The Arms of Men by John Bartlett, Melbourne Poets Union 2019, Union Poets Chapbook Series, was launched by Maria Takolander at Geelong Library on 2 June 2019.
These days the sky is full of falling bodies,
thudding rain upon the roofs,
a smell of burning feathers
These are lines from a poem called ‘Damaged Angels’.
And from a poem called ‘Drifting’:
the thwack of leather
on cricket bats
a prime minister
the crack of clubs
while no-one was watching
the Ship of State
drifting towards the rocks.
These are just two of the poems in John Bartlett’s new collection The Arms of Men, which continue to haunt me with their power and necessity, as all great poetry does.
These poems also show how The Arms of Men is a collection for our times. With its apocalyptic overtones, this is a poetry that speaks of our environmental and humanitarian crisis. It is a poetry of urgency.
It is also often a poetry of anger and pain and grief, for what we have already lost, for what we stand to lose.
Sometimes that grief is personal. There are some extraordinary elegies in this book. ‘Saying the Rosary’ is one of my favourites. It connects us with a family, who are kneeling at night to say the rosary,
speeding up the final ‘glory be’s’,
accelerating, arriving just in time
for News on Seven.
The humour is beautiful and necessary. But what heartbreak and wisdom there is in the lines:
How brief we were a family,
how short the chance to love.
And it is through those precious opportunities for love, for connection, that this book hangs onto the possibility of grace, of salvation. ‘Grace still hovers / over the earth,’ as the lines in one poem gently assert.
That grace, these poems boldly suggest, might be achieved through love, through the intimate connection of bodies surrendering to each other. Love may be ‘a perilous country,’ as we read in the poem called ‘I Lie Down,’ but it is what nature calls for. Thus the lovers in this poem are as beautiful as the earth to which they are bound:
I still remember the orange sunlight
scorched in strips across white sheets
and your limbs arranged,
an impassable mountain range,
the humid air carrying promises
of kisses more articulate than words.
John lives in Breamlea, alongside the sea and the wetland and the bird life—egrets, ducks, swans, magpies, curlews—all of which make their presence felt in these poems.
But these are never romanticised nature poems. Neither are they small-town nor small-time. They are worldly, bold and important declarations of the ways in which the earth and our humanity are precious, endangered, worth writing and fighting for.
In the poem ‘Apocalypse,’ we see the poet at a supermarket, doing his shopping while keeping tabs on the news. The poem shows us the state of our world, where the atrocities of war have become as much a part of our life as picking up the groceries.
In aisle four at Safeway
searching for Indian pickles
my iPhone announced
refugees streaming out of Syria
clutching bloodied babies, clothes on fire
And then there are the ‘luxury car ads . . . on a perennial loop’ and ‘sponsors mouthing cheery messages.’ It is so easy to be distracted. John’s poetry, however, reminds us how vital it is that we pay attention.
What we have in The Arms of Men is a poetry of authenticity and humanity, of humour and wisdom. These are also characteristics, as many of you would know, of the man himself.
John is already an accomplished author. He is the author of three novels, Towards a Distant Sea, Estuary, and Jack Ferryman: Reluctant Private Investigator. He has also published a collection of short stories titled All Mortal Flesh and a non-fiction work A Tiny and Brilliant Light. And his poetry has been published over the years in a number of national and international journals. Now we have this collection of his poems, The Arms of Men.
John congratulations on this superb book. I hope it reaches the audience it deserves, the audience it needs if the world is to be a better place to live in.
– Maria Takolander
Maria Takolander is an Associate Professor in Writing and Literature at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria. She is a fiction writer, poet, scholar, and educator. She is the author of a collection of short stories, The Double (Text 2013) as well three books of poems: The End of the World (Giramondo 2014); Ghostly Subjects (Salt 2009), which was short-listed for a 2010 Queensland Premier’s Prize; and the chapbook Narcissism (Whitmore Press 2005).
The Arms of Men is available from https://www.melbournepoetsunion.com/current-chapbook-titles.html
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