Rod Usher and the Quirkiness of levity: B. J. Muirhead Reviews Convent Mermaid by Rod Usher

Convent Mermaid by  Rod Usher Interactive Press (IP) 2014.

Convent MermaidAt some stage, every reader opens a book which leaves them cold, unmoved by the author’s every attempt to hold their interest. It isn’t necessarily that the writing is bad; it is because, for some reason, the reader can pull nothing from the page but a grumbling determination to continue, to find something which makes the reading worth the effort.

Rod Usher’s Convent Mermaid is just such a book for me. From first page to last, it left me wondering why I was forcing myself to read on. I even wondered why Usher bothers to write, but his dedication to his own poetic thought and style is obvious and commendable, if nothing else. If anyone could win me over to their work, it would be Usher, but this was not to be.

At the risk of being peevish, the first two poems in the collection represent my least favourite type of work. ‘First Hotel’ is the recounting of a baby’s thoughts and sensations in the womb, ending with the observation that “if anyone had taken the bother / to ask, I’d have stayed on / in the all included, five star / Hotel Mother.” I’m not particularly averse to the idea that a baby may have thoughts, if only because I am not confident that we are born as a tabula rasa, but I am averse to attributing this type of thought to a baby, even if from an adult perspective. Moreover, the idea that the womb is a hotel in in some way is presented in an entirely unconvincing, unbelievable fashion.

The second poem, ‘If Not More’, has a Cromagnon cave dweller reflecting on his family’s life in their “comfortable enough” cave. His children want him to “modernise the cave”, but he preaches to them, “as any father ought. / Beauty, I explain / dwells not in the brain: / By a deer, by snow, by sunrise be taught.” For me, the imposition of contemporary ideas in this way is both absurd and unacceptable. In the hands of a writer such as William Golding, such imposition may be almost believable, but Usher is no Golding and nor, I suspect, would he want to be.

Works such as these strike me as inherently ridiculous, and Usher’s quirky humour does nothing to draw me into the ideas. Nor does it provide a sense of humanity or rapport with his subject matter, despite the occasional laugh.

Further into the book Usher gives himself away when he writes “Lifetime levity addict, I keep trying”. This is, perhaps, Usher at his most honest. The collection is full of often misplaced levity, usually abstract, intellectual and overly literary, but levity none the less.

And he does keep trying, again and again, line after line, which brings me back to my opening observation. This is a collection with which I have no sense of connection, full of thoughts and jokes which pained me to read, characterised by quirky diction and a world weary cynicism, tempered with absurdity and framed, somewhat awkwardly, within the space between birth (First Hotel) and death (If I Go First).

It isn’t that there is nothing in the collection that reaches toward me, but even lines to which I can and do relate fail to hit the mark. For example, one of the tercets from Moments:

Homecoming penis
in vagina’s warm embrace,
innermost of outer space.

As a dedicated heterophile with a great love of that particular feeling, I can relate, but the concluding line is meaningless without intellectual contortion. As much as such contortions are commonplace and easily understood, as this one is, the line adds nothing to the piece, which would have been more effective (to me) had the first two lines been joined into a monochord. The last line, quite simply, seems clumsy, irrespective of its intent, conceptual content or humour.

It is no surprise, however, that his work is enjoyed by many, and for the very features which I find to be deeply ineffective. There is, for all that I do not appreciate it, considerable humour in his observations, and his writing has sufficient skill that it is easy enough, even pleasurable, to read. But from where I sit, book in hand, Usher holds himself distant from his own thought, using his humour as an unstable bridge across which a reader may leap or falter. Indeed, in many ways it seems as though Usher uses his cynicism and humour to hold himself apart from the very subjects he writes about. He would not be the first writer to do so, and he will not be the last.

So, what to say about a collection in which every other line irritates, that doesn’t give what I, as a reader, want?

Firstly, read it again and, perhaps, againthere may be a piece of undigested Descartes interfering with one’s ability to read or lie comfortably on the stove in winter. Secondly, say what you think, but neither recommend nor reject it to others, who will have to find their own opinion in their own reading. Then put it on the shelf and don’t open it again unless compelled by some strange literary need to discover just what it is that others find within.

– Bruce Muirhead

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BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com  and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

Convent Mermaid is available from http://ipoz.biz/Titles/ConM.htm

Poems for the People: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Stepping Over Seasons’ by Ashley Capes

Stepping Over Seasons by Ashley Capes, Interactive Press. 2009

stepping over seasonsVictorian poet Ashley Capes has been a favourite of mine for quite some time now, beginning when I got a hold of a copy of his chapbook of Haiku Orion Tips the Saucepan (2010) and his collection Pollen and the Storm (2008). His second collection, Stepping Over Seasons, does not disappoint.

