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Review: John Carey's Duck Soup and Swansongs

Ginninderra, 2018. RRP $23.00

So few poets do comedy. Fewer still do it well. Carey shines at it.

I first saw the Marx Bros on TV at my high school girlfriend’s south-western Sydney home. Her father was ranging about the house hypervigilant, he was a Jewish policeman and so much wanted a son that he constantly called his only child by a male name. Couldn’t think of a more apt setting to be introduced to Duck Soup. It’s no mistake that the first half of this book references back to the 1933 film. The second carries a deep sense of finality with its title Swansongs.

Any reader of this book will soon know the author is or has been a passionate reader, teacher, actor plus an avid consumer of art and jazz.

The humour is often acerbic:
“a colourful Racing Identity tells his partner’s cleavage
the joke about the blind steeplechaser”
                                                                                                                                      Seven Channels
sometimes self-deprecatory:
“We have all, it seems, put our hands up
to be offshored into the Tourist Park
of Southern Europe…”
                                                                                                                            Globalissima laughing at/with society at the incomprehensible habits we have adopted:
“...M on

the planet Moi…”
                                                                                                                           Anargasm occasionally bizarre:
“I found the famous Melbourne underground artist, Axel
‘Chocka’ Blok, nailing stray cats
to the cathedral door. ‘I’m completing my thesis,’ he
explained. ‘What course is that?’
I asked and should have known better. ‘The entrée,’ he said.”
                                                                                                                                            Axel sometimes dancing with words:
“… it is not to be confused
with the ‘bucolic diaeresis’ that resulted
from the excessive consumption of fermented
sour apples…”
                                                                                    From the Gonzo Dictionary of Literary Terms plus, of course, Carey particularly focuses on writers and writing. He’s seen/done it all over his decades of work… can laugh along at our obsessions, affectation and delusions. Join him with:
“An author shows off his new dental implants
to the book club and explains himself:
‘There’s no bibliography. This is a self-help book.
I knew it all because the voices told me.’”
                                                                                                                                     Seven Channels
“Lucky it wasn’t mauled by some brutalist editor
who likes to strip out articles and adjectives
till it all sounded like the name of a Navajo chief.”
                                                                                                                           The Quick Brown Fox But if you’re thinking this is a collection of gags let’s dispel the notion emphatically. He is a writer with a profound understanding of forms, rhythm, vocabulary, punctuation and voice. Uses it all whilst never being a prisoner of any. Whilst largely being accessible, this collection is at the same time profoundly dextrous. Lovers of poetry will be rewarded.

The second half of the book is not, I hope, prophetic with its title Swansongs. He looks back on his life:
“a few harebrained adventures that cost me
less than I deserved…”
                                                                                                                                       Red-eye Flight He gifts us with some truly beautiful love poems while making visual art and jazz come alive:
“I look at Bernie McGann’s saxophone
left on the stand in the break between sets
inert and unresolved like a question-mark…”
                                                                                                                                                Horn There is always a special frisson when a poem comes at you from a completely fresh angle. Something you’ve never thought about before becomes suddenly tangible and enriching. Balloons takes us to the beginnings of hot air flight. After Bird dissects the call of the butcher-bird through a filter of Ornette Coleman’s music.

This is a delightful book from a true adept.

Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication in over 350 different magazines, anthologies and newspapers across 28 countries in 13 languages. His 13th book of poetry is Getting By, Not Fitting In (Island, 2016). For more information on his poetry and activities, visit his website.