Ken Bolton, ‘Sly Mongoose’ in Galatea Resurrects

Sly Mongoose by Ken Bolton

Pam Brown review in Galatea Resurrects Issue 17 2011

In the autumn issue of Overland magazine Justin Clemens described what he called “that experimental line of Australian verse whose peak experience remains Ern Malley,” as being “…continued today by poets such as Pam Brown and Ken Bolton, and which is almost inevitably much less popular due to its often-caustic undoings of sense.” And here we are again. I would say 'yes, yes, I know my poetry is less popular!' but Ken would say 'I always make sense, don't I? Don't I !?'

Ken Bolton has written far too many books. It's an embarrassment of riches.

Ken can often be seen walking down a city street in Adelaide, frowning slightly, (possibly from the glare of a bright sunny day, possibly with the frightful weight of thought) whistling fragments of tunes to himself, heading from his job at the Experimental Art Foundation to a favourite, or rather, familiar, yet never cool nor trendy, café for lunch. There he might jot down some notes while waiting for his plate of mezes. Those notes, in spidery indecipherable-to-anyone-else handwriting, will end up as poems, often long, some quite long, discursive critical-cultural ramblings filled with diverse references, jokes, spacy moments and something like x-rayed or cat- scanned thinking—thoughts monitored as they bounce and shuffle in a poetry brain. In poems Ken's thoughts move and turn quite quickly.

The longer poems often extrapolate off into what he's reading, or has read, films he has seen, art he has looked at in real life and in books, music he knows, mostly jazz, blues and r & b., often mentioning poets that he admires or dislikes—not always as a signal to the reader to look them up but also as signifiers of the times and as possible influences. They're poems that critique or examine cultural puzzles, probably seek solutions and sometimes abandon the pursuit, to return to it in another poem maybe even a year or so later – questions that continually pester and are chipped at but probably never answered. That's a philosophical process, I suppose. There are poems for movie directors, poems written on visits to friends' flats that have John Forbes in the shadows. And there are lots of jokes.

Ken lets his poems follow their own direction, many roaming across the pages as a kind of streamed collage takes shape, making them into exceptional visual works amply surrounded by white space. Yet they are very closely attended, often, as I've said, over long periods of time. And here is where they eventually land—in print in a book like Sly Mongoose.

What is a Mongoose? It's a smallish, long-bodied, furry, carnivorous creature with sharp front fangs. Why is it Sly? I don't know. But the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker did because it's actually the title of one of the smooth yet peppy tunes he played.

Ken's poetry collections often seem conceptually coherent overall. And some of his books are very definitely coherent—like the long narrative poem The Circus published last year—a sequence of ingenious tales about a traditional circus, including a reflective elephant—and his writings on art in Adelaide called Art Writings.

But Sly Mongoose seems a little different—the poems are mixed in style and topic, and although they have a familiar Ken-Bolton-Tone they meander all over the oeuvre, scrambled oeuvre being a breakfast favourite, and scrambled oeuvre could well 'mirror', nay, 'resemble' Doctor Bolton's assemblage of poems in this case. (Yes, I say 'Doc' Bolton because he was once awarded a Doctorate for an incredibly erudite thesis written as a poem called The Duck at the Top of the Stairs, or How I Remember Writing Some of My Books – Why, Even*).

Some of the poems here were begun twenty or so years ago. Possibly not in the lunch café but at home, probably at a kitchen table—and maybe put away into a folder, or a drawer for a while, then later, lines will be shifted a little, added to or erased, re-punctuated (punctuation is one of Ken's specialties), to eventually emerge slightly rewritten, refreshed and ready—Like the opening poem, '2.30'–it's dedicated to Alan Wearne and begins

Reading in the dust jacket I see James Schuyler
is 67

Alan Wearne's poetry is worlds away from James Schuyler's so any informed reader is immediately taken aback—what? no connection!?

Taken aback and alert—ready to read on …

It's two in the morning by the way, not two in the afternoon. Ken is drinking a retsina, writing a poem contemplating ageing, his mother, his father, death. He wonders what star sign his mother has and goes to find a women's magazine somewhere in the house to see what sign January is.

