There is a place in Sydney called Inscription Point, where, at the busy juncture of flight paths and container shipping traffic, a brass tablet is set into a sandstone cliff. Thereabouts Captain Cook once cut the date – 1770 – and his ship’s name – HMS Endeavour – into a tree, and so in 1822 members of the loftily-named but very short-lived Philosophical Society of Australasia had the tablet installed to mark the spot. Today the tablet’s corroded words are virtually illegible, but its brisk edges stand out from the pocked and lunging sandstone rockface – a green square, a small abstraction in the landscape. ‘Here fix the tablet. This must be the place’ reads the more lasting memorial, a sonnet by the colonial poet and judge Barron Field. It would be reasonable to think that the unveiling of the tablet is what inspired Field’s poem – that would be the normal order of things. But Field wasn’t so incidental to the scene. The tablet was his pet project: he had commandeered the Philosophical Society to this end. So, Field created the occasion for his own poem, which is as much about Cook’s inscription (‘But where’s the tree with the ship’s wood-carv’d fame?’) as about the perpetuity of his tablet.  

This is how Field appears in the history of Australian poetry: seemingly incidental, but canny and considered in how he left his mark. He is, as Justin Clemens puts it, ‘at once marginal and foundational’, as though he knew that he could only achieve his lasting place in Australian poetry by making the whole thing seem like a bit of a farce. Field arrived in the penal colony of New South Wales in 1817 to take up an important legal role as Judge of the Supreme Court of Civil Judicature. He was already a writer at this point – a friend of young and celebrated Romantic literary figures like Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt, and the author of the unperformed play Antiquity: A Farce (1808). He had strong aesthetic convictions: a zealous follower of Wordsworth, he considered the Lyrical Ballads to be a revolution in poetry, nothing short of the ‘restoration of natural and legitimate poetry, after the long and dazzling usurpation of Dryden and Pope’. In his later years, he even authored a piece of biographical hagiography, Memoirs of Wordsworth, only to end up embarrassing the master himself, who was ‘decidedly against’ its publication.  

It was Wordsworth’s poetics that Field sought to introduce to Australia, only to discover the difficulty of the task. This is an argument first set out by A. D. Cousins, who claims that Field struggled with ‘the impossibility of translating what is in effect a Wordsworthian vision of nature to the antipodean New World’. By Wordsworthain standards, Field found Australia unpoetic, but he didn’t let that stop him writing poems about it. If anything, the difficulty was the spur: that life in a remote penal colony was cruel, dull, and lonesome; that he could ‘hold no fellowship with Australian foliage’; that Australia itself should seem like a place where –  

                            Nature is prosaic, 
Unpicturesque, unmusical, and where  
Nature-reflecting Art is not yet born; –  
A land without antiquities, with one, 
And only one, poor spot of classic ground, 
(That on which Cook first landed) … 

In such a scene, Field considered ‘the only poetry’ to be the ship that had brought him here, because – in an early version of the joke that Australia is best seen from ‘20,000 feet in the air, on the way to Paris’ – the ship is also what might take him away ‘from this prose-dull land’. And yet, Field can’t be entirely serious either, as we are reading all this deprecatory banter about what is and isn’t poetic in a poem.   

The reason Field’s poetry has been foundational to Australia’s literature lies chiefly in his claim to being the first. First Fruits of Australian Poetry, printed on the official Government printer in 1819, is often described as ‘the first book of poetry to be published in the country’. Here, Field tries his hand at Australia’s fauna in his much-anthologised poem ‘The Kangaroo’ and its flora in his mostly plagiarised (from Shakespeare) poem ‘Botany-Bay Flowers’. But this is not the only ‘first’ associated with Field: at various points he has been described by critics as ‘the first person ever to rhyme “Australia” with “failure”’; the first to use the term Australia ‘in poetry anywhere’; the first ‘to present a scientific paper […] in this country’, and, taking into account the contents of that paper, ‘the first to apply phrenology as an anthropological device in Australia’. More abstractly, his poetry has been celebrated for its way of seeing Australia as if ‘at first sight’, with ‘firstness’ thus being elevated into a distinctive poetics of defamiliarisation.  

