Benjamin Dodds, ‘Regulator’ launch by Carol Jenkins

Carol Jenkins launches Benjamin Dodds 'Regulator'

For some reason, a little mysteriously considering the confidence of Regulator, Ben asked David to ask me if I would launch his first book. After reading it, I can say I am privileged to get in the first sound bite on this collection. Oddly, or really not so oddly, I worked for a long time in Chemical Regulation, so launching Regulator seems singularly apt. 

The title poem gives an insight into Dodds’s modus operandi, one might say his regulatory approach, with what starts off as an acute point of observation, with precise words and an exacting image, but as things go on, the duplicity, the ambiguities, the metaphoric qualities, the innuendos, start to add up. So, while we start off at the scary point of a dam spillway with its gates and concentrated surge of water, a heavy duty playground for young men, the action of jumping off seems as much a method of regulating excess testosterone as writing it is a way of regulating the past.

These poems are discretely loaded with revelation; there is a perversely biblical strand from the very start.

Thinning our little herd

For weeks
we had Baskerville
hounds in our heads
sweeping bold arcs
through feathered darkness
at the porch light’s circle edge.
My father’s too-long absence
and the distortion
of farm-night acoustics
surely exaggerated their size
but the rigid carnage we’d find
stitched to the morning’s frozen
grass did little to lessen unease.
A man who was not our father
barked stark instruction
at my brother and me:
foolproof steps
for burning a gutted calf.

In ‘Thinning our little herd’, we get the Hounds of the Baskervilles with an edgy twist, a man barking orders, blood on the ground, a prodigal father and a calf, not fatted, but gutted. By strangely inverting elements in the New Testament, Dodds gives the disturbing scene both a resonance and clarity, and, at least for me, a dark comedic take.

Its hard to put your finger on why, but perhaps it’s the unseen and unmentioned idea of Basil Rathbone invoked by the Baskervilles, or the very dry line breaks, so ‘foolproof steps’ come across as anything but. He laminates b-grade horror with biblical chutzpah, creating a nearly casual and economic micro tale.

The unsparing perception of country life brings to mind Philip Hodgins. Though their motivation is different, they both have a blistering acuity. Dodds continually reminds us that life is often bizarre, though we most often blinker it out. Regulator brings it all back into focus.

Dodds has a sure grip on his mixed media vernacular, with touch-points in The Day of the Triffids, Boys Own, Twisties, Letona and Bambi all peppered with an integrated and casual literary chutzpah. Combining the two, we recognise a Lord of the Rings tragic reciting ‘impervious to the snagging bramble of almost impossible consonant clusters’ in Lounge 22.

One of the recurrent themes in this collection is metamorphosis– of rock, of creatures, alive and dead. Most particularly so in Host, where he does a reverse Kafka. It’s only recently that, reading Kafka in Spanish, I realised he is funny. It is English that renders him dour. But the poem Host, with its inversion of metamorphosis where a part of the narrator turns out to be…well, for those who haven’t read it, I’m not going to be a spoiler here. I will say I needed more than a moment to resettle myself when I’d read this.

The collection is littered with knives, sharp edges, broken glass– one can literally say these are cutting edge poems, where everyday life is a little jagged, a baited trap waiting for the unwary.  The remedy is close by, and you might say that these work in one sense as cautionary tales, a Maxwell Smart guide to what not to do. We see this in ‘Man at Home’:

there’s prudence too
in placing the eager edge
of a can’s excised lid
inside the empty thing itself
instead of the way I’ve dropped it
keen curve up
beside the jagged glass.

One thing I particularly like in this collection is the way it celebrates men from a male perspective. Here we have coming of age poems, without slushy romance, and see that there is nothing really casual about casual sex. They give a vivid and honest sense, an evocation, of the tension of finding one’s sexuality without losing one’s sense of humour. This is so well done in Water Tower.

These poems are mercifully free of piousness, there is no straining here for the lyrical parsnip, no obfuscation, no death by Language, no false humility. But it’s not for the ‘negative capability’ of these poems that I recommend this book for your reading, but for what they are– finely written, witty and lucid accounts of coming of age and living in Australia.

Carol Jenkins 23 February 2014