Sept/Oct 1999 Book Reviews

50 Years of Queensland Poetry: 1940's-1990's

Philip Neilsen and Helen Horton, editors
Central Queensland University Press, 1998 163pp
ISBN: 1 875998 28 4

reviewed by Ann Skea

Some of my friends obviously lead very sheltered and deprived lives. "Oh dear!", said one, seeing the cover of this book, "More bush poetry". So I grudgingly loaned him this magnificent anthology so that he could see just how versatile, sophisticated, and just plain good Queensland poetry can be.

Also, whilst names like Judith Wright, David Malouf, Gwen Harwood, Oodgeroo of the tribe of Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Thomas Shapcott and Judith Rodriguez are familiar, there are others here, less familiar, whose poetry is equally enjoyable.

'Enjoyable' is the best word I can think of for this collection. I enjoyed the skill, I enjoyed the humour, and I enjoyed the very Australian flavour of these poems. Which is not to say that the subject matter is all kangaroos, meat-pies and Holden cars. Mostly, the Australian flavour is incidental to the poets' concerns, but it is unmistakably there. Mangrove swamps, the bush, surfers, migrants, black cockatoos, emus, eucalypts and drought are all part of the stories told, but human nature, ideas and memories are their focus.

Well, yes, Rugby League football does crop up in Paul Sherman's poem, 'Broncos v Balmain', parts of which are almost unintelligible to uninitiated. And there is the 'Great White Shark Poem' by Michael Sariban, but it is the poem, not the shark, which lurks

Twenty fathoms below, sexier
than the squid, more celebrated than coral,...

On the other hand, there are also poems about war, tribal totems, migration, history, poets and, even, Sydney.

As the editors note, their definition of 'Queensland Poet', has been flexible. Any poet "who has spent a significant time living and writing in Queensland" qualifies. But their claim that there is a unique Queensland perspective or that, as Thea Astley apparently claims, "human existence in Queensland may differ from most other states", is hard to prove. It may very well be different, but the poets whose writing is collected here have styles and concerns which are in no way limited by the state or the country of their origin or loyalty. They write about things which everyone, and especially every Australian, will recognise, and their outlook is rarely parochial.

Almost any woman, for example, would empathise with the woman in Eluned Lloyd's, 'Crowded Out'. We probably all know men who carry around (amongst other things)

five adult children all living at home
a repressive religious background
the protestant work ethic
and an old sour love affair....

And even those who have never watched fishermen catching tube-worms on the beach can share Silvania Gardner's admiration in 'Worming for Sirens':

Only a few have the perfect index
and thumb to grab seaworms by the throat
and orchestrate their extraction
with the flourish of the symphony maestro.

There is insight, vitality and so much delight in these poems that it would be a pity if parochial rivalry limited their audience. Who would not want to see emus, "muscled legs and spring-steel toes", stalk out of the bush (R. G. Hay); to enjoy being "slippery-mouthed" with mangoes during 'Mango Weather'(Thomas Shapcott); or to share Oodgeroo's wry/bitter joke about modern Aboriginal life ('No More Boomerang'? And how curious it is to see the strangeness of this country through the eyes of an early European settler:

I think John, of the law we read
at Winchester, the violable law.
Not easily practised here, in a makeshift house
on stilts above slippery ground. Slowly the forest
of mildew beards my shoes. In a travelling-chest
our English clothes lie folded, English skins
smeared with a cobwebbed damp as if snails had struggled
across them....
(Letter from North Queensland: 1892 by David Malouf)

My only complaint about this book is that there was so much choice that it was hard for me to choose which poems I would mention here. I certainly won't lend it again to any philistine friends of mine: they can look after their own enlightenment. And when I get it back I know it will soon grow as well-thumbed with use as The Rattle Bag (Eds. Heaney and Hughes) and Emergency Kit (Eds. Shapcott and Sweeney), which are my other favourite anthologies of modern poetry.


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