Four Books, Five Poets

Pam Brown

and the good luck godsfly to Timor Timur.
These poems generously open up numinous and real

galactic worlds, enrich suburban domesticities
Kelen: Trans-Sumatran Highway and other poems
(polonius press, $rZ.g S).

S. K.

Ouyang Yu: Songs of the Last Chinese Poet (Wild Peony,
$rs).
John Kinsella: The Hunt(Fremantle Arts Centre Press,
$r6.gs).

Miriel Lenore: travelling alone together& louise Cnsp:
Ruby Camp (Spinifex Press, $rg.gS).

("They began as each other's armchair/in endless rapt

embrace/evolving to a sofa & a desk, afar/ but in the

same room"), revise poetic history ('shelley in
Heaven'), fire political concern (Koori ghosts at the
Coorong, nuclear fission at Hiroshima, Russian destruction of Chechnya), all with pungent humorous
insight. S. K. Kelen ranges through these expansive
realms and sometimes enters the more quietly profound as in the clear pathos of 'Goodbyel which fare-

ouR vEARS AGo, as a memo

to my lT-obsessed

Iibrary co-workers, I pinned S. K. Kelen's poem
'The Information Superhighway'to the office
wall. Maybe, one day, we would all work from on-line
homes - and heed the poem's warning:

wells

a

friend who has died:

Everyone's responsible for everything
now there are onlyfeathers left
so kiss the

lightning, atickettothe stars.

The sunbeams have arrived

My house

is a city state.
Outdoors there's a weird fog

Expatriate Chinese poet Ouyang Yu's discursive

I don'twantto go

monologues from "a sick manfrom asia",disgruntled,

outin.

F ore sts

are flattene d to fuel
computerfadories,

disappointed and deracinated by the 'west', are a
chronicle of despair. Ouyang Yu has high expecta-

the trees are routed once &for all.
Whenthe lasttiger inthe wild died
the tigers in the zoo just vanished.

tions of himself and of poetry in a country that places
scant value on poetry.lt's the wrong place - making
the subject doubly displaced. He identifies some
backward aspects of materiallst Australian culture
-"probably I should start playing tattslotto/or buying
raffle tickets/like the stupid australians or australianchinese " and the way bqllying is an unchallenged
norm - "that australianboys or girls sang ching chong
chinaman/and say fuck or idiots or nick off or shit or
get lost/and never get punished/that chinese boys do
thathere too."
As is usual in confessional poetry this multiplenarrator speaks as a victim involved in a process leading to cathartic self-destruction, rebellion or anger.
For Ouyang Yu there's a therapeutic efficacy in these
monologues. A rant against literary editors is shrill ". . . p oetry / r ej e de d thr ough/the ar s ehole s of lit. mag s /
(i me an litte r e d mag g ots) / in the n ext c e ntury o r s o /let's
kill all the editors/and publishfiom headtop/now you
want minimalism/ you dickhead/that's what you can

of Trans- a reminder of its probable im-

There's a drawing of a tiger on the cover

Sumatran Highway

minent extinction. Various other animals, reptiles
and birds traverse backyards, paddocks and jungles
in this book.
Steve Kelen is an enthusiastic traveller and applies wry analytic acumen to travel-experiences as
in the final stanzaof. 'The Ramayana':
Blood rivers run into the sea.
Turtle soup dreams of revenge.
Dragons champ attheir leashes,
cr az e d buffalo e s stamp e de
But everyone isforgiven. Volcanoes chuckle.
Frogs roar louder and louder kick starting a
generator.
Et e rnitlt's g r e e n t e r r ac e s : g e ck o e s' I au ght e r.
A goldenfrog sitting on a doorframe
means storms of fortune.
I order another drink atthe lungle Inn
to celebrate Freedom Day

tt4

overland.r5z.1998

minim ali z e y our s e lf into."
It's an embittered view seeing mostly anomie. Even
a cliched symbol of renewal, rs depressing-"spring is now deepinits owndespair/shapedlike a

spring, usually

farce".And there's not much empathy for the slippage

of history and general dislocation that Aussie dolts

- it being only zro years since setilement.
There's a filmic element to John Kinsella's Ifte

endure

Hunt, suggesting golden-filtered depictions of vast
landscape -'Days of Heaven', maybe, or'Witness'. But
it's Western Australia and it's a period film - the time
seems like an age ago. Perhaps it's because in my ur-

banity I link pastoralists with ABC-TV's'Landline' or
native title discourse and know litile of the actual
Iives of wheat farmers that these poems seem so
powerful.
The language of this book is necessarily straightforward (unlike Kinsella's po-mo mode) in order to
transport the dark content. As George Steiner says,
these poems are "narratives of feeling" comprised of

many stories. They are also often metaphoric. In
'Echidna'the poet and a farmer track an echidna but

they lose track and wander in amnesiac circles:
...

