'The Best Australian Poems 2013'

As a child attending a Catholic primary school in the western suburbs of Sydney my only exposure to poetry arrived via pop music and fiction. I don’t think I even knew there was such a thing as poetry but the words to California Girls and WonkaVite were never far from my lips. In fact, the six lines that begin ‘Those rolls of fat around your hips’ remain the only bits of verse I have ever committed to memory. This commitment to never straying far from the grid remained throughout my twenties where, as an undergraduate, the only poems I allowed myself to read came from The Norton Anthology. Again, song lyrics took up the slack. It wasn’t so much the anxiety of influence that kept me focused, I think, but a kind of nervousness about losing track of the few poems that I felt pinned me in place somehow. 

Many of the works in The Best Australian Poems 2013 deal with this anxiety of influence – you could say it comes with the ‘Best of’ territory. In organizing the poems alphabetically rather than randomly or in order of a poet’s surname, the editor, poet Lisa Gorton, has expertly managed the potential for anxiety and dissolution by implementing what I think of as a metaleptic structuring device.

Metalepsis is a notoriously difficult trope to define. Harold Bloom has called it ‘a metonymy of a metonymy.’ An early definition comes from the Roman rhetorician Quintilian who dismissed it as ‘by no means to be commended’ and mostly of use in comedy. ‘It is the nature of metalepsis,’ he writes, ‘to form a kind of intermediate step between the term transferred, having no meaning in itself, but merely providing a transition.’ As Fischlin recounts, Quintilian’s contempt for the Grecian trope was ideologically motivated and formulated as part of an ongoing project to maintain the ideal of a “perfect orator” in order to sustain the Institutio oratoria that itself worked to maintain Roman nationalism. ‘We need not waste any time over it,’ he writes.

In The Arte of English Poesie, the sixteenth century rhetorician and notorious lady-hater George Puttenham endeavoured to keep the tradition alive: ‘the sence is much altered and the hearers conceit strangly entangled by the figure Metalepsis, which I call the farfet, as when we had rather fetch a word a great way off then to vse one nerer hand to expresse the matter aswel & plainer.’ For Puttenham, the user of this figure has ‘a desire to please women rather then men: for we vse to say by manner of Prouerbe: things farrefet and deare bought are good for Ladies’. Despite Puttenham’s dodgy feminist credentials, it’s hard not to love the example he provides from Medea:

Woe worth the mountaine that the maste bare
Which was the first causer of all my care.

Puttenham critiques what he perceives to be the kind of excessive feminine strategy that eschews straight talking – ‘she might aswell haue said, woe worth our first meeting … and not so farre off as to curse the mountaine that bare the pinetree, that made the mast that bare the sailes, that the ship sailed with, which carried her away.’ As Fischlin points out, Puttenham conveniently sidesteps the Renaissance connotation of “farfet” as meaning ‘rich in deep strategems’.

More recently, the quest for a manageable definition of the metaleptic trope has proven similarly and understandably circuitous. Literary theorists such as Gerard Genette have trade-routed intricate systems between the ports of its many worlds. Metalepsis, in short, has been characterised as ‘the paradoxical transgression of boundaries’ and, more optimistically, productive of a “heterarchy”, a structure distinct from hierarchy in that it possesses no single “highest level”.’

So, when Gorton writes of the anthology as offering ‘an experience of time that is now, and now, and now – instants that replace each other’ we can hear the metaleptic at work, and find as we attempt to navigate the anthology examples of a poetics of belatedness. Jennifer Maiden’s majestic “Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara” provides a model of what is at stake – ‘I would like to read you, but / of course now there is my current worry / that influence might be retrospective’. If you enjoy reading poems more than once but are against dog-earing anthology pages you’re going to have to change your ways. Or do what I did and discover a canny method for routing out a poem’s whereabouts. Anti-spoiler alert: I won’t reveal my strategy.

Part of the fun of this anthology lies in the ways it seduces you into thinking differently about how you’ll read poetry. If you’re after something in particular it challenges you to be inventive about how you’ll go about getting it. If you don’t know what you’re looking for it will unobtrusively lead you away from the language grid and put you in clear sight of the sails of the farrefet. Andy Jackson’s “Edith”, ‘immured in a contraption of steel’ finds that one way to break free is to ‘speak / loudly about poets and composers, as if / your heart was not left there beside that road’. For a poem such as Peter Minter’s “The Roadside Bramble” you need to negotiate the labyrinth in order to become envisioned by what you’ve left behind, ‘A mercury pool shimmering in the wind / The whole reflected world shuddering.’

Jessica L. Wilkinson’s excitable “Jivin’ With Bonny Cassidy etc.” supposes that a cut dress might make for a quick getaway – ‘i cut it off / i los      t control—’ while Melinda Bufton’s “Did you mean iteration” suggests it might be more pleasurable to give in to the trance algorithm and allow the mind to take off ‘in some various syntheses’. Certain poems seem to have influenced each other, effecting the transgression of boundaries that is the calling card of latter-day metalepsis. The ‘Napoleonic washbowl’ of Nguyen Tien Hoang’s “Summer” seems to arrive at once before and after Jaya Savige’s ‘Duchamp’ (“On Not Getting my Spray Can Signed by Mr Brainwash”) and the ‘pre-revolutionary glass’ of Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Last Goodbyes in Havana”. “Women in Classical Chinese Love Poems” by Debbie Lim binds themes of imprisonment, art and death in the figures of waiting women, ‘Sitting, standing, reclining … From girlhood they have known /grief must be sung, all hope / arrives on a west wind.’

The figure of metalepsis is one that is apt to drift. I frequently forget its name and have to think for a long time to recover it. When I’m working to reclaim it I’m drawn to Anne Carson’s translation of Celan’s Matiere de Bretagne

inside it is evening, the nothing
rolls its seas toward devotion,
the bloodsail is heading for you

Admirers of Lisa Gorton’s own intricately wreathed poems will be pleased to discover that this anthology has been formed, in part, ‘with the exactness peculiar to foreboding’ (“The Storm Glass”) that was a feature of her recent Hotel Hyperion.