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GILES HUGO

Launch: Tim Thorne's 'The Unspeak Poems and other verses'

Hobart, 20th March 2014



Ever since Tim invited me to launch The Unspeak Poems and other verses, I have been pondering how best to define this most singular of Tasmanian poets, still a rare and threatened species, no matter what the pollies and their spin doctors say.

A quick, gratuitous un-PC socio-political aside: Poets need people who can read… The present crisis in adult functional literacy in this state, and indeed around our nation, may account for some of the recent political upheavals, but it also limits the audience for books like this. Can the pollies and their myriad mega-bucks spin-doctors — on all sides — agree that simple literacy is crucial to our state's future? Illiteracy is a state crisis. But, of course, you don't have to be particularly literate to operate a chain saw. End of gratuitous, un-PC socio-political aside.

Back to Tim and The Unspeak Poems….

Let us start with the title. I love a good title, one that asks questions rather that defining and answering them. A good title is a door, or at least a window, into a world defined and illuminated by words. In this case, there are, for me, echoes of Orwell and Kafka in The Unspeak Poems. New Speak is the spin doctors’ weapon. Words are what they choose them to mean. The weasel is in the detail. Unspeak has echoes of Donald Rumsfeldt’s Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns and the convoluted hypothetical like.

It also has huge resonances in Australia right now. I think of the present “operational matters”, “on-water matters” and “national security” that become reasons, or at least excuses, for disappearing whole events — and people — into Unspeak limbo. However, there will always be poets, like Tim Thorne, who take it upon themselves to speak the unspoken, to say the unsayable and to keep asking the questions of the silencers on behalf of the silenced. Silence, in this case, is not golden; it is the realm of darkness in which evil and corruption multiply, as at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib.

We cannot Unspeak incidents and conditions on Manus Island and Nauru. There are cell phone videos and there are witnesses. And there are Unspeak poets like Tim.

When I first met Tim, it was the late 1980s. My wife, Anne Kellas, and I had recently left the turmoil in South Africa to find a safe place to bring up our two boys. In South Africa at the time, the arts, especially poetry and drama were weapons in the struggle against apartheid. It was understandable but quite a shock to land in an environment where the prevailing schools of poetry seemed to be primarily concerned with intense navel gazing and what I call the Maiden Hair Fern School of Poetry, a romantic pre-occupation with Nature and its supposedly numinous envelopment of senses and reason to the exclusion of sensible reality. An example of which, chosen by a gushing reviewer, forever rings in my mind: “the pooling of nettle water”. No names, no pack drill for either poet or reviewer.

Tim Thorne is certainly not of the Maiden Hair Fern School of Poetry and never has been. On the phone earlier today, Tim and I worked out that we probably met in the flesh at a FAW writers weekend, organised by then FAW president Gwen Harwood at the old Waddamana hydro station in about October 1989.

That is close to 25 years ago. Don’t time fly when you are having fun, writing poetry and being amazed by the weird weft, warp and patina of life in Tasmania?

It was in the depths of winter and their brilliant yellow poetic patches of daffodils out on the hills, where all the hydro workers’ cottages had been sold and removed. Tim recalls sharing a room with another FAW legend, whom I am sure won the short story competion that I was judging for the FAW. Tim recalls he was kept awake for much of the night by high-decibel snores from that identity, who shall remain nameless. Ah, the perils of pursuing poetry in derelict Hydro locations.

Tim was at the Circular Head Arts Festival, also that year, again with Gwen Harwood. There I had the immense pleasure of meeting his generational colleagues including Barney and Bruce Roberts, Edith Speers and Jim McQueen. What a collection of varied artistic talent and purpose at one gathering. Those were the days.

In 1990 I reviewed Tim’s collection “Red Dirt”, Paper Bark Press, Sydney, for both my The Write Stuff column in The Mercury, and in my Book Marks programme for the local ABC radio.

