The Apocalypse Awards by Nathan Curnow. Arcadia/ Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016.
In London’s Oxford Street, a man in a tattered coat wanders up and down, his sandwich board emblazoned with big red painted letters: The End is Nigh. It’s a phrase that has since entered the vernacular to mock the doomsayers who use any political changing of the guard or climate statistic to confirm their end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it predictions. As humans, we are just as obsessed with our demise as a species, as we are with uncovering the truth about our origins. What results is a cacophony of art and story that ranges from the absurd to the downright terrifying. Dante’s Inferno is no picnic and neither is the Book of Revelation, but the subject has also created some of the best fodder for entertainment, including the hugely popular, The Walking Dead series.
Enter award-winning, Ballarat poet, Nathan Curnow with his latest release, The Apocalypse Awards. The title is of course, tongue-in-cheek. “Who does it best!?” the reality television narrator asks the audience. Although, many lives will be destroyed in the glossy, gladiator-style slaughter under the flashing lights. If anyone can bring an intelligent, fresh angle to the subject of our times, it is Curnow. The book is a master stroke. No one could read these haunting, vivid vignettes without gasping, even if it is difficult to put into words the reason for the rude shock. It’s like looking in to a dark mirror. Curnow’s deft touch ensures that we are unable to look away from the wreckage. We are rubbernecking our own car smashes.
One could spend hours staring at the cover artwork, the intricate, Dolor (For Whom the Bell Tolls), sculpture by Stephen Ives. The name means, ‘a state of great sorrow or distress’. The knight on the horse is frozen in mid gallop. The horse and rider’s flesh is stripped to thin ribbons, hanging from their skeletons. However, the small detail that may be missed is also, the most crucial: a tiny, hunched man in red walks across the outstretched lance with a walking stick. Is this the ‘End is Nigh’ man? Or is this man in the collective sense, shuffling toward death? It’s a chilling image set amidst the icy blue of Dolor. A blue that nothing comes out of (‘Welcome’).
Between its covers, the collection is visceral and tender at the same time. If anyone wants to touch the subject after this, it might be time for a rethink. It shows a mind on fire with the wonder and horror of the circus of cruelty that, as alluded to in the opening quotes from Kafka and Gaiman, is in fact, an ongoing apocalypse of our own species. In a cruel irony, the fear and anticipation of the event itself, has driven us to madness, in the form of countless wars and a violent plundering of resources.
One of Curnow’s strengths is his use of imagery. He has an eye as good as, any novelist. At times, the pathos of the situations he sketches is so dark, it almost feels funny, in a laughing-at-a-funeral way. There is an obvious iceberg of research or knowledge underneath the poems, with all the biblical and literary references one would expect, given the subject, including Jules Vern. Aside from these, each poem contains enough quotable lines to graffiti the whole of Melbourne.
Some of the imagery Curnow employs is garish or surreal, such as the exploding watermelon, (you won’t get through if you wear a helmet: ‘Xanadu’), the euthanised, party balloons (‘Duel’) and the corpse kissing booth (‘Corpse Fete’). Curnow also uses colour to great effect: The Paint inside us making a break (‘Nosebleeds’). The colour of a licorice plague (‘Botanicals’).
Then there are the shocking images, such as those in the poem ‘Zoo’:
The fairy penguins are on lollipop sticks…
The giraffe was the first beheading
They tried to use its neck as a periscope…
Or this clanger from ‘Confession’:
I chewed his ears like dried apricots.
The ink-on-paper illustrations of Lily Mae Martin are the only visuals in the text. The drawings depict women in shock, their mouths twisted in fright. These don’t sugar coat the idea that many of the scenarios outlined are real and horrific, underneath Curnow’s often absurd rendering. But the poet is never absurd without skill or reason. He is the Cirque du Soleil of poets, effortlessly walking the tightrope while both, frightening and thrilling his audience. This is a collection that will stay with the reader long after reading, as they emerge from their rooms, blinking in the light and contemplating this apocalyptic existence, with its spectacles of pleasure and pain.
Anna Forsyth is a writer and freelance editor, originally from New Zealand, now living in Melbourne. Her poems have appeared in FourW, Landfall and other journals. She is the convener of the monthly female driven poetry event and refugee fundraiser, Girls on Key.