Delicacy and precision: John Carey reviews ‘Son Songs’ by Tug Dumbly

 Son Songs by Tug Dumbly Flying Island Books 2018

I could start with a cheap headline: SLAMMER GOES LEGIT. and think of another cheap headline: DESK-POET TAKES CROWD-BATH that might fit me if I turned up at a performance venue. Like most cheap headlines they are crass and wrong-headed. Tug always had a good grasp of poetic tradition, popular and more scholarly, which were never mutually exclusive. For my part, I was always happy to take a “crowd-bath” to find a new audience and I like to read my work aloud and sometimes memorise the pieces.

There are famous father-and-son stories in memoirs, novels, plays and epic poetry through the ages. This story threads its way through a poetry collection. It has local colour and a familiar social and generational trajectory: hard labour to desk job, country to city and unquestioning faith to finding a moral code for yourself that makes sense in a changing world. It was always an important story, no less now in a period of uncertainty about gender roles and the stubborn persistence of hostility and domestic violence. We know about abusive fathers and abused sons who sometimes become abusers themselves. This is a story about nurturing fathers who don’t tempt fate by making too much of this and sons gently disabused of notions about parents being all-powerful and always there. In short, about growing up, a two-way process for parent and child.

I’ll mention a few poems that seem to sit comfortably on the printed page, away from the high-voltage context and expectations of a performance space: ‘Father Faith’: a character study and study of an intimate relationship where knowing each other is a slow process which you never get to the end of. I could imagine Bruce Dawe liking this one, Les Murray too perhaps. Murray might have offered some excellent notes as he sometimes did. My own antennae are less sensitive. I’m happy to like it a lot as it stands.

‘Peeling’: The exposition is plain enough but there’s a delicacy and precision in the language. What is the poem “about”? I know the contradictions inherent in the question but most of us ask it anyway. For me it’s about patience and respect, a tenderness for nature and the learner who navigates the course of knowing it better.

‘In time of war you’ll find me in the kitchen’: Some performance poems seem to explode into a mushroom-cloud with billowing layers of humour, each joke topping the one it follows. This one works in a similar way but inverted where the subject-matter mocks the whole process. Each anti-climax is more anti than the last one. Humour involves a balance between the familiar and the unexpected. This is a percussive poem about peace and order. It’s very funny. And touching.

‘Plenty’: A lyrical poem on the bounty of nature. In a poem with a line like: “Plenty there is in these fingerlings of sun” you might expect that lines like: “The cops won’t be up/ sniffing out a bust in their copter…” might be an irruption that jars but somehow it doesn’t. It’s not some self-consciously ironic juxtaposition, just a matter of how it is—time-frames and contexts in constant collision. What is important is what survives and needs to. It’s a beautiful piece.

Some qualifications may be seen as de rigueur. Don’t want the whole thing to look like a leg-up for a mate. Some of the poems don’t seem to stretch the poet or the reader/listener quite enough. In this Tug might be the victim of his own success. We’re so used to his range of subjects, the acuteness of his social observations, his ability to parody the flabby and phoney languages of the world at large that we come to take him for granted. Having been told often enough myself: “ It’s funny but…” and felt like saying: “ Think it’s easy? Try it.” then we are lucky to be able to trust someone to be funny.

A poetry collection is not likely to have the tight integration of a symphony or leave us convinced of the rightness of every single part of the whole. Some collections that aspire to this can be over-valued because they challenge the reviewer’s ability to chart the process. Others can be under-valued because they are less concerned with questions of structure and architecture.

In Alan Bennett’s play: The History Boys a student of humble origins is asked for his definition of History. “ Just one f—— thing after another”. What’s wrong with a poetry collection that’s just “ One f——good poem after another.”

 – John Carey

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John Carey is a Sydney poet, author of five collections, the latest Duck Soup & Swansongs, Ginninderra Press 2018.

Son Songs is available from https://flyingislands.org/purchase/

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