Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) by Les Wicks, Puncher & Wattman, 2013 was launched at the Friend in Hand Hotel Glebe on 22nd June this year. Rae Desmond Jones wrote the speech but as he was unwell it was delivered by David Musgrave.
I have never before been asked to launch a volume. It is an honour because of the nature and quality of the volume and the long ongoing creative relationship I can claim with the author. I also deeply regret not being able to deliver the address in person, and would gladly forego the ease and attention of a sickbed to attend, simply to support the author, one of the most generous and selfless supporters of the cause of poetry in this country.
Be that as it may, this occasion is about Les, or more specifically the achievement of his book. Les’ poems are demanding, and don’t reveal their intricate layers on a first reading. Even the simpler poems are dense with imagery so that they require a second and even a third reading, but the effort is well worthwhile. For example, the first poem in the book is conversational and superficially casual in tone:
This dozen amused tourists
surround a dead dragon on the sand.
Its last ferocity
is the stench that armours each ending.
Already delicate fins are trimmed to lace
by the scission of crabs.
Beneath a corona of flies
spirit is urged to shuck flesh.
Harp of teeth
reach out to voice.
A roadmap of spine leads to the spume.
under flash-bulb asepticism.
Any shift in the tide will send this
crashing to the tale.
There is history,
but it won’t tell.
Each line in this casual sounding poem contains an image of great weight, with the possible exception of the first, which sets the scene of the dozen tourists: however they are amused. One interpretation of the deep seriousness of the rest of the poem is that it is a comment on this amusement. It is a dead dragon, a warrior … ferocious, when alive. I check out dragon: the biblical reference is to “a large serpent, a crocodile, a great marine animal, or a jackal” then “A name for Satan”. Immediately the image of the great whale in Moby Dick arises … “Hygienically cleaned / under flash bulb asepticism”, free from the living germs of disease, fungus or putrefaction. But what is being described but a process of putrefaction? It is the flash bulbs of the ‘amused’ tourists that are censoring the process of death, & the dignity of this great animal. When looked at with this level of detail, this poem yields up much more than the casual tone would suggest. Then there is history … but the real great whale, not entirely distinct from Herman Melville’s prophetic version, isn’t history. At least, not yet.
The contrasts and conjunctions between animals, the environment and the human mind & body is a recurring theme through these poems. In ‘Tuart’,
It is said elephants & crows share
This knowledge of death it
Is the crown of our intellect
“Things are happening” are all
In slow resolve.
In launching these poems, I can think of no better tactic than allow the poetry to speak for itself. It does this so excellently that it makes any speech focused on the halcyon days of the poets union in 1978 or a long friendship seem facile. This poetry is serious and addresses significant issues that should be of concern to all of us. Underlying issues which appear regularly on the news or in the papers which are too often described in terms of party politics and sectional self-interest are described in this poetry with unflinching moral courage:
Only humans play all their years, biologists think maybe
something about efficiency.
Do we take to the air
while refusing to look beneath?
Sea Of Heartbeak is determined to take the reader on a dive beneath. It took me on a voyage which I found bracing and stimulating at the same time as it did not turn away from the discomforting reality of the costs our lives inflict on our futures.
What I have said so far does not do justice to the other aspects of this volume. Just in case some of you may be thinking that to read this volume is to be immersed in some of the more obscure philosophy of Mr. Heidegger, Les Wicks also has a lively and irreverent sense of humour on display. He indulges in some lighter relief with a series of aphorisms under the tongue in cheek title of “Secret Saids (everything I know)” where he displays his gift for whimsy:
“people in glass houses enjoy the view.” (pause)
“Britney’s sister is gluttony.” (I won’t repeat this one to my daughter)
“Love hurts but it can be cured” (How, I ask… don’t torment me Les. Tell me the secret…
“Hair is the window of the brain..” (where are the curtains?)
“Sex would never reach minimum / occupational health and safety standards.” (Nor should it. The human race would die of boredom…)
There is also a poem I must mention, not only because it is a poem around my hometown, Broken Hill. It is an area where the environment and colour attracts painters and film makers but not often poets, but it is attractive to Les Wicks. In ‘Aeolus at the Mulga’:
The desert wind wears a blunt dust
from the deaths
of the snub nosed Silverton buses all
cut like raw opal
pressed into a humiliating servitude
windbreaks for camels.
Punctuation of crows
affixed on air.
The description of wind lifting the iron is something familiar which Les has caught in a way that is unexpected for anyone who has not grown up with it. The old buses I rode in as a schoolboy are now dumped to rust in a paddock on the border of the town where Les has spent some time as a writer in residence, and he catches the pathos of those ancient clapped out machines perfectly.
Les’ tone is terse and he concentrates a complex web of simple seeming words, through narratives that are complex and demand intense concentration. Links and breaks between images, puns and dual meanings demand close attentive reading. The way he solders each image to the last brings to mind the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. It is my business to launch this excellent volume, not to review it: I recommend it and declare this volume duly launched.
– Rae Desmond Jones
Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973. His Selected Poems has just been published from Grand Parade Poets and was launched by Kit Kelen in August . He is also the editor of The Selected Your Friendly Fascist (Rochford Street Press) 2012.
Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/sea-of-heartbeak