Toby Davidson reviews The Brokenness Sonnets I–III & Other Poems by Mal McKimmie
by Mal McKimmie
5 Islands Press, 2011
Reviewed by TOBY DAVIDSON
When Mal McKimmie’s debut collection Poetileptic was released in late 2005, I attended the launch at Carlton theatre where I had just seen Oscar Wilde’s Salome. A small, high-quality audience of esteemed poets, editors and friends were treated to the birth of a book which had to fight and kick to be born, being from a West Australian poet in the East without extensive connections. As a result Poetileptic deserved to be born many times over, and perhaps it was in certain quarters, although it was telling that most of the Melbourne ‘scene’ preferred a simultaneous launch of a sound poetry collaboration featuring home-town standard PiO. Poetileptic was positively but sparsely reviewed, and ignored in the haphazard process of national prizes, unlike its successor which was recently awarded The Age Book of the Year Award for Poetry.
For many readers The Brokenness Sonnets I-III and Other Poems, will be their first contact with McKimmie. Others may recall Dorothy Porter’s selection of the Howard-era satire ‘Jubilate Agony’ in Best Australian Poems 2006, his appearance on ABC Radio’s Poetica also in 2006, or ‘The Higher, the Fewer’ in Meanjin last year. A reader doesn’t have to have read Poetileptic to enjoy and engage with The Brokenness Sonnets I-III and Other Poems, but they should be aware that the two collections are thematically, structurally and metaphorically conjoined to a greater degree than most first and second collections, not least because the ambition of the poetry is greater than most first and second collections.
The Brokenness Sonnets I, which opens proceedings, is reproduced in its entirety from the middle section of Poetileptic, with some title and order changes and the addition of a twenty-fifth piece, ‘With my dream-catcher I caught the dreams,’ where the dramatic voice is that of a woman lost in imagined past lives:
my past is my present and I am
famous in it. Who can claim as much as that?
Ssshhh … There I am up on the screen,
am I not beautiful? Goodbye Father —
No, I am happy here, here I am free —
Out on a limb, dancing in the light all day,
like a cartoon character that has sawn
the tree away.
O my mad lost daughter
While this resounds with a gravitas akin to the other voices of human brokenness in the sequence, its insights also correspond thematically with the only sonnet in the Other Poems section, ‘Doomed Youth — Newmarket Railway Station, Melbourne’:
What happiness for those who live as chattels?
— Only her monstrous personalised ringtone,
Only his triumph in playstation battles
Can make them feel they are not owned, but own.
No poetry for them; no words of power;
No New Idea, save the magazine
That shrill, demented Rupert in his tower
Excretes to supplement the TV screen.
Here, updating Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, the displacement of a whole persona into borrowed fame in ‘With my dream-catcher I caught the dreams’ has become the displacement of a print culture into the digital, with the self as borrowed celebrity. The first is near-mad, the second near-collective. Little separates them, and yet because ‘Not by poets, but by prose-police / Shall their history be assembled piece by piece’, opportunities to delineate and question this are not so easily downloadable. The reference to ‘owning’ is especially poignant given the use of the word in gaming circles to mean ‘mastering’ or ‘beating’, as depicted in the recent mockumentary Pure Ownage.
Yet poets themselves are hardly absolved. Some poets’ borrowed celebrity is repeatedly stung in a piece which marries apiological allegory and ars poetica, ‘The Higher, the Fewer’:
Poetry is now the only difference between
Those who write poetry & those who do not.
Fear of this is why poets read to poets and are happy.
She said of her 500 Facebook friends:
‘They’re not a swarm, they’re a print run’.
Ouch. But to characterise this poet as broadly cantankerous, with a didactic attachment to the margins via form is akin to ignoring the loved hearth of a house you refuse to go in because roof glowers at you.
Love and joy are at the centre of McKimmie’s world, and their compression by layers of irony, cruelty and injustice only makes their eruptions more vivid and volatile, audibly so in the reactions of live audiences. Consider these:
Come, bring your newborn to me. I will hold
a river, like a baby, in my arms. (‘Yes, he will become Narcissus. It is’)
In Calcutta the beggar I could not shake was Art.
God fell from my head. She rose in my heart. (‘Escape from the Rat Gods’)
Unfurl the white flag of your surrender:
she waits for you as patient as a mirror,
but she is not a mirror, she is free.
And you love her as the wave loves vast the sea. (‘Requiescat in pace’)
Despite the pitfalls of taking lines in isolation, these snippets from The Brokenness Sonnets I indicate the deeper project of McKimmie’s work and also serve to explain why he cares enough to write the more scathing social pieces in the first place. ‘The Higher, the Fewer’, having dispatching its Facebook poet, continues in this vein with a nod to Blake:
The anonymous reader is the true apiarist, humming
From page to page, cramming his pockets with pollen until he’s
Jodhpur-thighed, trailing legs shaped like hams & is become a bee.
He might be living in a house on fire, smoke might have
Pulled a grey Salvo-Army blanket up to his chin & tucked him in,
But in his sleep, one by one or two by two, like the zzzzzzzzzz of a
Gentle snoring, bees slip from his mouth, his dream
& swarm into the shape of tomorrow.
Everything seemed like an accident:
All I did was keep bees & sleep, bees & read, sleep & bees.
Writing was only to stay awake in the smoke. Now what am I?
(Somehow saw the bloom in slow-motion,
Caught a glimpse of the locksmith opening the flower.)
There is a strange, oblique transference of identity from reader to sleeper to poet to smoker to lover to reader of all that these identities entail through the bee allegory, its Old Testament honey through the hive voice reminiscent of Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World more than any Plathian beekeeper. Is it any accident that ‘The Higher, the Fewer’ is followed by the final, and spiritual, poem of the book, ‘Three Readings Heard in a Temple’?
Like, but also beyond, his voices in The Brokenness Sonnets, McKimmie is a poet who resists the easy path and thus resists easy encapsulation. This sonneteer writes about bikies, DNA and the Internet in the same breath as religion and myth. The free verse raconteur also writes against his greatest asset, that of sustained compression, in three sections of ‘homunculi.’ These, although tiny, are not always fully formed enough, and I find some, such as ‘Like windows / Souls don’t just happen’, to be nowhere near the quality of others (‘Fish are subatomic physicists, separating O from H2O. / (I saw them doing it.)’; ‘“This is Lazarus. / I need an outside line.”’). Of highest quality still is ‘Lapsed Corona’ from ‘The Brokenness Sonnets II,’ a multidimensional masterpiece whose communing with the reader I’ll leave as a private affair, other than to recommend the work as one capable of the same immense religio-dramatic absorption as Francis Webb’s ‘The Canticle.’ And, like Webb, in The Brokenness Sonnets I-III and Other Poems, the heavy weather is also the transcendent sun.
In just two collections, this poet has outstripped many more venerated poets and, while he takes his time doing whatever comes next, we should take some time with his works, because there are parts of them that are necessarily beyond their creator –and there can be no higher praise. If Mal McKimmie is not recognised as an integral part of the front rank of twenty-first century Australian poets by his next collection, I’m in the wrong game.
The Brokenness Sonnets I–III & Other Poems was awarded the 2012 Age Poetry Book of the Year.
TOBY DAVIDSON is a West Australian poet, editor and reviewer now living in Sydney where he is an Australian Literature lecturer at Macquarie University. He is the editor of Francis Webb Collected Poems (2011, ebook 2012) and author of the upcoming study Born of Fire, Possessed by Darkness: Mysticism and Australian Poetry (Cambria Press).