Anne Pender Launch Speach for Michael Sharkey’s Another Fine Morning in Paradise, 20 April 2012, Armidale Art Society Gallery, Beardy Street Armidale.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here this evening to launch Michael Sharkey’s latest collection of poems, Another Fine Morning in Paradise. I believe this is Michael’s thirteenth volume of poetry. And true to form, Michael has supplied me with some intriguing, and rather detailed notes on one of the poems ‘Where the Bunyip Builds its Nest’.
But more about that in a few minutes. I’d like to dedicate this celebration to the memory of Bruce Bennett who died last Friday and who was a life-long supporter of Australian literature. Bruce wrote many fine essays about poetry and he was a fan of Michael’s work too.
The marvelously ironic title of this collection, Another Fine Morning in Paradise, immediately suggests satire, mischief and joy. All of these things are present and abundant in this collection. I have enjoyed reading these poems immensely. There is pleasure awaiting you in reading this poetry – intense pleasure. But there is a sting in this poetry and you won’t get off lightly. The poems on these silky pages will prick you, prod you and pin you to your seat. Have a look at the one called ‘And Afterwards’: no one is spared in this assault on funerary customs and the way we speak of the dead….
And yet in the reading, and in the midst of what sometimes feels like an attack, A total disturbance, a disorienting disruption of everything – the poems have a liberating effect – they are liberating at every level: intellectually, aesthetically and emotionally. There is nothing predictable in the phrasing, or in the narrative arc of the poems here. This is where Michael’s mastery of form, style and diction is so impressive. And before I get into some detail I want to stress the humour and astringency of so many of the poems in this collection.
Michael Sharkey is a satirist through and through. Have a look at the opening poem ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, or the second poem, ‘The Plain People of Paradise’, in which the speaker ponders eternity through the language of the real estate pages, complete with parodies of the spelling mistakes therein: one of his headings in this poem is ‘Sort After Neighbourhood’. Listen to the wit and sharpness of the opening lines:
‘How do the patron saints of age and illness
do their work? Do they have unions?
And then pressing the marvelous conceit, a few lines on:
Do angels have computers? …
What use are wings in office cubicles?
And then the devastating attack of these lines:
‘Who measures blood that’s spilled on earth? Who handles grief?
‘Some say Valhalla is a vast hall full of smoke
and cloudy trophies; others plump for golden city
walls of diamond, gleaming streets like burnished glass,
but what the inmates have to do, detained there
for eternity with klieg lights and no sleep
is anyone’s guess. …’
The power of allegory builds in the portrayal of heaven in a few scathing lines:
‘What use is /Heaven if the ones refused admission
Can’t be sent to some Nauru or Christmas Island
Of the damned to keep the ignorant in bliss?’
And so we have an ingenious shift to the concrete, a real place: Australia.
The closing sequences of this poem give us the self at last, as a Hieroglyph’ and the eerie invocation of the self on a tour of paradise: ‘Collect your third eye at the door, enjoy your flight.’ This, like many of the poems in this book will stop you short with their breathtaking clarity of image, the sudden perfectly targeted attack on Arden, standing in perhaps for Armidale.
I urge you to look closely at the glorious poem called ‘The Paradise of Kevins’: it is the Gold Coast’. And here I’m enthralled by Michael’s language of attack and its music; take the second stanza:
‘Mothers in law, all those widows
who wondered while reading brochures when
not busting their backs having children and
wiping the snot and the crap from the kids
who’d grow up to be Kevins and girls that
the Kevins would marry, now occupy units
on package-deal holidays, nannied by
daughters or sons now divorced, through snares of resorts.’
Michael’s nimble critique of the shallow tracings of contemporary nature tourism in another poem called ‘Nothing to it’ continues the satire on our fetishizing of the banal and our tendency to blunder past the sacred.
Existential questions in Michael’s ‘Ode to Shoes’ are comical and gentle. We are treated to mesmerizing rhythm and comic brilliance as the speaker contemplates the bizarre materials in which we clothe our feet: ‘Brothel creepers’, ‘country boots’, ‘plastic clouds in labs and surgeries and wards’. He says
How many personalities do you assign to us?
What selves are hiding in our closets or at large among the world?
What is it that your many tongues are trying to relate?
The poem seethes with a driving energy, arriving at the final lines
‘Roman sandals, hobnailed toughs, we see your passion play;
you, dress shoes on a coffined corpse, absurdity that fits.’
One of the further pleasures of this collection is its variety of mood and style. ‘Young Woman with a Tea-Towel’ is simple, direct, moving – with the grace of a portrait, it is itself painterly, but it is stripped back, not a word too many in this lament. I think it is one of my favourites.
I want to draw attention to the majesty of argument woven in many of these poems, their swiftness, lightness and Swiftian quality of close examination of us. I’m thinking of the supple lines of a poem called ‘The Sight of Blood Each Day’ with its striking conclusion. The narrative arc of this short poem stays with me; I hope Michael will read this to us.
I said earlier that you are pinned to your seat and I meant it. There are stinging lines about our country, such as ‘The nation’s business is ham acting’. Life in a university near you keeps reappearing and no one is spared. Take the lines:
Academically speaking, teaching’s really spaz
But who expects to make an impression when every
Contact confirms that your life is under a hex.
And in this as other poems we are saved by comic fury, saved by compassion and humour:
This Sargasso Sea hosts other crawlies, monsters with
Two driving motives: knowledge they’re hopeless as teachers, and toadying
Up to the setters of targets for others.
I won’t give away the ending.
Comedy is intense in the swirling poem about drunkenness called ‘Heroes of Australia’. It begins
In bedrooms of Australia they are waking up and saying
What did I say and you know you should have stopped me and
My God did I say that and saying never that’s the end of it no more
I’m giving up and swearing off it while their heads are full of saucepans
falling endlessly to floors made out of steel.
I mentioned that Michael supplied me with some notes that explain the extraordinary final poem in the collection called ‘Where the Bunyip Builds its Nest’. This is a poem made up of 200 lines drawn from the poetry of Australian poems written over the last 200 years. So in other words each line has been taken from another poet’s work. There is a guide at the back of the book to the source of each line. But the narrative and the structure are Michael’s. Michael says that he had no specific model in mind but thinks of Ashbery’s cut up narratives or possibly Pound’s idea of a poem containing history. The title recalls a poem written in 1885 by Mary Hannay Foott called ‘Where the Pelican Builds its Nest’. This last poem of Michael’s is a remarkable piece. Clever, witty, artful and rich in the way it brings a poetic history to life, but moulded into something else, something Sharkean. The final three lines of the last section called ‘Galah Songs’ come from three contemporary Australian poets: Bronwyn Lea, MTC Cronin and Peter Minter. Here are the last three lines:
Socrates said when our feet hurt we hurt all over.
My way is I make a huge fuss and then I get over it.
Lines I improve, boundaries erode
I commend the extraordinary Bunyip poem to you. Thank you Michael for this book; I have great pleasure in wishing you every success with it. Let’s drink a toast to Michael and Another Fine Morning in Paradise
– Anne Pender
Anne Pender is Associate Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of New England, Armidale. She is also an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, currently working on a major study of Australian actors from 1950 until the present. Her publications include a study of Christina Stead, studies of the theatre of Nick Enright, a biography of Barry Humphries (One Man Show: The Stages of Barry Humphries, Sydney: ABC Books, 2010) and a recently completed study of writers abroad: Reverse Diaspora: Australian Expatriate Writers in Britain 1830-2010 (for the AustLit online Australian Literature Resource).
Another Fine Morning In Paradise is available from Five Island Press: http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/another-fine-morning-in-paradise