Benjamin Dodds, ‘Regulator’ in Cordite
Greg McLaren Reviews Phillip Gijindarraji Hall and Benjamin Dodds in Cordite, January 2015
‘Thinning our little herd’, the poem that opens Benjamin Dodds’s first collection,Regulator, is a kind of signal fire. In making strange the common events of farm life, Dodds refreshes and renews what in less deft hands could lean towards triteness and cliché. This poem is a striking gothic anecdote that relocates tradition, internalises rural worries, and externalises this worry into something between panic and paranoia. The first line break heightens this, drawing out time, extending and compressing all that follows:
we had Baskerville
hounds in our heads
sweeping bold arcs
through feathered darkness
at the porch light’s circle edge.
The ‘father’s too-long absence’, the ‘distortion / of farm-night acoustics’, ‘the rigid carnage’ and ‘unease’ operate as a series of discrepancies at the heart of the poem, feeding on and amplifying each other. Oddly, the certainty offered by ‘foolproof steps’ only deepens this unease, reiterating the father’s absence and extending it uncertainly into a future. The confidence and ease at handling this material is a feature that may well mark Dodds as that rare thing, a genuinely new voice. He consistently demonstrates the strangeness around us with subtly playful seriousness.
There are several poems ‘about’ space and aliens, including ‘In telepathy, space doesn’t matter’, ‘Others’ and ‘Sometimes’. In ‘Others’ Dodds envisages humans and aliens at cross-purposes, fated never to meet because of utterly variant expectations. While we send radio waves in an attempt to seek a reply, Dodds’s Others send ‘Unfocussed waves // [which] radiate from organic transmitters / waiting for a wave back’ (nyuk nyuk). These Others may well be ‘non-corporeal entities’ unrecognisable to humans, and who are, anyway, ‘on the way to some place less / parochial than here’. As with ‘Thinning our little herd’, ‘Others’ brims with uncertainty and ambiguity: ‘Will they appear silently … ?’ or ‘Perhaps they’ll simply pass us by, ‘indifferent’, ‘possibly / non-corporeal entities’.
Dodds delivers a cute twist on this theme in ‘Magnapinna species’. Magnapinna is an odd species of squid. The poem teems with strong phrasing and imagery (‘Rapunzel as incubus’, ‘the darkness of this Vernian depth’, ‘pudendal creature’). There’s an unsettling moment where it is unclear whether or not this ‘elbowed thing’ has entered the speaker’s room a la The Ring: ‘the muscles at my core // brace when it’s on screen. / She erupts into the room’ – but it is only a housemate who ‘demands an opinion on how she looks’ and then poses the question, ‘Is that in space or the sea? ’ This question neatly pulls together some key strands in Dodds’s work, namely, a deep engagement with science, an ability to explore familiar territory idiosyncratically, and a simultaneously local, specific and galactic focus.
His suggestion that ‘Human // awe has always aimed skywards’ is given a keen tweak in ‘Cringe’, a poem that gently rejects and resists the power of Australian cultural identity. It could be argued that Australian awe has always aimed outwards, toward the work done in other cultural centres such as London, Paris, New York, and that this is sometimes at the expense of investigating and valuing what’s happening here. It’s difficult to argue this sensitively, to neither over-valorise the local or to undercut the significance of global influences. In this context, Dodds hypothesises a township, ‘Pompay Springs’, in sight of ‘Mt. Versuvy’ in NSW’s central west. Dodds’s images are quietly but convincingly local in tone (‘you’d pay your ten bucks / for Jodie … to walk you past / the recreated bora rings’ – nice Judith Wright reference – and ‘you’d pick up a plastic refracting ruler / for the neighbour’s kid / feeding the dogs back home’). Dodds’s jocular and Larkinesque postcolonialism explores cultural exclusion. Seen in this kind of frame, it makes a firm but polite argument that all writing (and art) is necessarily provincial, local, derived from a particular place.
This raises more questions than it answers: given Dodds’s galactic focus, is there any valid reason why work that references, say, the Murrumbidgee is less vivid, interesting (or, gasp, universal) than that riding a more global imperative? Are Australian writers trying or hoping to make up for our supposed peripherality and marginality? Why isn’t geographic isolation in some respects a kind of virtue for work by writers based in Australia? An international outlook and keen engagement with the concrete local context, I argue, are in no way in mutual contradiction. In fact, each is more viable when inflected with and deeply informed by the other (assuming for the moment that they are meaningfully separate concerns). Aren’t we all in attendance ‘at some declining servo, / never having been trusted / to step into any roped-off areas’? And anyway, Dodds’s neighbour’s kid might well see through the ‘plastic refracting ruler’ to a new, idiosyncratic angle on this entire binary. Dodds’s originality is as subtle as it is fresh, all the more impressive for being un-showy yet convincing.
