Andy Kissane, ‘Radiance’ in Meanjin
Selves and Their Grace Notes: Poetry in Review
Martin Langford reviews six new works of Australian poetry in Meanjin, May 2015
Another poet who works the stuff of the ordinary is Andy Kissane, though with a somewhat different inflection. Beginning with the premise that the familiar is as strange and necessary a subject as anything arcane or unheimlich, his poems draw variously on his daily experiences and on the somewhat less ordinary lives he encounters in books. They invariably display a strong sense of context (Kissane is a short-story writer as well, and there is some overlap between his poems and stories, in terms of technique): a boilermaker, new to the theatre, gets sucked into the action, watching his son on stage; a couple of match girls giggle under the bedclothes at the way the phosphorous makes their teeth glow. The poems are often driven by a sense of injustice: ‘The Smell of the Sea’ is about an ex-RAAF maintenance worker who has developed cancer from performing his duty, cleaning the fuel tanks of F-111s. Elsewhere he honours the people with whom he shares the familiar. There is a sequence of love poems for his partner, for example, and a poem about driving his daughter to ice-skating, and watching her practise:
I can see her as she concentrates on the long backward
glide, digs her toe pick down into the ice, lifts
and spins into the air, striving with her whole body
to land this difficult jump for the first time.
Sometimes he is a slightly comic figure (‘I perform a role / crucial for adolescent wellbeing: efficient driving,’ he writes in ‘Trip to the Ice Rink’), though there is a steely note to this, as if he were insisting that he was serious about his loyalties. In ‘Buddy Holly at the Hi-D-Ho’ he criticises Holly’s songs for always writing about a love that is either ‘further down the road, / or shining in the past’. ‘What really kills love,’ he says, ‘is expecting your baby / to stay up on the Hi-D-Ho roof / in a white suit. Let him come down / onto the tarmac. Let him write / a different type of love song.’ There is something of Kissane’s poetic in this. He wants emotion to engage with the present and familiar, rather than for it to be situated solely in elsewheres of lack or desire. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Poetry has, for various reasons—most of them genuine, some of them career-based—congregated in recent times at the frontiers of our understandings and techniques. But that can mean it has little to say about the quotidian, as if anyone with any sophistication already knew everything one needed to know about such things—above all, that it would be uncool to revisit them.
One can appreciate the need to push the boundaries, but it has been a big call for us as a culture to have walked so comprehensively away from the life in front of us. Without disputing the need for experiment in writing, the experimental can struggle to engage with daily life on an emotional level. And sometimes the intellectual perspective has permitted a dismissal I am not sure anyone is entitled to make. It is a dismissal that Kissane has refused. At the heart of his project is a desire to honour and celebrate contemporary joy—sometimes peripheral and barely glimpsed, sometimes central to his characters’ lives—and by so doing, run an implicit counter-argument to those who see the world only in terms of its insufficiencies. Rather than the marvellous being the province of a few remarkable minds, for Kissane it is everywhere—though even the mundane is a frontier that must be grappled with, again and again:
As usual, I drink too much wine
and everything glimmers, everything shines
and the solar system seems so immense that I
can almost comprehend it. Ah, we’re living out
the words of a popular song. But which one?8
- From ‘One Small Step’, in Radiance, p. 74.