So why, with all these firsts, should Field be such a marginal figure? The reason, as you’ve likely guessed already, is that he has been almost universally regarded as a very bad poet. In an essay written for this journal, Ben Etherington remarked that it is not just critics who judge literary works: ‘when works gain critical momentum, they judge their critics rather than the other way round’. No one, as far as I can tell, has ever been worried about Barron Field’s poems judging them. If anything, the fact that he was a judge only made it more amusing to pass judgement on his poems: ‘Poor are the first fruits of a Barron Field’, as one of his contemporaries wrote; another added: ‘So poor a crop proclaims thy head / A barren field indeed!’ Even his friend Charles Lamb had to admit that Field’s poems might not ‘please some readers. The thefts are indeed so open and palpable, that we almost recur to our first surmise, that the author must be some unfortunate wight, sent on his travels for plagiarisms of a more serious complexion’. Field, of course, knowingly chose the title First Fruits, and so we must imagine that he thought we were laughing with him – that a new country, an imagined community, is really a way of everyone being in on the joke. But then he was writing all this in ‘the Hades of Thieves’, as Lamb called it, in a penal colony established on stolen land. The main ‘comedy’ here was the kind associated with Dante’s Inferno and domesticated in Frank the Poet’s ‘A Convict’s Tour of Hell’, where a colonial official like Field would almost certainly be found burning on the same stake as ‘Cook who discovered New South Wales / And he that first invented gaols’.  

When the scantness of his poetic offerings is taken into account, it feels like there must have been some temporal cheating going on here. A first is not a mark of quality, no doubt, but how could someone so mediocre acquire so many? This relies on the absolute discontinuity of settler-colonialism with the tens of thousands of years of First Nations history and sovereignty in the Australian continent. It depends, that is, on seeing Australia as Field saw it, as ‘A land without antiquities […] / Where’s no past tense; the ign’rant present’s all’, where ‘We’ve nothing left us but anticipation’. Only then does Australia become a tabula rasa in which history can be first this and then that, ‘one damn thing after another’. Only then does it becomes possible to sit down and write a poem, or to strike a tree with an axe, and say: ‘It was the first time anything like this had happened in that part of the bush’. It is here that another of Field’s ‘firsts’ becomes relevant, the legal first at the centre of Thomas H. Ford and Justin Clemens’ brilliant and understated book Barron Field in New South Wales: The Poetics of Terra Nullius. This book combines original archival research with the forensic close readings of individual poems to reveal the enduring legacy of Field’s peculiar antipodean Romanticism, a Romanticism which gives a more literal and disconcerting meaning to the concluding words of Percy Shelley’s 1821 essay A Defence of Poetry: ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’.  

In 1819, the same year that he published First Fruits, Field handed down what turned out to be an enormously significant legal judgement. The occasion for this case is seemingly trivial: people had been refusing to pay the toll as they passed through the gatehouse at the end of Parramatta Road. But underlying this case was a contestation over the rights of citizens and the limits of governmental power in the penal colony. The case ended up in the colony’s highest court, before Barron Field, who ruled that the governor in fact had no power to levy taxes from his fee-evading subjects. Underlying Field’s decision was the assumption that the governor could only demand taxes if the colony were founded on conquered land. Field’s judgement thus became, in the words of Ford and Clemens:  

the first formal articulation of what would later be named the doctrine of terra nullius –that is, the foundational legal fiction that treated Australia as if it were uninhabited prior to British settlement. Although a largely unacknowledged figure today, Field was in effect the first legislator of terra nullius, and thus one of the principal framers of Australia’s colonial constitution. […] Before Field, terra nullius in New South Wales was no more than a set of background assumptions about civilisation and culture. […] With Field, terra nullius become constitutional.  

Field is thus positioned as one of the key figures in settler-colonialism’s efforts to conceptually justify the invasion of Australia. He kindled that ‘conflagration’ – as the judges of Mabo later called it – that ‘was, over the following century, to spread across the continent to dispossess, degrade and devastate the Aboriginal peoples and leave a national legacy of unutterable shame’.  