Capes’ work is distinguished by its searing honesty, uncharacteristic of much contemporary Australian poetry, or any modern poetry for that matter, touching on themes of love, loss, death, marriage, struggles of living in rural Australia and the placement of the poet in the modern world.

As a poet, Capes does not attempt to dazzle or confuse with an elaborate use of pretentious wording that eliminates everyone but scholars, rather presents a series of short poems that remind us of poetry’s true purpose and paint a picture with skilful simplicity.  It is no surprise that Mark William Jackson has stated Capes’ work “will appeal to both lovers of poetry and readers who have been burned by poetry in the past” (http://overland.org.au/blogs/not-assigned/2010/05/review-%E2%80%93-stepping-over-seasons/).

The collection focuses on depicting “the finer details of life” with an emphasis on “change within people and places as seasons change”, creating a broad and powerful body of work.

Capes has the ability to create an evocative poem from something as simple as an object or place, such as his wedding ring in ‘other objects’:

my wedding ring is a plain silver
barrel band. same as dad’s, very modest
and very hard to keep smooth,
with scratches I can’t keep track of
and don’t want to hide. It’s no good pretending

There is something fresh about the feel of this poem, as with the entire collection, with a perspective only observed by the active creative mind.  This is also demonstrated in the award winning ‘farm’, that explores the hardships of drought in small towns with a chilling use of metaphor:

dawn comes like someone embarrassed
to bring bad news, sunlight
very soft on weatherboard.

Perhaps the most moving and clearly relatable poems of all touch upon the darkness and hardship attached to the existence of a writer, such as ‘fujin’s bag’ and ‘late night’. ‘Late night’ discusses the limitations placed upon the artist in poetry with only words to produce an emotion or image. ‘fujin’s bag’ reflects on the displacement of the poet in the modern world while he sits at a desk writing late into the night, calling upon the happenings around him while still confined to the page:

still moulded
to the desk, blinking
back sleep, convincing
myself, somehow
that all this
darkness is necessary.

Personally the greatest triumph in the collection is one of the longer pieces ‘on the road’, that centres on the idea of death as a possibility in day to day routine when driving, and that the bustle of existence and force of habit eliminates thought:

you don’t think about
yourself just behind the glass
in the supposed repose of the white sheet,
belongings in a plastic bag:
one that’s somehow meant to sum you up
or give comfort to loved ones.

This poem also analyses the footprint that is left by the dead, how disposable a life seems to those not personally involved, and the realization that death is an inevitability.

Even when Capes is discussing darker topics such as a lifeless, empty town in ‘small town’, he manages to create and capture atmosphere with masterful simplicity and beauty:

marks on the footpath
don’t fade and the cemetery
never shrinks, only the town around it.

Capes’ output is truly remarkable, publishing high-calibre work consistently in almost every good lit journal in the country and I would go as far as to say this is his best release yet, and one of the best books of Australian poetry I’ve read in quite some time.

Simply put, this is a wonderful collection of astounding work that was recognized with a Commended Award in the 2009 IP Picks Best Poetry Competition that joins Capes’ other poetic achievements for individual pieces, such as commendations in the 2008 MPU Poetry Competition,  the 2009 Rosemary Dobson Prize and a prize in the 2008 Ipswich Poetry Feast Open Poetry Section.

For me, at least, this is a book that demands to be read again and again. I look forward to more work from Ashley Capes, who stands up with the best as one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets.

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Robbie Coburn is a poet, writer and performer from country Victoria. His first chapbook Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012. He is currently working on a book for children, a verse novel and a volume of memoir entitled Years of Skin.He can be found at: www.robbiecoburn.com

Stepping Over Seasons is available from Interactive Press: http://www.ipoz.biz/Titles/SOS.htm

 

Something Disconcerting and Delicious: Mark Roberts reviews ‘Schadenvale Road’ by Chris Mansell.

Schadenvale Road by Chris Mansell. Interactive Press. 2011.

I have always regarded Chris Mansell as one of Australia’s leading poets so I was a little taken back to read that she is described on the back cover of Schadenvale Road as “one of Australia’s most accomplished short fiction authors” – had I missed something? Actually I approached Schadenvale Road with a hint of apprehension, my experience reading prose by writers who are predominately poets has not always been a good one. Not everyone can make the transition from poetry to the relative freedom of prose – some can’t let go of their background and their prose reads like an extended poem with no line breaks, while others embrace the apparent freedom offered by prose and take it much too far.

