Recent rumours of poetry’s constitutive impossibility (Justin Clemens, Overland no. 203) may have been exaggerated. Three recent collections show confidence in an audience for poetic address to central issues of human experience.
Peter Bakowski’s poetry manages to be both dry and sentimental, at once comfy and nomadistic. In a soft-tough voice his persona dreams of torrid affairs, wandering bluesmen, mad artists and Chicago assassins, while lying on his couch in Melbourne, reading a library book and hearing his wife ‘biting into a home-made Choc-chip biscuit’. His self-portraits show boyhood growing seamlessly into the poet we read. At these moments his tone can charm and inspire with a type of wild blandness:
Reading those books I travelled with the characters
to alien planets of great cold or heat
At the age of twenty-eight I went travelling for seven years.
The young existentialist travelled to read:
In those books it was
what a character faced,
how they responded, viewed themselves and the world,
that kept me reading till dawn (‘Of Fathers, Books, and Libraries’).
Several of these poems remember (without fanfare) a bygone world where vagabondage was paradoxically more intrepid and more accessible, copies of On the Road permitting. ‘In cheap rooms in San Diego, Paris, London and Khartoum’—one wants to shout the line incredulously!
In an introduction to the book Bakowski declares (not unself-servingly) that he aims ‘to write clear and accessible poems, to use ordinary words to say extraordinary things’. (Don’t all poets?) In this book he does and doesn’t, mostly in portraits (actually, descriptions and dramatic monologues) that bring his plain-water style to people extraordinary in place, time, and situation.
We hear from the artist or writer as (anti-)hero, intensely involved with the world but also resisting it:
Dougal alone on the shorefront
with pencil and sketchpad,
looking out at
that entrancing line
where sea and sky appear to meet.
It’s not the evening’s coolness
that moves him back to his studio,
but something understood,
clarified now (‘Dougal Nunn, Painter’).
From persons in various kinds of extremis:
In the prison camp I begged a fellow prisoner to slash my throat.
‘Not for a double ration of rice,’ he said (‘Jose Anok, Former Prisoner of War, Hong Kong’).
We also see those who live ‘ordinary’ lives, into whose moments of quotidian grace the poet allows us to peer.
There is pleasure taken in smoking, spitting, yawning,
biting a spiced pork dumpling in half.
In a tree shaded Plaza
four men sit playing cards at a stone table,
whether fortune is bestowed or earnt (‘In Old Macau, October 2007’).
Criminals appear too, appreciated by the semi-detached observer for their large sense of the permissible and the narrative variety that accompanies this; neither romanticised nor particularly moralised upon.
Bakowski’s disarmed simplicity lets him down occasionally. The poem set at Brunswick Heads, for instance, is a twee Aussie pastoral that underestimates reader and landscape in one go:
This coastline asks you to name yourself,
fisherman, beachcomber, surfer, retiree,
to examine whether you’re more than that.
This is as depressing, and about as unworldly, as a family holiday in adolescence. And what are we to do, in twenty-first-century Australia, with his ‘Portrait of the Colour Black’?
* * *
B N Oakman writes a topical, vernacular and didactic poetry that is reminiscent (possibly accurately) of an irascible but not overly high-minded academic holding forth at a dinner party. He belongs to that large and flourishing poetic school that promulgates musings on oneself for the benefit of others. The audience watches Oakman place himself with deliberate gestures against the background of a familiar world—current affairs, ancestors and friends, lovers and football— a drama that is supposed to mediate one’s own sense of relationship.
I’ve been shaking hands, playing
kissing people who like me sparingly,
just the way I like them (‘A Friend of Mine’).
Oakman is most interesting when writing local with a sense of global time and space. Several of his penchants —sobering in front of relics, letting the air out of monuments, and griping—are most successfully combined in ‘James Cook’s Bendigo’. This portrait of ‘the great navigator’s bronze’ is the Faber style refreshed with dashes of Eddie Izzard:
And while his pose—right-hand clamped
on his buttock, left foot thrust forward—
might look a tad flouncy on the poop deck,
a jolly jack tar would be wise
to conceal his mirth from the captain,
who disdained foolishness …
He often zooms out too quickly. In ‘My Grandparents’ Address’, for example, he blunts some clear and phrasally arresting observation with Audenisms that lean the style towards that of Gray’s Elegy:
Stumps of quartz protruding like smashed bones,
broken ground rough stitched with scraps of thin turf …
This ransacked borough, too emaciated for rabbits,
consigned to the endnotes of an ascendant history,
yet frugally consoled by a silence borne of neglect,
and in winter by a lamentation of daffodils …
Elsewhere we hear of ‘seedlings struck in nurseries of sorrow / and christened with futility’s tears’ (‘An Avenue for England’). When covering ground, though, the poems attain a headlong elegance and intensity.