This is the starting place for Ford and Clemens’ investigation of Field’s poetics. The aim of their book is to understand the relation between Field’s ‘two foundational acts’ of 1819, a connection first suggested by David Higgins: on the one hand, ‘the invention of terra nullius’, and on the other, ‘the invention of Australian poetry’. How does Field’s poetry express his political ambitions for the colony of New South Wales? Could studying Field’s poems also reveal the ways in which the politics of terra nullius continues to haunt Australian poetry? Barron Field in New South Wales responds in various ways to these questions, but its core claim is that Field’s creation of a distinctively ironic, self-deprecating, citational antipodean variation of Romanticism is inseparable from his vision of a settler-colonial state premised on terra nullius.  

This argument renders some of the evaluative emphasis of past criticism a distraction. It hardly matters, as Ford and Clemens see it, whether literary critics can establish the aesthetic criteria to adjudicate whether Field wrote terrible poems. If anything, the idea that Field wrote terrible poems has allowed critics to avoid reckoning with the connections between his poetics and the more obviously disturbing aspects of his legacy – as if only good poems could be culpable. By contrast, Barron Field in New South Wales insists that much of what appears ‘silly or irrelevant’ in Field’s poetry is, as Clemens puts it in an interview, ‘in fact a highly directed and carefully-calibrated poetic-legal strategy for forging a new Australia on constitutional grounds’. Field ‘really grasped the power with which Romanticism had imbued poetry’, Ford adds, and ‘used poetry in very accomplished ways – technically proficient, thoroughly in touch with literary history, up-to-date with avantgarde understandings of poetic power – as an instrument of colonial genocide’. In other words, Field was ‘by no means a bad poet. He was very much worse than that’.  

This critical approach yields some original insights into Field’s poems. Take ‘The Kangaroo’, a poem that has long been read as a celebration of the carnivalesque weirdness and hybridity of an animal that emerged, along with the ‘duck-mole’ (platypus), on what Field styles as ‘Creation’s holiday’:  

Kangaroo, Kangaroo!
Thou Spirit of Australia,
That redeems from utter failure,
From perfect desolation,
And warrants the creation
Of this fifth part of the Earth,
Which should seem an after-birth ...

Ford and Clemens credit the ‘light-hearted exuberance’ of this depiction. But they also believe that Field’s comic tone belies the poem’s deeper implications. ‘The Kangaroo’, they contend, asks ‘how to originate a national literature’ in Australia. Field’s answer is that Australia and its poetry should aspire to be like the kangaroo: ‘a “divine mistake”, a lucky bastard, a creature of generic miscegenation and warrantless grace’. And yet, this is not Field’s only association with the kangaroo. In his ‘Journal of an Excursion across the Blue Mountains of New South Wales’, he describes how ‘our settlements have scared the kangaroo’, leaving Indigenous people ‘in a state of decay’, with ‘no created food but a few opossums’. The kangaroo, then, does not simply connote the strange hybridity of settler poetics. It also refers, as Ford and Clemens maintain, to ‘a vital food source for Aboriginal societies […] that was, like those societies, being destroyed by colonisation’. This revelation gives a ‘brutal’ and ‘surprisingly bleak’ meaning to Field’s poem, and links it conceptually to his legal repudiation of First Nations sovereignty. Field turns the kangaroo into the presiding metaphor for the chancy, motley intermixture of the emerging settler-colony, but he does so without mentioning, as he well knew, the constitutive role of the kangaroo in Indigenous polities. To replace one meaning of the kangaroo with the other is, Ford and Clemens argue, the genocidal implication of the poem.   

