Sheila E. Murphy

A Review of Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets

Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets
edited by Michael Farrell & Jill Jones
Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2009
112 pages
ISBN: 9781921450280

Matthew Holt’s cover design delivers a salient message about Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets. This volume is no “second-tier” cluster of marginalized poetic work. Rather, this collection presents a well-selected gathering of some of the finest poets currently or recently writing in Australia. Having followed contemporary Australian poetry for more than three decades, I was unaware until this book that many of the writers whose work I savored would qualify for inclusion in this excellent anthology. The anthology offers poets who have achieved prominence, as well as lesser-known, highly gifted writers new to this reader, all of them gay or lesbian.

Editors Michael Farrell and Jill Jones give us two anthologies in one, with each editor’s offering an introduction to the volume, incorporating both artistic and cultural context, as well as a discussion of the poems presented. Farrell introduces the gay men and preliminary commentary on the poems; Jones provides the same for the lesbian poets. My personal experience of this introduction was very positive. Each of the editors presents a wholly individual and relevant introduction to the poems selected, and offers an excellent explanation of the criteria for inclusion.

Jill Jones reminds us that this combined gay and lesbian poetry anthology represents a “first.” Other anthologies have existed, featuring poetry by lesbians or gay men. This book is the first of its kind, combining a range of voices from each of these groups. In her introduction, Jones convincingly refers to the “exclusionist rubric” that is applied automatically and persistently to gay and lesbian couples, and notes the importance of building upon daily living of all people as the site of learning, discovering, and being. Poets have the capability of unearthing and revealing the range of what goes on in the minds and lives of individuals. The public nature of lesbian and gay creations reflects a change in the landscape of what is spoken and thus shared. Not to “ghetto-ize” is key, while maintaining the sense of accurate universality remains a fact.

Farrell’s introductory words highlight the social milieu in which marriage as a basis of freedom has for several years replaced the previous sexual freedom as a primary issue. He cites the perspective that writing is “thought itself.” Farrell reminds us that the poetry presented in this book attests to a wide range of personal experience. He acknowledges that the gay identity of the writers is itself an important feature. A range of subject matter, encompassing the self, history, social identity, and language, is highlighted by the particular selections made for the anthology. Farrell’s reading of certain poems included brings into vivid focus the observation that positioning poems in history offers a broadening effect that encompasses the personal, the cultural, and the historical.

Both editors artfully reveal a combination of distinguishing and universal aspects of poetic life through the works represented. Within these gems emerge countless universal truths that acknowledge both individual and human realities. At the same time, Jones reminds us of the “instability of sexual and cultural identity,” as a primarily defining categorization.

The editors themselves write wonderfully. Their own poems constitute some of my favorite moments within the book. The segment from Limits We’ve Shouldered by Jill Jones is an auditory feast that hovers above the thought and being of its vast subject that is itself a magical depth. Michael Farrell’s poem “luke & henrys storyline” is a glorious “charge” forward asking to be kept and held and known.

Among the other poems by men that I found most vivid, memorable and brilliant, were “Disconsolate Sestina” by Denis Gallagher, a highlight, wonderfully rich and stylish. All of the poems by Javant Biarujia constitute events in and of themselves. His prowess with language could not be overstated, in the view of this reviewer or by Farrell’s own admission that “Reading Biarujia makes anyone else’s use of English seem rather dry. . . This is the promiscuous or orgiastic lyric.” In my own view, the reference to “The Blues of Nothin Moribund” aptly displays that reading poetry would be worth the years of study and spree, if only to encounter this one poem. David Malouf’s “A History Lesson,” Martin Harrison’s “About the Self,” and Stephen J. Williams’ “cathedrals in their middle age,” afford the reader powerful experiences.

The acute sensitivity of Pam Brown’s words, “I could go / in any direction” ironically serve as a pivot point for Jones, who poses the question: “Do we want to disappear again, or write ourselves out of our books?” Honesty, directness, perspicacity push such a choice.

The range of poetic landscape representing the outstanding body of poems by lesbian writers further include Dipti Saravanamuttu’s “Just to Say,” Angela Gardner’s “parts of speech (built structures),” Pam Brown’s “Peel Me A Zibibbo,” Maria Zajkowski’s “Colour 1962 – 2003,” Susan Hawthorne’s “rose garden,” Wendy Jenkins’ “The Cultivation of Lemons,” and joanne burns’s “aerial photography.”

The collection of work here gathered firmly justifies the project as conceived and effected by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones. There is an inherent de-emphasis on that ever-elusive, frequently stated goal of presenting a representative, all-inclusive “best in class” volume. The editors opt instead to emphasize the delimitations, advising the reader that this anthology, rich beyond any one or two categories, shows the brilliantly high quality of writing being done by lesbian and gay writers in Australia. The fact that many of the country’s finest poets are gay or lesbian justly functions as a point of pride.

Michael Farrell

Jill Jones

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Blogger Tom Beckett said...

Thanks for this review, Sheila. You've made me want to read the book.

wv: swabigio

2:09 AM  

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