The Perpetual See-saw of Life and Death: Justin Lowe reviews ‘Before Bone and Viscera’ by Robbie Coburn

Before Bone and Viscera by Robbie Coburn. Rochford Street Press, 2014

Blood & Viscera.

The young poet, Robbie Coburn was, for this reviewer, the great find of last year with his first full-length collection, Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013). The precision and deftness of touch, the staggering emotional range in one so young left a strong impression. The poet in that collection was able to acheive that most celebrated and all-too-rarely mastered trick in the post-war Australian tradition, a seamless fusion of the interior and exterior, of the poet-as-subject and the tortured landscape of rural Victoria


rain comes too late like a disorderly, drunken God,
mistimed wires driving days of burning to a close.
sheets and miles of fall, dark shades of rain
align the twilight.

‘Rain Season vi.’

In Rain Season, Coburn employed the landscape less as a backdrop than as a canvas where he could lay bare his inner turmoil, placing him in a long and proud tradition of Australian poets. Think Les Murray at his self-lacerating best, or Charles Buckmaster in his Gruyere poems

red splattered on an orchard path. Thats all.
I saw nothing.
Perhaps they kicked dust over the blood
allowed you to double
back through the soil.

‘seed’, Charles Buckmaster

Indeed, the similarities in tone and subject between the better Buckmaster (a very uneven poet, to say the least) and an always excellent Coburn is at times striking. But where Buckmaster too often descended (as was his generation’s wont) into histrionics and adolescent self-loathing, Coburn manages for the most part to keep these impulses in check, although as with Buckmaster, some form of self-immolation is the unmistakable elephant in the room.

In his latest chapbook, Before Bone and Viscera (Rochford Street Press, 2014), Coburn confronts this issue head on. It makes for an impressive but troubling read. I am not given to quoting blurbs, particularly those on the backs of Australian poetry collections, but Les Wicks sums it up perfectly when he says: “This is not an easy book…its ruthless eviscerated clarity & honesty scar the eye.” Poems such as ‘Death Games’ made this reviewer want to reach out to the poet (I admit to having done so in the past), but instead I read the book through again and then again until I had discovered the redemptive courage and wisdom of the poems

I can see myself walking across the charred
plank again
quickly into the inferno,
cheating death and towards life.

‘Death Games’

This is the poetry of someone who has lived with the perpetual see-saw of life and death all his life and who knows there is no clear demarcation between the two. “She is Starving”, one of the most heart-rending poems I have read in a long long time, is a perfect example of this, with the subject “suiciding for years”

sleep now inside your skin of silent ghosts.
your voice will still trace my throat, your absence will starve me
like a famine of memory.

“She is Starving’

Before Bone and Viscera is an extremely short collection, only running to 11 poems, but so powerful is the writing, so dense the language, that the reader feels they are taken on quite a journey. In a lesser light, opening such a short collection with a Prologue would seem the height of presumption, but so vast is the territory covered in the ensuing 10 poems that it works precisely as a Prologue should, preparing the reader for the journey to come. It helps, of course, that it is also a very good poem

the dry end of the trees unearth
here, in a brittle manifestation

of husk and bone
endless ruin of dirt

hard stone and the distortion inside lingers,
the backbone of consciousness


Rochford Street Press make no pretence of producing books-as-objects. Their emphasis is on the quality and power of the words on the page, and no greater testament could there be to the instrinsic value of this approach than this unassuming chapbook by a poet who, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, has already booked himself a place at the vanguard of a new and exciting generation of Australian poets.

– Justin Lowe


Justin Lowe was born in Sydney but spent significant portions of his childhood on the Spanish island of Minorca with his younger sister and artist mother. He developed a penchant for writing poetry while penning lyrics for a succession of failed bands and has since been published all over the world. Justin currently resides in a house called “Doug” in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney where he edits poetry blog Bluepepper. His latest collection, Nightswim was released in early 2015 and can be found at the Bluepepper Bookstore,

Before Bone and Viscera is available from

Disclaimer: To state the obvious Rochford Street Press is the Publisher of Rochford Street Review.


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