Barron Field in New South Wales subjects each of Field’s poems to an equally patient and sober exegetical dissection. The accumulative intensity of these close readings is what makes Ford and Clemens’ work one of the single most compelling book-length studies of Australian poetry. There is also something significantly revisionary about their overall argument, especially when situated within the larger field of scholarship on Australian literature. In Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (1996) – a monograph that J. M. Coetzee once described as ‘the best study we have of poetry in Australia’ – Paul Kane depicts the entire history of settler poetry, from its lesser-known colonial versifiers through to some of its most accomplished and canonical writers, as a series of attempts to plug the ‘originary lack’ at the heart of Australia’s settler culture. This lack is not, as you might expect, one that stems from the transplanted and derivative structure of settler society: it is a lack of settler Romanticism. ‘For reasons – or accidents of history’, Kane argues, ‘Australia did not experience romanticism during the romantic period per se […]. In Australia, romanticism simply did not happen’. For Kane, the absence of a genuine antipodean Romanticism left Australia’s settler poets ‘to recompense’, each in their own way, ‘this loss or lack by creating a belated romanticism’. They were forced to forge their own bespoke, private Romanticisms, unaware that in doing so they were repeating the tropes of their equally benighted, unsatisfied, and searching precursors. This has been an influential argument; Dan Disney and Matthew Hall, the editors of New Directions in Contemporary Australian Poetry (2021), note some of the ways in which ‘this argument endures’ today. It endures in the framing of the history of settler poetry as a series of melancholy, quixotic efforts to poetically quell the landscape’s unhomeliness, hostility, and indifference – ‘a kind of settler logic’ that can itself, Disney and Hall argue, partake in ‘a mythologizing that re-conceals oppressed and often violently silenced others’. But how, we might wonder, does Kane deal with Field? The answer is that he simply refuses to see him as a Romantic poet at all. Instead, he categorises Field as ‘informed by an 18th-c. neoclassical taste’, meaning that it is only later, with Charles Harpur, that we encounter a poet truly writing ‘in the lyrical mode of William Wordsworth’.  

It is here that Barron Field in New South Wales stages a major intervention in our understanding of the trajectory of settler poetics in Australia. For Field’s task, as Ford and Clemens contend, was precisely ‘to write Wordsworthian poetry’ in Australia. What bedevilled him was not simply that he found the antipodes full of odd and inassimilable flora and fauna (this, recall, was the argument of Cousins). He was stumped, rather, by the ‘absence in New South Wales of any socially realised language capable of mediating, as Wordsworth’s poetic program demanded, between the natural world and the poetic imagination’. This absence gives rise to a curious ‘double-bind’, which Ford and Clemens set out as follows: though Field turned his back on the poetics of neo-classicism, the penal colony offered little in its place. Wordsworth could invent a poetics by bringing his ‘language near to the language of men’, but there was no recognisable vernacular that a poet in Australia might ventriloquise to evoke the natural world of the antipodes. Instead, Field found himself surrounded by convicts and their slang. He was in a world where, as Stuart Macintyre puts it, ‘[g]aolor and gaoled communicated across a gulf of mutual antagonisms’, where ‘the felons had their own private communication, the “flash” language of old lags’. No flash language for Field – this proved unworkable as a resource for poetic communion with nature. And yet, despite these problems, Ford and Clemens believe that Field did manage to stage an ‘escape from this double bind, of how to write Wordsworthian poetry in socio-linguistic conditions that apparently precluded it’. His solution was to become a thief not in content, but in form. Thus, Field fashioned:  

a poetry built, mosaic-like, from quoted fragments: a poetics of collage and creative repurposings, in which elements from the vast archive of English literature could be broken from their original contexts – fractured and depoeticised – only to be repoeticised in new configurations.  

