A poet’s farewell takes a photographer’s diary into a new realm

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Jordie Albiston
National Library of Australia, $29.99

Frank, a collection of documentary poetry based on diaries by photographer and filmmaker Frank Hurley (1885-1962), will almost certainly be the last book from the widely respected and well-loved Melbourne poet, Jordie Albiston, who died unexpectedly on February 28 last year.

A photograph by Frank Hurley of the Australian Antarctic expedition 1911-14.Credit: Frank Hurley

Documentary poetry, like its close relative documentary film, is hard to define. It implies, at the least, direct and extensive quotation from texts written by someone other than the poet. One of the most celebrated is Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust (1975), composed entirely from documentary records.

Albiston used documentary poetry in one way or another throughout her career. Sometimes (as in Botany Bay Document) it was a key element within her own writing. In other books (such as Warlines) her own words were entirely absent. Frank is of the latter kind.

Happily, in a talk given to the National Library of Australia a year before she died, Albiston outlined what she’d been attempting with documentary poetry over the years and made particular reference to Frank, the book she was then working on. Its readers are strongly advised to start with this afterword.

Jordie Albiston was a relentless experimenter.Credit: Andy Szikla

“Hurley,” Albiston pointed out, “like many of his fellow expeditioners, was an avid diarist. It is these writings that I’ve deciphered, imbibed and transmogrified into the realm of poetry.” She continues: “What I’m doing is taking phrases, fragments and images and collating them under the pressure of poetic form in order to create something new.”

Just how “new” these poems are, and to what extent they can be separated from Hurley’s original prose, can only be judged from a parallel reading of Hurley’s diaries. At times, Albiston takes her composite from various entries across different days on the same topic; at others she simply makes a few small changes to Hurley’s original.

These include a global shift from the past tense to the present tense — which admittedly feels more dramatic but is not an insignificant alteration. Other changes include the deletion of articles and the replacement of “ands” with ampersands as well as occasional moves from lower to upper case for emphasis.


The extent to which these changes have changed a prose diary into discrete prose poems is an issue on which readers can make up their own minds.

It’s interesting in this context also to consider what Hurley himself might have thought. Fortunately Hurley’s granddaughter, Julie Byrnes, endorsed the project, but that doesn’t quite answer the question. We know Hurley was a keen reader as well as a diarist, and it’s clear from his many vivid descriptions of ice floes and extreme weather conditions that his original intentions were poetic in essence.

Growing up in late-Victorian andEdwardian times would almost certainly have delivered a feeling for syntax, a dimension that risks being lost when Hurley’s writing is quoted in fragments. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of previously unconnected images may create new tensions that were not necessarily not present in the original.

A nice sense of Hurley’s emotional range can be had from contrasting two almost adjacent sections from the middle of his account of the Shackleton expedition (1914-1916). “I go a-hunting & (am?) rewarded by finding two fine seals which I secure in orthodox manner rendering them insensible by a hit on the nose with a ski then cutting their throats.”

In the next poem but one we have: “… the dissipation of night’s enchantment discloses immense pools of still water surrounding our island floe from which clouds of frost smoke arise golden in the rising Sun the beau ideal of our dreams”.

Together they form a neat, if brutal, contrast between late-Victorian muscularity and ultra-Romantic poeticism. It’s important to remember, though, that seal meat was crucial to the explorer’s survival at that time and that Hurley’s rhapsodising may not be unreasonable in the circumstances (marooned, as he was, on melting ice above 2000 fathoms).

One of Albiston’s main poetic virtues is that she was, throughout her career, a relentless experimenter. She particularly loved how poetry’s seemingly arbitrary restrictions can generate forces of their own, leaving the poet free to enjoy being simultaneously in control and not in control.

For those who have followed Albiston’s career from the outset, Frank will not be the best book through which to remember her particular talents. Fifteeners (2021) and Jack & Mollie (& Her) (2016) both provide much more immediate pleasures.

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