Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bethanie Blan­chard An­thony Lynch

Among his open forms, the poet re­turns pe­ri­od­i­cally to rhyming cou­plets and the qua­train. He is fond also of the rhetor­i­cal ques­tion to pon­der large is­sues. Oc­ca­sion­ally the lat­ter might seem a gloss, but it re­flects the vast­ness of the sub­ject — time, ex­is­tence, the uni­verse — un­der re­view. It is put to good ef­fect in The Trou­bled Weather of Hu­man­ity:

Else­where we can savour the in­ven­tive verbs and ad­jec­tives: ‘‘ be­med­dled’’, ‘‘ slum­mock’’, ‘‘ skir­ling’’, ‘‘ hydra-headed’’.

Not all the new work com­pels. That the ‘‘ juicy young woman’’ in Epi­fa­nia is read­ing Tac­i­tus’s An­nals of Im­pe­rial Rome doesn’t save the poem from voyeurism. Some­times, as in Sur­faces, the in­ser­tion of the po­lit­i­cal into an oth­er­wise un­re­lated topic or im­age seems to force state­ments of con­science. In both new and old po­ems, in­cor­po­ra­tion of the col­lo­quial and slang — ‘‘ lit­tle blighters’’, ‘‘ old bid­dies’’, ‘‘ just the shot’’, ‘‘ crook umpy’’, ‘‘ bright as a but­ton’’ — con­veys the in­tended Aussie ir­rev­er­ence (as when God is the crook umpy) but can also have a mildly de­flat­ing ef­fect on an oth­er­wise strong poem.

Among high­lights from this sur­vey of new and old from one of Aus­tralia’s most gen­er­a­tive po­ets are re­vis­its to Melbourne, Wal­lace-Crabbe’s cut­ting, lo­calised ver­sion of AD Hope’s Aus­tralia; And the World was Calm, in which our diminu­tive place is mar­vel­lously sketched in the ‘‘ lyri­cal moun­tains . . . We never read their huge minds, and we die’’; and the short, pow­er­ful post9/11 poem And Ter­ror: . . . is dogma even worse than the rav­ing beast of self, erect­ing our mere sin­gle­ness into the hor­rors of prin­ci­ple and buy­ing it a gun?

The metaphor of the ti­tle is the pur­suit of a bur­den that can’t be lo­cated in mem­ory. Yet the novel’s ‘‘ al­ba­tross’’ — the truth about what hap­pened those years ago — con­stantly dips and loops away. Twitcher has a slow, flat pace, with few mo­ments of light­ness to con­trast against the end­less grey of suf­fer­ing, loss, de­cep­tion and dan­ger. Say­well’s style is re­strained, but the nar­ra­tion rather too de­lib­er­ately re­treats from telling the back­story; we get a flash or a glim­mer be­fore the hori­zon once again turns still. The all too fleet­ing pres­ence of the ob­ject of the search might make read­ers tire of the pur­suit.

When the rev­e­la­tions do come, how­ever, they are af­fect­ing, with Kenno’s wish for a scar of his own ‘‘ so I could be­long to what hap­pened the way she does’’ con­sti­tut­ing a fur­ther blow to the fam­ily. With her sec­ond novel, Say­well has writ­ten skil­fully of the painful at­tempts to nav­i­gate moral­ity, sex­u­al­ity and fam­ily se­crets in ado­les­cence. Twitcher is an ex­plo­ration of the hard knowl­edge that comes with steps into adult­hood, where par­ents once ad­mired are re­vealed as fal­li­ble and flawed. We were bound to ap­plaud Two empty sig­ni­fiers now: Se­cu­rity and ter­ror.

Which is not to for­get Au­tumn Lines for Michael Hoff­man (‘‘I seem to be vot­ing my way across my life’’) and the won­der­fully acer­bic Old Men Dur­ing a Fall in Govern­ment — in an elec­tion year, just the shot.

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