Con Brio

: New & Selected Poems, Tim Thorne (226pp, 14.99 hbck, Salt)
The Icon Maker
, Paul Stubbs (106pp, 11.69 hbck, 9.99 pbck, Arc)

This New & Selected Poems consolidates Tim Thorne's well-established reputation as one of the finest Australian poets. It brings together work from a period of forty years, during which time he has published a dozen collections. He has for many years been big on the Australian poetry scene, having won many prestigious awards, edited important magazines and anthologies, and run a publishing press. He has been a teacher, a witty newspaper columnist and was for seventeen years Director of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival. Not only is he one of Australia's most substantial poets he is also someone who has helped shape its poetry scene with his indefatigable promoting of the work of others.

I Con
- with its teasing ambivalent title (con = understand and con = deceive, as well as echoing I can) - showcases a high-quality poet who unfailingly goes on delivering the goods and just seems to go from strength to strength. He is technically accomplished, happy in any form he thinks right for what it is he has to say, whether it be traditional or free-verse. Like many Australians, Tim Thorne has a good nose for bull-shitting, which he is very adept at sardonically exposing. His collection A Letter to Egon Kisch - from which the present volume provides two extracts - is a literary tour de force, whose lively metrical rhyming stanzas can confidently live alongside Byron and Auden. Thorne can do satirical with the real aplomb, in the process providing a cogent overview of the social and political state of the nation. Knowing the difference between poetry and propaganda and knowing Australian history in depth, he manages to present a convincing meaningfully radical view of it, sometimes with savage indignation, sometimes with laugh-out-loud humour, in poetry of the first order. His sympathies are always with the less-privileged, as the monologues from the 1995 collection The Streets Aren't For Dreamers clearly demonstrate. He can also turn a tender love lyric and write with feeling about his mother, the father he never knew, his daughter, and give us a moving elegy on the death of a friend. He can show up human failings, write feelingly about atrocities committed in places like Vietnam and Iraq; he can also point up human goodness where he finds it.

In an interview he gave thirty years ago, we find him saying:

     I guess I write for the same reason that Rimbaud wrote - to change the
     world. Maybe like him, when I've succeeded I'll stop ... It's to make an
     impact on the world I guess. An audience is essential. What is not so
     important is the location of that audience, either in time or in space, but
     one needs to know one is bouncing off something even if you can't
     see that something. So I write to be read, obviously, and I write because
    there are things that have to be said and I feel I'm the only person to say
    them. Because the way that I say them is what I say.

It is good having a British publisher make him available to us - and in such a handsome hardback edition too!

Paul Stubbs writes like nobody, but nobody in contemporary British poetry. For influences you have to go to European poets like Georg Trakl, Gottfried Benn, Janos Pilinszky, Ungaretti, all of whom provide epigraphs for poems in this his second collection. Even so, Stubbs is his own man and writes, as I've said, like nobody else.

This makes it hard to characterise his work. It is also partly because he is actively engaged in a struggle to comprehend spiritual matters (what the blurb calls 'the unrefined materials of his imagination') in a world which has largely abandoned them, partly because he writes in a variety of contesting voices, and partly because language can only approximate to what he has inside him to say. I enthusiastically reviewed his first collection The Theological Museum
(Flambard, 2005), which I described as 'original to the point of idiosyncrasy'. There I could see a kinship with the paintings of Francis Bacon (a number of poems in the present collection take paintings by Bacon for their starting point) and the plays of Beckett and Pinter; I also said that the only writer in English I could think of as tackling such cosmic material was the novelist Philip Pullman. Behind Pullman, of course, lies Milton and Blake, great poets who tackle great cosmic themes. The nearest we get to them in Stubbs is his references to Yeats's rough beast (a version of Blake's Tyger) slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

Reading the book through at one go is not an option: you have to stop reading, get your breath back, and then come to it again. Even so it feels as though you are in a vertiginous free-fall in outer space, subjected to a bewildering bombardment - swirling bits and pieces of religious iconography. Are they visionary or hallucinatory? As Stubbs distrusts the idea of a stable Self, we can never be sure. What we are aware of is a heroic struggle to make sense of a recalcitrant world. We are in a sphere where religion no longer works, a world of floundering Popes, misguided scientists and philosophers, in which the last relics of human inhabitation of Earth are up for auction or where the maker of icons, a descendant of the sculptor Phidias, waits for the next and final god to die. The blurb correctly states that in this work 'the principal theological players in a world 'beyond' religion (are) called to account and made to face uncomfortable transformation into corporeal beings'. This is Cormac McCarthy's end-of-the-world scenario taken further and played out against a cosmic backcloth.

     -And if all peoples have become

            now exempt, and all the minds clashed, then there
            can be now no new understanding of the self,
     no future explorations of the soul,
     while now, today, like a cymbal, the
    sun is resounding, the last human
     shadow from the sundial has passed,

           And only our ego, circling us,
           like a satellite, remains.
                        [from 'Without Philosophy']

Stubbs is a highly distinctive and original poet, one whose voice has to be listened to. As I said in the previous review, he is not a comfortable read but he is certainly challenging.

                    Matt Simpson 2008