Bruce Dawes, ‘Slo-Mo Tsunami’ in ABR

Bruce Dawe: Slo-Mo Tsunami and Other Poems

'Memory Pieces' by Martin Duwell, Australian Book Review, Dec 2011 – Jan 2012

The title of Bruce Dawe’s first collection, No Fixed Address (1962), pointed to an early working life of innumerable casual jobs. This was covered to some extent in Stephany Steggall’s excellent biography, Bruce Dawe: Life Cycle (2009). As the working life of an Australian poet, this would be incomprehensible now (it seems closer to the world of John Shaw Neilson), but I mention these early details to point out that one way of looking at this new book, Slo-Mo Tsunami, is to see it as occurring half a century after Dawe’s first, fifty years during which Dawe has been one of Australia’s most loved and respected poets.

Descriptions of Dawe’s work that focus on his mastery of Australian speech registers and his sympathy with suburban folk often, unconsciously, sell him short. He can be a very sophisticated poet. He has, on the one hand, a dry, suggestive mode that can produce masterpieces such as ‘Drifters’, a poem which creates, in a few lines, a whole Australian economic sub-group. But he also has a more baroque mode in which apparently casual metaphors are extended over several lines, often through verse forms that are barely registered by the reader, in compelling syntactical structures. Famous poems such as ‘Weapons Training’ are actually technical masterpieces, for all their throwaway humour. And ‘Homecoming’ is still Australia’s greatest public poem.

There isn’t much that is especially new in Slo-Mo Tsunami. The metaphor of the title derives from a description of Australia’s remorseless flight to its eastern coast and the suburbanising of tracts of shoreline land. The poem itself belongs to Dawe’s satiric mode, but it is a poem whose context makes it more than just a comic newspaper piece. The disastrous Asian tsunami of 2004 is never mentioned but hovers in the background as a kind of reverse of what is happening in Australia. Our mean-spirited response to asylum seekers is alluded to early on, and then there is the context of Dawe’s sympathy with the creation of the postwar suburbs. It is as though this poem, late in Dawe’s writing life, is bemusedly observing the results of what he had celebrated (admittedly, often equally bemusedly) in his first poems.

Although this is merely a personal preference, I have always responded most to the Dawe poems that embody very intense feelings, usually of grief, in syntactic as well as conceptual modes in which the play of tones is very complex. Many of these have, over recent years, revisited the death of his first wife, Gloria. Slo-Mo Tsunami opens with two such poems, and they are typical of Dawe at his best: the first exploiting the metaphor of white-water rafting for the experience of going through the dying process with one’s partner. Of course, there is nothing po-faced about the way the metaphor is worked out: the reader is dragged through the poem by a remorselessly precipitate syntax that mimics the metaphor itself; you get to the end slightly stunned and needing to think about the poem.

The second, ‘What to do Next …’, is also rather cleverer than it seems on the surface. Dealing with beginning one’s life after the tragedy, it is a thirty-line poem structured as a set of infinitives, and is one long sentence beginning, ‘To lock the front door for the last time, to walk / down the front steps …’ Fittingly, it is an incomplete sentence. It also, among its passing metaphors, brings in the world of film westerns – standard early Dawe fare – so that the poem mocks its own intense emotions by configuring the bereaved almost as a lone gunfighter.

These are sketchy analyses, but my point is that any tendency to see Dawe as, in some way, a naïve poet, exploiting a providentially fallen-upon subject, is wide of the mark. There are, as in Dawe’s recent books, a lot of poems that most readers will think of as merely satirical (though I have a soft spot for ‘The La-La-Land Express’, perhaps because its core issue – the distortion of what has happened so that it fits a preconceived ideology – is a pet hatred). All one can say about such poems, which don’t seem to have any emotional core and never engage the poet in any complex way, is that instead of seeing them as being beneath the genius of the author of ‘Homecoming’, ‘Woodeye’, or ‘Drifters’, it is probably time to ask ourselves why they are so important to Dawe, who has gone on writing and including them in his books.

If Slo-Mo Tsunami contains few surprises, it does have a group of poems that are something new. Cooperating with the author of his biography has obviously produced poems such as ‘George Street’, ‘Office Boy’, ‘Reading John Morrison’, and the bitter ‘Players and Workers’, which are memory pieces deriving from the casual-job environment that I wrote of before. The last two, especially, are fine poems, complex in their attitudes but rather different from Dawe’s usual modes. Bruce Beaver, fairly late in his poetic career, produced As It Was (1979), based on the recalling of memories of his earlier life, especially those concerning work and popular culture. I wonder whether Dawe might consider doing something similar.

Martin Duwell

Read this review in Australian Book Review

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