“Let There Be War Between Us”: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Decline and Fall’ by Rae Desmond Jones

Decline and Fall by Rae Desmond Jones, Flying Island Books. 2011

Decline and fall098When I got a hold of Rae Desmond Jones’ pocket-sized collection Decline and Fall I knew from the moment I opened it and began reading I was in for an interesting and affecting ride. Yes, I’m a fan, and I was excited at the prospect of a small gathering of his previously published works (this was, of course, prior to his recent New and Selected Poems, It Comes from All Direction Grand Parade Poets, 2013).

To those who read Australian poetry, Jones is a fascinating presence, who has carved out his place in our literature as a unique, important and challenging voice, simultaneously relevant and visionary, often writing outside of the usual subjects or taking them from an obscure angle, and addressing those that are so often shied away from. Just look at Jones’ infamous poem “The Deadshits”, for example, which narrates a gang rape through the eyes of one of the perpetrators. Not Wordworth’s usual choice of subject, that’s for sure, but this is what distances Jones from the pack and makes him increasingly special, if that’s the right word. Although this poem is not included in Decline and Fall, there are plenty of others that address the unaddressable in a way that is intelligent, beautiful, humorous and more often than not, haunting.

Jones has a few bones to pick within these pages, and he wages these wars through his words very convincingly. “i hate them/the truth is out! & they hate me.” begins the title poem of Decline and Fall. The poet directs this piece at the youth of today and the decline and fall of our society. Jones, born in 1941, isn’t a young poet anymore, and his view is one shared by many older generations (and those with brains from the younger) observing the changed attitudes, self-destructive and anti-social behaviours of newer generations, while also being conscious of how these views are seen by those in question. The poem goes on to address the lack of interest in history and education, which contrasts with Jones’ own generation:

do you know why the roman empire fell? i ask.
who cares? A boy giggles.
that is the reason, i say

Jones’ lines are evocative and powerful, and his signature style is original and startling. The work showcased here is dark and doesn’t stray from controversial topics, which has always been Jones’ approach to poetry. I’ve learnt since reading this that Jones was at one stage a secondary school teacher, which could explain how he built these clear views.

Released by Flying Island Books, Decline and Fall is a beautifully presented pocketbook that gathers a collection of work written over a number of years, some of the pieces previously collected in Jones’ 2008 book Blow Out and his earlier collections Orpheus with a Tuba and The Palace of Art. Each poem is accompanied by a Chinese translation on the opposite page, and the message in the poem is universal, spoken directly to the youth who’s behaviour Jones despises:

go back to your bad videos & your hopeless dreams.
be unemployable.
daub graffiti on trains
& put as many needles in your arms as you want.
die if it seems romantic.

An important wakeup call from a voice well worth listening to, it’s tragic to realise this message will more than likely never reach the generation Rae Desmond Jones is calling out to, which just so happens to be my own. Our culture really does appear to be on the decline, and the fall depicted here is truly devastating.

Even with the recent publication of Jones’ New and Selected Poems at last in print, Decline and Fall is still a fine introduction to the work of one of our finest poets, consistent and filled with standouts.

Another of the strongest poems is “The Poets”, exploring the niche audience modern poetry attracts, mainly made up of other poets, and alluding to the fact that those who do not read poems are worse off for it. Jones believes that poetry understands us, a notion I can get behind wholeheartedly. The use of deceivingly simple language is raw and confronting, and as a reader of poetry, you begin to further appreciate the art form as Jones so obviously does:

they speak to a vast audience
consisting mainly of one another
all of whom nervously shuffle
manuscripts and wait their turn
meantime the masses who are
as usual blind deaf & stupid
just keep walking to the bus or
into the office reading newspapers
& quite obviously don’t give a fuck.

Despite the dark reflections that make up some of Decline and Fall’s contents, Jones also presents us with his unique take on natural imagery in poems such as “Ice & Fire”: ‘When the moon drops/Like a biscuit/It might be time/To dab your lips/With a napkin of cloud’.

But the bleak is never far away, such as in another of Jones’ best poems “We are in a Mess (O Lord)”. Although he’s always had a great sense of humour, Jones’ most important poems are the ones that reach into the darkness and pull out something that speaks for the masses, even if the majority of them sadly don’t read it.

Even the artwork of Decline and Fall is bleak, showing a skeleton in ancient armour waving to a man of a future civilisation on a beach. This pretty much sums up what the future looks like through Jones’ poetry.

So who is Jones declaring war on, really? Youth, a society gone wrong as a whole, or is he simply writing about that which we prefer to leave in the dark, because it is important for poetry to say something?

I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand what makes Rae Desmond Jones tick, but I do understand that he is one of the most important poets writing today, one of my favourites, and one that should be a permanent staple in the reading of Australian poetry.

– Robbie Coburn

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Robbie Coburn lives in the small farming district of Woodstock in country Victoria. His first full collection of poetry Rain Season was published by Picaro Press in 2013. Find him online at http://robbiecoburn.wordpress.com/

Decline and Fall is available from Flying Island Books: flyingislands.org/books/flyling…/rae-desmond-jones-decline-and-fall/

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