Oliver Shaw Reviews Michael Aiken

By | 1 July 2015

This brings us to the Sydney poems, or the book’s final section. Without attempting to fully unpack the code of this section’s title (I kind of enjoy its mystery) we can at least pause on the first four numbers: ‘Sydney 1934 …’, which mark the opening of the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park:

The gulls above the Anzac bridge 
draw ragged spirals of pursuit;
the multitude of swarming bugs
– one thousand for each bird
cloud in towers founded on
the arches of the bridge 
brightly lit by electric lights 
nobody pays for. (‘1934 1309KI’)

There may be a correlation between the numbers and historical dates, but as the poem progresses the numerals could also be times, geographical locations, barcodes, receipt ticket numbers. We hear two other voices in this section, from John Birmingham’s Leviathan and, as mentioned, Low’s The New Nature. Things become even stranger. I relish this part of the collection. At times we are with Aiken as security guard, and then it’s as if we are outside his self – looking at a portrait of 1920’s women: ‘like a line of practiced wallflowers / at a public dance’ (‘I713 06II2KI’). There are his definitions of birds that remind me of Goya’s Desastres. Then, all of a sudden, we are back to the point of view of the security guard, who exchanges a dollar for a bracelet: ‘Hardly appropriate / security accessory; / the hoop is too big for my wrist’ (‘FEDERATION ST 2012 2492KI’). And off again:

And now that
the night has

I prepare 
to prepare
the coming day
spent preparing
for another night. (‘0341 19112KI MENTMORE’)

The Sydney poems summarise the theme and structure of Aiken’s collection. They waver between histories, postcolonialism, settled life, our cities, and then nature: the strangeness of the co-existence that surrounds us right now. I hear Aiken, half-laughing: see. Though he weaves his emotional theme through mostly materialist observations, there are a few moments in this final section where the poet reflects himself, and this is powerful. It reminds me of two instances earlier in the book, where I felt closest to the poet:

A man sees a bird die
picks at it with a pen 
puts it in a book.


Once the teacher gets drunk enough 
on his own blood
then we might get some art. (‘Sixty Nine Poems’)

In an interview in Antipodes, MTC Cronin said, ‘I write because I think and it is good to organise one’s thoughts. To give them their due. To honour them. Shortcomings and all – towards the next thought, towards a better thought.’ I feel slightly disjointed as I stumble through A Vicious Example. I want less titles, less sections, maybe even less poems – but then I remind myself that this is ten years’ worth of Aiken’s thoughts: ten years worth of facing the present, and, he’s got me thinking. The result is strange and unique: it’s Sydney, for the most part, but closer to a material reality that I haven’t read elsewhere. What is so real about this work? Is it a sense of authentic, unaffected voice; or is it the materialist subject matter; is it the chaos of the collection that feels mimetic of the urban space? I think it is the powerful concoction of all this, documented in a simple poetics. The work remains accessible, unlike some other contemporary Australian poetry that complicates language – like, to me, a sort-of highbrow mathematics (this is ironic in itself – seeing as Aiken does use numbers to enhance affect – although I don’t think he’s being entirely serious). A significant element of its appeal is the absurdity and downright humour – the irony of language, numbers, death and swimming pools – ‘the paradox of all things in life’, as Cronin said: ‘the people who take things the most seriously, I think, see the ridiculousness of it all as well.’

As a first collection, ten-years in the making, A Vicious Example is a marvellous achievement. Cheers, Aiken – for the blood, and then for the art.

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