Review, 'Taking Queen Victoria to Inveresk' by Tim Thorne

(Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, 1997)

It is hard to imagine how anyone other than Tim Thorne could have undertaken the position of poet-in-residence at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery and produced this excellent collection of poems. As a well-published poet, past community arts officer, with an interest in art and history, Tim easily deals with the themes that are a natural part of museum and art collections, i.e. research, construction, artistic composition and restoration. These, of course, are important to the poems, but what are central to the works are Thorne’s own concerns: with what can be found behind the surfaces of things (whether of ideas, objects or history); and with the injustices we as a society ignore or hide.

Taking Queen Victoria to Rocherlea is one of many poems which deal with these concerns, pointing out the cosmetic layers we as a society place upon such things as memory and historical perspective – embellishments which lose their freshness over time.

In this poem, the ‘sepulchral lithograph’ of Queen Victoria which had earlier been ‘enhanced’ with lead white, now looks ‘gilded, cheeks daubed yellow’. The lithograph is likened to that Tasmanian layer of history which saw both the museum and the maternity hospital named after Queen Victoria; and about which today’s local populace no longer cares.

An extra dimension is cleverly added to the poem; the conservator explaining the poor state of the lithograph is named Vicki. She is, away from the museum, a belly dancer, and during the conversation still wears her make-up from a lunch-time performance. Like the lithograph, she too has, as the accompanying photograph of a belly dancer in ‘regalia’ reveals, a decorative external ‘layer’.

In this, as in many of the poems, Thorne suggests the ability of history to undo our ‘decorating’ plans. ‘Years jaundice more than pigment’. And Vicki the belly dancer is different from the lithograph: for her as for society, there exists a more wholesome layer under the wrappings, below the layers of artificial loyalty, prettified history and uncertain memory:

‘… beneath cosmetic layers
the navel winking rude as naked health.’

As usual, Thorne’s work includes a witty humour and a love of word-play; for instance, when he talks about ‘the good old ineffable’ (in Low Tide); the fact that ‘the gulls are not gulled by this’ (Low Tide); or :

Touching up the monarch wasn’t thought a crime
in those pre-Keating days, was, in fact, PC
(Taking Queen Victoria…)

All the poems are worth reading and re-reading, but for me some work better than others. I feel Tim Thorne’s poetry is at its best when it is sharpened by his sense of the historical and his sensitivity to past and present injustices, as in his poems Comrade Revenant (about the Inveresk railway yards), The Last Muster of the Aborigines at Risdon, Sydney Cove (a trading ship), and Bound to Please (about the way women’s fashion throughout history ‘shape[s] the fantasies of men’, i.e. …Allure/is always fashioned for control.). My favourite is Led, wherein the poet humorously poses a conjecture about the future of those who carried ‘Tea caddies lined with lead’ about the British empire:

Lead poisoning, we now know, destroys
the sense (among others) of direction.
How many intrepid surveyors,
heroic botanists, muscular missionaries,
stirred themselves anti- and clockwise
through the scrub till they dissolved?

As a bonus, the book includes an article on the unpublished and possibly unknown poems of Eric Scott (1899-1986), once Director of the Queen Victoria Museum.

This book is beautifully presented, the illustrations to the poems are brilliantly apt. At first, one could be deceived into thinking that Taking Queen Victoria to Inveresk is merely a book for dipping into, viewing the photos and paintings, with the poetic text as an adjunct to the illustrations. However, like a theme that comes out strongly in Tim’s poems, the surface belies the interior. Tim’s poems are worth a great deal of looking at, and reading into.

More reviews of Tim Thorne's poetry

Best Bitter (2003)
I Con (2009)

Poems by Tim Thorne

Jonathan Burke McHugo Comes to Town
When in California
Bronte Country

Poems from 'The Unspeak Poems and other verses

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

An interview with Tim Thorne

A conversation with Tim Thorne (2007)

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
MANSELL, Chris: Mortification & Lies
MINTER, Peter: Blue Grass
RIETH, Homer: The Dinng Car Scene
SIMPSON, Matt: In Deep
WEARNE, Alan: Kicking in Danger

Book launch speech by Tim Thorne

TULLY, John: Robbed of Every Blessing