There is something to appreciate in the bluntness of Oakman’s political statements, particularly ‘The Tragic Sense of Life’ with its clear equation (war on terror equals fascism), and the painfully familiar ‘Credo for a Labor Leader’: ‘I am not a socialist. I have never been a socialist and I never will be a socialist’. But where Oakman is topical or political, he as often seems dutiful. Like Bakowski, he practices history painting, but rather than focus on presentation tends to let us know how we ought to feel about tyrants, monstrous deeds, etc. In the winningly-titled poem for which the collection is named, we get jokey commentary on Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will that belongs in the 1930s or on YouTube. One usually feels that the audience’s prior agreement with the poet—being ‘against’ Franco, US imperialism and so forth—demands a more ‘nuanced’ approach to political topics. An alternative solution to this ‘aesthetic’ problem (preaching to the converted) would be to extend poetic commentary beyond the literary journal and the slim volume —something attempted in our time by Patrick Jones, for example, and certainly available for further imaginative use (tag poetry? Pirate TV poetry? Meat poetry—in the supermarket?).
* * *
In her second book, The Simplified World, Petra White develops a refined, personal lyricism (‘who I am and what I think’ to quote Ted Berrigan) out of predominantly autobiographical topics and by exploring various kinds of intimate address. But White is unwilling to diarise or simply record ‘what’s goin’ on’. Her private messages are for us to decode; the anecdotes are honeyed, or raise a monitory finger. The book’s title plays on the Western literary idea of pastoral, that world unbroken by sociopolitical conflict where incongruously erudite rural types sing out their love and sadness, and dress up as each other for seduction purposes. The world here, however, is dystopian, simplified by bereavement, melancholia and fear.
Life is eaten up on the racks of angst and work, where ‘lost skulls orbit one another / in their fleshfolds’, with only brief flashes of holiday brightness treasured and unpicked almost in the same gesture. The living struggle blindly with ‘the love that sets us’ as babies, ‘never to change, forever’ (‘Public Service’). How different from Bakowski’s beatnik pastoral! Rent/wage slavery and HECS debt; neurobiology ‘replacing’ existentialism. As usual, social being has a determining influence on aesthetic results. ‘Debtor’s Prison’ plays a camp divertissement on this theme, with its ‘silver clogs we now repent’ and ‘credit cards we spent to space like rockets’.
Childhood memories of injustice (sickness, deformity, religious dogmatism) energise the poetic present. The child ‘loved her stigmatising pain’, and as an adult stands graveside observing ‘embryo losses hatching in open air’. Amid this ‘pungent, non-descript hell’ (‘Description of a Ritual’), poetry is a way to moments of intense knowledge of the self and world, how they relate, how one is in the other. Recognising the present’s trap seems to loosen the disappointment of it: ‘truth changes / like sand underfoot, / this moment a coffin, / the next a hope that sails.’ In this the child is mother to the poet:
Lunchtime was a wave pool of noises:
she’d strain to decipher
what sound burned in the centre of that roar (‘The Poet at Ten’).
What White calls ‘the fuse hope’ (‘Notes for the Time Being’) breaks through, dourly enough, in images of survivors ‘Humanly / getting-on-with-it’, as she says of a dying priest (‘Visit’): ‘a three legged dog / running as if on four’ (‘Ode to Coleridge’); a girl amputee, ‘her artificial leg thrown sideways and forth / with each dancing step’ (‘Imagination’); a man driving away from a funeral ‘gripping the wheel with hungry speed … For once at peace with GPS’ (‘Description of a Ritual’).
The poems manifest a strong urge to define that sometimes feels unjust to the objects it transforms:
And no mother is wholly mother.
That is the splinter: the still there self
longing to be other … (‘The Poem’)
Not news to most mothers, or children, I imagine. And I disengaged when the contemplative freight got too ponderous:
What is darkness,
where does it come from?
Heavy as our fleshload,
as petals (‘Ode to Coleridge’).
Or in these lines, where precise definition gets swamped in Valuable Simile (probably understandable in a poem addressed to William Drummond):
They are not calling me, but I am tensed,
listening to their stern goodnights,
long as sleep that Macbeth murdered
when he claimed his own gigantic solitude…
And when someone is described as ‘Beloved / as a woman out of Hardy’ I can’t help muttering, ‘Which book?’ Perhaps I am a philistine.
Meanwhile, the self thirsts for purity, a good simplicity, in which its position would be clear:
I stepped into Beauty, this was it: islands,
mountains, water, clouds and sky (‘Beauty’).
We surge on the breast of life as it should be,
no rocks or seaweed or monsters (‘Holiday’).
Ironically, perhaps, it is good old ‘Nature’s anti-depressants’ that provide an out from the anti-pastoral milieu.
I did find myself asking: are any of these books’ poems of our time, or for it? The sense of the essential in all three collections locates in the presence of the past. What about the presence of the present? Many of the poems look like they could have been written at any time in the last fifty years. Needless to say, almost, that this ‘look’ is due to how poetry’s formal means are treated and questioned. Or in the case of these books, not questioned. Voice, rhetoric, and imagery are the only resources these writers give evidence of having worked, much less any questioning whatsoever of what might constitute subject matter (memory, death, subjective happiness or not), or where the borders of what constitutes a ‘topic’ for poetry might be drawn. As White puts it, the smoke ‘shuffl[es]’ out into a ‘clear space’ that ‘stark cypresses guard’ (‘The Weatherboard at Menzies Creek’). The sonnets continue. Poetry may be news that stays news, but it does have to be news first.
Sam Langer has published poems in Cordite, The Age, Otoliths, Overland, Arena Magazine and 543, a free poetry magazine that he edits and publishes irregularly.