Five Islands Press does a magnificent service to Australian poetry by publishing first editions by promising young poets. Not only that but (if I remember the gig right) they workshop the manuscripts they choose to publish live, one-on-one with each poet, in Wollongong.
I taught last year with a charming young mother, Miriam Wei Wei Lo - and now I hold her first book in my hand from Five Island Press (otherwise known as FIP). It is a beautiful collection - yes, I mean 'collection' - centreing on the stories of two women from different worlds whose 'histories and genes coalesce in the body of the author, as she stands at the far reaches of her family tree and looks back with wisdom, courage, and always with tenderness' - these quoted words from Bronwyn Lea on the back cover. Dennis Haskell says above these words, 'Miriam Lo's work provides a new voice in Australian poetry, that of an Asian-Australian woman, with a woman's sensitivity towards family and the relations between women down the generations.'
It is certainly a big book in intention and scope even though it is just 32 pages long. I find Miriam's syntax gentle yet strong, and sensitive to the tale at hand each time. And her diction is so unobtrusive you never notice the words - just what they're saying. This is narrative poetry in a contemporary manner, with imagery that works particularly well because it is so accurate. I get the feeling these poems come from much talking and emotional research - although I would hate you to think they are showy or flashy. They are subdhued yet strong as befits the tales they tell.
Enough of my waffle: a quote is called for here. A Chinese son has received a letter from an Australian girl, Susan, and the mother is apprehensive ('Someone strange has come in and sat down in their coffeeshop.'):
His mother thinks of how words
flow out of a body and carry the ghost
of fingers, a face, a heart.
She thinks of the words that have etched themselves
on the walls of her life: I surrender,
We are at war; the words that weigh heavily
on her tongue as she stands and watches
the face of her son: I love you, Come home.
- from The Letter, pg 15, Against Certain Capture (ISBN 1 74128 055 9)
This tenth series of 'New Poets' from FIP makes a total of sixty poets who have had their first poetry book published through this innovative program. The list is difficult to choose from, but many of the names have gone on to publish further books and to win prizes and make a name for themselves. To be published at all as a poet today in Australia is an achievement in itself!
The other poets in this tenth series are Lucy Alexander, Janine Fraser, Katarina Konkoly, David Musgrove and Jen Webb - names we don't know of - yet. This series is highly competitive as you can guess - so Miriam Lo's achievement is even greater.
Strangely enough, the idea of Miriam as a novelist popped into my mind as I read these poems - just as Michael Ondaatje has developed along both lines. But for the moment, Against Certain Capture is certain to win much applause and (hopefully) many readers.