The Essential Things

Under-funded and under-read, the demise of Australian poetry is often predicted. Older names are disappearing through death and underproduction. Younger names may, or may not, give hope for the future—or a future that still bears some connection with the past.

Strangely, however, as successive small Australian poetry publishers (has there ever been any other kind?) go out of business, new ones, eternally optimistic, spring up to replace them. None of the publishers of these collections was around ten years ago, but they are clearly part of a tradition.

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The Light Café by Diane Fahey is one of two new books from Liquid Amber Press in Melbourne. It’s her fifteenth collection since Voices from the Honeycomb in 1986 and well maintains a standard she has long since set herself.

Fahey’s work has varied somewhat in emphasis and manner over time, but she still clearly has the ability to set a project for herself and confidently carry it out. Some earlier books, such as Metamorphosis, were livres composées. Others typically fall into sections, with a single, separate idea for each. The Light Café is one of these.

It starts with a section on the moon, always a popular (and perilous) subject for poets. In “Her Perfect Face” Fahey produces nine, low-key, highly observant and imaginative poems, none of which is spoiled by cliché. The ending of “Blood Moon Eclipse” is indicative of Fahey’s prevailing tone and lyrical skill:

For a space of minutes

the Earth has become

the moon’s own moon,

and its sun—the moon itself

a koan, configuring

light devoured by darkness,

darkness devoured by light.

Part 2 is a sequence of thirteen poems, each of them about rain (another well-examined topic). Again her tone is lightly etched and convincing in its detail:

Rain is its own season, keeping its counsel,

withholding or giving

as if by whim—

months of nothing

then a dramatic plenitude

of damp and cold, of life …

Section 3, “An Answering Light”, is probably the book’s most typical, containing several of its key poems, including a number of ekphrastic ones based on well-known paintings. There’s also a seven-page tribute to the Melbourne painter Clarice Beckett, with whom the poet clearly has a considerable artistic affinity.

Other memorable examples of Fahey’s skills are the title poem, “The Light Café”, a tribute to a unique kind of coffee bar (possibly only of the imagination) and “Goldfinch” which has the poignant wit that featured often in Fahey’s early work:

Yes, I’d like to see this bird

living up to its name. But

musical, clever and beautiful,

it serves at the pleasure of

humans with a desire for

company, tricks and songs.

In return, it has received

the Order of the Brass Chain.

Although Jennifer Maiden is (within a few years) a coeval of Diane Fahey, she is a very different poet. For over two decades now Maiden has been giving us an almost annual update on international politics, via the peregrinations of human rights watchers Clare Collins and George Jeffreys, along with supernatural, intergenerational conversations between various figures, living and dead, from the left-wing pantheon. 

It is hard to review these books individually because collectively they present an unfolding, continuous story of moral complexity, a dimension in which Maiden has always excelled. In successive books, she has found a way of zooming in on moments when progressive icons, such as Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton, have done things, or attempted things, which have had either negative or ambiguous consequences.

In this new book, Maiden focuses on the almost endless enigmas of what she calls “the China shelf”, a geological feature which not only encourages the silent encroachments of nuclear-powered submarines but also brings to mind the domestic shelves on which women (mainly) used to keep their “china”. As readers might expect with Maiden there is much in between these two extremes. Her imagination is nothing if not flexible and adaptive.

One indicative poem where these elements combine skilfully and affectingly is “Seeing Blood” which focuses, via Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, on our foreign minister, Penny Wong:

Doyle was there because Wong had said she read him,

and it seemed as if he might help release

Julian Assange, if he could secure her attention.

The poet goes on to recall some good deeds done by Doyle in his lifetime (“though he had once signed his own petition / in favour of the first war with the Germans”). Maiden also has Doyle recall:

As a doctor, too, he knew that she had trained as one,

but abandoned her studies because of her long

distaste at the sight of blood.

Eventually we see Wong rejecting Doyle’s unspoken accusations (presumably over the AUKUS deal) “with quick glancing scorn / she’d perfected for dealing with detraction”, having understood that it was, in fact, “mortal blood” that they were dealing with here.