Tim probably remembers how I got him into trouble with the Hydro over a column he had written for The Mercury about that formerly all-dominating entity. On one of those really boring afternoons when sub-editors melt down in frustration, I livened up proceedings by adding a truly cynical gonzoid parenthetical aside, questioning the Hydro’s morality and ethics, to one of Tim’s comments in his column. Of course I should not have. Particularly as I did not check the additional comment with him. Not knowing who had added this shocker to his highly diplomatic treatment of what was an undoubtedly ticklish subject, Tim complained to the Mercury’s editor that his column had been tampered with. I quickly was carpeted by the then editor, with whom I had had several run-ins, who demanded why I had had the audacity to add to Tim’s column. “I thought he had missed a trick,” I said lamely.

Ironically shortly after that, an interview I did for the Mercury with the late great novelist and short story writer Jim McQueen was tampered with by the then features editor. I had quoted Jim, who was a long-time forest and rivers activist, quoting then Premier Robin Grey calling the Franklin River a leech-filled ditch. The features editor extracted that quote from the interview without telling me as it might offend Robin Gray and “get the Mercury into trouble”. I pointed out that I had confirmed the accuracy of the quote by citing that it had appeared in the pages of the Mercury when it was originally uttered by Robin Gray. I was told that the features editor could “fekkin’ do what he fekkin’ liked’ with my copy. I ceased all my writing on literary matters for the Mercury shortly after that.

Tim will know that working for Rupert could have deep ironies. And certain difficulties.

But back to the work in hand. After due consideration, I conclude that the best way to characterise Herr Thorne is as the Chameleon Poet, especially in this latest collection. When I was a boy in Sefrika, we used to find chameleons in the bush and studied them with great wonder.

Like those truly awesome creatures, Tim the Chameleon Poet can apparently swivel his gun-turret-like eyes in two directions at once — even in the same line of a poem sometimes. The Chameleon Poet's rough, life-worn skin assumes different hues, depending on the environment — glowing green becomes sensual pink as he moves from the Tarkine to the streets and pubs.

And like some strange reptile he stalks his prey and then flicks out faster than the eye or ear can follow with a tongue that splatz the deserving victim with a killing epithet.

Apart from such a fanciful image, however, I think of the other artists of the word brought to my mind by Tim Thorne and his vicious verbals. Dylan, of course, Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Tom Waits, Janis Joplin… Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benzedrine.

And, from the local scene, fellow partners in crime such as Eric Beach, Jim McQueen, Barney Roberts, Geoff Dean, Gwen Harwood…Vale, Vale, Vale, Vale. The first-mentioned still living, the rest sadly deceased. Serious people, serious talent.

So, who is this guy, hyperbole aside. The bio in The Unspeak Poems says: "This is Tim Thorne's 14th collection of poetry…" Fourteenth… poetry, doesn't pay, does it Tim? Slow learner. You would obviously be richer by now if you had taken to a trade such as plumbing. So, thank Heavens that the best poets seem to be slow learners; they don't go off to be insulation installers or FIFO miners in WA.

Jests aside, the full Tim Thorne bio, as given to me by an informant and part-time ASIO garbage shredder, goes: ......

This is Tim Thorne’s fourteenth collection of poetry. His writing career has stretched over half a century, during which time he has worked as a poet in schools, universities, trade unions, industry associations, prisons and art galleries in places as diverse as Darwin, Liverpool and Prince Edward Island. He was a national finalist in the Poetry Slam in 2009 and 2010. Thorne was awarded the Stanford Writing Scholarship, 1971, New Poetry Award, 1973, Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship for poetry, 1978, the Gleebooks Poetry Sprint, 1995, the Launceston Poetry Cup, 2006 & 2008, the William Baylebridge award, 2007; and the Christopher Brennan Award, 2012. He has also received support from the Australia Council, Arts Tasmania and the Eleanor Dark Foundation. He was born in Launceston Tasmania, where he lives with his wife, Stephanie.

