Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Three Poets

The Majestic Rollerink – Heather Cam
Heinemann, 1996.

Penelope’s Knees – Joanne Burns
UQP, 1996.

Laika’s Run – Kerry Scuffins
Five Islands, 1995, $12.95

Padding alone round my inner apartment mid-morning, pale light and assorted city sounds ease in from the street as various exotic and eccentric characters that you would never get in the suburbs parade past the window for my amusement. I’d like to travel but my cat ‘Jerome’ slinks around my feet and the sun catches the shiny covers of three new books of poetry over there by the espresso machine that I’ve got to review. I sigh and light another cigarette…

Don’t you just hate reviews that open like that? You know, ‘the reviewer as real subject’. Bugger the books. I’ll get to them later.

No, I’ll get to them now. I called this ‘travellers’ in that often futile kind of attempt to make some links, to make some connections between these different voices. They are women who write about being a mother or not being a mother, about being daughters, who chronicle the funny and not so funny, the absurd and the simply sad from visits to the dentist to inner city angst. Have they got anything in common? They’ve all taught I think, Heather Cam and Joanne Burns have both, according to the blurbs, taught Creative Writing. And Kerry Scuffins? Well, if ‘Mondayitis’ is to be believed, she’s done a turn in the classroom too.

But that’s not it. Better to see them all perhaps as out there somewhere, setting determinedly on adventures, sometimes as doomed and as futile as Laika’s run itself, sometimes remarkably rewarding. They’re travellers; journeys figure prominently all round, pushing the boundaries back, looking for something, something that’s rarely found but the search itself is necessary; ‘Restlessness blew me here, / curiosity and a gambler’s hunch, / a taste for risk, a touch of pioneer’. (Cam)

Joane Burns has been everywhere it seems and has eight previous books listed in her credits. penelope’s knees is a remarkably full book, so much so that it seems squashed towards the end as even the type gets smaller to fit it all in. It’s a book brimming with what I’d call prose poems and expansive, reflective commentary: talkative, generous and knowing. I was reminded at times of Les Murray’s long overflowing lines though not his subjects. The long discursive lines suit the narrative based structures of some of the best poems like ‘taxi’ and ‘photography’. The traveller is especially evident in the long title sequence that ends the book, ‘penelope’s knees: a travelogue’. In a kind of rambling post Odyssey, Penny who ‘struggles, sways upwards’, ‘cranky in south india’ and other places besides. Funnily enough, since I labelled all these poets ‘travellers’, Burn also has a healthy obsession with home in all its rented, leased and lived in variations, past dwellings and the life between the walls.

Burns’ poems in this book are readable and prosey, funny, streetwise, alive and alert, did I mention that they’re funny? Unsolemn. Un-in-awe of things. The ‘liberalities’ section with its poems on ‘the library of wigs’, of beds, laughs, t-shirts and dreams is typical of the way Burns constructs things in this book, playing with the ideas, letting them have their head, asking the ‘what ifs’ and letting the ideas unfold naturally, surprisingly, as ‘the library of wigs’:

the library of wigs has multiple copies of the same style of
wig, for example, the presleyian, moroeian warholian, the
thathcherian nixonian churchillian; the bart and marge
simpsonian the dollypartonican the eltonjohnesque.
people transport the wig of their choice home in its
transparent and locked protective case to enjoy its
eminence, for the generous one month loan period.

Burns’ journeys are often such imaginary and whimsical odysseys, irreverent pastiches and exercises, my life as a penny has become my life as a $50 bill, but that’s inflation for you. There are harder more concrete journeys too, unfulfilled moments like in her powerful poem ‘photography’, ‘silently, sadly. on the verge of regret.’ There is an almost world weary bitterness in the inner city of ‘carnal knowledge’ with its ‘in the time it takes / a junkie to spew / in the gutter opposite’ and its final lines, ‘the cappuccino kids, sucking up / the froth rising high above / the rims of their cups like detergent / foam in a blocked drain’. I guess this is the ‘urban anthropologist’s gaze on the world’ that the blurb talks about, but I would have thought that this book was generally more connected to its world than that image suggests.

Burns approach is inevitably going to produce an unven book and some of the poems from the ‘ancient history’ and especially the ‘fiddlesticks’ section are too fragmentary for my liking and even have the appearance of something of an exercise. The private jotting as poem has never really convinced me though I’m aware that, with the successful packaging and publication of various writers’ ‘journal’s over the last few years, maybe I’m out of step on that one. I preferred the poems where Burn’s honesty and courage came through, none better perhaps than in ‘sleepwalking’ a poem about loss and mourning that is confronting in its journal-like treatment of that most final of journeys, death.

Heather Cam’s poems look more like poems, more episodic, with subjects and lines that stop before they hit the edge of the paper. She’s Canadian originally, only been here twenty years for God’s sake!, and I’m tempted to say that it’s an international kind of accent we hear in this book. Cam tends to use italics often and for lots of reasons, as an alternative voice sometimes, or to add expression and emphasis. It’s a travelled voice too, and a persona that’s been around and seen a few things: lover, mother, divorcee. What do you call relationships now, she muses, ‘Marriage sounds too frumpy for what we’ve got / but Affair’s too temporary, sleazy and hot’. It’s the voice of a traveller: train journeys in India, robbery in Java, starvation in Rwanda, skipping stone lessons on the edge of the North American prairies. It’s a celebration of the international, the global village as in the multicultural image of her son’s ‘International Children’s Party’, ‘at the powwow in the playground / of his school in Australia Street.’ This poet’s territory is everywhere

Cam writes with care and cool clarity. The poems don’t rely on complex imagery but more often on the power of the simple event isolated from the life around it. Like all poets she is constantly looking to be surprised and she surprises us too.

This splash of the unexpected:
a black woman washing her feet
in a high white sink
in the Damen at Zurich Airport.
Her ten black toes
dramatic, emphatic trespassers
amidst all that spotless porcelain,
glinting chrome and daunting Swiss propriety.

Cam is concerned also with sexual politics and power; the kinds of things that go wrong and right with relationships: date rape, two-timing, divorce, ‘The spartan single bed announces a sex-life on ice, / life’s lived out of boxes, left on the shelf, pushed out of sight’. She seems alert to it all; on the lookout for the moments that define us or change us or break us. Small pleasures and the bruising pleasure of simply being alive. Life as ‘majestic rollerrink’, the ‘whole marvellous machine’.

Kerry Scuffins is a rawer kind of book than Cams, a book almost in two sections; the first a strongly personal collection of poems about poetry, love, poems to unborn children and children waiting to be born, children that were and aren’t now, the world is a dangerous places; ‘Babies are dragged, squealing / blue into our world’. The poems of loss like ‘Jack the Lad’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Melanie’s Corner ‘ (1 & 2) are among the most powerful in the book. The second half of the book shifts perspective to poems of more public declaration and more public subjects, almost into performance mode at times. If I prefer the poems of the first half it’s mainly a matter of personal preference.

Scuffin’s book is personal and intense at times, draining. The list of literary antecedents is explicit and there are echoes of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Dransfield and Burroughs through the first half in particular. Death and loss and grieving are recurring themes but the book is never morbid; you must go on with the journey.

doomed all of us
who go too far too often

& friends sit up till dawn to remember and mourn
& write something down
to keep something around

Scuffin’s poems are aware of the physical too, of the body, illness, sexuality. What darkens such awarenesses is the sense of desolation and futility and loneliness that permeates many of the best poems in this collection as in the end of the poem ‘Land’s End’:

I come across two men digging a hole
they have no faces they are
burying the last horse
they arrange its legs
in attitudes of flight.

I liked Scuffin’s book and the way it opens and closes with strong poems about journeys. The opening, ‘Some distance past Kennett River’, has a strong sense of place uncommon in these three books. Even in the finding of a new and secret place there are uncertainties and strange observers, ‘a pale day moon / lurks in the corner of the sky like a scrap / of tattered lace.’ The final poem, ‘Laika’s Journey’, about the doomed dog in Sputnik 2 on its ultimate journey, sums up some of the bleakness of journeys that have no end: ‘continued on to no destination / no new worlds / no salvation’.

Funnily, strangely appropriately, after all this, Joanne Burns ends Penelope’s oddysey with a domestic image. It’s been a long day and ‘Penelope settles down in front of the tv evening news, clips her toenails onto the week’s program, lift out, clint eastwood’s on the cover, and unscrews the mentholatum, anoints her knees then lounges back waiting for them to purr’. After all these adventures it’s good to be home. Now if only I could find my damn cat; I’d take it for a walk.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

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Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:34 pm

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