Peter Minter's poetry collection 'Blue Grass'

Salt Publishing   pb 116pp    rrp $29.95    2006

An editor once rejected a poem of mine with the comment, “I don’t like poems that are about poetry.” I feel sorry for him, constricting his possible sources of pleasure in such an arbitrary way, just as I feel sorry for those who feel compelled to mutilate their bodies, abstain from alcohol or remain celibate. Poems that have some connection with human life are always fascinating to me, and to deny that poetry is part of human life seems a strange thing for a poetry editor to do. I guess he wouldn’t like many of the poems in Peter Minter’s Blue Grass either, as, although the collection “deals with” much more than poetry, it keeps coming back to the impact poetry has made on the relationship between people and their environments, social, physical and intellectual.

In fact the book runs some kind of alphabetical gamut from A-is-for-Adam (Lindsay Gordon) to Zukofsky. The first of its four sequences begins with the local and personal: the poet (“self-confessed” academic) remembering Dorn’s “All academics are hopeless” as he contemplates Sydney’s weather and browses for books by John Forbes. The weaving of lines and themes from these two poets sets the pattern for much of the way Minter operates throughout this and the later sequences.

Whereas the deferential poetic nods are in the direction of the modernist Americans as much as (or even more than) in that of the locals, the topographical and biological references are fiercely Australian, and not just in the sequence titled “Australiana”. “Super Georgic”, a poem in four parts, stands at the heart of the first sequence, “History of the Present”. It ranks with the best of Kinsella, Hodgins and Hull as an evocation of rural/outback Australia. Minter manages to bring a contemporary sensibility to the kind of setting that most readers would have thought impossible or even pointless to revive in poetry. The way in which he “loves a sunburnt country” or a “sunlit plain extended” would have Howard-era jingoists scratching their heads. The poem’s recurring imagery of fire/sun/gold/lightning explodes, but not in any simplistic, Jindyworabakian bushfire. This is nature described as “Super-Realist-like, a fusion of Europe ’n’ America”, and, on top of the deft way these allusions place the imagery culturally, there are the neat touches of the suffixed “like” and the (mock-commercial?) elision of “’n’”. Note also the capitalisation of the S and R; this is nature imitating not just art but a style of art which allows for (even demands) ironic interpretation. And that’s just some of what can be teased out of one line.

The collection is replete with this kind of dense texture, yet the diction and euphony never suffer. In the cleverly titled final sequence, “Fresh Kills” (after the New York garbage dump where the World Trade Centre ended up), there is a sense of lightness and song, a playful and relaxed tone. “I am Cupid with a kite, light and legless” he writes, and “we’ll stay afloat, feeling / finely swung across the bow”. Of course, given the title of this sequence, we can expect that there is a grimmer reality below this ethereal surface. In “Extinction” “... a memory / annihilates the sweet & grassy light...” and we are reminded in various pieces “that things can fall apart”. As a treatment of a traumatic episode that has seemed impossible to put satisfactorily into serious art, “Fresh Kills” (and I am aware that to read it as such a treatment is reductive to the point of distortion) works brilliantly.

If for no other reason this book deserves to be read just for the pleasure at seeing how taboo material (and, pace that editor, perhaps poetry should be included here, along with the wide brown land and the collapsing towers) can be used to kick off work that is relevant and exciting. “Auto Heaven”, the book’s second sequence, is built on much less surprising ground. From the first word of the first poem, “Tho” (no apostrophe, no time wasted setting things up) we know that we are dealing with late 20th century ad-speak, with the world of surfaces, of mass media manipulation, of dubious celebrity and glossy duco. The poem’s title, “Target Rich Environment” sums most of it up pretty well. By the end of the sequence, in “Crazy”, we have been reduced to “biology arranged as amnesia”, but we have been taken on a whirlwind tour of our own culture via war, NASDAQ, the question of whether Acmeists went straight to heaven, and the Hydrogen Jukebox, having been advised along the way to “Get thee to a gallery”.

Don’t read this book expecting the kind of well-turned introspection or social observation that too often passes for poetry these days. Peter Minter can certainly turn a phrase, even on its head if need be, and his take on the world around him is as acutely perceptive as it is wittily expressed, but he is a much braver poet than that implies. Take a deep breath and get a ticket for the ride; it’s a bit like one of the really scary ones at the Show, and you’ll probably throw up your half-digested preconceptions, but you’ll end up feeling exhilarated.

Poems from Tim Thorne's 'The Unspeak Poems and other verses

Pentecostal Chillout
Advice to an Emerging Poet
Clancy of the Cultural Studies Department

Other poems by Tim Thorne

Jonathan Burke McHugo Comes to Town
When in California
Bronte Country

Reviews of Tim Thorne's poetry

Taking Queen Victoria to Inveresk (1997)
Best Bitter (2003)
I Con (2009)

An interview with Tim Thorne

A conversation with Tim Thorne (2007)

Book launch by Tim Thorne

TULLY, John: Robbed of Every Blessing

Reviews by Tim Thorne

ALVAREZ, Ivy (edited): A Slice of Cherry Pie
ALVAREZ, Ivy (edited): We Don't Stop Here
BENNETT, Stefanie: Symphony for Heart and Stone
KNIGHT, Karen, MATHISON, Robyn, KNIGHT, Norma, REEVES, Lyn, WINFIELD, Liz: Republican Dreaming
LOMER, Kathryn. Extraction of Arrows
LUCAS, John. The Long and the Short of it
MANSELL, Chris: Mortification & Lies
RIETH, Homer: The Dining Car Scene
SIMPSON, Matt: In Deep
WEARNE, Alan: Kicking in Danger