Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

Review of John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan by Sanna Peden

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Sanna Peden

The University of Western Australia 

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The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry

John Kinsella & Tracy Ryan (eds), The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2017; pp: 376; RRP $34.99 Paperback.

The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry provides a historical sampling of almost two hundred years of Western Australian poetry from 134 poets altogether. The collection is intended to cover “the most interesting” of Western Australian poetry over this time, peppered with pieces selected primarily to “illustrate their times”, while excluding the more racist early colonial poetry (p. 17-18). In effect, while the poems in the collection arguably run from ‘the good’ to ‘the bad’, the editors have chosen to exclude as much of ‘the ugly’ as they justifiably can. This is by no means to the detriment of the collection as it stands, but it is worth bearing in mind that the anthology is not intended to be ‘representative’ in its fullest sense.

With the work of so many poets covered in the collection, there are any number of themes and threads to follow, arising either purely from the poems themselves or from the context in which they are presented. For example, Lilian Wooster Greaves’ “The Farmer’s Daughter” (p. 101-103) is entertaining in its own right, detailing as it does the lamentable repercussions of women’s intellectual ambitions: “Guess I’ll stick to washing dishes, / sweeping, cooking, darning socks; / Having literary wishes / Gives a girl too many shocks.” However, Greaves’ poem gains a further delightful, even wicked edge from being placed beside the gently patronising tone of Fredrick Charles Vosper’s “The New Woman”: “In labor’s ranks she takes her place, / With skilful hand and cultured mind; / Not always foremost in the race, / But never far behind.” (p. 100-101).

The voices of early Aboriginal poets and singers are included with as much context as possible. The works of Minkarlajirri and Miriny-Mirinymarra Jingkiri, for example, are presented in the original as well as in translation, with some notes on the cultural references in the poems as well as their context of recording. The presence of the original wording brings the reader closer to the poem, although of course a world is lost in going from song to print. It is a truism that Aboriginal writers have a deeper connection to land than settler poets–but, as Mingkarlajirri’s “The Marble Bar Pool Spirit Is Releasing A Flood” demonstrates, that, too, flattens out the realities of Aboriginal cultures. The song’s composer is away from their own land, and is as much a stranger as anyone else who does not belong at the pool, not recognised by the spirit of the place. Unfamiliarity, a hostile landscape, even a dangerous snake; these are all tropes of settler poetry, emerging here from a more complex understanding of belonging in a vast land.
    Thematically, early settler poetry reflects a broader unease with the landscape, a sense of disconnection and coming face to face with the uncanny. These poems are dominated by campfires, ghostly apparitions, and men gone mad in “hell in Earth’s disguise” (“Ode to West Australia”, p. 107). Yet there is a narrative arc of sorts, where more recent settler poets express a deeper desire to connect with the environment: there is a world of difference between John Boyle O’Reilly’s tragic “The Dukite Snake” and Amanda Joy’s “Snake Skin, Roe Swamp”, where the poet literally, if briefly, becomes the snake: “My pulse its unsealed centre” (p. 313). 

Some of the most striking poems arise out of the state’s evolving but always tense relationship with mining, from Alfred Chandler’s “Lights Along the Mile”, where “playthings [of] the tyrant Fate” give heart and body to extract “the tragic gold” (p. 78-79), to the resigned grief over industrial manslaughter in Thomas H. Wilson’s “A Man Was Killed In the Mine Today”. Alan Boyd’s “fly in fly out fly in fly out” (p. 305-306) takes this trajectory further. In the contemporary mind mining is no longer a scar on an alien land or the trampled rights of workers, but the lead financier of “another pilbara [sic] narrative”, the lather-rinse-repeat banality of atomised communities and state development strategies sold as personal lifestyle choices.

A frustration with the collection is that, while there are full publication details at the end of the anthology, each poem initially appears without the year of first publication. It is an odd editorial decision and makes it harder to establish the context of each poem. Still, the Anthology contains decades of stories, impressions, threads and voices that knot together in ways that invite further teasing and unravelling, within or without the confines of chronological enquiry. It is a valuable source for both students of history and enthusiasts of poetry, and an excellent introduction to the work of a broad range of Western Australian poets.

Sanna Peden
The University of Western Australia

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Updated 25 Jul 2018


Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

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