review | David Prater

OVERLAND 191
ISBN 978-0-9775171-8-3
winter 2008
published 23 May 2008

THE PERFORMANCE OF PUBLICATION: RECENT AUSTRALIAN POETRY

David Prater

  • David Malouf: Typewriter Music (University of Queensland Press, ISBN 9780702236310, $29.95)
  • David Brooks: Urban Elegies (Island Press, ISBN 9780909771737, $22.95)
  • Angela Gardner: Parts of Speech (University of Queensland Press, ISBN 9780702236150, $25)
  • Paul Mitchell: Awake Despite the Hour (Five Islands Press, ISBN 9780734036940, $21.95)
  • Anita Heiss: I’m Not Racist, But … (Salt Publishing, ISBN 9781844713165, $24.95)

To warn a reader or reviewer not to judge a book by its cover is to deny the role of the physical format of book-objects both in framing contents and in catching the attention of potential readers. In the current situation for Australian poetry – the sheer number of titles produced each year; the handful of journals and limited review space – publishers must act tactically, perhaps by slipping a note in with the review copy or, as in the case of David Malouf’s new collection Typewriter Music, wrapping the book in yellow tissue paper and a nice chocolate brown ribbon. The argument for ‘reading’ these objects as a performance is compelling. It’s thus possible to categorise books not only by their format but also by the rhetoric of that format: in other words, as a performance of the codes inherent in the book’s production.

Typewriter Music stands out as one of the more highbrow (dare I say pretentious) pieces of Australian poetry publishing. It has clearly been designed for the boutique bookstore and the bourgeois literary festival, its intended audience is arguably less interested in poetry than in possessing a fine poetry book and, as a performance, it screams the word ‘distinction’ from its ivory tower.

I’ve always been a fan of Malouf’s varied prose works, An Imaginary Life in particular. The contents of Typewriter Music are likewise varied, with references to words falling in and out of mouths, straw, fields, several kinds of birds and, in the title poem, the old school typewriter, as if these poems were yearning for an age before (or perhaps beyond) the harsh realpolitik of information technologies:

… Brailling through
études of alphabets, their chirp and clatter
grass choppers
the morning to soundbites,
each rifleshot hammerstroke another notch
in the silence.

Malouf’s poems seem written from a place where Ganymede, angels and moonflowers are normal. This is not to say they are completely disengaged. In ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’, one catches a glimpse of heartache, an emotion clearly bubbling beneath the surface and yet also clearly erased: “… without you, sweet nothing/ I’m dust.” In the two poems after Rimbaud (‘The Green Tavern’ in particular) one also gets a sense of passionate interaction with the world. For the most part, however, from the (almost obligatory) homage to Horace and some Tuscan references, to the proper-culture nods of ‘Mozart to da Ponte’, this is poetry that’s more retiring than engaged.

The excess of rural imagery also allows me to draw a connection between these poems and what David Brooks refers to, in his similarly restrained though perhaps more ‘contemporary’ Urban Elegies, as a potential poetic meta-genre, namely the “barnyard revelation”. Brooks’ poem recounts:

An academic poetician friend

while discussing my

rural adventures

tells me that he hopes I won’t fall victim

to the endemic poematosis of the region, by which, as he explains,

he means the writing

of ‘barnyard revelation poems’.

I haven’t laughed so much in years.

I suppose, instead, I should be producing

postmodern supermarket odes …

This poem manages, somehow, to do just that while never losing touch with the (still) rural origins of supermarket food. Brooks’ poems (especially the superb middle section from which the book takes its title) grapple constantly with the conflict between the natural and the man-made, and he is wise enough to reflect upon his own role in the seemingly unstoppable march of humanity (see, for example, the eerie ‘Rat Theses’), as well as the essentially constructed nature of poetry as an art form. Throughout we find references to the craft of writing. The situation described in opener ‘Ars Poetica’ -

‘What is poetry?’ a student asks me

after nearly two hours talking.

I think of all the old things.

- would be familiar to any teacher of literature or creative writing. Elsewhere we find Brooks “writing poems/ in a language that cannot do” (‘Poem Beginning with Nothing’). In ‘Sadness Poem’ both poet and reader find themselves in an instance of writer’s block: “start writing this poem/ get stuck on this very line”. And, in the aptly titled ‘The End of Poetry, Again': “Back in the house/ I write this down”.

