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:
Suggest new hats for the colony.
‘A wedding party’
……………………………………………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]
Like a period piece on BBC TV
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
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/