straya by Paul Summers (Smokestack Books, 2017).
‘straya’, a bastardised version of ‘Australia’, is the title and the first and largest section of Paul Summers’ latest collection. While the term evokes Afferbeck Lauder’s ‘strine’, a droll representation of Australian language, there is little humour in Summers’ straya. The first poem in the collection, ‘obligato’, suggests an obligation on the reader to take notice. As this musical term indicates, that which follows should not be omitted.
While ‘obligato’ could be characterised as oblique, the second poem, ‘building eden / pathology’, leaves the reader in no doubt as to where Summers is heading with an acerbic, sweeping diatribe about the sunburnt country, touching on history and modernity. In his sights are, amongst other ills, racism, denial of past wrongs, hollow apologies, and the strine untouchables of ‘mateship’ and the ‘fair go’. ‘eden’ is something of a laundry list, as is ‘dear john’, which bookends this section, yielding another phalanx of issues and observations.
Some poems focus on a single explicit subject, including ‘revision’, a disturbing take on the aussie icon, ‘the man from snowy river’, and ‘8 count’, a graphic depiction of domestic violence.
.…hits the floor;
.drum-hollow but dense,
.like sides of meat slapped
.down on butchers’ blocks.
On balance though, Summers ‘tells it slant’. March flies and crows are metaphors for colonisation. Brahman cattle are the dispossessed and betrayed in ‘one hundred head of cattle walking to their slaughter’. In more literal poems, Summers evokes nature’s venom with cyclones and drought. There’s no escaping the undertow, ‘the soil’s dark music’, haunting this collection.
straya is published by UK publisher, Smokestack. Their manifesto is to champion ‘poets who are unfashionable, radical, left field…’ Summers fits his publisher’s bill. Originally from North East England, he has spent the last four and a half years in tropical Queensland. This residency forms the basis for his wanderings through the Australian psyche. Some may characterise him as, to use the vernacular, a ‘blow-in’, and question his right to comment. Yet often it takes an outsider to hold the mirror, or in Summers’ case, a magnifying glass, burning a hole in the accepted narrative with an incendiary eye.
‘fan ho’s vehement lens epitomises Summers’ keen vision. The title of the poem refers to Fan Ho, a renowned Chinese photographer of street scenes in Hong Kong. The poem is set in a country town, where ‘the dogs are all black’ and highlights many issues from the ‘obesity of privilege’, to the plight of the underclass and the marginalised, ‘the pensioners, / the jettisoned, / the wounded, / & the grinning mad.’ Summers’ position, while left of the mainstream, comes not from blind revisionism. It is, as the sentiments in ‘Fan Ho’ suggest, out of his humanity and concern for suffering.
In ‘epistle to a great-nephew’ Summers reveals the values underlying straya. The poet’s advice in his letter includes the noble: ‘defend the truth’, ‘declaim injustice’, as well as the small and personal things: to treasure the singing of birds and ‘the perfume of summer rain’.
The middle section of straya is titled ‘guerra’, Italian and Spanish for war. It deals with the death caused by organised conflict, including the frontier wars. In ‘bait’, death is meted out through laced flour and spiked water, conjuring the vivid images of the poisoning of Aboriginal people depicted in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. There are also poems dealing with the sacrifice of young men during the Great War. Accounts of the death of children in Gaza provide contemporary examples of humanity’s dark side. The final poem, ‘ptsd’, is a personal one, about a fishing mate, a war veteran, who committed suicide.
‘cadenza’, might have been a stand-alone volume, such is the contrast between this and the previous sections. While ‘straya’ and ‘guerra’ are lamentations on the legacy of history, ‘cadenza’ reflects a private grief, a ‘rapacious loss’, the death of the poet’s mother. These are tender poems, traversing dying, death itself and the vacuum of the aftermath. They contemplate the physical and emotional manifestations in vignettes of the hospital, cremation and the spreading of ashes. In ‘the ferryman’, which describes the moment of his mother’s death, Summers provides an intimate and generous window into this very private experience.
Many of the poems in ‘cadenza’ are tributes to his father, reflecting a widower’s unique form of loss, as seen through a son’s compassionate eyes. In ‘& slow, the dusk’, the first part in the sequence, ‘the aftermath’:
.the men who grieve
.sit down to tea,
.dwarfed by the scale
.of lonesome rooms.
.mechanically they prod
.at half charged plates
Summers’ knack for nailing an image and capturing its emotional charge is sublime. In ‘fall’: ‘& dad is reduced; / shrunk to the size / of a songbird’s heart’.
There are reminiscences of childhood here too. ‘crucible’ sees the poet nagging his ‘mam’ to buy him a ‘red-army hat’ at an advent market. The child watches his parents feeding each other at the ‘mermaid café’, leaning into ‘…the warmth/ of the others’ space, still giddy/ on the promise of their lips’. Grief brings these memories into focus. It is the pain of happy memories as W.G. Sebald has described it.
Despite the contrasts between the first and the last sections of straya, they are unified by Summers’ skill, innate compassion and full investment in his subject. They are also stylistically unified; the dominance of the couplet, the employment of sporadic and deft rhyme and repetition of words and phrases. All techniques which sharpen focus and command the reader’s attention. He calls up hidden, unspeakable things and champions the downtrodden. He challenges our view of ourselves and our collective memory, particularly of the colonial frontier. Whether it is a portal into the public or the private, there is no escape from the ‘knowing glance / of stuttering time.’
-Malcolm St Hill
Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. His recent poems have appeared in the 2016 and 2015 ‘Grieve’ anthologies. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016.