Amelia Walker Reviews David McCooey and Cameron Lowe

13 June 2011

Graphic by David McCooey
Whitmore Press, 2010

Porch Music by Cameron Lowe
Whitmore Press, 2010

Though relatively young, Geelong-based Whitmore Press’ poetry series already boasts strong collections by Barry Hill, Paul Kane and Maria Takolander, amongst others. With Graphic by David McCooey and Porch Music by Cameron Lowe, Whitmore’s winning streak continues. Both books brim with inventive, surprising and thought-provoking new poetry.

Deakin University Associate Professor and Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature editor McCooey has published numerous critical works about Australian poetry and writing. The chapbook Graphic is his second poetry collection. His first, Blister Pack (Salt, 2005) won the 2006 Mary Gilmore Award and was shortlisted for four other prizes. Graphic includes two sequences of poetry. The first, longer sequence, ‘After Kubrick’ offers a study of the films of Stanley Kubrick. The second, three-poem sequence, ‘Memory and Slaughter’ sets childhood innocence against the brutality of nature, human progress and death.

Stylistically, McCooey’s poems are clean-shaven. Every single syllable is put to work. Punctuation is minimal, and purposeful. Even the blank spaces are loaded. McCooey know exactly what not to say, which triggers not to pull . This is evident in ‘Look’, which chronicles events from Kubrick’s life. It begins:

The world-famous film director
began his professional life
as a photographer. He sold
his first photograph while he
was still at school: an image
of a forlorn and aged newsstand
vendor, with the Daily Mail
announcing ‘F.D.R. Dead’,
and above that the words
‘Roosevelt Dead’ in the
PM Daily. It was April 1945.

Some readers may call this prose with line breaks, or argue that it is really an essay or even just a disjointed list. But poetry happens here through the selection of information, its order and the visual arrangement. Line breaks after words like “sold”, “image” and “words” create ripples on the surface of language, demanding rumination over moments that could otherwise pass unnoticed. Like a chain of smoke rings, this kind of poetry can appear lazy and effortless – until you attempt to create it yourself. As with smoke rings, the illusion of easy dilettantism is part of the appeal.

The same concentrated use of enjambment features in the opening poem, ‘Notes on 2001: A Space Odyssey’: “Inside, there is the sound / of technology. / Outside, there is the sound / of nothing.” In ‘Whaling Station’ unease is born through the contrast between the speaker’s straightforward, emotionally neutral tone and the poem’s gruesome subject matter:

…How, out of the dark ocean,

did they find the ocean-coloured bodies of
living whales to turn into pieces? What mysterious
industry was there to turn them into

those pieces? Flenser and Hookman
worked the blubber, while Saw Man and his
steam-driven saw cut the whales’ heads to pieces …

The stanza-groupings in ‘Whaling Station’ jar against what might seem the natural rhythm of language. Words and ideas become carved up, dangling over white space like nervous rock-climbers. A callous reader could call this clumsy. Perhaps it is, but only consciously so. Forcing language into structures it can’t fit provides a metaphor for humanity’s attempts to master nature.

Before opening Graphic I worried that, being a virtual Kubrick-film virgin, I might struggle. This proved no issue. The poems include enough background information to make engagement just as easy for ignoramuses like me as for hardcore Kubrick devotees.

My one criticism is that Graphic’s two sections feel unbalanced. The second has a tacked-on-at-the-end-because-we-had-some-spare-space-and-why-the-heck-not feel. Not that it’s not a good sequence; it is. But it feels thematically disjointed from the first section and may have sat more comfortably in a separate collection. But since when was poetry about comfort? And the two do create a nice contrast.

Speaking of which, readers who crave contrast will get a solid fix from Porch Music, the first full-length collection from Geelong-based plasterer and PhD candidate Cameron Lowe. Lowe has previously published a chapbook of poetry, Throwing Stones at the Sun (Whitmore, 2005). His other published works span a versatile range of genres including short stories, reviews, interviews, articles and literary criticism. He has also served as editor for The Ardent Sun and Core.

