It seems strange to me that The Quadrant Book of Poetry, 2001-2010, was panned elsewhere, since most of its contributors are as good (or they seem to me as good) as Auden or MacNeice or Frost or Larkin or Lawson, and there are scores, nay, hundreds of them; but there you go. Most striking perhaps is Tyburn, by Calwell’s assassin Peter Kocan, worth quoting in full.
On one side is a bustling city street
And over on the other side the park.
You loiter on the corner and you watch
The afternoon beginning to go dark.
This unassuming spot was an abyss,
The gaping terror of so many hearts,
And here for generations they were brought
On a never-ending convoy of carts.
How grimly in the mind’s eye they pass
As here and there you recollect a name,
A few who have a mention in the books,
The tiny consolation of their fame.
But mostly you are dimly picturing
The sadder multitudes of the unknown,
Whose anguishes were never History
But just a little matter of their own –
Who swung for a petty misadventure,
Some desperate, impulsive little theft,
Some error now too utterly obscure
For any knowledge of it to be left –
Or even were entirely innocent
And who died by some malice or mistake:
The juvenile, the imbecile, the scared,
Who didn’t know the right reply to make.
Remember that there wasn’t any drop.
The dangling figure had to choke to death,
Would go for several minutes treading air
In the mad frenzy of that fight for breath.
Apparently the smallest suffered most
For the lack of sufficient body-weight.
The lucky had a friend who’d cling to them,
To help them throttle at a faster rate.
Eternities before the mind went blank,
Of attempting to scream or plead or curse.
Eternities they had in which to know
The howling horror of the universe.
Think of it happening here for centuries!
And think of all the minutes that were spent!
Imagination quails and pulls away,
Refusing to consider what it meant.
You hurry to join the commuters
Who never want to meditate on that,
Who keep their sanity by going home
To tend the garden and to feed the cat.
It has the gloom of Larkin and the dark of Blake. Am I wrong to say this? I looked through 239 pages (big and square and pleasingly composed with acres of palliative white space) for a false, pretentious, dimwitted or ramshackle work, but there just aren’t any.
Hal G.P. Colebatch is vivid and frequent: always rhyming, often caustic, sometimes zany, like a mixture of MacNeice, Ogden Nash and Banjo Paterson. He takes us to the Perth War Cemetery, the Rottnest Island Hotel and Beer Garden, the Ypres Cathedral and to a night with a redhead on a yacht in 1976; and, perhaps most mischievously, into the dark heart of Nazism, genially shared. I quote in part:
My natal day I share with the Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler,
but I hope despite this fact that we are not too similar.
Both, I am told, as children, liked collecting postage stamps,
while he when entering adulthood liked setting up death-camps.
His father was a school-master, and mine a politician,
but both of us, in different ways, inherited the ambition.
On leaving school I got a job with the local daily press,
he tried out chicken farming, then started the SS.
In different ways and times, it seemed, the both of us succeeded.
I have several Jewish friends, but I don’t think that he did.
And then I went to Law School (a foolish thing to do),
but Heinrich also made mistakes, and landed in the poo.
I studied torts, he torture – those were our salad days.
And we both of us studied murder, but in quite different ways…
Some poems have the quiet rectitude of A.E. Housman (October, by Victoria Field), the working class angry grief of Alan Sillitoe (Thirteenth Birthday, by Jean Frances), or the transnational wonderment of Barack Obama (In Memory of Corey Tottenham, 1973-2005, by Brad Jackel), or the ghostly exactitude of Emily Dickinson (Visitors, by David Chandler), or the brute invasive force of Ted Hughes (The Polygraph Experience, by Craig Sherborne), or the fulminating biblicality of Kipling (The Final Cliche, by W.H. Presley). But all of them are in different ways striking, and some, like a museum of Van Goghs, overwhelming.
How did all this occur? One can only guess at this. It may have been the exacting example, relentless and unforgiving, of their editor, Les A. Murray. It may have been the simple availability of a place of publication. But it seems to me the best such occasional collection I have ever read; better, for instance, that The Faber Book of Modern Verse; which is saying quite a bit.
Or it may be to do with the example of Larkin, who showed that clarity, intimacy, modernity and melancholy in the stating of the ordinary and the usual could strike like a gong at poem’s end. Or it could be the hours afforded by country life in Australia (and many are clearly country people, often country wives) is all the soul needs to enact, after many drafts, fine work like this.
Of hundreds I could quote in conclusion this one, perhaps, is a good example of this book’s achievement. It is called Song of the Crestfallen Pigeon, by Susan Edgar.
The pigeon on my window-sill
adores a bird of wood
that gazes from this other side
as if she understood.
Brought here from America,
she wears a perky crest
and feathers grey with olive tinge
adorn her lovely breast.
The pigeon on the outer ledge
believes he woos a dove
and cannot comprehend the glass
that keeps him from his love.
If only I could speak with him
of love’s elusive flame
I’d cure his sad obsession with
a bird he cannot claim.
All day he paces up and down
and pecks upon the pane
his doting morse-code plea for sex
like any featherbrain.