Treading the lesser-known path: Gig Ryan Reviews ‘One Under Bacchus’ by Duncan Hose

 One Under Bacchus by Duncan Hose. Inken Publisch, 2011

This review is based on Gig Ryan’s launch speech, Saturday July 9, 2011, Melbourne Trades Hall.

When Duncan Hose won the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2010 with his poem ‘The Allegory of Edward Trouble’ -  a colourful and brilliant re-imagining of Ned Kelly’s life and meaning where “blood stains the hydrangeas” (immediately we’re aware of a colonised country, not yet claiming Lawson’s wattle as its emblem), “My heart mulched and tartan like the / golden bogs of Tasmania”) – it signalled a huge change in the reception of Australian poetry.  When a prize renowned mainly for its well-rewarded conservatism and staidness goes to an adventurous, thoughtful, funny, searching work, we can breathe a sigh of relief that the best doesn’t have to “waste its sweetness on the desert air”, though sweet doesn’t much apply to that particular poem.

Ned Kelly poems both open and close  Hose’s striking second book, One Under Bacchus. Hose investigates how these national myths have influenced or even formed us, but further this book follows a particular trajectory: after the idealised bushranger, Hose then moves on to the tale of Alexander Pearce, an escaped convict who ate his dead mates to survive:

…………..these leg bracelets
keep us awake with their chewing, four days on the heath
…………..Hell hath little flowers, white honey bunches limned with red
The sky tho circumpolar hath no regular sun, only grays more illumined
Less cloaked, like a promise’s promise my running mate’s
…………..A convict’s convict whom I chose once I knowed
He spells his name ‘Charels’…
I will make myself live for a scoop of Hobart liquor
…………..Before taking the drop, since we did abscond & have already
Eaten Terence Diggory.

                            ‘On the Work of Pearce’s British Addictions’

That is, the mythologising of place includes both the idealised and the demonised. Then follows a series of poems on types of imperialism – the sort of anxieties of influence that some Australians feel, with actual ancestry often in another hemisphere, and intellectual ancestry often in U.K. or U.S., these poems feature America, the fur trade, Napoleon, Berrigan, followed by poems about Scotland and Ireland, that is, a short history of the colonised or slaughtered – the poet travels “hatless in the white and shining air” (to quote Berrigan’s ‘A New Old Song’), here the contrast is between an idealised past, an idealised quest and our seemingly less heroic present:

Auntie Elko’s brought photos of the ‘smog-o-the-wilderness‘   that’s
……………………………..the visible realm

‘One Under Bacchus’

and  in ‘Pasties of Iona’:

rather than ‘mekin pilgrimage’ we
drag the cursor over the sacred island &
pants off on the sixth floor
……………………..google the bejesus oot ay it.

The next section has a few ‘love’ poems, followed by a return to Hobart’s settlement, then a Blue Hills sequence (a kind of homage to Laurie Duggan’s neverending Blue Hills) with Aussie attitudes displayed “Europeans – stay in Europe!”: substitute nationality here and we have current government policy in fact – the timelessness of Poetry! – thus showing the nagging ambiguity of Australia’s relation to the rest of world. The book finishes with the longest poem  ‘Edward Trouble’. There’s a constant satirising of pretensions to nationalism, and awareness of the lie of a solely British ‘civilisation’ – “Saturday morning upholstered with the silks / and dressinggowns of chinese Australia”, that is, there are constant reminders of the various types of dispossession on which Australia is founded:

……………………..avenging crows
Suggest new hats for the colony.

‘A wedding party’

.

.

The                                         Glamour
……………………………………………
Of a beggared Australian syntax
Souths                     plant in the ‘native’ section             instruments of death

…………As decoration                       those black-bunged marsupials by god

We’d pat them to death if we could

‘Anglo but Cosmic’

Hose uses a courtly excruciating language of archaic spellings, misspellings, neologisms – there’s both a seriousness of intent and a gracefully light-footed style, like a Watteau painting, half Moby Dick in his high-falutin’ language, half Horatio Hornblower in the noble heroics at work in much of his historic diggings. He mixes words of Scots, Irish, French, 19th Century English, that is, these poems enact through their language the history they are dissecting and critiquing.

