A review of The Intimacy of Strangers edited by Philip Porter and Andy Kissane

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Intimacy of Strangers
Edited by Philip Porter and Andy Kissane
Pret a Porter Publishing
Paperback, 272 pages, Oct 2018, ISBN-13: 978-0648410706, $20

It has become a truism to call poetry a solitary art, and much of the writing process is indeed solitary, but poetry also has the power to create connection, community, and bring people together. This has certainly been my experience – poets tend to support, collaborate with, and promote one another almost more than any other art form.  Perhaps that is simply the nature of the work – a generally short form that often works as well read aloud and shared orally as in its written form.  This community is fully apparent in The Intimacy of Strangers, an anthology that was born out of the North Shore Poetry Project, a monthly event started in 2012 and still active. Hosted by Philip Porter, the project involves some 25 local poets with invited guest, and involves weekly workshops, monthly readings, poetry dinners at Rubino’s Italian restaurant, and the publications – all activities that bring the solitary art of creation into a convivial and communal environment. The Intimacy of Strangers is the groups’ second publication, following on from their first book A Patch of Sun, published in 2015, and it covers poetry dinners from March 2015 to March 2018.

The book begins each meal with the night’s menu, and a few excerpts from each of the poets, followed by a series of poems from each of the poets who read on those occasions. The dinners sound sumptuous, and it’s easy to imagine the environment in which the work would have been read: full of laughter, shared moments of intensity, and of a deep-seated acceptance of the differences that make us unique, interesting, and yet connect us to one another.

And then there is the poetry. The Intimacy of Strangers contains exceptional poetry by some of Australian’s best and most well-respected poets. There is a lot of material here, and like any good anthology it’s not the kind of book you read and then finish. The best way to read work like this is slowly, dipping in regularly in a variety of ways. You can read the entire set by dinner, which is how I read it – imagining yourself into the gathering and progressing, for example, from the intensely personal and intimate work of John Upton, to whom the book is dedicated:

Having made that double bed, they lay in it,
and ‘angel’, having been written, never quite
flew away, hiding inside that tin box,
a hostage tot heir war, beneath that bed,
read by a boy who couldn’t undertand. (“Angel”, 7)

to the rich acerbic wit of Trisha Dearborn:

let’s hope you can handle
some solid g’s
as you take off

another layer, sweating
on your trajectory
to an undiscovered world (“Periomenopause as rocket science”, 26)

Reading the book this way, it is possible to imagine a full sensual experience of the scent, taste and look of the food matched with the sound and sight of the poetry performance, with poems that are full bodied and smooth, like Sarnie Hay’s’ “Whisky on the Rocks”:

Upon the tongue the line of an implacable love-song,
Finds its voice in the crystal’s residue;
Thick and sticky like that hot summer night
We danced—heart on heart,
Across the floor of the Milky Way (47)

Or visually sumptuous, like Eileen Chong’s “Painting Red Orchids”:

One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.
More water—rain and cloud above the trees.
Cochineal paste, jade seal—red orchids bloom on white. (69)

You can also read the work by poet, skipping between the dinners (à la carte) to sample a single poet or even just one poem. Some of the names will be familiar to most people, like David Malouf, whose poetry ends the book:

We are feral
at heart, unhouseled creatures. Mind
is the maker, mad for light, for enlightenment, this late admission
of darkness the cost, and the silence (“Earth Hour”, 250)

Other poets may not be so well known, but provide the opportunity to discover and look up, such as Erina Booker, whose rich work has a delicate eco-poetic quality:

And now this print is framed
Gold dingoes
Red dirt
Kata Tjuta
with it’s a capella chorus
violet on the horizon,
another relic (“Icon”, 150)

There is so much to explore in this anthology, work that is funny, rich, tasteful, shocking, fresh, familiar, unsettling, and sometimes, simply beautiful. The Intimacy of Strangers is a book to dip into regularly, for inspiration and for pleasure – to discover new poets and to explore new work by poets already known. The voices are varied, like the menus, and in terms of style, Porter and Kissane have done a terrific job of balancing and structuring the book so that it’s not only tasteful but, like a good meal, emotionally satiating.