Launching Speech: Shane McCauley’s Trickster
Delivered: Fremantle Arts Centre, Saturday 6th June 2015, 2.00 pm
I am deeply honoured to have been invited by Shane to launch his latest collection of poetry, Trickster.
I want to begin my launching speech with a few facts about Shane McCauley, the poet.
• Shane began writing poetry in 1971.
• His first poem was published in Westerly magazine in 1974.
• Since then, Shane has had more than a thousand poems, stories, articles and reviews published in journals and anthologies in Australia and overseas.
• He has won many major literary awards, including the Tom Collins Poetry Prize, the Poetry Australia Bicentennial Poetry Award, the Max Harris Poetry Award, the Poetry d’Amour Prize and the Glen Phillips Poetry Prize.
• He has had eight books of poetry published, including The Drunken Elk by Sunline Press in 2010, Ghost Catcher by Studio Press in 2012, and now Trickster by Walleah Press in 2015.
This brief overview shows that Shane is a poetry stalwart. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s many people aspired to be poets, published a few poems, even won a few awards, then disappeared from the poetry scene. But Shane has remained true to the calling of the poet for forty years! He is a serious poet with serious achievement to match.
Shane’s eighth and latest book, Trickster, is further proof of his poetical prowess. And, of course, this book is the reason we have come together this afternoon. We have gathered to celebrate the publication of Trickster and to wish it bon voyage—good journey!—as it sets sail into the world.
The epigraph to Trickster is a quote from Garrison Keillor: “I wanted to live several lives, which meant abandoning some.” While we cannot know, from his book, which lives Shane has had to abandon, we can know which ones he has lived.
The many lives that make up the life of the poet are signalled in the arrangement of the book, which is divided into six loose sections. The first section, YOUR FORTUNES ARE AS FEATHERS, contains poems of social or natural observation. The second section, PINE TREES IN THE RAIN, contains poems that explore oriental themes—mostly Japanese, with a smattering of Chinese and Korean. The third section, COYOTE BARKS MUSIC AT THE MOON, contains myth-related poems, with Native American myths predominating, but including Greek, Hindu and Egyptian myths. The fourth section, AS IF TO COOL DOWN THAT SUN, is comprised of love poems. The fifth section, WHEN SLEEP FERMENTS INTO DREAMS, contains poems set in Italy. And the sixth section, CHECK IN AT THE ANUBIS HOTEL, contains the poet’s responses to other poets and to various artists, musicians and writers.
These six sections filled with over 120 poems represent a wide range of subject and theme, and they reflect the wide life and many concerns of the poet.
And the poems reinforce what those of us who know Shane personally already know: he is a man of great attentiveness and interest, a man of broad learning and insight, a man of considerable skill and craftsmanship, a man of deep sympathy and decency. (I usually subscribe to the idea that it is best to speak behind someone’s back when you praise them, lest they become puffed up with pride—but on an occasion such as this, what can we do? We just have to take the risk!)
In recent weeks, I have read and re-read the poems in Trickster, and the more I read them the more I am impressed with them. Almost without exception, they are beautifully realised. With each one, the wording is simple and concise, the phrasing (governed by the line breaks) is subtle and cadenced, the tone is understated and unassuming, and the voice is varied, sometimes being the poet’s but oftentimes being that of the poem’s subject.
The ease and competence with which the poet adopts the perspective, and often the persona, of different people and mythological figures is truly impressive. In one poem he is a judge of honey, telling us, “First of all it must be so clear/ the sun can wander in it” (“Notes to Assist Honey Judging”). In another poem, he is the great 16th century Japanese shogun, Hideyoshi, addressing the Fox-God: “Dear Esteemed Sir - / I have nothing against foxes per se/ but my people are vulnerable/ and fall for elixirs all sorts of spells/ and one of your subjects/ has bewitched one of mine – / a man who cannot move because of fox-love” (“The Lord Hideyoshi’s Letter to the Fox-God”). In yet another poem, he is an ancient Egyptian, perhaps a priest of Osiris, giving advice to someone on how to obtain renewed life in the Underworld: “It is easy to get lost/ when you are dead./ The important thing/ is not to be frightened./ Much is in your favour” (“Spells for Coming Out by Day”). In the title poem, “Trickster”, the poet adopts the voice of Coyote, the Trickster, declaring, “I cannot help but give you/ tease you leaven you/ with my greatest gift:/ con-/ fusion” (“1. Identity”).
