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Libby Angel, Robert J Bloomfield & Rob Walker, Friendly Street: New Poets Ten (Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2005, AUD$19.95, 90 pages, ISBN 1862546703)—Susan Ballyn, Universitat de Barcelona

 

Note to the reader: every element of unusual typography on this page is deliberate. 

 

The golden age of poetry, the Renaissance, and the subsequent decline in a taste for poetry has long relegated the genre to the pages of Histories of English Literature and ever smaller shelf space in shops and homes. Indeed, if one were to produce a graph it is possible to watch the slow decline in the numbers of readers and popularity of poetry from the Renaissance onwards, with occasional high points such as Milton, and the great Romantic poets. In the mid to late twentieth century, a mere glance at the shelf space occupied by poetry in bookshops, gave one the clear sense of how small a public it appealed to. Its location within bookshops was and is interesting as well. If there is a basement to the shop, there is where the assiduous reader will find the poetry section. Emerging voices could hardly be heard, unless individual poems were published in various journals around the world. Collections of poetry by a single author remained the prerogative of those who had hewed out a name for themselves; Peter Porter, John Kinsella, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Carol Rumens, Fleur Adcock, to name but a few. Even these “hallowed” names in the “cathedral” of poetry had had to go through much the same processes of publishing individual poems before attempting the publication of a collection. The contemporary situation in Australia, indeed around the world, is not much different. The large publishing houses only bring out short runs of volumes of poetry while smaller publishers, struggling to survive, very often publish little or no poetry.

 

Friendly Street Poets, working in association with Wakefield Press, have been around for poet lovers to enjoy for a long time. Part of the reason for their survival is, I think, the high quality and variation of the poets published over the years and they are to be credited with offering a forum within which emerging voices can be heard.  Friendly Streets New Poets Ten is no exception in its presentation of three very exciting and different poets; Libby Angel’s Stealing, Robert J Bloomfield’s Deaf Elegies and Rob Walker’s Sparrow in the Airport. All three poets have had poems published in magazines before, but this is the first time they have published collections. While at risk of stating the obvious, one thing that marks out this particular grouping of poets is the range of voice, theme and rhetorical complexity in each one. While they vary, they also share a common core; preoccupation with the world as perceived and felt. Each poet may choose to structure their poetry differently but there is a core of perception which is diaphanously clear, often painful, often pleasurable.

 

Libby Angel’s Stealing is perhaps the most accessible to the reader; yet, beneath the apparent simplicity and ease of comprehension lie deeper nuances of meaning which give her work a profound sense of personal experiences, and one could say that there is a Hughesean bleakness which the initial reading belies. It is the combination of both the personal and the bleakness which I, as a reader, find confronting when not painful. Reading her poetry is far from soothing, it is discomforting, disquieting, draws the reader to the page like a magnet until that apparent simplicity dissipates to reveal the fragility of human existence, the thirst provoked by the emotional drought in both personal and collective lives.

 

Her opening poem “I snatched a man” is typical of the use of the quotidian to construct penetrating and memorable images:

 

            I snatched a man

            Out of the winter air. He drove me in the blue car, wobbling and rattling through       the dark backstreets of the town […] [4]

 

Everything that the couple pass by or touch seems to be about to decay, including “the chairs” which “crumbled beneath our bones”. The poem is written in a visually prose like form, but the flow of the lines and the punctuation force one to read it with a sense of gathering movement and momentum, culminating in her snatched man almost releasing her from the shoddy monotony of normality as “He talked so fast his mouth began to smoke like a gun. I wanted to kiss that mouth with the stories in it and never return to these shores.” [4] Return to the painful shores of present, with all its known stories is, however, a constant in Libby Angel’s verse. There is no comfortable escape route either for the poet or the reader. There are any number of poems that deal with the crumbling instability of life, with the possibility of things existing just out of fingertip reach and never meant to be had. Her poem “My Mother’s Wings” is one of the most moving that I have read in sometime. The opening lines offer the reader a sample of the delicate, intense imagery which permeates the whole:

                       

            The wheel of fortune turns. In mourning for the sun, leaf veins

                        Tatter, lose grip,

            drift. A spell of cool shadows lurks beyond sight. Like spiders,

            death waits on the other side of corners.

 

            My mother died in autumn. It was May. The first breath of chill

            was creeping under the doors. She died with a hole in her chest.

            The blood gurgled through bandages from its underworld,

                        A rancid well. [18]

 

On first reading this poem, the image of the dying woman and the horror of the nature of her demise dominate, but eventually the reader is left with a surge of gentle relief, tenderness and love, as that which overtakes the dead woman’s daughter. There is no apology here for the agony of death and watching life gurgle away. It is one of the most, if not the most intensely personal and lyrical of the pieces in her collection. I personally have found Libby Angel’s poetry a delight to read and food for thought written in beautifully balanced verse.

 

Robert J Bloomfield’s deaf elegies [from virginia woolf’s record store] is totally different to either of the other collections in Friendly Streets New Poets Ten. At the time of publication Bloomfield was still a full-time creative writing student at the University of South Australia, yet his writing shows an amazing depth of maturity. Bloomfield describes his poetry as “[…] a blend of nostalgia, surrealism and postmodern literary theory in practice…and I acknowledge the textual and intellectual influences of Tom Raworth, André Breton, Dylan Thomas and Stéphane Mallarmé.” [28] That in itself serves well to define his collection.  

