Payoffs in distinct prose style
Cassandra Atherton’s Exhumed (Grand Parade Poets) is all prose poems. Her nervy style is distinct from an earlier generation of prose poets (Burns, Gary Catalano, Ania Walwicz); it feels both post-punk and post-John Forbes.
The poems are short, associative and fast, their speed enabled by the spare use of punctuation. The punning association at times can feel predictable, especially when employing literary cliche, but there are humorous payoffs: “Bah Humbert!” ( Butterfly Hunter).
Exhumed’s first section, titled inter, suggests the isolating, burying aspect of being in a relationship, while also acknowledging the dynamic of literary, cinematic and rock music allusion that helps produce the poems. (There are five pages of sources.) Many of the poems draw on intertextual material to thicken a romantic scene. Borrowed titles such as Lolita and A Room of One’s Own come with an amount of thematic resonance for Atherton to work with (or against). Nevertheless, the poems could actually bear more intertextuality, borrowing more than reference and narrative allusion.
The reigning affective mode could be said to be lighthearted angst. In P.R.B., in lines that justify the book’s title, Atherton’s narrator claims to be “Broken hearted”, but this is immediately followed with “I become your posthumous Beatrice. Dig me up Dante! Exhume me”. Romance’s I-you axis can become tiresome, and Atherton seems to be continually trying to enliven things, even if that means playing dead.
Her attitude allows her to get away with outrageous puns, like that of Callous, a poem on the theme of opera. There’s a sudden shift to third person in The Fairest of Them All and Sleeping Beauty. The fairytale rewrite is familiar territory but, coming after variations on so many adultoriented texts, seems to recast the whole (Anglophone-Western literary-cinematic narrative) assemblage as examples of fairytale.
The concluding poem of this section, Queen of the May, is an extended, ambitious sequence based on Alice in Wonderland: perhaps hinting at Atherton’s next direction. An unusually short poem is a standout, its brevity creating intensity: “I remember us drinking wine at the top of the Rialto. You let me slip my tongue into your tiny glass of golden liquid. Sweet vignette. I have drunk the juice wrung from angels’ hair” ( Just Desserts). D.C. Pigeons is great, and comes as a relief from allusion and human interiority, hinting at (world) pigeon power. I’d like to have read more like this and More, a poem with a more subdued tone and more measured rhythm.
Has there been an Australian poet as troubadourish and piratical as Duncan Hose? In Bunratty (Puncher & Wattmann, 76pp, $25), Hose single-handedly reinstitutes (an imaginary) Ireland as the mother of the poet-ratbag-leprechaun: or pretends to. And this is fair enough if you think how many Irish were forced to come here and imagine Ireland from then on.
Through sheer poetic lewdness, Hose offers an antidote to art’s decades of earnestness about the (human) body: “one can’t help th emotes and / mites / That get in you and up you like seed and turbodiesel … with a click of the throat well make a song to modify your brisket” ( Hand Cramp Shantey); “I haveso in my gullet … I mauve my tongue ( Pea and Cream Shantey); “I fingerput a red rabbit on your furksome ladybelly” ( Liquor’s not like that).
The book can be read as an argument for the wastrel life, which does indeed have a product besides death. It’s easy to imagine such nonneoliberal excellence being completely ignored. But this is a human condition “GODDAMMIT’ ( Charm of a bivalve chantey). It’s not all Irish, nor bone-idle insobriety, either; it’s a response to an imaginary Auden’s (or someone’s) pronouncement that poetry be playful or drunken speech, linguistically badly behaved. And if it not be the speech of the king of Bunratty castle, then maybe that of the “Mayor of Merimbula”.
There’s a lot of reading and melopoeia in this Poundean pileup, more sweet-sounding than anything I can think of in Australian English, that perhaps must stray greatly to make it: “Afollow a trail of thumblets of black whiskey” ( Drag Racing Shantey). If I want to misspell English, that’s the effect a Hose dose has. Bunratty is a reminder that white culture is weird and varied: it doesn’t define the rest with its normality.
If it’s pastiche it’s pastiche as virus, as raucous caucus, slurping up all sorts of lingo from the grave. It’s only the recurring “O” that seems dead and uncharming, tending to provide unworked-for expression. The series of 10 shanties are the book’s major contribution to Australian poetry. Think Courland Penders as a leaky airship with a naked waiting Oscar the Grouch, and the only thing on the menu clams in alcoholic gravy. Love it or throw up.