The second book from Liquid Amber in this four is Anne Kellas’s Ways to Say Goodbye. It is best seen as a kind of sequel to her remarkable third collection, The White Room Poems, of which this reviewer concluded that its author is “using poetry in one of the most important ways it can be used, i.e. to express the unbearable in words that are almost but never quite equal to their task”.

It’s sad but telling that the most striking poems in this new book go back to the subject matter of the third one, the drug-and-mental-illness-related death of one of her sons in Switzerland in 2006 and her trip there to bring home his body. In the earlier book, Kellas remembers the poignancy of her being “Here in the garden—here they’d stood, / with beers in hand, / so carefree, near the garden pond.”

A comparable, but differently-achieved, poignancy is found in several poems in the section that gives the book its title. They include: “If Once a Looking Glass”, “On Going Through the Portal” and “A Missing Vocabulary”.

The last of these demonstrates how skilfully Kellas can use abstraction to encapsulate mental states. Her definition of “Accidie” runs as follows:

Diminished motivation.

Diminished as in piano chords.

On a scale all the way from loneliness

to sadness

then on to disaffection


to aimless


and doubt.

A loss of connection,

something severed.

Beyond heart-sore.

Fearfully alone.

Clearly, Kellas is no follower of William Carlos Williams’s dictum: “No ideas but in things”. The atmosphere of the book as a whole is metaphysical—and effectively so. There are, it should be mentioned, other poems, apparently unrelated to Kellas’s central grief, like “Song for Ophelia” and “Red Angel” which also linger painfully in the mind long after reading.

Meaty Bones, the second book from Canberra poet K.A. Nelson, is also from a relatively new publisher and is one of those rare poetry collections which one can imagine doing some direct “good” in the community. Most worthwhile collections work indirectly, with the pleasure of good art in itself being a sufficient reward.

As the recent referendum result reminded us, most of Australia’s 97 per cent don’t know as much as we might about the other 3 per cent. Nelson has spent something like forty years in recurrent contact with a couple of remote communities and what she has picked up over that time is more than compelling. Fortunately, and almost always, her technical abilities are sufficient to guarantee her ideas have maximum impact on the reader.

Meaty Bones is in five parts and it is in parts 1 and 4 that the above observations particularly apply. Some of the poems here, such as “The Peacemaker”, are evocative descriptions of particular Aboriginal women. Others, such as “At the Single Women’s Camp” present a more collective view.

Most remarkable, perhaps, is Nelson’s “desert flâneur” sequence in which she portrays the mindset of various white bureaucrats and service-providers who almost always misread what they encounter and thus conveniently provide the attentive reader with a more sophisticated view by sensing how wrong the protagonist actually is. Not all the news is negative, however. “Sparky”, for example, in his eponymous prose poem, is, by contrast, a man of integrity.

Nelson starts off (dangerously?) in the first person plural with: “We call the Essential Service Manager, Sparky. He’s the most important white man in this remote community, in charge of power and water.” By the end of the first paragraph, however, the poet is back in the first person singular (a safer place to be). “Of all the white fellas here, twenty of them, Sparky is my favourite.”

He’s certainly more admirable than “The Plumbing Contractor” whose views in the previous poem are disparaging in the extreme:

Blackfellas out here know

bugger all. Even though I’d rather be lyin’

on my back under a sink or in some

sheila’s swag, I’ll deal with their shit.

It’s all money in the bank.

Nelson’s collection also includes, as an almost incidental benefit, a number of sardonic love poems, typically with a comic edge. They go down very well at readings.

At the end of these four very different but equally substantial books, the reader may (or may not) have noticed that they are all by women. Forty years ago the opposite would almost certainly have been the case—and raised no comment.

The Light Café
by Diane Fahey

Liquid Amber, 2023, 97 pages, $29.99

The China Shelf: New Poems
by Jennifer Maiden

Quemar Press, 2023, 63 pages, $20

Ways to Say Goodbye
by Anne Kellas

Liquid Amber, 2023, 86 pages, $26.99

Meaty Bones
by K.A. Nelson

Recent Work Press, 2023, 99 pages, $19.95

Geoff Page’s most recent books are 101 Poems: 2011–2021 and a collection of new poems, Penultima, both published by Pitt Street Poetry.


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