Pointing a Tongued Sword: Heather Taylor Johnson reviews ‘Another Fine Morning in Paradise’ by Michael Sharkey

Michael Sharkey’s Another Fine Morning in Paradise. Five Islands Press, 2012

One of the things I love most about migrating to Australia from America is the lack of enthusiasm here for discussing cultural politics at a party. American’s have a habit of getting worked up and defensive when expounding upon the state of their country, and they love to verbally finger a wrongdoer; Australians speak wryly, almost out of the corners of their mouths. In America, one often leaves the conversation feeling angry, physically changed; in Australia, they have just had a chuckle and a drink. Sure, this may be a sweeping generalisation but it is something I find unendurable when I encounter it in America, and witty and charming when it happens in Australia, and this is what I think about – the witty and charming – when I read Another Fine Morning in Paradise, where Michael Sharkey performs what I have just described as Australian, in poetry.

In his latest book Sharkey points a tongued sword directly at Australia, but there is no sense of attack. His is a playful style, much the antithesis of some of our more prevalent migrant poets, such as Ali Alizadeh and Ouyang Yu, whose ‘digs’ at Australian culture and politics are not so much ‘elbow jabs’ as they are deeply felt and resonate in the gut. There is a great sense of discomfort in some of the poetry of Alizadeh and Yu because of its unswerving confrontation, but Sharkey skirts around the frank and is mischievously ironic in his themes. He creates what might seem to be alternative worlds where ‘there are such good things to eat, and no one’s sick: / the weather’s crackajack, the garden spruce’ and then offers the punch which takes us back to what we know: ‘Soon, they took a vote and ended this.’ (‘The Garden of Earthly Delights) That he offers his readers a paradise then takes it away without explanation encourages us to question how we feel about Australia, without being led. He does this in ‘The Superheroes in Old Comics’ which illustrates a comic book world and simultaneously questions our own values:

Families are dysfunctional in here.
It’s like real life, whatever that is.

………….Nobody’s black.
……………………………..No action happens
out of town.
………….There is no forest, desert,
………….No Indigenes exist.

tall buildings block the sky where now and then
a flying man or piston-engined airplane
happens by.

Sometimes his worlds are our worlds, literally, and there is no need to disguise them. The poem leading on from ‘The Superheroes in Old Comics’ is ‘Women in Their Houses on Their Own’, and it presents a man contemplating a woman – presumably his partner – eating dinner on a plane, flying through time zones, reminding him of two weeks earlier when she was eating alone while he was in another time zone, while his daughter will be eating out and other women will be eating in, alone. This sounds familiar enough, but Sharkey’s way is to offer us a small dose of absurdity, so that we can see the shallowness of our busy lives. I suppose, in following on, I need to say that one doesn’t need to walk away from Another Fine Morning in Paradise feeling guilty or depressed – I’m not sure one can – because the lilts in his rhythm, some of the poetic forms recalling a less jet-setting time, and the straightforwardness of his word choice is non-threatening. It’s jest-worthy sarcasm; that sideways sneer over a chuckle and a drink at a party.

This seems like a rounded way to end my review, but I cannot press save and send without discussing the final poem of the book: ‘Where the Bunyip Builds its Nest: Five Centos’. Centos are poems composed of other poets’ lines, and in this 200 line poem Sharkey has fittingly borrowed from only Australian poets to write a poem about Australia. More than a lyrical ode to the geography, the culture, the history of Australia; it is an ode to Australia’s finest voices:

And shall thy joyous lays no more be heard?
What songs were they the Sirens sung?
Against the shade-side of a bending gum
they chain us two by two, and whip and lash along.
We will not join the general groan,
O barren land! O blank bright day!
O hopeless wilderness without one fruit,
what words are left for Hope to say?

Who owns this voice? Who speaks?
All that I know about poetry is that it has
Familiar compound ghosts? No,
linen folded for the future:
iambics chide industrialists
and vanish in the gentle air.
Mild forgotten poems
drop their kiddies at the kindy.

Not only is it an impressive poem for its clever cut and paste structure, which one can imagine would have taken weeks – months – to gather and puzzle together, but each stanza is broken up into eight lines, adding to a sense of nostalgia for a closed form poetry not of our time, a sense of nostalgia for an Australia not of our time.

Another Fine Morning in Paradise isn’t a heavy read, though it is densely filled with poetry. I cannot say that it struck me to the core, emotionally, because that would not only be a lie but would represent a different kind of poetry. I can, however, say that I did briefly contemplate carrying this book around with me the next time I go to America, so when ‘certain’ people ask me what it’s like to live in Australia, what our ‘policies’ are (oh dear), I can lend them this book and duck out quickly, avoiding any ensuing confrontation.

–  Heather Taylor Johnson


Heather Taylor Johnson is the author of two poetry books, Exit Wounds and Letters to my Lover from a Small Mountain Town. Her third collection will be out in February from IP. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and occasionally teaches it at Flinders University. Her first novel, Pursuing Love and Death (HarperCollins), will be out in August.

Another Fine Morning In Paradise is available from Five Island Press: http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/another-fine-morning-in-paradise

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