The poems collected here display a softness, almost a resignation. Even a poem about Andre Agassi being knocked out of the French Open is gentle rather than overtly satiric. Further, when a neighbour poisons the poet’s backyard with some kind of weed killer, Brooks’ response is to curse them in a most mild fashion: “Let them continue to be/ self-exiled from the earthly heaven” (‘Curse’).

The format and layout of Urban Elegies compares favourably with the almost austere style of Angela Gardner’s Parts of Speech. Gardner, a poet at the forefront of what I’m tempted to call the Australian internet avant-garde, is a frequent contributor to internet discussion lists and the editor of the experimental online journal foam:e.

Like Malouf, Gardner conjures up images of Brisbane as well as other ‘destinations’. Indeed, modes of transport populate these poems. International flights, train carriages and ferries are prominent. In the strange and powerful ‘Physical Memory’, for instance, Gardner evokes an almost Pynchonian sense of terror, in the “inessential pull of gravity”, in “the rattle of carriages … intermingled with screams”. Many of the poems in this collection are seemingly abstract constructions. Some of them reference the dark side of new communication technologies. For instance ‘The Mircle [sic] Drug’ utilises the strange emerging language of spam emails, and ‘Nil by Mouth’ engages with the politics of online freedom of expression. Gardner’s poetry is not simply experimental nor defiantly technological; in ‘The Twelve Labours’, an ocker god/midwife/spirit (I don’t get the actual classical reference, if one is actually needed) embarks upon a humorous odyssey:

Very low key – we started a war here and there

but basically lots of sunshine and fun

and I was generous with the slabs of beer

The lightness of tone here is all the more startling for the seriousness of the poems surrounding it, particularly ‘Embedded’, a dark reflection on the complicity of the news media in the invasion of Iraq. Like Laurie Duggan, whose wry humour is echoed in ‘Notes for a Day at the National Gallery’ – “I don’t think I like/ seventeenth century French painting” – Gardner has a keen eye for the mundane minutiae of what sometimes passes as culture in the West. Further, one sees more than hears in this collection the potential for the performance of these poems. The title poem, for instance, is stunning in its use of language, in its quirky repetitions and energetic enjambment:

They let fly in registers

without elision

jolt overhead outgo

out from stolen sound

intake diminish to

doubtful letter-spaces

in limping and dubious

from a harsh flood

they admonish

exceptions in pronunciation

There is something edgy and explosive about these poems, and about the process of reading them. The same can be said for Paul Mitchell’s Awake Despite the Hour, whose black cover (a somewhat restrained affair from a publisher perhaps not renowned for its design ethos) engenders a sense of foreboding. Mitchell is a well-known poet on the Melbourne spoken-word scene; he is also developing his skills as a prose writer, with a collection of short stories, Dodging the Bull, published in 2007.

Awake Despite the Hour could be described as Mitchell’s ‘difficult’ third album. The early themes of suburbia and the dark corners of relationships are still here (‘My Wheelie Bin’s Big Day’) and might be considered trademark riffs, often based on turns of phrase or gallows-humour puns. ‘Screenprint Activist’, a first-person narrative spoken by a Che Guevara T-shirt, would be vintage Mitchell if he weren’t still so young. It’s also, more than any other poem in this book, hilarious:

Another bloke who had me on

(sweaty fella, don’t know if he showers)

thought I played better guitar

than Hendrix. His mate said,

Nah, Guevara’s a rhythm guitarist.

He thought ‘Redemption Song’

was my best.

This is sharply satirical and funny, telling us as much about contemporary Australian ignorance as the re-appropriation of political icons, and yet it manages to do so without appearing superior or arrogant. By contrast, in a poem like ‘The Devices We Are Left To’, the reader is advised to “Sit back and enjoy. Hum along if you like.” There’s something sinister and at the same time droll operating here, something altogether disquieting. ‘At the Gates’ yearns, almost tragically, for a better, perhaps more lyrical world:

I will gather up my breadsticks and be

somewhere out wherever floating is allowed

wherever the locks of the river are opened,

whatever information the boat beneath my feet is leaking.

