Songs of the Godforsaken by John Bartlett, Picaro Poets 2020, was virtually launched by Julie Maclean on 19 July 2020
Poets are people who notice, who see things closely and seeing things closely can take them to sometimes dangerous and surprising places. In these poems John sees what is there and also what is missing. He sees what is cruel and wrong. But he can also be amused and he doesn’t shirk the messiness of the erotic life and the plain absurd. I was very moved by the poems in this collection because through them John shows us, above all, what it is to be human.
Songs of the Godforsaken may be a small collection but it packs an emotional punch. I revelled in the craft and beauty of the language and also the way the poems take us into John’s heart and mind; the world of feelings and questioning. These are intelligent, thoughtful works dedicated to the nameless who struggle daily for human rights, dignity and equality.
In the poem ‘Blood Donation’ the opening lines are devastating.
God will always demand the sacrifice of small children.
It’s not hard to see that these sentiments are timely and political. Behind the references to ancient sites where children were ritually sacrificed to the gods we can’t help but think of today’s children of Yemen, Syria, children in camps, in sweatshops, the weak and vulnerable everywhere. And in the poem ‘Tiny Hearts’ there is a wry irony as John juxtaposes two disparate celebrities. He cites the French critic, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr alongside Bon Jovi, the two of them agreeing, centuries apart, that old adage “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
This book is a reminder of our frailties, our longings but through it all our ability to see the funny side. John has captured in this small space—in the words of Walt Whitman….our ‘multitudes’.
The title gives us an entrée into the twenty-eight works here and it’s a great title because the songs take us to a musical place with references to Bach and to Schubert, to the lamentations of the dispossessed and disappointed, and to the musicality of John’s phrasing. The thread that makes this such a finely curated collection is the consistent language of sophistication and beauty. Who cannot be moved by words like rapture, ecstasy, sanctuary, transcendence, absolution, enlightenment?
The opening poem ‘Your name’ takes us directly to the poet’s quandary; the difficult and treacherous place that faces the one who abandons or is abandoned by a spiritual faith. The lines
I no longer call you God the Father I call you The Unknown
plunge us into this the What now? The fear of the unknown. The second poem which I find one of the most heart-rending is about being cast adrift. It’s called ‘Marooned’ and poses the question simply but profoundly.
How wilI I find my way when it’s time to go home?
John’s poems are personal and confessional. There are elegiac poems here of bereavement and loss—the loss of a father in ‘What would I say’ where the poet regrets perhaps
not loving (his father) enough.
There is sometimes regret for not paying enough attention in ‘Messages from the gods’ when an ibis in a Sydney park snatches his cake reminding us to be vigilant.
Coming late to the writing of poetry and being bound in a past life to the church, there is regret for the loss of time, a making up for lost time. But as readers, whatever our faith, gender or sexuality we can collectively recognise each emotion expressed in these poems. We can share grief and remorse, loss and longing, compassion for the oppressed. The strength of this collection is in the honest expression of the human condition in all its revelries, conflicts and suffering.
The big question posed by these poems seems to me to be Once forsaken by God or as John writes, ‘Whoever’s in charge’, how do we live, how do we reconstruct our lives, how do we reconcile the past with the present in a secular world and where do we end up when impermanence seems the only truth.
Among the more philosophical musings we are occasionally brought firmly down to earth. I laughed out loud at the title, ‘The disobedience of the genitals’ and the epigram “Oh Lord make me pure, but not yet.” This is one of John’s more experimental poems where he plays with shape for comic effect. In these lighter poems like ‘Eudaimonia’ we are taken to places like the Bourke Street Lotto, Bell Street Bakery and In ’19 Currajong Crescent’ Monica types into her Google search with the enthusiasm of an early explorer expecting omniscience.
After a writing life of fiction and non-fiction John has found a new love— poetry, and it shines through in this second collection which also contains as a bonus, a prize- winning poem. For those of you who don’t know, a matter of weeks ago, John took out the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize for his current and important poem, ‘Survival’, after the bush fires and melting glaciers, reminding us of our fragile planet, our fragile lives and selves where humour and irony can still glimmer in the embers, along with hope.
I congratulate you, John, on this impressive achievement and am honoured and delighted to to smash a bottle of champagne on the bow of this fabulous book. Please raise your glasses to John.
– Julie Maclean
Julie Maclean’s poetry, fiction and reviews have appeared in The Age, The Best Australian Poetry, Cordite Review, The Griffith Review, Island, Overland, Poetry (Chicago) and Southerly. Her full collection When I saw Jimi, shortlisted for the Crashaw Prize, (Salt), was joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Poetry Prize,( Indigo Dreams Publishing, UK).
Songs of the Godforsaken is available from https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/chapbooks.html
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