This is a striking and suggestive reformulation of Field’s poetics. It presents Field’s antipodean Romanticism not simply in a way that might help us make sense of what he’s up to in poems like ‘Botany-Bay Flowers’ and ‘The Kangaroo’. It also hints, crucially, at why a colonial poetaster like Field might still demand our attention today. For there is something very prescient and persistent about these ‘hypercitational arabesques’ – about this self-reflexive inauthenticity and poetic purloining. Jaya Savige, for one, notes that to ‘twenty-first century eyes, Field’s “thefts” betray a poetics of appropriation and citation’ that might seem familiar, even contemporary. With a reference to a footnote of Field’s about black swans being ‘no hoax’, Savige adds that First Fruits even ‘looks forward with keen (and suspicious) specificity’ to the most influential of Australia’s poets, Ern Malley. Philip Mead once memorably suggested that Malley might be ‘Australia’s Shakespeare’, pointing to Malley’s ‘power to embody […] the protean energies of inauthenticity’ in his ‘trashy, disconcerting, precious, fake, evasive, transforming poems’. Barron Field in New South Wales forces us to recognise Malley’s kinship with another foundational settler poet who likewise styled his trashy poems after Shakespeare. My point here is not that Field anticipates Malley – that would be to allow the terms of a comparison to contain what is in fact the far more widespread sensibility which they emblematise. Rather, I think Ford and Clemens’s book forces us to see an unexpected and disquieting continuity between the ‘cruel joke’ of Field with his ‘poetics of terra nullius’ and the more celebrated joking of Australia’s national surrealist who charted a course of startling images ‘between / One oasis and the next mirage’ in a ‘No-Man’s-language appropriate / Only to No-Man’s Land’. This ‘No-Man’s-Language’ comes naturally to the settler poet. We might think of it as that sly, delightful, self-deprecating humour that runs through Australia’s poetry – a way of writing in which everything might turn out to be hoax and be all the better for it. Yet, this language is also one that is implicated in the politics of ‘No-Man’s Land’, terra nullius. In this sense, Barron Field in New South Wales is a work not just about the poetry of a settler-colonial past, but about the repetition of that history in the settler-colonial presents and futures of Australian poetry. We might, in this light, recall Karl Marx’s famous remark that history repeats itself ‘first as tragedy, and then as farce’. Barron Field, however, takes us closer to the ‘correction’ to Marx’s remark offered by Herbert Marcuse after the horrors of the Second World War: tragedy and farce are sometimes bound together in repetition; sometimes ‘the farce is more fearful than the tragedy’. 

Field’s most significant poem for the argument of Barron Field in New South Wales does not appear, however, in First Fruits of Australian Poetry. It is part of a scientific paper that he delivered to the members of that same group – the Philosophical Society of Australasia – which he hijacked to erect the memorial tablet at Botany Bay. This was in 1822, and present in the audience was the new governor of the colony, Thomas Brisbane. Around the time that Brisbane arrived in New South Wales, he had apparently said: ‘we have taken the land from the Aborigines of this country, and a remuneration ought to be made’. Ford and Clemens speculate that Field’s paper may be what changed Brisbane’s mind. This paper, ‘On the Aborigines of New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land’, was another of Field’s firsts: ‘[it] appears to have marked the introduction into New South Wales of the set of practices and doctrines known today as modern scientific racism’. Much of how Field utilises these disreputable ‘practices and doctrines’ in his essay can be found in the lucid summary provided in ‘Racism and Romanticism’, the final chapter of Ford and Clemens’ book. There is one moment in particular, though, that gives Ford and Clemens pause. In the final pages of Field’s paper, he hovers over the unspoken question at the heart of terra nullius – whether settler-colonialism entails genocide. Then suddenly, his analysis breaks off and he shifts register, concluding his paper with more than twenty lines of verse. The last section of this poem reads:  

Then let him pass, – a blessing on his head! 
And, long as he can wander, let him breathe 
The freshness of the woods. 
May never we pretend to civilize, 
And make him only captive! 
Let him be free of mountain solitudes; 
And let him, where and when he will, sit down 
Beneath the trees, and with his faithful dog 
Share in his chance-gather’d meal; and, finally, 
As in the eye of Nature he has lived, 
So in the eye of Nature let him die!  

The poem that closes Field’s paper is, as it turns out, another of his plagiarisms, what Ford and Clemens politely describe as a ‘light reworking’ of the concluding stanza of Wordsworth’s ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, with Field having ‘replace[d] the […] beggar with an Aboriginal person’. Where Wordsworth’s poem has the beggar sitting on ‘the grassy bank / Of high-way side’ sharing his ‘chance-gathered meal’ with ‘the little birds’, Field has an Indigenous man with ‘a faithful dog’. Where Wordsworth has a ‘House, misnamed of industry’ making the beggar ‘captive’, for Field it is the pretence of the civilising mission that would imprison First Nations people. There is no need for captivity and civilising, Field’s poem implies. This is because he has assumed – in an early and oblique version of what would later become one of the most iniquitous lies of Australian colonisation – that First Nations people will die out ‘in the eye of Nature’, which is to say, ‘inevitably’. Australia, for Field, was not conquered, but taken under the fiction that it was uninhabited, and in the poem this fiction sits alongside another, kindred fiction: that settlers are not responsible for the ‘decay or extermination’ of First Nations because that will happen ‘in the eye of Nature’, as a matter of course.  

