Greg McLaren Reviews Phillip Gijindarraji Hall and Benjamin Dodds

3 January 2015

Such binaries propel the poem, but sometimes leave me uncertain of what Hall is doing with them. While an argument could be made for cancer as a kind of over-productive hyper-abundance, its image in this poem is clearly linked to ecological disturbance. This seems to reflect, once again, the poet’s desire to clarify and sum-up the poem; to seek, or at least describe, an apparent order to the complexity of the places he writes. Perhaps this is related to the way Hall continues to highlight the cultural significance of place, which at times seems to circumscribe what he is able to show.

It’s an issue also apparent in ‘At Wentworth Falls’, which builds admirably but is ultimately a dissatisfying poem. The poem moves along in Hall’s signature mode – quietly delineating what makes this place unique physically, culturally. He creates a clear image of place as unique, vivid and unquestionably alive. Even the soil along Darwin’s Walk is dynamic: ‘soil like peat collecting / along shales and sandstones, / the sponged seepage zones / of a fernery’s rare collection.’ In contrast to ‘Habitation’, this poem demonstrates Hall’s capacity for handling binaries very effectively: ‘a bushfire haze still burnt / over the escarpment’s western rim whilst drizzle / swirled about the communication tower / as a halo.’ This fuzzy ‘halo’ is the point at which the poem begins to drift into something abstract, as if Hall loses confidence in his material, or too keenly seeks to impose the narrative of determinism upon the last lines of the poem. From here the plenitude, abundance and focus that establish the significance of this place start to dissipate under the pressure of explanation. The poem’s closing feels flat and somewhat hagiographic: ‘a pillar of cloud / leading Darwin to his promised land, / a sighting that laid bare our origins and opened eyes / to change.’ In reaching for a glib conclusion like this, Hall appears to lean toward a teleological view of ‘progress’ – a notion at odds with what Darwinian evolution, which Hall otherwise appears to champion, has to say. There is a series of jarring phrases that disrupt the poem’s established rhythms: ‘the length of the mountains’ central navigable ridge, / the shape / of a wilderness’ threatened destruction’, and ‘Darwin’s grand / amphitheatrical depression’. It might be that Hall is working hard to squeeze more into less, resulting in distracting clusters of phrasing that lack the qualities of clarity and movement within this poem.

The structure of Sweetened in Coals creates a book that is indeed greater than the sum of its parts; evincing many of the ecological and cultural interconnections Hall writes about. While I’ve noted this in some of the book’s early poems, another particularly evocative manifestation of this riffing are the calls of birds, to each other, across poems. So ‘the repeated oom / of a frogmouth’ (‘The Outdoor Educator’) responds to ‘Frogmouths [that] sit like stumps near light’ (‘Raising the Colours’). And in ‘Save Behana Gorge’, curlews call ‘weeer-eearr’, while in ‘Suburban Bush Thickness’ they perform an ‘undulant wee-loo will-a-roo’. This diversity of calls sits alongside a series of briefer, well-executed poems about animals and birds observed within their habitat. These poems (among them ‘gilly-wattler’, ‘valley time’, ‘galahs rising’, “willie’, ‘kite proclivity’ and ‘Hydromys chrysogaster’) present as short anecdotes, postcard versions of the broader and deeper poems of country that characterise this promising book.

‘Thinning our little herd’, the poem that opens Benjamin Dodds’s first collection, Regulator, is a kind of signal fire. In making strange the common events of farm life, Dodds refreshes and renews what in less deft hands could lean towards triteness and cliché. This poem is a striking gothic anecdote that relocates tradition, internalises rural worries, and externalises this worry into something between panic and paranoia. The first line break heightens this, drawing out time, extending and compressing all that follows:

For weeks
we had Baskerville
hounds in our heads
sweeping bold arcs
through feathered darkness
at the porch light’s circle edge.

The ‘father’s too-long absence’, the ‘distortion / of farm-night acoustics’, ‘the rigid carnage’ and ‘unease’ operate as a series of discrepancies at the heart of the poem, feeding on and amplifying each other. Oddly, the certainty offered by ‘foolproof steps’ only deepens this unease, reiterating the father’s absence and extending it uncertainly into a future. The confidence and ease at handling this material is a feature that may well mark Dodds as that rare thing, a genuinely new voice. He consistently demonstrates the strangeness around us with subtly playful seriousness.

There are several poems ‘about’ space and aliens, including ‘In telepathy, space doesn’t matter’, ‘Others’ and ‘Sometimes’. In ‘Others’ Dodds envisages humans and aliens at cross-purposes, fated never to meet because of utterly variant expectations. While we send radio waves in an attempt to seek a reply, Dodds’s Others send ‘Unfocussed waves // [which] radiate from organic transmitters / waiting for a wave back’ (nyuk nyuk). These Others may well be ‘non-corporeal entities’ unrecognisable to humans, and who are, anyway, ‘on the way to some place less / parochial than here’. As with ‘Thinning our little herd’, ‘Others’ brims with uncertainty and ambiguity: ‘Will they appear silently … ?’ or ‘Perhaps they’ll simply pass us by, ‘indifferent’, ‘possibly / non-corporeal entities’.

Dodds delivers a cute twist on this theme in ‘Magnapinna species’. Magnapinna is an odd species of squid. The poem teems with strong phrasing and imagery (‘Rapunzel as incubus’, ‘the darkness of this Vernian depth’, ‘pudendal creature’). There’s an unsettling moment where it is unclear whether or not this ‘elbowed thing’ has entered the speaker’s room a la The Ring: ‘the muscles at my core // brace when it’s on screen. / She erupts into the room’ – but it is only a housemate who ‘demands an opinion on how she looks’ and then poses the question, ‘Is that in space or the sea? ’ This question neatly pulls together some key strands in Dodds’s work, namely, a deep engagement with science, an ability to explore familiar territory idiosyncratically, and a simultaneously local, specific and galactic focus.

His suggestion that ‘Human // awe has always aimed skywards’ is given a keen tweak in ‘Cringe’, a poem that gently rejects and resists the power of Australian cultural identity. It could be argued that Australian awe has always aimed outwards, toward the work done in other cultural centres such as London, Paris, New York, and that this is sometimes at the expense of investigating and valuing what’s happening here. It’s difficult to argue this sensitively, to neither over-valorise the local or to undercut the significance of global influences. In this context, Dodds hypothesises a township, ‘Pompay Springs’, in sight of ‘Mt. Versuvy’ in NSW’s central west. Dodds’s images are quietly but convincingly local in tone (‘you’d pay your ten bucks / for Jodie … to walk you past / the recreated bora rings’ – nice Judith Wright reference – and ‘you’d pick up a plastic refracting ruler / for the neighbour’s kid / feeding the dogs back home’). Dodds’s jocular and Larkinesque postcolonialism explores cultural exclusion. Seen in this kind of frame, it makes a firm but polite argument that all writing (and art) is necessarily provincial, local, derived from a particular place.

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About Greg McLaren

Greg McLaren is a poet, teacher and critic living in Sydney. His most recent books are After Han Shan (Flying Islands, 2012), The Kurri Kurri Book of the Dead (Puncher & Wattmann, 2007), Australian ravens (Puncher & Wattmann, 2016) and Windfall (Puncher & Wattmann, 2018).

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