Type
Review

Villian

Justin Clemens
Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets
ISBN 9780980517958, $19.95

The book’s title is a homonym for François Villon, the fifteenth-century French poet, thief and vagabond who died at thirty-two and who famously wrote ballads in French criminal slang. His work, once translated into English in the nineteenth century, was frowned upon by those with loftier poetic standards. Clemens makes inventive translations of Villon’s irreverent and often lewd poetry. ‘Ballade of Fried Tongues’ is particularly histrionic as it hurls curses at flapping gossip derived from envy: ‘In scabrous wash of lepers’ legs;/From feet and boots, the scraps and dregs;/In viper’s blood and poisoned pride,/In foxes’, wolves’, and badgers’ smeg,/Let all those jealous tongues be fried!’

The first section of the book, ‘Whirl’, circles around many forms from villanelle to couplet, from free and experimental to wordplay. The poems are melodramatic, atmospheric, hallucinatory. There are some villainous and violent thoughts and scenes – dreams and acts that include hangovers and very funny art critiques. Clemens has an affinity with the dark mythical underworld and he writes his sonnets to Orpheus. There is a kind of antic energy in the poems. There is little elegy here – anxiety and ludic tone dominate sweeter thoughts.

As Peter Conrad remarked recently, ‘Art has a mission to offend, which is why the French decadents set out to épater le bourgeois [to shock the middle class]’ and under the post-avant beauties of Justin Clemens’ very cognisant intelligence there lurks more than a smidgin of French decadence. Clemens ups the ante in Ozpo when it comes to both topic and technique as he oxygenates traditional form for today’s readers.

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Pam Brown is a practised professional amateur. Her latest book is Home by Dark (Shearsman 2013). She has been a contributing editor for various magazines including, from 1997–2002, Overland, and is currently editing ten booklets for Vagabond Press – the ‘deciBels’ series.

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