New poetry anthology review

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When the Moon is Swimming Naked: Australasian Poetry for the Chinese Youngster, Edited by Kit Kelen and Mark Carthew (ASM Poetry, Association of Stories in Macao, 2014).

When-the-Moon-is-Swimming-Naked-cover-art copy

This 220 page paperback anthology ‘for the Chinese youngster’ was, according to co-editor, Dr Mark Carthew, ‘an enormous drawn out speculative project… driven by the translators and readers at the Macao end.’ Certainly to have a children’s poetry book which is bi-lingual (English and Chinese), translated by sixteen Asian translators (some of whom contributed to the anthology), is a massive – and innovative – project and is a credit to the co-editors who volunteered their time and energy.

The book’s cover is not as child-friendly as it could have been, showing a muted blue swirl with white shapes, including a moon on it, and with a vertical row of Chinese characters and a horizontal English title. There is a contents page, and in the back an index of first lines and biographical notes of the Australian poets. All pages of poems have poems in English on even pages and the Chinese interpretation on the opposite odd pages. The typeface throughout is small, about eight point, which might make it difficult for younger children to read. The book could have done with another proof-reading as there are numerous typos, including some poems mistakenly printed in bold. Poems are not grouped under sub-headings but are arranged alphabetically in order of the poets’ names.

This is an uneven collection. Many of the poems are written from an adult point of view and would seem to be primarily for adults. Happily, others are more child-centric. For this reason it is difficult to hazard a guess at the age of the targeted readership. ‘Difficult Love Poems from a Step-Parent’ by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson, while poignant and beautifully written, is one example of a poem too sophisticated for a child under the age of 15 to comprehend. ‘Resonating chambers’ by Ashley Clarkson, about playing musical instruments, might be understood by a teenage reader, but certainly not by a younger child, nor would Claine Kelly’s ‘While Poets Chant in the empty boathouse,’ about an older woman reflecting on her adolescent love. Another poem with an adult perspective, Martin Langford’s ‘Their Son’, which questions the behaviour of a teenager, is yet another example of a poem suitable for an adult readership — and there are many more.

The collection includes poems by well-known Australian poets who generally write for an adult readership, such as Peter Stryznecki, Vivian Smith and Mark Tredinnick, but many names are unfamiliar to this reader, such as Vaughan Rapatahana, Phillip A Ellis and Kenneth Hudson. A number of the poets represented are well known as children’s poets, such as Stephen Whiteside, Claire Saxby and Meredith Costain. Also included in this anthology are poems by the sixteen translators whose names are written in both English and Chinese. One such poet is Zoe Fang (Fang Xiaojun) whose poem, ‘baba’s big hand’ I found endearing and quirky.

Interestingly, many of the poems are nature-based with titles like ‘Frill-necked Lizard,’ ‘Thylacine’, ‘Welcome Swallows,’ and ‘a leaf remembered from Susquehanna’, which might well appeal to Chinese readers young and old. Most of the poems are written in free verse, with only a few rhyming poems, such as ‘Gym-bo’ (Vashti Farrer), ‘Grandma and the Mouses’ and ‘The Elephant who Lost his Tail’ (Andrew Lansdown). Sadly, there is little in the way of playfulness and/or humour in most of the poems.

Some of my favourite poems in this collection include ‘Shoefiti’ (Meredith Costain), ‘A Bedtime Story (for a boy)’ (Rebecca Kylie Law), ‘Blunder the Wonder Cat’ (James Norcliffe), ‘Train Song’ (Mark Macleod) and ‘The Dangerous Dinosaur’ (Stephen Whiteside) – all of which have child appeal and read well aloud.

‘Pride Comes before a Fall’ by co-editor Kit Kelen, contains one of my favourite couplets in the book: ‘Now the woodcutter/takes down the shadows of trees.’ In Laurel Lamprell’s ‘Joy Riders’, school children steal a car only to finish ‘Straight down the road/Where eternity waits/In the guise of a lamp post.’ As here, there are some excellent concepts and descriptions in many poems, but words like ‘animus’, ‘geomorphology’, fractious’, ‘polophonic’ ‘meniscus’ and ‘syncopation’ and numerous other complex words that occur in poems throughout the book are well beyond the comprehension of most teenagers, let alone children.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, I congratulate the compilers and publishers on this anthology — no doubt a massive feat — for taking the time and care to make Australian children’s poetry accessible to a foreign market. Hopefully the book will be distributed in Australia, too, and allow our country’s teachers and students to see the work of new and more established poets.

Dianne (Di) Bates is a well-published children’s author and editor who has established a unique blog site, Australian Children’s Poetry, to showcase children’s poetry written by Australians to the world. In 2015, Di’s anthology of Australian children’s poetry, Our Home is Dirt by Sea, will be published by Walker Books Australia. Di’s website is

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