- Isolation, by Tom Petsinis. Arcadia, $22.
The 2020-2021 Covid lockdown, especially in Melbourne, has been especially productive for poets, forced to stay inside, meditating on their art and practising it more than they might have otherwise. Almost all of them have a "virus" poem or two but few would have a whole book of them.
Isolation, Tom Petsinis's ninth collection, comprises 115 sonnets which appear to run from Melbourne's first lockdown to May 26 of this year. Some are fully rhymed, others are irregularly rhymed and some are in blank verse. The tone ranges from whimsically suburban to genuinely elegiac. Petsinis's Greek/Macedonian heritage and his vocation as a mathematician are prominent features.
Of course, given that Isolation is a kind of "daybook" using the same form for each poem, and given that lockdown imposes a certain "sameness" over everything, there are moments when the collection can seem heavy-going.
What saves it from an almost excessive industry is its frequent wry humour and the cleverness and/or emotional intensity of its "key" poems.
An example of the former might include the sonnet "Angry iGen" with its mordantly ironic closing sestet: "I can read between the lines on their tongues; / It's really about the old protecting their kind - / Those premiers, Presidents, past their prime, / No consideration for the rights of the young. / Yes, they'll secure their decade from death / While saddling idealists to a lifetime of debt."
Among the latter (poems of cleverness or emotional intensity) would have to be numbered "Mathematics", "Faithful", "Hands",, "Bats", "Incident", "Religion", "Maternal Advice", "Two Masks", "Old Greek" and "A Lesson".
All of these, in one way or another, grow from a closely observed, or remembered, incident which resonates with wider meanings. Some, eg "Hands", have the conceptual ingenuity one might expect of a mathematician. Others such as "Faithful", "Bats", "Old Greek" and "Maternal Advice" delve deeper into the poet's Greek/Macedonian background.
"Maternal Advice" is of particular interest. It appears to go back a couple of centuries to the Turkish occupation of his homeland. In it a Greek grandmother says to her granddaughter about her lockdown mask: "Please wear it safely leaving the house, / as Grandma wore her niqab at your age. / Not just against temptation to be vain ... / But to keep the invader from your lips".
And then, explicitly conflating the invader with the virus, she ends with: "Yes, you'd be another breathless bride / In that haram veiled in perpetual shade."
- Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.