JH Crone, Our Lady of the Fence Post. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2016. RRP: $22.99, 115 pp.
Bruce Dawe, Border Security. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2016. RRP: $22.99, 94pp.
David McCooey, Star Struck. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2016. RRP: $22.99, 87pp.
Alan Loney, Melbourne Journal. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2016. RRP: $22.99, 95pp.
Bringing together established and emerging voices, UWAP’s new poetry series responds to ‘the reductions in poetry publishing nationally’ despite burgeoning submissions. In this context, it seems apt that a number of these collections, including Alan Loney’s Melbourne Journal, Bruce Dawe’s Border Security, David McCooey’s Star Struck and J.H. Crone’s Our Lady of the Fence Post, deal with ideas about loss, and the possibilities of language in processes of mourning and ritual.
In Alan Loney’s Melbourne Journal, a selection of ‘notebooks’ ranging from 1998-2003, he notes ‘how little, finally, one makes, of everything’ (12). It is recognition of the limits of poetry, perhaps, but also an acknowledgement of the smallness of a life. Despite its tendency towards the pensive, Loney’s work is seductive, especially in its voyeurism, an intimacy permitted by the journal format, but also by a vision of the poet as an observational outsider. Indeed, Melbourne Journal is replete with sketches of others in public places, such as cafés, footpaths, beaches and shopping centres, which results in both the droll and the macabre or abject. A couple kissing are described as ‘so skinny / … their rib-cages / might interlock’ (24), while in an apartment ‘most nights’, a man has an ‘almost unnerving experience—someone in the upstairs flat urinates as the same time as he does’ (69). Ageing and unwell bodies feature repeatedly, and are connected to a fascination with the idea of origins and return—the notion that ‘the world has forgotten us’ (35), but also the cyclical possibility of new beginnings. At a beach, for example:
a short stout man walks
into the sea, looks to the sky
… crosses himself
twice, wades into deeper water,
looks up again, crosses himself
again, and dives …
into the waves (9)
Such melancholy often pervades Melbourne Journal, by nature a fragmentary series of observations, quotations, and philosophical reflections. Loney’s focus is on ‘poetry as heightened language, in every way’ (8), as demonstrated by an exploration of the construction of meaning, and the interruptions of technology, described as a kind of anxiety about ‘the homogenizing screen’ (20). These musings are not sentimental, but interrogative, particularly in terms of the idea that words are often ineffectual, about loss as much as creation: ‘It is we who fragment the world with words, with our appalling and magnificent desire to speak of this first, then that’ (40). This pervasive feeling of emptiness in Melbourne Journal is an ironic juxtaposition to the richness of its content, yet also a quiet reminder of everyday deaths and absences, actual and symbolic, or even illusory: ‘in the distance, two whitish folded street umbrellas that looked, at first glance, like tombstones’ (39).
Transience is also a recurring theme in Bruce Dawe’s Border Security, a collection concerned with ‘this temporary lot’ (8). There is an emphasis on the deterioration of self and the pain of age, stressed in the repeated urge that ‘we can never afford to forget’ (9), and the evocation of ‘those ghostly others who’ve been caught / By age and incapacity and pain…’ (13). The body of the poet after a fall, with its ‘skinned knuckles, knee-caps, / finger-tips’, is reminiscent of ‘oil-rags and worn / playing-cards’ (44), while aged-care facilities and hospitals are frequently and quietly invoked. Border Security is thus often serious despite its contemplation of the beautiful; hovering between sweet nostalgia and the horror of destruction, as signified most potently by the deaths of animals. A number of poems, for example, pay tribute to dogs, such as an ‘old black dog / crying like a child’, found lost on the street, whilst even insects are a reminder of the violence of living: ‘early ants carting home / the injured and the accidentally dead’ (12). The distress of the abattoir, of animals ‘freighted / And headed for extinction’ (20), reveals the brutality inflicted by more powerful selves, the consequences of consumption, and a perpetual feeling of being ‘haunted’ (85) by the missing.
While such imagery is desolate, Border Security is nonetheless optimistic, largely due to its attention to the cyclical, especially by way of the inevitability of loss. Indeed, as Dawe’s writes in a poignant aphorism: ‘Loss is the sickening aftermath of loving’ (55). There are a series of heartfelt dedications and odes—especially for his second wife, Liz—as well as repeated references to bonhomie, the value of friendship, and the bitterness of regret: ‘If I could have been a better father / I think I would have been’ (25). Numerous religious quotations seek order from the chaos and pay homage to the notion of a divine scheme; moths in the bath, for instance, are ‘reminders of / life-forms playing for good or evil … in that / perennial parade which moves before us’ (39). Yet science is equally present, functioning as a part of some cosmic balancing act; the muscle of the heart, for instance, is not without the soul it might contain. In ‘Cardiologist’:
You’ve taken the city’s beating ambivalent heart
… and kept it alive with witty electric wires
while in your hands still pulsing with its loves (29)
Matters of the heart are a major preoccupation of David McCooey’s Star Struck, the first quarter of which is dedicated to documenting a ‘cardiac event’ (3). The trauma of a heart-attack is prefaced by the suitably discomforting ‘Habit’, in which the poet and his son study pictures of Ancient Egypt, lingering on ‘jackal-headed / Anubis, presider of the weighing of the heart’ (2). In the poems that recount the cardiac arrest, there is a precise use of language which mimics the clinical processes of medicine, and results in a distancing effect that subdues the violence of illness. Emotions are muted and mechanical, treated as the effects of biochemistry rather than something spontaneous or felt:
Almost as if
they were not yours, tears start
coursing down the side of your face.
