Book review: A Line in the Sand, Red Room Poetry

A sample of 20 years of Australian poetry is showcased in this wide-ranging anthology.

For two decades, Red Room Poetry has commissioned and published poetry from a swathe of writers (new, student, emerging, established), supporting them on page and stage. A Line in the Sand is a veritable who’s who compendium of Australian poets who have been nurtured by this organisation, and a celebratory showcase of their wares.

This milestone book is divided into five sections that are theme-based rather than chronological, and take in the full gamut of the human condition: passion, love, grief, confusion, loss – all emotions are captured in this collection. More so, its manifesto lends towards inclusivity. As Ali Cobby Eckermann says in the foreword, ‘In this modern time, it is exciting to see the recent growth of poetry among all age groups, among all peoples.’

Red Room Poetry’s Artistic Director Tamryn Bennett emphasises in her introduction that, during its 20 years, the organisation has published over 32,000 poets, and has subsequently created Australia’s largest digital library of contemporary poets.

With such a great number, the book can only offer a small fraction of work but, as Bennett points out, ‘the poems collected here honour the wide wingspan of poetry commissioned across the continent, seas and skies’.

Before we arrive at the poems themselves, a number of writers are asked what the art form means to them, and the results are illuminating and a salient reminder of the innate power of this compressed linguistic form. Here are just two responses: from Tony Birch, ‘Poetry both simplifies my world and complicates it at the same time,’ and from Madison Godfrey, ‘Poetry is a way I fathom the world around me, it’s also how I fathom the world inside of me’.

As to the poems, the symphony of over 80 voices includes works by Maxine Beneba Clark, Jazz Money, Omar Musa, Bruce Pascoe, Sarah Holland-Batt, Maria Tumarkin, Felicity Plunkett, Damon Young, Michelle Cahill and Lionel Fogarty.

What’s interesting and laudable, however, is that A Line in the Sand has also published notable poets who are no longer with us, but who have made such a seismic impression on the scene – people like Dorothy Porter, Jordie Albiston, Archie Roach and Candy Royalle.

As with any collection of work – regardless of form – there will be some pieces that resonate and others that fail to thrum, but that’s the beauty of such a diverse offering. There’s a guarantee that there will be a number of poems that will delight and garner empathy and if the others don’t thrill you? Well, you can still appreciate the variety of content and structure on offer: some are simple and easily digestible, others are more experimental and abstruse.

Within you can find poetry as reflection, as provocation, as diatribe, as dreamscape, as song.

If you are new to Australian contemporary poetry, this is a useful anthology to have, to gauge the work of some of the main players. If you are a poet yourself or striving to be one, it will prove instructional or inspirational.

Read: A poem for everyone in August

After all, as Stephen Edgar says, ‘Poetry is one way of making meaning in a possibly meaningless world, an attempt, as Beckett expressed it, to leave a mark on the silence.’ Maybe after flipping through the pages of this collection, you too will be encouraged to try to marshal order in the mess and squall through verse and mark your own lines in the sand.

A Line in the Sand
Red Room Poetry

Publisher: Pantera Press
ISBN: 9780645624601 
Format: Paperback 
Pages: 197pp
Publication: August 2023 

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on