Very impressive, but you need to hear his words to understand what all that means — his achievements are in his poems, some of which left me literally reeling. In that sense I think of Tim as a Metaphysical chameleon, his gaze is going in two directions at once, then that loooooooonnnnnnnggggg tongue lashes out and the fly is lunch. The metaphor morphs into a twisted sister denouement.

An example: This is about half of "Are We There Yet?"

Paper wraps rock. Scissors cut valentines.
Love blunts perception.

When I was a kid we used to play
chicken with trains, teachers’ cars, each other,
but never with tanks.
That little bloke in Beijing ’89
with his shopping bags and his nifty footwork
set a level to aspire to, beyond
the usual guns and batons. He was a hero
of Hanna-Barbera proportions.
It was the bags that clinched it. What was in them?

If I fill my own calico bags
with ethical contents, can I then
as I shuffle my ill-rehearsed sidesteps
claim some place? Empty stubbies,
torn-up betting slips, butts, used condoms:
the swag we carry as we dance against
what crushes. How capacious are the saddlebags
as we switch genres, mosey along
down by the ol’ Rio Tinto?

Answer the big questions.
It’s art if it covers that patch of mould
on the spare room wall. It’s truth
if that skinny chick in the Oxfam shop
read it somewhere. It’s life if
you can laugh at it, like synchronised goldfish.
For most of the others a simple “no”
is enough. Scissors cut paper.
Rock blunts hope. Poetry wraps nothing.

The personal, the political and the philosophical combined in a an artful metaphor — poetry wraps nothing. Indeed. But Tim never ceases to ask the difficult questions and acknowledges that answers remain elusive. What I enjoy is when Tim states a pretty hardline attitude then wafts it into a swirl of poetic justification: such as in Rainforest Triptych, the final section: The Iconography of Protest:

        What is easy
is to confuse the aesthetic
with the political.

The Dombrovskis photo of Rock Island Bend
turned nature into a weapon
for self-defence. Of course art changes
the world, but what matters more than a poster
on a stylish wall is the dialectic
of blood and water, stone and wind.

And then there is the Tim Thorne who can easily and convincingly adopt the accent and attitudes of socio-politico identities without posturing or pity. It’s genuine concern, enlivened with heaps of laconic, ironic, sardonic humour. As in: Gettin’ There, P18.

My neighbour’s on dialysis and facebook.
Some lives are just… What can you say?
The saddest place I’ve ever seen
is the bus shelter outside Risdon prison.
You lose about one teddy bear per eviction
on average. There’s comfort in clichés
and phatic syllables can weave themselves
into a blanket even cosier than drugs.

A child at a minor gangster’s funeral:
“He used to take us for rides in his car
and go real fast.” When Carol died
we gave her whips and dildos to St Vinnies.
The barman asked the bloke playing the pokies,
“Ya winnin’?” “Gettin’ there.” So are we all.

Tim is also an incredibly inventive dark satirist, responding to the serious implications of the surveilance society that has subtly and silently engulfed us. There are several poems in The Unspeak Poems that bespeak an artists’ perhaps justified paranoia. As Kurt Cobain noted: “Just ‘cos you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they are not after you.” I wonder just what is in Tim’s ASIO file

Consider: Self-Portrait: The Poet in his Maturity.

I’m smart. I can spell. I can say
clever things. I’m so wise now, though,
that I know to shut up instead of
talking back. The problem with that is
the aggro that comes in response to
what they think of as dumb insolence.
Dumb? I’m not dumb. I can parse and construe
with the best. I know how to stay silent
in several languages including the classical ones.

So each time they take me in
they have to write their own poem,
full of clichés, with the word order twisted
to force some pointless rhyme out of a banal thought.
Then they insist I sign it. Whatever.
No-one reads poetry these days anyway.
I remember as a kid, adults talked
about verballing. They reckon now
with video you’re protected. Yeah, right.

