Michael Farell, Jill Jones eds.’Out of the Box’ in ABR

‘Good heavens not Ronald’: Suggestive affinities in the new queer anthology

Gregory Kratzmann, The Australian Book Review, Issue 320 April 2010

Does the title of this anthology, heralded by its editors as the first collection of Australian gay/lesbian/queer poetry, refer to the myth of Pandora’s pithos? Hesiod’s version of the story, which sees Pandora as the unleasher of all manner of evils on the (‘rational’/patriarchal) world, has been interrogated by feminist scholars who see Pandora in an older incarnation of ‘gift-giver’, bestower of plenitude, crosser of boundaries. Or does ‘Out of the Box’ have a more colloquial sense –  ‘exceptional’, ‘surprising’? Whatever the reasoning behind the title, Michael Farrell and Jill Jones have made choices which should provoke debate (among other things) about gay and lesbian identity and community, and about the relationship between poet and reader.

There is a rich poetic lode in this anthology, but it often calls for strenuous mining, not least because of the editors’ preference, evinced in the selections from their own work, for the elliptical and the oblique, expressed in free verse forms devoid of capitalisation, punctuation or conventional syntax. Depending on your point of view, this can be a source either of adventure or frustration. When the style works it works well, inviting the reader to bridge the interstices – as in the selections from Pam Brown, Lee Cataldi and joanne burns, whose ‘mardi gras’ is a taut and witty exercise in what older gay readers might see as the essence of camp:

good heavens not Ronald
again sniffing around
the mouldering brocades at
the palanquin’s wrecker’s yard …

For this reviewer at least, freewheeling flows of language can be a source of frustration, as in most of Farrell’s choices of his own work, where clusters of double quotation marks (unpaired) and other idiosyncratic pointings leave the eyes and ears in terminal confusion. And what to make of the full stops and commas at the beginning of lines in Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s ‘stretto stone’? Perhaps something akin to musical notation is at work here, giving the relevant poems a resonance as performance pieces that isn’t always apparent when they read silently as black-marks-and-spaces on the page. (The launch readings at Midsumma and Mardi Gras were apparently very successful.)

Out of the Box includes introductory essays by the editors. At the outset, Farrell suggests that the readers ‘ignore this part’ altogether if s/he wishes (which rather begs the question as to why twenty pages of precious anthology space are used in this way). Farrell has chosen the poems by men, Jones those by women, in a quaint variation on the old boy/girl binary.

In a sometimes illuminating but often laboured explication of some of what are presumably his favourite inclusions, Farrell writes about ‘The Blues of Nothin Moribund’ by Melbourne poet Javant Biarujia. Biarujia is surely the most fascinating of the ‘maverick’ poets in the anthology (the term is John Kinsella’s), because of his creation of Taneraic, an ‘hermetic’ vocabulary with which he peppers standard English vocabulary. In making the inflated claim that this poet ‘makes anyone else’s use of English seem rather dry’, Farrell uses a dictionary to annotate the poems. Isn’t this to engage in special pleading, especially when part of the assumed audience of the anthology consists of younger readers – queer or otherwise – whose experience of linguistic obliqueness is likely to be rather limited (though it’s hard not to delight in one of the more accessible of Biarujia’s works, the extract from the wittily lubricious ‘Virilities’ – ‘Who was it who glossed coq au vin as “love in a lorry?”’)?

Robert Adamson’s claim, in his Best Australian Poems 2009, that it was ‘the year of the women poets’ is supported (allowing for some backdating) by the present selection. Susan Hawthorne, Kate Lilley, Tricia Dearborn and Dipti Saravanamuttu are but four of the strong women’s voices to be heard in this anthology. Saravanamuttu pays tribute to a spare Sapphic lyric legacy in ‘Lines About a Face’:

That mouth which was a scarlet thread
an image rediscovered years later
in the Song of Songs, and recognized
for something like the original
effect on the heart of a fool.

Farrell expresses the hop that each work can be ‘read as one of a group of poems that “talk among themselves”’. Since the contents are listed alphabetically by title, rather than grouped by theme, what this might mean is unclear, but no doubt any attentive reader will find suggestive affinities between one poem and another. I found myself moving back and forth between Saravanamuttu’s poems and those of Kerry Leves. Like hers, his voice is spare and restrained, and both have a talent for understated metaphor. Both Saravanamuttu and Jones write superbly in free verse forms, which the latter uses to celebrate the power of the senses. Her ‘Limits We’ve Shouldered’ has a kind of raw energy that invites comparison with the late Dorothy Porter. ‘The Ninth Hour’ is a grand and terrible poem, perhaps the finest thing the fire-tongued Porter ever wrote; it is a woman’s poem through and through:

Do you hear
the fighting hiss
of this geyser
in me?

I stand my ground
in the undaunted spray
and company
of my own words.

The editors of Out of the Box address, in different ways, the question ‘Why an anthology of gay and lesbian poetry?” For Farrell, the reader’s awareness of a poet’s sexuality should not define or limit meaning, but rather ‘add something’. Jones acknowledges, amusingly, the scepticism that some of her contributors expressed (‘Does the poem have to be overtly lesbian?’). I  wonder how many readers experience, for example, any ‘addition’ of meaning to Peter Rose’s edgy satirical poems when they know he is a gay man. Does David Malouf’s sexuality have anything to do, finally, with his finely honed revisitings of classical modes and subjects? (Malouf’s ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’, incidentally, gives the lie to any supposition that good poetry has to rely on obliquity and verbal callisthenics.)

This is not to suggest that there is no place for an anthology such as this one – the collection, like any other, derives its justification from its quality and range, and on both counts we should be grateful for the appearance of Out of the Box. Political issues, such as gay/lesbian legal rights, are mentioned in the introductory essays, but these are pink herrings, in that very few of the poems engage with political issues or, for that matter, with questions of sexual identity. Today, an anthology of gay/lesbian writing is essentially different from any anthology of, say, contemporary indigenous poetry, or of writing concerned with the experience of migrants or refugees – such writing is bound to focus more strongly on themes of dispossession and identity.

When I began to write this review, I thought about a conversation with Robert Dessaix, just before the publication of his anthology Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing in 1993. He spoke ironically of what he considered to be the book’s finest poem to deal with explicitly gay male sexuality: ‘Ganymede’, written by Gwen Harwood, heterosexual married mother of four. There is much in this new anthology to provoke discussion and debate about the fluidity of identity that is integral to what-ever the ‘self’ of the writer might be.

Out of the Box consolidates Puncher & Wattmann’s position as Australia’s foremost publisher of poetry. Printed on fine paper, the book is superbly designed. There is, I think, only one typographical error surely ‘then’ in Carolyn Gerrish’s poem should be ‘them’. The biographical notes and the reading lists are welcome inclusions.

Gregory Kratzmann

Review not available online from the original source: The Australian Book Review

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