The Poetic Eye/Patterns of Being/Meanwhile, the Oak

By Birns, Nicholas | Transnational Literature, May 2017 | Go to article overview

The Poetic Eye/Patterns of Being/Meanwhile, the Oak


Birns, Nicholas, Transnational Literature


Michael Sharkey, The Poetic Eye (Brill, 2016)

Heather Sladdin, Patterns of Being (Heather Sladdin, 2016)

Heather Taylor Johnson, Meanwhile, the Oak (Five Island Press)

Michael Sharkey has long been known as one of Australia's most congenial, collegial, and agile poets and literary critics. One might have expected this anthology to be an assemblage of various tribute and assessments, all done with the urbanity and goodwill long known to be Sharkey's hallmark. What a surprise, then, to realise that this collection, though indeed various, generous, and informative, tinged throughout with what Gordon Collier, in his preface to the book, calls Sharkey's 'evanescently ironical' but not 'acidulous' personality (ix), is really dedicated to one theme: the shared cultural practices of Australia and New Zealand.

It is thus totally appropriate that the book is part of Rodopi's renowned Cross/Cultures series, because Sharkey's work is postcolonial not just in being firmly situated in an Australian culture whose poets, from the 'deliberately strident' Ronald Robinson (57) who yet 'tried to extend the English language' (59) to the 'distinctly accessible' yet 'philosophical' Gwen Harwood (282), could presume neither recognition nor readership from the broader Anglophone world beyond Australia's shores. In other words, writing about Australia alone would be postcolonial enough. But Sharkey chose to cast a wider gaze. Across the Tasman.

Sharkey starts out by advising the reader that, between Australia and New Zealand, 'similarities are perceptive' and 'differences are profound' (xiv). Accordingly, while noting the shared colonial heritage of the two countries, as well as their shared cosmopolitan turn in the twenty-first century, Sharkey refrains from a systematic comparison between the two literary cultures. Symptomatically, Sharkey notes that his interest in New Zealand began when he studied with two noted New Zealand academics, Michael K. Joseph and Terry Sturm, the latter of whom, then at Sydney, encouraged Sharkey to go to Auckland to study - Lord Byron! That a canonical English poet, albeit one who wrote about a fictional Polynesia in The Island, was what brought an Australian to New Zealand speaks volumes.

What Sharkey brings to this task is above all fairness. One would not expect that Sharkey would particularly embrace the poetry of Kendrick Smithyman, a poet often forbiddingly intellectual and verbally dexterous, but Sharkey has a wonderfully deft way of isolating such a poet's virtues - he says that Smithyman, along with Bill Manhire - and the apposition is itself striking - is 'drier, trickier' (16) than other poets - while making clear he feels more sympathetic to poets such as David Mitchell (1940-2011), a poet whom I had never even heard of before, but who Sharkey renders vividly as a poet of 'zip and irreverence and swing' (549). Sharkey is particularly good with poets who - on both sides of the Tasman - have several levels to the poetry from the casual to profound, a quality he brings out particularly well in the work of Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Sharkey speaks of the critic, and reader, 'inhabiting a poem' (574), and this is a quality we, as auditors of a poem, can share with the poems' author - the experience of inhabiting. And Michael Sharkey proves again and again he inhabits poems superbly well.

Despite the asymmetry and incommensurability of Australia and New Zealand, you cannot really understand one without understanding the other, and Michael Sharkey, with his characteristic lightness of touch, has done as much as anyone to indicate this.

Heather Sladdin and Heather Taylor Johnson similar traverse the Anglosphere, though both have engaged one of its more imposing components in the United States. Taylor Johnson is originally American but now living and working in Australia, whereas Sladdin was bom in Australia went to Carolina to study, and is now again in South Australia, around Adelaide. …

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