These poems don’t strain for an affectlessly confident relaxation that Berrigan sometimes wants, but for a highly-strung language – that suddenly thuds down into a joke, jokes that lurch with meaning. – “he was a skald Father, he drank to think”.  There is appropriately ‘Sonnet to Ted’ here, followed by  the amusingly-titled ‘Typical American Poem’:

Zorro had the dream contented
By the view one would see
…………From the guillotine
Forest around full of crow [sounds]
……………………………..& grubs
Like a period piece on BBC TV
……………………………..Zorro drives
Through the giant Drive In.

Jim’s drapes sure are Dusty.

Zorro, like Kelly, is also a masked hero, creating his own icon.  Also look at the two pictures by Hose in this book – one a half-naked masked woman, the other a young hare – these again contrast the mask of Art, of Civilisation, with Nature.But this book finishes with  the “totemised and trophied”  Kelly:

I too was a bird lover tho’ mostly / I shot them…
I belong to the majority mob w.../…  the minority
………….philosophy ….  the forge
to cast a bigot

Duncan Hose treads the lesser-known path of maverick Australian poets such as Norman Talbot, John Watson and Javant Biarujia – that is, like all good must-read poets, he invents a new language, full of playful disguises and serious intent, reaffirming Baudelaire’s view that only the human-made is beautiful.

- Gig Ryan

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Gig Ryan is Poetry Editor at The Age newspaper (Melbourne) and a freelance reviewer. She has published numerous books including New and Selected Poems (Giramondo, Australia, 2011); Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, UK, 2012); songs with Disband, Six Goodbyes (1988), and Driving Past, Real Estate (1999), Travel (2006).

One Under Bacchus is available from inken publisch http://inkenpublisch.bigcartel.com/

Writing Elevated to the Label of Literature: Lyndon Walker reviews Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster

Late Night Shopping by Rhyll McMaster. Brandl & Schlesinger. Poetry 2012.

I come to this book with all the worst qualifications of a reviewer – full of prejudices towards the book, both negative and positive – most of which I would like to put on the table up front.

At first glance  I am in love with the past, of the good days of poetry resurgence in this country. This book is the size and shape of the little UQP books that truly established their place in my heart with numerous volumes of contemporary poetry from modern Australian poets, often young, always original, always worth reading. It is a promise I want the book to keep.

Robert Gray and Michael Dransfield were two of the first authors I bought in the UQP series from the seventies and I loved their work and the books still inhabit a proud place on my bookshelf of favourite poetry. But those ghosts haunt the current publication.  Robert Gray is co-editor of the recent Titanic Anthology of poetry (Australian Poetry Since 1788) along with Geoffrey Lehman, who is scheduled to launch Late Night Shopping, along with a reading by Robert Gray, on the evening of Tuesday 10th April at Sappho’s Cafe and Wine Bar, 51 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, (Sydney) NSW 2037. 7.00pm (I break with a strong Melbournian tradition to here provide clear and accurate information to enable your attendance at the launch). Michael Dransfield is one of a number of excellent poets omitted from the recent massive volume. Another volume from the UQP onslaught was Brineshrimp from a young Rhyll McMaster in 1972, the same year I left Townsville for the big city of Sydney, and I still remember the astringent taste of that poetry; something new to say and a new way of saying it (and they were my criteria for excellence in poetry those days).

Exactly forty years later those criteria have broadened but the hunger remains the same. I am going to claim that this book is mostly about death. Death envisioned, foreseen, experienced as an involved and close participant and as a sometimes detached and ruminant philosopher. In this quest McMaster is up against some formidable forebears   in the likes of Eliot, Roethke, Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes and Christopher James, but when I read her poetry these are not the practitioners of the craft that quickly come to mind. More immediate to me is the brilliant and original Canadian poet Anne Carson.  Both poets have minds as quick and incisive as a scalpel but at times as light and elusive as dancing leaves on an autumn breeze. Both have the capacity to move quickly from the lyric exactitude of original description to the esoteric realms of the determined, urbane and educated philosopher.

