Review: Tim Thorne's 'Best Bitter'

PRESSPRESS, PO Box 94, Berry, NSW 2006
ISBN 0-9580367-8-0 31 pp $7.70

A beguiling little collection from PressPress, (‘Australia’s smallest small press’), of the latest from the redoubtable Tim Thorne. After several readings I am still not sure how to regard it, which is certainly a sign of complexity. I do know however that the stylish word play and acerbic wit we have come to expect from Thorne is not missing. Neither is the compassion. The book is prefaced by a sobering list of some eight Australian poets, all of whom have passed away in recent months.

There is an ironic tone to many of these poems, which is encapsulated in the collection’s title. Aside from the brewer’s reference, there is a further ambiguity: Tim Thorne’s brand of politicised satire is best served at its most bitter. The titles of poems similarly pursue this pointed irony, for instance: Love in the Time of Hypermarts; Celebritocracy; Villanelles of the New Morality.

To cut to the chase, Thorne is particularly caustic in the vitriol he sprays towards guilty players he perceives in the current Gulf war. In this context he presents the irony and outrage of a much thinner Michael Moore. This is most evident in the major poem of the collection: Mesopotamian Suite. Thorne is adept at giving a new spin to the images, absurdities and atrocities numbed into our senses by the media. When talking about the U.S private Jessica Lynch whose dramatic rescue caught the imagination:

                       There is no doubt
that you are the most photogenic Pfc
ever to be lied about for a bad cause.

This suite is an erudite, articulate condemnation of the Iraq situation, yet, for all its mordant irony, it is ultimately optimistic.

While he is preoccupied with the Iraq war, in a manner not unlike Jennifer Maiden’s recent George Jefferys series, this is not the poetry of bombast or news bulletins. It is the disturbing and often ludicrous facts and anecdotes behind the news that Thorne exploits to reveal a sense of both outrage and hope. His indignation is palpable. The sniper from Alabama says:

Bagged five this morning. Goddam shame
they won’t let you take them home as trophies.
Although a couple were undersize and one was pregnant,
but those’re just as hard to hit as the big buck towelheads.

Perhaps this is heavy handed, but Thorne, at his best, presents both an intellectual and humane sensibility which rails against stupidity. There is a great deal of empathy in his intellectual rigour. A sense of life going on amidst the broader tragedies of war. As well as a personal positioning, (he continues fishing while Iraq explodes), there is a juxtaposition of ephemeral images of popular culture, (Shane Warne, Camilla, Our Mary), within a broader political context (Ruddock, Vanstone). For example:

Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears
stand wide-eyed in battle fatigues
on a flat desert page from an atlas...

Technology is blended with popular culture and juxtaposed against nature. This mixture of the contemporary and the traditional, (‘Rohypnol for Goldilocks’), often results in confronting images that both engage and disturb the reader. Thorne is a serious poet, yet one who is aware of the dangers of poetry which takes itself too seriously.

Gene Simmons said, "I think Shakespeare is shit."

Other poets receive the same sympathy and understanding. This is pertinent given the subject matter which is frequently tackled. Thorne offers astute, if sometimes vehement observations on a range of current political events. Part of this engagement is to place himself squarely in the global picture. For example in the well-researched supposition as to the naming of the Baxter detention centre he offers (‘seriously’) his own SMS number, presumably for motivated readers to contribute to an ongoing dialogue. What a strange thing to include in a poem, even as a footnote. It has the effect of personalising the impact of broad political issues; of the poem as an evolving and unfinished entity. It takes the poem beyond the depersonalised objectivity of headlines and condenses it within an event of personal relevance, making it more poignant and, also, funnier. One might postulate, but more postmodernly, why? In a strange way, it works. Humour is used pretty freely as a weapon, as are poems themselves:

cluster poems explode ..... heat seeking poems
find their targets in the heads and brains of friends

Thorne’s humour is often derived from linguistic puns: (‘we all pentagonised’; ‘mobius striptease’.) It is a wit that has been evident in his earlier work and is one of his strengths. In Red Dirt (1990) he wrote: ‘A century of scientific love / built Chernobyl.’ The best poems in Best Bitter continue the immediacy of this theme. Here we get: ‘From ostentation / to oblivion is hardly / a journey.’ However, the intellectual playfulness and the depth of knowledge he displays sometimes has the paradoxical effect of alienating the reader with the obscurity of the references. Sometimes he explains too little, and sometimes too much. He occasionally presumes a familiarity with Middle Eastern culture and politics, which some readers may or may not have, but then why should the poet pander to what readers do not necessarily know?

Most manifest in Thorne’s political sensibility is a sense of outrage. His images are often ephemeral, but they are hard-hitting and unapologetic. To paraphrase his own munitions-as-poetry metaphor, this is a compact pocket chapbook tight as an angry little hand grenade. And just as funny.

More reviews of Tim Thorne's poetry

Taking Queen Victoria to Inveresk (1997)
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