Poetry of the Great Australian Nightmare: Rae Desmond Jones reviews The Welfare Of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence

The Welfare Of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2011.

Anthony Lawrence and Friend (image courtesy of Manning Clark House – http://manningclark.org.au)

In The Welfare Of My Enemy, Anthony Lawrence’s vision moves back to the early poet, Barcroft Boake, who described the ominous quality of the Australian landscape  in 1891:

East and backward pale faces turning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

Gaunt arms stretched with a voiceless yearning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

Oft in the fragrant hush of nooning

Hearing again their mother’s crooning,

Wrapt for aye in a dreamful swooning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

‘Where the Dead Men Lie’ Barcroft Boake (1891)

by contrast however, Lawrence creates his vision of the uneasy dead within the Australian landscape in language that is deliberate, flat, detached and cold. The poems lack a title: each poem has a six cornered asterisk, as though to emphasise the questionable identity of the subjects: victims, perpetrators, Policemen, grieving relatives, friends, or simply those who became ‘absent’. Many poems are dramatic monologues, but they don’t vary much in tone according to the personality of the speaker. All are written in irregular two line stanzas using mostly half rhymes, which add to the discordant unspeakable absence:

.

Children don’t say his name or try to find him.

Dad is not a word they use. His absence is a thin

.

Erratic line through the years. At five, his own

Father left, and never returned. Call it a pattern.

.

An understated prosaic tone effectively evokes the emptiness of grief and absence, while it serves to layer the detached charm of a manipulative murderer:

.

No joke. She thought the game was about passing time.

You show your hand and you say the words. It’s lame

.

But she looked so pretty as she laughed and ate

The bullshit. Rock, Paper, Scissors, Dynamite.

.

Even when we pulled off the road and she knew that “later”

Was now a word from the past: Dynamite, Scissors Rock, paper.

.

In writing on these themes, Lawrence may be deploying ideas similar to those that inspired Professor Ross Gibson when he wrote (in prose) about  the ‘horror stretch’ of road between Rockhampton and Mackay in Queensland. For Gibson, these Badlands ‘offer a no-go area, a dumping ground for those voices, thoughts, memories, grim realities that contemporary, “civilised” Australia would prefer to forget as it seeks accommodation, a sense of belonging, of “wellness” in what remains for many an alien landscape.’ (Reference Huxley, J., Badlands, Interview with Ross Gibson, SMH November 26 2002 http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/11/25/1038173697682.html ). Australia has many known dumping grounds of this type: the Beaumont Children, the Truro Murders, the Belanglo State Forest.

Despite the flatness of tone, Lawrence is not writing journalese. He actively interrogates his speakers and their place in the environment. Judgement is left to the reader. While grief and loss, horror and brutality abound, this is not James Elroy in verse:

.

He went for a swim. He’s not been seen since.

.

You think of your own place in the world

how flimsy your grip on the earth really is. it boils

.

down to a random act, an accident where nature conceals

your fall, or something planned – they steal

.

more than your life – your absence becomes the absence

of those who inhabit the place you’ve fenced

.

The Welfare Of My Enemy does not offer a reason for these absences, although Lawrence presents us with compelling portraits of perpetrators as intent on control and power over the powerless. He may therefore indirectly support Gibson’s thesis, that the origin of ‘atmosphere’ in these spaces lies in the treatment by the invaders of indigenous people who remain both absent and present. Such ambitious poetry remorselessly takes the reader into the minds of the victims, the survivors, the perpetrators. To Lawrence, layers of history permeate the landscape and the earth. The author may be invisible but in this work he is not dead. At a time when poets and writers often concern themselves with poetry and the process of writing this is substantial – and present. Powerful stuff.

Rae Desmond Jones

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Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973. His latest book is Thirteen Poems from the Dead, Polar Bear Press 2011. There has been lots of poetry in between.