Just this small act in a poem, getting up from the table to find the horoscope page in an everyday popular magazine, told clearly and incorporated into the process of making a poem, is one of the elements that distinguishes Ken's poetry from most other Australian poetry. Another is a poem written from the viewpoint of a beaver swimming downstream articulating his odd encounters—birds, a student cyclist—thinking about how his mind races as he swims faster, like a poet's mind, the beaver thinks.

Ken often writes poems as letters, often long poems to friends like Akira Tamura, Mary & Millie Christie, Laurie Duggan, his partner Cath's son, Gabe.

In a note at the back of the book Ken tells us 'Akira Tamura is known in the Adelaide art world as Akira Akira, a sarcasm halving the number of repetitions he must make in giving his name.'

'Letter to Akira Back in Japan' examines and compares differences, looking at or through cultural stereotypes. It's an empathetic poem that uses a kind of 'cheer up' method to support a friend in doubt.

The poem begins by quoting an email from Akira who has returned from Australia to Japan—

“The distance between
me & Japan
is like that between
a frog — & a cell

In part Ken responds—

Your 'frog-&-
phone' image:

the 'disconnect'
between you & Japan.

I wonder where could I live—
apart from here?

Maybe Ireland (?)

                              —but the weather,


have you started swearing in Australian?
No, not 'Fuck', that’s universal —
You should try Jesus!


                                                          I remember a friend of mine

instructing an Englishman
on the best way to enter a railway carriage,
travelling interstate:
you walk in,
glare about you
hurl your bag
in the corner of your
seat, shout Fucking
                              sit down


And I'd bet that Akira laughed reading this. But the poem goes on to give advice, options to consider, and reminds Akira of aspects of Australia that he might not miss, as well as referring to the Experimental Art Foundation, a place he knew well.

If you went back permanently
would you be part of the debate there

  that everyone/no-one is having?

                                                      (No one is invited
                                                      to the debate here,

                              Greg Sheridan
                              Janet Albrechtson.)

                                                      the minions of Murdoch

                                                      Rupert’s minions


Speaking of News Ltd—
There is none:

no news:

I've mostly been doing
bookshop stuff & proofing EAF articles,

& began (finally,
on Saturday, a week after I thought I'd be on to it)
the small essay for Sarah's show
at the 'Eaf'.

                              Which, as you
                              Rhymes with “leaf”—

I finish it tomorrow.

My main worry
(the 'news' continued),

was another essay —
written on the basis

of a studio visit
& J-pegs.

Anyway, I struggled with it for ten days —

after writing a bad,
lumpy beginning.

Then, when I'd left it as late as possible,
I got started —

& had a horrible four or five days on it …
And sent it to them lumpy

— but with an invoice!


'Letter to Akira' is a twenty page poem with sections broken up by hash symbols. Although Ken says that there's 'no news', there is, as he talks about artists and friends both he and Akira know, and their exhibitions and reactions to events at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas—Peter McKay, Scott Redford, Fiona Hall (Fifi), Melentie, Sarah CrowEst, Miss Mandy and so on.

I won't talk too much more about 'Letter to Akira' but this part, repeating the extract from Akira's email, is definitely a Ken-Bolton-moment—

The gap between you and most of
       resembles that between frog & mobile phone!

                                      I remember feeling the same
about me & Hornsby (!)

                  (& disapproving of myself as I did).

                         Adults wandering past, tubbily,

in shapeless, gelati-coloured
clothes, fit for children

                                      (I was twenty,
                         had read a lot of novels.

                         I didn't want to be a snob —
                         but 'Australian suburban life'

                  looked awful.)


Another twenty page poem is 'Art History'—beginning 'Art history you box on regardless'. It's a kind of refutation of looking at, thinking and reading about art and it is replete with art references.

Ah, Art History, you are

like overcoats
on a hall stand at a party

resembling each other, but different—

& a taxi calls—but which is
yours? the taxi is
but which art history, which art-historical coat?


The poem continues—choosing a coat—perhaps 'a raffish & worn & scoundrelly one' like Gully Jimpson's—Joyce Cary's fictional artist, or 'Max Jacob (as played by Roy Rene)' and we are taken on an enriching, winding trawl through Ken's particular kind of art criticism.

Art History, you are like a museum
in the mind,

                              And Art Criticism … (the subject
of another poem), you too I love!

The twenty-two page 'Brisbane Letter to Gabe', besides encompassing many other things, fills Gabe in on the scribbly abstract artist Cy Twombly—for Ken, 'a troubling anomalous figure'. And later, after talking about Matisse and Picasso, Ken tells Gabe about Sydney's Michael Fitzjames' aerial paintings of cities.

