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JANET UPCHER

Review of Tim Thorne's poetry collection I Con

[Salt Publishing, 2009]

Tim Thorne’s forty years’ commitment to poetry culminate in this latest collection, a beautifully presented hard cover edition. These poems, especially the later ones, (2000-2006), andthe sequence from ‘A Letter to Egon Kisch’(2007) contribute significantly to Australian poetry; they also reflect a substantial slice of contemporary social and political life.

A consummate craftsman who effortlessly controls a range of forms, techniques, subjects, Thorne sometimes rages like an angry young man, sometimes weaves delicate tender lyrics. Whatever his subject, he’s passionate and erudite. Drawing on literary tradition, he uses his considerable knowledge to incorporate subjects as diverse as Antarctica, rock ‘n’ roll, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, petty criminals of Launceston, corporate rapists of Tasmanian wilderness, European history and poets, inter alia.

Just as his mastery of poetic forms is enviable and comprehensive (dramatic monologue, sonnet, elegy, free verse, epistolary verse in ottava rima), so is his utter command of rhythm and his love of the nuances and tricks of language –hence the title. It’s the power of words and the way they can be manipulated that fascinates Thorne; he creates illusions through linguistic mastery. I Con is a clever play on ways we manipulate others, too often for political or personal gain. The art of conning is the riff that’s played, the unifying theme throughout this collection; whether it’s the con by politicians, capitalists, lawyers, clergy, or the con by a poet manipulating words, it’s all here.

Thorne compresses language, concentrating its essence, taking risks when he has something vital to say. And in this collection, encompassing selections from eleven earlier ones, he has plenty to say: ‘Mesopotamian Suite’ savagely exposes the brutal hypocrisies of the Iraq war, while ‘A Letter To Egon Kisch’ pillories the shabby legacy of the Howard government’s immigration policies that made us all want to emigrate.

Even in earliest poems, Thorne’s technical ability is striking. ‘Man and Law’ integrates the rhyme, simultaneously concealing it, avoiding clunking end–stopped lines with amazing control of enjambment, and all the while, strumming the music softly so that it builds into the poem’s statement. Here’s someone who knows and responds to other languages; Thorne admires the seductiveness of the French versifiers and symbolists, Mallarme and Verlaine, but in subject matter, he’s more political/satirical like Malraux or Prevert. There’s plenty of modernist influence in the way Thorne writes, but he’s always original, unpredictable and prepared to push the boundaries of wit and satire. His worldliness, urbanity and multi-lingual awareness make the content of these poems challenging. Usually the effort is rewarded.

‘California’, like a compressed poetic equivalent of Grapes of Wrath, is a scathing comment on commercialism’s inroads and a tribute to ‘people power’- the triumph of ordinary people attuned to earth’s rhythms and, unlike tycoons, magnates and capitalists, prepared to share its fruits.

Interspersed with large impersonal themes are intensely personal poems like ‘Elegy for Jenny’, compassionately tracing a woman’s trajectory into alcoholism. The immediacy and concentrated power of the opening engages the reader. In a poem that could easily have lapsed into sentimentality or abstraction, Thorne uses a sequence of unified concrete images to convey a moving narrative of someone’s demise. He conveys the poignancy of her plight and the world’s indifference with controlled, unobtrusive rhyme, again demonstrating his musicianship.

‘Jet Lag’ depicts images from a tawdry mundane world, evoking the thud back to earth after temporary escape, the hard reality of urban vulgarity and culture-shock.

Thorne’s caustic wit emerges in ‘Melody for a Hard Summer’, where the female subject has ‘subjunctive eyes’, the adjective compressing much: she ‘reads Keats with a gently wet doigt’. A poem about pretentiousness and passivity, (‘Purity / is the gladwrap of politics’; ‘the dilettantes of the left’) the nuanced meanings ripple, while the music of the lines resonates: ‘If you want to be a shore-bird, study the art of wading.’

‘Blade’ is ostensibly about the gutting of fish. Here the masterful twist of syntax, like the twist of a filleting knife, opens up the poem: the final stanza’s a triumph in the placing of the descriptive phrase, ‘still compact’. Filleting fish could be a metaphor for how one pares down a poem, the way poets can take a scalpel to subject matter.

Thorne’s poems sometimes contain surprising flashes of vitriol, sometimes despair. ‘Low Tide, North Esk’ is like a lamentation, a backward glance at youth and blighted aspirations, both of people and places. It’s a sad comment on the place where one grows up: the ‘decades of mud ‘that ‘slope into Invermay’ obviously contain more than their literal (or littoral) meaning. ‘ Brady’s Lookout’ is a vitriolic statement about capitalism, the environment and the way the landed gentry continue to plunder the land, through privilege and trickery, so that like the bushranger, Brady, we too are ‘imprisoned’, conned by the deceitful fictions, the guises of power and colonialism. The trouble with this poem, though, is that it becomes a polemic; anger makes it strident. It lacks compression and could have remained open-ended instead of telling us what to think. The reference to Proudhon seems inappropriate and ironically, the ending would’ve been more potent without the abstraction ‘impotence’.

