TEXT review

Droll musings from a compassionate poet

review by Jeremy Fisher


Michael Sharkey
Another Fine Morning in Paradise
5 Islands Press, Melbourne 2012
ISBN 978-0-7340-4745-8
Pb 100pp AUD24.95


First, a disclaimer: Michael Sharkey is a friend and former colleague. When I first came to the University of New England, Michael’s office was directly opposite mine. We shared both jokes and tales of woe in the early mornings before the other members of the School had yet to appear in the corridors and tearoom. When he retired, my mornings were greyer, a little less delightful. I missed his erudite words and ironic tone.

Fortunately, I can console myself with Another Fine Morning in Paradise, a collection of poems that brings Sharkey’s droll wit into sharp focus. But it is not only wit on show. As a colleague, Sharkey was always a pedant, and the precision of his poetry hones both the irony and satire. For example, in ‘A double abecedary on tertiary teaching’ he collects those early morning groans about lazy students we once shared and constructs a 26-line grumble with laughs. The wizardry of the verse almost obscures the poem’s careful construction. Each line commences with letters in descending alphabetical order, while ending with letters in ascending order. For me, seeing such contrivances work is a delight, and testimony to Sharkey’s skill and mastery of poetic techniques.

The book, a collection of poems previously published in a wide range of journals and publications, is organised into two parts: times out of mind; and life in common. The first part contains two poems, the first being ‘The garden of earthly delights’, a work with eight two-line stanzas that encapsulates the overall tone of the book as people ‘took a vote and ended’ paradise. There’s a sentiment here that recalls Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Big yellow taxi’ with its lines ‘Don’t it always seem to go/ that you don’t know what you’ve got/ ‘til it’s gone/ they paved paradise/ and put up a parking lot’. It is humans and their weaknesses that spoil the world for Sharkey.

The title of the next poem, ‘The plain people of paradise’, suggests the misanthropy that underlies this work. This poem has thirteen sections, most of which are constructed of seven two-line stanzas. In a number of these, Sharkey uses questions as a device. In the first section, ‘Housekeeping’, he asks:

Who stores the missing limbs and faculties
so kids who lob from Laos, Soudan, Serbia

And elsewhere get to use their feet again?
Does anybody get the parts mixed up like we do here? (12)

The section ‘Office management’ begins:

Who’s in charge of newlyweds and joy?
How can the bureaucrats endure the endless schmaltz? (14)

While the previous poem brought a modern songwriter to mind, this poem references, amongst other things, Dean Swift, Zoroaster, Glen Murcutt, Hubert of Liege, Nauru, and Christmas Island; testimony to Sharkey’s intellectual adroitness and curiosity. Those qualities shape further poems in the collection, some of which are wistful, others philosophical, and a few simply hilarious. ‘Ode to shoes’, for example, where Sharkey celebrates those ‘comic objects’ that we put on our feet. He follows this with the darker ‘young woman with a tea towel’. It’s a title that brings to mind a painted portrait, and the poem offers a picture of this young woman in searing detail. The tragedy of a failing relationship is etched with every word, especially in the final stanza:

When she can manage, she’ll drive to the park,
stop the car under trees,
and give way once again to her tears.
He will tell her more lies. (29)

The poems tell little stories, sometimes obviously, as in ‘Ancestors in nineteenth-century albums’ and ‘Nothing for granted’, but more often subtly, as in ‘The land of eternal verities: there you are, pet’ and ‘The good life when it happens’. These poems provoke and entertain. While I wonder how readers unfamiliar with Armidale and its environs would receive several poems, especially ‘The custom of Cockaigne’. I also question whether it matters -- is what seems so familiar to me (‘The Mall’s a paradise of buskers’, ‘twenty-two kilometres of roadkill’, ‘That bushranger who lurked behind a rock’) also part of every other Australian country town? Sharkey has the rare ability to reach into our national psyche and pull out the ugly centre yet not rail at the horror of it all. Rather, he pities what he finds, and can still find time to make a joke as in the final two stanzas of ‘The custom of Cockaigne’:

No use talking.
Council reckon water’s all right.

Like to see them put it in their whisky. (49)

Lines such as these make this book a pleasure to read and re-read. Sharkey’s ability to grab a reader’s attention is unfailing. He can move from the majestic to the mundane in a line, and he is never better than when he allows us to glimpse something of his own life. A poem such as ‘Women in their houses on their own’, with its gentle put down of Eliot’s attitude to women, is just one example:

I doubt that conversation would change much for them or me.
Some of us have worked on our routines. Eliot, I think,

did not know that. While he was slinging off at office girls
who went to bed and ate alone, I think many or most of them,

if they had known what he thought of them
would have said that they preferred to eat alone. (61)

Any of the poems in this book could be used as material to support the teaching of writing poetry. Sharkey’s craftsmanship is masterful and a model for any budding poet. Let such creature marvel at the construction of ‘Where the bunyip builds its nest: Five centos’. In this poem, each line is borrowed from other poems, with a key to these poems following. For example, a line from Fay Zwicky follows a line from Robert Adamson. In its entirety, the poem is a mighty work able to stand alone, further demonstration of Sharkey in full command of his poetic powers. But to use the book as a teaching tool, while worthwhile, would lessen its primary purpose, to be read for pleasure. Pleasure it provides in bucket loads. This is a book for those who love words and good writing.

The quality of the production of this book is a credit to the publisher. The poems are beautifully laid out and printed on solid stock. There are endpapers, elegantly black, and the matt cover features a neat image adapted from a screen print by Andrew Bogle.



Jeremy Fisher teaches writing at the University of New England, Armidale.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo