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The opening poem of Greg McLaren’s haunting, admirably disciplined collection sees the speaker driving away from houses, apparently somewhere in the coalfields of the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, Australia, at night. His companion has been searching fruitlessly for a lost brother: penetrating deeper into the collection, we will realize that this lost brother is also the speaker’s own. As he gets further away, he sees ‘a darkness above the houses’; the night, he tells us, ‘is a wide space / entering everything’ (p. 9). Family loss, the vulnerability of the domestic sphere, the eyes turned back in search of the dead, the all-pervading quality of darkness: these themes, established at the outset of The Kurri Kurri Book of the Dead, quickly assert themselves as the book’s keynotes.
McLaren’s poems are loaded with the past and animated by the attempt to understand and recover it. Not simply a past characterized by loss, though that is the predominant tone: among the many other details of an earlier life that McLaren relates, he excels at capturing the iconic moments of childhood in a small town — birthdays, afternoons spent playing after school or helping in the garden, the boredom of stifling summer car trips to visit grandparents, aimless wandering beside train-tracks. The book’s early poems are filled with references to the child’s social universe: friends, parents, neighbours, extended family — a press of characters that takes on an increasing relief against the isolated, wounded figure that McLaren delineates in the poems’ speaker. Wounded, because, as the reader is gradually made aware, there is an unsettling darkness in the past events whose fragments the speaker retrieves. The childhood poems that constitute the first third of the book are full of vague menace and the hints of an inexplicit, catastrophic turn in the speaker’s early life. McLaren never explains what the trauma is that haunts his writing so pervasively, but details are teasingly scattered throughout the book: references to the lost brother; to someone (the brother? — we are never told) called John, in trouble again for not being happy; to wanting to ‘take a blow to my head / before we go back inside’ (p.19); to the time ‘when my family is whole’ (p. 26); and, most ominously, to the ‘man who wanted to be a priest’ who ‘chose my brother’ (p. 26).
The book opens, then, under the sign of mourning for an indefinite but nevertheless damaging and presumably violent loss, placed against a detailed, textured evocation of a dusty Hunter life. McLaren’s scene-setting is skilfully done. He doesn’t hesitate to deploy the clichés of working-class Australian suburbia: choko vines, muzzled greyhounds, weatherboard churches, Monaros, parents on shift-work. In less deft hands this could be hackneyed and inauthentic, but McLaren succeeds in making it his own, and his recreation of a childhood around the Hunter Valley town of Kurri Kurri or somewhere like it is, to my urban sensibility at least, utterly convincing.
The book as a whole, indeed, is marked by a courageous and imaginative localism: McLaren has no hesitation to present himself uncompromisingly as a pure product of his region, for whom Sydney and, God help us, Newcastle, are the distant, coveted metropolises. His family’s history, he says in ‘Everything family’, is plotted on the creased pages of the ancient Gregory’s street directory, an evocative icon of Australian life. McLaren’s ease with the representation of a certain conventional Australianness even extends to an appropriation of colonial-era mythology in ‘Yellow Billy’s Cave’, a poem about the hideout of the eponymous 1860s bushranger, part European, part Aboriginal, part Chinese. (McLaren claims in a note accompanying the poem’s original appearance in Snorkel that Yellow Billy was ‘a prominent figure in the oral history of the area around Cessnock when [he] was growing up there in the 1970s’; how far this is to be taken at face value isn’t clear.)
This would constitute unusual subject matter for most Australian poets of McLaren’s generation, whose would-be cosmopolitanism is scarcely compatible with the all too familiar and unfashionable commonplaces of national folklore. Yet here, as elsewhere, McLaren succeeds in avoiding the clichés of this subject matter and infuses it with something new and unexpected. In a similar way, a trite image of the Australian bush familiar from any country town souvenir shop, a flight of black cockatoos above eucalypts, is endowed with a wholly unaccustomed menacing value through the birds’ comparison to vultures.
