Book Review: Empirical by Lisa Gorton

Gorton’s meditations take on a contemporary romanticism towards Melbourne and contrast it with the history of empire.
Book Review: Empirical by Lisa Gorton

Poet and Oxford scholar Lisa Gorton began writing Empirical in 2014 when the Victorian government planned an eight-lane highway through Melbourne’s Royal Park. By uncovering maps, newspapers and pictures, Gorton tries to understand how a feeling for place originates.

A young city on ancient land; Melbourne has built its colonial history through industrialisation to wilfully forget its predecessors. Cultural heritage consultants at the time said it ‘would not appear to have been of great likely attraction to Aboriginal past populations given its distance to local watercourses.’

Gorton’s seven poems, ‘Empirical I – VII’, then the longer ‘Royal Park’, were composed in the year she frequently walked through the area where swamplands were drained for playing fields and storm drains and a golf course and railway line have superseded the Moonee Moonee chain of ponds.

The second half of Empirical is Gorton’s meditation on Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London – ‘a showcase of empire, commodified, and closed in glass.’ But what started as a meditation on the admired landmark turned the author to the poetry of Rimbaud and Coleridge and the idea of country, queen and god.

Gorton writes about the statue of Aphrodite as a symbol of the ‘beauty of the world, objectified, fought over, broken, on display’. Colonial history shapes much of the world that settlers took for their own, and Empirical teaches us to appreciate a different beauty no longer in its original form.

Having completed her PhD on the poetry of John Donne at Oxford University, Gorton does require some previous knowledge of fine poetry to be understood fully. Perhaps it’s more a book for the lover of poetry than natural things, although many of her poems’ intentions do draw back to the landscape of Royal Park.

Empirical enlivens the excessively rigid, the monuments which stare back at us if we look back at them hard enough. It shows how much we miss when objects are built to become stagnant, measured then observed. Gorton’s meditations on the empirical take on a contemporary romanticism towards Melbourne and its natural landscape and contrast it with the history of the empire as it sees itself.

Lisa Gorton lives in Melbourne. Her debut collection of poetry, Press Release, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, while her next, Hotel Hyperion, won the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal. The Life of Houses was her debut novel about a family whose generations live out their lives in the one house.

3 stars out of 5 ★★★

Empirical by Lisa Gorton
Publisher: Giramondo
ISBN: 9781925818116
Category: Poetry
Pages: 98
Release Date: July 2019
RRP: $24

James Arbuthnott

Thursday 18 July, 2019

About the author

James Arbuthnott is a regional journalist in the Campaspe area, Victoria and book reviewer at ArtsHub Australia. Twitter: @we_forgot