That Field chose to deliver the genocidal meaning of terra nullius before the new governor of the colony in a reworked fragment of Romantic verse casts a painful shadow over Australian poetry. But Field is not fully in control of his material here: the beggar in Wordsworth’s poem is a metaphor ‘for poetry itself’, as Ford and Clemens note. The implication of Field’s substitution – an implication he seems not to have thought through – is that the future of Australian poetry lies not with the English canon that he so restlessly plagiarised, but with First Nations people. Barron Field in New South Wales is a book that has thought all this through. Its authors lay out the many complex meanings and ramifications of Field’s work in what one of them describes as ‘unprecedented detail’. Their hope is this undertaking will not simply ‘draw attention to the ongoing effects’ of Field’s work in this country, but that, in ‘making them known’, it might also free Australian poetry of ‘further repetition’. This is an admirable hope – that we might yet separate tragedy from farce. It is a vision of Australian poetry in which the future depends on critically receiving both terms: Australia and poetry. Poets may seek to escape Australia through the many distinct possibilities of poetry, but it is when they work through Australia’s history – carefully, which does not mean reverently; remember, the iconoclast works carefully too – that we encounter better kinds of ‘citational arabesques’, an Australia poetry that can put things together anew because it has done the work of taking them apart first.  


Thank you very much to James Jiang for his edits on this piece. Thanks also to friends who read and offered helpful feedback on drafts of this essay. I’m indebted to Kyle Kohinga for some very useful correspondence about Field. The variations on the remark about seeing Australia from the plane is attributed to Paul Keating, and is in fact about Darwin more specifically. It is repeated in several variations, but I am quoting the version that shows up in Matthew Parris’s book Scorn. The phrase ‘imagined communities’ is from Benedict Anderson. On the colonial temporality of firsts, see also Jonathan Dunk’s work on ‘time cultures’, especially his essay in this journal, ‘Spectres of Settlement’; Arnold Toynbee is usually credited as having said ‘history is just one damn thing after another’. With ‘private romanticisms’, I have in mind Keston Sutherland’s phrase ‘private materialism’. I first used the quotations from Frank the Poet and the judges of the Mabo case in my essay ‘The Time Police’. I discuss what Michael Farrell calls ‘settler thought’ in terms of the melancholy and quixotic effort to domestic the landscape through poetry in my essay ‘The Poetry of As If’. For a critical discussion of settler melancholy and landscape, see especially Evelyn Araluen’s ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum’. I borrow the image of the iconoclast working carefully from Teju Cole, who says: ‘iconoclasm carries within itself two paradoxical traits: thoroughness and fury’. I further refined some of the ideas I had for this review during the ‘Antipodean Modernism Today’ conference – thanks to the organisers and speakers.  

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2016).  
  • Brooks, David, ‘Field’s Kangaroo’, The Kenyon Review 39:2 (2017): 29-43. 
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  • Cole, Teju, ‘Break It Down’, The New Inquiry July 3, 2012. 
  • Cousins, A. D., ‘Barron Field and the Translation of Romanticism to Colonial Australia’, Southerly 58:4 (1998): 157-174.  
  • Disney, Dan, and Matthew Hall, ‘Introduction: New Directions in Contemporary Australian Poetry?’, in New Directions in Contemporary Australian Poetry, ed. by Dan Disney and Matthew Hall (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), pp. 1-14.  
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  • Etherington, Ben, ‘Road to Omission’, Sydney Review of Books, July 19, 2013.  
  • Ford, Thomas H. with Phillip Adams, ‘Lara Tingle’s Canberra, China in the Middle East, and the poetics of terra nullius’, ABC Radio National: Late Night Live March 27, 2023. 
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  • Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (‘Mabo case’) [1992] HCA 23; (1992) 175 CLR 1 (3 June 1992). 
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  • Mead, Philip, Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008).  
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Published May 13, 2024
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Louis Klee

Louis Klee is a writer, essayist, and poet. His poem ‘Sentence to Lilacs’ co-won...

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