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

Collections Shine New Light on poets

Two anthologies show it is better to be interesting than to be ‘right’, David McCooey, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 2010


How important is the “gay and lesbian” part of “gay and lesbian poets”, those subjects of Michael Farell and Jill Jones’s superb, groundbreaking anthology, Out of the Box?

While gay men and lesbians have so often been forced to be silent in public life, they have long turned to the virtual space of writing to find ways not only of being heard but of being. In fact, one could argue that gay and lesbian writers are so vital to literary culture that they are often the key authors in various national literatures: think of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Patrick White and (most ambiguously and scandalously) William Shakespeare.

The question, then, is not why we need anthologies of gay writing but why there aren’t more of them.

Out of the Box makes a compelling case for considering the relationship between sexuality and poetic creativity. Certainly, there is the anxiety, dealt with by both editors in their introductions, that a focus on sexuality will be limiting, a reduction of a poet’s work. But, as the anthology brilliantly shows, any thematisation (including the more familiar ones, such as “women”, “Australian”, “poetry”, “19th-century”, and so on) can create meaning, showing things in creative and new ways.

Out of the Box offers perspectives, then, not ghettoes. The inclusion of David Malouf’s superb 'Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian' is illustrative here. In its new context, the importance of camp to the poem (seven free translations of Hadrian’s little poem on death) becomes apparent. And, as Farrell brilliantly shows in his explication of the poem, the implied figuring of male-male affection means the poem is as much about queering identity and desire as it is about translating the classics.

Obliquity, as one might expect, is important here, too. The masters of obliquity –  Chris Edwards, Michael Farrell and Kate Lilley – are present and the collection as a whole makes a powerful case for the link between the obliquity of modernist and postmodernist aesthetics – especially ambiguity – and queer expression. (One thinks again of canonical names: Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, Getrude Stein, John Ashbery.) The arrangement of the poems alphabetically by title (not author) is another nod to the postmodern and it sets up some interesting juxtapositions.

While there is space given to some more or less direct political expression, the overwhelming emphasis in the collection is on sophisticated stylisation, whether that is the brilliant indirection of Pam Brown, the metaphorical inventiveness of Malouf, the “complex simplicity” of Dorothy Porter or the satire and luminosity of Peter Rose. As those four names show, the “gay and lesbian” poet is clearly central to Australian poetic culture. This anthology may be out of the box but it is not out of the blue.

While the poems in this anthology are often “difficult”, there is plenty of humour here, as well as eroticism, intelligence and poetic inventiveness – pretty much everything one wants from a literary anthology. The anthology fulfils another important function: introducing new works and lesser-known poets, both of which are seen in the final poem, Ian MacNeill’s ‘Wittgenstein Cottaging in Cambridge’. The book’s “accidental” concluding image, by virtue of the alphabetical arrangement, of the philosopher Wittgenstein “blowing Patrick White” is almost too good to be true.

David McCooey

The Sydney Morning Herald

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