Shane McCauley, tRICKSTER, Walleah Press, 2015. RRP $25, ISBN: 978-1-877010-40-8
Shane McCauley’s tRICKSTER is indeed a volume of poetry that lives up to its name. Strong, declamatory voices fill the pages, and the care shown with line breaks and form are very much in evidence. McCauley embraces a wide range of subject matter, many poems holding historical links, and a variety of themes emerge across the six chapters. It’s analogous to a stained glass window, with each hue sharpened within its framing. If there is one criticism, however, it is in the occasional stoic and austere tone of voice employed that makes points of entry and empathy somewhat problematic.
The real strength in tRICKSTER is demonstrated most amply in McCauley’s ability to ‘claim the page’ with very thoughtful line breaks and spacing. In ‘The Sound of Glass’, from the first section of its three parts, entitled ‘Company’, we begin with the following:
The first arpeggio comes out of
sinister darkness like an attack
a hit and run
across your memory
as if in blackness
you are lying down
Here the poem works in enticing the reader’s eye down the page, each line break chosen so as to imbue a maximum of impact and flow. The lack of punctuation adds much to the rapture of the moment. And in ‘Republican Temple’, a further example:
Look, if you have a moment, at what was:
the delicate steps, dwarf vees of roofs,
last words of a sombre if majestic tongue
nailed long ago to some grey tree
by the marauding wind.
The writing here is eloquent and more flowing. But again, the intent is to retain focus and interest upon the subject matter with considered line breaks, such as in “majestic tongue/ nailed long ago…”, adding much to the surprising twists in the verse. And one final example of judicious form and enjambment, this from ‘Radiance’:
And even though you know
at this precise moment
the earth is tilting
yet in this convincing
brand of nothingness
that surrounds you
there are voices in the rain
that begin to clamour
that shake you into
an ebony eternity of doubt.
This final quote, with its wonderful and beguiling second person knowingness, is proof of McCauley’s ability to successfully manage half rhyme – “tilting”, “convincing”, “nothingness” – while also maintaining the poetic impetus. It also touches upon another strength in the poems in tRICKSTER, this being imagery.
McCauley uses metaphor, simile and direct allusion in a measured and convincing manner. He never overly labours extended metaphor, nor introduces inappropriate or awkward links. Rather, his imaginative work is very much constrained to neither draw attention to itself but instead heighten mood and poetic purpose. In ‘Monsoon’ the reader encounters:
Then the planet’s essence
inhabits your nostrils
a horizon army gathers
and rushes forward
bursts open your cocoon
The poem shifts between the exterior and interior, embracing all of the senses. This is a impeccably balanced piece of writing – careful, considered and with a palpable use of detail. And two quotes from ‘Lingua Franca’ with further evidence of strength in this realm. From the opening stanza:
I am a white chameleon in a green landscape
a purple lion in the tawny savannah
a black bat in the baffling sunlight.
And from stanza four in the same poem:
But hand! Hand is spider of fingers
Precise starfish arrow hammer plate lever
Alert dictionary refuter promulgator –
The poetic power in these lines rests clearly in the brazen and emboldened imagery, coupled with intensity similar to the hue and texture of an oil painting or the use of brass and percussion in a symphony orchestra.
The integrity and craft in prose is indeed demonstrated throughout the text, and this is particularly evident in McCauley’s ability to garner empathy and depth within a short space of time. This example, from ‘Koan’ is clear proof of this element:
Don’t ask for ashes of yesterday
ask for the fire.
Ash is corpse-fire as regret
is corpse desire.
Some poems, however, are overly austere in their voicing, and this is one slight criticism of the volume. On a few occasions the declamatory style and tone create a text that is difficult to permeate. For example, the opening two stanzas from ‘Shadow Play’:
Relax: it is only midnight.
You have centuries until daybreak
for the story to unfold.
Rama, steadfast and
bold, warrior, here behind
this screen in a world
almost my own.
In the above example, and in other poems such as ‘Sphinx’, the combination of subject matter and voice leads to poetry that is porcelain in feel and purpose. In several other poems within the fifth chapter, entitled ‘When Sleep ferments into Dream’, allusions to Roman historical facts and leaders coupled with a density of text and highly figurative language combine to disengage the reader.
tRICKSTER is a considerable achievement in poetry, especially taking into account both length and quality. A vast subject matter is dealt with in elegant and elegiac turns of phrase. It is a testament to McCauley’s unquestionable devotion to the writing of verse, and delivers a comprehensive body of poems in an honest and carefully honed manner. This is inventive and purposeful writing from a master of the craft.
Kevin Gillam is a West Australian writer with three poetry collections. He works as Director of Music at Christ Church Grammar School.