Claire Stewart reviews Paul Mitchell

7 December 2004

book.jpgminorphysics by Paul Mitchell
IP, 2003

The first comparative poet who came to mind as I was reading this collection was Bruce Dawe, who shares 's alternating ocker flippancy and grave sensitivity. Like Dawe, Mitchell finds beauty and solace in the most seemingly mundane of subjects. His poems have a tendency to oscillate between sensory osmosis and abstract observation.

This collection of poems is divided into three chapters: Burbin', which houses poems dedicated to suburban living; minorphysics, where the poetry is more introspective and animistic; and Home Time, where the poems are both heartfelt dedications and childhood memoirs.

'That Other Suburb' is a classic example of suburban symbolism stripped bare, the diminishing facades between neighbours to the point that hanging one's underwear on the line in full view becomes common practice, (“..Y-fronts tell their dirty jokes to a chorus-line of panty hose”) a symptom the claustrophobia and lack of discretion of living in close quarters for far too long. The street and all the activity that it creates becomes an allegory of communal living:

(“Holden Geminis wake up coughing groping around for their false teeth”)

The nature versus culture element in 'Backyard Rites' takes a look into the artificial landscapes, the elements of modernity that seep into the wilderness that makes up one's backyard. The protagonist laments the absence of lawn in place for concrete. There is no spirituality, just the glow of the TV next door playing US sitcoms, not indigenous to this country. It is a touch voyeuristic with the protagonist sitting naked “in the couch grass” watching the neighbour from his backyard, relishing in the comforts that nature has to offer.

'Aspirational' is a particularly evocative mental snapshot of the irony of suburban isolation growing in the face of population density. Nothing less than a late model car is on display in the driveway, the working class make way for the nouveau riche, weatherboard homes are replaced with gentrification era townhouses, Do It Yourself becomes Pay Someone Else To Do It with the rise of Jim's Mowing and the smell of conspicuous consumption attracting door to door salespeople in droves.

There is a sense of reminiscence about an era where you knew the names of everyone in your street and lamenting the American inspired monoculture that is replacing it.

“Look how far we'll be.
We won't know ourselves or anyone”

'OurLand' is an ode to the Thursday night shopping experience and how it has become an integral part of our lives. It is a sensory experience that overfeeds us yet leaves us feeling unfulfilled: the food in the bains-marie that smells better than it tastes, the underemployment of the staff, the lounge acts that are impossible to drown out with conversation and finally to return home to wheelie bins with “[l]ids open, saluting us.”

The whole shopping experience has become a routine to fill a void, but what void are they trying to fill, their own or that of the empty bin? These people have everything and yet they have nothing. The artificial atmosphere is creating an environment that is made for the comfort of the customers but appears sterile.

“One day they'll build a swimming pool here;
there's an air-conditioned church,
reduced hours for Sundays. Plastic plants at the door are shiny?”

'Dredging Jerusalem' begins at the breakfast table over an article in the morning paper and continues in the bathtub with the protagonist's two children arguing over the ownership of “a plastic toy cooked up by a hamburger restaurant”. Here Mitchell is not only correlating the situation in the Middle East with the dispute between his two children in the bathtub but pinpointing on human instincts and where they begin and the consequences if he does not step in to rectify the situation.

The protagonist has the luxury of being able to turn away from the horror of what he is reading in the paper, and to this he acknowledges, and to intervene in the conflict between his two children, but he also realises that peace is also dependent on him with his symbolic gesture of turning the paper on it's back to form a wing spanned dove, having just split up the fight between his two children who are now “[e]ach content in a corner of their homeland”. He has nipped it in the bud while the children are still young, before the problem manifests.

'After Your Son's Death' is a very complex and heartfelt tribute to someone known to the author, who cannot participate in the wake afterward because of its seemingly celebratory atmosphere, as it is difficult to celebrate the death of someone who was taken long before their time.

The poem is told in second person, someone who empathises but cannot begin to understand what it is like to lose a child. While everyone is sharing their stories of the deceased person, the subject is stewing over the feelings of failure that they were not there at the time of his death to prevent it from happening. There is an air of insincere politeness that the protagonist can observe in empathy with the subject which appears to evade the other participants at the wake and results in the subject leaving their child's own “party”. While other participants may be grieving in their own way, the grief of losing your own child is a very personal one that nobody can ever understand.

Then there are the childhood musings. 'Kevin Robert ' is a vignette about a child's fascination with esoteric wonders of the adults' world. A younger version of Paul Mitchell is musing over the anonymity of his father's signature and how his name evolved into an indecipherable scribble and in 'Rating Maths' an older version is sitting in class working out which girls in the class have the best physical attributes.

The most profound poem in minorphysics is 'Stubby Bert and the True Sense of Everything'. Raw and heartfelt, it commences at the protagonist's grandfather's funeral. The former is contrasting the “three sober uncles” who lower his coffin into the grave from the brutish image that was their father. The nature of the funeral is very impersonal; the priest who read the eulogy uses euphemisms and appears to have never met the man.

The poem contains twenty four sub-headings, each an individual reference to Bert's character. More often than not the vignettes are unsavoury; Bert is uncouth, a gambler, a heavy drinker and a bullying husband and father, but there are lighter moments on offer, like the grandson combing over his bald patch and his stubborn insistence that he does not snore, even in the light of tape recorded evidence. There are even a few funny moments where Bert recalls “sniffing the cunts” of the tall African women and the mental image of him confronting a group of bikies in his Y-fronts armed with a bayonet is priceless.

By the end of the poem you feel for Bert, through the trail of wartime laments and the betrayal of the British during his time in World War Two through to his last rites and his regret that he treated his beloved wife so cruelly. Despite his tarnished character, you cannot help but feel for the tormented man.

I have to admit I did not really take to Mitchell's poetry at first. It was a little too meandering and hyper-Australian for my liking. I put in down for a few weeks before deciding to give it a second chance, and I'm glad I did. It was then that I discovered Mitchell's talent for drawing on things that we may see but give no credence to.

They are the little things that we observed as a child but became desensitised to over time. I remember once hearing that the late Sidney Nolan had said that it took him a few years to paint like an adult but that it had taken him several years to paint like a child. Mitchell also shares that ability to place himself in another perspective, particularly that of a child, so accurately and compassionately.

Claire Stewart possesses a BA in French and Anthropology. She is also a check-out chick and life model who is currently studying Website Design.

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