‘Yellow Billy’s Cave’ and other poems take in a broad sweep of Hunter locales, which McLaren conveys in many fine and imaginative descriptions: the darkening sky is ‘an old lady’s bruise’ (p.19), cicadas ‘cram the thin black road with noise’ (p. 24), seen from a car, trees are ‘a blurred barcode / ... against the background of lake’ (p. 24). So physically present is this geography that it can often be evoked through reference to its smell: that of gums, dirt, dry sclerophyll, or even, bizarrely, underfed cows. In this world of smell, however, the speaker and all the other children of ‘Dirt’ ‘sweat without scent’ (p.19): the world is more real, more physical than they are. The landscape of the poems is never the object of impersonal contemplation, but always a setting for human activities and relationships, the repository of their sombre toll of memories. It is ‘a wide flap of bush / giddy with being mapped and surveyed for coal / and lost children’ (p. 27); as such, it offers a resistance to its occupants. In ‘Fence-posts’ — perhaps the strongest poem in this highly assured book — the gaze cannot scan over it freely, but must ‘drag across’ it (p. 28); the same poem ends with ‘your shadow / trailing on the ground behind you’, a suggestion of the way that places trap and hold the shades of the past. The only escape from the earth on offer is that granted to the cattle and horse bones in ‘Night Parrots’. These have been ‘weathered free’ of the earth: only the complete decay of all flesh offers any prospect of release.
The loss and mourning that are such strongly sounded accents in these poems are far from being uniquely attributed to the speaker’s experience: the book racks up an impressive roster of mortality in its first thirty pages alone, and it is generously shared around. In McLaren’s vision, life for everyone in the Hunter coalfields is haloed by death, death which is often, indeed, precipitated by the ‘thick rope’ of coal trucks (p. 26) that guarantee the region’s livelihood. As its title makes clear, much of the collection stands as an exercise in memory and as a tribute, or prayer, to the dead. The Kurri Kurri of the title poem is the place ‘where Mark Kelly died / on his way to school, crossing the railway line’ (p. 15), and this and other poems enumerate a catalogue of other fatalities: a stabbed taxi driver, ‘the kid who died / jumping off the coal train’ (p. 17), a dying grandmother, a drowned boy called Tony Schuck. The fact that it is so often children who die in these pages is just one aspect of the apparent bleakness of McLaren’s vision. And where it is not death itself waiting around the corner, childhood is, it seems, doomed anyway: if not just to the oppressive, threatening unpredictability of family or to regret for what might have been, then to the dark that ‘has things hidden behind it’ (p. 22), or to an adulthood of divorce and madness (‘Mixing cement’).
The bleakness of this perspective, however, is mitigated precisely to the extent that the traumas are recalled rather than presently lived: the passage of time has — partly — healed old wounds and dulled the pain of loss. The entrance to Yellow Billy’s cave, we read, is ‘soft and dank’, its ‘footing unsure and muffled’. The speaker here is no Orpheus, able to confidently brave the darkness assured that his lost wife can be found by a searcher intrepid enough. For the speaker in McLaren’s poems, access to the figures and events of the past has become uncertain and treacherous, and nothing anymore is sure or definite. In this haze of ignorance, as he tells us elsewhere, the only attitude to adopt is to be ‘resigned to knowing nothing with certainty’ (p. 28). Partly, one gathers, the lack of definition of the speaker’s past is a result of the depth of the trauma suffered: events as harmful as these, whatever they were, are just too painful to be easily recalled. But even though the poems’ speaker — and it is a speaker; the reader has the strong sense of a single voice at work throughout the collection —clearly longs for the resolution of his inchoate memories, their very lack of explicitness is already the sign of a healing. Events so dimly recalled have a softness; they cannot still be entirely harmful, and even if the speaker has not exorcised his ghosts fully, they are certainly held in abeyance.
