Review by Nicholas Birns

POEMS FOR AMERICA (Interactive Press, 2001):

Rowbotham’s latest poems do more than cap a distinguished career, or reconnoitre a long acquaintance with the United States that has long made him one of the most admired Australian Poets in this country.  They are pre-American in the deepest sense, not, that is to say, out of a heedless embrace of the politics or pop culture of the moment, but out of a sustained love of a country whose mystery has been that its losses nearly keep pace with its aspirations.  With palladic yet jagged rhyme that all at once sings and stings, ambitious poems like “The Perfect Birch” or “I Wonder Who Owns the Fourth of July” traverse new, if hallowed, ground.  Punning, assonant, curiously wrought, anchored in history yet not consumed by it, Rowbotham’s verse is pertinent and pure.  Poems for America may well be one of the first Australian poetry books of the twenty-first century that will survive in the way that only art can.  Nicholas Birns, Antipodes (USA)

Review by Nicholas Birns

“David – I received both books today – “The Brown Island and Other Poems”, and “The Cave in the Sky:  Poems at Eighty” (Picaro Press, 2005).  Many thanks for the extra copies.  They are beautifully designed and full of extraordinary verbal riches.  New friends, such as “Maritime”, are as enticing to read as old favourites such as “Crossing the Delaware”.  Congratulations on this superb achievement.”  – Nicholas Birns, New School University, New York, USA.

Review by Nicholas Birns


I am extremely impressed with the new book [“The Star of Engelmeer”, Picaro Press, 2006]. Your ability to make history lyrical; to sound a lyrical under song of sadness in a poem of place such as “Rome” or “Reading the Sea at Coogee”, is so rare, so compelling, and so deeply personal to your vein of work. The war poems, the America poems … all are superb. I am powerfully struck by this volume.

I have now savoured this book, particularly the way that, despite a set of what Wittgenstein would call “family resemblances”, each poem is its own world and has its own emotional tone.

The five war poems at the beginning – powerful both in their universality and, in T S Eliot’s phrase, “individual talent”. I note that, compared to other poets who served in World War II, you develop a much more individual voice which still retains a sombre sense of the grim universality of the subject-matter – in this way you surpass British poets of that generation such as F T Prince, as well as aspects of the poetry of David Campbell. I think of the US poet Randall Jarell as somebody, though with a very different quality to his work, who accomplished something similar.

Perhaps the association of this special unaffected quality with an absence of pomposity of folderol is shown in “Star of Engelmeer” itself which comes very close to song. David Malouf’s opinion on the back really captures very well just what I am sensing here.

“The Prince of Fire” – powerful and not your usual subject matter, in a sense, which makes it all the more impressive 00 as is the deliberately open-ended quality of the sentiment with respect to “higher” religion. In a sense this is a part of the “war” sequence as well.

“Slow motion” – love the line “youth’s eurekas” as well as the (internal!) rhyme with seekers. A wonderful piece of craft!

Incidentally, the epigraph from Ecclesiastes is not lost even on those younger than yourself.

“Rainbow Farm” – it is tough to choose this over “Tower of Love” but I think this might be the most significant poem in the book – just for the originality of the phrasing and images, the very idea of a “rainbow farm”. It jolted me when I read it in its poignant sense that so much of meaning comes in what we attach to experience, and how fragile, if at times beautiful, is that process of attachment, of supplying the want of experience through imagination.

“The Tower of Love” – shows how simplicity, true, profound simplicity, is the hardest won quality in all of literature. I also see a bit of a Hart Crane influence here.

“Rome” – The sadness, as remarked before, an the interplay of different historical eras which nonetheless does not overwhelm the reader.

“Republic” – really remarkable, in that I don’t think this link between William Tell and the US has ever been made in poetry, and in a sense it takes a non-American, though a deeply sympathetic one, to relate it the way you have.

“Reading the Sea at Coogee” – I have been to Coogee, walked down there from Bronte and Clovelly the first week I was in Sydney, and you capture the scene vividly. A touch of Wallace Stevens / Hart Crane influence maybe?

I also looked again at the two other books – this time around I notice “Stay” – very gnomic and aphoristic, and “Pop Stars” – a theme on which I think you are a bit more temperate than Less Murray, and no less impassioned! – July 13, and July 17, 2006. Dr Nicholas Birns, New School University, New York. Editor of ANTIPODES, Journal of the American Association for Australian Literary Studies, and President of AAALS.

(Nicholas Birns Copyright @ New York 2006)