Kelen, S.K. A Happening in Hades. Waratah: Puncher & Wattmann, 2020. RRP $25.00, 95pp, ISBN: 9781925780611.
In terms of stamping out a place for himself in Australia’s poetry scene, S.K. Kelen’s reputation precedes him. In 2003, his work was shortlisted for both the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (The CJ Dennis Prize for Poetry) and The Age Book of the Year Award (Dinny O’Hearn Poetry Prize). But even before that, he was recognised as someone who had a certain special talent for poetry. In 1973, he took out the Australian Poetry Award for Australian Poets under 18, which was presumably the catalyst for his illustrious career.
One of the things Kelen is most highly praised for is his unique ability to write diversely across various subjects. On the back of his latest book, A Happening in Hades, it states, ‘S.K. Kelen covers a diverse range of styles and subjects, and includes pastorals, satires, sonnets, odes, narratives haiku, epics, idylls, horror stories, sci-fi, allegories, philosophical musings, politics, history, love poems […]’ to name but a few of the topics featured in this collection.
Anthony Lawrence from Australian Book Review praised Kelen as having ‘a marvellous ear and a restless eye, a gift for narrative that challenges as much as it reaffirms, and a willingness to tackle anything that takes his attention.’ What appealed to me most about A Happening in Hades was its diversity. I was excited to read a collection that offered something a little different. And that is, indeed, what Kelen offers readers in A Happening in Hades. There is literally something for everyone. The medieval-esque ‘Barbarian’—which opens the collection—is a personal favourite:
Hast thou forsaken me each cried
to a private god. Yo! each god replied …
Red lights, the home audience stare
at shiny screens. It is a Golden Age.
The barbarians watch and listen. (11)
What I enjoyed most about this poem is how it seamlessly blends historical concepts like Vikings or barbarians with the concept of reality shows; the barbarians are watching and critiquing our every move as entertainment. The image this creates and how it makes the reader reflect on their life is why this poem is so good. Furthermore, it is almost like an indication of the diversity readers can expect from the whole collection.
‘Barbarian’ sits alongside ‘Hong Kong’ (18) and ‘Soaring California’ (19). While at first glance these may seem to read like travel poems, there’s a fantastical—almost mythical—element to them that makes them transcend that particular label. Take this portion of ‘Soaring California’, for example:
Doctor Sforzando woke from his prescription daze,
saw the future was robot and desert wind on a flat
high-definition screen controlling people’s lives…
Pay the succubus. Old Bacchus flies a Disney
rocket ride, belly laughs, his spirit thrives. (19)
Again, it’s not only the skilful way Kelen plays with language in this poem that makes it so appealing. It’s the content of the poem itself, the visualisations and imagery that we as readers are treated to. This isn’t the typical California that springs to most minds; it is the seedy underbelly, the wonderland that few are exposed to. It’s what—I’ve come to understand from reading this collection—makes Kelen such a celebrated poet.
Kelen’s diversity continues in ‘Kiss’ on page 32, where he tackles a more traditional love poem. It’s certainly a favourite of mine from A Happening in Hades. It reads like a homage to people, styles and movements of the past, all wrapped up in a beautiful poem about the woman the speaker loved (and still loves).
I wrote words like love and passion, used imagery.
I came to life when we kissed, flying on a picnic blanket
To the lawns at the gardens of Versailles Palace
Lush has her eyes when she smiled and I counted the ways. (32)
I enjoyed ‘Kiss’ mostly for its simplicity, and the fact that it didn’t play too much with symbolism and imagery, at least in comparison to the poems I’ve previously mentioned. And there’s also a sense of metatextuality—where he actually refers to the tricks poets use in crafting language—that makes this poem interesting, without it being too overloaded with symbolism.
If there is anything negative to say about A Happening in Hades, it’s nit-picky and entirely subjective. I did not enjoy poems like ‘Parallel World 101: Hero Product’ (72 – 73) and ‘Original River. First Draft – Attitude Don Juan in the Shopping Mall’ (75 – 85) nearly as much as I enjoyed other poems simply because of their length. They seemed out of sync with the other poems in the collection, and not as well-crafted as other pieces; they almost acted as fillers rather than something that belonged in the collection. Then again, I can see why they were included, and how they might appeal to other readers.
A Happening in Hades is a masterful collection. It feels really connected and Kelen has a certain knack for diversity in the subjects he covers and the unique way he writes. I’ll definitely be keeping up with his work.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.