TEXT review

Serious fun

review by Ian Gibbins


work play.jpg
Owen Bullock
Work & Play
Recent Work Press, Canberra ACT 2017
ISBN: 9780648087878
Pb 88pp AUD12.95


The term ‘prose poetry’ would seem to be an oxymoron, yet the form has been around a long time. Perhaps most notably, Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en Prose (1869) set the form firmly in the modernist poet’s range of technical options for exploring language and what it can do. In general, line breaks matter in poetry, and lines comprise the most obvious compositional or structural units of poems. Indeed, for most traditional forms of English poetry, rhyme and meter are inextricably linked to lines, as in iambic pentameters, for example. In free verse, line breaks structure language in ways that can enhance, replace, or even run counter to an underlying framework of grammar and punctuation. Line breaks obviously affect the appearance of a poem on the page and they can strongly influence how a poem is read aloud.

In a prose poem, none of this structural interplay exists, or if it does, it is subsumed within the blocks of text. A fine example of the latter can be found in Karthika Naïr’s Until the Lions (2016) where subtle rhymes and rhythmic repeats occur within large sections of what superficially seems to be prose. In the absence of line breaks, one could argue that there are even greater demands on the poet to create an interplay between language and images not normally found in a block of prose. Despite, or perhaps because of, these challenges, prose poetry continues to find popularity alongside flash fiction and other short form writing, with several publications, such as Unbroken Journal (Wisely & Good 2018) both showcasing the style and stretching its limits.

The Prose Poetry Project was created by International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra in 2014 with the aim of enabling participants to engage in practice-led research into prose poetry and to write prose poetry collegially and collaboratively (see Atherton et al 2016). The outcomes of this project have been published by Canberra’s Recent Works Press in a series of volumes including tract (The Prose Poetry Project 2017), PULSE (The Prose Poetry Project 2016) and SEAM (The Prose Poetry Project 2015). In each of these collections, the pieces are untitled and unattributed within the main text sequence. Thus each prose poem stands simultaneously alone and in contrast with the works around it. One of the contributors to Prose Poetry Project is Owen Bullock, and by his own acknowledgement, his latest collection Work & Play has evolved from his involvement there.

Work & Play is organised into two sections: the first contains prose poems, the second containing somewhat older lineated poems. The two sections are bridged, appropriately by Broga, Bega, a haibun which is a Japanese form that alternates short sections of prose with haiku.Like many of the poems in this collection, Broga, Bega combines linguistic playfulness with deeply felt sense of family and country.

            We’re going to Bega.

            Broga Bega Broga Bega Broga Broga Broga Bega.

            We’re staying at Barbara’s house.

                                                            sunset -
                                                            swathes of orange lichen
                                                            discarded by angels.

            Slow. Beside the drive, a wallaby with a bushy tail.

                                                            the crackle
                                                            of walu -
                                                            we’ve arrived

            A dwelling full of silence. Socked feet find the meditation room. (9)

The opening sequence of 34 prose poems covers broad ground. As in the Poetry Prose Project collections, many are untitled. Several are very short, 50-60 words. While one or two read more as aphoristic observations, mostly they act as autobiographical snapshots, even when the focus is on someone else, for example, Bubble:

Why don’t you talk about the river you skimmed on, the child’s lips disappearing in the distance, imminent rock, water you merged with, balancing, what sound was called between you, how you fought the rapids, how the stuttering made you birth inside another, float together, anchored twice, spilling each, bubbles. (10)

Some pieces are strangely dreamlike, with the form subtly altered, such as this untitled piece that (almost) lacks punctuation:

the pig the lips the skin the eventual gravestone with you rubbing on it I shouldn’t say but keep colouring what goes into the sky a flamingo I haven’t seen but watched pelicans trawl and flesh, fetch and eat I don’t know if I could put that black shirt on him (11)

Others tend more to anecdote, couched in conversational style, such as Coaching tips:

The first thing we did with the new coach was learn how to juggle. Fucking stupid. But keeping three balls in the air gives you a lot of confidence when you drop back to one. We all had to kick with both feet. The forwards as well as back did half-back drills. He made us agree there was no point carrying flab; we got rid of it. We gave up beer. Stopped talking about luck. Finally, we beat the All Blacks. (12)

The second part of the collection is a sequence of 22 lineated poems. They also vary in style. In complete contrast to the prose poems, some play with lineation, word spacing and indents to good effect, such as this excerpt from lips du:

            The Matrix was a doco

                        alright then, I’ll come

                                    I won’t reveal your font secrets

                                                he gave a soft no

                                                            poetry? I’m so glad the University is doing
                                                            something as useless as that

                                                                        he’s dead with black eyes like a fish (13)

The title poem, ‘work & play’, is a sequence of haiku that alludes to a series of small, but elegantly described, urban events. It begins:

            a magpie sings
            the eyes open

            this morning’s
            graffiti (14)

Bullock is an accomplished and widely published poet, this being his ninth collection. He is interested in the writing process itself and that interest sometimes appears explicitly in these poems. But the best work here eloquently transforms theory into practice, as in the fine sequence ‘building blocks’:

            3. blue

            efficient, coded
            jeaned with boots or sneakers

            sea & sky
            (death when the sea breaks cover)

            to carry one you need a card
            stamped and signed
            a uniform starched

            I own you
            ‘you stay in this family’
            bled to the challenge
            it detests (15)

Work & Play is just that: a beguiling mixture that combines language and technique to tell private stories of lives and environments in ways we all can appreciate.



Works cited



Ian Gibbins is a widely published poet, video artist and electronic musician with three collections of poetry, all in collaboration with artists. His video and audio work has featured in gallery exhibitions, public art commissions, performances and international festivals. He previously was a neuroscientist and professor of anatomy. See www.iangibbins.com.au


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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker