Four Capsule Reviews for Overland issue 199, 2010
Justin Clemens : Villain
Angela Gardner : Views of the Hudson
Homer Rieth : Wimmera
David McComb : Beautiful Waste
Justin Clemens : Villain, Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2009, isbn 9780980517958
The book’s title is a homonym for “Villon” - François Villon, the fifteenth century French poet, thief, and vagabond who at thirty-two and famously wrote ballads in French criminal slang . His work, once translated into English in the nineteenth century, was frowned upon by those with loftier poetic standards. Clemens makes inventive translations of Villon’s irreverent and often lewd poetry. “Ballade of Fried Tongues” is particularly histrionic as it hurls curses at flapping gossip derived from envy: “In soot and pitch, a bleach of slime/Of Jewess excrement, urine;/In scabrous wash of lepers’ legs;/From feet and boots, the scraps and dregs;/In viper’s blood and poisoned pride,/In foxes’, wolves’, and badgers’ smeg,/Let all those jealous tongues be fried!”.
The first section of the book, “Whirl”, circles around many forms from villanelle to couplet, from free and experimental to word play. The poems are melodramatic, atmospheric, hallucinatory. There are some villainous and violent thoughts and scenes - dreams and acts that include hangovers and very funny art critiques. The opening poem “Whirl” is a sensational lyrical sonnet. Justin Clemens has an affinity with the dark mythical underworld and he writes his sonnets to Orpheus. There is a kind of antic energy in the poems. There is little elegy here - anxiety and ludic tone dominate sweeter thoughts.
As Peter Conrad remarked recently “Art has a mission to offend, which is why the French decadents set out to épater le bourgeois…[to shock the middle class]” and under the post-avant beauties of Justin Clemens’ very cognisant intelligence there lurks more than a smidgin of French decadence. Clemens ups the ante in Ozpo when it comes to both topic and technique as he oxygenates traditional form for today’s readers.
Angela Gardner : Views of the Hudson, Shearsman Books, 2009, isbn 9781848610804
This collection's sixty poems are subtitled ‘psalms’ and each is numbered. There’s something immediately Scorsesesque about the subtitle ‘A New York Book of Psalms’ but Angela Gardner’s New York experience is too coolly considered for that association. As her subtitle implies, New York City evokes a religiosity. “I see moonlight as the promised land”. It is, entirely knowingly, a hallowed site for this artist/poet/pilgrim undertaking a first visit.
The collection starts on the plane trip and records the poet’s discovery of the place and its culture. The ‘Views’ of the title suggests a detachment. Gardner is not inhabiting the place but rather looking at it, and this sometimes renders the poems vague or impressionistic. She plays with signs without displaying feeling, or overloading them with meaning or irony.
Occasionally, there is a lament against materialism and its urban problems but Gardner's poems offer no way forward, no way to continue on. Helplessly, the homeless (my own generic) or vagabonds become ‘stylised’ - “while those left behind huddle in makeshift tents/(that laconic shelter left by incidental action)//He leans in the doorway almost stylised/a full length photorealist portrait” .
There is one startling instance of a raised voice when, tired of tourism, the narrator's " shoes pinch at these new streets/and another day’s high tide/of litter hits the sidewalks/and leaves the city exhausted” . The pilgrim declares “Emptiness, fullness what’s the difference?/Fuck beauty!" yet, unable to sustain her anger, she collapses - “tears stream down my face” - at the end of the poem,.
The artists here are mostly well-known icons (Basquiat, Rothko, Mapplethorpe etc) but there are some beautifully sexualised inferences in more abstract responses to late night galleries that make a line directly to pornographies.
Competent, confident, calm - these poems are not representations. Like the cover image, they comprise indistinct surfaces/textures, aesthetic shapes. This suite is minimal and exacting. It’s art-poetry, a sustained ‘looking at’ the views, like a film shot from a window.
Homer Rieth: Wimmera, Black Pepper, 2009, isbn 9781876044619
“Wimmera” is a classical epic poem about the Wimmera, the Victorian district in which Homer Rieth lives. Here though, the poet substitutes living human beings for gods and goddesses. The scope and ambition in this grand poem is laudable.
Interestingly, Homer Rieth is a long-ago migrant to Australia and there is a distinctly European philosophical subtext here, as is to be expected in an epic - “so what is it then about any place/that fills and empties alike/the world with its life”. The poem does, however, have its historical heroics that should please those who enjoy Australian idiosyncrasies - ”I can still see he says Jim Hardingham’s bullockies/the bales stacked four storeys high/on top of them a bunch of shearers with the look in their eyes/of a job well done” There are also many passages of descriptive, uncontrived pastoral poetry that flow easily and with certain beauty.
Although divided into twelve sections, at 360 pages the poem is a bit relentless, having little variation in tone throughout - this in spite of Rieth’s rich imaginings and admirable tenacity. It was composed as part of his Doctorate of Creative Arts, and that probably explains its length, which might be a problem in an age of shrinking attention spans. No matter how judicious and broad the reportage, range of form and topic, antitheses of allusion and the literal, I found that I began to flip through sections and felt that it might be easier to come to know the Wimmera by reading an actual history of the district. (I hear lovers of epic poetry howling!)
David McComb: Beautiful Waste, Fremantle Press, 2009, isbn 9781921361708
Singer-songwriters who write poetry are different from poets. Their poetry is always that much nearer to being sung than read. Songs and poetry aren't seamless - they’re different genre. The writing of Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed - all trumpeted as ‘poets’ - is not as complicated, as neurotic nor as consciously interested in poetic form as most poets.
Beautiful Waste is a very interesting collection of poems by an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter who died at thirty-six. Some of the poems here can seem inchoate or naïve with their various traces of almost Pre-Raphaelite symbolism and dreaminess. In “Lancelin” McComb has a refrain of lines beginning “O cry created” and in the mysterious “Maidenhead” - “The poison tree, the drooping scarlet berries/The little girl by the lake/Her pure white frock/The tempting lily…”.
There are poems set in beach-side Perth suburbs and ‘wide open road’ poems that echo McComb’s famous songs. There is young love, and its pop-music-scene disappointments and declarations. There are also the pubs where rockers play, score drugs and vomit on the carpet as the surf rolls on outside under a huge sky and drying sandy wind. There are great lines - “The skies have broken out in a rash” - and lovely, simple moments - “Paper sheets will keep me warm/in winter nights that lie ahead./Ink will be both food and drink,/cloth binding for my parchment bed.”
David McComb’s poetry is wrought from the pleasurable clichés of lyrical romanticism. John Kinsella’s introduction explains that McComb is a ‘de-romanticiser, in some senses, an anti-troubadour’ This collection captures the workings of the mind of a young Australian musician and a sense of the 1980s and early 90s.