Rob Riel reviews Andrew Slattery’s “Canyon”
by Andrew Slattery
Reviewed by ROB RIEL
Canyon is a handsome chapbook, the cover stylishly sewn rather than stapled to the text. Publication in this form is a valuable initiative of the Australian Poetry Centre, similar in scope to the Five Islands New Poetry Series, and with very much the same objective: to encourage newcomers to the poetic craft.
Like Ron Pretty’s earlier enterprise, workshopping of new poets’ manuscripts is a central element of the program. If publication is the carrot, a week-long intensive residential workshop at Varuna is the stick used to beat a good manuscript into a winning one. It’s a proven formula going back to 1994; the vetting process works, and the list of successful applicants is distinguished.
Without question, Andrew Slattery merits inclusion in 2009. On the back cover, Peter Porter describes him as ‘an archaeologist of the Natural World. He invents a Joycean script.‘ Slattery’s poetry is large, his voice original, his craft sharp. When he is on song, he’s up there with the best. That said, his wordplay tends to that excessive exuberance common to talented new writers — which is to say, he can’t pass up a chance to impress. Hence a few über-Joycean passages in the style of Ulysses and Finnigan’s Wake might be described as overworked. This minor flaw can be willingly dismissed in a manuscript of such promise.
Canyon is a rewarding read, not necessarily an easy one. The first four poems employ a richly Arctic motif. William Empson’s Ambiguity Type 1 involves detail, which is effective in several ways simultaneously, and this is one of Slattery’s strengths, as in ‘Arctic Circle, Sweden’:
… In the distance a bull elk
lay across one track; the brown slump of weight
rolled into the ground with a span of antlers
like petrified angel wings. When Dad tied them off
with rope at my back, I walked the way home,
but it was like I could fly, with wings of bone
lifting me over the rocks in the midnight sun.
Two pages later, the title poem Canyon shifts the stage underwater. Here, Slattery limns the vast depths and utter magnitudes of ocean ex ungue, leonem; from the squid, we may fairly observe and admire the whole sea:
The giant squid spools along canyons
cut from the ice age — movements
aggrandised over time, its organ pipes
roll the sea bed with solitary rills,
hear its weight unlying the sea.
It’s a strong poem, and none the worse for having appeared elsewhere under the title ‘Bathey Pelagium‘ — identical text, albeit with different (and, to this reviewer’s mind, superior) line breaks. At least three other fine poems in this 24-page chapbook (‘Lithographone’, ‘Post Office’ and ‘The Rural Piano Rescue Project’) have also been previously published, some as competition prize winners.
Slattery moves on to a more recognisably Australian landscape in the second half of the collection. ‘Somniform’ has some impressive sequences …
Calf and cloud and their cummulant fill
unfurl its new tongue and slup a cloud.
The other cows and their dark, bowed heads.
The poppy deflates the balloon in your chest.
Lay on my back, suck slow on the clouds.
The whole world made of stupor.
… though I stumbled somewhat over ‘cummulant’; it’s a statistical term, usually spelled with one ‘m’, and probably chosen for its sound — Slattery is a closet sound poet, which benefits his work when he doesn’t carry it too far. A few lines later, though, he consults Joyce once too often:
This disturbance will uncope the heart.
Poppyblood, white noise, metal sweat, dry brain.
A black oil from boiling the feet of cattle.
My limbs are bound with malevolent sleep.
A pink baby curled up inside each poppy.
This is a higher order of Empsonian ambiguity, the sort of thing emerging poets take great delight in, and which established poets take pride in reining in. Still, ‘Somniform’ is an impressive piece. So also ‘Tryptych’ in which the three stages of execution by lethal injection are entwined with beach imagery in a successful extended metaphor:
2. Pancuronium bromide (100 mg)
Only the fated know when
there are minutes left. Tied to a plank
at sea, rising over troughs of swell,
the land disappears with each drop.
Slattery is strongest when he harnesses his exuberance to a narrative thread. ‘The Archaeologist’ is a powerful evocation of childhood and its implications. ‘Lithographone’ demonstrates his impressive capacity to winkle wondrous imagery out of simple, straightforward, colloquial Australian English. So also ‘The Slake’:
Dad said his back was too stiff
to bring in the dead lambs, so we went down
and opened the carcasses for the foxes
to come in after dark and take their hubs.
He’s at his weakest with nonsense verse like ‘Dancey Miscellaney’ …
The ladybug does the Boston waltz,
the lobster a high-kicking cancan.
where the poem is not much more than a vehicle for amusing himself with interesting words like “farandole”, “catsrap”, “sarabande”, and “volta.”
Canyon finishes with ‘The Rural Piano Rescue Project’, a long eight-part piece which plays to all of Slattery’s considerable strengths:
They used the 1912 Esterman upright
to plug a gap in the cow-yard fence. A yellow
jessamy vine covers its back that faces out
like a dirty gold tooth along the white boundary.
From the other side you can see someone’s kept
the keys glint-clean. We imagine stock workers;
left to bunk under the stars, spilling drink on the keys
as they sing the cows to standing sleep.
This is the sort of poem which can win a major competition, establish a strong reputation, and convince readers to buy the poet’s next book.
Andrew Slattery is an exceptionally talented new voice in Australian poetry. He has the craft, the sophistication, and the energy to compete with the very best. Canyon is an impressive milestone, and a worthy contribution to the literature. At this point in his career, a full-length collection is the anticipated next step. May it come soon.