Courland Penders: Coming Home by Ronald Corlette-Theuil. Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd 2014.
Michael Dransfield is somewhat of a legend in Australian poetry, self-mythologised as a ‘ghost haunting an old house’, and retaining widespread popularity more than 40 years after his death. His poems blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy, as he wrote of LSD trips, mad wards, and created ‘Courland Penders’, a country mansion conceived partly by memory and partly by imagination. Working within such elastic borders of fact and fiction, Ronald Corlette-Theuil’s Courland Penders: Coming Home places Dransfield’s work in the context of suburban school life, a childhood environment shared by the author and his brother. This original and unique angle in Dransfield scholarship situates the poet in the ‘real’ world of Australian cultural history, yet maintains a creative and at times speculative flair.
Courland Penders is the first book-length study to pay detailed attention to the quasi-real, quasi-fictitious house. By treating it as an important cultural symbol, Corlette-Theuil respects Courland Penders and by extension, respects Dransfield. The first chapter challenges accusations that Courland Penders was not real, arguing that the mansion is an integral and authentic part of Dransfield’s – and Australia’s – literary heritage. The author eloquently dismisses those who called Dransfield a ‘bullshit artist’: ‘a curious judgement to pass on the inventions of a creative writer’. (19) His admiration for and interest in his subject seems to seep through this book, a tone to be welcomed by Dransfield fans. Keeping with the spirit of the 60s and 70s, Corlette-Theuil often adopts a playful, humorous style that builds on Dransfield’s anti-establishment, anti-bureaucratic sentiments.
Chapter Two, ‘Images’, analyses the Courland Penders poems in depth, comparing poetic strategies with techniques in visual art, music and film. Like Dransfield, Corlette-Theuil’s knowledge of art and literature is broad, and his criticism enriched by his ability to note subtle allusions. Poems are unpacked in a way that opens and expands reader’s interpretations without limiting them. Poetic lines are weaved throughout Dransfield’s personal narrative and biography, which intersects and overlaps with Corlette-Theuil’s; they lived in the same town and went to the same school. Corlette-Theuil’s extensive research and attention to detail is at times so thorough that it becomes a little dry; at one point he acknowledges the ‘rather arid exposition of detail’. (46) Readers interested primarily in Dransfield’s poetry may find themselves lost in paragraphs of teachers’ names and schoolyard geography, wondering how these facts fit into the book’s argument.
As with many posthumous biographies, some speculative leaps are necessary, and are often consciously foregrounded. A few chapters in, it seems that this book sits at the intersection of biography, academic criticism, memoir and even creative non-fiction. With a finger in so many generic pies, and with the depth of research supporting it, one gets the sense that Courland Penders could have been developed into four or five separate books in discrete, self-sustaining forms. The assemblage works, however, and in knowing Dransfield personally, the writer has a personal advantage over other Dransfield researchers. Corlette-Theuil can recognise places and people in the poetry, making Courland Penders a valuable contribution to our understanding of Michael Dransfield’s oeuvre.
There are instances in this book that are a creative delight, such as the analysis of ‘Courland Penders’ as a code in ‘descending paradigm’. This code poignantly reduces the name to ‘our land ends’, to ‘our lad pens’, to ‘our end’, to ‘O D’, a chilling reminder of the cause of Dransfield’s death. Sometimes the book errs on the side of gossip (not of itself a negative), and it will be useful to scholars interested in the symbol of the house, architecture, and the Australian Gothic. Corlette-Theuil hasn’t merely read on and around Dransfield, but in tracing his literary influence has considered French fiction, British theatre and Skadic poetry. A particularly stimulating chapter is ‘Names’, which is entirely concerned with the etymology, history and phonic associations of the titular country house. In all, Courland Penders is soundly researched, and presented with genuine enthusiasm. Building on existing scholarship by the likes of Livio Dobrez, Patricia Dobrez, and John Kinsella, this book is an important piece in the ‘tantalizing kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle’ that comprises Dransfield’s poetry and life. (141-2)
– Amy Hilhorst
Amy Hilhorst is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, researching the relationship between poetic language and representations of psychosis in the work of Francis Webb, Bruce Beaver, and Michael Dransfield. Her own poetry has been published in Writ Poetry Review and in Trove Journal, and she has read as a feature poet at Writ Poetry Review, Sturmfrei, and Voicebox. Amy currently teaches in the English & Cultural Studies discipline at the University of Western Australia.
Courland Penders: Coming Home is available from http://www.austinmacauley.com/author/corlette-theuil-ronald