THE WHEELS STILL IN SPIN. A Coalminers Mahabarata (Stardust and Coaldust Book 2)
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And Malouf, as so often, wants to suggest that these poems are not to be considered major statements and explorations but smaller, lyrical addenda. And, as so often, this can lull readers into the illusion that they are going to be confronted with something slight, perhaps a little gestural in its poetics and, above all, easy to digest.
They may seem that way initially but they are also challenging poems. Like most of the poems of this and the previous two books they deal with a lot in few words — they are small but never slight.
The binding together is done by the movement of the verse itself and its metaphors and puns. The title here, I think, plays with the fact that, within the household, things such as sex and age-group are conceived in pairs which, put together, take a binomial form.
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In the former the gods are the ordinary domestic appliances I think which accompany us through life as guides:. Interestingly, these future prospects evoke literary references. I should point out that these are poems with a very distinctive style. As I have said they are compressed without being gestural and small without being slight. They are highly responsive not so much to the tactility of words as to the multiple accidents that seem to accompany them and their use, and which always invite into the poem unexpected meanings. And there is also the movement of the poems.
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This new book by A. Frances Johnson has the same neat three-part structure as her second. And although the new book has some significant differences of emphasis, it clearly comes from the same stable. As a result the best of these drone poems seem to me to be those which focus on the ambivalent status of these UAVs themselves.
Many of these poems are interested in song in the same way as these two. At another, more surreal, level Syria is imagined to be undergoing the kind of climate-change that other poems interest themselves in. But here it is a matter of unseasonal, smothering snow. As I read it, we are back, here, in the world of the mechanical birds and their metaphoric possibilities about the nature of poetry: a salt, liquid order requires, after all, a different sort of poetry, one less about the containment of experience in a neat work with a single meaning and more about fluid poetic possibilities.
The later poems deal with the loss of a sister-in-law to cancer.
Like all good elegies these poems have at least half an eye on what they are doing in the same way that, when we cry in grief, we can also stand outside of ourselves and see ourselves weeping. Again, the approach is not quite what one might expect, it is more experimental than unashamedly chosiste. The poem that gives its title to the section is not about the act of seeing at all but rather is a comic poem about the absurdities of the theory wars as experienced in the disciplines of history. But at the end of the poem and book. This is a really unusual and fascinating book, a kind of micro Paradise Lost but with a brilliant twist that deepens the poetry and our response to it.
Continuities might, in fact, be obvious to the poet though hidden from readers. Re-enacting the opening of Job , Beelzebub persuades God to allow him free access to the human version of Satan. God has been replaced by Jesus who is himself a kind of ethical monster since his perfectionism is essentially unhuman and who, in the final pages, unmakes all of creation.
Satan Repentant , in thinking about alternative representations of the cosmic goings on suggested in the Old Testament, is a new version of what is really an old tradition. The books of the Jewish bible themselves continuously modify the conception of their god so that he can be a local, ill-tempered Canaanite deity, a guardian of — and refuge for — his special group, a player in regional conflicts, and, eventually, a cosmic figure.
And the process continues beyond the end of the canonical texts into, for example, the pseudepigraphical writings of the inter-testament and early Christian period. And, speaking of Blake, there is Emmanuel Swedenborg who seems to have been a visionary pioneer establishing that the borders between the divine, infernal and human worlds are much more easily crossed than conventional theology suggested.
Many readers take refuge in the vague generalisation that bad is easier to portray than good but that simply displaces the issue without solving it. Plot is one thing, poetry is another. The very idea of Satan Repentant poses more problems of technique and language than it ever would of narrative.
Should it be written as a pastiche of Miltonic style? Can it perhaps distort that style to produce something contemporary, as Blake does? Aiken seems to have made two choices here. The first is to avoid the steady, even, narrative style of the conventional epic and replace it by shorter sections of narrative built around crucial moments.
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The language is a bigger problem. I think it is designed to sound like the dialect of a forgotten tribe of speakers of English, an unknown regional variant. Or perhaps of someone who has never spoken English but knows Paradise Lost by heart unlikely as that would be. It may not be a solution which pleases everyone but I like it, as far as it goes.
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At its most extreme, though, it can be more grotesque than distancing as here in a section in which Beelzebub speaks to God:. This takes the idiom to an extreme but I suppose it can always be supported by the argument that here grotesque content is matched by a maximum distortion of language.
Of course, like almost all invented languages, the idiom of Satan Repentant is going to be a nonce-solution. In fact it is much more than that and exerts a much stronger hold on the reader than any such exercise would do. Instead of being a work about cosmic battles and powerplays in which, for a brief period, we follow the life of a human being, we can momentarily read Satan Repentant as a portrait of a delusional or schizoid child, a potential poet, whose monsters under the bed are real monsters.
