TEXT review

A curio cabinet of poetry

review by Caitlin Maling


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:2016 APRIL ISSUE GENERAL TEXT:IMAGES :Frank-Russo-cover-213x300.jpg
Frank Russo
In the Museum of Creation
Five Islands Press, Parkville, Vic 2015
ISBN 9780734050274
Pb 96pp AUD25.00


It is unusual to encounter a debut book of poetry as focused as Frank Russo’s In the Museum of Creation. A typical first collection is eclectic, bringing together the full range of the poet’s interests, influences and poetic experimentations, setting the broad foundation from which the mature poet will emerge. In the Museum of Creation meets this expectation, in how the collection embodies its title, bringing together a diverse range of objects and moments in history; each poem a small cabinet of curios. The focus is primarily on Europe and America, so we encounter parachutists from 1943 (14), the Museum of Creation in Tierra Santa (8), Bronzino’s Portrait of a Dwarf (16), the ruins at Loci (19), Proust’s Bedroom (20), many Madonnas (41-2), Pharlap (35), and the Dance of Death in St Nicholas’s Church Tallina (54).

Unlike the sense of randomness that fills many first collections, the variety of objects in Russo’s museum has a strong sense of curation, of intent. This works well when the collection is assessed as a whole; the poems, like the objects, have a kind of cumulative power, although it is worth questioning how much of this power derives from the repeated references to great works or their creators: Voltaire, Rousseau, Freud, and Caravaggio, to name a few. It is risky to try to invoke so many other works – Russo’s poems tend to be swamped by the intertexts’ stronger and more familiar resonances. Yet as a whole corpus, it is fascinating to watch the speaker move quickly from thing to thing, place to place. The overall effect is one of compression of time – not quite timelessness, but a sense of viewing history on fast-forward, the speaker assessing what remains and what has been left to decay. This is aided by the movement of many poems through different modes of interpretation that could broadly be termed the ‘sacred’, the ‘scientific’ and the ‘popular’.

At the level of the poem, the collection and its strong sense of curation is perhaps less successful. The weakest of the poems are those that feel over-derived, where the speaker directs the reader in their interpretation of an image or object. In these poems little is left for the reader to do and crucially there is none of the indeterminacy or ambivalence that we often find in great poetry. With this overemphasis on clarity, there is accordingly at times prosaicness to the prosody. Unfortunately this is the case with the title poem, ‘In the Museum of Creation’, which describes in detail the speaker’s reactions to an American biblical museum. Some of the images are crisp, as in how ‘[i]n a vine-covered room Pterodactyl bones hang / from a cathedral ceiling. Trunks of prehistoric firs / rise from a bog garden’ (8), or ‘[i]n a room filled with monitors / the six days of creation are shown / on repeat every four minutes’ (9). Ultimately though, the poem is let down by the speaker’s interpretive asides:  ‘[a] snake – too measured in its movements to have tempted Eve’ (8), ‘Eve ... her long hair laid across her breasts / as though she had already known shame’ (8), hers and ‘Adam’s / faces amalgams of every tribe, / inner-city melting pots from which / the races of the world might disentangle’ (8-9). These asides prescribe too much of the reader’s experience and understanding of the poem, and extend out the sentences at the expense of the music of the line.

More successful are those poems in which Russo deploys shorter lines, such as ‘Skin’ where ‘[h]e noticed how / the chain of her necklace / left indentations across her throat, / that lingered as she showered’ (34). Similarly the poems that rely more heavily on what Ezra Pound termed melopoeia are immediately engaging, such as ‘At home with Peggy’ which uses alliteration and repetition to pleasing ends:

Peggy in Pegeen’s room. Peggy studying
the photo of Pegeen sitting on the Byzantine throne.
Peggy observing her daughter’s paintings,
how they teem with happiness: scenes of sun and Riviera.
Pegeen’s paintings, primitive and naïve. (44)

Russo’s poetry is driven by thought: in terms of a basic binary – his is an intellectual rather than emotive stance. In the less successful poems, not enough room is left for the liminal spaces of poetry, of Robert Bly’s imaginative leaps. Bly famously coined the idea of ‘dragon smoke’ to describe how ‘a great work of art often has at its center a long floating leap’, where ‘the real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem’ (Bly 1975: 4). This is descriptive of the poet making ‘a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance’ (1975: 1). Russo, through careful telegraphing of his speakers’ thoughts, does not allow for the role that the unconscious plays in poetry. Bly, of course, primarily focused on poets he termed ‘deep image’ such as Lorca, Rilke or Neruda. It could be that a rhetorical or discursive mode such as Russo’s will never fully be accounted for in Bly’s terminology.

The poems which are extremely successful are those where the speaker’s interpretative capabilities are sidelined. In these poems Russo’s wonderfully precise descriptive ability reveals him to have great powers of observation. These poems are as a whole more associative, less pre-determined. ‘Calvario’ opens mid-scene with the immediately arresting ‘[t]hey found one of the blond twins to play Jesus – / the ones whose parents had migrated to the Ruhr / to work as factory hands’ (27). The poem is constructed in tight quatrains and is particularly impressive for its mixture of narrative perspectives. These perspectives shift between members of the audience, moving from the man who had ‘ridden his motorcycle down from Essen’ to the old woman who ‘cried, / He’s like a real Jesus’, to the startling image of an actor playing Judas perhaps too successfully hanging himself:

As Judas climbs a metal ladder, takes the carefully
knotted noose, a man recounts how
the best Judas they had was the one
that time in Ragona: so possessed
the guilt of betrayal stamped on his face –
when he took the noose away and kicked away the chair,
the way he struggled appeared so real –
how his legs kicked and bucked,
how his hands struggled to untie the noose
– how could the crowd not burst into applause? (27-8)

‘Calvario’ succeeds through a concerted meditation on a singular image, scene or theme. In this respect, ‘A journal for shooting’ (61), ‘Walgett’ (62), and ‘Thin silver lines’ (63) are particularly impressive. It is interesting that in ‘Calvario’ and in several of the other most successful poems the speaker incorporates the speech of others. Hence in ‘The book artist’ we encounter the striking opening: ‘[o]ld bibles are the best, she said / on account of their exceptionally fine pages, / so easily twisted into delicate arrangements’ (47).

Russo is a poet capable of deep insight, of bringing forth the unexpected in what might seem like a commonplace or extremely familiar situation or object. It will be interesting to see what path he develops from this assured first collection.


Works cited



Caitlin Maling is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Her work examines pastoral poetry in the USA and Australia from an ecopoetic lens. She has published one book of poetry and a second is forthcoming in early 2017.


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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste