Robert Wood Reviews Duncan Hose, Jean Kent and Alyson Miller

By | 25 May 2015

The Hour of Silvered Mullet is Jean Kent’s series of ragged right, lyric poems, line-broken with rhythmic regularity. Many different animals appear here in many different forms. The titular poem – ‘In the Hour of Silvered Mullet (Kilaben Bay, Lake Macquarie)’ – is a four-part reflection on life in the suburbs; ‘the land of the bland, a stranger might sniff’ but in Kent’s hands a reflective reverie of nature, people, task, labour, holiday. To take only the first part we read of the poet walking the quiet streets at sunset. She is drawn from her home by birds. In the first stanza Kent writes:

It was the tink of king parrots in the native frangipani – 
then the white sail-rip past my windows of cockatoos – 
		     sounds of the day on its final tack
which spinnakered me out into this twilight.

Birds here propel the ‘I’ out of the house and into the street for an evening constitutional. They are lively and alive – they ‘tink’ and ‘rip’. This contrasts with the suburb, even as they are constitutive of it. The suburbs, which ‘accost’ her at the beginning of her walk are seen as ‘quarter acre mausoleums, / bungalows mugged by the dinner hour.’ Save for a P-plated car that ‘erupts’ with ‘expletives’ that ‘fart then fade, strange as circus elephants’ trapped hoots’, the streets are quiet. People are inside eating while the poet walks ‘this twilight trail’. There are specific images – ‘a Volvo, shiny as a buttered knife, rests beside / its long loaf of house’; ‘fibro weekenders / not dolled up (yet); new Taj Mahals, curtained with sheets’ – but these aid her memory of ‘inland towns of childhood’. The memory, though, is interrupted by currawongs crying, ‘Come home now! Come home now! ’ For Kent the currawongs voices are ‘like sunlight on pewter water / dazzling away an entire suburb’s saucepan lids – / just as the bitumen turns a corner and swoops me wrapped in everyone else’s dinner, fragrant as bait’. What then are we to make of the birds here? They offer not only life in the face of the dead, built environment, the tomb of the Taj, or the inanimate buttered knife, but they also offer us a way for the poet to be led.

The poet engages with the natural world in a Romantic way, birds are harbingers, they call her out of her home and back to her home. If a sailing vocabulary (‘sail’, ‘tack’, ‘spinnakered’) connoting journey, travel, movement draws her out of domesticity, an allusion to the kitchen (‘saucepan lids’) draws her back into the home. Birds have a position of knowing when to come and when to go, nature is knowing in some sense. We could deduce from this, especially when read alongside Kent’s other poems in this volume, that there is a desire to regard animals as part of a ‘group spirit’, a sort of redemptive and knowledgeable way in the world that informs the poet’s memory and subject position. We are in the suburbs, but we might prefer to be in the national park, the field, the ocean. Kent relies on animals as metaphors in other poems in this lyrical, rhapsodic, evocative collection. In her hands they are sentient tools to explain what is happening now, which suggests a point of goodness that counters the deficiencies of modern life.

At its Roman Jakobson metonymic pole, prose needs to say ‘you are brave’ to mean ‘you are brave’, in part because of the expectations of reading. Poetry, however, is freed up by saying ‘you are a lion’. We interpret differently when faced with poetry. Although animals can understand us, even when we spell out ‘W-A-L-K’, we could assume that they speak a different language. Dog language is not quite like human language in a very different way than Russian is not quite like English. The birds that call out to Kent do not actually say ‘come home’. Yet we can say something indirectly, something that gestures towards that difference, something essentially metaphoric to get the point across the species divide. This holds despite the fact that we have a different logic for dogs compared to cows, rhinoceros compared to cockroaches. It holds too despite the fact that we mainly speak in didacticisms and instructions to animals – ‘fetch’, ‘roll over’, ‘stay’. We are always talking at cross-purposes with animals, though – do the birds singing with each other know we are listening? Do we realise the flies are part of our gossiping? But like metaphor being a slant way of saying something between us as humans, our shared language with animals is always a little slant, too; it is always a little poetic. Recognising that may be the best way we can realise ourselves as humanimal, which may indeed be a political act. As Joseph Beuys said:

Take a hare running from one corner of a room to another. I think this hare can achieve more for the political development of the world than a human being. By that I mean that some of the elementary strength of animals should be added to the positivist thinking which is prevalent today. I would like to elevate the status of animals to that of humans.1

We could encourage a suburbanist, as opposed to suburbanite, aesthetic with regard to animals. If the Romantic and Modernist are all but exhausted, the suburbs have really yet to begin. A suburbanist way would recapture the original geist of the suburbs, the ‘country living, city benefits’ mantra, and respond to the real lived material conditions of the majority of the Australian population. This way we could avoid poetry being, in Martin Harrison’s memorable phrase, ‘a narrow kind of talk’, and we could oppose what Robin Boyd called the ‘ornamentation’ of suburbia. Indeed, as much space as the rural takes up in the poetic imaginary, Australia is a suburban nation. If animals enter into the work of many poets as ‘Nature’, which if not uncomplicatedly Romantic at least refers to the real, what are we to expect when the frame is not the Hawkesbury or Bunya but the Western periphery of Sydney? As part of suburbanism, we may want to rethink our relationship to pets, meat and pests as animals’ most common forms in ‘real life’, as well as how they come to us in mediated ways. To that end we would not only write paeans to our dear moggies, derivative T.S. Eliot books on cats, but broach issues like animal liberation in challenging forms. And this is where A Song of Sea Shantey, Dream Animals and The Hour of Silvered Mullet can contribute something to the discourse. Hose, Miller, Kent all allow us to attend to the complexity of our animal selves and to better understand animals in and of themselves and in language itself. That they do so in such different registers suggests something of the worlds we might begin to explore more fully.

  1. Joseph Beuys, Energy Plan for the Western Man – Joseph Beuys in America, compiled by Carin Kuoni, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1993, p. 82
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