Martin Langford, ‘ground’ in The Australian

Poetry reviews: Caldwell, Langford, Pieloor, Crispin

Aidan Coleman reviews four poetry books in The Australian March 5, 2016


The colonial past looms large in Martin Langford’s Ground… a book that interrogates the myths of our past with an eye on how they might shape our current and future discourse. In Original Fiction, “A Captain Cook arrives. / He plants a flag. / After which, New Holland’s legal … His Majesty’s cannon confirm it… And they’re not the only proof Oz is authentic. / Australia’s legit because Flinders drew / delicate numbers and webs round the coast. / Because Phillip lost his front tooth.”

The Anzac myth is debunked in similar fashion in Gallipoli: “We weren’t fair dinkum / until / we were authorised / by your deaths”. The poem ends with the chilling rhetorical: “O how can we thank you enough / for your screams of permission?” If Langford’s poems are didactic it’s because our destructive instincts are matched only by our capacity to forget and because our moment in history is fragile and precarious.

Australia is presented as a continent of harsh light, and Langford’s poetry has a similar effect of laying bare: “The built world fades back to its drafts. / The way that it offers itself / as a stage, or as text, gets too hard / to believe. Earth flakes to biscuit. / The bleached grasses die. Stacked signage — / po-mo, pre-modern — surrenders to light.” (from IV: The Season of the Sky from Seven Sydney Seasons). Characteristically, there’s an easy commerce between thought and image in the deft uncoiling of these lines.

Cities in Langford’s work are places of isolation and amnesia. Sydney is: “Just a loose plain of shimmer and flow / where all consequence ends. People / flock down to it — not to exchange / their ideas, but to set them aside” (from Sydney). Ecological themes are foregrounded in this poem, as elsewhere: the city’s ephemerality is contrasted with ‘‘the old river’’ that climate change might forever alter.

Langford’s voice is authentic and original, and evidence of his lyric gifts and talent for phrase-making abound. But for all this, and the seriousness of his message, the poems want more movement and drama, and the consistency of tone — impressive as it is — left me longing for surprise.

Aidan Coleman is a poet and critic.

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