A review of Another Universe: Friendly street poets 28

Some poetry, even good poetry, forces the reader to work hard, uncovering meaning from obscurity, but Another Universe isn’t like that at all. These poems were clearly designed to be understood quickly, sharing their meaning in a straight hit from poet to reader. It is as if they were being read to us.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Another Universe:
Friendly street poets 28
Edited by Kate Deller-Evans and Steve Evans
Wakefield Press
March 2004, ISBN 1-86254-639-8, 19.95

Friendly Street is a open mike poetry venue in Adelaide. It has been running for 29 years now and is Australia’s longest running open poetry venue. Every month, a wide range of brave poets venture through its doors to perform their poetry to an eager audience. All poets who perform are eligible to submit their work to the annual Friendly Street anthology. The poems in Another Universe are varied in tone, some light and humorous, some deep and intense. Editors Kate Deller-Evans and Steve Evans do a very good job with both the selection of and balance between poems, and this latest edition is an exceptional showcase for new and experienced Australian poets. The scope varies from parody to haiku, limerick to free verse. Overall though, the one thing that these poems have in common is accessibility. The poems speak a contemporary language of travelling through a strange country, memories of the past, of the nature of poetry, teaching, an ex-husband, death, love, and many more topics which will be familiar and evocative to the modern reader. There are no rhymed couplets, no cute bush stanzas, no archaic or high blown language. The poems speak of shared moments, epiphany, and of the richness, beauty, and sometimes ugliness of everyday life.

Another Universe contains 100 poems by 70 authors, chosen from approximately 400 which were submitted from those read at Friendly Street in 2003. Although the poems stand on their own, knowing the context, it is hard not to imagine the poets’ voices as they stood reciting and interpreting in front of the Friendly Street audience. A large number of the poems are also part of larger collections by their authors, including Erica Jolly’s Pomegranates, Patricia Irvine’s Leaving the Mickey, Jeri Kroll’s Mother Workshops, and Deb Matthews-Zott’s Shadow Selves, all published by respected small presses.

Jude Aquilina’s “Adelaide, 1970’s” is almost a piece of prose, but like the best of poetry it moves effortlessly through a series of images; conveying perception and motion without the need for pause or straight syntax. 1970 doesn’t seem like such a long time ago, but this is nostalgia at its best, without pathos. Aquilina effectively puts the reader into the immediacy of the scene. The ending is both light and intense, instantly taking us out of a child’s present into the memory of an adult:

The milkman rises early to foil the sun and milk-money thieves. Old men ride push bikes with cartons or kit bags strapped to their carriers. House doors are left unlocked. Asleep on the lawn on summer nights.

A blink and it all turns black and white.(6)

In “The Ex,” Kate Bristow does a humorous job of using modern Australian vernacular to convey both the womanising bludger qualities of an ex-husband with her own sense of exile from the man with whom she was once tied:

I study his furrowed brow,
Years of experience etched like lough tracks on his face,
Searching for the man I married thirty years ago who said,
‘I’ll look after you. It would be great to have kids
And buy shoes for them.’
The same man who looked after my widowed mother.
He dientangles the tentacles of the twenty year-old nymph
Suckered to his neck. (15)

Other poems tackle familiar subjects like illness and nature, but the imagery is always fresh and original, and consistent with my own bias, there is always a sense of the inner world of the poet; of what is lost and found in any moment being explored. A beautiful example of this is Melanie Duckworth’s “First Rain,” which, like most of the poems in this collection, are moving without being overly sentimental. Rain is as simple as the shower outside, which “clamours happily/on the sky-light and the tin-/it wants to get in.” but it is also metaphorically as complex as the disease which attacks the subject of the poem:

The bed is kind and carries you
And the rain
Is far away but closer than breathing
When it gets in. (37)

The delicacy and warmth of this sad poem allows the reader to identify with the woman in pain and the narrator who has to watch and care. The rain is both cleansing and deadening, and its endless pattering simultaneously transitory and permanent. Similarly in Steve Evan’s “Dachau,” there is a strong sense of dignity in the midst of tragedy, and of the longing for normalcy–the everyday decisions and trivia that we take for granted. Again the reader is forced to face both the horror of the Holocaust as it reaches it conclusion, and its ongoing relationship to everyday life in a way which is moving but still devoid of any overt attempts at drawing out sympathy:

you’ll rise when ready
Dust off the years
Collect your clothing from the heap
And dress without embarrassment
Among the naked crowd

These are poems which become instantly personal to the reader, intimate without being insular. The poems taking on the subject of death and survival are among the best in the book, looking hard at those things otherwise too painful to bear, such as Louise Nicholas’ “The Tree,” which explores the loss of a child:

As though you never whirl round from the stove –
the silent hall
the empty shelf
The stench of flowers and sympathy cards (72)

The book is full of these exquisitely painful moments, but they are offset and even intensified by the jokey light notes of such farce as Geoff Kemp‘s “Footy Poem,” or Stephen Lawrence‘s “Partnershipping.” The editors do a very good job of balancing the intense and touching with light parody, creating a very pleasurable anthology for the reader. Some poetry, even good poetry, forces the reader to work hard, uncovering meaning from obscurity, but Another Universe isn’t like that at all. These poems were clearly designed to be understood quickly, sharing their meaning in a straight hit from poet to reader. It is as if they were being read to us. The ease of understanding is not generally due to simplicity though. With a few minor exceptions, most of these poems are as complex and powerful as the human psyche, and bear repeated readings. It is exactly what a good poetry collection should be. For more information visit the web site at: http://www.friendlystreetpoets.org.au/fs27.htm