Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Kids Are Alright

Walking Through Fences
James Walton
Flying Island Books

Son Songs
Tug Dumbly
Flying Island Books

Autobiochemistry
Tricia Dearborn
UWAP Poetry Series


In an interview a few years back, the celebrated Australian poet and novelist David Malouf made the bold call that there seems to be a lot more lyrical poetry being written in Australia than elsewhere these days. Now, while Bluepepper has rarely found itself on the same page as David where poetry is concerned (and certainly not since we first got wind of his infamous "Lollywater and Fairyfloss" review of Michael Dransfield's work penned way back when we were still in short pants), on this matter we find ourselves in full agreement. Where the poets of David's generation and before (with the notable exception of Dransfield, Buckmaster, Rosemary Dobson, Slessor and a few of the more expansive of the '68-ers) tended to be poets of place, Australian poets from the early 90's onwards have not been afraid to turn inwards. Now, like all lines of demarcation this one is largely a matter of perspective and preconception, but I think  there's a sliver of truth in it. Lyrical poetry, when done well, is afterall why most people turn to poetry. Not just to gild their vows or bury their dead, but because it is an uplifting experience like no other. Whether it has won poetry anymore readers in this country is once again a matter of perspective and preconception, but if the publishing lists in which the above titles are included are anything to go by, then Australian poetry is in pretty decent shape at the moment.

Flying Island Press, an off-shoot of Cerberus Press, has been around since the late 90's, and under the firm and steady hand of Kit Kelen has produced an impressive list of poetry titles. The current pocket book series are handsome productions that do the quality of the poetry proud. James Walton, one of the best lyrical poets going around at the moment is, ironically enough, in a less lyrical mood  for much of this book, tending toward the darker, knottier more jagged aspects of the human experience

The fascist weeds the garden
Such love in pulling out,
Care granted to save the soil and replenish
With self-made compost of previous remains.
They should have known his bitter truth
Of all he did for them unrequited;
In gentle torture he weeps for his people,
And how the day goes down so normally
As the lorries remove without haste
The handiwork so finely crafted,
To bring in bloom again
The preferred order of lines.

("Pax Romanus (I,II,II) Spare us,  the Conquered")


There is a great sense of history, of that fourth dimension to the human experience, that pervades this collection, and the "Cicero" poems are perhaps where Walton's innate lyricism shines through best in the eyes of this reviewer. It is a powerful collection, and a lovely thing to be able to carry around in your pocket and open at random when the world before you appears a little too drab and washed out.

While Tug Dumbly may at first glance appear to be an entirely different stamp of poet, the two share much in common. Bluepepper first became acquainted with Dumbly's work way back in the mid-90's at Monday poetry night at the much-lamented Sandringham Hotel in Newtown, and from the outset Dumbly's work stood out from the rather motley pack, not only because of his undoubted skills as a performer, but because of the profound wit and intelligence of his observations bound in sharply honed pentameters. It often struck this observer that we were being gently harangued by a slightly tipsy Socrates in the Agora as Dumbly cleverly opened with a sometimes brash sometimes flippant statement and then rolled out his argument. 

How sweet to find a poem in the footpath
that doesn't start and end with 'Shalee Sux'
or 'Wazza Wuz Ere!'

But there it was, etched with a conviction
to outweather decades:

'SHANE ROCKS THE WORLD
AND ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS
CAN REST UPON THE KNEE OF JESUS'

("Found Poem, Cooma")

The poem, like many in this collection, and in Dumbly's oeuvre more generally, is far too long to quote in its entirety, but it ends with the poet thanking the passionate Shane. "Yet you lent me a spark." 

Not all the poems are in this classic Tumbly vein, in fact a decent portion of the collection consists of shorter more succinct and emotionally charged poems, many of them dealing with what appears to be a somewhat problematic relationship with the poet's father.

 Between the hug and the handshake
falls
the
five 
o'├žlock
shadow

The rusted armour of sarcasm
my father's trusty
old army

Hands on, he was
handy with a spanner.
But shut tight as a packing case.
You had to wrench the bent nails from his heart
with a claw hammer

I never knew my grandfather
but I hear him, trapped in the amber
in my father's voice.

("Four for Dad")

Perhaps as good an example as any of Malouf's point about Australian lyricism. Dumbly's is a collection of many shades and colours and angles and will appeal to loyal followers and new readers alike.


Autobiochemistry is, if I'm not mistaken, Tricia Dearborn's third book, a fact which seems to belie the weight of her presence in the Australian poetry scene. Her CV is impressive to say the least, and her poetry has appeared in almost every anthology released in the past decade or so. Her poems have always stood out, bright flowers amongst some pretty unpromising weeds, and this book will surely cement her reputation as one of the foremost lyrical poets this country has produced. The collection begins with a series of poems devoted to the elements, by which I mean Hydrogen, Carbon etc. The poets skill is entwining qualities of each element with elements (pun very much intended) of the poet's own life, especially her rather troubled childhood.

I tape to the doorframe
a black and white  photo

developed and printed
with silver salts.

How is memory laid down?
How is it fixed?

Weeks later, I think
'you look familiar'...The clock

ticks twice
before I recognise myself.

I return the ten-year-old's
captive gaze.  Remember

looking into the lens,
deciding not to smile,

not to pretend.

("Ag - Silver")

If you want to know why the child in the photo decided "not to pretend", you will have to beg, borrow or buy this wonderful book, dear reader, but rest assured you will have every heart string you may yet possess pulled taut by the sheer beauty, pity and terror of poems like "Scar Massage", "Impact", "Sanctuary", and the entire "Element" series. In light of recent events in our highest courts, this book holds many timely and eternal truths. 

UWAP, like Flying Island Books, has produced not only a great collection but an attractive object. Their list is long and getting longer with a collection by Victorian Robbie Coburn purported to be in the pipeline for release later this year, among others.

If these three books are anything to go by, then Malouf is right (although we still haven't forgiven him for the Dransfield slight). Lyrical poetry is alive and well in this country, and there are publishers with the will and resources to lend it their support.



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