TEXT review

When to laugh, when to cry

review by Owen Bullock


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:2016 APRIL ISSUE GENERAL TEXT:IMAGES :rob-walker-cover-212x300.jpg
Rob Walker
Five Islands Press, Melbourne VIC 2015
ISBN 9780734050267
Pb 98pp AUD25.00


Humour is a tricky thing, rarely funny when overt. But life in its ridiculous twists and turns is often vastly, unpredictably funny. Tropeland, Rob Walker’s first new collection since phobiaphobia (Picaro Press, 2007) revels in word play and sometimes makes me laugh aloud. It tackles difficult subjects like learning and dying. The title poem declares wordplay and humour as important elements. Here, matches ‘spontane combustuously’ and vampire bats are ‘garbags’. Expressions like ‘Surreal estate’ and the idea of blank rainbows which we fill in ourselves are appealing. The poem ends with the claim:

In Tropeland
it’s better for you
and metaphor for me (14)

The humour is nicely complex here. If the poem ‘Selfgoogling’ is overt in its humour, it also succeeds in narrating what is probably a common experience:

Selfgoogling as a pasttime’s quite inspiring.
Eponymous achievements will ensue –

The anti-climax is;       it isn’t you. (49)

Lines like these make me suspect that Walker’s poetry would often be at its most compelling in performance:

extreme onion unction
tongue-and groove junction
of lung removed function (69)

Wordplay is again to the fore in the riffs around ‘on / off’ in ‘Making a Preposition (On Watching Big Brother)’. It’s clever and fun, but even such skilled poems can leave a reader wanting something with stronger emotional engagement. I admire Walker and have often enjoyed his work in journals. I used his poem ‘Shall I compare thee...’ (from Blue Giraffe #6) in a number of writing workshops. Walker’s grasp of the vernacular is special, and there are similar examples here. But the voice of the poems in Tropeland often veers towards self-lampooning, which tends to make the poems fall flat (e.g. the ending of ‘Speaking in Tongues’). Overall, the persona of the author is large in this text. I am interested in what emotions and imaginings can be stirred in the reader through some of the profoundly serious and important scenarios that are being narrated. If Walker does present aspects of his own personality as part of the content it needs to be there as a vehicle for effect on the reader, but I’m not sure that it’s always so calculated.

The best pieces are those where the attention is on someone or something else and the authorial persona is less central. The poems ‘Surprises’, ‘Soft’ and ‘Yamamoto Sensei Snaps’ give a strong impression of the culture of teaching and learning in Japan; the observing mind is witness but doesn’t intrude. When Sensei severely punishes an unruly student, the other teachers leave because it is ‘None Of Their Business’ – the formality of the capitals (also used elsewhere in the poem) helps capture the tone as well as the prevalent attitude. ‘Plympton Gopher’ is firmly focused on the unexpected character of a man looking for dope gear. ‘The Darkening Eucalyptic’ is entirely about the voice’s experience of cutting down a tree. It gets close to the emotions involved without being maudlin and so it moves the reader. The narrator of ‘dad’s got is own / playstation in the lounge. / dozen lettuce uzit tho’ (from ‘Danny in Detention’) is allowed to speak without mind-clutter – even the excellent use of vernacular is less important than the sense of pity that this detail conveys.

The use of such convincing detail tends to highlight the fact that in some poems the use of abstraction is problematic. For example, the text refers to the ‘bluff and bluster / testicles and testosterone’ in ‘Bull Evaluation Day’. One gets the point, but it would be interesting to be offered an example of the behaviour. Similarly, it could be a fuller experience to learn about the nature of the father’s ‘benign transcendence’ in ‘Transcendence’ or his ‘awe’ and ‘discarnate nostalgia’ in ‘Watching My Blind Cat’. One wonders in what ways we try to keep memory alive (‘Elements’). As a reader, I’m in the dark in these situations but keen to look further, and to see the text explore fully what it suggests is important; it would surely be worthwhile going deeper into the situations described.

But, as previously mentioned, it’s difficult to get away from the ‘I’ (or ‘my’) in the poetry: even when the ‘i’ is written in lower case and where the poem is ostensibly about someone or something else, it can dominate. The problem with persona seems to occur at various levels in the book. At its simplest, one wonders why it is important that the reader learn that certain plaster of Paris scenes are ones which ‘I’ve previously seen only on Christmas cards’ (‘De-composition’). In a weightier example, the pathos of the moment when a father asks his doctor on the phone in a public place if he needs an ultrasound, is unfortunately obscured by the competing, narrating ‘i’ (‘Cloze Procedure’). The reader has to dig this moving detail out of the poem and hold onto it, rather than the poem allowing ‘i’ to speak with all its power. ‘Watching my blind cat’ is potentially a fine juxtaposition of observations of a cat with decisions the narrator of the poem needs to make about his father; with greater detachment, the comparison and its effects might be emphasised. Because of the decision being made, it seems perfectly valid for the persona to be present, but I can’t help feeling the poem would be stronger without that presence. The self-consciousness of other poems also seems to work against their poignancy (e.g. ‘Against the Grain’).

I suspect that the poem ‘Clearview’, written for the author’s brother, comes closest to the blend of humour and the cosmic that Walker might be seeking. The text insists, ‘A cemetery is such fertile ground / for humour...’ (76) and though I’ve sometimes felt unconvinced by the more overt use of humour in the book, these final lines are subtly effective:

Are you laughing, looking up at these poor bastards
who have to mow your resting places
for Eternity? (76)

With this sense of effective humour comes the feeling that humour is at the service of something more profound and that perhaps the reader is invited to partake of other strong emotions which the body makes into tears.


Owen Bullock has published a collection of poetry, three books of haiku and a novella. He has edited a number of journals and anthologies, including Poetry New Zealand. He is a PhD Candidate at the University of Canberra.


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