'Coningham v. Coningham’ is another witty word-play on conning, this time making digs at churches, states, courts; however, as poetry, this one falls flat.

‘Roadkill’ is a dramatic monologue, whose speaker is a self-styled ‘untouchable’: ‘We gather, / living off and on the road, / subsistence driving.’ Thorne shows how those on the social fringe are able to gather and survive, using ’the paws for jewellery’ ,creating ‘market kitsch’ from the leavings of those more privileged, speeding by in fast cars. In other poems, Thorne attacks those larger businessenterprises which commodify nature’s miracles.

Often there’s a strong narrative drive offsetting the overriding gritty, mordant social comment in these poems. Whereas many female poets move by intuition, oblique references and reflection, Thorne proceeds often by argument and direct targeting. This is not to say that his work is obvious, but sometimes raw and aggressive. As the speaker says in ‘Busking’, this is no ‘cute slop’ but ‘…riffs and words torn from the live guts / that flay the throat in passing…’

‘Busking’ is from the brilliant selection, ‘The Streets Aren’t for Dreamers’, where Thorne captures a convincing range of voices in hard-hitting dramatic monologues. ‘Advice’ is one of the harshest, most sardonic, ostensibly ‘macho’ poems in this collection. The conversational advice on how to ‘con’ for personal gain captures the cynical lingo, the tough-smart idiom of the smalltime criminal, ruthless in his exploitation of the less worldly, the less street-wise. ‘Escort’, ‘Bouncer’ and ‘Rat’s Song’ all trenchantly capture the intended voices, with some potent lines: ‘No-one can think and shop at the same time…’ (‘Busking’) and ‘You’re here for fun? Have fun.’ (‘Bouncer’)

Despairingly honest, the poem ‘Squad’ is a bleak statement, capturing the way Thorne moves by argument, creating illusions through words, manipulating language for its power, its chameleon-like qualities. In this poem there are comments on politics, social issues, personal reflections, all in very compressed form

A chief target in the exposure of con artists is the church, especially Roman Catholicism. ‘There are No Kangaroos in Austria’ is a blistering attack on the self-serving humbug, shams and trickery used by spiritual leaders seeking ‘material glory’.

In some of the later work,with the focus constantly upon the art of ‘conning’, there’s a danger of becoming too clever, too cerebral. More deeply felt earlier pieces from the section ‘Poems 1990 -1999’, such as ‘Mother and Son’ and ‘For My Father’ combine tender objectivity and harsh honesty.while ‘Love Poem for Stephanie’ is an enduring expression of love.

It’s in the later poems, (2000-2006) though, that there are some of the most trenchant social and political statements: here Thorne holds the mirror to contemporary society and reflects a pretty distorted image. ‘Celebritocracy’ cleverly captures the current crazy preoccupation with stardom, royalty, bulimia etc.

‘Trainstations from European Poets’ is boldly experimental, but the extract from ‘A Letter to Egon Kisch’ has more impact, exposing some of the worst aspects of contemporary Australian society and using a difficult epistolary form and metre similar to Byron’s satirical ottava rima.This sequence is hard-hitting, like the caustic ‘Meditation on Parliament House, Canberra, 2002’ which skewers our politicians, using sheep and ’fleecing’ as metaphors for Australian subservience and gullibility , especially in relation to Iraq.

And it’s in relation to Iraq that some of the most powerful poetry in the collection finds expression in ‘Mesopotamian Suite’, a sequence of nine controlled poems, balancing anger and satire with memorable images and clever word play. ‘Alabama’ captures the brute obtuseness of the gun-drunk redneck infantryman insensitive to what he kills (chillingly prefaced with an authentic quote: "I got my kills, I’m coming down. I just love my job.") ‘Fallujah Face-Off’ has the memorable lines: ‘Alongside the road runs a pipeline / full of thick, black democracy’; ‘Shake ‘n’ Bake’(echoing ‘shock ’n’ awe’) cleverly weaves a fantasy world from the grim reality of civilian slaughter, while ‘Two Purty Gals From West Virginia’ is a funny, biting comment on credibility, the lies, ‘spin’ and sentimentality woven into the truth behind Private Jessica’s story and Private Lynndie, of Abu Ghraib. ‘Purrfect Angelz’ satirises the glitzy way troops are entertained by cheap performers arousing them, distracting them from reality. All the poems here target the huge self-deceptions practised by America.

The final poem in the sequence, ’And The Poets Fled’, while exposing all the futility and brutality of war, ends with affirmation: ‘The poets will return… / In the wine bars of Abu-Nuwwas Street we shall hear again / cluster-bombs explode, watch heat-seeking poems / find their targets in the hearts and brains of friends.’ Ultimately, Thorne’s verbal ammunition is more deadly than the insane weaponry of America.

In tough, sinewy verse, this collection exposes all forms of sham and con-artistry: war, politicians, capitalism, consumerism, hypocrisy, pomposity. It’s a collection that spans a fair spectrum of society, scanning five decades with an incisive unflinching eye and a passion for social justice.


Janet Upcher lives in Hobart where she's a teacher, editor/translator, reviewer and writer of poetry and fiction.