The blur of a life recovering from past wounds is captured in miniature in ‘Self-portrait with pain relief’, without a doubt the most successful migraine poem I know. McLaren expertly conveys in this poem the same self-distancing, attenuated consciousness that animates the entire book: the speaker ‘slurs’ off the bed in a dark room,
wincing in reflex
at knives of light slicing
the cream walls through the blinds
trying to make sense
again of the hurt
leaving its warm impression
in the bed, on the pillow. (p. 50)
His outline is ‘doubled in the window-glass’, in shadow. This description of the speaker’s own person takes up a common theme in KKBD: the speaker himself often shares the ill-defined, penumbral quality of his recollections. He is presented as an indefinite figure, poised, like so much in this book, between life and something else. He has to talk to make himself real; he is not, it’s suggested at one point, even really on the earth. In ‘Lost’, we are told that his clearest memories are, appropriately, of roadside fenceposts, an image that crystallizes the book’s concern with liminal spaces and frail boundaries. These boundaries are inherently tied up with loss: the holes on the fenceposts through which red wire is strung are ‘jealous, forgetful eyes’, like the speaker’s own, which ‘trickle with relics of a life / someone has made a lie of’ (p. 20).
This concern extends well beyond the poems dedicated to piecing together the shattered memories of childhood. ‘Night parrots’, the second poem of ‘Cryptozoology’, a sequence much later in the book, is about a species of parrot ‘not yet in the pit / of official extinction’, but somewhere in the ‘marginal country’ (p. 66), a description that could well stand for almost every setting in the book. The first poem of the series, ‘Thylacine’, resurrects the Tasmanian tiger on video: the past, we are told, is ‘a thylacine caught in headlights’ — but, of course, the species is now extinct, and the night, like the other dimmed events of the histories evoked in KKBD, has no witnesses (p. 65).
What perhaps is most remarkable about KKBD, and equally hard to convey, is the lightness of touch with which McLaren treats his heavy themes. This is no small achievement: despite their painful subject matter, there is a movement and a freedom to the writing which never allows the poems’ subject to become overwhelming or deadening. This is largely a result of the allusive, spectral quality of the traumas the poems relate, and of the fact that many of the poems of the first section are ostensibly devoted to description of details of setting and circumstance which glance lightly off the baleful topics that form their real subject. But these topics are top heavy, and it is a tribute to McLaren’s sensitivity and skill that he succeeds in maintaining the poems’ buoyancy so thoroughly. There is a sort of joyfulness in the writing’s sensitivity and attentiveness which a truly damaged speaker could not muster.
Structurally, KKBD is arranged as an undifferentiated sequence of poems without explicit section divisions, but its contents still naturally fall into groups. The last of the initial poems of childhood reminiscence, ‘Curtains’, ends with the speaker telling us ‘I have begun to believe. There are so many things to believe in. / The sun filters through the clouds like a yellow bruise’. No sooner has this (partial) optimism been articulated, however, than it is immediately countered by the following poem, which announces itself with the foreboding title ‘And no birds sing’. But the change of mood suggested by this declaration leads in an entirely unexpected direction: ‘And no birds sing’ in no way returns us to the blackness of the speaker’s past. Instead, the poem turns out to be an eighteen-page fantasia on a famous episode of Australian literary history, the Ern Malley affair. McLaren, who has a PhD in Australian literature, tells us in an endnote that the poem is almost entirely a cento constructed from transcripts of the 1944 Max Harris Angry Penguins trial: evidence in a different form once again of the author’s interest in and commitment to a distinctively Australian literary ethos.
Let me put it simply: ‘And no birds sing’ is a great idea. The poem gives us glimpses of the bathetic confrontation between a nascent Australian literary modernism and the bumbling, straight-laced Victorianism of South Australian culture, embodied by the wonderfully named Jacob Andries Vogelsang, the police detective who features prominently in the trial. McLaren obviously had fun writing this poem, and makes hay with his material hilariously and with brio. ‘And no birds sing’ sends KKBD into a tongue-in-cheek, rollicking, comic mode, as surprising as it is refreshing after the emotional rigours of what has preceded:
experience as a police officer
might under certain circumstances tinge
my appreciation of literature. (p. 35)
The genitals refer to the sexual parts.