Those people at CAL and the ASA,
they say they’ve got it sussed,
that it’s about rights. They wouldn’t know.
Those lawyers and bureaucrats, they’re smart
like I used to be. They can hold down jobs,
pay rent, drive cars, have kids, drink good wine.
They know how to fight when the fight has rules.
Shut up. Plead guilty. Feel less pain.

The poet as cowed dog, whipped into submission by the state? Certainly not, not Tim. He rises to every moral occasion and challenge. His take on matters such as the Iraq conflict and the ongoing refugee “wars” maintains the rage. Sometimes with the same mature fury as Yeats, please consider: Scratched in Stone.

On the wall of a cell in Richmond Castle:
“The only war worth fighting is the class war.”
1916: A few men brave enough to be called cowards
knew there would be no war
if no-one obeyed. The first step
led to a stone wall. What was scratched on that wall
is there still. Refusal
is the only weapon they can’t take from you.
When a kid in the firing squad
(They always picked the youngest.)
chose not to shoot, he was next.

Now, as then, the only enemy
is whoever says, “You have an enemy.”
Whether they bark it from between
a waxed moustache and a row of gongs
or squeeze it like pus onto a Murdoch column,
the message will dissolve or morph.
New alliances, trade links: the world
flows and rolls like money.
What is scratched into the stone of a cell wall
is what you read, clear and strong,
as the door slams like a rifle volley.

Tim also is very adept at taking his identity as a concerned poet less than seriously, with great relish in self-mockery. In “Advice to an Emerging Poet” he says:

Know nothing. Write as if you know. Offend,
the more the better. Beauty’s anodyne;
avoid it. Readers will misapprehend
wildly, but remember Wittgenstein
has all the answers, so you should pretend
depth, while on the surface every line
seems only to present mundane despairs.
This will not win you prizes, but who cares?

Doctors have their Hippocratic Oath.
The language is your patient, so be sure
you do no harm. You should therefore be loath
to operate unless it will secure
your satisfaction and the rapid growth
of self-esteem. No benchmark is as pure.
Critics and cops are there to make life hard.
Plead guilty and they sometimes drop their guard.

One of the poems really struck me for its complex insight into history. Did any of you see a recent SBS doccie on Queen Victoria’s erant descendants. Tim has written a most entertaining and intriguing take on the royal debacle, entitled, aptly: “Queen Victoria’s Grandsons”. A few lines:

        unlike cousin Alfie,
syphilitic, suicidal. General paresis of the insane

was the diagnosis, as it had been for great-grandpa,
Uncle Ernst and a regal slice of the male line.
Penicillin was a greater boon to royalty than even
the Twentieth Century’s other great discovery, PR.

Thank you Tim. Scurrilous, cynical, and most apt. I love republicans.

What I also love about Tim’s work is when he leaves huge questions unanswered at the end of a piece. He can paint a word picture that evokes for me a scene, a drama straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, a noir mystery with huge implications. But you are left wondering: what next. As in his masterful “Two Images of the Inauguration”:

A man walks off the stage.
After the rites, the rhetoric,
weeks after the world’s full sigh of relief,
a man turns, takes a breath
and walks through hoops of hope.
Who is walking with him?
Who is watching as
a man walks off the stage
and into the world?

In the world
a man sits with his family,
singing along to “American Pie”.
He knows the words. He knows the words
to other songs, for other healings.
Is this what the difference comes down to?
Who will sing the harmonies?
A man meanwhile sits with his family
and with the world.

That puts those events and what we have seen subsequently into a very interesting perspective. Think drone strikes. Think OBL’ s demise. Think of the vow to close down Guentanemo Bay and the failure to do so. Sad. But that is real politiek.

And in that context, this is an amazing example of taking a factoid about human bravery and indomitability and turning it into an uplifting, humourous tale of innocence and irony. This is “Poetry in the Real World”.

Abdul Rahman Muslim Dost, denied pen and paper,
scratched 25,000 lines of poetry
into styrofoam cups with his fingernail.

