Toby Davidson reviews The Brokenness Sonnets I–III & Other Poems by Mal McKimmie

The Bro­ken­ness Son­nets I–III & Other Poems

by Mal McKimmie

5 Islands Press, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-7340-4425-9


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).