September 2023

Back to Issue 14

Critical State

By Brett Dionysius

Calanthe Press (2022)

Reviewed by Jane Frank, StylusLit.

Critical State is Brett Dionysius’ ninth full poetry collection, and encapsulates work spanning the past decade in order to celebrate the extraordinary diversity of species in his home state of Queensland but also warn of the biodiversity loss resulting from human action that ‘raises awareness about the increasing effects of the Anthropocene.’ The title Critical State has a menacing double entendre.

This is a book that will endure as an intricate record of Queensland flora and fauna that demonstrates the poet’s acute interest in, as well as research and knowledge of, the natural world—particularly birds—as well as a memorial of what has been, or may soon be, lost. In the book’s foreword, Dionysius says that even as a teenager he was acutely aware that habitat destruction had contributed to the extinction of local species, and the collection exudes a feeling of holding on, memorialising and paying respect to the remarkableness of complex lifeforms. Closely observed details of the plants’ and creatures’ lives are woven together in these mostly narrative poems that also mix commentary of travel and life experiences, often in the company of family.

Dionysius is a well-known figure in Queensland and Australian poetry circles, having been founding Director of the Queensland Poetry Festival (1997-2001) and widely published since 1985 in literary journals, anthologies, newspapers and online in Australia and overseas. His previous creative output has included eight other volumes, a verse novel, an artist’s book and two chapbooks, previous publishers including Picaro Press, PressPress, SO13, Whitmore Press, Interactive Press, Five Islands Press, Walleah Press, Lyrebird Press and CSIRO publishing. There is a close synergy between Dionysius’ environmentally and ecologically responsive work and the Tamborine Mountain-based Calanthe Collective’s ethos, inspired by the life and work of poet and activist Judith Wright and philosopher and writer, Jack McKinney who made their home there for many years. The last poem in Dionysius’ volume is dedicated to Wright:


            Judith. Her poems are etched on the trunks of scribbly gum.

            Insect mouths chew through the grain of her poetic field.

            As they kill, borers translate her words into a universal tongue,

            & hollow trunks of eucalypts drum; never yield, never yield.


The book is structured using five sections to delineate groups of poems belonging to The Wet Tropics, The Red West, Wide Bay, The Darling Downs and The Great Southeast. Most are written as free verse sonnets in fourteen lines, or in non-rhyming couplets. I like the way birds or creatures narrate poems themselves—‘You try living in the blackened timbers of your home after / a bushfire’s fiery redecoration’ [‘Gouldian Finch’, 5]—Dionysius inhabiting the mind of the Rat Kangaroo [48] or the Yakka Skink [47] for example, or in other places, the poet speaks directly to the Australian Bustard [39] or varieties of Spinifex [41—42].

Hailing from the Wide Bay region myself, I confess to particularly enjoying poems about Vic Hislop’s Shark Show at Hervey Bay [53] and the endangered Mary River Turtle [54], that is allowed a voice to foresee its own likely early extinction as it identifies with celebrities being cut down in their prime:


                                            …We can spend three days

            underwater, the length of a good music festival.

            Like rock stars, will be famous for dying young. 

Poems are rich with dense imagery, a little like the forests being written about in North Queensland. Many are alive with historical and literary allusions, references to contemporary culture, similes and extended metaphors. For example, in ‘Unicorns Cross Here’ [12-15], ‘The crests of great/ egrets rise like centurions’ horsehair plumes, as they take flight to encircle the square formations’ and in ‘Bufo Marinus’[18-20], a poem providing a historical explanation of the introduction of the cane toad into Australia:


            The cane toad has put the troll under the bridge out of work.

            Mary Shelley’s nightmare wore a thick leather coat of warts.


            Dr Frankenstein reanimated just one corpse: 200 million

            of them would’ve sent shivers through any ecologist’s pulse.


Dionysius identifies human and marine culprits in a poem about the death of sections of the Great Barrier Reef in ‘Ellison Reef, Mission Beach’[23], so the reader feels the anger and pain of preventable environmental destruction:


            The colonies should be immortal & outlive us

but more than half of them are dead; victims

of crown-of-thorns thuggery, chiv-clad bullies

who creep up on their targets and shank them.

Their terrestrial enemy is deadlier; sugarcane

alchemists who’d love to transform limestone

into fertiliser, or suck up oil like a yabby pump

gulps wet sand.


Other environmental concerns he has include the threat honeybees are experiencing around the world. Due to climate change, pesticides and disease, the Australian honeybee population is decreasing every year, an issue poignantly addressed in ‘Bee Fleeting’ [75-79], perhaps my favourite poem in the collection. There are wonderful images like ‘honey mailboxes’ [75] and memorable lines like this one:


            when you kiss someone, your lips are a bee-space

apart in the frame of your entwined combs …


and the final haunting lines:


            when the bees leave, we shall also go

only our fossilised forms will remain


dead grey cities, the pressures of our

own swarm will turn our sappy lives


into history’s unbreakable amber.








While climate change and habitat loss are sobering subjects, Dionysius’ love of birdwatching and the natural world is infectious and uplifting:


                                    …Around the Titan shed, the eight birds

            play follow the leader, chasing the maggot that squirms

in a parent’s bill. It is a jovial community, one that you

could be lost in; but you dare not look or turn around,

for fear your movement will end it. The chirrups that

            crawl up your back & infest your head like happiness.


Critical State demonstrates a deep engagement with place and an accessible, lyrical style. It is an immersive book that demands close attention, with a strong call to action. This is environmental poetry but also a poetry of social observation. It is poetry of warning but also of hope.


Available at Calanthe Press