Greg McLaren Reviews Phillip Gijindarraji Hall and Benjamin Dodds

3 January 2015

This raises more questions than it answers: given Dodds’s galactic focus, is there any valid reason why work that references, say, the Murrumbidgee is less vivid, interesting (or, gasp, universal) than that riding a more global imperative? Are Australian writers trying or hoping to make up for our supposed peripherality and marginality? Why isn’t geographic isolation in some respects a kind of virtue for work by writers based in Australia? An international outlook and keen engagement with the concrete local context, I argue, are in no way in mutual contradiction. In fact, each is more viable when inflected with and deeply informed by the other (assuming for the moment that they are meaningfully separate concerns). Aren’t we all in attendance ‘at some declining servo, / never having been trusted / to step into any roped-off areas’? And anyway, Dodds’s neighbour’s kid might well see through the ‘plastic refracting ruler’ to a new, idiosyncratic angle on this entire binary. Dodds’s originality is as subtle as it is fresh, all the more impressive for being un-showy yet convincing.

Sitting alongside (or outside) his interest in the local and its various extrapolations, Dodds energetically explores images, events and ideas to do with space (that is, outer space). The combined workings of the specific and localised, coupled with a detailed attention to the unthinkable vastness of space and its implications, means that Dodds argues less against the cultural cringe as consigns it to rightful irrelevance. His own background in science informs a number of poems that question knowledge and reality. In ‘In telepathy, space doesn’t matter’, ‘meaning shorts and fails’, there is only ‘banal procedure’, and gravity, somewhat inexplicably, has the quality of a placebo: ‘a type of gravity. / he knows it’s a lie but his overtaxed body // grants the benefit of the doubt’. From the sheer remoteness of lunar orbit Dodds takes one of his sudden shifts in register or setting, to ‘a quiet home [where] a group gathers / around a kitchen table’ to participate in Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s telepathy experiment, ‘the ideal test to conduct / in stealth’. This quite unexpected move typifies Dodds’s MO. He handles deep disjunctions firmly but gently, and always for a specific purpose.

A number of the poems in Regulator work to build up knowledge, or test hypotheses. These include ‘Remnant’ – ‘Awareness of my own porosity / keeps me awake. / What other essences / benignly odourless or otherwise / do I take in / unconsenting / through this skin?’ – and ‘Things fall apart’ – ‘how reliable is daytime solidity? / Best not to test the stresses’. This deep uncertainty manifests regularly in Dodds’s poems, but rarely more powerfully and creepily than in the terror at both tightly confined spaces and, for his speakers, frighteningly ‘clean air and wide open spaces’ as well as bug-fear (‘The spiders are here’) and the low-key gross out of ‘Host’. The gruesome unfolding of ‘Emptying Out’ owns a restrained goriness to match Judith Beveridge’s ‘The Shark’. The strength of this poem lives partly in the explicit, step-by-step description of what occurs, but also in the churning empathy as the sight:

	… laid out 
for one of us an undeniable homology
that triggered a spill of devon
and white bread –
the sickness of mammalian decay. (‘Emptying Out’)

Human awe at the immensity of space is modulated in some of Dodds’s poems to something more like panic and dread when applied more locally. For instance, the poem ‘clean air and wide open spaces’ builds from ‘softly muttered awe’, through ‘the whispering enormity of gorge / or valley or plummeting cliff’, to the overbearing panic at ‘a host of screaming trees’. This revisits the ease with which Dodds aligns the internalised worry and the external loss in ‘Thinning our little herd’. He is a poet keenly aware of the way environments act upon and influence us. This is particularly so in the lines: ‘the swarming eucalypts / and gaping sky work in tandem // to chant inside your head / they crowd you out’. In these poems there is a deep element of an inverted claustrophobia that turns into agoraphobia, as vastness is internalised and the speakers’ fears and insecurities spread outward to envelop and define (their response to) the landscape.

A not dissimilar pattern drives ‘Under Cicadas’, but this poem is built around technological conceits that connect cicadas to ‘the electronic creations / of a straight-to-video madman’ as, fancifully, ‘convection-waves / radiate unceasingly // from sun-hardened abdomens’. Cicadas, Dodds imagines, are insect cyborgs intent on harassing humans:

these black princes

positioned equidistant
sense the proximity of neighbours

and adjust output accordingly
constant calibration is necessary

to keep this hell

This scientific register, which elsewhere lends Dodds’s poems an impressive precision, here finds a stressed and panicked (in the ancient Greek sense) but nonetheless wryly aware speaker.

A sharp poem in the final section, ‘München’, plays for laughs. There’s a sly but coquettish grin/nuendo as it closes:

I ask a huge man
how often he uses English.
He lisps something 
about a private lesson
later that night in his room
The next morning
I skid like Bambi did in the
wrong sort of shoes for snow.

It’s only in getting to the book’s final poem, ‘Prodigal Son (and his partner)’, reminiscent of Philip Hodgins’s work in the way it explores ‘country manners’, that these manners, read through tone, lend the collection a consistent outlook. In this poem, the speaker walks with his partner as they ‘take in views / of whomever’s herd’, reassured that ‘they’re only cows’ as ‘they begin to stamp, / lower horned heads and begin to follow’, ‘shepherding him over the fence / by the most direct route possible’. This sweet indirectness characterises Regulator; a voice of toughness and clarity of mind.

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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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