A Curious & Casual Blend of Metaphors: Nathan Hondros Reviews ‘Nightswim’ by Justin Lowe

Nightswim by Justin Lowe Bluepepper 2014

NightswimAccording to the brief biography at the beginning of Justin Lowe’s new collection Nightswim, the poet’s origins are part inner-city Sydney and part European. This isn’t notable in itself, even considering Lowe’s childhood spent on the Spanish island of Minorca; Lowe finished a tertiary education in Australia, then spent years back on the continent working odd jobs and on his writing. Then, once again, he returned.

Nothing unusual here.

However, somewhere along the road, these two geographical threads of Lowe’s formative life resolved into an Australian poetry of unusual lineage and a refreshingly clear and confident understanding of its place. In fact, much of Lowe’s work verges on an invigorating and casual disregard of its Australian-ness. What a relief to read poetry that isn’t anxious or overly concerned about its hierarchy in the world.

It seems I come across much Australian poetry that’s locked in an anxious struggle with its Australian origins. Years ago, gripped by this anxiety, we imitated the mid-war English poets until the Beats and the New York School gave a new generation of poseurs a style to riff on. I’m as guilty as anyone of pretending to be Frank O’Hara, I suppose. Then there were other currents and vogues, each more post-modern and avant-garde than the last.

As Ben Etherington wrote recently in the Sydney Review of Books: ‘It seems all Australian poets took the same two courses at university: “British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney” and “Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E”’ (same courses the critics took, by the way).

At times, the antidote to this cringe seems to be wave after wave of reactionary and sickly parochialism in which we make a parade of our Australian-ness: pastoral poems of wildlife and landscape and half-hearted philosophical meanderings through contemporary Australian cultural and political phenomena.

Of course, there has been our own brand of innovation in the meantime, notably Les Murray’s distinctive voice that is at home in Poetry magazine as it is in Bunyah. See also my recent review of Andrew Burke’s latest collection.

Justin Lowe’s poetry is just as ambitious. He is working a vein that neither resents nor idolises its geographical origin, but instead accepts it. It’s from this standpoint that we might make a poetry that is unequivocally new and ours. His is the kind of creativity accessible to poets for whom being Australian is not a live issue (just as it wasn’t for Brett Whiteley as a visual artist and, ultimately, it wasn’t for Patrick White as a novelist). Why should being Australian be something anyone should care about, here or elsewhere?

That the poetry in Nightswim grew out of Europe and Newtown grunge and has now escaped to the Blue Mountains is a matter of fact, and not much besides. It’s not a source of conflict to be grappled with in a poem, or to be overcompensated for by an appeal to our distinctive natural environment. There are forms and influences in Lowe’s work that I understand through reference to my own life, far away on the West Coast; I don’t need to appreciate this poetry only through a narrow context of place.

It is only through such a sensibility that Lowe is capable of poems such as ‘Nightswim’; there is a curious and casual blend of metaphors at work in the poem, which finds ideas such as a ‘…kookaburra hunched like Apollo…’ Lowe’s voice is wise and reflective, but he also has an effective expressive register; poems move between narrative and the most beautiful and natural of lyrics without a seam. He has also mastered a pleasing disregard for what in contemporary poetry might be considered ‘on trend’.

‘Gulgong’, one my favourites in this collection, is an interesting example of this resistance to voguishness. It employs religious imagery to drive itself to a lyrical conclusion; the writer has ‘the burning knees of a supplicant’, and contemplates the sleight of hand involved as ‘God works the latch’.

What’s more, a man of a certain age writing poetry about the haunted houses of relationships can’t be described as en vogue, but he’s sure as hell more interesting that many of the poets who supposedly are. Take this, from ‘Eternity — for Tania’:

finish what you are doing
and I will talk you through my sleeplessness,
the red orange green kite tails
the traffic lights strew in the rain.

This is beautiful craftwork, and it’s wrought like this through most of the poems.

Lowe admits to getting a start in the writing of poetry by knocking up song lyrics for a series of bands. This prior relationship also plays a role in his latest work, especially in some of Lowe’s titles. ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ obviously refers to the Ike and Tina Turner song, ‘Closing Time’ is also a song and an album by Tom Waits, and ‘Sunday Morning’ perhaps refers to the Velvet Underground’s anthemic masterpiece. Lowe’s titles also allude to other works, such as ‘The Glass Canoe’, the great novel by David Ireland.

Many of the best poems in this collection are the one pagers delivered with punch, along with phrases and lines Lowe should be famous for; lines that are hypnotic, and worth repeating to yourself, as though they were in fact song lyrics.

…the inevitable dog
barking at the malicious gossip of its chains

–  ‘Australia’

or

the murmur of love’s worn tyres

– ‘At World’s End’

or

…the sadness of things rises
in me like stale bread

– ‘Vallejo’

My surrealism sensors were on high alert in many of these poems. Lowe’s poetics are infused with the female form, and have a straight-forward but dreamlike character that delves directly into the nature of consciousness. In ‘Closing Time’:

four days from here
a city will be found,
a new drink discovered,
and a strange girl rescued from the rain.

There is frequently a love of the city and an appreciation of the bush, but both subjects are attacked to reveal their metaphysical importance rather than as an exercise in wordplay.

Having said all that, there are some poems in this collection that may have benefited from the kind of pressure a good editor can bring to bear. For example, the frequent use of ‘whispers’ could be edited back; it’s a word that lost its effectiveness long ago.

But this seems like nitpicking. This is a headstrong and determined collection. Even the flaws seem forgivable as they belong to the self-made ethos permeating this collection.

It was perhaps in Sydney’s Newtown, and close to the music and arts community of the 90s, that Lowe developed this sense of self-determination that is also common among the musicians of this era. Why bother with the rigmarole of labels and publishers when we have the means of getting the work out there ourselves? Why try to ‘fit in’ with a middling stable of contemporaries? Lowe has released his own work over the last few years and his Bluepepper website is now a staple for readers searching for new and good poetry. Living now in the Blue Mountains, I can imagine Lowe sitting above ‘the scene’, allowing himself the possibilities of that freedom.

So, this is an Australian poetry that has an uncharacteristic origin and international outlook. It’s not stewing in the juices of its own scene, as much Australian poetry seems to be; it is not a reaction against currents in the art, nor does it propose one. Lowe’s poetry is more mature than this. It has carefully considered the generation that went before, but has skilfully avoided its self-indulgent excesses (aforementioned ham-fisted nature and pastoral poems that wallow in their Australian-ness, or post-modern doggerel).

The best Australian poetry will come from poets like Lowe who’ve stopped longing to be elsewhere or pretending to be entirely here, and who ambivalent to the particular continent where they happen to be marooned. They will have stopped pretending to be New York School or French Symbolists or Punks or even Australians.

Like Justin Lowe, they will be all of these things and none of them.

– Nathan Hondros

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Nightswim is available from http://www.thecarnivalbookstore.blogspot.com.au/

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