TEXT review

Poems with something special on their minds

review by Sandra Burr


Blast No 10 Poetry and Critical Writing. Spring/Summer 2009
LK Holt, Melbourne, Vic.
ISBN 1832 4568
62p, biannual, one year subscription AUD20.00

Blast No.10 is a fine collection that brings together works by wellknown and acclaimed Australian poets. It also includes a critical review by Simon West, 'Kinsella's Magic Pudding', of John Kinsella's Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography, and an essay, Among the Images: Eye & Mouth, by Peter Steele.

Despite the magazine's claim that it does not set themes, there are some very strong threads running through the collection. Dianne Fahey's 'Autumn Wind' is a pleasant introduction to a seemingly mild-mannered selection of works that address the usual topics that absorb many poets: death, loss, the natural world, aspects of the human condition, self-discovery and ruminations on small moments in a larger universe. But there are other links; both Elizabeth Campbell's poem 'Inferno' and John Kinsella in his Divine Comedy: Journeys through a Regional Geography grapple with Dante's visions of purgatory.

West finds Kinsella limited in the way he engages with Dante. He writes:

Unlike Dante, Kinsella marches straight up his mountain of Purgatory to Paradise, leaving Hell to last.

West suggests that while Kinsella addresses issues of the environment (a theme tackled by at least two other poets in this collection) and indigenous injustice, unlike Dante his protagonist never comes to life: 'But who is the speaker at the centre of these poems,' he asks, and 'Where is he going on his journey?' The same cannot be said of Elizabeth Campbell. She places Dante firmly at the centre of her poem as a foil, an explanation, a way to measure and understand her own place in the world of poetry.

Continuing, however, with the notion that there are certain recognizable themes in this collection, both Campbell and Rebecca Edwards ('Manifesto') seem to allude to the tortured relationship that some poets have with poetry. Two more poets, Dan Disney in 'After Herman Hesse's Wandering' and Mal McKimmie in 'Hospital Homunculi' both use the same phrase: 'Are we there yet?' in their poems for similar effect. That said, however, this is a finely crafted, absorbing and intriguing collection of poems that, in the main, invites closer inspection.

Campbell's delicate, intense questioning has her poem circling around the question: 'What is a soul made of/when it is made?' She answers: 'A thought is a soul.' Her tenderly rendered final stanza reads in part:

... the beautiful
bright quilt made by my mother,
I sleep/happily and unhappily under ...

It appears to embrace life in spite of all its modern whizz-bangery and it stands as a fine counterpoint to the dark chaos of Dante's vision 'for that is art, and that is hell'.

Brook Emery's 'Is this now the Holocene' is an unsettlingly bleak poem about climate change and futility ('we just look and wonder/if we could survive'). He comments on the folly of humankind demanding:

... Is rapture
with its aftershadow the just word for a carnal end
to the carnal life we know?

There are similar overtones in Rebecca Edwards' two sad/angry poems. 'The Young Milton Moon Throws his Pots into the Brisbane River' bristles with indignation: 'No mongrel wanted to buy even one' and:

so you smash one on the footpath and chuck in the shards.
No one's getting any more for free.

'Manifesto' is more lyrical but with a strong undercurrent of bittersweet self revelation - fine and satisfying work indeed.

Sarah Holland-Batt is an observer; a poet who finds big things in small details. While I find her use of the ampersand jarring, her poem 'Against Ingres' is a masterpiece of description and imagining that ends neatly with a waspish feminist warning to the artist declaring:

& by now even you must know
what it means when a woman turns
her back on you

Holland-Batt's vision and imagery is fresh and appealing - the sprained ankle that is a 'Little white bride' ('The Sprain') and the sleeping partner with 'your breath dragging/like a styrofoam cup in the street' ('Night Sonnet'). The final phrases in each poem are wry and gratifying; she's a poet who really knows how to finish a poem.

Paul Magee also uses captivating imagery in his description of an incongruous religion-inspired fruit display: 'a crucifix/in passionfruit, / upon a navel-orange navel-studded background', but he rather rudely jerks us out of this bucolic reverie by describing something as '... somehow gayer than Satan's butt'. It seems just a trifle overdone.

Two poets advance this shaking up of the reader's sensibilities. Mal McKimmie's 'Hospital Homunculi' is a searing account of mental illness. The lines jump about, mirroring the random, illogical thoughts of a mind in crisis: 'The fish is a subatomic physicist, separating O from H2O. / (I saw him doing it)'. With deft skill McKimmie weaves the seemingly haphazard lines into a coherent narrative that pummels the reader's senses and rams home his message. McKimmie is an accomplished poet who always delivers.

Dan Disney's poems also bite and bluster. They are querulous, imperious, brusque, demanding. Unlike Campbell's poem, both 'On Locating the essence of the dinner party' and 'After Herman Hesse's Wandering', ask questions that are never ending and never answered.

'The Sight of Blood each Day' by Michael Sharkey is another questioning poem that asks how doctors cope but unlike Disney, Sharkey happily provides the answer. They:

try to put things out of mind, swim laps at home,
observe their children riding horses, plan
their skiing trips abroad, and drink good Scotch;

Sharkey continues this wonderfully ironic tone in 'The Thought that Counts', an acerbic relentless commentary on consumerism expressed in the sort of compulsive, culturally insensitive, inappropriate souvenir hunting familiar to us all:

We didn't have an earthly what it stands for, but the vendor said
it represents a guy they call Bhairava, who is posed above two
so we guess it must be some old god who keeps an eye on kids.
It could look cute above their cots. We bought a few.

Bhairava is a fearful and violent manifestation of the Hindu God Shiva, hardly fodder for innocent infants.

Far gentler, but similarly wry and ironic, is Geoff Page's measured tale about the death of the last cedar gatherer, 79-year-old William Haydon who, Page speculates, wandered off in search of '... good ones overlooked', and who disappeared '... feet-first down a hole':

There would have been a downward cry,

a sudden prayer or short expletive,
before the silence rose to reach
away up on a misty ridge

one final stand of cedars.

Like Emery, Page is commenting on humankind's destruction of nature, but his is a more hopeful poem. It suggests that nature can and will fight back.

And finally, another thematic connection between Sarah Holland-Batt's 'Against Ingres' and Peter Steele's reflective critique of his own poetry in 'Among the Images: Eye and Mouth'. Steele begins with his poem 'Barber' about John Brack's painting 'The Barber Shop' and goes on to interrogate and shed light on several other poems he has written about paintings held in the National Gallery of Victoria. It's quite a treat to be given this insight into the poet's mind - observations about the art that inspired him, his choice of rhyme and meter, and the things that caused him to stop, and wonder, and then to respond with carefully selected words. At one point Steele says: 'Poems try to have something special on their minds - and ideally in their hearts as well…' - and this in effect sums up the work of the poets in Blast No.10. While I have a small quibble about the placement of the author's names at the end of their poem(s) causing much scrabbling back to the contents page, this is nothing in light of the rich intellects and generous hearts revealed by the poets in this lovely collection.



Sandra Burr, PhD, is an Adjunct Associate Professional at the University of Canberra where she teaches creative writing and creative research.


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Vol 14 No 1 April 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb