First of all, a disclaimer: P.S. Cottier, one of the three poets represented in this collection, is a friend of mine. I’d actually turned down an opportunity to review her recent collection The Cancellation of Clouds for this very reason, but I decided I felt comfortable – to use a John Key-ism – with reviewing a book in which her contribution makes up a third: hence this review!
A few years ago, I reviewed AUP New Poets 3, which included chapbook-sized contributions from Janis Freegard, Reihana Robinson, and Katherine Liddy. Triptych Poets: Issue Three, published by Blemish Books in Canberra, follows the same pattern. Here the three poets are P.S. Cottier, Joan Kerr, and J.C. Inman.
I liked two of the three sections of the book a great deal, and though I didn’t enjoy J.C. Inman’s section as much overall, I think it contains some fine poems. So let’s look at each section in turn.
P.S. Cottier: “Selection criteria for death”
What can I say? I really like P.S. Cottier’s poetry, and I like this selection just as much – in fact, maybe a little more – than her collection The Cancellation of Clouds.
Her poetry is a powerful and inimitable (at least, I haven’t ready anything else quite like them) concoction of dark humour – humour that often seems powered by an underlying anger – vivid and often witty description, and most of all intelligence. Sometimes, as in the political poetry of “Abbott’s Booby”, that anger steams off the page.
“Intelligence” can be a double-edged sword in poetry – too often, poets confuse it for academicese and an excessive devotion to critical theory – but that is not a problem here. There is no sense of deliberate obscurity in these poems, but there is the sense of a powerful mind at work, teasing out the poems’ diverse strands.
Because P.S. Cottier often uses long stanzas, it can be hard to excerpt a few lines of poetry to show you what I mean, but these lines from “How To Wrestle An Angel” give you some idea:
Clutching is advised; hold him tight as an idea,
well-loved and convenient. Wriggling will occur,
and it is imperative that the wings be kept from play.
What ring could hold an angel, should he unfold,
flex and soar? No ropes will ever net him.
He will reach out with as many arms
as Kali, as many voices as there are prophets,
hoping to flick slow minds into new holds.
Don’t let the title mislead you. There is plenty of life here.
Joan Kerr: “Dying Languages”
Though Joan Kerr’s poetry is quite different from P.S. Cottier’s in many ways – the stanzas are often shorter, the point of view cooler and more detached – her poems share the first selection’s virtues of intelligence and imagination. I found her poetry a little more opaque than P. S. Cottier’s – at times I didn’t know what she was getting at, but I think that is because a lot of her poems refer to colonial and post-colonial moments I don’t have the historical background to fully appreciate.
Perhaps because its subject matter is closer to my own experience, my favourite poem in this selection is “My Father’s Steps”, which in two-line stanzas ranges freely over 80 years of the life of the narrator’s father, with these beautiful closing lines that expand the scope of the poem:
His mind was the world we lived in once,
from Aeschylus to Xenophon, the Odyssey
to Soapey Sponge’s Sporting Tour,
Dante to Beachcomber, Pepys to Perelman.
Ninety years, spanning three thousand years
close into distance, silence and the moon
going its way across this little world.
But there are striking and memorable lines in many of the other poems. How about this, from “Prizegiving”:
My friend has won a prize for twenty years
of hanging on:
her fingers whiten
on the edges of the world.
Images like this show what a talented poet Joan Kerr is.
J.C. Inman: “Lovers and Brothers”
The bio at the front of J.C. Inman’s entry lists him as a “frequenter of the Canberra poetry slam scene” and frequent performer at festivals. The poems in “Lovers and Brothers” are good poems, and I can see them working really well in a performance setting, but for the most part I didn’t find these poems as satisfying as I did the poems by P.S. Cottier and Joan Kerr.
That’s the easy part – the hard part is to say why. I think it’s because poems that go across well when performed because of their directness and impact can sometimes be less interesting when read.
The opening of “I Dream Of Fidelity” is, I think, a good showcase for J.C. Inman’s poetry:
In the dark I could not separate the snores from the sobs
The smell of love hung dank in the spaces between us
Like semi liquid steam.
You were already sleeping when I met you in your dreams
Half formed and imperfect, standing in the Field of Infidelity,
(a field of impatiens and forget-me-nots)
where the only sport is fucking
It’s got vigour and energy, and a good image in the “field of impatiens and forget-me-nots”, but I don’t think it’s as rich as P.S. Cottier’s or Joan Kerr’s work.
This is J.C. Inman’s first published (part of a) collection. As he adjusts his work from what works best in performance to what works best on the page, I think there will be more and better to come.
I’m hard to please, aren’t I? I want to read poetry that is neither obvious nor obscure, poetry I can at once understand without too much extra reading and not entirely ‘get’ on the first attempt. It’s a pretty narrow sweet spot, and if I applied these criteria to my own poems, I’m sure that a good number of them would fail the test.
As the poet said, don’t be sad ‘cos two out of three ain’t bad, and in this case, I’m going to say two-and-a-half out of three ain’t bad. Triptych Poets: Issue 3 is worth your time and attention.