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Last updated:
May 2008



Alison Croggon

The Fantasist

As we speak about the greening of earth and songs of trees, it seems fitting that our featured poet for this edition, a writer of vast and multifarious gifts, is one who holds the secrets to the “Riddle of the Treesong,” the key to restoring peace in her fantasy world of the widely acclaimed Pellinor series.

Four years ago, when I was buying a book for my nephew’s birthday, I came upon the first novel of the Pellinor quartet. I started reading, right there at a Borders store. I became so engrossed in young Maerad’s adventures that I had to buy a copy for myself as well. The Naming, alternately called The Gift, was nominated for two Aurealis awards in 2002.  It was only later, when I looked up Alison Croggon online, I was staggered to discover what a major talent she was, not only as a poet, but as a writer straddling various genres.


The popularity of her work is evinced by the proliferation of fan fiction, blogs and other fan-based activities that reflect the immense appreciation for the world and characters Ms.Croggon has created in her fantasy novels. The series comprises four novels published by Walker Books and Candlewick Press.

Besides becoming a great hit in Australia, UK and the United States, The Gift has received rave reviews in Germany. The long-awaited final book of Pellinor, The Singing, is scheduled for release this year.

A Writer of Rare Versatility

Alison Croggon was born in 1962 in South Africa. She moved with her family to Australia as a child and wrote her first poem at the age of ten. She trained as a journalist, working for the Melbourne Herald. Later, she also worked as a drama critic. Alison has been a full-time writer since 1992.  She is married to playwright Daniel Keene, and has three children. 

Alison Croggon is a well-regarded poet, critic, playwright, librettist, translator, novelist and fantasist. Her poetry has been published internationally in anthologies and magazines. Her first book of poems, This is the Stone, won the 1991 Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes. Her novel Navigatio, published by Black Pepper Press, was highly commended in the 1995 Australian/Vogel literary awards and is being translated for publication in France. Other poetry books include The Blue Gate and the highly touted Attempts at Being. Her new collection, Theatre, is forthcoming from Salt Publishing soon. Her translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies awaits publishing in the near future.


Ms.Croggon’s theatre work includes the operas Gauguin and The Burrow, with Michael Smetanin, and the plays Lenz, Samarkand and The Famine. Her play Blue was presented at La Mama in Melbourne and the Street Theatre in Canberra in June 2001 by CIA. The text Monologues for an Apocalypse was commissioned for ABC Radio National and broadcast in 2001. She also wrote lyrics for Confidentially Yours (Playbox Theatre 1998, Hong Kong Festival 1999). Many of her poems have been set to music, and she has performed her work with saxophonist/composer Tim O'Dwyer.

Ms.Croggon was poetry editor for Overland Extra (1992), Modern Writing (1992-1994) and Voices (1996) and founding editor of the literary arts journal Masthead.


The Lemon Tree

I cannot tell you! nothing can tell you!

the moon who sleeps with thrushes in the lemontree
has ventured her mouth and now she cannot tell you
the leaves surrendered quietly over the grass
the magpies squabble and have no news as usual

but I so much want to say! to volley the notes
that globe and ripen in this turbulent light
through the silver vacuum of your ear -
to tighten all your surfaces exquisitely
so you may purely resonate, sweet gong,

a wave through glittering waves, a frond uncoiling
ceaselessly, a violet blade cutting together
moon and leaf and day - no!
I cannot say! my mouth is still
fast asleep among the amorous lemons!

lemon tree


The Poet

Alison Croggon’s poetry sings of unexpected delights. Assertive, rich voiced and self-assured behind her lucid pen, she plays poetry by ear. There is a sense of movement that carries the reader inexorably on a wave of revelation. Colors and emotions flow together from a palette of focused clarity:


I might have lifted out of the day
small tremulous lamps to guard the night.
But day’s center is dark.

Nevertheless the lamps are there,
flaring discontentedly like my daughter’s
marine sleep.

She is as silent as hands.
Her breath peoples the sea
with fins of rose and lavender.

The lamps go out
and reveal a horrible beauty
The sea curls back.

I push my tongue into silence

Language is a habitat she explores beyond existing boundaries; her poems are full of fresh, original word combinations, rife with visual impact. Sometimes her words float, so weightless do they seem, and sometimes they are heavy, as if torn from depths of wrenching pain.



