The Unspeak Poems and other Verses by Tim Thorne
Walleah Press, 2014
I first came across Tim Thorne’s work through his fifth book of poetry The Atlas, published in 1983. I was struck by the cover – a globe featuring Tasmania at its centre, huge, and taking up more than half of the earth. The rest of Australia stretches away in the distance, small, a fraction of the size. As for the rest of the world, I could only assume that it was crammed away on the dark side of the Earth.
The book consisted of a single poem, ‘The Atlas’, which begins with Thorne’s childhood in Tasmania and slowly moves out to expand on the personal, political social and artistic elements that had shaped his life to that point. At the end of that book he writes:
The ideal atlas would have a decade of blank pages on which to be your own cartographer But after the ideal comes the man who goes after the real. After the accurate maps have pinned the rivers, walled the cities in clean circles, after the breath has caught at the sheer closeness of the contour lines, there is the need to study the underlying trends, the tensions and contentions and to chart what we have learned with attention to detail as if each statistic was a breve or rhyme. ‘Envoi’
Thorne’s had three decades of blank pages on which to re-map and redraw his boundaries. But he’s also gone deeper than the surface topo map to, as he says, ‘study the underlying trends’. Much of the ‘tensions and contentions’ he uses to create these charts draw on the injustices and hypocrisy that run through contemporary society because, above all else, Thorne is a political poet.
For some critics a label of being a ‘political poet’ is something of a polite criticism: ‘what can you expect from a political poet’? In Thorne’s case, the label sits comfortably in his terrain of politics , as it weaves into the fabric of his poetry, an important part of the whole, but not the sole reason for its being.
The title of his fourteenth collection, The Unspeak Poems, hints at a political meaning; what can’t be spoken, why can’t these poems be spoken? The obvious Orwellian reference to ‘the unspeak’ is recurrant.
The first poem in the collection, ‘Love on a Brick’, takes a simple act of defiance from Australia’s colonial past – a convict scratches the word ‘love’ onto a convict made brick rather than the standard arrow. For Thorne this becomes a victory of the imagination:
The word still soares out of its baked clay prison
Of all the slogans despair could write, of all the cries for justice or revenge, this was the word chosen.
Thorne takes this messages and applies it to the present, ending the poem with optimism:
We shall build cities with such bricks.
Unfortunately, the cities built sport different bricks as we learn in ‘Are We There Yet?’. Here, we’re launched straight into popular culture with the opening statement:
When I grow up I want to be Corey Worthington
There is an immediate sense of surprise at a seventy year old poet talking about ‘growing up’, but also the shock of popular online culture asserting itself in the first line. Worthington was a teenager whose sole noteriety was the hosting of a party that got out of control at his parents’ house at Narre Warren (a suburb of Melbourne), and being interviewed afterwards by the TV show A Current Affair (later to go viral on YouTube). A reporter adopts the tone of Worthington’s absent parents in this exchange from the original interview:
Reporter: You should go away and have a good long hard look at yourself.
Worthington: I have, everyone has, they love it.
Thorne takes this quote and paraphrases it at the end of the first stanza:
When told to take a good, hard look at myself, I want to be able to respond: “I have, and so have millions. And they liked what they saw.”
He then moves the poem in an unexpected direction:
More role model that mentor, Corey is leading me along the path On which I followed my parents years ago
Thorne is at his best during the rest of this long poem; dissolving into the pre-Internet age, 1972 to be precise, with the poet learning how to drink alcohol undetected on a Greyhound bus between Sacramento and LA. We’re moved effortlessly from a pimpled Australian adolescent with oversize yellow glasses to a dingy romanticised 1970’s America:
… DeWane was down there on the ride when I met Fillmore Pops: Sacremento to LA. Eighteen and lookin’ for a job, a hustle, who knows? On the run from … ? Who would ask … ?
and the conclusion:
… Scissors cut paper. Rock blunts hope. Poetry wraps nothing.
We’re left with the title ‘Are We There Yet’ – a suggestion that we are travelling to somewhere/something. The poem also takes us to the man holding his shopping baskets blocking a tank in Beijing in 1989. Are we there yet?
It is in the final section of the book, ‘The Unspeak Poems’, where Thorne’s politics and Orwellian undertones take command. We learn that General Westmoreland changed the name of an Operation in Vietnam from ‘Masher’ to ‘White Wings’ due to ‘the connotations of Violence’:
Peasants as potatoes upset the “carping war critics”. Pureed by the 1st Cavalry into a dish less Asiatic than rice and less alive than their centuries of flavour had been, dead Viets had no way of knowing that what had been wafting them towards their end were angels, doves of peace or cabbage moths.
Poems on the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, Palestine continue the section. ‘Political poet’ is his badge, and Thorne wears it with pride, almost with defiance. These poems call out the hypocrisy of warring and the way it’s reported, but we never lose sight of the poetry.
It is a little surprising, then, that terms such as refreshing and exciting can be applied to a poet’s fourteenth collection, but in the case of The Unspeak Poems and other Verses such terms are entirely justified.
The collection shows that Thorne is still charting the intricate coastline of his experience decades on from ‘The Atlas’. But unlike Abel Tasman who traced only the outline of the western coast of Tasmania and who refused venture beyond the shore line for fear of giants, Thorne shows no hesitation in building layer upon layer of analysis and understanding in his charts. The strength of his fourteenth collection suggests that he has decades of blank pages yet to fill.