Rain Season by Robbie Coburn, Picaro, 2013. Reviewed by Les Wicks.
As a general rule I only write positive reviews of Australian poetry. Sure, the argument exists that this presents to the revered reader a one-dimensional aspect of this oh so wise critic’s poetic worldview. There are certainly alternative approaches out there, I note particularly a few who wrap up superficially cogent demolition jobs around malicious misreadings of a handful of pieces within a book to generate a few titters amongst their readership. I suspect there is a childhood history of torturing kittens. But what is the point? There are already more than enough reasons not to buy Australian poetry floating about. Sure, there are any number of books that I won’t review because I can’t be enthusiastic about them. I’d rather tell you about the ones that have enriched, surprised or challenged me.
I’m inclined to be generous when I open the covers of a first book. But all predispositions were unnecessary as I immersed myself in Robbie Coburn’s Rain Season. By any measure, this is an accomplished collection by a writer clearly confident in the voice of his work.
Coburn lives in Woodstock, semi-rural Victoria. The landscape lends itself to his sparse, sometimes ruthless lyric style through much of the book:
home suspended on brass hinges,
I ignore all motion. alive.
my hands have disappeared in front of me –
there is beauty in that.
– “There Are No Strangers”
it was weeks before Dad returned home from hospital
and even then he suffered death a second time
spluttering beneath his gutted body, his chest’s bloody centre
– “The Heart Resetting”
To my mind he’s the best portraitist of Australian rural life since Brendan Ryan. This is no shallow pastoral – fire, death, abuse and depression roam alongside a rich connection to the landscape, evolution of an adult life, relationships et cetera. Throughout there is an endearing, sometimes heartbreaking, autobiographical journey…
I open the vein, twice
the deeply pressed blade embedded
in flesh like an extension of my limb
Section II is the title poem of the book and examines the 2009 bushfire that burnt through his region. The challenges of drafting a consistently engaging long poem alongside the imperative to detail factual material has shipwrecked many practitioners. This poem, for me, is perhaps the weakest part of the book but there aren’t many who could do it better.
“Sophie” is a delightfully clean and simple love poem. Throughout, there are some great lines like daylight bends like a flame (“Chemical Winter”) and death was fashionable when we were kids (“Follow”).
I’ve often said it’s kinda hard to shake the foundations with yet another poem about middle-class greybeards sitting around drinking good coffee and whingeing about their backs. The newly examined has a great capacity to draw the reader in, to fix them in the poetic experience. A number of pieces in this book are centred around greyhound breeding/racing, an area of human activity completely alien to me and no doubt most readers. These poems manage to range across both empathy and detachment, a pre-requisite perhaps for those involved in working with animals.
There is much in this book that is confronting, but I laughed out loud when I read Coburn’s hilarious discussion around the point at which the poet settles on his sexuality – “Three Lessons Remembered” – there’s a punchline I’m not going to spoil by repeating, a great image.
This is an enriching read.
– Les Wicks
Les Wicks has seen publication across 18 countries in 10 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). This year he will performing in LA – Beyond Baroque, Austin International poetry Festival & RhiZomic.. He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm
Rain Season is available from Picaro. www.picaropress.com/