Tim Wright Reviews Keri Glastonbury

23 January 2013

For Glastonbury, her return provides a rich deposit of memories now viewed through a critical lens. In ‘Wine Bar’: ‘this is life before terminologies of the arts or humanities made any sense’. A longer example, from the beginning of same poem gives a sense of the essay-like capacity of her work and its loosely articulated continuity:

reputed skills at softball not withstanding once i even
dated a wingnut is that a corkscrew perm sinking west
coast coolers in the memorial gardens homogenised
and pasteurised as dairy milk yet difference and later
deviance was rife the journey down baylis street from
charcoal chicken to shawarmas never thought of in
cultural terms nor the sole vietnamese refugee fetishised
for his bullet wound his skin a sublime revelation soon
skiving off school and inhabiting the late night arcade
near randy's nightclub (i kid you not) ...

In the first poem of the sequence, ‘The Deadly Hume’, the evocation of driving on that highway bleeds into an epistemological ‘moment’:

                                                                               ... all 
townships by-passable only the nomenclature of creeks
strangely sacrosanct inside the cabin of that passing truck
is a whole milieu that we will never know as we flatter
ours with complexity ... 

Characteristically, the unknown noted here is not figured as a singular interiority but as ‘a whole milieu’, that is, a network of relations. Presumably there is a niche market in writing about the cabins of those trucks plying Australia’s highways between Coles warehouses, but if our only option is another long-form article in The Monthly, the sort of breezy amazement in Glastonbury’s lines is both more epistemologically respectable and more concise.

The breadth of reference, the use of collage techniques and the care taken to attribute recall similar qualities in Ken Bolton’s poetry, however Glastonbury’s would, I think, be more interested in the possibilities of digital collage or recombination. What might be seen as a statement poem in this regard is ‘(schmu)topia’, a longer poem assembled partly out of ‘digitally restitched’ lines from other Australian poems. As well as an homage to those poets cited, it may best be read as a conceptual – or queered – re-description of the Australian canon. However, there is the sense that certain memorable lines (John Forbes’ ‘like a dozing shark’ is one) resist being collapsed into the mosaic.

The more oblique prose poem style of ‘Triggering Town’ appears also in the latter poems of the ‘Hygienic Italy’ sequence. The poem ‘Effusive’ begins this sequence with a critically-distanced, speculative ‘you’ – ‘you’d like to be differently enculturated’ – which then breaks into a messier reality. It deals warmly with the initial feelings of excitement and displacement around an encounter that shifts between a person and a place, where, ‘suddenly all your tropes seem so maligned / being gentle with yourself to coax the high down’. The sharp and funny ‘Alabaster Butch’ is Glastonbury’s contribution to Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets (2010), another encounter poem and one of the more overtly sexual. The poem ‘Grit Salute’, further on in the sequence, thinks through the personal in cultural terms, here via Gangland, and is one of the poems in the book that comes closest to anger:

on a scale of thrill to tedium    
             like getting your arse squeezed
& doing helen garner proud
             - that arts elite
looking fly in their pashminas
holding ganglander meetings
in italian & mandarina duck
                    - they expect us to minute
though paint jars threaten a comeback
            from the centre-right

Glastonbury’s is poetry as cultural critique. By that very formulation – as if it were something less usual – a question is prompted: in which epochs has mockery of the elites not been a function of poetry?

‘Anti-Suburb’ and ‘Queen of the Hills’ are the two final sections of the book. In ‘Queen of the Hills’ we hear of less written-about aspects of being on a writer’s residency: ‘the expatriate dialectic: transnational / buzz meets an almost vampiric torpor’ (‘New Urban’). The short lyric ‘Copes Well With Stroppy Chicks’ reminds the reader, after the more ethnographic poems preceding it, that two of the main themes of the book are love (and love lost) as well as theory and its various pleasures. The latter would take in contemporary Australian culture, understood as historically citable, of which a category like ‘bogan bohemia’ would be one of many combinations. The multiple capacities of the prose poems in particular alert us to an impatience with static, top-down models of culture in which we all already know what phenomena falls into which category. Glastonbury’s approach is to continually spin the wheel to provide new, speculative results.

grit salute is a valuable collection, one that encourages re-reading and (perhaps surprisingly) reading aloud. Along with their abundant intelligence and warmth, there is a broad, steady attention behind the sometimes frenetic surfaces of these poems, and with it a capacity to be surprised by those things ‘always yawned at / until now’.

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About Tim Wright

Tim Wright currently lives in Melbourne where among other things he reads and writes poems and is researching a thesis to do with contemporary Australian poetry.

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