“I am flying on the wings of thought, and so,
even in this cage, I know a greater freedom,”
he wrote in Camp X-ray, which he thought

“a pleasant change from Afghan gaols”
where he had been sent by the Taliban.
The US military have billed him for the styrofoam cups.

In one of the biographical notes about Tim it says that he was once a columnist for a Murdoch newspaper, namely the Hobart Mercury. Ah, how many of us have accepted Rupert’s shillings in order to keep bread and other humble luxuries on the table? One of the abominations of the modern media and their influences on what is known and unknown is the blatant hypocrisy of collaboration between various forms of power — the politicians, the generals and in in-bed, embedded scribes — with a view to determining what is perceived and thought about events in the world of politics and conflict. In that respect, Tim has written: “Fair and Balanced”.

“It is unpatriotic to report civilian casualties.”

We have suffered thousands of civilian casualties.
We now have an annual Civilian Casualty Day.
There is a civilian casualty industry: shrines, flowers,
in memoriam verse to order. Civilian casualties
are almost firemen in their beatitude.
Heroic civilian casualties brought down Flight 93,
their cell phones exploding with patriotism.

“No, it’s unpatriotic to report their civilian casualties.”

The Afghan who was over six feet tall
and so might have been Osama,
the exuberant wedding guests, the families
dining at Saddam’s favourite restaurant,
the raped kid burned to kill the evidence,
grannies in one-way crossfire, the passengers
in what they claimed were ambulances:

they shall amount to zero, otherwise
our reporting appears neutral and neutrality
is inappropriate when one side is the other side.

Is his poetry fair and balanced? No, of course not. He is forever an activist, a true believer, one who cares, who considers and  speaks of the realities of our human situation. Before concluding I must also note that Tim has been a mentor to and publisher of several poets who are and were most deserving of this welcome exposure. Among them are my wife, Anne Kellas, whose Isolated States was published by Tim Thorne’s Cornford Press; Liz Winfield and the late, much lamented, Magenta Bliss.

For pure verbal magic, the poet at his absolute best, I must end with “Tarkine Pantoum”.

Wikipaedia describes the pantoum thus: The pantoum is a form of poetry similar to a villanelle in that there are repeating lines throughout the poem. It is composed of a series of quatrains; the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. This pattern continues for any number of stanzas, except for the final stanza, which differs in the repeating pattern. The first and third lines of the last stanza are the second and fourth of the penultimate; the first line of the poem is the last line of the final stanza, and the third line of the first stanza is the second of the final. Ideally, the meaning of lines shifts when they are repeated although the words remain exactly the same: this can be done by shifting punctuation, punning, or simply recontextualizing. [Questions will be asked afterwards...]

If Tim reads this again in his selection, which will follow — I hope he does, I think you will agree it bears hearing more than once. When I first read it, I immediately thought of Hopkins. What imagery. What play on words and the pantoum format to evoke such visual glory. And in reading this, I just want to say thank you again, Tim for giving me the honour of launching this collection in Hobart, you have exposed my to a wondrous volume that I shall treasure, this poem in particular. This is Tim Thorne’s “Tarkine Pantoum”. I seriously suggest you close your eyes as you listen and see where the words take you.

Still rocks part and plait the water, tan and white.
Foam edged from eddies smells of mist and clay.
Over the light-striped ridges a vista plays
where bright heath bursts like parrots’ throats.

Foam edged from eddies smells of mist and clay
and from the platypus’ dive rings widen out.
Where bright heath bursts like parrots’ throats,
currawongs hack roughly at the air

and from the platypus’ dive rings widen out
beyond the Tarkine and the time.
Currawongs hack roughly at the air;
the air folds gently back unharmed.

Beyond the Tarkine and the time
history is made and ridden winds roar.
The air folds gently back unharmed,
log-soft, quoll-smart, here for the long haul.

History is made and ridden winds roar
over the light-striped ridges. A vista plays,
log-soft, quoll-smart. Here for the long haul
still, rocks part and plait the water, tan and white.