My hesitation lasted two paragraphs into the first story ‘Echidna Obscura’. Mansell is a ‘natural’ fiction writer – at once her style is confident yet unobtrusive, the imagery and narrative tugs at you, dragging you into the stream and sweeping you along. ‘Echidna Obscura’ is a simple story of an artist named Echidna living in the hills outside of town and his slowly developing relationship with Elanora. As the relationship advances at glacial speed Echidna decides to go bush, taking an old camera and a roll of film. Each day he takes a single picture and returns home only when all the roll is finished. When he opens the camera, however, he finds that the film hadn’t loaded onto the sprocket correctly and the film hasn’t wound on. Almost like a metaphor for the story nothing appears to have happened on the surface but approached from a slightly different perspective the narrative is heavy and rich with meaning.

The characters in this collection are mostly outsiders. For the most part they live outside the city or towns, or if they do live in town they are physically cut off from their neighbours, like Vorzetser, the writer stuck in a town called Paradise:

….The townspeople could have been alien plants for all the notice he took of them and he was utterly unaware that there were people living in the surrounding hills. They washed past his door and handled his personal correspondence without making a ripple in his life. He wrote to important friends who lived anywhere but in Paradise and complained about the parochialism of the place without ever speaking much to anyone, He was as prejudiced and wilful as it was possible for a poet to be without exploding.

There is something almost Dickensian about the wilful poet living in almost self-imposed exile in a town called Paradise. The final irony occurs when he travels out of Paradise to receive an award and he finds himself lost in the airport – his life “balanced on a point”. He realises he can move forward or simply disappear in the crowd, not answering to his name. We don’t find out what he does.

There is more than a hint of the early Peter Carey stories in Mansell’s short fiction – those in The Fat Man in History and War Crimes where Carey exploded onto the literary scene. Like the early Carey, Mansell creates a detailed narrative, we feel as we can almost recognise some of the towns and landscapes she describes. At the same time, however, there is something just below the surface, something that knocks our perspective just a little off centre. Something disconcerting and delicious.

We can see this in ‘The One in the Room with the Ceiling of Stars’. On first reading this story appears to revolve around a woman who starts hearing voices in her head and is confined to an institution. She can, however, remember a time before the voices: “She tried to remember how she got into this situation. It seemed to her that before the voices had begun she was happy”. But even then she was an outsider:

And then she remembered the people who came. Not good, but she supposed they loved her. In truth, she had very little idea what this might mean. She tried to figure it out. It seemed to be some sort of obligation. People said , “I love you” and you were supposed to say back “I love you too” and this meant you had to do things for them.

When she first starts to hear the voices she tries to understand them as they are often in different languages. She studies and learns many different languages in order to understand them. At first her family is happy with her as she studies, but when she tells them why she is studying there was suddenly “ a lot of serious conversations in secret places”. As the voices increase so does her “imprisonment”, cut off from the outside she finds a degree of solace in a room with a rounded ceiling covered with “paintings and gilded stars.”

The voices themselves are pleading, asking for forgiveness, asking for help. “some accused her of things or demanded that she do things”. Mansell handles the build up of tension well, we sense that something has to give – but when it does it is both unexpected and perfectly rational and we pinch ourselves for not seeing it coming.

The notion of the outsider is also central to ‘Walking into Ice’ where the main character goes on a journey/quest to find a wild cat or panther. There is debate about whether the panther exists, some claim to have seen it, but whether it exists or not it represents the unease, the fear of the unknown. Of course the quest for the panther becomes a metaphor or another journey and we begin to suspect that maybe the quest has become an internal one:

I took my bearings and as comfortably as the alien creature I had become, I gathered the dark around me and walked with my flame red hair through the silent , unanswering country to continue to look for the shadowing caves of real ice.”

The notion of the ‘panther’ or big cat that prowls at night, hiding in the darkness and threatening the otherwise peace existence of the characters occurs a number of times in this collection, most noticeably in the final story ‘Lot 20 Schadenvale Road’. This story follows a woman as she becomes an outsider, discovering a ‘secret’ valley and eventually settling there in what at first appears to be an almost perfect idyllic existence. Then suddenly one night she senses something in the garden:

I can’t say I felt the presence of evil – but it was something close to evil. An absence of light that was at the same time completely empty and completely full of fear – not the observers fear , but a physical fear that it feed on, that belonged to it and nurtured it and pulled down anything within its range.

Is this the panther, the black leopard, that people sometimes think they see? For Mansell, perhaps it is this absence that provides an edge to her prose which makes it so compelling.

Schadenvale Road should cement Mansell’s reputation as one of Australia’s leading writers. Already  firmly established as a major poet, it suggests that her fiction should start receiving just as much attention as her poetry.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

Schadenvale Road is available from Interactive Press http://www.ipoz.biz/Titles/SRd.htm