exhuming

the deeply choric question of rendering
our meanderings into prose,
into idle chatterto accompany

t993 following John ESrre's expedition from Adelaide,
SA to Albany, WA around r5o years ago. Miriel Lenore
had wanted to see some particular Nullarbor stone
formations - "seeking landscapes not land" - and, instead, ended up examining comparative responses to

the contemporary journey taken by eight older
women and two bus drivers retracing the route of the
twenty-five-year-old explorer.
Miriel Lenore avoids any pursuit of imagined authEnticity and is knowingly critical in relationto history and so doesn't speak as John Eyre. euotations
from Eyre's journals are Iinchpins throughout the
book along withthe complexities of the womens'lifestories.
The poems are direct and often droll when encountering some of the lackadaisical junkyardish
places that are the outback- abandoned, peeling bits
and pieces contained in majestic landscapes. In,Israelite Bay'the travellers "arrive at last to discover/
few human imprints/if you except aweighttifiing machine/beside the road"_ Lenore is also adept at disap-

pointment:

afew beers in the pub that night

easy to miss the sculpture on the plain

under Mt Arden:
John Kinsella's penchant for the pastoral is

brilliantly

exercised in this fantastic catalogue of death-filled
life in the wheatfields. Its almost-gothic undertone
is enhanced

bythe use of slightlyold-fashionedwords

atrainwheelfixed on atilted rail
to honour Eyre
who led the way

-' bier' rather than'coffin','husbandry','the plenty'. Here,
men are buried alive by falling into wheat silos, mice

was a Bicentennial proj ect

nests are preserved in superphosphate, packs of wild
marauding dogs attack sheep, kangaroos fight off
and rip apart domestic dogs, emus are tripped and

of the local primary school
where the Aboriginal pupils
could not compete in races

then brutally slaughtered by semi-automatic rifle
fire, rabbits are shot and dragged to trail scent for
the capture oflarger beasts, entrapped cats chew off
their paws to free themselves. Dogs'corpses, stillborn
babies, mangyfoxes hunted out, snakes decapitated
with shovels, a rabbiter's suicide in a tin humpy, the
horror of a drunken student prank turning into a
lynching at a bush ball, weird religious ceremonies
under black moons, Iightning striking wandoo trees.
The schoolboy poet thinks of Christo when he has to
plastic-wrap the hay bales and knows that soon he,ll
Ieave these difficult fields. John Kinsella's pastorals
of dread, hardship and graphic beauty are written

with a deep compassion.
travelling alone together recounts a trip taken in

this most unlikely of his monuments

unless they wore shoes

they did not own

and at the same place -'under Mt Arden (i)'
the wild sad cry of swans
brings Eyrefiom his tent

their northwardflight
promising that inland sea
whose glitter would be salt
These poems are multi-layered but never dense or affected, the language being so intelligible and precise.

In just sixty pages Louise Crisp renders an inten_
sity which is sometimes obscurely personal yet al-

t998.r5z.overland u5

ways accessible in terms of poetics. This is a nonlinear, womanly, spiritual, mystical set of poems
where meaning is deliberately restrained and elu-

- " but if I am fish can I ev e r /b e rainbowl" The bush
(in the Snowy Mountains ) is mysterious. The recurring symbols are flat oval stones from a meandering
river, blood, masks and bones. Here is sensuality "you suck on my tongue/like a pink-red stone" - and
mythical allegory sive

inthe shallows
going pastthe clefi
the hoodwidens
opening like renewal
the four men camped there
wake next morning
I splash

fe eling tr ansfo r me d ov e rnight

intofemale
Crisp is respectful of nature;of ghosts, of indigenous
people and she records their massacre in the region. She has aflairfor devising moments of heightened poetics that produce an originalityvia extreme

simplicity:
the weather glides out

of my bones

growing shorter & shorter
the sunfolds me up

for winter
nothought
no memory
Pam Brown is overland's poetry editor.