“hell is never private by design
there’s always some damned neighbour peering in
or dogs barking insanely at the disturbance
at the very least the greedy roar of traffic
going somewhere else

it happens so quickly you don’t know
what sins you’re being punished for
or how long eternity is

not to mention the humiliations
flames wreak on flesh:
the bubbling eyes
the loss of every sense except pain”

A subtle alchemy injects fresh life into the doldrums of the modern poetic landscapes with sharp twists, keeping the reader alert, poised for flight into unique realms, unable to break away. In masterful control of pace, with uncanny intuition, she pulls the reader in at exactly the right point in narrative.


“You’d better start, the sun said
As I lay blinking

My manners were arrested
By surprise

It’s not good enough, he said
Even I become tired

Of going up and down again
And sometimes wish to find

A dark lover to hide in
But where I am there is no night

And no one to complain to.
Abashed, I began.”

Like the clear voice of an aria, Ms. Croggon’s work is finely distilled to the point of pure emotion which pierces the heart. Sometimes her poems are passionate, yet softening almost to a whisper when necessary, like in the exquisite, unimaginably delicate “Lullaby.” It evokes a vulnerability that chokes the throat.

“little delicate animal
your thin shoulders press against my belly
the bones of your face stand out like an adult’s
nd your neck that white naked stem
is laid across my thigh

as if I could protect you”

Her works are often explorations of mood and interior landscapes. Pain and awareness flow together in confluence of emotional depth, and she is not afraid to probe the darker climes of human relationships or circumstances. Her words can pitiless in the harsh glare of truth:

They do not arrive in time

(No 52, The Disasters of War, Francisco Goya)

“the ground is patient
it does not acquire hunger
only light

the stone is as patient as a hand
one stroke of black after another

the face might be lost in a sulk of sleep
but its heaviness tells otherwise

a black cowl pushes down the body
gripped by crude fingers

her white fingers hang

a few curved lines pull the dress
tenderly across her breasts and belly
she is still fresh

she is of course a crucified Madonna
no doubt she was patient

for the rest, faces
living and dead

bearing witness”

Sometimes her work can be edgy, with a haunting urgency and passion. There is movement through metaphorical energy and atmospheric beauty. In this poem, there is the sweetness of a priceless moment:

III Love Poems


 “she hides in the distracting veils
of midnight silences

this is her bed and this is her lover
turning now like oil on her side
this is the space she counts inside herself
one    two   this white silence

she tastes it privately
like rare soft delicious fruit
praying that her lover will not speak

Also, as in the poem below, images of utter beauty and delicate passion dance together, rising to conclude in stunning epiphany.


“the angle of your face
                  between my thighs -
                                  the thousand notes
                                                     of your lucid tongue -
                                                                                     the taut fruits
                                  shivering to wakefulness
                  against my lips -
o trees may embrace
              as slowly and completely
                               the solemn earth
                                                 and the unquenchable light
                                                               and know the joy of sap
                                        sweetly engorging them -
                    but music once
tore their roots with listening
                and eyes rustled open
                            blindly after Orpheus -
                                            that instrument of bone
                                                                scoring the blank sky
                                            with worlds of loss -
                            its blood foaming
                in the breath
                           of angels”

Ms. Croggon’s words walk on the edge, almost falling off but miraculously maintaining balance. Subtle poetical language sifts through beliefs to arrive at painful truths. Precise phrasings bring images into acute focus:

“Silence broke my mouth:
the crumbs flew out the window
like paper butterflies or those magnolias
nonchalantly shattered on the grass…”

Alison Croggon’s work is particularly rich with intuitive perceptions that do not merely pique, but rather solicit full attention; her words reverberate with emotional amplification. Her poetry is filled with power and occasional nerve-jangling imageries that elicit immediate response, yet in subtle shifts of mood, some phrasing is of such utter delicacy and stillness, one almost wants to hold one’s breath so as not to disturb or shatter the hushed quality of internal sound in both the heart and psyche. There is a compelling intensity in the lyricism of Ms. Croggon’s poetry, and upon reading her, one is made aware of the depth and range of her fluid genius, and the pulse of life itself.


Awards for Alison Croggon’s Poetry.

1989 Victorian Council for the Arts Poetry Fellowship
1991 Winner Anne Elder Prize, This is the Stone
1991 Winner Dame Mary Gilmore Prize, This is the Stone
1993 Australia Council Fellowship
1995 Australia Council Fellowship
1997 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards (Poetry Prize shortlist),
The Blue Gate
1998 Poetry Book Club of Australia (Highly Commended), The Blue Gate
1998 C. J. Dennis Prize for Poetry (shortlist), The Blue Gate
1998 Australia Council (New Works) Grant
2000 Australia Council Writers Fellowship
2002 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize (shortlist), Attempts at Being
2002 New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, Attempts at Being
2002 Pushcart Prize, USA (nominated), Attempts at Being

It has been a privilege and rare pleasure to get to know about Alison and her many brilliant writings. I am deeply grateful for her graciousness in agreeing to this feature, her accessibility and charming nature, and am dazzled by her extraordinary body of work. She will continue to inspire all of us here at Pirene’s Fountain, as well as her readers and the writing world at large. I am honored to join the legions of her many fans.

