Books

St Valentine's Day books: better than a box of chocolates

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The Valentine-same-old? Chocolates, roses, dinner date, all good. But how about going hi-brow and lo-cal this year?
We mean books: more solid than a box of chocs and more unpredictable. (cf. Forrest Gump: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re ‘gonna get’. And with more antioxidants: A page a day keeps the gremlins away.
Tric O’Heare, poet and educator, reviews Australian Love Poems below, while sister site Crikey’s Culture Mulcher  blogger W.H Chong and his team, Jim Morgan and Constant Gardener, provide Daily Review readers with other book recommendations.

Australian Love Poems  (Edited by Mark Tredinnick, Inkerman & Blunt ,2014, rrp $28.99)
In his introduction to Australian Love Poems, editor Mark Tredinnick suggests that Australians are ‘a people…more adapted to love and given to poetry than we like to let on’. This notion of collective coyness or reticence masking seams of deep feeling and creativity clearly informed the look and feel of Australian Love Poems (Inkerman & Blunt, 2014). A matt black cover with the white title framed by floral graphics in copper-foil gives the book a chocolate-box look. Orange and gorgeous, the inside of the front cover maintains the double promise of tempting delectability and top-shelf treats.
 

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Readable and/or brilliant
In any discussion of the quality of the contents of this book, the intent of editor and publisher should be acknowledged. Tredinnick says that both he and publisher Donna Ward hoped Australian Love Poems would be not only ‘readable and brilliant’ but that ‘the love will help spread the poetry far beyond poetry’s borders.’ Which is to say, the book should appeal to poets — the usual audience for poetry — and to a readership beyond.
The crossover seems a sensible one to aim for — especially for a new small press. But it may also have meant that when the hand of the selector was hovering over the 1501 submitted poems, it descended on some poems because they seemed to have ‘broad appeal’– perhaps through a reassuring familiarity of sentiment or image, or through literalness, or through the assumed frisson of lewdness. ‘Readable’ and ‘brilliant’ aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive but they aren’t always coupled either; sometimes a brilliant work is worthy of more effort than ‘readable’ implies.
Better than merely readable
Like most poets and poetry readers, I am reading (if unconsciously) for ‘quality’ and for things that resonate with me. Like the chocolate eater (OK, second-last chocolate reference), I want something ‘good’ that also appeals to my taste, something that I will go back to. I am unlikely to return to poems that are merely readable.
I do turn again and again to Kevin Brophy’s poem Untitled. Brophy has produced here a magnificent act of obeisance despite the fact that the poem is very heavy on the first person — ten ‘I’s in sixteen lines. There is a stillness and clarity that gives the poem the wrenching gravitas of sculpture:
I found her with a better heart
than I could bear.
I bowed before her long before
I fell upon the path that found her here.
Chloe Wilson’s hypnotic She’s an Argonaut is compelling in a different way. Wilson makes clever use of the four-steps-forward, two-steps-back nature of the pantoum form. I need to quote two stanzas (fourth and fifth) to give a sense of this slow forward-back-forward movement:
Her legs slip through the pleats at night —
that’s when she likes to locomote.
Because she comes all dressed in white
no-one knows she means to hunt.
That’s why she likes to locomote,
to raise her sails and then depart.
No-one knows she means to hunt —
they turn to flee but it’s too late.
Seeing how generously the form contributes to meaning here might prompt poets who don’t experiment with received structure to look again at the pantoum and other poetic forms. And all readers of this poem will see nautilus shells in a new light.
The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt is both arresting seascape (‘Humpbacked rocks sloping down in to the sea / like the end of a long argument’) and moving love poem. It captures lyrically a moment of epiphanic apprehension in a relationship:
. . . your torso turning
from side to side like something the ocean was rejecting,
and in a foal’s kick, a leaping up,
I saw you as a stranger might see you then,
Humour is attempted in many poems. In the most successful, for this reader, it is nuanced humour or humour balanced by wisdom or acts of wry self-consciousness. So Cate Kennedy’s ‘Ode to Lust’ captures the rollickingness of making love through personifications ranging from ‘It doesn’t need to have a bed: / Its teeth pull off your underwear;’ to the lovely: ‘Love picks us up like instruments / and puts us down again retuned.’ And Untitled, Michael Sharkey’s stacking up of hyperbolic statements to the beloved, maintains the sonnet’s tradition of poking gentle fun at itself as the archetypal form of love poetry:
That you contain the world: the quartet
for the end of time, the seven last words,
and the Cross, the Buddha’s mind,
the Prophet’s head, the earth that breathes,
Rod Usher’s That Love takes a jaunty tilt in a John Deere tractor at Emily Dickinson’s famous line ‘That love is all there is’. E.D. aficionados might see it as bit mean, if not unfair, to ‘gentle Miss D’ but it is a thought-provoking countering of the romantic view of love with the cynic’s.  Van Roberts has fun with a different dimension of the canon when she executes an amusing word-dance with Jimmy Stewart in ‘Rear(ish) Window’: ‘jimmy—it’s not like that at all—come over here, you smell like san francisco.’
The sex section
Tredinnick’s organisation of the book into ten named sections is, as he says, his own ‘go’ at wrangling love into ‘rooms’ or ‘cages’ . This is a potentially useful thing to do for a reader — it offers a reference point to navigate by and readers can agree or disagree with each poem’s corralling.
The names of each section (the first is called ‘Unruly days’ and the tenth ‘There is another universe in which our song is not yet finished’) are all strong phrases or lines —  I can see why Tredininnick gave them subtitle status on the contents page. I did wonder though, whether a clearer, less metaphoric labelling of love’s rooms might draw a reader into the book more quickly and keep them there longer, especially if, as Tredinnick says, his aim is to ‘. . . spread the poetry beyond poetry’s borders’. In a similar vein, not being provided with an index that lists all the poems alphabetically (rather than just under their section-heading) makes dipping back into the book to re-read a favourite poem harder than it needs to be.
The sex section is the least obliquely titled; it is called ‘It’s Time to Take Off our Clothes.’ For me, this is the least compelling section. There are gems (see references to ‘Ode to Lust’ above) but there are also clichéd poems and underdeveloped poems, snippets and snatches of ideas and unresolved images. Irritants that pop up in other sections such as inverted syntax to achieve rhyme, accidently inconsistent rhyme-schemes, use/over use of rhetorical questions and ineffectual last lines seem more intrusive here.
Favourite lines
That love and poetry make a powerful double helix has been demonstrated for millennia. Many readers of Australian Love Poems will find whole poems that they are drawn to for their own reasons. Any reader will find lines they are moved by — for their own reasons. A handful gathered up for my own are:
‘Some lovers love each other out,’ (Petra White, Selva Oscura)
‘…A body / is made of its own millstones and wings’ (Andy Jackson, Millstones and Wings)
‘I’ll watch you swim / lick the echo from your ear’ (Van Roberts, Surfer Girl)
‘a mnemonic I discover for your body’s / shape against the wind’ (Thom Sullivan, nothing doing
‘Of eighty-nine years there are now hours’ (Russell Erwin, Of a Marriage).
In her foreword, Donna Ward states that the book was first published as Australian Love Poems 2013 and was reprinted as simply Australian Love Poems in 2014. This re-naming is commercially understandable but is too audacious a claim for this anthology, which after all remains a selection of 200 poems from the deluge of 1,501 submitted in response to Ward and Tredinnick’s call for love poems in 2013.
I have put forward some questions as to whether its quality scale is weighted at the ‘readable’ or the ‘brilliant’ end, but Australian Love Poems achieves what it intended to do. Keen browsers (both poets and non-poets) will find poems that sing their own sorrow or joy in love, poems they wish they wrote or wish were written for them. It will make a good gift — better than say, a box of chocolates — for a love-related occasion.
[box]Poet and teacher Tric O’Heare’s Tender Hammers was published by Five Islands Press in 2003. In 2007 she co-authored with poet Ross Donlon two books on teaching poetry for Blake Education. Her chap book Fear of Umbrellas was published by Mark Time Books in 2012. Her poem ‘Phillip Island, 1972′ was selected for The Best Australian Poems 2014.[/box]