Sitting alongside (or outside) his interest in the local and its various extrapolations, Dodds energetically explores images, events and ideas to do with space (that is, outerspace). The combined workings of the specific and localised, coupled with a detailed attention to the unthinkable vastness of space and its implications, means that Dodds argues less against the cultural cringe as consigns it to rightful irrelevance. His own background in science informs a number of poems that question knowledge and reality. In ‘In telepathy, space doesn’t matter’, ‘meaning shorts and fails’, there is only ‘banal procedure’, and gravity, somewhat inexplicably, has the quality of a placebo: ‘a type of gravity. / he knows it’s a lie but his overtaxed body // grants the benefit of the doubt’. From the sheer remoteness of lunar orbit Dodds takes one of his sudden shifts in register or setting, to ‘a quiet home [where] a group gathers / around a kitchen table’ to participate in Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s telepathy experiment, ‘the ideal test to conduct / in stealth’. This quite unexpected move typifies Dodds’s MO. He handles deep disjunctions firmly but gently, and always for a specific purpose.
A number of the poems in Regulator work to build up knowledge, or test hypotheses. These include ‘Remnant’ – ‘Awareness of my own porosity / keeps me awake. / What other essences / benignly odourless or otherwise / do I take in / unconsenting / through this skin?’ – and ‘Things fall apart’ – ‘how reliable is daytime solidity? / Best not to test the stresses’. This deep uncertainty manifests regularly in Dodds’s poems, but rarely more powerfully and creepily than in the terror at both tightly confined spaces and, for his speakers, frighteningly ‘clean air and wide open spaces’ as well as bug-fear (‘The spiders are here’) and the low-key gross out of ‘Host’. The gruesome unfolding of ‘Emptying Out’ owns a restrained goriness to match Judith Beveridge’s ‘The Shark’. The strength of this poem lives partly in the explicit, step-by-step description of what occurs, but also in the churning empathy as the sight:
… laid out
for one of us an undeniable homology
that triggered a spill of devon
and white bread –
the sickness of mammalian decay. (‘Emptying Out’)
Human awe at the immensity of space is modulated in some of Dodds’s poems to something more like panic and dread when applied more locally. For instance, the poem ‘clean air and wide open spaces’ builds from ‘softly muttered awe’, through ‘the whispering enormity of gorge / or valley or plummeting cliff’, to the overbearing panic at ‘a host of screaming trees’. This revisits the ease with which Dodds aligns the internalised worry and the external loss in ‘Thinning our little herd’. He is a poet keenly aware of the way environments act upon and influence us. This is particularly so in the lines: ‘the swarming eucalypts / and gaping sky work in tandem // to chant inside your head / they crowd you out’. In these poems there is a deep element of an inverted claustrophobia that turns into agoraphobia, as vastness is internalised and the speakers’ fears and insecurities spread outward to envelop and define (their response to) the landscape.
A not dissimilar pattern drives ‘Under Cicadas’, but this poem is built around technological conceits that connect cicadas to ‘the electronic creations / of a straight-to-video madman’ as, fancifully, ‘convection-waves / radiate unceasingly // from sun-hardened abdomens’. Cicadas, Dodds imagines, are insect cyborgs intent on harassing humans:
these black princes
sense the proximity of neighbours
and adjust output accordingly
constant calibration is necessary
to keep this hell stable.
This scientific register, which elsewhere lends Dodds’s poems an impressive precision, here finds a stressed and panicked (in the ancient Greek sense) but nonetheless wryly aware speaker.
A sharp poem in the final section, ‘München’, plays for laughs. There’s a sly but coquettish grin/nuendo as it closes:
I ask a huge man
how often he uses English.
He lisps something
about a private lesson later that night in his room
The next morning
I skid like Bambi did in the
wrong sort of shoes for snow.
It’s only in getting to the book’s final poem, ‘Prodigal Son (and his partner)’, reminiscent of Philip Hodgins’s work in the way it explores ‘country manners’, that these manners, read through tone, lend the collection a consistent outlook. In this poem, the speaker walks with his partner as they ‘take in views / of whomever’s herd’, reassured that ‘they’re only cows’ as ‘they begin to stamp, / lower horned heads and begin to follow’, ‘shepherding him over the fence / by the most direct route possible’. This sweet indirectness characterises Regulator; a voice of toughness and clarity of mind.