An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
Shearsman Books 58 Velwell Road
ISBN 0 907562 92 2
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What do we mean by poetry? What is it? Coleridge famously remarked that poetry is

the best words in the best order
but it is more than that. Philip Larkin describes a poem as a
verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in who ever read the poem
Yet Archibald MacLeish claimed that
A poem should not mean/But be
Andrew Motion is concerned that
poems should be self sufficient accessible to readers ... but not dependent on the after-care of their author.
Ignoring the multifarious groups, camps, factions, schisms and cliques into which poetry has confusingly been divided, a loose parallel can be drawn between poetic styles and the different schools of painting down the ages. If we characterise many of the old masters as being adept at using technical devices and metaphor to enhance their skillful and accessible realism, then further along the continuum come the impressionists, expressionists and beyond heading towards the painterly equivalent of poems should not mean /But be.

Although Emma Lew is certainly not the poetic equivalent of Jackson Pollock, her work is far from straightforward or accessible. To illustrate this, here is her poem BLUE CAMPAIGN:

	Flight and retreat and the male sky
	crying above me as I walk down
	bitter in the head.
	In the sonnets they pray for rain
	with beautiful fists,
	with beautiful thirst.
Although it isn't always clear what Emma's poems mean, her work is full of atmosphere. At her best she is impressionistic producing poems full of dramatic intensity. Here Emma describes the misty mysteriousness of MARSHES:
	Sky a tent immaculately pitched and noon's
	ghosts are creeping across the paddocks.
	Low, lame winds grow in the rushes 
	the smoky pool mad in its sleep. I have
	found earth still adhering. I wait for storms
	to crack the glamour open.
Emma Lew is highly regarded in her native Australia, winning two of that country's most prestigious literary prizes. Whist her many admirers may enjoy what the blurb on the back of her book describes as her sudden shifts of voice and perspective, I find her work opaque and puzzling. In her poems, more often than not, I recognise and understand all of the individual words Emma uses but not to make sense of them in their given order. To illustrate my point here is FLOURISH:
	I never bet on melancholy
	There's a parish in the spittle of an angry man
	Fame is the shell which preserves that thunder
	The late bloomer has become the talk of the town
	Truth is a jewel to avoid
	I'll show you a relic equally holy
	A beautiful plan, where everyone ends up happy and rich
	What I want is to get this pain off my body
	Irony is the rage that fails
	Look at me : I'm blind. I'm living a wonderful life
	I rise early and take the hazardous road
	The curse has fallen on me too, but in reverse
Make of that what you will I bet the Archie MacLeish of Ars Poetica would've been proud of her.

reviewer: Patrick B Osada.