Ken Bolton, ‘Sly Mongoose’ in The Australian Poetry Journal


Theophanic Margarine

David McCooey reviews Ken Bolton’s Sly Mongoose in Australian Poetry Journal Vol 1 2011

In vernacular terms, poetry is a serious business (when it’s not a joke). For most people, poetry should be tonally elevated, lyrical, and in touch with the numinous (all reasons why it can so easily slip into the realm of the joke). Plenty of professional poets think of poetry as a serious business, too, writing poetry that is tonally elevated, lyrical, and in touch with the numinous. But plenty of others are impatient with the idea that poetry must be ‘serious’. The New York school of poetry (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, et al) brilliantly rejected the idea that poetry should be a solemn discourse, a rejection sometimes explicitly thematised in their work. O’Hara in his famous, ironic manifesto, ‘Personism’ (1959), asked of poetry: ‘how then can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears)’.

Closer to home, the ‘Generation of ’68’, in the 1970s, was a loose confederacy of Australian poets willing to ‘fool around’. Not surprisingly, many of the 68ers—most famously John Forbes—looked to the New York school as an alternative to the putatively academic, Anglocentric poetry of the time. Of course, it has generally been more common to present the Generation of ’68 as (unduly) political, polemical, and factional. (The excessive emphasis in the critical literature on the political over the playful gives the 68ers a surprising affinity with their supposed rival, Les Murray). But this view is an out-dated one, and ignores the fact that poets such as Laurie Duggan, Pam Brown, and John Tranter are profoundly entertaining poets, however much their work might be characterised at times as ‘difficult’. Indeed, their work illustrates the fact that the distinction between ‘entertainment’ and ‘poetry’ is a facile, even philistine, one, reliant on a spurious notion of what is ‘proper’ to poetry.

So we come to Sly Mongoose, Ken Bolton’s latest collection of poetry, a loose, capacious book that challenges prescriptive views of ‘the poetic’ (even as it engages in its own brief polemic on contemporary poetry, as we will see). In his ‘occasional’ poetics—primarily seen in his epistolary poems—Bolton evokes O’Hara’s spontaneity, wit, and intersubjective address. We see this especially in ‘Poem (“I do a drawing...”)’, which even has an O’Haraesque title. Beginning as an account of the poet drawing a picture of Jimmy Rushing (Count Basie’s singer), the poem unexpectedly veers to the plangent (another O’Haraesque effect) with its account of the poet’s father and his violence.

But Bolton is, of course, not merely a pale reflection of O’Hara, and while he references other New Yorkers, such as James Schuyler, the poets he most resembles are his friends Laurie Duggan and Pam Brown, whose poetics are similarly personal but not sentimental, and who are similarly ‘documentary’ in style without a false sense of disinterestedness. The three poets are profoundly interested in the way in which experience is always placed. It’s no surprise, then, that the three have not only collaborated (in the chapbook Let’s Get Lost, 2005), but that their collaboration was largely concerned with place. Bolton’s work, like Duggan’s and Brown’s, is also replete with cultural references. In Sly Mongoose those references range from his friends and colleagues—including Duggan and Brown—to the Ramones, Miles Davis, Roberto Bolaño, Lee Marvin, Kingswood Country, and anything else that takes Bolton’s fancy. In this respect, Bolton’s poems are ‘postmodern’ in their intertextuality, as in their lack of interest in generic limits, but so what? What is important is that Bolton fashions the endless flow of sensation and ideas, and his use of poetry as a mode of cultural criticism, into something ‘compelling’, at least for some of us.

A key feature that makes Bolton compelling for me is that he is funny. A superb example of this is ‘Guillaume Apollinaire’, which features the father of surrealism and begins with an epigraph by David Malouf who, in critic mode, apparently asserted that Bolton ‘amply repays his debt to O’Hara and through him to Apollinaire’:

In the park, as I stroll along, I see a man who looks
like Apollinaire—that head shaped like a pear, a garlic,
as in the small drawing of him by Picasso, wherein
Apollinaire is depicted as the pope. I doubt that it is him.
He thanks me for fully repaying my debt to him ‘after
all these years’. When, he asks, will John Forbes pay? I
mean fully, he says, when I look at a loss for an answer.

Another link between comedy and cultural reference can be seen in ‘Art History’, a kind of mock lecture that illustrates the falseness of any model of art (or its history) that appears to be neutral or comprehensive. In the ‘cosy, rather battered coat’, which is the poet’s sense of art history, ‘whole periods are truncated, / take disproportionately / less time or space / than they needed in real life’. This model of art history is a complex (and comic) index of the relationship between the personal and the cultural.

To call Bolton a comic poet, however, is to oversimplify things. Bolton’s comedy is underscored by an elegiac sensibility (another feature he shares with Duggan and Brown), something apparent in the collection’s first poem, ‘2:30’, a meditation on aging and death and the secret links—again—between the personal and the cultural. The poem—with its serio-comic connection between Marvell’s image of ‘Time’s wingèd chariot’ (obliquely referenced in the poem’s dedication) and the ‘Public Service clock’ behind the poet’s back—both mobilises and satirises long-standing elegiac motifs.

In ‘Brisbane Letter to Gabe’, Bolton offers a theory of the poetic, even as he appears at his most ‘unpoetic’. Ostensibly an account of Bolton’s attendance of the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, the poem also offers an intervention in contemporary poetics. On the new ‘wave’ of poets, Bolton writes that they look ‘awful’:

highly skilled—
formal, ‘poetic’, indirect—well mannered.
‘Nice’—yet ‘deep’—
satisfying someone’s desire
for poetry as solace, as retreat from life,
as old-world wisdom,
buffed & burnished & mysterious.

This is, of course, partly satirical as well as a negative statement of Bolton’s own poetics (one with which I have considerable sympathy). Even without such a statement, though, it is clear that Bolton’s own poetry is not interested in being a ‘retreat from life’, consolatory, or concerned with wisdom. Instead, Sly Mongoose repeatedly draws attention to the rich and complex exigencies of ‘life’.

But Bolton is not simply a chronicler of the day-to-day and of cultural politics. As suggested by his Apollinaire poem, Bolton can be marvellously surreal, as seen in ‘Exotic Things’, a sequence of surreal poems, each section of which the blurb tells us is ‘structured around a buried pun or near-pun’. Bolton is not afraid of the bizarre either, as seen in ‘The Beaver’s Poem’, a poem written from a beaver’s perspective, and the slightly ‘proceduralist’ poems towards the end of the collection, such as ‘Outdoor Pig-keeping, 1954 & My Other Books on Pigs’, which comically refers to Bolton’s homonymic namesake, a pig expert.

David McCooey

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