Launch: Andrew Sant's 'The Islanders'
Shoestring Press, UK. Hobart, 2003.
Are islanders different? Is there something about being 'girt by sea' that makes for a distinctive communal psychology; a defined 'islandness'? I'd have thought so - though it's amazing how many people are resistant to such a notion. I'm pleased to report to you that one of those emphatically in my corner is Andrew Sant.
To say that Andrew is one of the country's premier poets, and that he has been so for some time now, is to succumb to cliche. But I actually think that his recent work has taken him to planes of achievement that, to be frank, I'd not expected him ever to reach. In my judgement, with his last volume, Russian Ink, Andrew stepped up from a plateau, and his current volume - The Islanders, here it is, and very handsome it is, too - has confirmed that we have among us a major poetic talent, writing at the top of his powers.
Well - what has changed? What's different? Now Andrew may not thank me for this. Those of us who know and love him; who have drunk the falling-over water with him into the wee and unforgiving hours; who have shared small conspiratorial wickednesses with him; who have suffered the endless replayings of the aged Thatcherite rocknroller of whom he is unaccountably fond - we all know him as a man of great joie de vivre; a man richly endowed with the gift of whimsy. And if there was an absence in his earlier work, I'd have said that he kept this natural capacity for lightness and joy under too restrictive a rein. Not that it was ever entirely absent; but that, in the mix of all the admirable qualities within Andrew's poetry, it was rather less in evidence.
All this has changed - and in The Islanders a light irony establishes itself as the dominant tone. Andrew does think islanders are different, and in this collection he sets out to explore these differences, and he does so with affection, with a biting wit within the warmth, with a forensic eye for foible and weakness, and with a touch that may be light, but that is deft and sure.
The volume needs to be read from front to back. There are recurrent themes, and they unfold within the weave of a larger whole. There are extinct animals that take on a mythological grotesqueness as the years pass; there are political, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial monsters dreaming idiotic cargo cult dreams of unattainable prosperity; there are gun-totin slaughterers blasting migratory birds from the sky; there is a bizarre fireworks industry whooping up frenetic and fraudulent festivity and harbouring tragedy in its midst. And that's just a start. It is very difficult, let me tell you, to resist the pull of one or other of these themes and skip ahead to the next instalment.
But you should resist. What is at stake here is a tension between the linear notion of narrative and a more complex idea of time moving forward in a general sense as it also sidetracks up strange lateral paths, and even returns, elliptically, upon itself. The poet presents the interlocked mosaic of pieces that constitute a place as following tense and contrary trajectories of their own. To pick the themes and skip ahead is to miss the complexity with which time and place inter-leave, even within the apparent simplicities of islands.
So. Are these islanders Tasmanians? You can certainly read these marvellous poems and shake your head and say, 'ah yes - that's dear old Tassie'. But other characteristics of these islanders seem to have more in common with the citizenry of the Mediterranean islands - Malta, say, where Andrew has recently sojourned. The forest of guns pointing skyward to blow the swallows and martins and other small migratory birds from the sky is a case in point.
It is a generic island, then, with generic islanders - and it is part of Andrew's achievement that he can free himself from the specificity of the island he knows best.
Buy this book, then. It strikes a tone of light, deft whimsicality - but within the wit and the whimsy and the fine irony is a ruthless commentary on the human condition; and the islanded condition specifically. Which is a long-winded way of saying what Andrew himself says so well in his introductory epigraph:
Out of this bottle scrammed
a dark fabled brew
from a riven island.
I drank it. Now my new
respect for the crew
washed up here co-exists
with taking the piss.
In closing I should make mention of Andrew's publisher. Shoestring Press is the imprint of John Lucas, an exceptionally fine poet of Nottingham. Nottingham, England. At a time when Australia's major publishing houses have - doubtless under orders from accountants and marketing strategists in company head offices overseas - at a time when they have collectively opted for philisitinism in the first degree by entirely bailing out of poetry publication (unless the 'poet' happens to have made a name for him/herself in some field of endeavour other than poetry), along comes a humble little English publisher to help fill the void. I hope, foolishly I know, that the giants of Australian publishing are suitably ashamed, and I dips me lid to John Lucas of Shoestring Press for this handsome volume specifically, and for his services to Australian poetry generally.
And I dips me lid to Andrew. Congratulations on a salutary achievement, Andrew, and as for you, dear friends, get thee to the table and BUY.
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Interviews with Pete Hay
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