Vintage 2005

Dubbing something the best is problematic—it’s eye-catching but there are always naysayers and lobbyists for the left-out and, with a competing ‘best’ in The Best Australian Poetry 2005, published by UQP, it might be time to find a better collective title for these essentially valuable annual collections.

Frank Moorhouse, who has edited The Best Australian Stories 2005, comments pre-emptively that most readers would intelligently construe the term ‘best’ as an aspiration. No, I think not. It’s a judgment, but squeamishness about that is Australian or unAustralian, depending on your point of view.

This is the second year that separate editors have handled each of the collections following the bitter split between former editor Peter Craven and publisher Morry Schwartz. Robert Dessaix has grouped the essays into four sections: ‘I Remember When …’, ‘Creative Acts’, ‘Meditations’ and ‘The Way We Live Now’ and written a short introduction to each. Moorhouse has opted for a memorandum from the editor and Les Murray, in The Best Australian Poems 2005, for a preface, and both are a little defensive, getting in first this time around in the light of some criticism of their choices in the previous year’s editions.

The essays tend to be ruminative and gentle, rather than polemic. Dessaix clearly prefers persuasion, and though in general I agree, the passion that leaps from the page in Robert Hughes’s discussion of the sculpture of Richard Serra did leave me feeling wistful that I hadn’t been swept off my feet more often.

Dessaix has allowed the definition of essay some latitude, including what might be regarded as reportage (Anna Krien’s ‘Trouble on the Night Shift’, which first appeared in The Monthly, for example) and what might be called informed commentary (Robert Manne’s energetic summation of the culpability of Murdoch newspapers in promoting the war on Iraq, perhaps, or Kate Jennings’s cheerfully written but very depressing account of the US Republican Convention). The result is an eclectic mix of erudite discussion, acute observation and some moments of beauty.

There are 28 contributors and 24 of these essays have already appeared, or will appear, elsewhere, drawn from literary and cultural magazines, and newspapers; one was delivered as a seminar paper.

Some essays could have leapt sections—Robyn Davidson’s about belonging and representation of the landscape could have worked as well in ‘Creative Acts’ and Martin Thomas’s ‘Looking for Mr Mathews’, about the difficult search for the subject of his biography, would have done well there too, with its frustrated hope and spore-filled papers.



Kerryn Goldsworthy’s essay on Graham Kennedy is fresh and invigorating; Janine Burke in ‘Divine Bodies: Love, Lust and Longing in Freud’s Collection’ informs with lightly worn scholarship. Helen Garner, in her discussion of dancers, ‘In the Wings’, makes each graceful movement apparent, evinces the wonder and the sheer effort of weightlessness.

Creed O’Hanlon’s ‘Northing’ is a compelling piece of writing about travel and roots and trying to make sense. Sometimes what is not written is what makes an essay more poignant, as in Brenda Walker’s ‘The Long Fall into Steel’ in which she leads us to the contemplation of mortality and love.

Suzy Baldwin’s unease with Australia, its landscape and its place in her consciousness is an interesting contrast to Mark Tredinnick’s poetic placing of himself within his land as he contemplates the tragedy that unfolded with the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004.

The blurb on the back of The Best Australian Poems 2005 says editor Les Murray is Australia’s greatest poet. He says, in his preface, that he agrees with those who believe there is a boom in poetry-writing in Australia, ‘perhaps even a small golden age emerging’.

About half the poetry chosen came in submissions, the other half from Murray’s reading of poetry-publishing journals and from collections. There is one poem per poet, arranged alphabetically (by poet). Two poems are published posthumously—one by Bruce Beaver, who died in 2004, and the other by Mary Gilmore, whose poem came to light recently after being misfiled in ‘someone else’s manuscript box at the Mitchell Library’.

Murray says it seems true that most poets live in Victoria but he presents a good cross-section with nearly 120 poets writing about politics, domesticity, relationships, and culture.

Our recently realised fears of swimming with sea monsters surface in quite different ways in Peter Kocan’s ‘The Deep’ and Judith Beveridge’s ‘The Shark’. There is lovely humour in Clive James’s joyous celebration ‘Anniversary Serenade’. Bruce Dawe’s sickening ‘The Blue Dress’, John Foulcher’s carefully observed ‘The Woman Alone’, Katherine Gallagher’s poignant juxtaposition of lost love and terror in ‘On the Road from Kathmandhu’, Robert Gray’s careful, formal placement of words in ‘Among the Mountains of Guang-xi Province, in Southern China’, Anthony Lawrence’s searing ‘Live Sheep Trade’, Margaret Harvey’s nostalgic, acute ‘These Fibro Houses’ and Peter Goldsworthy’s generous, warm ‘Dog Day’ exhibit some of the diversity of this collection. Bronwyn Lea turns what could have been a narcissistic study into beauty with piercing image and mythology made concrete in her poem ‘Bronwyn Lea’.

Murray includes his own ‘The Mare on the Road’, a quixotic moment of awful decision that well bears rereading.

I became a bit wearied, in the collected stories, by the banal nastiness of so many characters. Conflict was reduced so often to small meanness, trashy misjudgments and petty betrayals as men and women did damage to each other. Some stories shone above this, of course, illuminated by excellent writing, or a moment of transcendence.

Janette Turner Hospital’s ‘Blind Date’ had me feeling every beat of young Lachlan’s longing for his father; Gillian Mears writes with sensitivity and artful ambivalence so that her characters’ faults or frailties are forgiven; and Patrick Cullen’s three linked stories (he is the only writer to score more than one story, but the three, I think, are necessary) carefully eviscerate the unspoken things of relationships.

There were moments or vignettes in other stories that were interesting or lovely, but I can’t say I felt transported, or even very grateful, to have read several.

Moorhouse has opted for the same alphabetical arrangement as in the poetry collection and this strikes me as too random for stories. One might as well sort them alphabetically by story or place them randomly if one doesn’t care for the subtle rubbing up of one against another. 

The Best Australian Essays 2005, edited by Robert Dessaix. Black Inc, 2005. isbn 1 863 95118 0, rrp $24.95

The Best Australian Poems 2005, edited by Les Murray. Black Inc, 2005. isbn 1 863 95102 4, rrp $24.95

The Best Australian Stories 2005, edited by Frank Moorhouse. Black Inc, 2005. isbn 1 863 95110 5, rrp $24.95

Jennifer Moran is a Brisbane-based writer of fact and fiction. She was formerly literary editor at The Canberra Times and books editor at The West Australian.

 

 

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