October 2009

Arts & Letters

Beautiful waste

By Robert Forster
The poetry of David McComb

David McComb, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 36, was the lead singer and songwriter of The Triffids. The band began their career in Perth in the late 1970s and broke up in 1989, and although McComb released a solo album, Love of Will, in 1994, and wrote and played with other musicians over the years, it is his first group that made him his reputation. The ripple that goes out from great art – especially when it is undervalued in its time – has a tendency to grow and spread, and this has been the case with the music of The Triffids. Now, 10 years after McComb’s death, two books appear from Fremantle Press. Vagabond Holes: David McComb & The Triffids is a collection of reminiscences and essays – filled with good intentions but not always good writing. Far better, and far more unexpected, is the arrival of a collection of poetry from David McComb entitled Beautiful Waste.

The back-cover blurb on Beautiful Waste reads:

… he left behind an extraordinary body of work, notably the songs and albums he recorded with Australian post-punk group The Triffids. The fact that McComb also wrote poetry from an early age – much of it collected here for the first time – will come as no surprise to admirers of the songwriter’s powerfully evocative lyrics.

The first sentence is true, but the second sentence I would contest. Some would say that I have “an extraordinary body of work” behind me, “albums and songs” recorded with the band I was in – The Go-Betweens. But I don’t have any poetry. Does Ed Kuepper have a drawer-full? I doubt it. Where’s Nick Cave’s poetry? I knew David McComb, but I didn’t know he wrote outside his songs. So I find it a surprise, a wonderful surprise, to have these poems – because not everyone who writes “powerfully evocative lyrics” writes poetry, and those that do have to be very good indeed to match the McComb of Beautiful Waste.

The first impression the 60 poems make is of an assuredness of poetic form. This is not rock-star dabbling; this is fine-cut poetry that, even before consideration of content begins, forces an admiration of shape, the fine use of punctuation, the skilful slicing and phrasing of the lines: the hundred tricks and techniques that any established poet might deploy. So this is serious poetry on the criterion of appearance alone. The thrill comes, the kick, from the power that McComb has put into the discipline of form. For the poems aren’t gentle or extended ruminations that can be aligned to his lyrics: McComb valued poetry more than that, and has used it as a repository for human feeling beyond what he could express in song. Many of the poems shock: the big obsessions, such as distrust of love, the disappointment and weight of life, the estrangement and displacement that run through all of McComb’s music, are here, but intensified and distilled; it makes for some very powerful poetry.

McComb left no definitive sequence, so the editors have grouped the poems into five sections according to “loosely shared themes or objects”. Any rough listing that McComb made usually began with the poem ‘Prayer for One’, and it starts Beautiful Waste. It contains some of the most quotable lines on love in the book, delivered in an eerie voice from beyond the grave that spooks this and other poems with its air of calm prophecy. “Find warmth in the mornings / without me” and “We’re long apart now” – these lines suggest a former lover is being addressed, and that comfort and consolation are being given, but the magnanimity of the gestures and the glory and sacrifice are almost flirtatious. ‘Beautiful Era’, the last poem in the first section, is the twin of ‘Prayer for One’, but this time more sensual – “There’s a whole majestic realm and kingdom / in this bedroom of ours” – and with a rare upbeat ending. In between, though, McComb is in trouble: there are drugs in the second poem, soured love in the third, jealousy in the fourth, and the fifth begins with, “Life is not a Christmas Tree / The angel is rarely on top.” The language and luxuriant images always impress, and ‘Prayer for One’ and ‘Beautiful Era’ run deeper than any love song he ever wrote.

After the wild start, the second shorter section with its more wistful tone comes as a respite. ‘The Mistake of Returning’ has two long stanzas, the first setting up the expectations of the return: “I followed old paths / against the din of sleep, / amidst the aching beauty / of familiar streets.” The second sees them dashed, and so much hope gets dashed in the book, to be taken with a shrug or bitter self-recrimination. This time the spoiler is the darkest shadow hanging over McComb – his health: “Soon I was short of breath / in the thin night air”. Two poems later is the pitch-perfect, don’t-change-a-word wonder of ‘Grace Descends’; any need for further convincing of the merits of McComb the poet ends here. A 20-line poem, with one strategically placed semi-colon, it could be about death, the moment of our dying, or about sleep, and ‘Grace’ could just be grace. And then it starts again.

