Jessica Wilkinson Reviews Geoff Page

By | 22 November 2016

In contrast, the seven reproductions of photographs that are interspersed throughout the collection, as well as the cover images, are interesting because they are presented without acknowledgement or captions; the details are listed in the notes section at the back of the book. Without an immediate textual anchor, these images float free in quite an interesting way – we may draw connections between what we see and the poems that precede or follow. It is not until we reach the end of the book that we discover the photographs were taken by Charles Ryan himself, and all at Gallipoli in 1915. Thus, the ‘I’ of Ryan, which we witness through the italicised prose text, appears in another way as Ryan’s ‘eye’, his perspective at war. We might assume that all of these are the ‘illegal’ photographs taken by Ryan during the nine-hour armistice initiated by the Turks to bury the dead. Such powerful treatment of the images – allowing the reader space to consider their significance, to guess the point-of-view, to feel unnerved by the casual demeanour of the men within the photographs, despite the horror of their situation – left me wanting similar gestures from the poems themselves. I was left to wonder how cadences, craft and poetic suggestiveness could generate not only more excitement in the narrative, but also moments of surprising revelation.

During his time at war, Ryan encountered several women who took his fancy, and others who annoyed him, as Page notes in the following lines:

You’re mounted and about to leave
when Monsieur Jardin reappears
complete with ‘Spanish lady’ who’s
‘been beautiful in youth’
but now is somewhat less so.
And something more, an ‘incubus’,
an expert in complaining.
She swears in every continental
tongue except for English.
With all these languages, however,
the one thing she’s not deigned to learn
is ‘suffer—and be silent’.

Over the page, the woman continues to annoy, taking a whole room for herself as the men are crammed four to a bed in the other. From a position of feminist reflection, such passages could certainly benefit from a little more critique on the part of the poet. The book’s blurb notes that Page is ‘setting down the life of a man forgotten by history at the same time as reflecting on his role as intermediary.’ Surely the above portrayal of Ryan’s outdated opinions on vocal women deserves some evaluation by the poet, as intermediary.

At the recent Poetry on the Move festival held in Canberra, I felt bemused by Page’s suggestions that writers of poetic biography do not have to spend as much time or research effort on such outputs as poets working in other genres. He further admitted that he wasn’t aware of much similar work having been written. Page’s attitude to the genre (a thriving one at that – take the fact that there was a ‘Verse Biography’ conference in Wellington in 2014, for instance) to which he is contributing seems to be reflected in Plevna, not only for the reasons discussed above, but also for some errors that appear in the manuscript, including punctuation mistakes and inconsistencies, as well as inaccurate image credits. (The details listed are not what we can see in the images – the cover, for example, lists that we should be able to see a soldier with kit bag, water bottle and rifle. The soldier being described is in fact covered over by a photographic portrait of Ryan himself. Nor can we see the image of No Man’s Land through the periscope viewfinder). Do these comprise a poetic gesture? Such an act of ‘covery’ seems out of keeping with Page’s project here. Further, in a work that offers a somewhat conventional approach to biographical poetry (and considering Page’s own arguments against experimental approaches), I expected the source details in the notes to be impeccable.

Plevna would be an engaging read for those particularly interested in colonial history, masculine subjectivities, and war. Nevertheless, I would have liked to see more play, risk-taking and awareness in how biographical poetry can offer something unique in the expression of the life of an historical figure. With more time and careful research, not to mention a broader awareness of the field to which this work contributes, a poetic account of Charles Ryan could be enlivened significantly. This may reflect a tendency in current Australian publishing to push works into the world before they have adequately matured. Page does admit on the final page of Plevna that the lines of the book ‘trace / a half-year’s one-way conversation’. I would love to see what kind of work might arise from a ‘conversation’ with his subject, were it allowed several years to flourish.

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