Poetry books by Philip Neilsen

Faces of a Sitting Man
The Art of Lying
Poem Pack One
Life Movies
We’ll All go Together (with Barry O’Donohue)
Without an Alibi

His poems have been included in numerous anthologies, recently including China's Australia: a poetic anthology ed., Ouyang Yu (2006), The Making of a Sonnet eds., Eavan Boland & Edward Hirsch (Norton, 2008) and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry ed., John Kinsella (2008).

Comments on Neilsen’s poetry from critics:

Philip Neilsen is a master of transformations … his work may portend a return to, or continuation of the Australian sense of poetry as an art for people beyond one’s own narrow cohort. Les Murray

Philip Neilsen is a writer of national reputation, whose name will soar outside Australia over the coming years. When he writes a poem, he does something quite unique: he manages to balance the “machine” of the line, the use of figurative language, and unusually for many poets, knowledge.
John Kinsella

A wonderful book - lyrical, graceful, witty, a poetic sensibility of intelligence and depth. Susan Johnson

Philip Neilsen [is] an important Australian writer … as a fantasist he is capable of a literary distancing [similar to] Borges … a powerful talent.  Christopher Pollnitz

Philip Neilsen [is] in the front rank of Australia’s satirical poets. Bruce Dawe

Neilsen’s poems appeal particularly; they’re modern and adventurous … his longer poems have great emotional strength. Martin Harrison


Neilsen’s work frequently mingles wit and a sinister surrealism with unpredictable effects …[he] takes a disturbing look at familiar myths and cultural heroes. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, p.512.


Sample poems.

Narrative of a Leaf

Start with suspense.
Picture an average leaf
humming carelessly in the wind.
It doesn’t know what’s coming.
June frost, drought,
delinquent insects.

It is hard work, putting food on the table,
growing a tree.
Forgoing the luxury of individualism.
This is the heroism
of the ordinary leaf.

With no rehearsal, jump into the void,
fall like an angel
with half a parachute.
Whether raked or left in peace
keep busy in community service.
Be an example without being didactic.
A kind of glory.

Death will be Unsighted

I come to the forest again
this anchor to earth
this complicated light,
and beneath its prodigious imagining
stand still in the hope
death will be unsighted
and slink back to the creaky staircase,
the level crossing, or beery pub.

Wild plums grow in tangled weight
each September, and over there 
is a courtesy of wildflowers
where the thinking animal falters
beneath a flock of parrots,
is suddenly wrapped
in the same instinctive colours,
the details of existence brilliant,
more precise,
walking on dusk.


Crusoe Revisited
[the civilised world] could not, with all its enjoyments, restore him to the tranquillity of his solitude.” Richard Steele – reporting Selkirk’s words.

Alexander Selkirk stood trembling
on the sand, excrement dribbling
down his legs, his hair matted
with the fish leavings of seagulls.
Once rescued, he gestured
to the sailors to draw closer,
but could only moan and mumble
half-words. That half not misplaced
in the forest, the nights with no sound
except jaw crunch and rustle,
his sleeping bag of cats and rats.


I danced with the cats in the moonlight,
he tried to tell his rescuers.
A jig from a wedding in Largo.
And the cats, less fleet than he,
threw themselves about as best they could. 
Always the smoke of pimento wood curled
up from the cliff, ambiguous in its aim.
His bible and books swam away from him,
signs with less purchase than shellfish,
or his budding Spanish turnips.

Returned to Scotland, a pirate hero,
he first eloped with shy Sophia,
then lived by himself in a cave again.
But this cave whispered of madness,
not the ‘tranquillity of solitude’.
Once he had carved his name on palm trees
to distinguish them from him.
But now the trees were aloof and coy.

He beckoned the sailors closer
and they marvelled at his long hair,
his cap of white fur, the tropical odour.
But they heard only the vocabulary
of loneliness as he tried to confess his
copulation with goats.

For a serviceable pair of trousers
he would gladly have traded
his Enlightenment epiphany:
namely, that the ‘primitive’ is neither
degradation nor celebration.
Just silhouette. The tree-line at sunset,
bats charred black on the moon,
the ice edge of a storm cloud.
The village Kirk would not accept
this as wisdom - but Heaven’s
hard men had never dressed
in rotting sail cloth.


His knife wore down to its back.
He made a new knife from the
iron hoop of a wine barrel,
washed up in the morning
like a slow letter from home.
In delight he thanked the waves,
and they, curled upon his praise,
brought driftwood, their alphabet
in froth fragments, and his new voice.


The Lie of Biology  

At Southampton my Great Aunt Eastman
shows me the table where every Christmas
she wrapped a Rover or Tiger annual
filled with soccer stories and Spitfires,
bound for steamy, respectful Brisbane. 
In the photo I have a Dennis Lillie moustache,
like every Australian male in England, 1975.

In Scotland I travel into Perthshire,
Grandma Morris’s town of Blairgowrie.
There are burly townsfolk in singlets
scattered along the steps by the river,
sunning themselves under an overcast sky.
In the photo I am wearing a padded jacket
designed for mountain snow survival.

Striding through Freiburg in summer
I feel the Rhine in my blood, the pine song.
Then I discover great grandfather Berndt
came from Koenigsberg, now in Russia,
frozen home of the Prussian officer class
and the meticulous, obedient bureaucrat.
In the photo I am the long-haired 
conscientious objector with blue eyes.

Great grandfather Nilsson left Bergen
in 1874 for the windjammers and northern 
Australia. I am delaying this fourth
and final trip, the one to Norway.
I can see the photo already: there I am,
standing by multi-coloured boats
in the rain, or on the edge of a fiord
with a beanie pulled down over my ears,
looking genetically uncomfortable,
trying to smile my way into the frame.


All poems above are from Philip Neilsen’s recent collection Without an Alibi (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008).