One of these unseen things is a demon-possessed tree:. A brilliant portrait of a terrifying psychosis. What should have been merely a pub altercation becomes a murder caused by others:.
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The most magical thing about Satan Repentant is that it provides both perspectives and if, as readers, we can hold both in our minds at the same time we finish up with a really powerful, disturbing and brilliant work. Here there are batches of poems exploring aspects of photography and a set of animal poems which read almost as a catalogue of the different ways in which a subject can appear in a poem. Interestingly, Anywhy begins with two poems which are, in their own different ways, about creativity. The second stanza introduces an Australian two-cent coin with its iconic frill-necked lizard and its defensively erect quills.
In other words — as I read it — the dark future reveals itself even in such a comparatively benevolent setting. The devil can smile. This at least strikes a more positive note about the significance of poetry and its demand — if read properly — that we should change our lives or, at least, offer a sort of inventory of them to the creative geniuses of the past. It certainly has the sense of — to adapt Les Murray — nine points for an imperilled planet. Other poems focus not on human violence but on ecological catastrophe.
There is entirely personal grief in many of the poems of Anywhy and the third of this series is about how the dead call to us:. Here, at least, is a male presence in a world in which, other poems tell us, father and brother have died. He is also someone who will experience whatever the future brings more intensely than the poet since the future will belong to him and anyone else of his age group:.
It could be read negatively as a portrait of someone who may become a hard man for a hard age. But I think, rather, that there is a sense of satisfaction in having brought up someone who is now, inevitably, living his own life and who seems capable, if anybody is, of surviving the future. This balance between dark and light is one of the recurring themes of Anywhy and is reflected in the structures of the poems themselves.
The former makes its point by radical shifts of perspective: it begins with the couple passing time in an airport while a television in the background is showing what must be a Rugby Union grand final. Not a conclusion where one feels entirely comfortable about the tone.
The Naos Calendar contains no such individual epitaphs but stands for something solid and benevolent in the memory, a personal relic. Meaning in these poems is extremely sophisticated, as one might expect, and the questions they ask and the possibilities they explore are unusual and challenging. Anywhy is in no way a simple book but its complexities are tonal too.
Many of my readings of these fine poems revolve around trying to get an accurate sense of tone and that is often a more problematic activity than devoting oneself to meaning. I might have misread the tone of many pieces but there is little doubt that overall one of the dynamic drivers of these poems is the interaction between dark and light. Not quite in the Bruce Beaver sense of simultaneously celebrating and mourning, more in a Jennifer Harrison sense of viewing the future with optimism and despair.
Kristen Lang is an unusual poet in that her first two full-length books have appeared in the same year. Whatever the case there are powerful continuities between the books just as there are significant differences. The poems of SkinNotes are organised into clear thematic groups. I think this is a fine poem though it is nowhere as ambitious as many of those in The Weight of Light.
The emphasis is rather on the mind and its thoughts than on the body: there are no references to eye-colour or nose-shape here, no cosy affirmations of continuity. This raises the issue — to be explored in other poems — of absence and leaving, and the way these might need to be redefined. Although some of the poems are clearly personal, enough of them seem to refer to the experiences of others to prevent this being a confessional zone. In fact the other unnamed men and women who form the cast make this more of an anatomy of disfunction rather than a harping on personal dis-ease. And not only are the characters varied, the metaphors are as well.
The fish, swimming inside its element, appears twelve times out of the underwater shadows to the poet but has nothing to say despite her pleading. This can be read in two rather different ways. Firstly, that those searching for visitations fail to communicate with the beings of the world fish, cows, horses who would, themselves, prove to be visitors if some kind of interpenetration of the species were possible. Irrelevant as it probably is, this seems to me another poem deriving however tangentially from Slessor, affirming his place as a kind of progenitor of Australian poetry in the last hundred years.
On top of the book is a glass sphere holding the remote possibility that the relationship between two lovers might be successful. There are stylistic developments that need to be registered and, since so much of the book is an exploration and extension of images that appear in SkinNotes , there is a lot that needs to be said about stones, paths, in- and ex-halation, ascents, fish, fibres and a whole lot else.
To begin with stylistic matters, The Weight of Light has poems which make the generally discursive manner of most of the poems in SkinNotes more pronounced so that they have a developed essayistic quality or a very formal narrative quality. But I want to emphasise the essayistic tone which makes the poem as much a tour through the history of the science of cosmology as about the problem of an individual reconciling the expansion of the self with the ordinary. The first stanza will show what I mean:.