Public & Personal — Les Wicks reviews ‘Legacy by Julie Watts & ‘The End of the Line’ by Rae Desmond Jones

The End of the Line by Rae Desmond Jones, Rochford Press 2019. Legacy by Julie Watts, University of Western Australia Press, 2018

I didn’t see Rae in his last year. The End of the Line has come to me (and all those other readers) as a generous posthumous gift. I don’t know if it’s necessary for all to know the context of this book, but it comes at the end of a vivid, generous life. He was actually the first person to accept a poem from high school kid me – for SCOPP. His own magazine Your Friendly Fascist worked to present a polar opposite to the other “worthy” literary magazines by throwing in the air production standards, waving its wildly un-PC title in your face, publishing those way outside the orthodoxy and sometimes publishing a poet’s worst submissions 40 years before the Flarf experiments. The first time I met him I was in awe of this giant who somehow managed to blend a gentle loopiness with an in-your-face polemic. So many of us have benefited from his support and insight over the decades since.

Can one talk about “the last book” as a distinct sub-genre? There is, for me at least, a unique set of perspectives that writers proffer knowing that this book will be their last. Perhaps there is a level of self-examination, a more cinematic view of the past, relationships no longer seen as fluid and there’s a ruthless critique of the modern world. This book certainly features all these aspects.

Having said that, this is a book that deliberately avoids any linear exposition, there are larger themes that emerge but they emerge from the crowd of poems. Introspection is put alongside witty social observations. The voice is fluid and the poems range in the use of form — in later years Jones enjoyed playing with somewhat more formalism. Poems are centred throughout, the first time I remember seeing this mechanism from Jones. Language has a crystal clarity throughout:

your sons & daughter
all have died & now
I struggle to remember you

–  The Grave of My Grandmother

Sometimes expansive like in ‘The moment’, sometimes sparse like ‘End of the line’ I know he’d be smiling still at readers’ reaction to archetypally provocative lines like:

You would get better reception for spraying
A butterfly sonnet on the sails of the Opera House —
Pissing on concrete to international applause

– Nero with a Spraycan

I say Jones is a public poet. The gaze throughout this book is often looking out, assessing the world, humanity and a range of individuals from Gough Whitlam to his uncle Ed. He talks about the environment, inequality, ignorance and genocide all in language accessible to a wider readership:

For those that hath, all shall be given
For those that hath not, all shall be taken away
– Ode to the minorities

Rae refuses to accept blindly, refuses to be neatly catalogued:

Don’t believe in what I see
Don’t see anything to believe

– Don’t believe in what you feel, either

then:

I believe in nothing
Because nothing believes in me

– Entropy

While not that same sense of being invited into the core of a life that we see in Julie Watts’ book there is no shortage of insight into the nature of this man approaching the end. While “ashamed of my government” he is also “ashamed of my lethargy and my own decay” (Shame). We see a three-dimensional human being here strongly asserted in the poem I am not counterfeit. The book ends with two deeply beautiful pieces, saying goodbye:

I am ready now it is over
To return to that weightless place
I can suddenly remember

– I am ready

I believe Rae Jones to be an underrecognized voice. He (gleefully) didn’t fit into any self-identified “movements” that some others of his generation did. University (though he eventually went there to qualify in teaching) was a shoe that didn’t fit. He was who he was, many of us will treasure the memory of him for the rest of our lives.

In an age where you can have best Facebook buddies in Uganda while someone diligently translates your poem for a magazine in Slovakia it is difficult for us “over East” to grasp there is a degree of isolation for W.A. writers, that vibrant voices from there aren’t getting the exposure they deserve. 10 years ago this point was driven home to me while on a residency there. But W.A. has a vibrant literary culture and there are poets producing fine work who deserve a much wider readership. Julie Watts is one of them.

I’ve been following her work for some time and it came as no surprise to hear that she was the winner of the 2018 Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript. This manuscript was taken up by UWAP — doing so much of the heavy lifting in Australian poetry today. My only issue with them is their adoption of the house style of several other Australian publishers — boring covers.

Legacy is a substantial volume mainly focused around the family and life of the poet. With the rich and tender lyricism she brings this off, engaging/enriching the reader. As we turn the pages we are invited to look at life again, then engage with it.

Having said that, the volume begins with a suicide. This wide-ranging piece has its initial focus on the death but then zooms out to the grieving, the guilt, the moving on and acceptance:

and everyone who goes to bed tonight
will hold the other a little tighter

than they held them yesterday.

 – Legacy of a Suicide

This is an engrossing piece sustained flawlessly across 11 pages.

It is the beginning of the section called ‘Legacy’ which explores what has gone before, people lost, falling or approaching the end of their days.

There is much poignancy, culpability, affection and even humour – At 86 is a great laugh but in the typical Watts manner we are not laughing at the octogenarian couple in the poem, we’re kinda on their side.

Section 2 is titled ‘Heritage’ and is very much focused on that line of living that we all share from birth through childhood, the ageing and death of parents, new children born and the protagonist’s own struggles.

Strange to stand
on a cool Monday
morning and be
passed your father
in a plastic jar

– Interment

Section 3, ‘Template’, has at first glance a somewhat puzzling title. But this is where it all comes together, Watts offers us a template for living, a path to peace perhaps. But this is no harangue, no assumption it fits all. Just a model of how existence is, and how one can celebrate the energy within it. Take for example the young boy emerging from the surf:

wet rashy clinging

to his thin frame
shivers like a tree
in high wind

– Boardwalk

There is much physicality here all done with elegance:

This is the time—
our bodies on a crumpled landscape

breathing like rocks
and facing the same direction

– This Is the Time I like Best

Strung throughout the book are birds both as imagery and subject. Vibrantly captured encounters with ducks parrots, magpies et cetera. But we also explore bird as symbol — talking of the dead man’s dog:

his tail on concrete
limp as a broken bird.

– Legacy of a Suicide

Or the aged couple coming down to the beach “like old birds” in ‘The Old Couple’, and “tomorrow I will rummage for wings” in ‘Calvary’. In ‘Purple Bride’ the poet imagines herself aflight and in ‘Dark Bird’ what I presume is a cancer is starkly given an avian form. This mechanism binds the collection together.

Legacy is a valuable contribution to Australian poetry.

– Les Wicks

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Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication in over 350 different magazines, anthologies & newspapers across 29 countries in 15 languages. His 14th book of poetry is Belief (Flying Islands, 2019). He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

The End of the Line is available from https://rochfordpress.com/rochford-press-bookshop/the-end-of-the-line-by-rae-desmond-jones/

Legacy is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/legacy