Anthony Lawrence, ‘The Welfare of My Enemy’ in The Australian Book Review
Off the Radar
Martin Duwell reviews Anthony Lawrence’s The Welfare of My Enemy in Australian Book Review April 2012
The Welfare of My Enemy is an unusual experiment in narrative poetry. Taking as its theme ‘the disappeared’, it is a set of narratives, a kind of anthology that imaginatively documents the myriad ways in which (and the different reasons for which) people go ‘off the radar’ and end up as missing persons. It is made up of fifty-odd individual poems, all in loosely rhymed couplets, few more than two pages long and almost all monologues.
We meet examples not only of the Ivan Milats of the world, but also of those suffering psychosis (‘fugueing’) who simply black out for days and ‘come to’ altogether elsewhere. We meet suicides as well as those who stage their own deaths, pursued by debt collectors or mad cultists. We also meet those connected with the disappearances: police, grieving parents, left loved ones, and even the police dog that searches for the remains.
It is true that one of the narratives – the disappearance of a young professional couple on their way to the snowfields – does form a kind of core to The Welfare of My Enemy. It recurs a number of times, and you feel, as you speculate about the archaeology of the writing, that the book might have been planned to deal only with this single disappearance, surrounding the emptiness in a series of monologues that look at the case from all angles.
Immediately impressive is the avoidance of sensationalism. We are given precious little in the way of reconstruction: the putting of flesh on the bare bones of a disappearance thus activating the strange readerly voyeurism that draws us unwillingly but inevitably in to narratives of horror. Anthony Lawrence’s interests lie in the baffling paradoxes of absence.
The Welfare of My Enemy opens with two fine poems that explore these issues. The first, built around a deliberate omission of the word ‘absence’ itself, points out that all words come enmeshed in their own rich histories of usage and etymology, and this very fullness takes us away from the denotative meaning of absolute nothingness.
From the nineteenth century on, French writers have constructed whole poetic ideologies, beginning with Symbolism, from the possible ways poetry might approach an absence and from the generative powers of nothing itself, but Lawrence never takes these directions. You feel that it is a raw human ache to fill the void that engages him most and produces his best writing here. The moments of disappearance, uncomfortable though they are to read, are done brilliantly. A young girl in a Riverina town throws a stick into the air and watches it disappear into a gully: ‘She went to get it and went out of the world.’ In another poem a father remembers how his daughter, going to the pool with friends, ‘waved and smiled. They were riding their bikes.’ It is as though those left behind in their grief, in what one poem memorably calls ‘a shelterbelt of unknowing’, approximate the intensity of attention that we normally associate with lyric poets.
This is Lawrence’s thirteenth book of poetry: how does it relate to the rest of his work? On the surface, it looks like something of a departure for a poet who is usually thought of as belonging in the dramatic-lyric pigeonhole. But there have always been narrative elements in his poetry. His second book contained an extended sequence, ‘Blood Oath’, about two boys who, unable to deal with the brutal realities of a jackaroo’s job in the North East, die while trying to escape by driving to Alice Springs. But it seems a cruder narrative than those of this book, because its exact function is to attempt imaginatively to sketch in the gaps in the narrative of the boys’ deaths.
At issue also is the question of what stake the poet has in this issue of disappearance and absence. If there were nothing personal involved, the book would be no more than an inert experiment in narrative; on the contrary, it is vibrantly alive. I can think of two possible answers. Firstly, human disappearance is a raw sub-section of the larger class of disappearance itself. Lyric poets are often hypersensitive to the normal entropy of the universe whereby objects, landscapes, cultural practices, etc. (as well as people) all go into the dark. As humans we are not as far from this process as we like to think. One of the poems, dealing with memories of the disappearance of ‘a boy my age’, has the narrator commenting:
He went for a swim. He’s not been seen since.
You think of your own place in the world
how flimsy your grip on the earth really is. It boils
down to a random act …
Secondly, there is the fact that Lawrence is himself a parent. There is nothing like the experience of worrying about the safety of your own children to hone a sensitivity to disappearance. The Welfare of My Enemy is not a book to be taken lightly – it has no consolations to offer – but it is a very intense and important one, whose achievements lie far beyond those of more conventional accounts of disappearances.
Martin Duwell, in The Australian Book Review
Read this review in The Australian Book Review