Review: Homer Rieth's The Dining Car Scene (Black Pepper Press, 2001)

The town of Minyip in Victoria's Wimmera district is small, flat, tired and doesn't at first glance seem to have much going for it, but among its population, barely large enough to keep both its pubs in business, are two remarkably gifted poets.

Eric Beach's work, both in print and in performance, is well known to most famous reporter readers, and, to be fair, he has lived in Melbounre, Adelaide and Hobart for considerably longer than in Minyip, but not as well known is the poetry of Homer Rieth.

The Dining Car Scene reveals Rieth as a perceptive and talented observer of the details of Australian life, rural, urban and suburban, but beyond that as a chronicler of the human condition in a wider geographical, historical and cultural context.

His long poem, 'Siberia', which is the most significant piece in the collection, moves effortlessly between the imagined (or imaginatively received) landscapes of Yevtushenko, Tolstoy and Solzhenytsin and the wine bars of Carlton. Melbourne's Festival Hall, where both Yevtushenko and Johnny Famechon have performed, becomes a metaphorical venue for the convergence between poetry and pugilism. The spirit of the 1960s poetry scene in Australia is summed up in the line, 'we got the trans-Siberian to Sydney'.

In a rather different vein 'Fairy Penguins' is a wry piece not so much on the effects of the Low Head oil slick as on the role of other species as 'a slow / and easy catch for tomorrow's headlines.' In fact, for all that Rieth comes across as very much the suburban poet, the poet of laburnums, golf, Tupperware and thinking about Duns Scotus in the back yard, he has a very interesting take on 'nature'.

Some of my favourite passages in the book are those where he deals with 'the sheer amazingness of animals' (or of plants or minerals). Even thrip, slugs and snails are vividly evoked, while his intense scrutiny of green walnuts on the tree or the way 'the light / prickles the sugar gums' demonstrates a willingness to observe closely in order the more interestingly to transform what is observed into art. And yet he is also excellent when dealing with people. The moving 'Requiem' makes this reader believe that he not only knows but loves the subject, an old man dying in hospital whose 'neat hand had crossed a good thing in the last.' The paean for his lover, 'the sort who'll die with her Doc Martens on,' who 'can roll a tin of tea in her sleep' with a similar clarity evokes both a character and a relationship.

Among the most convincing passages are those that are set in the suburbs and country towns where 'the street lamps have found a good line and length' or where one is made to wonder 'how much pressed ceiling roses / remember.' His 'Twenty Fifth of April' gains its strength as a poem about Anzac Day as much through being set where 'the trenches meet the suburbs' as from his calling up of images redolent of military nostalgia.

Above all, what I really like about Rieth's poetry is its scope. He can contemplate a culvert, a toolshed or a nun and create memorable poetry from the contemplation, can apply parodies of well-known advertising slogans to war in a witty and timely piece, and can celebrate a world where the interaction between humanity and the environment is a fruitful source of images and ideas, not just a simplistic battleground.