“What’s the matter?” a doctor asks.
“I’m just labile,” you say (3)
Perhaps fittingly, it follows that the majority of poems in this sequence are devoid of joy: Christmas is ‘heartless’, while even a sunset is leached of pleasure: ‘the sun performs its drawn-out / power-down’ (7). Only post-surgery is the morning described as ‘phenomenal’, but this is undercut by an ‘impassive’ daughter, and a death on the wards in the night (19). Each sunrise afterwards may be ‘unprecedented’ (21), but there is an abiding air of depression and dis-ease. In an echo of Dickinson, Death appears, but rather than a gentleman promising an elegant exit, it is ‘only your boss’, engaging in some ‘executive socialising’ (13).
McCooey’s characteristic attention to ‘bewitching everyday things’ (2) is vividly suggestive in the recurring images of animals, which signal the ruptures of death, and its attendant fear and anxiety. In ‘The Hunter’, for example, there is an uncanny juxtaposition: a ‘male nurse’ who proudly displays images of his hunting exploits, including a ‘pretty, long-legged animal / on the bonnet of a four-wheel drive’ (6). As McCooey leaves, there is the sense of having escaped a predator, yet this relief is undermined in ‘Animal Studies’, which details the poet killing a mouse by ‘smothering it in sand / from your child’s clam-shaped sandpit’ (11). The conflict is effective and dramatic, if not a subtle reminder of our hypocrisies. Similarly, some of the most striking images in Star Struck are those which contrast the ordinary and the extraordinary in alternating ways. Reading Muriel Spark, for instance, functions to quell ‘your nervous system / a shivering horse within you’ (14), while the necessities of the body function to ground the most surreal of occasions:
At the funeral,
after the Goldberg Aria,
your golden-haired son
cries out for food (12)
Rituals of mourning and remembering are central to J.H. Crone’s Our Lady of the Fence Post, an imaginative response to reports of an apparition of the Virgin Mary on a fence post near the site of a memorial for five local rugby players killed in the Bali bombings. A verse narrative, Our Lady is a compelling vision of the War on Terror, revealing a volatile (and disquieting) domestic culture of fear. Indeed, while a strong sense of the colloquial might lend too easily to stereotype, Crone’s characters are as difficult as they are identifiable. Joe, for instance, is an archetypal ‘everyman’ of ignorance, anxious about the ‘peril from faceless beasts’ (12), and the ostensible threats posed by multiculturalism:
Squinters, towel-heads …
He’s not racist, but who can say
they’re not terrorists? Wogs should have
never been let in this country (19-20)
The range of voices troubles simplistic perspectives, yet also creates a crucible of racial tensions, provoked by the specter of Mary and the Bali memorial, as well as public identity politics. In a poem aptly titled ‘Meat Pies and Mary Photos’, the presence of ‘mourners, protestors, spiritual seekers, / police’ (38) makes clear the intricate interaction of oppositional voices, contesting faith, nationalism, and grief.
Our Lady is driven by conflict, and is particularly unflinching in its examination of cultural hypocrisy. The hatred directed towards Islam, for example, is contrasted against the exploitative behaviours of Bali tourists, including the rugby players killed in the terrorist attacks:
Giants from Sunshine Bay …
get a tan, party all night, binge Bintang, root, vomit.
… buyers of Happy Ending Bali Massages from girls in
palace themed spas, while Hindus swept their rooms (32)
It highlights the persistence of cultural and spiritual commodification, from Bali as a cheap holiday destination, to the phantom of the Virgin Mary as a boon for the local economy: ‘The restaurants are making a fricking / killing. Chamber of Commerce, they love it!’ (24). In these moments, Crone’s work is brilliantly incisive, an unnerving evocation of parochial reactionism. Yet once the sensationalism of the apparition dissipates, the clashes provoked by Our Lady linger in an unshakable sense of suspicion and fear:
a solitary man walking …
I could tell immediately that he wasn’t a tourist.
He seemed worried, almost furtive.
I wondered if he was a fugitive
from an immigration detention centre (103)
Alyson Miller is a lecturer in literary studies and professional and creative writing at Deakin University. Her short stories and poems have been published nationally and internationally, alongside a book of criticism, Haunted by Words: Scandalous Texts, and a collection of prose poems, Dream Animals.