Syncopated Synesthesia: – Devika Brendon reviews ‘A Happening In Hades’ by S. K. Kelen

A Happening in Hades by S.K. Kelen. Puncher and Wattmann 2020.

The first half of this collection of poems is in the form of contemporary sonnets. Sonnets so free form and un-strict and spontaneous in layout that their structure is not their most noticeable aspect. These  32 sonnet-like creations cover a range of subjects, from meditations on the parallels and interstices of air travel, to insights gained from gardening and washing the dishes, to observations on the clamorous occurrences of global contemporary life.

In ‘Renovations’, Kelen skillfully intersperses enjambment, verbal asides, the jargon of the real estate industry, vernacular idiom and juxtaposition to create a gentle, sharp and compassionate sense of irony:

With the world about to end, oh, begin
its inexorable slide is less dramatic
after all, we’d been spoiled for weather –
though the disappearance of the polar ice
was dramatic in retrospect, but there was some
time left, enough, and around here people

just went extension – and renovation – mad,
our homes grew while the rivers dried
and the sky darkened with fumes
as if a new room with en-suite and walk-in
and a brick garage for the hybrid car
could hold back rising oceans, plus
a view beyond the neighbours and a freshly
paved barbecue area to honour coral reefs.

Ellipsis and enjambment are used throughout the poems to create a lilting verve which operates like a recognisable soundtrack to the incidents of everyday life, and even though each poem runs for 14 lines, the syncopation of each is unique to the theme and setting. Some are square set and solid, some are leaner and more attenuated.

‘Parallel World Two (Earth No. 48)’ uses in media res to emphasize the insights into global climate mismanagement caused by the discontinuities and disruptions of travel:

And disembark, Sydney Airport Earth No. 48.
I grew blasé, details were different, but each world’s
Fundamentals were pretty much the same, a stasis of constant flux:

… The universe changes. The change started when I flew in
From God-knows-where and God-knows-when.

The suppleness and fluidity of the lines express the freedom of emotional and physical movement in the natural and social urban world in which the poet registers his memories, slipping decades via time lapse triggered by sensory experiences in the present day:

In ‘Happy Days’, the exuberance and joy of the poet’s experience of the Australian bush is created in a vivid, present tense, multi-sensory, sustained image, like a strobe-lit scene. Full of individuated birds, with visual and auditory presence, the poem counterpoints the immediacy of its presentation with the jarring end-focused factual phrase ‘way back in 1993’.

…What I see is great: a golden cockatoo
really a sulphur-crested cockatoo
ruffled white feathers haloed by the sun
this bird looked truly golden.
Crimson rosellas: flames flicker
on tree branches, wild budgerigars
yell their heads off & a suave lorikeet
says nothing, the gang-gang’s call
cracks like a rifle shot sets the ducks and galahs
squawk and flapping. Quiet red gums shade
the cheery birds whistling, warbling a river day
the kids swim and play way back in 1993.

The second half of the collection, signalled by the succinct ‘The Courtesan’s Lament’, opens out like a sonic portfolio, or accordion, into a variety of forms. 

Allusions both classical and more contemporary, including references to Jazz songs and popular culture, stud many of the poems, in both sections, and are striking because they are woven easily into the fabric of everyday life events. As an entirety, the poems underline the mythic meanings in our common, often unheroic experiences. The skill of the poet shows us how elevated these incidents can seem to us, as we observe, encounter, endure and experience them.

In ‘Soaring California’, the essence of the populous state is distilled in a stream of consciousness style, evoking the soulless escapism of the numbing vacancies of the fabled place:

fantasy-land firemen’s flash flood
doused the fire, western-style. Flesh and spirit.
Ravening faux frippery kept proceedings slippery –
Doctor Sforzando woke from his prescription daze,
saw the future was robot and desert wind on a flat,
high-definition screen controlling people’s lives.
Cold jetlag vision: hungry cars crawl the streets,
stalk haunted people hunting for their car keys.
Pay the succubus. Old Bacchus flies a Disney
rocket ride, belly laughs, his spirit thrives.

In ‘Spiral’, the language of jazz and blues music and weather events are beautifully fused in muted triumph:

… a lingering trumpet turns a mobile phone
speaker into a singing bird, the stereo
grows an extra dimension
to give the brushes and snares space
trumpet echo liberates a room
home of the mind pure and pure
inspires a joyous spiral

A long prose poem ‘Parallel World 101: Hero Product’ is included in the collection. Here the individual’s diurnal routine is etched in long form, with bolded prompts inserted like subheadings by a sub editor in an opinion piece, against the vast vista of a collapsing external world:

Tea Time Eat a nourishing meal (legumes and nuts) enjoy a precious cup of tea, douse the cardboard burning in the fireplace, peer through the blinds, to see what’s left of the world and its stupid glory, charred and poisoned, still burning in places.

The collection culminates in two longer poems based on the character of Don Juan, which are, in my opinion, similar to verse cantata, stories set to the internal music of rhyme and rhythm generated by the syntax of poetry, and which were originally part of a chap book, Don Juan Variations, published by Vagabond Books in 2012 (see Six at Once: Pam Brown launches the latest Vagabond Press Rare Object Series).

It’s a wonderful selection, paced in a way that enables pondering and musing between items. Without the imposed restrictions of external rhyme and rhythm, all the marvellous checks and balances are internal, delineated by the poet’s self awareness, control, and intuition, as he himself says in ‘Populist Mongering’:

Said is done all done and said (?) in thrall
a self’s daily selfies’ words hammered to contort
nowhere and peter out on an unfinished thought
imply a voice on its own was clever crafting cliche
into something else itself all meaning no more (please) each day…
……on waxed wings soared to the heights self regard permitted.

 – Devika Brendon 


Devika Brendon is an editor, reviewer, and teacher of English literature, and a writer of poetry and fiction. She was awarded the Henry Lawson Memorial Prize for Poetry and The Adrian Consett Stephen Prize for Fiction in 1989 at The University of Sydney. Her doctoral thesis examined Jonathan Swift’s use of the epistolary mode in poetry and prose satire. Her short stories, poetry, reviews, and opinion pieces have been published in anthologies, journals and print and digital publications, in Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Africa.

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