Portrait of poets as young men

Beast Language
Toby Davidson
5 Islands Press

Omar Musa
Blast! Publishing

Limited Cities
Lachlan Brown
Giramondo Publishing

In a recent book review in the Australian, the influential poet and critic Geoff Page referred to a ‘burgeoning group of young (or youngish) Australian female poets who are dominating the field [of Australian poetry] at the moment’. This reference is, to my mind, a fairly true observation, as evidenced by, for example, the majority of authors included in a recent University of Queensland Press anthology being women. Despite many a paranoid male poet’s fear of a politically correct feminist conspiracy or somesuch, the phenomenon of female poets’ ascendance in Australia is the basic reflection of the actuality of the forces of literary, pedagogic and cultural production, i.e., the fact that the overwhelming majority of readers, students and therefore writers of poetry in Australia are women. But what about the few(er) young (or youngish) Australian men who write poetry? Are they an endangered species?

Such questions are more or less facetious, intended to provide me with a much-needed introduction for a review of new books of poetry by three young Australians who happen to be men. Nevertheless, as the discussions apropos of the Stella Prize and VIDA’s surveys into the ‘treatment of women in literature’ have recently highlighted, gender continues to affect both the production and reception of literature irrespective of our supposedly post-feminist, post-gender-politics modes of cultural production. While it is not my aim here to view the three books under review as particularly gendered items, it seems clear that issues to do with masculinity could provide one with a legitimate prism for reading these works, a perspective similar to Andrew Mossin’s fascinating work on postmodernist American poetry in Male Subjectivity and Poetic Form in New American Poetry.

According to Mossin, ‘masculinity and the variable subjectivities that developed its discourses are foundational aspects of male poetic practice.’ Perth-born, Sydney-based poet and scholar Toby Davidson’s debut collection Beast Language and Malaysian-Australian slam poet and rapper Omar Musa’s second collection Parang (named after a type of Malayan machete) are not only titularly masculine, they are also written in recognisably male – although by no means misogynistic – voices that exude a great deal of what one may refer to, à la the jargon of New Ageism, as male energy.

The section of Davidson’s book titled ‘Reproduction,’ for example, begins with an ode to the growth of a rather phallic vegetable – ‘Zucchini’ – as it ‘takes a lot of sun’ to assume the colour ‘green [which] is king;’ in the next poem, the author introduces himself as a variation of the Classical fertility deity Pan, the phallic persona par excellence; and so on. Musa’s diction and concerns are more contemporary than Davidson’s faux-archaic themes and style, yet the slam poet’s is also a noticeably masculine aesthetic. The speaker of his ‘Lost Planet,’ for example, is very much a boyish adventurer recounting a rite-of-passage quest which includes sexual encounters with a sensualised female Other:

I found a river.
I followed the river until
I found a door.
I knocked on the door
and it was answered by
my first love.
She was as passionate and forgiving as
when we first met,
her flammable kiss set me ablaze
we made love on smouldering sheets.

It is a credit to Musa’s insight and talents as a writer – which become his considerable skills as a live performer – that his authorial voice entails an unabashed openness and a desire for compassion and congeniality. As a reader with no interest whatsoever in the macho postures of the hip hop culture, I am more than pleased to find Musa’s assertive, at times overconfident expressions tempered by an intelligent and inviting exploration of the poet’s personal and emotional life. The title poem ‘Parang,’ for example, starts with a potentially belligerent statement (‘I take the stone and whet the blade / and use my spit to make it gleam’) but by the end of the next poem the knife has become a figurative device deployed for self-discovery: ‘I sift through [my stories] with tip of a blade, / searching for signs of me.’

There is something equally sensitiveabout the poet-academic Davidson’s pieces, although his lack the directness and palpable sincerity of the poet-rapper’s work. In the poem ‘Quartet for the Age of Interruption,’ for example, Davidson’s articulation of a yearning for self-discovery is noticeably wordier and more complicated than Musa’s:

Supremely anonymous, I move in moods
from deep wherein I am. Gothic cinders
stream the sun. I want to belong
to one great swaying lung
antiquity’s circular stem.