Lowe is equally versatile within the genre of poetry, as Porch Music demonstrates through the exploration of diverse subjects in multiple styles. Again, there are two sections. ‘Balloon days’ meanders with equal parts humour, reflection and sensuality through Australian streets, backyards, bedrooms, beaches, kitchens, dance-floors and of course porches, while ‘Corrosive littoral’ features twelve poems in response to the art of James Gleeson. As with McCooey’s Kubrick sequence, a knowledge of Gleeson’s art is not a necessary requirement for engaging with these poems. (Though in these cyber times, aficionado status lies no further than a few clicks away…)

My impression, reading Porch Music, is that Lowe is not a poet who simply writes, but rather a poet who reads – and reads and reads and reads – and a poet who possesses great passion for the larger community that is writing and the arts, both past and present, local and global. Many poems feature dedications to or quotations from other writers, musicians and artists. These intertextual hotspots hook up to pop culture icons such as Beck and The Pixies as readily as to “serious” poetry – both contemporary and traditional, Australian and international. Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, John Forbes, Gig Ryan, Le Van Tai, Peter Porter, MTC Cronin, Laurie Duggan, John Tranter, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and even – surprise, surprise – David McCooey all score a mention (McCooey albeit by way of an apology).

This suggests eclectic influences. Indeed, Lowe’s own style(s) of writing is (are) just as – if not more – eclectic. The abstract maelstroms of complex symbols and imagery in prose poems such as ‘Congratulations on the Maintenance of an Identity’ – “You’re invited to this scattering of seeds, the parting of red sheets, the fiction of cohesion: from this they say I grow” – seem worlds away from the easy, conversational realism of ‘Summer’ – “In your baggy shorts and T-shirt / you could be a surfer, and you know it” – and ‘December Morning’:

Trucks changing gear along Ormond Road
wake you first – then pigeons
summon the circling dawn

Then there’s the controlled, haiku-esque density of short, two line stanzas in poems such as ‘The sum’:

Loaves,
discs of sun,

moth wings drifting
through an ancient night

The poems in Porch Music do not generally tend towards traditional forms – at least not in immediately obvious ways. Form is, however, crucial. ‘Paling Fence’, ‘Solitude’, ‘Candle’ and ‘Blue’ subtly create – and break – their own quiet conventions. They do so through patterns involving, for instance, numbers of words. These sit beneath the poetry’s surface, supporting rather than shouting over it. For example, ‘Paling Fence’:

The old paling
fence –

outside the south
window –

holds a cigarette
butt

between cracked
fingers

Because he writes in so many styles, a certain breed of reviewer might condemn Lowe for parroting other writers or describe him as yet-to-find-his-own-voice. I am not that breed of reviewer. In my view, taking on multiple voices and playing with multiple styles is far more difficult – and interesting – than one instantly identifiable way of writing.

Another problematic aspect in using multiple styles is that certain readers will love certain poems and hate others. Readers who enjoy Lowe’s casual, realist and conversational poems about everyday life may find themselves wanting to tear out the abstract, somewhat-like-what-might-happen-if-David-Lynch-drank-absynthe-with-Dali prose poems. And vice versa. That different readers will like and dislike different things is true of almost any poetry collection, but with Porch Music it is particularly so. Is this good or bad? It is, in my view, problematic; and that does not equal a problem.

My main criticism of Porch Music is the same as for Graphic – and carries the same disclaimer. The book’s overall structure seems uneven. In particular, there seems an imbalance between sections, the first being much longer than the second. The second contains a strong connecting theme and the ordering of poems creates a sense of journey. I would have liked to have seen the first section – which in contrast seems random and unwieldy – split into smaller, tighter sections to achieve a similar effect.

Given that I’ve raised the same issue twice, perhaps it’s something the publisher could consider in the future. Or perhaps I should buy a self-help book to address my irrational cravings for rationalism (only a book with well-balanced chapter-lengths). It is a minute quibble, nothing to detract from the excellent poetry. Whitmore otherwise produce very attractive, professional books that are wholly pleasant to read. As I said in my introduction, the winning streak continues. McCooey’s Graphic and Lowe’s Porch Music make two strong additions to an already exciting poetry series. I look forward to reading the future writings of both poets, and to further publications from Whitmore Press.

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Amelia Walker

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