Brock, Steve. Live at Mr Jake’s. Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020. RRP: $19.95, 104pp, ISBN: 9781743057100.
Travel poems can often seem minor when set against the complexities of the cultures they purport to illuminate. There is commonly a sense of the predetermined—that what is being observed was already there in the poet’s mind and that the travel was all that was needed to confirm it. Steve Brock’s collection Live at Mr Jake’s avoids this danger by observing the traveller with a good measure of ironic distance so that there is a satisfying continuity between those poems set overseas and those that occur in the poet’s hometown of Adelaide.
The collection opens in Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens, where the poet-speaker inadvertently stumbles upon a film set. One actor in particular draws his attention:
his face now closer
looks like an ageing Alain Delon
expression fixed and focused
oblivious to crew and onlookers
maybe he’s a big star
of French cinema
he stares at us and through us and beyond us
his walk is slightly exaggerated
raising his knees a little higher
and taking slightly larger steps
than he might do in real life (4)
Many of Brock’s lines are like this: unpunctuated with an easy pacing. Later in the poem, when the speaker mistakes an ordinary Parisian for the same actor, he reflects that he has been ‘consciously walking in the steps’ of his ‘literary heroes’. The poet and his travelling companion accept their role ‘is confined to that of tourist’, as much as they ‘try and walk like locals’. This and the other travel poems reflect a sense of displacement that is felt with equal measure on the poet’s return to Adelaide. In ‘The Hotel Hollywood’ the Gary Snyder Reader the speaker brought from Australia to the US paradoxically reminds him:
[…] about roots
and the need to plant seeds
upon my return home. (16)
As Adelaide is present in the poet’s travel, so travel inflects Brock’s view of his own city. Many of these poems include a rueful suggestion of a life being lived elsewhere, often obliquely with a good measure of humour.
In ‘On Being’ the self is shaped by the lives unlived and the life deferred (39–40). ‘The dust settles’, a poem about thwarted ambition and middle-age ennui, ends:
as the pedestrian crossing
another 22 seconds
of my life. (38)
The wistful tone of these lyrics carry through to elegies for family and friends, including the poet and academic Syd Harrex, and portraits of the poet’s ageing father. These are less confessional outpourings than the observations of a subject undergoing—and surprised by—the process of grief. The death of a friend, the speaker recounts:
affected me more than I let on
but it was still somewhere ahead of me
so I would see his likeness in a crowd. (69)
Art and literature are consolations for Brock, providing a humble sort of guidance and companionship, or ‘tips from those who’ve done it all before’ (35–36). Brock implies that this is the best we can reasonably expect so late in human history, and his designs are accordingly modest:
while I won’t be leaving
and have conquered little
beyond a 700 square metre block
in an outer suburb
I hope these notes might help the next person. (36)
Brock’s poems bear a family resemblance to those of fellow Adelaide poets Cath Kenneally and Ken Bolton. Indeed, his previous collection Double Glaze (Five Islands Press, 2013) includes an excellent parody-cum-homage to Bolton. In the case of all three writers, poems often begin by riffing on a thought, which develops in a breezy and digressive, essayistic style. Much of the art is concealed by a seemingly artless approach that risks an occasional flatness but in Live at Mr Jake’s such patches are rare. The work recommends attentiveness, and the wistful tone of the poetry is moderated by a subtle sense of gratitude. Adelaide, after all, is one of the world’s most liveable cities. This is a gently eloquent and companionable volume—worth staying home for.
Aidan Coleman is an Early Career Researcher at the J. M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. He is the author of three collections of poetry and his literary biography Thin Ice: a life of John Forbes will be published by Melbourne University Publishing.