Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Performances, Public and Private

Selected Poems – Graham Rowlands
Wakefield Press, 1992
(ISBN 1 86254 275 9, pb., 94 pp. $-)

Replies to the Questionnaire on Love-Kevin Brophy
Five Island Press Associates, 1992
(ISBN 1 875604 00 6, pb., 64 pp. $-)

I suppose a poem is generally a kind of performance. Public, theatrical orchestrations, designed to be instantly accessible when read aloud in a crowded pub, or inward looking monologues that make the reader feel almost guilty to be reading, are both aware of an audience and an intended response. There are probably not too many writers who aren’t aware of the effect they’re trying to create, of the intended response to their private sounding or more public utterances. Kevin Brophy’s ‘Replies to the Questionnaire of Love’ and Graham Rowlands, ‘Selected Poems’ contain performances of both kinds.

With three novels and a long standing co-editorship of the small press magazine, Going Down Swinging, behind him, Kevin Brophy is a well-known name on the Melbourne literary scene. His first collection of poetry adds another dimension to his work. As the title suggests, ideas about love are central to this collection. This is a book concerned with sexual politics and the politics of parties, domestic battles and the physical routine of affection; ‘you can’t live with me / because of the way I use towels’. Brophy’s poems are often particular and focussed. He writes of setting up house in the inner city, of children and not becoming complacent and ‘suburban’; ‘We edge into property with terror’. His is the poetry of domestic disenchantment and enchantment, ‘infinite wheels in the domestic machinery of bliss’.

Implicit in the title of the book is a quest for answers, in statistics and the ‘trip meters’ of life: ‘We listen like accountants / to our hearts’. It is a recurring idea here; the desire to calculate the incalculable,

Statisticians reveal
that 984 out of 1000 unwanted pregnancies
happen while pop music is playing’.

Of course, no replies to the questionnaire on love are finally adequate. Brophy is aware that no cataloguing of the lists of life in Brunswick or of what four year old children might say, ‘Can a fish cry?’, are sufficient. Maybe the only possible response is how ‘almost anything can become important’.

There is a also a more public aspect to Brophy’s voice. His performances are sometimes more ambitious and wide-ranging, of world events; ‘tomorrow / Tiananmen Square will be wiped clean and empty as the sky’, or on cities like Canberra or Melbourne, ‘you winter scarf in football colours’. These are poems firmly in the public domain, of society and social commentary as of the Cafe Society Cafe;

No-one eats there.
No-one believes in it.
So this hotel now has topless barmaids,
a different topless girl each week,
as though their breasts are worn away in seven days of staring.

Sometimes these poems show the influence of the Performance Poetry Push, which probably means they’d read well aloud. Certainly, lines like; ‘you can come back now. / I’ve cleaned the mice shit out of the cupboards’ and the wonderfully titled, ‘They’re Calling Me A Fat Moll but I’m Skinny’, create powerful voices that beg to be spoken aloud. In both kinds of performances Brophy manages to create a voice of his own. If I prefer his more modest and introspective explorations of love and domesticity to his more public and pronouncements, perhaps it’s just because I’m more comfortable with the volume!

Adelaide poet, Graham Rowland’s work is lighter and brighter than Brophy’s . This is a ‘selected’, and the seventy odd poems here are the best of twenty years of writing, six published books and hundreds of unpublished poems: a prodigious output. The book’s blurb makes much of this feature of Rowland’s work, that this is ‘a tiny fraction of his work’. This seems a strange claim when you consider that this is a form where you often hear other poets boasting of how they can only manage six poems a year. And, apart from several powerful uncollected personal poems at the end of the book that seem to touch on something more important to Rowland, there’s little obvious sign of development in the voice over this time.

Rowland is a people’s poet, a poet of public performance poems and pen-portraits on subjects as diverse as Galileo, T.S.Eliot, James McAuley and Jean-Paul Satre. His is a more loquacious kind of voice than Brophy’s, wide-ranging, chatty, well read, a bit of a know-all, but likeable and accessible for all that.

Like Brophy, Rowland also writes often about love, but without the close, sometimes claustrophobic intimacy. In poems addressed to lovers, Rowland attempts to recall the memorable moment when ‘neither of us said anything memorable / or even anything we remember’, and though there are performances in many voices and from many perspectives and much talk of ‘games’ and of the frustration at why ‘can’t you hold, can’t you keep some moment of her’, there is also at times, the caught lyrical anti-moment:

We cupped our hands in the first pool
our eyes and hands could call a pool.
The icebergs slapped us in the face
& molten glass in the sun
was trickling down the uplands.

Rowland’s poems are often conversational in tone, anecdotal and colloquial, occasional and episodic; of marking exam papers, visiting an institution for boys, a school reunion. If the poems here occasionally seem to fall into the pattern of an exercise, and there is lack of variation in voice over the volume, there is, especially in several new poems at the end of the book, a freshness and directness of voice that is immediate, compelling and evocative:

A few friends. Two cats for my wife. My wife
& the dozens of daffodils and I nod our heads and agree
that, by our time, seventy years are many.
Love works a love-change in me at last
as her lips to a daffodil meet mine to a daffodil.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

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Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

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