From Wales to Macao


Wrestling in Mud: New and Selected Poems
, Herbert Williams
(108pp, 7.99, Cinnamon)
Dredging the Delta, Christopher Kelen (102pp, 7.99, Cinnamon)
 

Years ago, when I was young and foolish, I had the audacity to find Peter Porter's poems very similar to being forced to read the Daily Mail for pleasure. I was reminded of this in Herbert Williams' book, where he is somewhere compared to Porter and others, including The Movement's uninterestingly plain poems, as if that were the highest praise. If I were Williams, I would rise up and smite the perpetrator of such misinformation. Williams is indeed a plain (Welsh) poet - if that is not a contradiction in terms - and, if it is of the kind which has little charm for me, I have learned enough in the past 50 years to recognise that poets like Williams are popular, just as, my mother would have asserted, the poet Pam Ayres deserved to be. What emerges from Williams' poems is everyday life with its universal hopes and dreams, where it is commonplace to be included as solace in poems. The refreshing thing about Williams, though, escaping the final platitude via the last poem in the book, is that he doesn't trust the poets, nor, presumably, by definition, their ability to come up with the right answers (from 'What Would Dylan Be Writing?'):
 
       You did the right thing, Dylan.
       You died.
       You became a legend.
 
       And what of us? What are we?
       Heirs to Dylan's tradition? Are we fuck.
       We are the same as poets always were,
       egoistic, quarrelsome, jealous, rude,
       a total waste of space.
 
       Just like him.


I imagine Christopher Kelen's jerky poems are an attempt to reflect the duality of the modern state of Macao - known as "the Monte Carlo of the Orient" - formerly a Portuguese colony, and, since 1999, a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, where nearly half-a-million citizens are crammed into an area of 10 square miles. Kelen's poems make it seem precisely that breathlessly crowded - which presumably you would expect from an Australian - not least in the abundance of verbal atmospherics the collection provides, much of which, I confess, I found too dense for more than occasional interest, even when lucidity is the order of the day, as in  'first breath of autumn':
 
        light's vectors less
        in dip of wind,
        grey depth
 
        at the changing of the seasons
        a pigeon visits
        sticks
        has to be scared
        we have to make wings
        to show the way back
 
        so patient she is in her lesson
        she stays
 
In another poem, ('Laputa view') Kelen confesses: 'I just poke the sky back with a stick / or with one  piercing blue-eyed glare'
 
I wish he had done considerably more poking and glaring throughout the book.


                     Geoffrey Godbert 2007