Ballads, Satire & Salt: A Book of Diversions by Stephen Oliver
Illustrated by Matt Ottley
Greywacke Press, 2003
The blurb on the back cover cites this as a “challenging miscellany”. What do you make of that? A mixed bag? Poetries that don't fit? Odd socks and whimsy? Well, after puzzling over the collection for a few weeks, I'd say yes to all of the above.'
As a 'book of diversions', Ballads, Satire & Salt takes you off the path of the usual contemporary poetry collection. Humorous, technically diverse, thematically wide-ranging, the reader is jolted from one poem to the next, never quite knowing what to expect. One minute you can be giggling to yourself about the parliamentary system and the next, disturbed by a high school massacre. But I suspect this is always Oliver's intention — to unsettle, disturb and disrupt.
Oliver likes to do dark, with hints of menace. This is his predominant voice throughout the book. He sees himself as a social and political commentator, a considered voice, husky, with the tones of a local pub. At times, I felt like I was watching the 7.30 Report on the ABC, or flicking through Philip Adams' commentary in The Weekend Australian.
“You're not a poet for all time but
for your own time.”
“Remember, you're not
writing bus-timetables and calling it
'performance poetry' like a few I
could name. Stick with the atmospherics,
the true essence of people.
That's your angle, as mine is now
to browbeat you.
And don't get into this doomsday kick
either, leave such things to the (small minded)
it's straight forward focus.”
('An Actual Encounter With The Sun On My Balcony At France Street')
Poems included in Oliver's collection are sourced from a range of previously published chapbooks, recordings and new work. Stephen Oliver is a serious poet, with a previous publication record spanning 12 books . He has been writing for over three decades, and has a reputation for performance and voice. With a biography that proclaims 30 years in 'voice and broadcasting', this is the strength of his collection. The use of rhyme and relentless rhythms make me want to hear the poetry, so much so that I went toand was rewarded for the effort.
This is what Ballads is: it's a celebration of the linkage between spoken word and the written. Oliver tells us to go back to the songs, the oral traditions of ballads, nursery rhyme and nonsense lyric and listen to the movement of the form, and to explore them. His agility and facilitation with voice — be it monologue, internal dialogue or contemporary use of language — snares the reader and presents a diverse and believable cast of characters.
'Election Year Blues' displays a particularly Orwellian fascination for language, examining the languages of control, where the parliament sits 'Under the Think Big Sky':
Under the Think Big Sky
his dream to fit a charcoal suit on
the day and call it night
Up where God worked for
THE MINISTRY OF ENERGY
morning newspapers rustled
And a flock of newsprint burst
with a cackle over the back benches
a cockroach crossed the floor
Someone got up and shouted
“Quash the Abortion Bill!”
Other poems such as 'Sydney Bells' (a reworking of the nursery rhyme London Bells) can be seen as a celebration of poetry styles and techniques fallen by the wayside. This collection would do well in a library placed next to the works of Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan. Not to say that Oliver's work is light. Quite the contrary. But he is a deft hand at making light of the serious. His glib and offhand style illuminate his despair, as in the poem 'Muroroa Truffles' and, in particular, 'Gaudeamus Igitur', a work that focuses on a schoolyard massacre, with a structure that alludes to a European student song.
One of the very nice things about this book is Oliver's reference to a historical practice of poetry styles and forms. He openly encourages exploration of technique, and provides brief examples of the work from which he has developed his own. Rather than veiling his influences, he points to them and widens our appreciation as readers and writers by doing so.
Yet Ballads, Satire & Salt is a conspicuously masculine book. As a woman reading, it felt like I had walked into the Members Only room at an RSL. As Oliver reports from this men's room, we hear from wharfies, hippies, politicians, male poets, alcoholics, lovers, paedophiles and DJs sorting their 'sexual conquests'. When women do appear, they lie spread-legged as prostitutes, and one-night stands. If intelligent, they must also be sexy (read 'Our Lady of the Anthropologists'), and when impassive and strong, they are 'verbally molested'. Ballads appears to embrace a social climate more appropriate 30 years ago, though perhaps this is Oliver's design, the 'unsettling' of the politically correct calm. I found this aspect of the book repetitive and distasteful.
Miss Goodbar did bondage to the two-backed beast
With a body decked out like a picnic feast;
Turned a few smart tricks every night at least,
She prayed would last forever
('Ballad of Miss Goodbar')
Although he considered the kiss a bore
The flash cars and Glenfiddich did the trick
Generous to a fault, tacky and slick
He sought in each the virgin and the whore
'A mind-fuck's my thing & women are my prey
I'm an old grey-tail who likes his meat…'
('Song of the Trades')
Matt Ottley illustrates the book. Those of you with young children may recognize the author/illustrator of contemporary classics as What Faust Saw which, to my mind, is a great book. There is a complex relationship between Ottley's illustration and Oliver's poetry that is both complementary and distracting. I feel in the end that Ballads, Satire & Salt is a better book for the illustrations. As Ballads offers up yet another unexpected pleasure, Ottley brings Oliver's written images to completeness — his work on page 62 is recommended.
Three poems were outstanding for me. There is the beautiful and considered 'Dylan Thomas':
A frothy moon and planets wagon deep
As lights slowly lifted on Brown's Hotel
And Dylan leaning there over an ale
Eyes black as coal from an eternal sleep
…the funny and autobiographical 'An Actual Encounter with the Sun':
“Ho! get up you slack-arse poet,
I want to have a word with you.”
It was the sun.
“This is a surprise,” I yawned
“Shouldn't be — you're the one whose
been whingeing about his own personal light.”
…and the opening poem 'Election Year Blues'.
Despite my reservations regarding Oliver's depiction of women throughout the collection, I advise people to have a look at this book. The pleasures outweigh the disappointments. I feel this is one 'challenging miscellany' designed to surprise.
Kristin Hannaford is a Central Queensland poet. Kristin's first poetry collection Inhale appears in Swelter (Interactive Press, 2003). She is currently in receipt of a grant from the Australia Council's 'Write in Your Face' initiative – working on a series of Wetland Sonnets that will be developed for performance and multimedia delivery.