James Jiang Reviews Duncan Hose’s The Jewelled Shillelagh

By | 5 February 2021

In The Jewelled Shillelagh, there’s a noticeable fascination with outlawry and antisocial forms of association. We meet ‘Les Saboteurs the most tender assbiters of these sixteen counties’, are informed that ‘the South Gundagai Molls’ rule ‘Candelo Speedway’, and become reacquainted with some native indigents: ‘Howe, Brady, Hall, M.D. Morgan and … Nedward Kelly’. ‘What would Francois Villon do?’ the poet poses at one point, drawn to the glamour of an antinomian lyric tradition that Tiffany traces from the author of Le Testament to Jean Genet. The indigent life is both defiantly embraced and a point of protest for this downwardly aspirational poet:

If yir going to reinstate feudal 
           Systems of relation then I’ll 
Be the fckn pikie                     poacher
Burning all the public timber of the Brogo

Hose’s code-switching, however, is too manic and too idiosyncratic to settle into a sufficiently stable lexicon on par with criminal ‘cant’ or the shibboleths of thievery or beggary that feature in indigent poetry. The Jewelled Shillelagh is a rhapsody of clashing idioms, borrowing promiscuously from Scots (‘kirk’, ‘laird’, ‘rippish’), Urban Dictionary (‘Au Revoir Blizzard-tits’), and your rev-head cousin (‘Going bitch-kegs at it / … Seven thousand pistonlicks per second’). Yet the free-wheeling use of such vernaculars seems to suggest that some form of ‘coded intimacy’, as Hose puts it, is always being engaged. The coding is often playful, as in this passage from a poem set in the Royal Botanical Gardens:

Look, there’s a nice bit of Rodneybeard, a savvy but flakey Shirleybush
The Erniegrass is everyone’s favourite while the Bessiegrass is often intractabley brittle
The Sharynfern is very pretty, poisonous in youth and dying as soon as it reaches
                                                           Having a certain charm of insolence
The Patricia Gum an obvious Matriarch even as a sapling

The sense of familiarity, close-knit and closed-in, turns the cataloguing of plants in a conventional florilegia into something halfway between a casual flip through a family photo-album and a slightly jaded initiation into a gang. ‘Happy is the illicit’, especially when the illicit is sealed with the violence of initiatory ritual:

Let’s leave on each other a fresh Gorgoneion
   A Dalgety bruise (masterpiece!)
      A Dalgety lovebite

In Hose’s hands, the demotic is never far from the demonic. ‘Singing the sang we learnt from Auld Hornie’, the slangy-slack rhythms of these poems pulsate with the atavistic energy of paganism. In addition to the allusions to Aztec gods (Xipe Totec and Huitzilopochtli), there are references to the Hermetic tradition (with the alchemists’ motto: Solve et Coagula), the cult of Dionysus (‘O Succoy Bacchantes’) and repeated appearances of the Sheela-na-gig, rock carvings of naked women with exaggerated vulvas found in a particularly high concentration in Ireland. Hose mourns the modern state of ‘paganlessness’, where the primordial vitality of these practices of worship has been displaced by religious kitsch:

I had meant to pass politely through the underworld on m.way to
that spunk
Now I note a trinity of cherubs on a fretting sandstone
   Sourced I spose from the same toy shop or knick-knackatory

It is apt that Hose should see the poet’s vocation (however lost) as fundamentally Orphic, as being able to charm the natural world into responsiveness (to ‘hear the stone speak or know / totemic botheration’). In both his poetry and his critical writing, Hose has long been interested in charm, both in the aesthetic and magical senses of the word. What charms remain in this age of disenchantment?

One answer might well be the name. The high proportion of proper nouns is a salient aspect of Hose’s style. His poems continually send you back to your search engine to find Jincumbilly on a map, to check whether the Carrionblush (Carringbush?) Hotel actually exists, to dig up the dirt on Fizza Tron Ferguson or Shadrack Dainty. Some fairly eminent poets and critics (French, of course) have opined that the role of poetry is to invest even the most common noun with the phenomenological thickness of its capitalised counterpart. But the ‘density of being’ (in Yves Bonnefoy’s phrase) ascribed to the proper name can also turn it into a tantalising obscurity that no amount of digital trawling will clear up.

As you proceed through The Jewelled Shillelagh, you might (like me) develop a paranoid sense that even the most throwaway particle or phrase may be some slang or ‘cant’ term with a whole set of underground associations giving you the slip. It’s an uncanny achievement that keeps you in thrall to Hose’s ‘intricate folly’ and keeps it from devolving into a kind of delectable kitsch or ‘pikie’ minstrelsy. So Bitcheh!

Works Cited

Duncan Hose, ‘Instruction for an Ideal Australian: John Forbes’s Poetry of Metaphysical Etiquette’, JASAL, Special Issue: Common Readers and Cultural Critics (2010): 1-12.

Clive Scott, The Poetics of French Verse: Studies in Reading (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

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