The Ruthless Eye: Rae Desmond Jones reviews ‘Undercover of Lightness’ by Andrew Burke.

Undercover of Lightness by Andrew Burke, Walleah Press, Hobart Tasmania. 2012.

Many of Andrew Burke’s poems begin with a chatty casual style but end with a comment which carefully deflects the mood of the poem and makes it a reflection or moral observation deeper than the reader might expect from the tone. The process is not formulaic, as the reflections are diverse and most follow a narrative logically from each poem’s beginning. In ‘Washing, for example, Burke engages the reader with the tone of an experienced and skilful teller of tales of the good old days:

Today you won’t see one
but back in the sixties
the historic house I lived in had
a timber and wire clothesline,
propped up in midstring
by the long sapling of a eucalypt tree …

With this easy style the reader settles in for a straightforward yarn. However, by line eight, the points of reference broaden:

…………Urban Aborigines,
out of work and down on their lunch,
walked door to door selling these props …

Significantly, the washing line wires

hung loose between two crucifixes
with movable arms…

Details continue to accumulate without any explicit moral, although the poem’s sympathies are clear at the end:

…… on the night of a full moon
a small feathered woman would arrive
and sit on top of the post near
the gnarled and knotted mulberry tree,
her wisdom silent in her,
two deep eyes focused on me
as I wrote by moonlight,
sitting on the backsteps,
pad resting on sunburnt knees.”

Andrew Burke is a keen observer of people, politics and behaviour. The method he uses in Washing is typical, however he ranges across a variety of subjects and themes. The conversational tone sets the scene then he draws his point out with subtlety. There are poems when the opening gambit becomes blunt, when the subject is confessional, as in ‘Diary: Royal Perth Hospital 2010’ , where the title is an alert:

I am Bed 6GC
beside the helipad.

He (assuming that the subject is the poet) is no longer Andrew Burke, but a number and two capital letters:

identity band on
they won’t lose me
I’ll know who I am.

A double appears, disturbing evidence of his fragility:

There’s a ghost of myself
on this bed’s TV –
star of my memories.

The poem relates the central events of the following days. On Operation Day

Christ and his two thieves
left their crosses
at the cathedral next door:

weathered concrete,
not a splinter on them.

It’s just a story,’ the chaplain says.
‘You should know that, Andrew.’

I grew up with Christ’s thorns
tattooed on my brain.

The narrative (there is almost always a narrative – this poet is a natural teller of stories) describes a conversation of “cross / rhythms and syncopation” with a tall, urbane African orderly, as he enters the theatre where the spotlight is on him. He is not comfortable with this particular starring role:

My Greek chorus
leans in leans out.

By Day three, his body is a battleground:

as choppers drop
squads of para-
noia troops – terrorists
attack through tubes
into the interior night
shadows of my brain,
a mind field. I am
reduced to fears…

Gradually the tone of relaxed confidence returns with recovery, as he watches the 2010 Wimbledon men’s Final, and

A woman in
the crowd has
my mother’s hat on
last worn when
Rod Laver won the cup …

in the meantime,

Obese bed K2 farts robustly,
bed K4 snores to wake the dead.

Finally, he “keeps (his) eye on the exit sign.” It is an explicit use of poetry as therapy, which is not his usual way, although in the last section of the volume, entitled ‘Selected Poems, he ruminates at length, on some difficult family relationships:

Dear Father 

How sick I get of your ghost
stirring the blood between us,
how sick of the ties
that hold me.

Then resolves it:

father, I untie you –
air rushes out / and I whoop…

Burke’s eye for exercising (or exorcising) the telling detail re-appears in the series written in China, where he captures the poverty and seething vigour of China. He observes Bike mechanics in the street:

One old spark plug
lies on the pavement,
and a young boy,
opportunist at five,
picks it up and scurries away.
Maybe Dad will be pleased.

In ‘Linfen Morning’ he makes a series of acute but innocuous observations of household economic activity, then: “One man is gone from the streetscape. He wrote an anti-government message in his shop window and was not there the next day.” The prose poem continues to describe the bustle of the town as though the disappearing man is not important or significant, then the work is abruptly closed by a pointed haiku:

at night, fireworks
at dawn, torn red paper shells
dye the gutter pink.

The volume is replete with a variety of subjects scrutinised through an impeccable bullshit detector. The tone is mostly gentle but the eye is ruthless. Undercover of Lightness is a good title: beneath the cover a lot happens.

– Rae Desmond Jones


Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973. His latest books are Thirteen Poems from the Dead, Polar Bear Press 2011 and Decline and Fall Flying Island Books 2011.  He has just finished editing The Selected Your Friendly Fascist which will shortly be published by Rochford Street Press.

Undercover of Lightness is available from Walleah Press


  1. A sensitive walk through Andy’s poems. This latest book delights with the mixture of humour and profundity but is further made interesting by his pungent haiku and his experimental efforts that may mark new directions.

    1. Yes, very sensitive review, Peter. I was humbled by his perception. My ‘One Hour Seeds Another’ has the haiku, renga and experiments in it. (Avail also at Walleah Press.)

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