Michael Dransfield – 39 Years Dead.

Michael Dransfield is one of the enigmas of Australian poetry. When he died at the age of 24 on 20th April 1973 he had published three books of poetry (Streets of the Long Voyage, The Inspector of Tides and Drug Poems – though Drug Poems also contained a number of poems which first appeared in the first two collections). While he has conveniently linked to the so-called ‘Generation of 68’, looking back, like many other poets of that period, he does not fit easily into the commonly head notions of what the generation of 68 was all about.

The album cover for Robyn Archer's Wild Girl in the Heart.

I first came across Dransfield as a seventeen year old discovering for the first time that there was a poetry that was closer to the song lyrics I was listening to rather than the poetry we were being taught in High School. I discovered New Poetry magazine and the work of Laurie Duggan, Bob Adamson, J S Harry and many others. I also discovered Dransfield through the Robyn Archer LP Wild Girl in the Heart –an album were she put the poems of a number of contemporary Australian poets to music. ‘Outback’, in particular, spoke to the young left wing poet I then was. These were the days of yellow-cake shipments through White Bay in the middle of the night. Australia was no longer ridding on the sheep’s back, rather they were digging the ground away from under us – and Dransfield seemed to sum it all up in that single poem.

As a result I then hunted the two UQP paperback poet books he had released Street of the Long Voyage and Inspector of the Tides. In these books I discovered some of the most lyrical contemporary poems I had yet come across (I was, admittedly, coming off a low base). Poems like ‘Pas de deux for Lovers‘ and ‘Deuteronomy’ were a revelation and I spent far too long trying to replicate the style and mood of poems such as these. Then there were the slightly more difficult poems, including poems like Bums’ Rush which, even looking back over forty years, remains one of the best ‘drug poems’ every written in Australia.

Later I would track down the other books, Drug Poems I bought off a friend, Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal I found in a second hand shop in Canberra and the later Rodney Hall edited collections: Voyage into Solitude, The Second Month of Spring and the Collected Poems, I bought as they came out. I don’t have John Kinsella’s Selected Poems…some how I felt I had all I needed.

In retrospect what has stuck in my mind was the excitement that I felt when I first came across ‘Outback’ on Robyn Archer’s LP and Streets of the Long Voyage. This was the first time I felt real excitement on reading a book of poetry…fortunately it was not he last.

Mark Roberts

The Beautiful Dead – THIRTEEN POEMS FROM THE DEAD by Rae Desmond Jones

Thirteen Poems from the Dead by Rae Desmond Jones, Polar Bear Press 2011

First impressions are always important and in the case of Thirteen Poems From the Dead, first impressions create very high expectations. This is a beautiful book, printed in a very limited run of less than one hundred. It is printed, we are told, on Magnani Velata Avorio and set in Minion and Gill types. And if that isn’t enough there is apparently a deluxe edition on its way – twenty six copies “lettered a-z”, signed by the poet and artist and each with an original print by Michael Fitzjames.

But while it’s all too easy to be seduced by the way this book looks and feels I have, after all, come for the poetry – and fortunately I was not disappointed. Rae Desmond Jones has led a rich and varied life. I first became aware of him as a poet courtesy of Robyn Archer’s 1978 LP The Wild Girl in the Heart. On this album Archer put the poetry of a number of Australian poets to music – among them was Jones’ ‘The Deadshits’. This poem is a fairly graphic account of a pack rape at a suburban party and, at the time, resulted in calls for the entire album to be banned. Jones’ was already an established poet in 1978 and over the ensuring years released a number of books of poetry, two novels, a book of short stories as well as a video. In addition he found time to become involved in local politics, being elected to Ashfield council and serving as mayor from 2004 to 2006.

Jones’ of course is no longer a young poet. Born in 1941it is perhaps understandable that many of the poems in this small collection deal with issues of aging, mortality and death:

body when it is young:

how lush it is when in decay

hanging from the bush too long

‘How sweet the layered blossoming rose’

Like the rose in the title of this poem, Jones’ poetry in this collection is multilayered and and rich. The rose, traditionally a symbol of love, in this poem becomes a metaphor for an aging body that can still remember that it “once tingled/ to the eager hungry touch”.

With age comes the richness of memory and in ‘The Fairies of 520 Williams Street” there is the memory of a childhood home – images of a history that can only exist in the poet’s mind, now committed to the page:

I write to bequeath my part of this history to you –

remake it in images you own.

‘The Fairies of 520 Williams Street”

‘Ash Wednesday’, dedicated to the poet Kerry Leves who died in May 2011, is a stunning poem. Combining a rich Catholic/Christian imagery with everyday observations of Darlinghurst, the poem recalls a visit to the dying Leves at the Scared Heart Hospice. Jones’ states in the poem that he is not Catholic: (forgive me,/ Irish Grandfather), but one suspects that the poet’s grandfather would have found much to appreciate in this poem. The poem opens with the striking imagery of:

the moving stairs at Kings Cross station

groan upwards from deep beneath Victoria street

but to finally leave the darkness of the underground station and emerge into the light of Kings Cross the poet has to pass the barrier, in the same way as a Catholic has to accept the sacraments:

I have a ticket, which allows me

to pass an unlikely Angel at the gate,

a heavy middle aged man in blue

who glowers as the machine

chews my ticket like a broken biscuit

(Give us this day our daily bread)

The unexpectedness of the ticket machine becoming a metaphor for the communion sacrament is effective and surprising and prepares us for the imagery that continues to build up, layer on layer, as the poet nears the Hospice. There is the man with the “Satanic tattoo on the back of each leg” and the “demons revving engines.”

While the sadness that accompanies the process of dying is all to apparent

but you wait with your mind

sharp as ever even while your body

collapses softly, elegantly into the ash

on your forehead

There remains a sense of optimism in the almost Audenesque conclusion:

around us hover those we have helped

& a little distant, those we have failed

their lives assemble quietly,

clothed in light.

Of course the irony is that neither Jones, or Leves was/is Catholic (See Pam Brown’s memory of Leves in The Overland Memorial) adds yet another level to this already rich and complex poem.

While there are only fourteen poems in this collection they are of such quality that it is possible to spend hours reading and reading them. The richness of the imagery, the almost virtuosic display of poetic technique coupled with a beautifully design and produced book makes this limited edition collection one to queue up for.

Mark Roberts

To enquire about availability contact: books@nicholaspounder.com