The poems abound with the sheer pleasure of imagining different perspectives, beliefs and realities. The poet plainly delights in thinking and speaking as Coyote or Hideyoshi or a priest of Osiris. Yet the poems are often more than “just” an enjoyable excursion into the novel or unknown, for the poet manages to weave into them hints of pathos for the human condition.
So, for example, hidden in the Egyptian priest’s half-funny, wholly-fascinating, deathbed instructions is this sound moral advice: “ensure conscience is weighed/ and not found wanting”; and also this sense of grief for our mortality: “Tell them [the gods] your modest/ need: the body complete,/ all the network of its/ parts, food and beverage/ to last, like them, forever.”
Or again, in the light-hearted, nine-part “Trickster” poem, there are expressions of human sympathy and affection. Hence, a consequence of Coyote outwitting the guardians of Fire-Mountain to steal fire is that “in winter now/ everywhere babes are born/ the tents are safe/ the tents are warm” (“4. Fire”). And in the “Coda” our hearts are touched by our hearts’ predicament when we are told that Trickster “still lurks in human hearts/ nurturing joy plotting sorrow”.
As one would expect of such an accomplished poet, Shane handles poetic techniques such as alliteration, simile and metaphor with skill.
In the poem “Autumn Moon at Tama River”, which is a response to a woodblock print by the 19th century Japanese artist Hiroshige, the poet reproduces the scene through metaphor and simile:
It is as if the willow
has joined silent fishermen
casting out branches
as they set nets
in the hush of evening water.
Night’s slow curtain
and the moon blatant
and full as a drunkard
rests on the tree-top.
Light leaves gradually
like a dignified actor
and wind speaks softly
in the reeds
until the stage is bare.
This poem is packed with visual and atmospheric images, similes and metaphors. In the first stanza the poet draws analogies between, firstly, the willow and the fishermen, and, secondly, the willow branches and the fishermen nets. In the second stanza he creates and extends metaphors for the nigh and the moon. And in the final stanza, he introduces a simile for the fading light, personifies the wind and concludes with a metaphor that embraces the whole scene and of which the preceding metaphors and simile are contributing parts.
Not all of Shane’s metaphors are visual. Consider these two metaphysical metaphors from “Koan”: “Ash is corpse-fire just as regret/ is corpse-desire.” Stunning stuff!
And in the poem, “3 am”, which modesty prevents me from reading, Shane vividly conveys the urgency of masculine sexual desire through a perfectly realised extended metaphor expressed in just four lines and seven words.
Much more, of course, could be said, but let me conclude with a comment on the use of rhyme in Trickster.
Shane handles rhyme with great subtlety and skill. Some might find this claim surprising, for at first glance, almost all the poems in Trickster seem to be unrhymed. Certainly, “Spell for Love” is written in couplet rhyme and “Late Autumn Sonnet” has an octave rhymed like two quatrains of a Shakespearean sonnet (ababcdcd) and a sestet rhymed like that of a Petrarchan sonnet (efgefg). However, these two poems appear to be exceptions to the non-rhyming rule.
But not so. Consider the beautifully nuanced concluding lines of “The Year of the Snake”:
You will meet many new people
and hear murmurs
from their lives.
And you will taste honey
fresh from many hives.
Or the concluding lines of “The Past”, in which the poet is contemplating what to do with “a drawer of old letters”:
Perhaps just close the drawer –
what has not been riven
has long healed by now
and is forgotten and forgiven.
In both these instances, and in 14 other besides, Shane uses an ABA rhyme scheme in the last three lines of the poem. (In other poems he uses an ABCA rhyme in the last four lines; and in still others the last two line contain a couplet rhyme.) This concluding rhyme is so naturally woven into the syntax and phrasing of the poem that it is easy to miss—easy to miss consciously, that is. For whether or not we deliberately, intellectually, discern it, the rhyme works its effect on our ear and heart. It is a device that helps to magnify the poem’s mood and thereby increase its impact on our emotions. And it is a device that Shane handles expertly.
Well, as Trickster might say, “Na-ho/ it is finished”—my speech, that is.
I urge you to buy this book and read it at you leisure. If you do, you will hear murmurs from Shane’s many lives, “And you will taste honey/ fresh from many hives.”
With this exhortation and promise, I have great pleasure in declaring Trickster by Shane McCauley launched! Happy reading!