Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle, Australia and is a poet, reviewer and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly the work of Australian soldier-poets.
This is a modified version of a review which appeared in Rochford Street Review in December 2017.
straya by Paul Summers (Smokestack Books, 2017)
The term ‘straya’, a bastardised pronunciation of ‘Australia’, is both the title and the first and largest section of Paul Summers’ latest collection. It is published by Smokestack Books, a publisher with a manifesto to champion ‘poets who are unfashionable, radical, left field…’. Summers, who hails from the English North-East, fits this bill, particularly in this first section of the work. His recent five year residency in tropical Queensland forms the basis for his critical wanderings through the Australian psyche.
The first poem in the collection, ‘obligato’, suggests an obligation on the reader to pay attention. It foreshadows a revisionist interpretation of colonialisation, ‘recast in memoriam’; one which should not be omitted from the Australian narrative. This narrative, particularly as it relates to the treatment of Aboriginal people is hotly contested in the public arena, the so-called ‘history wars’.
Where ‘obligato’ could be characterised as oblique, the second poem, ‘building eden / pathology’, an acerbic, sweeping diatribe about the sunburnt country, historical and modern, leaves the reader in no doubt as to where Summers is heading. In his sights are, amongst other ills, racism, denial of past wrongs, hollow apologies and the Australian chestnuts of mateship and the fair go.
‘eden’ is something of a laundry list, as is ‘dear john’, which bookends this section, yielding another phalanx of issues and observations. Australian readers may characterise Summers as an interloper and question his authority to comment on their historical and contemporary life, yet it often takes an outsider to hold the mirror, or in Summers’ case, a magnifying glass, burning a hole in the dominant narrative with an incendiary eye.
Some poems focus on a single explicit subject, including ‘revision’, a disturbing take on the aussie poetic icon, ‘The Man From Snowy River’, and ‘8 count’, a graphic depiction of domestic violence.
…hits the floor;
drum-hollow but dense,
like sides of meat slapped
down on butchers’ blocks.
On balance though, Summers tells it slant. Crows are metaphors for colonisation in ‘the republic of crows’ and they presage the death of refugees in ‘terra australis’. Brahman cattle are the dispossessed and the betrayed in ‘one hundred head of cattle walking to their slaughter’. In more literal poems Summers evokes nature’s venom, of cyclones and drought, yet there’s no escaping the undertow, ‘the soil’s dark music’, haunting this collection.
‘fan ho’s vehement lens’ epitomises Summers’ keen vision. The title of the poem refers to Fan Ho, a renowned Chinese photographer of street scenes in Hong Kong. The poem is set in a country town, where ‘the dogs are all black’ and highlights many issues including the ‘obesity of privilege’, and the plight of the underclasses, the marginalised, ‘the pensioners, / the jettisoned, / the wounded,/ & the grinning mad.’ Summers’ position, while left of the mainstream, comes not from blind revisionism, it is, as the sentiments in ‘Fan Ho’ suggest, out of his humanity and concern for suffering.
In ‘epistle to a great-nephew’ Summers reveals the values underlying straya. The poet’s advice in his letter includes the noble: ‘defend the truth’, ‘declaim injustice’, as well as the small and personal things; to treasure the singing of birds and ‘the perfume of summer rain’.
The middle section of straya, titled ‘guerra’ (Italian and Spanish for war) deals with the death caused by organised conflict, including the frontier wars, fought between European colonists and Aboriginal people. In ‘bait’, death is meted out through laced flour and spiked water, conjuring the vivid images of the poisoning of Aboriginal people depicted by Australian author, Kate Grenville, in The Secret River. There are also poems dealing with the sacrifice of young men during the Great War. Accounts of the death of children in Gaza provide modern examples of humanity’s dark side. The final poem, ‘ptsd’, is a personal one, about a fishing mate, a war veteran, who committed suicide.
‘cadenza’, might have been a stand-alone volume, such is the contrast between this and the previous sections. While ‘straya’ and ‘guerra’ are lamentations on the legacy of history, ‘cadenza’ reflects a private grief, a ‘rapacious loss’, the death of the poet’s mam. These are tender poems, traversing dying, death itself and the vacuum of the aftermath. They contemplate the physical and emotional manifestations in vignettes of the hospital, cremation and the spreading of ashes for example. In ‘the ferryman’, which describes the moment of his mother’s death, Summers provides an intimate and generous window into this very private experience.
Many of the poems in ‘cadenza’ are tributes to his father, reflecting a widower’s unique form of loss, as seen through a son’s compassionate eyes. In ‘& slow, the dusk’, the first part in the sequence, ‘the aftermath’,
the men who grieve
sit down to tea,
dwarfed by the scale
of lonesome rooms.
mechanically they prod
at half charged plates
Summers’ knack for nailing an image and capturing its emotional charge is sublime. In ‘fall’, ‘& dad is reduced; / shrunk to the size / of a songbird’s heart’.
There are reminiscences of childhood here too. ‘crucible’ sees the poet nagging his mam to buy him a ‘red-army hat’ at an advent market. The child watches his parents feeding each other at the ‘mermaid café’, leaning into ‘…the warmth / of the others’ space, still giddy/ on the promise of their lips’. Grief brings these memories into focus. It is the pain of happy memories as W.G. Sebald has described it.
Despite the contrasts between the first and the last sections of straya, they are unified by Summers’ skill, innate compassion and full investment in his subject. They are unified stylistically also; the dominance of the couplet, the employment of sporadic and deft rhyme and repetition of words and phrases, techniques which sharpen focus and command the reader’s attention. He calls up hidden, unspeakable things and champions the downtrodden. While Australia is the dominant reference point in the first part of the collection the themes are universal. Whether it be the public or the private there is no escape from the ‘knowing glance / of stuttering time.’