Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten launched Willem Tibben’s suburban veneer at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 22 April 2017
Maureen Ten. photograph by Helen Lu
We are prompted to ask what lies beneath the veneer. In the first segment ‘the smell of cows’ it is habitations, movements, the states of being of myriad life-forms. Willem is engaged in attentive observation of each creature enacting its drama, its cabaret, its well-made play. He gives us unmistakable images of the situation, the gesture, the unfolding sequence of activity. His theme is the predicament; his task, reporting back accurately.
The galahs alighting from their blue-sky-cab, well-dressed for an evening’s entertainment, overtaken by another turn of events. The leech with its slow-urgent head, drinking slowly, deeply, drinking to excess, and then lolling off. The lobster bartered for beer money, sidling along the foot rail of the bar, lost and clueless, desperate to relocate, finding its way back to water (not the ocean but the cooking pot). The ibis of ancient sacred lineage, now regarded as dirty and noisy, confined to fossick in suburban parks. The platypus catching its breath. The microbats tiny flying mammal/ on fast forward/ chasing down their light
Underneath Willem’s ‘suburban veneer’ is the boy who lived on a farm for many years and soon he ferries us out of the suburbs to the farmyards and pastures, into the world of cows. The cow loose in the pasture gorging on clover glowing fertilizer green, ballooning into a clover-gas blimp, saved from explosion by Willem’s dad driving a knife into her stomach to deflate her; the cow restless, in heat; the cow with a miscalculated due date; the drowned cow; the cow with an iron burned into her hide. In ‘she strolls to the stall’, he leans his ear against a cow’s side and hears her gurgling clonking milk-making depths as she chews under a yellowing fly-speckled bulb.
We journey further afield in the second segment ‘erode.’ Here there is curiosity and stamina to engage with national parks, land forms, Uluru, the geology and sociological gestalt of place, the accidents and incidents of history which form a town (such as Broome). With a poise of comment and irony relayed by the tension of juxtaposition, he points to the inadequacy of systems, and the failure of care beneath the veneer of society. The missing support and lack of social cohesion lead inevitably to the unravelling of vulnerable individuals.
In our recent city train travel back from rehearsal (for Auburn poetry group’s presentation of ‘Grandma’s Bed’ at Sydney Writers’ Festival), conversation with Willem covered how many cloves of garlic you need for a dish of silverside, two jazz saxophonists (octogenarian Wayne Shorter and Jan Garbarek) and Bashō. I mention this because perhaps it is not too far-fetched (or trivial) to suggest that spices, improvisation and haiku are helpful in a discussion of Willem’s modus operandi.
Apart from the prose poems, everything is in lower case. Type-spaces replace punctuation with the number of spaces (one, two or three) serving as a notation indicating the intended length of pauses. The spacing is not random but calculated. What appears improvised has a precise intention.
Willem’s love of haiku is evident in the use of an image which even when seemingly throwaway, lightly balances the experience like a spice activating (or settling) a series of flavours in the whole. In ‘yulara sunrise’ a groundman hoses and a sprinkler twinkles in a patch of tame desert. In ‘sick country’ a geiger counter chatters to itself. In ‘tawny frogmouths’ the poet is viewing the bird and the bird is in turn, he tells us, huge in my binoculars staring me down. In a knockout poem on artist Albert Namatjira:
. there is a sign on the wall of the museum warning
. do not make pictures
. of any kind
In the third segment ‘no direction home’ Willem writes about musicians (Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Fats Waller), men’s shed, his own stroke, a dream of his parents, his brothers, fibro and silvertails. In the poem ‘a hard day’s night’ he conveys the newness of intimacy and the excitement of a first date.
He captures a certain elusive quality about a person, a place or situation. How does he do this? Take, say, the second of two poems on Bob Dylan. He lists a number of things: what we see on the cover of the double DVD – feet, the car prop, a poster. This works as a sort of casual shorthand and you don’t notice that you’ve been shepherded in a certain direction. Then this is not the crossroads nor yet bedevilment. He’s slipped in, among the apparently routine objects observed, a statement, an abstraction, perhaps even a judgement, and by the time he mentions the cast marks in the concrete apron and Dylan’s floating away, he’s nailed a sense of the enigma, of something astir within the publicity-contrived persona.
In the opening poem ‘lake cockrone’, he is remembering what happened twenty-eight years earlier at the beginning of a relationship with Pam to whom the poem is dedicated. It is going to be the most enduring relationship leading to a marriage of 33 years and counting. They are easy new and free careful/ awake. It is past midnight and they are canoeing.
. the boundary hills moved with us
. black shapes on starry surfaces
The midnight memory is encapsulated in the stillness before sunrise of a day many years later. It is a quite remarkable synthesis of two stages (both harbouring a happiness or a measure of content while differing in maturity) of a relationship. If I may put it a tad grandly (using references from the poem): remembrance is anchored in the breathing of oceanic time present.
Willem Tibben. photograph by Helen Lu
The fourth and last segment includes the poem which gives the book its title but it is the closing lines of ‘uluru’ in the second segment which indicate the nature of the engagement we find in suburban veneer.
. begin again each naming
. story animal plant stone
. every-thing in-place
. and underneath our feet
. a thousand ulurus
Not just at Uluru, but here too in our everyday, in the suburbs, a thousand reverberate.
Maureen Ten (Ten Ch’in Ü) directed plays and documentaries, and penned a newspaper column (‘Gandiiva’) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before migrating to Australia in 1989. Maureen has convened poetry evenings, edited and independently published the anthology Mood Lightning and read at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. She has been published in SMH, Westerly, Imago and anthologies including Contemporary Asian Australian Poets. Maureen has a Master’s degree in English from the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK.
Danny Gardner and Maureen Ten co-launched Willem Tibben’s suburban veneer at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 22 April 2017:
Danny Gardner’s audience address
Poems from suburban veneer
Willem Tibben: Biographical note
suburban veneer is available from Belgrove Press. contact: email@example.com