Heather Taylor Johnson reviews Ken Bolton

14 February 2007

attheflashandatthebaci2.jpgAt the Flash & at the Baci by Ken Bolton
Wakefield Press, 2006

The best way to read Ken Bolton's poetry is to sit down and read Ken Bolton's poetry. Trying to decipher or even appreciate his style can be frustrating if the reader is only given the odd poem in a random literary magazine; and such a reading could result in Bolton appearing indulgent in his verse, perhaps working too hard (or not hard enough) at being clever. But opening up a collection of Bolton's, in this case At the Flash & at the Baci, and reading a few consecutive poems, from beginning to end, could leave a reader feeling as though she has been witness to something new in Australian poetry.

At first it may appear that Bolton rambles: he lists first names of friends, artists, musicians and critics, as though the reader should know who these people are – this method could cause a reader to feel distanced from the poet and possibly indifference. But as we journey with Bolton through Flash & Baci and revisit these names and places, the adverse begins to happen: the reader begins to see who and what are important to the poet (art, books, people, head space). The reader begins to see how the author's world revolves and, since this is translated through verse, Bolton's is actually a very personal invitation.

He has conversations with himself and with us simultaneously, allowing us to be both momentary eavesdropper and long-time confidant and through these exchanges, we begin to feel we actually know Bolton-and it's not just what he wants us to know. It's as if he cannot hide anything from us or the point of what he is doing would be lost. So we get to be a part of every small thing that comes into his mind as he looks around, mostly drinking coffee at the Flash or the Baci in Adelaide's CBD, and in these small things, bigger themes come to surface. The impetus of Henry Miller comes to mind (though subject matter and lyricism are entirely different). He is working through his thoughts and simultaneously thinking about writing them down and as he does this we can see him writing them down, coffee steaming in the mug next to him. In 'Home Town', for example:

Driving into work while
Cath reads about driving around London
& wondering when will I next write a poem
or whether to just work on Gwendolyn
a poem of John's & mine & maybe I should
it is half mine, I drop Cath off, do a
U-turn & scoot down to the EAF, park, go inside
check the mail empty my bag a little
lock up again & set off for the coffee shop
where I'll read or write a poem or a
review-or work on Gwendolyn

In between the proper nouns lies the word choice, and there doesn't seem to be too much happening there. It would be apt to say that Bolton is not overly concerned with the beauty of language, but this turns out to be a good thing. His poetry stresses the accessibility of prose and we need this accessibility if we are to glean any sort of meaning from his at first seemingly idle tangents. There is, however, a sense of urgency in said tangents. Interestingly, as each poem builds upon another, his listing becomes less tangent-based and more cohesive as a sketchy philosophical foundation. There is so much doting upon the everyday in such discombobulated detail that, in the end, we see what he may be trying to say about life and the big picture. It is in this, I believe, that Bolton's language becomes unique; his randomness becomes context; and his prose poetry. In 'Halogen Pam', for example:

Actually Pam, you should move down here: I go outside-
& the air is exactly what I want from Sydney-so moist
it is almost cool, & softly bright-& there's another thing

that is very Sydney-or Melbourne's idea of Sydney-the great
doorway to the T-shirt shop, filled with the fake jaws of a shark-
that you step through. When it first opened up

I saw a Japanese tourist
delightedly getting his wife to photograph him
standing in it. Unfortunately, the t-shirts they sell

are terrible-full of jokes about sharks-gross
views of Australian life, the sense of humour they appeal to
making one despair-of creeping Americanization

    -like an old man.

On the other hand, they seem to be going out of business.

    I write this

with a pencil-it's my lunchbreak now (these last
seven lines). But the pencil drags too slow-

on this particular paper-so I stop here:
back at the same table
in the coffee shop.

I read instead.

Though it may seem as if I have reached the conclusion that Bolton is letting us in on his life's philosophy or that Bolton even has a life philosophy, it is important to note that Bolton would not want us to think he is pinning anything down. In 'Traffic Noises, Cups, Voices', for example: 'It's/a rhetoric I can't stand. I/just want to have my thoughts, not/understand them. Does this/make sense? Nope.' But Bolton is making sense: his is a style that floats between the liminal spaces of stream-of-consciousness with no apparent path and meticulously thought-out musings with nicely rounded edges and it's cerebral to its core. He is clever; his verse breaks traditional notions of poetry and causes us to ask if, indeed, it is poetry.

At the Flash & at the Baci proves to us that Ken Bolton is a prime example of a poet breaking new ground in Australian poetry. This collection is experimental and, love it or hate it, Australian poetry could do with more experimentation. Bolton leads us through his urban spheres by alleyways not even known to locals, by taking wrong turns and running red lights. In the end, he gets us there. 'There' might not be where he initially intended but that's part of the thrill. And it certainly is a fascinating place to be.

Heather Taylor Johnson has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide and is one of the poetry editors of Wet Ink .

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