 

The meaning of Bloomfield’s poetry does not reveal itself easily but has to be read several times over before the full breadth of the significance emerges. Bloomfield is not afraid of challenges as a poet, using the villanelle with extraordinary ease, nor is he afraid to challenge his readers by offering verse which at first can seem deliberately obscure. Each poem, though it may straggle in pattern across the page or take the form of the classic villanelle, is tightly controlled, each word weighed and chosen for effect, each line break set for impression not visual pattern alone. His opening poem, like Libby Angel before him, sets the tones and preoccupations of what is to follow it: “sniffing”, in which dogs are analogous of human beings. While dogs are renowned for their gregariousness and need to identify those around them, this poems reveals the human being to be a solitary individual always distanced from his/her own kind:

 

            what sociable creatures we are

            in our solitude

            sniffing each other

            the way we do

 

            sniffing for companionship

            sniffing for security

            sniffing for knowledge

 

            sniffing for reference

            sniffing for pleasure

            sniffing for promise

 

            ah well …

            here comes civilization

            where you can look

            somebody in the eyes

            and ignore them. [30]

 

Bloomfield’s ability to play on words in such a way as to add layers of meaning to a poem comes clear in “new fragments of the past” in which the persona is depicted as “[…] divided/ i face my remains”. [34] The images seem Dalinesque in their liquidness as everything melts into something else and the poem ends where it began, loaded with the doubt of the significance of all things:

 

            the doubt has no end

            it feeds on itself

            and this poem remains

            a fragment [35]

 

The poem “escargots” comes as no surprise from a poet who has declared his own work  to be “[…]a blend of nostalgia, surrealism and postmodern literary theory in practice” [28] The poem moves around the question of the artist, the nature of art and the right to reword, remake, what has been written before. The poem scatters itself across the pages in a pattern that reflects the wandering of the snail tracks across paths. This apparent rhetorical anarchy reveals its purpose in:

 

no punctuation

no capitals

no spelling

just a jumbled mass

                                                           of letters

intertextuality has gone legit

 

                                               i’m reading

 

                                   in the room

 

                                                           the women come and go

 

nice line

                        what would I say next

 

                                               in the room

 

                                                           the women come and go

                                                                                              dreaming of escargots

                                              

 

                                               why go round talking of Michelangelo

                                                                       when you could be dreaming of

                                                           escargots?[44]

 

Finally Bloomfield declares the postmodernist right of all artists to do as he wishes with text and influences, ending with a disquieting unfinished process of thought which is passed on to the reader:

 

            okay

            michelangelo it is

            but I reserve the right

            to reinterpret things because

 

            I know every letter in that poem

                                                                                              But not necessarily

                                                                                                                      in the right                  order

 

(let me rephrase that) [45]

 

Bloomfield is a master at this type of intertextuality, word play and revisiting texts to reshape, rewrite them in his own tight, superbly controlled verse. This is not easy reading but every minute is worthwhile

 

The third poet in the volume is Rob Walker presenting his first full collection sparrow in an airport. Walker’s poetry has appeared online, and in press and he is probably the most widely published of the three poets in this collection. In 2005 he was co-editing Friendly Street's Annual Anthology throughout the year for release at the Adelaide Writers' Festival in March 2006, a publication for poetry lovers to look out for. sparrow in an airport presents preoccupations which are as much global as they are local and personal but never parochial. Having read the three poets, some may find Walker’s poetry to be straightforward, but I believe that this is a mirage effect as, while written with apparent simplicity and without engaging in sophisticated word play, there is a constant thread of preoccupation running from the local to the global. Some poems are marbled through with a contained distress or acrid criticism which hides in the form of humorous satire such as that which surfaces in “Even as I speak”. The poem, which carries the disclaimer “Any resemblance between characters in this work and actual persons, living, dead or just puffing a bit, is purely coincidental” [66], meditates on the Australian literary scene, questioning why some writers are continually elevated to the podium of fame, while others have a tough time getting their work into print or publicised. This is not, as one may be tempted to think, a case of sour grapes, but a thorough look at the intricate workings and interactions of Australian letters. In “colin powell addresses the UN”, Walker moves to the scene of international politics and American intervention in Iraq. The poem is worth quoting in full given its simplicity of rhetoric but the effectiveness of its significance:

            it’s powerpoint of course.

                        all power. no point.

            microsoftware

                        before the machohardware

 

            all style                                   no substance

                        erect an argument on flawed foundations

 

            holes the size

                        of bombcraters

 

            a colon

                        : pregnant pause before a war

 

            lives reduced

                        not to dot points

                                                           but bullet points [68]

 

The visual effect of the poem and the simplicity of its verse is profoundly moving and, now so long after the invasion of Iraq, it takes the reader sharply back to Colin Powell and his PowerPoint presentation of why intervention was necessary. The poem summons truth from the page and stops the reader from moving on to the next poem with ease. As poet Debra Zott has pointed out, “Rob Walker's poems concern themselves with injustice, beauty, memory, impressions, captivity and misplaced assistance”

For all those who are lovers and assiduous readers of poetry, this is a volume for their shelves. The three poets collected here, while called “emerging”, have successfully visiblised high quality poetry in this collection and should be looked out for in the near future. One would hope that unlike the  poets in Walker’s poem “Even as I speak”, with its suggestion that the emerging writer may never actually do so, this will not be the case with Libby Angel, Robert J Bloomfield and Rob Walker. 

Cercles2006
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