Michael Farrell Reviews Rae Desmond Jones

3 May 2010

Blow Out by Rae Desmond Jones
Island Press, 2008

Many of the poems in Rae Desmond Jones's Blow Out end with silence. This is effective in the poem ‘Witness', about a car accident, where ‘The policewoman leans in to press a button, / Then the street goes quiet'. (This poem also features the excellent verb ‘Bananas”.) But such closures tend to make the trajectory of Jones's poems predictable; though he retains the power to surprise or coast out to something that's, well, nice.

One of several elegies in the book, ‘It might be fun to be a dead poet' has some good things in it: ‘My poetry will become a booming / Economic export displacing / Raw materials and steel', and the second last stanza:


Solving the problem
                       Of the national anthem if
There is a poem bad enough,
Because I could no longer
                       Be a rude & difficult ass
(all ambiguities dissolved)
                       Leaving only my most inspired
& patriotic images.

But the first and final stanzas are terrible: ‘It might be fun to be a dead poet / So long as I was there/ When awarded/ The Nobel prize for literature/ Posthumously', and ‘It would be great to be a dead poet / Especially if after a few days I could come back'.

‘Grim Reaper Blues' has a great image of the Reaper ‘Trashing the rose bushes & twisting the garden hose / Into lethal knots & loops across the path', but mostly we get what we expect from a poem with this title. Another poem on this theme is ‘Writers have always been an endangered species': it's much more dynamic, with its ‘shoe jamming' and ‘scribbling on shredded paper'' of James Joyce and Arthur Rimbaud, and the shock towards the end of: ‘The most creative student / I ever knew was wiped from / The side of a train / Halfway through the ‘U' / in SUX'. Towards the end of the book, ‘In Memorium', for a defacto grandmother, is a detailed portrait of a woman who died ‘while putting a jar of vegemite into an ice safe'. The poem has other engaging descriptions: ‘a lion with a broom', and ‘We sat on the white rocks chewing cold dumplings & staring down the jeering crows', but the end phrase ‘nameless grave' falls flat.

It feels a bit brutal to criticise elegies, but ‘Dear Steven', and ‘On the death of poets' (for John Forbes and Vicki Viidikas) are two of the weakest poems in the book. Other poems on this theme such as ‘It might be fun to be a dead poet' and ‘Grim Reaper Blues' are not much stronger. There's almost always a redeeming image in one of Jones's poems, (in ‘Fame' it's ‘the peas' – that rhymes with ‘DVDs') and in ‘Dear Steven' it's the draino Steven's mum swallowed. But the Blondie song insertions (from ‘The Tide Is High') read predictably.

In a poem with the trite subject of ‘The xmas rush', Jones can give us what the title literally promises but we don't expect – a rush. The poem in full:

Indicators burning the refrigeration truck
Turns sharp at the corner where the cop
Watches it steer through the pedestrians in
The yellow lines loaded with parcels
But something sticks in his throat
When he sees the guy with the beard in a dress
& his mates in pants so tight he could bite off
Their cods like apples & he feels so bad
He spits

Exciting stuff. And not quite satire at all, satire being practically Jones's default mode. There are a number of poems that poke at male sexuality: possibly the same cop reappears in ‘Westfield Water Music': he ‘glares' at ‘boys' that ‘mince'; he ‘looks at the dolls and his spike twitches'.

The poem that really gives a penis some space is ‘Heat', reading like it just rode out of a Best of anthology. Martin Duwell quoted it in full in his review of Blow Out. It could have been called ‘Yellow Vignette' or ‘Portrait of a Bikie Pissing', for this is what the scene largely consists of. Jones's choices of subject matter are another reason to appreciate Blow Out. Here are the fourth and fifth stanzas:

A flood of piss arcs & flushes the curling leaves
Of a rosebush peeping over the fence
As a ghostly virgin kisses his deep bruised cheeks
& whispers ‘fuck me' into his cauliflower ears.

Slowly and lovingly he tucks his prick
Through the narrow fork of his jeans as though it
Requires ponderous care & deserves
Nothing less than a crane.

At times Jones's choice of facing poems enables an enriching resonance; with ‘Heat' it's one with the nicely rock 'n' roll title of ‘It feels good when someone hates you'. ‘Ice & Fire' could be a future coda to ‘On the death of poets': ‘The mice are dying & the birds have flown / In silent flocks towards the brazen sun'. A more explicit pairing is two poems on WWI: ‘11 November 1918' and ‘The Ghosts of Bourke Street, 1969'.

There are some subtler pleasures in Blow Out also. In the consecutive, not-quite-sentimental ‘At the Ozone' (more penis theme: ‘From his silver square the last hero / Turns his back and his well filled jeans stride // To the pleated horizon, indifferent to your praise & prayers'); ‘How long must I dream' (‘From the cabin behind the dunes / Roy Orbison's soul is making / The silver darkness shiver and gleam'); and ‘Shot' (‘I see myself in a diamond of light, / an old man sitting alone / with a piece of broken biscuit between his teeth'). Sweet. The image of a ‘broken biscuit' appeared earlier in ‘When the Moon Drops', one of a number of short italicised poems distributed throughout the book: ‘When the moon drops / Like a broken biscuit'. Now he has the moon between his teeth: a good enough image for a poet.

Blow Out contains a number of futuristic poems (‘Ice & Fire', ‘War Games', the wonderfully titled, ‘Note left under a magnet on a fridge door in a field', ‘The last days of the Republic'); the latter two are more detailed, with characters; they sound old-fashioned. The poems in Blow Out are well-constructed, there's a strong sense of beginning, middle and end, which can make them seem a bit routine, especially when so many end with death, silence or emptiness. The title poem (the title refers to ecological expenditure) – despite its ‘middle' being a bit contrived – has a great beginning: ‘Despite that cute blue uniform and a good set of lungs / Earth is feeling pretty constipated'. It ends with ‘So small, so full of ourselves, so pretty': the irony of ‘pretty' strengthened when we realise it refers back to the ‘pretty constipated' of the beginning.

The poem ‘El Nino' (another elegy) appeared in Best Australian Poetry 2004. Its theme of fruit and grief towards a senile mother is a controlled performance that works its material without seeming to overdo it.

I prefer the following (final) three poems. They are ‘Dear Alyse' (‘In the hour after you left / your brother coughed & slurped his soup / & argued with Arnold Schwarzenegger'), ‘Singing Crazy', with its light touch, and ‘The god of naughty children'. ‘Singing Crazy' (which also includes the mulberries of ‘El Nino', as well as an allusion to climate change) is a poem about sentiment (‘I ask myself why I like such / sentimental music'), a trope that Jones generally handles well, using subtle variations of tone and diction, and occasional sudden shifts in narrative to avoid getting sticky. In ‘The god of naughty children', Jones delicately handles the sentimental image of a young girl playing in a park. The girl's mother ‘holds her anxiety / In a trembling Styrofoam cup'. It's a variation on Harwood's ‘In the Park'. Call me decadent, but I prefer Jones's version.

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Michael Farrell

About Michael Farrell


Michael Farrell's Cocky's Joy was published by Giramondo in 2015. His scholarly book, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945, was published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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