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Review: Vandemonian, by Cliff Forshaw

Cliff Forshaw's volume races up close to the early and late histories of the island we know as Tasmania. His approach is investigative, drawing on legend and archives, and the journey we accompany him on is emotional, necessary. The book begins with 'Landfall in Abel's Garden':'...and the Dreaming dreamed itself an island / in the shape of the human heart' and proceeds with the story of how Van Dieman sent 'two skeely seamen' on a Dutch East India Company ship towards Terra Australis Incognita, Abel Tasman making the 'first landfall' and the island's first name 'Van Diaman's Land' later being changed to erase its 'convict stain'. The historical details are beautifully wrought, never prosaic, even the italicised poetic footnotes in brackets alongside the central poems.

In the second section of the book, entitle 'Reincarnated Light', with elevent poems under the sub-heading 'Tiger', the poet uses what Donald Davie has described as 'objective' syntax, where the function of poetic syntax is to follow a form of action rather than thought: 'a movement not through any mind, but in the world at large'. Thus the sequence of seven sonnets here moves swiftly, with velocity given by rhyme, repetition, assonance, yet is contained (like the hunted, trapped tiger itself) by the imperatives of inquiry and resolution: 'It paves out its trap of light; one hundred reps / while hindquarters zither bars of sun;' Sonnets, ballad, fragments - a variety of different poetic forms skilfully embodies the shifts in material and tone as Forshaw attends to the implications of colonialisation for humans, animals and their environment.

At the end of Vandemonian, after a sequence called 'Ned Kelly's Hymnal' (previously published as a separate pamphlet), the poet heads back to known time and land - and the reader experiences a re-weighting, a balancing of the adventure with the familiar; a way for the poet and the reader to come to terms with our new knowledge. In 'The Shoal Bay Death Spirit Dreamin' the tone is conversational to start with, becoming more reflective and serious, concerned with melanomas, and eventually we understand the relevance of the poem's dedication...
This is a thrilling, fascinating collection of poems; read it in one sitting for the most intense experience of the voyage