The title of DJ Huppatz’s happy avatar (Puncher & Wattmann, 72pp, $25) indicates a different concern with the linguistic present, loopily ironising consumer and internet culture. As the apparently found poem Herbal Essences makes clear, unsustainable products often selfaccuse. Huppatz’s immersion in flarf (a New York-based poetry movement which produced poems from internet searches, often combined with deliberate bad taste) is apparent: but the tone is less aggressive, happier. happy avatar’s poems have a conceptual and syntactic ease: their register moving in and out of different modes of internet speak.
It may be partly due to the (small) font, but I had the impression of a particular, sentencebased, collage practice, of sentences arranged to fit regular stanzas. Huppatz’s tonal consistency means that linebreaks have barely any effect: “The afterimage of statistics / flicker under a fluorescent tube / and the carnival is so remote / you can only daydream its edges” ( Keep Pressing). In On Golden Soil, sound deforms sense (a Russian formalist definition of poetry), yet a personal intonation in the last line has an ironic boggling effect, as if a computer just turned into a person, so of course they are making sense: Iron or wiggle unwrought in petrified matter the market will bear lambast at last on sunny shores a former silo now makes a decent cappuccino … Online you forget china’s peaks and scale time crusts flooded or quaked rates are rates but so much of what goes on is beyond me
Narration veers from super-intelligent to moronic (rutabagas in Hollywood, anyone?) without letting go for a moment. It’s a highly Americanised work, but only, I think, the kind that an outsider can write; and Huppatz uses the approach in order to make local comment: “Whoa, slow down there Banjo, whaddaya / mean there’s a NEW Australian poetry?” ( Please Upvote For Great Truth).
The negotiation of internet vernacular is a contemporary experience, and one poetry seems eminently suited to deal with. As is the dissolution — and re-solution — of the subject: “I seem sixty and married … ERROR: invalid access … I should really put in for a raise” ( Invalid Access). I don’t want to give the impression of the poems as exercises in ironic knowingness, though that is a risk they take: as much as anything, they seem to be about complicity, of the world as anti-cookie jar, where everyone’s hands smell bad. There is no redemption here, or answers, unless hyper-discomfort can be said to be a form of grace (see Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels). Yet Huppatz as avatar does seem, in this latest version of impersonality poetics, to be happy.
Written with Adrienne Rich and Rumi as apparent guides, Shari Kocher’s The NonSequitur of Snow (Puncher & Wattmann, 62pp, $25) is very different again from the preceding three. Her poems for the most part are of a rare modesty and lightness. The two-page poem Strawberries, for example, narrates a story of a marriage proposal in a strawberry field — that the narrator’s lover doesn’t remember taking place — without becoming icky or indulgent. Clay presents a mother, son and grandmother together making clay angels for a nativity table. The grandmother “hasn’t visited in years”; a comment that creates a separation between the two women. The poem consists largely of the grandmother’s loving relation with the boy. It concludes: and tilts my son’s head (his shining head) to plant a kiss that began long ago in the top left-hand corner of the window now framing her face the bones of her face her fine dry hair on fire
It’s a remarkable ending, the transcendent metaphor given to the grandmother, in the gradually shifting voice of the grudging mother: an image of unusual generosity, as if, after denying that her son is an angel, she admits, without any sign of sentiment, that her mother is one.
There appears to be something significant for the poet in the image of the mother’s hair: it recurs in My Singing Empty Hands, another intergenerational poem, told through a scene of two sisters, rowing (in both senses). The poem is a balancing act between the cloying title and the sister’s bad mood. There are eight different smells and two tastes: “my sister’s words / smell strongly of washing powder … my sister’s hands on the oars / smell of soap and some sinister / cheap perfume my daughter sometimes / wears when she is angry … I taste the snow in the air between us … my sister’s tears / taste like lamingtons”. The poem ends with smell and the mother’s hair: “the smell of iron filings / something burning / she wears our mother’s hair”. Kocher combines both pathos and synaesthesia, as if the image of the mother’s hair produces the smell of burning.
Following Rich, rather than Rumi, Kocher’s tongue is not always quiet, particularly in the ambitious longer poems Notes from the Abyss and The Bridge; both, however, despite the wit of “jug jug jug” in the former, cite Eliot unnecessarily. More subtly, A Letter to Dorothy Hewett is admirable in its unpretentious thinking through of what Hewett’s death meant to the younger poet, and there’s a great Woolfean ekphrasis in The Canvas. is a poet and critic.
THE BOOK CAN BE READ AS AN ARGUMENT FOR THE WASTREL LIFE