I think it is unusual
for the sexual parts to be referred to
in poetry. (p. 38)
I’m not sure that ‘And no birds sing’ repays a close second reading: it’s intended, and works wonderfully, as a jeu d’esprit, and its inclusion in KKBD gives the book a genuinely unpredictable and off-beat structure that considerably leavens its overall effect. In spite of the disconcerting change of mood accomplished by this burlesque sequence, it’s not drawing too long a bow, I think, to see a connection between it and the book’s earlier themes. ‘And no birds sing’ deals in a different key with many of the same ideas as the rest of KKBD. In reconstituting elements of the Angry Penguins trial, McLaren evinces the same interest in the fragmentary past and in the ambiguous authenticity and reality of its characters that figures earlier in the book.
‘And no birds sing’ is just one of several sequences in KKBD: after the title poem and ‘And no birds sing’ itself, the volume’s last third continues the form with ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a black dog’, ‘Buddhism decoder’ and the already mentioned ‘Cryptozoology’. The first of these sequences shows what the reader has by now come to recognize as one of McLaren’s trademark strengths: his facility for suddenly and unexpectedly breaking the prevailing mood of a poem. We see this several times in the collection: in the sudden, violent ‘Fuck it’ (p. 11) with which the speaker decides to throw away a stone given to him by his grandfather, trigger of the reminiscences of ‘Birthday’; and, in a different way, in these unexpected lines in ‘Yellow Billy’s Cave’:
Through the zip of a tent, I thought I once saw a boy
touch another boy’s chest. (pp. 68–69)
In ‘Thirteen ways’, the same technique shows up like this, more than half way through the poem, when the conventional metaphoricity of the ‘black dog’ image has by now been thoroughly established:
The black dog
which changes shape.
Will you marry it? (p. 54)
There’s something bold and assured in the way McLaren is prepared to literalize such a banal image, and in less confident hands the attempt would be gauche. But such is McLaren’s control and deftness of touch that these gestures are always successful. The opening-out of a poem’s texture achieved by this sort of effect is writ large in a sequence like ‘Buddhism decoder’, which brings together spirituality, childhood reminiscence, observations of the natural world and the wry irony of the everyday into a pleasingly ramshackle, leisurely whole:
the Vajrasattva mantra
in my head like a pop song.
I’m thinking of peeling the silver-gold
foil from a block of Old Gold,
I find myself craving
purification and chocolate. (p. 61)
These fragments convey, perhaps, the general economy and clarity of McLaren’s style. There is a finely disciplined craft evident in these poems, giving the reader the sense that every word and line has been carefully weighed and matured through unhurried, placid reflection. There is nothing restricted or hidebound in this: McLaren controls his material perfectly, and can turn the poems’ structure to a variety of effects — ‘Buddhism Decoder’, for instance, contains a change-the-lightbulb joke, and the subtle humour of the very title of ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a black dog’ is amusingly reflected in the absence of the promised last section from the body of the poem. Despite these flashes of humour — and these are not the only ones — there is an overarching sobriety and detachment to KKBD that lingers as one of the book’s lasting impressions, a speaking voice whose calm prevails over the turbulence of the events described. This is, obviously enough, entirely in keeping with the Buddhist ethos which seems to inform much of McLaren’s imagination.
Structurally, the poems gravitate to three or four line stanzas, and generally avoid formal patterning. Even in the exuberance of ‘And no birds sing’, they retain a self-control — a cautiousness, even — that suggests that more could always have been said. McLaren’s reflections are, indeed, everything the Ern Malley poems are not: restrained; thematically unified; apparently overtly biographical; largely conventional in their relation to language. At times, one catches echoes of the meditative world of a Charles Wright or Judith Beveridge; the latter, as it happens, is thanked by McLaren in the acknowledgements to the book. Above all in this versatile and satisfying collection, I was struck by McLaren’s willingness to draw from his own, thoroughly personal, local experiences, in order to extract from them themes of recognizably broader import. Not many people hail from Kurri Kurri, but McLaren’s skilful exploration of its public and personal geography will strike a chord in many readers. As McLaren’s first full-length collection, KKBD is an impressive — and impressively unified — debut.
Nick Riemer lives and works in Sydney. His collection ‘James Stinks (and
so does Chuck)’ was published by Puncher and Wattmann in 2005.