Culture Mulcher W.H. Chong’s  St Valentine’s Day picks: 
From myself, a short list — three genre novels and a book of non-love poetry.(Oh, and two women writers.)
Science Fiction: The Peripheral by William Gibson– one of the godfathers of cyberpunk back in the ’80/’90s, Gibson is famous for his prescience. In his latest novel, among other notions, he provides an persuasive and eye-opening extrapolation of 3D printing and how that technology will dominate the way we make things. As an aside he gives a brief exposition of how our world falls apart over the next few decades. Surprisingly upbeat and optimistic, considering.
And don’t miss Ann Leckie’s tour de force Ancillary Justice and its sequel. Ancillary Justice collected every major science fiction writing award — an unprecedented feat; that it was a debut novel makes it incredible. See the Wikipedia entry for plot.  but for SF fans all you need to know is that it posits a number of hi-concept issues and develops them thoroughly and stylishly across action-packed landscapes. (Leckie takes up some of Iain M. Banks’ space operatic legacy, which is nice.)
Poetry: I read a bunch last year — dipping into a pile of slim volumes on the bedside table without any obligation to finish. The book that most stuck in mind was Michael Heald’s The Moving World (Fremantle Press). Heald, a lecturer in literature at Melbourne University, has written a curious, skin-tingling series of poems, derived from his meditational practice. The first section’s poems are about the state of receptivity brought on by the practice — the ‘experience of experience’. The second half returns the poet to “normality” but in a heightened state of sensitivity. Somehow it feels like Heald often gets much closer to “reality” than seems possible with words. Robert Gray calls it a ‘daring and triumphant project’ . (I’d quote a few lines, but that wouldn’t convey any of the volume’s remarkable effect.)
Two more things: read Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan books; three out, the last to come this year. Everyone is raving about these: Paris Review (see last rec.);SlateThe Times Literary Supplement etc etc. I think there is more blood (not violence) flowing through her books than anyone else’s.
And Elizabeth Harrower, long lost or neglected, and now recovered Australian author (she is 86 and lives in Sydney). James Wood in the New Yorker writes a wonderful appreciation of her work. Her long unpublished book In Certain Circles (1971) came out last year, and I agree with Wood, who writes: ‘The book belongs with her best work, with The Watch Tower and The Long Prospect.’ The Watch Tower (1966) is one of the great Australian novels; you will never forget it.

Jim Morgan’s recommendations:

The Culture Mulcher book reviewer’s list of his favourite books of 2014 might be a good starting point for non-romance/love titles. Jim reviewed the London, Hillman and Knausgaard: The Golden Age by Joan London; The Bush by Don Watson; Joyful by Robert Hilman, My Struggle — three autobiographical novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard; and Tree Palace by Craig Sherborne, of which Jim says: ‘this rural tale of transients might be placed alongside the best of Hardy, perhaps not as dramatic, but at least as moving.’
Constant Gardener’s recommendations: 
For upper-level brows, my personal advisor’s list of last year’s best books: Australian classic: The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow; contemporary master: Lila by Marilynne Robinson; cultivation culture: The Education of a Gardener by Russell Page; contemporary Australia fiction: The Edith Trilogy (Grand Days, Dark Palace, Cold Light) by Frank Moorhouse and; for laughs, Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn.
 

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