David Prater, ‘Leaves of Glass’ in ABR

Graeme Miles reviews David Prater's, 'Leaves of Glass' in ABR

Between 1889 and 1892, young Australian poet Bernard O’Dowd corresponded with the ageing Walt Whitman. Leaves of Glass, David Prater’s second collection, vividly imagines this long-distance relationship. This is not, however, a historical novel in verse. It refracts the correspondence through a perpetually shifting series of voices and forms, from heavily ironic, mock-traditional ones (‘Treading: An Air’) to the language of personal columns. There is even a translation of Whitman’s ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ into the language of LOLcats, that is, rewriting the poem as though by a cat (‘Gowayz Ob Lol: “O Kitteh! Meh Kitteh!”’). Despite having some sharp literary and cultural observations to make, there is nothing precious or stuffy about this book. To take one sample of this mixing of times and voices, ‘Swagman Ted’, a prose-poem/letter from O’Dowd to Whitman, begins: ‘Revered Master, Perhaps it was “Banjo” Paterson’s curse – we’ll never know; as someone once observed, news reaches us slowly over here, is constantly being delayed (or censored?) in the mail.’

Banjo Paterson and the poisonous weed Paterson’s Curse, the echo of Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets  (I), is wryly funny. It is apt, too, that this particular letter, addressed to the recently deceased Frank O’Hara, is the one evoked here: some decades later, an Australian poet will once again address a more established American. It also feeds on from the mock lament for Adam Lindsay Gordon, dead on a beach in the previous poem, to the death of O’Hara. The narrative that follows is earnest, deadpan, and bizarre. Leaves of Glass  gives an intriguing, sometimes enigmatic picture of an uneven relationship. Though some of what is now contemporary in it will soon seem as historic as Whitman and O’Dowd themselves, it is a book that plays some deft games with time and voice, and will repay rereading.

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