Slivers by Ian McBryde
Flat Chat Press, 2005
Nine Hours North by Tim Sinclair
Two recent Australian poetry titles – one from a 'cult' adult (and at times 'adults only') poet, another from a newcomer writing for 'young adults'; the former published by a new small press and the latter by one of the world's most recognisable publishing empires; the former experimental and minimalist and the latter conventional and extensive; and so on – offer formally different yet discursively complimentary views of the state of the poetic word. In spite of their blatant differences, Ian McBryde's Slivers and Tim Sinclair's Nine Hours North both convey a seemingly pessimistic discourse, one consumed with disenchantment, the death of things, and a growing awareness of 'the end'.
Slivers is Canadian-born Melbourne poet Ian McBryde's fifth collection, and his most formally innovative to date. Whilst in the past this 'gothic' 'performance poet' has taken risks with subject matter (most notably with the harrowing Holocaust-themed poems of Domain), in his latest book he primarily experiments with style and pushes the boundaries of the poetic language by altogether abandoning the tenet of enjambment. All the poems of this collection are one line long; that is, in each case the poem terminates where the line ends. So, in effect, these lines seem more like maxims, or at least lyrically condensed 'kernels of wisdom', than poems as such. For example:
The Lacotah were wrong; there is no good day to die.
Except for death, everything else fails us.
It would, however, be tiresome and perhaps futile to agonise over whether these 'slivers' are 'real' poems or not, and whether their quality should be assessed in terms of their adherence (or otherwise) to any rule of versification. What is most striking about McBryde's poetic aphorisms – if that's what they are – is their preoccupation with death, catastrophe and what Freud might call the Uncanny. At their best, these lines evoke a potent sense of destruction and gloom without pushing beyond the limitations and possibilities of innuendo; and they can be read as 'slips' that indicate – but do not disclose – their source of anxiety and trauma. They are, in other words, provocative and suggestive without explicating their pernicious provenance and becoming obvious. For example:
How black is your magic? Call me.
Relax. I kept my word, burned the negatives.
If your blood begins to streak her teeth, leave.
And (this reviewer's favourite):
Christmas, Santa's claws deep in my throat.
On the other hand, such a minimalist and quotable style runs the risk of becoming quotidian at times, and some (but thankfully only a few) of the poems/lines in Slivers simply describe a natural phenomenon and only function in reference to a 'poetic' reality. For example:
Heart-frantic, a puppy runs after the car that dumped him.
Night gathers across the river.
All in all, the poignant pessimism of this poetry does not only relate to the 'darkness' of its themes and content – violence, abandonment, death, and in a few instances, the apocalypse – but also precisely to its minimalism and prosaic/linear nature. It could be surmised that in these days of 'the death of poetry', 'the end of the poem' and the like, poets – and highly accomplished and well-established ones at that – are compelled to mask their poems as quotations and user-friendly “poetic soundbites” (as per the book's back-cover blurb) and in effect validate the nihilism of an eschatological discourse. It could be said of McBryde's 'slivers', for example, that they are poems that end before they begin; or that they are aborted poems. Either way, there is no denying that a good deal of these 'slivers' are intriguing, enigmatic and suitably creepy; and the book as a whole makes for a fitting addition to this fascinating avant-garde poet's oeuvre.
Almost as equally pessimistic is the ostensibly more commercial and conventional 'verse novel' Nine Hours North by Adelaide 'emerging poet' Tim Sinclair. This book deals with the end of a romantic relationship, the end of a sexual infatuation, and the end of the narrator's work as an English teacher in Japan. All these endings, however, are somehow subsumed into an Orientalist travel narrative that, coupled with the narrative's 'young adult' voice, explain the book's publication by the most mainstream of mainstream publishers, Penguin Books. There is, for example, plenty here for lovers of scenic locations with exotic names as the novel's post-adolescent Australian narrator Adam and his girlfriend Sarah tour foreign cities and travel the quaint countryside. In 'Up', for example:
Along the grey ocean coast
then inland up a cycle path,
up and up and up.
It's smooth, it's bitumen, it's off the road,
but it's up and up
through a suspended swim of droplets –
hours and hours
as the trees and vines and luscious growth
push vibrantly towards us.
And then, at last, the top.
We cycle-stagger in
to the village of Shikotsuko.
Further enhancing its commercial appeal, the novel also chronicles Adam's 'journey of self-discovery'; his 'rites of passage' from a diffident boy to, yes, a confident man. He falls out of love with Sarah, has a crush on another Western girl called Marianne, gets drunk with the latter, but desists from having sex with her while still living with the former, and so on. Beneath the surface of this moralist and positivist narrative, however, occasionally something cynical simmers and spills over the conventions of its Bildungsroman parameters, although Sinclair chooses to express his misgivings – about love, life, happiness, etc – in a less subtle and more 'comical' style than Ian McBryde. In 'For general exhibition', for example, he satirises Sarah's ignorance by showing her weep at 'some Hollywood schmaltz' instead of wondering about where Adam has been during the evening (he's been flirting with Marianne in her house and contemplating infidelity):
She's almost half-way through
some Hollywood schmaltz she's hired.
I lie next to her on the futon,
let the images wash over me.
The floor's covered in maps and brochures,
and pages and pages
of Sarah notes.
Credits roll ten minutes later.
She blows her nose and hugs me.
'Did you have a nice day?'
'Um. yeah. It was good.'
'Good. Let's go to bed.'
This is, almost needless to say, very lucid and accessible poetry; and, as with the previous item, here an argument could be had about whether this prosaic narration constitutes for 'real' poetry or if it's merely 'cut-up prose'. Such an argument, however, is unnecessary, particularly since this book is clearly intended for a mainstream readership who, unlike a handful of diehard poetry purists, could not care less about such 'academic' debates as the difference between poetry and prose, between the novel and narrative verse proper, etc. A critical poetry aficionado could also take issue with the text's syntax and phrases, some of which – e.g. “many-cameraed queues” or “a bladder that's ready to wetly explode” – are, at the very least, ineffective. But, once again, such concerns seem insignificant to the book's intention (to, one would assume, appeal to young mainstream readers); and as such it is almost unnecessary to further analyse and discuss this item from a prosodic perspective. This said, Sinclair should be acknowledged for his ambition and contribution to the hybrid genre of 'verse novel', and for his addressing, albeit fleetingly, the complexities of an 'East meets West' cross-cultural paradigm.
It would be interesting to see if Nine Hours North achieves the same commercial success as the 'verse novels' of Dorothy Porter, which the former clearly emulates by, among other things, comprising page-long poems all in the voice of the same narrator telling a linear narrative. But, at any rate, its publication does not herald the long-awaited return to poetry by the major publishers, as this book is, in spite of its apparent 'verse' form, first and foremost a very marketable composite of travel writing, 'romantic comedy' and 'young adult' fiction. Tim Sinclair may soon become the next Steven Herrick – or Nick Earls, for that matter – but his financial success or otherwise is unlikely to either reverse or accelerate the putative 'end' of Australian poetry.