Davidson’s poetics, with its avid inclusion of sound devices and reliance on a quasi-Romantic oratory speaker, may be seen as the latest manifestation of a full-blown lyricism in the work of new Australian poets. Interestingly, this has been a phenomenon associated primarily with younger female poets, a number of whom were once referred to, rather problematically, as ladies of the lyric. In my view, one can make a stronger case for the emergence of blokes of the lyric, a grouping which would have to include Davidson as one of its most promising members. His wonderfully funny villanelle, ‘Testament’ alone would serve as indeed a great testament to his ability to use form and rhyme schemes with great efficacy and originality. Limited Cities, the debut collection by Davidson’s fellow academic and NSW poet, Lachlan Brown is not bereft of lyricism – it includes, among other things, two sonnets–and its language is in many parts, like a slam poet’s, naturalistic and unpretentious. Yet Brown’s book is much more difficult to categorise than the other two. His formalism is often deceptive–none of the sections in the sequence ‘Twenty Sestets’ are actually six line poems – and his authorial ego is, unlike that of the other two poets, marginal and ephemeral. The poem ‘Almost a Dream,’ for example, starts with a first person speaker’s narration, but the individual narrator soon disappears amidst the collectivity of a plural pronoun and the actuality of a communal experience:

I am carried by a crowd into a square,
and they are speaking a language that
is not my own. Their flags and banners
wave with anger and resolve, and a
microphone discovers someone’s
new voice. Hands are waving. We are
pressed close to others. Policemen with
handguns and worried eyes attempt to
move people on. All around us white
building are lit by hidden sources, as
if governing could be this secure and calm.

Had I been writing this review twenty or so year ago, I would have felt compelled to label the speaker of the above poem as unreliable, indeterminable and so on, in keeping with the doxa of postmodern literary theory. Reading the poem in today’s post-Global Financial Crisis milieu of Occupy Movements, the Arab Spring uprisings and renewed political radicalism in most parts of the world, one may confidently view this and many other poems included in Brown’s exceptional first collection as socially and ethically engaged works of art which respond to and participate in the demands for justice, political consciousness, and, in Joel Nickels’ sense, the poetry of the possible. The book’s first poem, ‘Urban Sprawl’ presents a powerful thesis on social disintegration and class antagonism in contemporary Australia in the form of a first-hand account of the 2005 Macquarie Fields riots. In the first part of the poem, dated ‘Spring’s edge 2004,’ Brown provides us with the signs and causes of the crisis to come – ‘a creek flushed with prams and plastic’ as ‘businessmen talk of outsourcing’ – amidst an eerily tranquil scenery.  The poem’s second part, dated ‘Autumn’s edge 2005,’ transmits images of the riots – ‘fence palings spiralling into an officer’s shields;’ ‘around the corner someone lights a mattress’ – while projecting the narrator’s anxiety and complex ambivalence:

                   The reality is at
the end of the day it’s Us and Them … except for
the good ones. Meanwhile hooded kids throw rocks ‘the
size of large golf balls’ as members of gated community
putt to save par on the other side of the tracks. I’m somewhere
in between I think, like a fallacy.

The self-acknowledged ‘fallacy’ of this poet’s position is not the feature of a passive self-reflexivity or the quality of keeping a safe ironic distance from the political event, but a critique of an untenable, indeed fallacious neutrality – or, in Marxian terms, false consciousness – conditioned by the ideology of inequality and the actuality of inequality’s violent consequences. Brown’s Limited Cities is one of the most perceptive and engaging new collections of poetry I have had the pleasure to read this year and, alongside Omar Musa’s Parang and Toby Davidson’s Beast Language, it makes a very strong case for young male poets to continue writing poetry as good as the work being produced by their female peers.

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