Andrew Fuhrmann Reviews Bruce Dawe’s Plays in Verse: Kevin Almighty and Blind Spots

1 February 2014

This is more like Dawe at his best: the contrast of the classical and the informal, the nod towards cycles of renewal (his enduring theme) and the unexpected intensity of that last line. But elsewhere the literary references – and there are many, from Milton to Machiavelli – are too bold, sounding ridiculous in the half-made mouths of his rough parodies, clashing badly with their laconic waffle.

Behind all this sits the maudlin figure of Ozzie, bemoaning the parlous state of party politics, politicians shamming while youth unemployment rises, the queue of the homeless continuing to grow, farmers doing it tough and supermarkets playing hardball with the necessities of life. But, of course, as Ozzie, full of ressentiment, freely admits:

... look who’s talkin’ ... it’s silly old Ozzie
With no more influence than any male mozzie,
So go tell your pollie; but what’d be the use
They’re too busy practicing personal abuse,
Fired up by Canberra jungle juice.

Nothing to be done. What’s the point of kicking at the pricks? The grass is green, the mountain is steep, and whoever you vote for the government gets in.

Each play is a cavalcade, no more than the sum of its parts, with no real interaction between characters (to the extent that there is characterisation). Both invite slapstick impersonations, with plenty of room for comic business, but the doggerel is wearying, scene to scene and page to page. Of course it’s nothing more than a private frolic. Imagine an actual show where politicians are asked to stand before an audience and make rowing motions while singing:

Slow, slow, slow the boats,
To accommodate the latest schemes
How can we all of us pull together
With so many different dreams?

Why did Dawe frame these satires as drama? Yes, the three-way tussle between Gillard and Rudd and Abbott was dramatic (in one limited sense of the word). But theatre hardly encourages the compression from which his best verse benefits, and it exacerbates his tendency to overstuff all his monologues with empty phrases and ocker gestures. Perhaps he should have followed the example of Calvin Trillins’s Deciding the Next Decider – a verse recapitulation of the 2008 American presidential election – and parcelled out his satire in short, topical jabs, a model that would have been better suited to his talent for single-page cameo poems.

But I’m not convinced Dawe has ever shown much spark for satire. He is an expansive, sympathetic writer, more ready to mourn victims than skewer bullies. Though he often protests, he rarely manages the kind of sustained hatred – the inverted desire – that Ezra Pound thought was the true motive of successful poetic satire. ‘There isn’t an ounce of true bile in him. What was it Imre Salusinszky said? A decent man and a decent poet.’ If ever Dawe achieves more than mere decency – and he certainly he does – it is not as a satirist.

Still, Jack Hibberd once described him as ‘our most gifted and pungent verse-satirist’. Maybe these books represent only an octogenarian’s dotage or indulgence. They certainly lack pungency. But there is a ghost lurking between the lines of this poet who might have written tragicomedies – he certainly has compassion enough, and is genuinely moved by his fellow battlers. Sometimes he’s so convincing in his concern that he manages to move us, too, in spite our prejudices and snobberies. This is what we sense in the final dirge of Kevin Almighty as the fallen hero leaves the stage:

Perhaps I just came on too strong, too soon,
And I was not that bright new sun I once had been,
But rather, like a very clouded moon
As lucky 07 became unlucky 13
(‘Unlucky for some!’ the bingo caller cries
Ah well, one does one’s best. At least one tries!)
“Unlucky for some!” the Bingo caller cries.
Ah well, I’m not the sort that when he loses, dies.

There is a fleeting note of melancholy in that repetition, but most of this has at best an ‘articulate monotony’. Blind Spots takes its name from the way we, all of us, especially the politicians, are overtaken by events, by what comes without warning —

I suddenly thought of how this kind
Of thing that catches you from behind,
Is somethin’ that happens a lot of the time

Such shocks may be a horror for politicians and battlers alike, but it’s what you hope for in art, even in satire: the sting of the unexpected. One minute we’re in congested city streets, distinctly drawn but dreary as they get, the next you’re blindsided by an oblivion not for hire:

Blink, blink. CEMETERY. Silence.

But these satires are nothing like his ‘Enter Without So Much as Knocking’. They don’t glide like ghosts or whisper without assertion, the other voice, the ‘one and two is three’ voice, the voice which comes from the hopeless rubbish of Bruce Dawe at his worst, reminds us – qualitatively – of the Wordsworth everyone wants to forget.

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About Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is the current performing arts editor for Time Out Melbourne.

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