Anthony Lynch launched Cameron Lowe’s Circle Work (Puncher and Wattmann, 2013) at Paton Books, Newtown, Geelong on 24th November 2013.
In March 2004 Whitmore Press published the first issue of Space: New Writing, in which three of Cameron’s early poems appeared – in fact, they were the opening three poems of the issue. To promote the launch of that not-so-long-lived literary annual, Cameron agreed to accompany me to 3RRR studios where we were interviewed by Steve Grimwade (later, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival), who asked Cameron if he lived in Geelong. Cameron replied, with a note of defiance: ‘Born and bred’.
This says something not only about Cameron’s affection for Geelong and its environs – and, perhaps, a suspicion of the artifice that the capital can be – but more pertinently to us today, a readiness to draw on the local for much of the imagery that pervades his poetry. This was true of Cameron’s first two volumes of poetry, Throwing Stones at the Sun and Porch Music, which I was fortunate to publish, and continues to hold true for this marvellous new collection, Circle Work.
As those of you who know Cameron and have visited his home, the front porch is the site of many of his observations about the world. In poems such as ‘Borders’, ‘In May’ and, in particular, ‘Theatre’, much of what is described – the white pickets (a recurring image in Cameron’s work), the ‘rust-coloured grapevine’, the traffic on Ormond Road, the ‘cool breeze stirring the last leaves from the birches’, and the ‘Pigeons strutting along the roof of St Matthew’s’ – can be observed from Cameron’s front door, or would be visible within short walking distance. There are excursions into neighbouring suburbs and to the Geelong waterfront, where the vista opens up, and occasional forays into quite specific locales in Melbourne, named or unnamed, where the immediate is again observed.
In none of this does Cameron ever lapse into being merely colloquial. He says something about the world as a whole – its seasons, its economic imperatives, the relationship of one force or object to another, and our own relationships with and attempts to interpret and communicate our environment – by seeing and describing what is to hand. Sometimes, to do that, he doesn’t even have to move beyond the room in which he’s sitting. It’s the everyday, or what poetry critics in particular are fond of calling ‘the quotidian’, that attracts his eye, and engages his mind. Among many examples of this is the poem ‘Echo’:
To those who make most noise the rich rewards –
The sun rises over the animal laboratory
……with a precision always surprising –
A wide arc of grey-green water, the dawn burning
……in shop windows, clouds lined with strange light –
And the wind in pine branches is the sound
……of the day waking, of thought escaping –
Little things of uncertain consequence,
……the motions of a hesitant grace –
To those who make most noise the rich rewards –
Without wishing to draw too long a bow, there’s a grace in this poem itself, as there is in many of Cameron’s poems. A quietness, a gentleness, and indeed the poem is in some ways a comment on itself, its own act of recording ‘Little things of uncertain consequence’. Self-reflexive, if you like, but subtly so. And these notes are framed by that repeated line –‘To those who make most noise the rich rewards’ – that I think provides an understated critique of social elements that demand our attention but are not necessarily worthy of it.
I’m not a devotee of social media, and I think Cam is only a spasmodic user himself, but he’s been known to add the occasional, pithy, sometimes spiky comment or question to a blog or thread, and in this he’s shown a welcome irreverence for poetry or, at least, its excesses, pretensions and factions. His wittier poems in this collection also betray this sentiment. In the poem ‘A lazy Sunday afternoon in which …’, the narrator/Cameron wishes he had a t-shirt bearing the words ‘SAY NO TO POETS’ that his friend Aaron had once threatened to make. It’s a sentiment that I think still sometimes holds true for Cameron and, perhaps, for others here, and if Aaron ever decides to proceed with his Say No to Poets project, Paton Books might stock the t-shirts and they’ll probably sell a few.
Further evidence of Cameron’s refusal to deify poetry comes in poems such as ‘Some thoughts on the American poetry scene, reconsidered as the Australian poetry scene’ (the word ‘scene’ is, I think, enough in itself to raise Cameron’s hackles) and ‘Knights in cool sweaters’, which, apart from making me think of the Moody Blues dirge from 1967 ‘Nights in white satin’, I’m guessing alludes to a poetry launch in Melbourne’s inner north, with the ‘bandwagon rattling down Lygon’ a particular coterie of poets, and we might wonder which of their number might have asked the (belittling?) question ‘have you read Ed Dorn?’ Similarly, we might ask: who is the Great Australian Poet (note the ironic capital letters in the title) who discovers a potato cake in his pocket at the Geelong Art Gallery?
Some of us who have known Cam over the years have noted his likeness, from a certain angle, of a once-youthful Hollywood icon. This, combined with a tendency in both his character and his poetry to be a loner on the edge or margins – Cameron has never been part of any poetry clique or faction, and to his credit despises such beasts – makes him a kind of Clint Eastwood of Australian poetry. (And we might note here that the above-named Ed Dorn’s most famous work is titled Gunslinger.)
But there’s never been any attempt on Cameron’s part to make this ‘outsider’ status a self-branding tool to mark out some small, nagging patch in the Australian poetry acreage. Rather, he tenderly invokes seasons – the poems in this collection are arranged roughly according to season – as well as subtle shifts of light, colours, mirrors, trees (birches and pines proliferate), the white picket fence and, in particular, flowers. An astonishing array of flowers bloom throughout this collection.
Water and the shoreline also feature prominently in many poems, the shoreline evoking another edge, the littoral, though Cameron quietly observes it rather than immersing himself in it in the manner of, say, Tim Winton – or as Cameron once famously said, Tim Oh-let-me-grow-my-hair-a-little-bit-longer Winton.
Here and in his previous collections Cameron is not afraid to use words such as ‘beauty’, ‘beautiful’, ‘dance’, ‘grace’. These could easily be sentimental words conveying tired sentiments, or conversely a lazy resort to cynicism. But Cameron uses these words deliberately, carefully. He’s acutely aware of the poetic traditions within which he’s working, and without being showy about it he continues his engagement with William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley and Laurie Duggan, among others, and even introduces snow to his landscape by way of his partner Jo Langdon’s work. (Jo’s cat Edith also pops her head into a number of stanzas.)
All this is performed with intelligence and sensitivity, an attention to form and to the rhythms of language that make this far more than just a series of recurring images and seasons – to which I think the title Circle Work in part alludes – but a superb contemporary example of what we so often loosely refer to as ‘the lyrical’. Cameron manages to be both a romantic and an anti-romantic – one of the characteristics that I think makes his poetry so deservedly admired. (I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve said to me: ‘Cameron Lowe, I love his work’.)
Circle Work is the work of a poet who is past emerging, and has well and truly emerged. This is not a day to Say No to Poets, but a day to say yes to the work of one of Australia’s finest younger poets. I have much pleasure in declaring Circle Work launched into our neighbourhood, and the world.
– Anthony Lynch
Anthony Lynch’s fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared in The Age, The Best Australian Poems, The Best Australian Stories, Island, Southerly, Australian Book Review and The Australian. His short story collection Redfin (Arcadia) was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, and his poetry collection Night Train (Clouds of Magellan) was runner-up in the 2012 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize. He is the publisher for Whitmore Press (www.whitmorepress.com), specialising in poetry.
Circle Work is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/circle-work
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