Black Inc. appoints a different editor each year for this anthology series and (it seems) allows editors considerable freedom with regard to selection process and the number of poems (pages) for inclusion. Dorothy Porter's editoral selections are her considered "Without Fear or Favour" best poems of 2006 and the anthology is a rambunctious and glittering read. She has done a splendid job and managed to include just about 'everybody' without too much loss of impact overall.
Porter tells us in her Preface to the collection that she selected from unsolicited loose poems, books and magazines "with rigid resolution". The anthology is in two sections; the first section - I. Prelude presents "a brief memorial to five unique poets"; Bruce Beaver (1928-2004), Shelton Lea (1946-2005), Richard Deutch (1944-2005), Vera Newsome (1912-2006) and Lisa Bellear (1961-2006).
The second section - II. presents the work of the living poets, all one hundred and one of them. As is seemingly more common today in anthology compilation for magazine, online journal and book format, the poems appear in alphabetical order according to the poets' surnames. So section II. starts with Robert Adamson's 'A Visitation' and ends with Ouyang Yu's 'The Kingsbury Tales: the scholar's tale'.
I guess it is easier to structure an anthology as large and as generous as this one in strict alphabetical order, however, some poems suffer as a result of this process, while others benefit.
Judith Beveridge, a particularly talented poet, placing after Adamson, a master as well, you would think could work. Sadly her two poems 'Lingo' and 'Jellyfish' did not work well. The weakness of these poems being highlighted, by being too close to Ken Bolton's wonderful sequence 'Coffee'. Beveridge's poetry rang a forced note during and after the fact, '...We called him Lingo. On deck / he kept a cockatoo that he'd tried to teach to rip out oaths' and her narrative seemed overly flat, '...People wanted him off the docks. We said / very little when they set the air ringing with rebuke.'.
Bolton's poetry coming one poem later made me want to rush out and get some of the coffee he was on. The thing about Bolton's approach with this sequence is his total commitment to his subject. He makes a day of leisure and observation a liminal experience; 'poets like the word 'blue'. / I myself like it. - the sky / is that colour' (4.) and this two line gem, 'as so often happens when I drink / coffee alone I don't think of anyone but myself' (7.) The lack of any desire to 'tell' us anything more important than each observation, made his sequence all the more refreshing. I don't think I've ever enjoyed Bolton's work more and will drink my coffee in future with his 'Coffee' in mind.
What I do appreciate about this anthology is being able to catch up with current work from so many poets. The impact is stupendous, gathered within the covers of one publication. Poets who are well-known to most Australians; Peter Porter, John Kinsella, Peter Boyle, Jordie Albiston, Pam Brown, Joanne Burns, James Charlton, Bruce Dawe, Alan Gould, Robert Gray, Jennifer Harrison, Martin Harrison, Laurie Duggan, J.S. Harry, Clive James, Jill Jones, John Jenkins, Judy Johnson, Gig Ryan, Thomas Shapcott, Anthony Lawrence, Ian McBryde, Tim Thorne, John Tranter, and so very many more have poetry included.
In Kevin Brophy's 'A Dictionary of Sentences' the poet delivers a charming list of observations; 'After being away from my son for a day his size frightens me.', 'I pedal for an hour and am half convinced I am going / nowhere.', 'We speak of the weather because in truth it tells what is / within us.'
And M.T.C. Cronin's contribution 'Foxglove (Digitalis)' offers; 'I am sure we walked over that grass / and up that street. / Do you know I still dream about you, / recalling your face in the dark', 'I want to pick out your bones / from the ash of my heart; / to eat the flower / they tell me not to eat.'
It is not so hard to be taken somewhere stranger than home reading through both of these poems, yet they resonate with something familiar and known.
Not everything familiar is comforting, Michael Farrell's 'bagboy' is a gutsy poem; 'to say / it only a building sensation & blood coming out of him / in ecstasy or as close as hell get', ' & jealousys for straights it seemed to him hed proven / something / the prison had great acoustics & he had an escapees lungs'.
Two poems from Ateif Khieri (translated by Timur Hammond) are a welcome surprise. No previous publication information is available on the poet and this anthology does not include poet biographies, so Khieri is a mystery, at least to me, but the poems 'Song of the Beginning of the Night' and 'Girl' have earned their place in this collection.
The beginning of night:
do you have a heart, and a mother?
('Song of the Beginning of the Night')
The girl yearns to show you something
other than herself
though you will see only a girl, as long as
you possess nothing but your two eyes,
your parted mouth.
Annette Marner's 'Midnight Drive' is slight in length, but contains a sharp enough message;
'I wish you pain, silently / like a prayer // for bringing me here'
and the detached yet slightly cynical approach of Ian McBryde in his sequence 'Songs for Paul' leaves no room for doubt; '3. You dream of nipples, music. What is it she likes, / Mozart, Beethoven? Something like that.', '5. Late May. / Guess she's had the kid by now. / Little bastard.', '6. Whiskey helps. Another bottle helps even more.' I was more than happy to find that Peter Minter's poem 'Voyager' was included here, sounding a slightly different note in the 'm' section. 'So goodbye, go out & find // what there is to say / of transformation, the sparkle, junk // & greenest hearts. Go out / before the world knows you're not.'
One of the best of the best, as far as I am concerned is Les Murray's 'The Nostril Songs'. When Murray is on, he is so on and there's not too many do it better.
You yourself are a ghost.
If you were there
you are still there -
even if you're alive
out in the world of joking.
'The Nostril Songs')
And before I leave the 'm' section, which seems to have a lot going for it, a mention of Mal McKimmie's great poem 'Jubilate Agony' a neatly drawn political satire which begins; 'For I will consider my Prime Minister, Johnny.' and continues a path decidely left leaning, with all the lines commencing with 'For' and a reader could pick any at random and find something as witty as these; 'For he knows that the media is his saviour. / For he is a master of camouflage. / For he is the most pernicious of tomcats.'
Many more poems need mentioning, Brendan Ryan's 'What It Feels Like', Alica Sometimes' ' Cold Was the Ground', Tim Thorne's Dentist's Waiting Room' 'when I smile, wide as a thylacine, I want / to be described as photogenic.'
And the last poet in the collection, Ouyang Yu's 'The Kingsbury Tales: the scholar's tale', The scholar, mostly a quiet man, with a large head, I think, / of history'.
I'd love to be able to consider and mention so many more, but space and time won't allow it and you can blame it on Dorothy Porter. She has put together almost too much poetry. Australian poetry which is inclusive and loaded. In her Preface Porter says "The real tragedy of Australian poetry is not how few good poets there are, but how few books of poetry are bought and read." This one would be a great way to start reading contemporary Australian poetry, finding gems along the way and plenty to think about.