September 2012

Essays

Geoff Lemon

'Radar' by Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow

'Radar' by Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow, Walleah Press; $25.00

That Nathan Curnow and Kevin Brophy should publish Radar together is entirely apt. At a glance, they may seem incongruous: Curnow the undercut-sporting denizen of Ballarat, sleeping in haunted houses and hearses; Brophy the soft-spoken, bearded professor, assembling each poem like a ship in a bottle. Each was at one time editor of Going Down Swinging, but their link predates Curnow’s tenure. It comes instead via their respective previous collections.

Curnow’s The Ghost Poetry Project, harvested by trips to supernatural locales around Australia, is the only book of poetry I’ve ever read like a novel, flipping pages on footpaths to learn what happened next. Brophy’s Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion is one of the most complete Australian works of the past decade, in any genre. Common to both is the character of each poet’s voice: unfussy, using direct language with inherent confidence. You will not find the wispy affectation, the Enya album that plays in the background of so many poems.

Curnow’s contribution comes from the midlife struggle to reconcile the relationship with one’s parents while confronting the mystery of one’s young children. Religious themes recur, his parents’ faith and his father’s ministry clear sources of tension. The growth of youthful doubt is adeptly charted: “I wanted to know why a boy got a bullet while men got miracles.”

Tying it together is what Curnow presents as his “bonus track”: his commissioned monologue ‘We Are All Made From the Matter of Stars’. It digs through delusion, religion, and rural isolation: “I stuck my hand up mid-sermon, […] Seriously. Why doesn’t the Bible say more about aliens?”

For his part, Brophy offers prose poems ranging from five lines to a page, in the manner of Alex Skovron’s excellent Autographs. The style fits his work, which specialises in turning the ordinary into magic, and has always valued strength of image over exactitude of line breaks. These small paragraphs allow Brophy to assemble covert poems, approaching unwary readers to reveal themselves on consumption.

‘Australian Street, Summer’, in which a suburb collapses back into bushland, is representative of Brophy’s work: surreal, yet with its own internal logic, and ever laced with poignancy and humour. “He wished he had a job to go to. No one should have to witness this kind of transformation in their own street. What had the council been thinking?” One imagines Brophy doing most of his writing with a corner-of-the-mouth smile.

If poetry perplexes, these are the writers you need: communicators foremost, but ones who happen to make beautiful shapes while they do it.

Geoff Lemon
Geoff Lemon is a writer, spoken-word artist, current editor of Going Down Swinging and author of Sunblind.

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