This poem like several others in the collection (see ‘The Bells Flying’, ‘Ode to a Frying Christ’) also references spiritual and existential themes. Mitchell has never been shy about exploring in verse his religious beliefs but this does not make him the kind of poet who dedicates his books “to the glory of God”, despite the presence of an ‘Essay after Interest/ after Les Murray’.

The cover of Anita Heiss’ I’m Not Racist, But … is dominated by a fantastic image by Adam Hill, whom Heiss describes in the acknowledgements as “a Koori artist known for his ‘Hip Hop on canvas’ style of subversive political and social comment”. In terms of these books’ cover artwork, this is the pick of the bunch. The cover also announces the book’s contents as “a collection of social observations”. This description is certainly an accurate one. Heiss is a sharp observer of modern-day Australia, and from the opening poem ‘Apologies’ she addresses her reader head-on:

What do you want me to do with your apology?

With your lifetime of entrenched racism

Wrapped up nicely into one word

“Sorry”

In many of these poems Heiss’ rhetorical addressee is clearly non-Indigenous and possibly well-meaning, although more likely smug in his or her “entrenched racism” and profoundly unaware of the daily reality experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia. In this respect, they are designed to create discomfort in the reader, and they achieved exactly this for me.

At this point, however, the notion of a collection of poems (both inside and out) as a rhetorical performance begins to break down. Clearly, Heiss, as is the case with the four other poets reviewed here, writes from the complexities of her own identity, exploring boundaries between people, races and cultures:

You are ‘my other’

But you do not steal my gaze

Or consume my thoughts (‘My Other’)

We didn’t create

The Us and Them

And we don’t perpetuate it. (‘Us and Them’)

At times, this is exactly what these poems seem to be doing – but, on closer reading, these dualities (me/you, us/them, black/white) are also simple yet powerful rhetorical tools, employed by Heiss in the service of a higher political argument. By the conclusion of ‘Us and Them’, for example, the narrator has basically worked through – and calls upon the poem’s subject to acknowledge – the fundamental divisions that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. The bleakness of the final lines, however, speaks volumes:

Acknowledging it would mean admitting

the need to address it.

And for that,

You would have to care.

These poems ring with the fury of an entire culture’s negation, as well as Heiss’ awareness of her own identity as a member of the Wiradjuri nation. As I read through this collection, I became aware of the difficult position Heiss finds herself in as a narrator of Indigenous dispossession and disadvantage.

In contrast to the full-pelt tone established in the early poems, Heiss skilfully moves to more difficult topics. The obvious subject of ‘Ode to My Mother’ is later complemented by ‘My Father’s Homeland’, a poem written in Austria in 2002. Indeed, Heiss’ practice of locating her poems in a specific time and place also helps the reader to locate progressions or changes in the poet’s own journey. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘Advance Australia Unfair’, a piss-take on the national anthem written “MID-AIR USA, 2003″.

At the conclusion of this collection, what stands out is Heiss’ ability to articulate and address, honestly and directly, issues which many poets in Australia have chosen to ignore. In ‘My Best Friend’s White’, she even riffs on the title of her book to bring its focus back to her own attitudes:

I’m not racist.

I like white people.

My best friend’s white.

In this, and in other poems – especially ‘White and Black Poetry Readings: Distinct Differences’, ‘Token Kooris: Blackfellas for Hire (Radio Play)’ and my personal favourite, ‘An Oztraylian Preamble’) – we catch a glimpse of a more complex and, dare I say, humorous critique of Australian monoculturalism. In the latter poem, written in the first person plural, Heiss moves easily between satire and an almost affectionate humour:

We don’t mind if people pray to God, Jehovah or Buddha, but we feel strongly that real Aussies should worship Fatty Vautin.

For, in the end, the white bread monotony of Australian culture is an easy enough target if you’re sufficiently engaged. What’s harder is communicating the paradoxes, contradictions and unconsciously intolerant attitudes presented by non-Indigenous Australians, and the manifold ways in which they silence or sideline Indigenous voices. Heiss’ poetry attacks these attitudes and assumptions head-on, and in doing so achieves more than an apology, however well-meaning, ever will.

David Prater is a poet and editor of Cordite Poetry Review, <www.cordite.org.au>.
© David Prater
Overland 191 – winter 2008, pp. 88-91

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