A few decades ago David Malouf wrote that Ken's poetry (then) “amply repays the debt to O'Hara and through him to Apollinaire” and now, in a poem called 'Apollinaire' Ken reflects on this early remark of David Malouf's, by meeting Guillaume Apollinaire. He invites Apollinaire for a drink to pay the debts owed to him by Ken's friends—John Forbes and myself. They go to some bars, the first one 'Zorba's', where they drink retsina. Ken asks Apollinaire if Alan Wearne has been to visit his tomb in Pere Lachaise cemetery and Apollinaire tells him Alan came to see the tomb of Van Morrison, “Jim,” I correct him, quietly

and that Alan owes him nothing.

Ken himself has asked—”Is yesterday the subject of these poems? Not entirely. There’s a Guide to the bars of Europe! That looks handy.” This long poem is a guide to bars for a friend who's taking a trip to Europe called 'Kirkman's Guide to the Bars of Europe'. Ken imagines, among others, the reactions of Gig Ryan, Robert Gray, John Tranter, David Kennedy, John Jenkins, Peter Bakowski, the actor Richard Harris visiting one of them, Bar San Calisto. Lyn Tranter calls her husband away from the place. It's a dark and grubby dive off a cobbled laneway leading to the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome (where, incidentally, Federico Fellini shot a night scene for his film Roma) just past the grungy looking stud-collared street people and their big stud-collared dogs and begging tin. When I was in Rome Ken sent me an email telling me I should have a Strega there. Not have a witch—which Strega translates as—but the strong yellow liqueur, Strega. But, passing by, I had already seen that there were too many piercings and tattoos in there for me. It looked more like 'Bar Zozzo'—Italian for 'Dirty Slob Bar'. As Ken says in the Guide—

It would be good to sit
with Ava Gardner, outside, or Johnny Depp. But inside:
it would be terrible. It is always terrible to sit
inside—a hell interminable—& which every minute
calls for all your attention—
the sort of thing, probably, Sartre hated, though it
puts you on your mettle. Are you tough enough
for the San Calisto?

There's a probably-out-of-print 1950s farm manual called Outdoor Pig Farming that's written by a different Ken Bolton. When he came across the other Ken Bolton's book Ken wrote a poem with the title 'Outdoor Pig-keeping,1954 & My Other Books on Pigs'. It's written in the academic tone of a reminiscing pig specialist. It's very funny—

“Long pig” was somehow
special dark knowledge when I was
a schoolboy, I mean the term.
A human dish. (No one else ate it,
except the odd lion or tiger—
as a one-off: humans also
protect their own—better probably not
to eat them too often.) But, to return
to the term, “long pig” implies knowledge
of “pig plain” sure enough. It seemed
insulting, to me, back then—to the idea
of the human & humanity & I didn’t like
to utter it. . I remember once
someone telling me of an abandoned
hippy farm where they’d been producing
heroin. The pigs were fed
on scraps & excrement
& were squealing. Addicted.
Apparently the noise was horrible.


Later the poem makes an elegiac turn when the pig farm expert reflects that he is writing in the notebook of his deceased daughter. It’s a moving, sad section of the poem, yet avoids sentimentality.

There is an almost Oulipian group of poems drawn from a travel diary, in an imaginary Africa in the 1970s, each entry partly structured around a pun or approximate pun. It's called 'Exotic Things/(from a travel journal)'. Here are two short excerpts—


in the Greek restaurant we ordered dilemmas.
I had one with lemon.


in Africa we shot enigma (which, in Africa,
only foreigners trouble to call “enigma”,
everyone else, quite unselfconsciously, calls them

There is such diversity. This book is veritably fecund with ideas and references—from Baroque art to Althusser to Jackie Gleason to Juliet Greco to Ron Padgett—inventive notations, appreciation of relationship—both friendship and family, and, as I've already said, plenty of terrific jokes. Ken Bolton writes like no-one else here. I could exhaust the lexicon of positive superlatives in praise of these poems because Sly Mongoose is a wonderfully compelling collection and I've mentioned less than a quarter of it.

* thesis published online in ka mate ka ora on nzepc – the New Zealand electronic poetry centre.

Pam Brown

Read this review in Galatea Resurrects

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