John Upton, ‘Embracing the Razor’ in The Australian
Upton, Lawson, Pattinson and Lach-Newinsky display diversity in verse: Aidan Coleman reviews 'Embracing the Razor' in The Australian July 4, 2015
Since its inception a decade ago, Sydney-based Puncher & Wattmann has become a major publisher of Australian poetry. The four poets from its stable reviewed here, John Upton, Elizabeth Lawson, Jillian Pattinson and Peter Lach-Newinsky, are writing at their peak and their collections are a testament to the publisher’s nonpartisan commitment to diversity.
In Embracing the Razor (97pp, $25) Upton — an award-winning playwright and former television scriptwriter — handles an impressive range of forms, from free verse to couplets and more intricate rhyming structures. The poet’s wife is introduced as an orphaned child, fondly remembered as someone who loved animals: the ‘‘Patron Saint of waifs and strays’’. The liveliness of this sketch is a contrast to the stasis and despondency of her final days: ‘‘[ICU] is a fortress, you press a button / and wait.’’ Upton builds the scene through cumulative detail — visual and auditory imagery — but a human moment is at the centre: ‘‘you hold her hand, you smile … see past this, past today / backwards into both-of-you’’.
The second-person address reinforces the alien nature of the situation and the feeling of powerlessness continues to the final sentence: ‘‘The hospital exhales you.’’ Talk begins in the hospital carpark: ‘‘in halogen-grubby dark … my ear plucks out the words ‘Beethoven’s Ninth’. / I wait. The music opens, swells, commands. Then / someone turns it off.’’ A reader is left in the sudden quiet — more sudden for the skilful enjambment — and death is foreshadowed.
The poems of grief and adjustment that follow are poignant and often darkly humorous. From here the book ranges out over politics and history, and portraits of friends and acquaintances. One simple and moving portrait concerns an elderly friend, recently diagnosed with cancer, for whom ‘‘Alzheimer’s is hacking gaps’’.
There are also travel poems from Japan, Albania, Finland, England, Turkey and India. There is a tendency for poets, on visiting a foreign city, to squeeze the most salient details of that nation’s culture and history into an observational poem. While Upton’s — usually long — digressive poems can suffer from a little of this, they are among the better work in this genre. Taj Mahal 2, the most interesting because it is the most personal, opens: ‘‘You’re walking inside the head /of a man who has lost his wife … his skull / is a tumult like a railway / station, people yelling, guides blowing / whistles that shriek like trains …’’
Upton’s poems give the impression of being sturdily built and the metaphors are bricks as much as mortar. Most of these seem as necessary as they are good, but not all. Consider: ‘‘cars come in like cows / for milking’’ or ‘‘reheated fondue of thought’’. ‘‘[T]he gladiatorial rape of an angel’’ is excessive in any context. Despite these quibbles Upton’s work is compelling and will prove deservedly popular.