Section three is the nightmare, where self-hate, B-grade movie scenarios, weirdness, a love poem called ‘to MY DARLING PIG, impaled on love’ meet; before a real boil-over into a five-page rampage that includes ‘My List of Amputations’ (“I cut off my penis / to drain myself of any ill-feeling”), ‘Withdrawal’ (“I kill you, brother / I rape you, sister / I, your withdrawal”), and ‘Love Sires a Killer’. What does it all mean? There is a David Lynch aspect to this: the film-maker who has thrown a lot of craziness onto the screen but has lived as a calm, gentle, meditation-loving person. Not that the split in McComb is so wide, but the camera in these poems zooms past the cars and trees and rolling hills into the cracks and molecules of bedroom walls, incisions in a woman’s back, sores and scratches in need of the healing sun and salt water. Some of it is Perth noir, with wild night-time fantasies of escape and crime, and some is Blue Velvet, with McComb as the handsome hero finding a chopped-off ear in the dirt, sex an ambiguous game, villains sucking oxygen tanks, all to a soundtrack of Roy Orbison. Add the fact that McComb had a heart transplant in his thirties, and that both his parents were doctors, and these blistered poems of flesh may just start to swim into focus.

One poem, in particular, calls out for attention in this grim sequence. It’s called ‘The Clean Slate’ and has McComb working as an orderly in a “prison sick bay”: perhaps it’s a metaphor for McComb as poet, as sufferer from bad health, as carer for and victim of his own self, with “the clean slate” as his art, his poetry or a place of grace he searches for. It’s an odd but very compelling poem that near its conclusion reaches a key line in the book. The prisoner whom McComb has to shave and “pump full of juice” has the cheap prison-flick name of “Moose”, and as the portrait is built up of this murderer – “Men like him / carry blind hatred heavy in their shoes” – the description starts to resemble an outline of McComb himself. The passage on Moose climaxes with: “And, sure, I respect a man for trying / to unload his rotten throbbing pack; / But it’s no use! We’re born this way, / well-loved but underdone”. The “rotten throbbing pack” is a great image for the past, or for the stuff of poetry. It’s the last line that hits hardest, though: “well-loved” must be family and friends, but what is “but underdone”? An unpreparedness for life? Unprepared for love? Sexual love? It’s to do with disappointment, and resignation to loss, and the fact that things aren’t just going to turn out right. And it seems that McComb believed this: you have to be ready and tough, and he wasn’t.

From here the poetry and vision cools again, although great lines are forever accumulating: “Saltwater dripping from a woman’s bare shoulders / is smelt thirty metres downwind” or “singlets twang with the / sweaty discharge of male toil” – isn’t twang just the right word? But at the same time, deep in the fourth section of the book, there is “I don’t care much any longer, let me be blown away”. A weariness at life, a listlessness of mood creeps in, and the complaint is “the tiredness and pain”. Sometimes the scenes are a little overcooked – “I picked up Jesus in my car last night / I asked him how far he was going” – but given where McComb is headed, this can be forgiven. ‘Dénouement’, the third-last poem in the final section, suddenly snaps with its title and its rhyming couplets. A late classicism arrives with this and the last poem, ‘Good Evening Dear Miss Alach’. It is heartbreaking stuff, as if everything before was a mad dream, with its wild scenes and free-floating verse. Now, at the end, McComb hitches the shock of final truths to the surprise of crisp nineteenth-century-tinged verse. ‘Dénouement’ is sad and the most conventionally autobiographical poem in the collection: “I sang long and loud into the night / of my broken bleeding heart”. And ‘Good Evening … ’ ends fittingly with McComb in love, light, and as funny and stylish as he could be.

That these poems exist is one surprise; the far bigger one is their subject matter and quality. McComb’s lyrics operated on one level; the poems sink mineshafts and go down further. He’s laid bare, and perhaps the hesitation he showed in his life about their publication – “‘Rock Star Publishes Slim Volume of Poetry’ has such a shitty ring to it,” he once said – may have to do with the sense of self-exposure, and the hurt they may have given to those close to him – those “well-loved”. Beautiful Waste is the perfect McComb title: wry, self-deprecating, with a touch of futility – but always beautiful.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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