Green Lizard Manifesto

review by Thomas Shapcott


Christopher Kelen
Green Lizard Manifesto
Cerberus (fierce mongrel guarding hell's gate) Press, 878 Markwell Rd,
Markwell NSW 2423  

An intriguingly rich collection of 96 pages, which is quite a lot, and which imposes on any poet the task of transmitting their particular voice and cadence, without faltering or fudging it, over a considerable span of work. Christopher Kelen brings this off remarkably well, and with an immediately convincing and idiosyncratic tone of his own.

I was delighted that he prefaced his collection with a cheeky quotation from Robert Herrick's "To the Soure Reader".

If thou disliks't the piece thou lights't on first;
Think that of All, that I have writ, the words;
But if thou reads't my book unto the end,
And still dos't this, and that verse, reprehend:
O Perverse man! If All digustfull be,
The extreme Scabbe take thee, and thine, for me.

Well, this reader emerged scabless: from the very first Kelen poem I was wakened to an alert, taut, playful writer with a very real and personal sense of words. I think the Herrick quote prepared me for how and where to look (and listen): Herrick has a similar jaunty freshness with language, lyrical but unexpected, twisting our expectations with received phrases and tweaking them, and, most of all, convincing the reader that it had to be like this. What takes you by surprise, quickly becomes seemingly inevitable. That is exactly how I found Christopher Kelen's own contemporary lyricism.

The opening poem importantly throws us right into the challenge Kelen is setting us:

scribble my making
listening clues in vast corner
paws of earth head of cut skies
cock hearth ash heart

everything crooked in my garden
everything sideways in the soul cut no branch

And nip no bud

today in this wind
taller than the eye can wish

let everything go wild today

tame no words and shape no sense
let the spirits call our names
and we will all requite them

let everything wild in a day of big tides
let each have its say
let us run out of words
in scratching to shape something

cannot be spelled
calls itself by our names

then put a hat upon
lusts with which we're made
then sing a lightest touch

ensouling sense
in the river runs over us
selves unsaid
let everything grow wild today

The small shock of dislocation ('let everything wild in a day of big tides') is balanced with those sweet, vivid images, a concertina effect pulling everything in tighter. This works, mainly because the cadence echoes longer (older?) rhythms that our ears respond to eagerly, in the same way that Robert Herrick's outrageous conceits work because they catch us, unexpected, in the midst of an anticipated sense of order. Kelen often counterpoints his nouns-as-verbs with echoes of older, more formal cadences ('everything sideways in the soul', 'and we will all requite them'). In modern verse, this is risk taking and time and again Kelen brings it off. It is as if he were reminding us, gently, that there is a tradition. And that it is not totally played out, even if we postmodern it knowingly.

With such a striking opening poem, the author sets himself a real task: how to maintain and expand the integrity and perhaps even the inevitability of that voice he has now established? One of the triumphs of the collection is that Christopher Kelen does just that. The sequence of poems builds more and more surely upon the voice initially established, and proves it to be flexible and always full of surprises that convince us they are inevitable. In a second collection by a newish poet, that is impressive.

The collection really gets off to a full start with a group of poems called From Republics. In this group, the long open prose-poem 'Republic' is just the right sort of substantial number to convince with its invention and its extended inclusiveness. It is enough to make you never want to use the word 'republic' again (no, I don't think Kelen is a Monarchist, either!). This is succeeded by a whole group of short and wittily playful poems, only one of which ('Reffos') seemed to become too congealed with its own allusiveness. But 'Ming' has to be almost an instant classic:

Magic of Ming is everywhere.
His was the throne of Oz, time was.
Friend of foes and sells us out,
gives them our mountains, packs
us off. Sad duty sinks in that
therefore. Calm and stern, our
brave papa, his fireside bottle
full of reds. Not Ben, not Doc,
not Arthur. Vastness of the panto
master makes the motor grovel.
Can't see the crown, holds off
the hoards, minions work
the miracles. Despite his ease,
his quarter acre, gadgets in
the kitchen now. His throne of
common sense, the motionless
grey swallowing. Magic of Ming
is everywhere! And with us
forever whatever we care!

The poems get richer and in the central section there are pieces that inhabit a natural world with an identity as honest and secure as the early Les Murray. His lyricism, incidentally, for this readers had echoes of the early Ray Mathew and his lyrical language games.

'Macro-skills' appears about two thirds through the collection. It is a very appealing poem about the poet and gives it to us straight:

All poets have a speaking voice
with which they do their this and that,
their I supposes, death and taxes
with which they make such fond denials
if only to catch listeners short.

('fond denials' is another example of how Kelen plays back upon older language conventions to trap us again). The book ends with a group of travel poems and pieces - from Java to Amsterdam and Hungary. These show the poet working through a wider range of material and testing out his particular voice in different ways. If these later poems lack the intensity of the main sections of the book (too much diversity, too much kodakulture) they do show the poet preparing himself for further challenges. I, for one, look forward eagerly to where he goes from here. (Has he written more poems on his Hungarian travels, for instance, where one might expect some personal ancestor haunting?) He is already atop an impressive coastal range and we can hear his coo-eee splendidly.


Thomas Shapcott's most recent book is the novel Theatre of Darkness (Random House, 1988).


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Vol 2 No 2 October 1998
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady