dreaming.