Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Americans Abroad

Americans Abroard.

Dingo Sky – S.K. Kelen
Angus and Robertson, 1993
(ISBN 0 207 17949 2, pb, 102 pp. $14.95)

Dancing on the Drainboard – Lynn Hard
Angus and Robertson, 1993
(ISBN 0 207 17950 6, pb, 113 pp. $14.95)

There is an American connection in both of these attractive looking new releases from poets of two generations. Steve Kelen of the post-TV age is, among other things, familiar with, but uncomfortable about, the Americanisation of the world while Lynn Hard, from the generation before, comes from the US and was a late arriver in Australia.

Australian poetry is about to be confronted with the TV generation of poets and that will inevitably mean a redefining of the American influence on our lives and language. In what is an intensely Australian book Kelen includes epigraphs from John McEnroe, Star-Trek as well as easily assimilating pop culture references from ABBA to Madonna. And this in a book that is actively reinforcing the Australian names of things, taking them back for ourselves:

Eucalypt, acacia and melaleuca seeds
blow down the valley
there’s blood in the earth
bare feet at the bora ring

As the title suggests, Kelen’s book of poems is often looking up, to the trees and the sky and beyond, to ‘bright clouds’ and galaxies where ‘the star cruiser Love / breaks up in the asteroids’. These poems are full of birds, the Australian language and landscape but this is no nostalgic treatment of rural Australia. Rather it is a wide ranging book, as contemporary as headlines, and as likely to comment on the Gulf War or Chernobyl as Sydney girls or Brindabella. Linking the poems is a witty voice in tune with pop culture, acutely aware of the present. If there is nostalgia, it is for the losses of the past, ‘from a time / before history invaded’. So these are often post-colonial political poems, of things irrevocably altered, ‘And all this occurred ten million years ago / when green and blue abounded like prayer’ or more recently ‘Coca-Cola conquers / ancient heartlands’. It is an international polemic that drives Kelen here. He is concerned with the connections between things, how ‘Everything is linked / by endless invisible strings’ finding evidence everywhere of ‘the whole fascist bullshit thing’.

This readable book surprised me at times with its range and its ambitious attempts to make sense of the disparate world of images. When I read a poem like ‘The Golden Encyclopedia’ I was reminded again of my own childhood and the linear views of ‘progress’ we were sold and I had the feeling I was reading a real contemporary, a post-TV, post baby-boomer at home with images of:

Square tomatoes
the latest Telstar satellite
a dog in space &
an artist’s impression
of a likely moon landing-craft
shows what the future looks like

All very well, you might imagine, until we are reminded of ‘Volume Two – Special Supplement – The Discovery and Settlement of Australia’, which relegated the Aborigines to:

A race of sullen
lifesavers who’d been accidentally
washed ashore on bits of bark
and had, since time immemorial, lived
in wrecked station wagons
and traded only in yams
& pointillist art.

If there is a problem with Kelen’s energetic vitality and ‘change the world’ approach, it may be that the net he casts is too wide and that there is a simplification that sometimes occurs in response to the complex historical processes he confronts. In poems that range vividly from image to image sometimes he can get no further in the end than ‘it’s sad’ or ‘alas’ or ‘stop all the crap that’s wrecking / the Earth, creating misery’. Such simplicity is sometimes a deliberate result of his directness of language, ‘What I see is great’, ‘life can be fun’, but it also can’t help but reinforce the notion that, for some of these questions, no answers are possible. More effective for me were the questions and the energy, the repeated compelling image of some powerful force being set free:

A thousand years ago
Mauritian sailors let

a leopard go
in the North West.

or just the strangely naive optimism present in some of the poems that, aware of the nature of change and loss and dispossession, nevertheless bring into a kind of coherence an appreciation also of the beauty and multiple meanings in life, the ‘shimmery stars’, the ‘loveliness’ of the land, the desire to be ‘pure hearted like lorikeets’.

Lynn Hard’s work is altogether more personal and lyrical in nature than Kelen’s, narrower in scope and more intense, more focussed and more likely to address individuals, often other writers. Hard came to Australia from the US in 1977 and I kept looking for what might be called an American influence in his voice, but perhaps, like others aspects of American culture, that’s just ubiquitous now. What I found instead was a very Australian tendency not to take yourself too seriously, a tendency to step back from the brink of the profound that is at times disarming, at others letting the reader off the hook. Unlike Kelen, Hard is, in fact, more likely to refer to Rubens than McEnroe but you could never accuse this well read sounding voice of being dry. In fact this is a voice in touch with other humans, warm and generous of spirit.

This is writing after a silence (Hard apparently wrote a good deal in the United States in the mid-60s but this is his first book) and there are old places to revisit, old relationships to reinterpret. Relationships are at the centre of many of the best poems here and this is as much a book of love poems as anything else; of love beginning, ending or enduring, or of its secret knowledge:

And to see her sitting
at her geometrical desk
one would never imagine
that inside she is all curve
and arabesque

It is a book on a human scale, wryly observed: ‘She wears her appeal / as a Hussar slings his jacket’ strangely old fashioned at times in its earnest simplicity and in its reliance on images of battle and conquering to describe the processes of love. There is at times the rather traditional sense of the male seducer as conqueror or possessor of the more passive female at the same time as being defeated by her. Rather than attempting to change the world the voice here is, we are reminded of Donne perhaps, more inclined to see the world contained within the lovers:

The worlds stopped today
and shall only move again
at the nudge of your lips

The title poem brings in focus another strand of this book, the concerns with music, the stage and the temporary state of performance and life: of jazz and movies and stars like Astaire, ‘A line drawing / in Webster’s / defining the definition / of debonair’. In the title poem it is morning and as the birds ‘are tuning up behind the sets’ two blowflies, images of our own lives perhaps, are dancing on the drainboard (American for the sink I presume) their dance of love and death.

we’re waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here
time hurries by
we’re here and gone

However, despite these concerns there is rarely the feeling that these poems are mere ‘performances’. Hard creates a voice that seems genuinely connected with its audience. So much so that at times we seem like eavesdroppers on private conversations, especially in Part Two where the poems are addressed to individuals. There are few barriers here and there is a directness of communication that doesn’t seem to have been tricked up for us; that seems to come from something warmer and more genuine. These are some of the strongest poems in the collection, such as the poem on Billy Marshall-Stoneking’s play about Ezra Pound. In the final section of the book Hard somewhat dutifully revisits his American past and there are reflections on places and people now gone but it is the poems of affection and love that stand out in a book that never forgets the simply human dimensions of our experience.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm

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