The book begins with a single poem where we join the poet as a voyeur at the laying out (if not the autopsy) of the body of a woman soon after her death:

Her platelets desiccated and curled like dropped contact lenses.

This much that was invisible I knew like a fairy tale

.

But where was her mere self…..

And

When we tried to slip in her dentures they didn’t fit.

.

On edge, we laughed.

There was no disrespect – she wasn’t there.

The formality of death is due to emptiness.

.

When molecules cease their high humming

Dark space appears.

It radiates in waves and disperses in continuous air.

.

So, this episode of CSI as poetry, begins the book’s exploration of the space between being and not being, explored in variant ways in the following three sections. The first of these: Philosophy in A Ghosting Universe, explores memories of a dead and dying father and the ramifications for the mortality of the poet herself and for her relationships and loving attachments seen within this context. They are ramifications dealt with with subtlety, insight and intelligence.

She begins this section with a “Photograph”, presumably of the author as a young girl taken by the dead / dying father and follows with other poems that move through “His Ordered World” where:

Death invades the space

Of a serious human error, where terror lives,

.

And moves through the absolute particulars of that father’s world in that desperate attempt that humans make, to make sense of the existential journey, from being to nothingness, balancing sharply drawn particulars with abstract philosophical summary.

Halfway through this section there is a break, just a blank page, no titling, but the subject of the poems now oft times includes a lover, the games that lovers sometimes play and the futility of love in the face of death, which is a recent visitor in the mind of the poet.

The breeze blowing through the house

Strangely circulates.

It means to turn things inside out.

‘Flight on the Wind’

.

I like ‘Red Socks’ and no – no bits – it’s just a little poem – go on, buy the book and read it. ‘Well Met by Moonlight‘ is a “Sliding Doors” poem looking at what might have been if the lovers had met earlier. ‘Love Poem No.9′. invokes a pop song from a time when both I and the poet were young. ‘Darwin Fulminates on Hybridism’ again describes a world informed by the poets scholarly knowledge or reading, as does ‘Re-arrangement in the Emporium‘. We are given here (and on the poet’s website : http://www.rhyllmcmaster.com/ )  little biographical linkage to this knowledge beyond she has been a nurse and a farmer.

‘Arrogant Animals‘ dances on the edge of the promise that postmodernism offered but mostly failed to deliver –not here – here it succeeds because it is warmed by humanism or at least loving and playful observation.

‘Amazing Grace’ is a tiny poem:

There’s no dispute

Our brains are a maze

Of raw electrical connections

In a base of critical soup.

.

The question remains

Why don’t we

More often

Get electrocuted?

.

Well, for those of us with a working knowledge of neurochemistry, the definite answer, through faith or science, is the little insulating miracle of the myelin sheath. What’s disturbing is the world of chaos unleashed when this little biological insulator is attacked or eroded (as in Alzheimer’s or Dementia). This theme is carried on in the title poem of the section: ‘Philosophy in a Ghosting Universe’:

Not clever enough

That flash of intuition

An electrical storm in a teacup.

.

There is a marvellous poem on the toestubbing mysteries of gender: ‘Boys Own Annual‘, which my students would do well to read:

Boys know girls are the enemy

Because girls keep calling in the debt.

Girls block the light that’s shining

Straight down on Boys Own Mighty Heaven

That glazed place where time’s ephemeral, yet set.

The section ends with ‘Comfort Station’, which makes a clever essentialism of the further mysteries of life and death and nature and the vehicle of our journey through them:

In the comfort of my body, glistening

In this shelter, my exemplary shed artefact

I disintegrate intact.

The final two sections of the book are poetic reflections on visual art, both painting and photography. The first; ‘Evolutionary History of Edward Kelly in Primary Colours is a commissioned piece (by the Nolan Gallery) which has previously been published as a limited edition with colour reproductions of the paintings.

Again my positive prejudices are brought into play. Whenever I travel to Canberra (about once a year) I make a point of going to the National Gallery and viewing the Nolan Kelly paintings there on display. They are somehow quintessentially Australian and the powerful images in their rough and ready presentation, the primary colours, the violence depicted, the conflicts portrayed, the corruption of power : all hold my gaze and intellectual engagement throughout the process. For a poet to do justice to all this is no mean task. The successful and sparse evocation of these paintings is so complete in McMaster’s hands that they stand up strongly in their own light. Something which if read well to a blind person (who had experienced a world of colour before darkness) would give them the momentary gift of sight.

The stiff constable holds a white

Note for his rescue.

Chrome yellow death.

.

Round his retraced head,

Red poppies, yellow daisies

Blue-white babies breath.

‘Mesozoic Territory – Policeman in Wombat Hole, 1946′

Nolan may well be our Van Gogh but there is no soft romanticism here, in the paintings or the poems. Both are stark indictments of harsh behaviour in a harsh and unforgiving land, committed in the defiant face of cliché.

Five Acts of Faith are small, deep poems that explore the attempted capture through the medium of photography, by Terry Milligan, in his portraits of subjects involved in very different ways of pursuit or contemplation of the spiritual.

Liberation Theology

.

This a sanctuary

Let no evil seep

Under these doors

No river of blood

Run like the shallows

Across the glassy floor

Save me from myself

Save me from mankind.

These are spare and complete poems reflecting the intent and attempt of walking various pathways to spirituality and, I think, invoking Ray Carver’s book and poem Many Paths to the Waterfall. I am not sure they entirely work . They do invoke the paths nominated but they are so small in scope which attempts to encompass such large ideas and concepts that they all seem so esoteric as to be simply impressionistic sketches towards the whole. The exception of course is the poem called ‘Zen‘, which, since it entered our cultural lexicon in the sixties, is now almost a joke or a reference to the work of Earn Malley. Perhaps you need the photographic images as a guide but a fairly concerted effort via Google failed to materialise the specific images. They exist but do they add to what we already know or how we know it? I think the earlier section Philosophy in a Ghosting Universe succeeds far more in existential contemplation within the context of life, as we here in Australia, know it, but then it is also balancing science and humanism as opposed to particular structured forms and practices.

The title poem of the book; ‘Late Night Shopping’ begins the final grouping of eleven poems that complete the book. It’s clever in its attempt to personify words of emotional or behavioural description as competitive or accidental late night shoppers in a supermarket: Malice, Obsession, Hate, Revenge, Doubt, Panic, Anxiety and  Fear all appear and play their part in this mildly amusing toying scenario. I must admit I would have like to have been with Rhyll on the little trip that gave her the idea for this poem and the poems existence does give the reader this opportunity. The final poems revisit the books central concerns and keen observations in different locations: Glebe, Broome, Traffic in George Street. In ‘In the Inner West’ the imageric word film is almost too rich to be believable. In a few short lines we have:

.…pedestrian crossing with speed hump

 .

Recently installed by Muslim council workers

Late of Lebanon

They speak Arabic and it sounds like chocolate

 .

In the enclave of Chippendale

Where Indonesian Australian

Babies named Chloe

 .

Sleep beneath the rain laden ominous….

But it is a challenge. Do we recognise our own community and what it has become? Here is globalisation made manifest in our suburban lives. Here is a vision of hell for the shock-jocks and xenophobic cringers fearing change. Here we have found ourselves living in the future with Rhyll McMaster as our tour guide. It is almost enough to make me quit singing for the first night in three years to fly up to Sydney to simply hear her read this poem aloud.

All in all it is a brave book. It occupies territory often reserved for the male in our little post colonial literary colony. But it is written by that most dangerous thing in the Australian literary world: A smart woman. This book does not suffer fools gladly but it is kind enough to actually take prisoners. It performs that task of writing elevated to the label of literature: it helps us recognise ourselves in the place and circumstance in which we live. It also thinks in answer to those questions we have all wondered. It risks the answer in heightened, well crafted, visionary language. Thank you for it Rhyll McMaster. Bless you and all who sail with you.

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Lyndon Walker Is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Educator, Writer and Poet living in Melbourne. He has five published books of poetry and was awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry in 1996. He is currently working on two novels.