Ami Kaye: May 2008

We asked Alison Croggon what poetry was to her and this is what she had to say:

“Poets love arguing about what poetry is. But it seems to me that attempting to define poetry is like trying to define water. As soon as you decide it’s something you drink from a cup, you look up and notice the clouds. Is it most essentially a river, or is it an ocean? Is it the frost on your lawn or that ice block you drop into your drink? The steam in a laundry? The rain falling on the roof? A waterfall?

Water, of course, is all these things, an infinity of forms. And poetry is just as disobedient. It refuses, always, to be one thing. One poet might decide that the only real poetry rhymes. Another that rhyme is the death of poetry. Another that the only valid poetry breaks up syntax and refuses easy meaning, and yet another that clarity of syntax is the only possible poetic ambition.

These arguments have always puzzled me. Since I was a child, I’ve loved all kinds of poetry. For me, writing poems is about the making of beautiful patterns of meaning, and I think that all the different languages of form are there to be used. The idea of a formless poem is meaningless: for me, poetry and form are almost synonyms. Whether or not that form includes rhyme or metre or the grammar of sentences or obliquely splintered syntax depends on what the poem wants to be. And every poem is different. That is why it needed to be written in the first place.

The first poem I remember consciously writing was a Shakespearean sonnet: I read an article in an encyclopaedia that explained the rhyming and metrical pattern, and I was so intrigued I wrote my own. I spent my childhood copying practically every poet I read, from Lewis Carroll and Alfred Lord Tennyson, to Stevie Smith and Wallace Stevens. I didn’t really care who wrote the poems, and so seldom remembered the names of the poets. All I knew was that their writing gave me a taut feeling in my stomach, and that I wanted, more than anything, to make that beauty myself.

Three decades later, I don’t think that much has essentially changed. The creation of beautiful form out of language still deeply matters to me. My ideas about what constitutes that form have evolved: at some point I became more interested in the truthfulness of fractures than I was in attaining simple perfections. Poems belong to the human breath, and bodies are not metronomes: the breath catches, breaks, rises and falls; the voice might stammer and falter into silence, it might rise into an operatic aria, or whisper in a kitchen or declaim from a mountaintop.  I’ve learned a lot about poetry by going to the theatre.

I’ve decided that what most matters in the poetry I love is intelligence: a noun that is also a word for “angel”. I have had countless tutors: every poet who has made me gasp, who has reminded me what poetry might be and opened a door to a new possibility. Poets like William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud taught me that rules are useless; Rainer Maria Rilke and John Ashbery taught me how poetic thought can be swift and dynamic; Frank O’Hara showed me how funny seriousness can be, JH Prynne opened up the sheer beauty of abstract language. And so it continues.

And as I have grown older, I have more often followed Gerard Manley Hopkins’ precept: to admire and do otherwise. I have learned to stop worrying about whether a poem is successful, and to wonder more whether it is truthful, whether it manages to capture the elusive reality that stirred it in the first place. Most of the time I am not sure what that reality is until I’ve seen it, however opaquely, in a poem, and sometimes not even then.

I am never sure what a poem is when I have abandoned it; it no longer belongs to me. The fact is that I can’t read my own poems as others do. If I read my own poetry, all I can see is its form. I know that the form is hammered out on an anvil of feeling, but that feeling no longer exists for me. So I am sometimes puzzled by the responses of others: whether that response is positive or negative, I am seldom certain what the other person is reading. Not that it matters what I think: as Eliot said, “for us there is only the trying” and “the rest is not our business”. 

I read poetry because I love this art, which for me is as various and necessary as water. I write poems because, for reasons that are still mysterious to me, I need to write them; and if they speak to others, if they express a meaning that matters in their lives, it is a gift, a richness that is hoped for but can never be expected.”                                                                                                                         

                                                                                                      Alison Croggon


Note: Some of Ms.Croggon’s more recent work is featured in the “Current Issue,” as well as brief selections from her various poetry collections.

(Permission for all her materials and poetry in this issue granted by Alison Croggon.)