TEXT review

Layers of understanding: How deep should we dig?

review by Mary Pomfret


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:2016 APRIL ISSUE GENERAL TEXT:IMAGES :Utting cover.jpg
Susie Utting
Coal Dust on Roses: last days in a mining town
Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide SA 2015
ISBN 9781760410223
Pb 90pp AUD20.00


At first, when reading Coal Dust on Roses I found myself wishing I had paid more attention to high school geography lessons, in particular to those on rock and coal formation. Coal is actually a sedimentary rock formed by an accumulation and burial of layers of decaying and dead material. Not that any detailed knowledge on the formation of coal is required for an understanding and appreciation of Utting’s collection of poetry about the excavation of the town of Yallourn in the late 1970s for the purpose of extracting coal. The collection’s ‘Forward’ provides a comprehensive background on the demise of the Victorian coal mining town of Yallourn.

Utting’s verse prologue asks ‘Why coal dust falls on roses’ and the poems in her collection attempt to answer. Utting’s prologue creates a sweeping vista of the coal mining landscape in terms of both its physical vastness and depth of its deposits, as well the time in involved in its formation: ‘Eocene to the Miocene geological and climate gestating / thick brown pulmonaries’ (9). Juxtaposing ‘boggy-spored / wombs’ with ‘strata heavy with dead trees’ (10), Utting sets up the ubiquitous theme of life, death and renewal that permeates the poems in this collection.

‘Dramatus aboreum’ describes how a tree garden with ‘theatres of ash & poplar / vaulting sets of golden elm / & oaks’ deteriorates to a ‘brown empty stage’ (11), when the ‘garden city’ (7) of Yallourn becomes a shell as its residents are evicted to make way for the mining of the coal beneath. This death-like absence is mirrored in the sparse lines of ‘Fading ...’ with the ‘… stillness of an empty room’ / and ‘autumn ash /column of falling copper / drift in as single shroud’ (13).

Utting repeats the imagery and imaginings of death and mourning throughout the collection in her use of language such as: ‘wooden / tombstones’ (14), ‘crematorium towers’ (15), ‘winter pall’ (20), ‘death caps born under oak kill in hours’ (27), ‘sackcloth’ (34), ‘your time is up’ (43), ‘front lights fade to black’ (45), ‘leave the picture forever’ (48), ‘empty bag of blood and bone’ (62) ‘lambs are murdered’ (71), and ‘in another room my dead mother / cries in her sleep’ (77). The titles of poems such as ‘Death of the Wanderers’ (68) and ‘Hotel Funeral’ (79) are unambiguous in thematic intent. Unmistakably, ‘Memorial Garden’ is an elegy for Utting’s ‘dead’ town of Yallourn. The narrator laments:

garden town    now dead
in a brown coal  grave

In sculptured beds
eternal red roses

bloom    on
marbled stems. (60)

Not all of the poems in the collection are elegies. The ‘Snap Shot’ series (34-50) is a photograph-like meandering through the 1930s to the 1970s using familiar images of a by-gone time. A young woman milks the cows and ‘lingers / in sepia forever wondering – / did I rinse out the butter churn?’ (35). A paper boy from the 1950s is ‘snapped between black & white / in a world never turning grey’ (37).

Utting is not taking us on romantic journey through halcyon days, but rather offers a re-imagining that defies nostalgia in its subversion of the sentimental. In this series of snap shots, Utting adopts the position of the observer of an earlier time through a critical contemporary lens: student nurses escape the confines imposed by the stultifying 1950 values of their ‘parents in another state’ (38) and the ‘d) 1979s Butcher Shop’ (40) – filled with images of blood in a place ‘where the scales of life are tilted’ (41) – is almost certainly an allusion to the illegal abortion clinics of the times. A 1970s swimming pool clock warns and concludes, ‘Midnight   Swimming pool clock your time is up’ (43). A school production of the musical Oliver ends ‘when the front lights fade to black’ (45). Utting’s ‘g) 1970s Back Row Boys’ (46-8) recalls familiar and stereotypical  nicknames of the era, names that would be considered derogatory, and even racist, now, such as ‘Nathan Nerd’, ‘Farm Kid Barry’, ‘Angelo the Wog’, ‘Class Clown Kevin’, ‘Gavin the “Girl”’ and ‘Peter the Jock’. This series of ‘Snap Shots’ haunts with images of the past that linger ‘in the shutter’ (50).

Utting’s poems are not, however, without hope for the future. ‘From the kitchen sink…’ celebrates life and the natural world, ‘the greatest privilege’ (52) as does ‘Saving the Wisteria’ – a declaration of hope and renewal – because like ‘Dad’ who ‘digs’, the plant is ‘Tough as old boots’(65). Towards the end of the collection, Utting demonstrates the poetic form of haibun, ‘a Japanese literary form that integrates poetry (haiku) and prose in the same text’ (7). An example of this style is ‘Garden Stall’, a poem of hope and fecundity where ‘kidney seeds’ are ‘asleep in a twin womb’ (72) and ‘Rose & ivy geranium climbers … / from broken homes’ are bound for ‘strange new walls’ (72). Despite ‘disillusion   disillusion’ roses are saved in another haibun, ‘Saving the Roses’: ‘We dig up bushes & wrap them in hessian sheets’ (73) and,

Afterwards …
down to the hall where
CWA ladies serve tea & scones with apricot jam

Perfumed keepsakes dug out by the roots. (74)

Haibun in form, the final piece, ‘Buying the Farm’, is a joyful sweeping out of the old and in with the new.

Our youngest is playing with dead daddy long legs near the
back door
I pick him up and find an old straw broom & sweep them
down the steps (85)

Susie Utting’s Coal Dust on Roses rewards and perhaps demands more than just one single reading. Much like its subject, the death of a town built upon sediments of dead material that took eons to become coal, this work is one of layers – and one which requires time on the part of the reader to discover the depth of its riches.


Mary Pomfret is a writer who lives on the goldfields of Central Victoria and works at La Trobe University. She has published two collections of short fiction and has completed a novel and a creative PhD.


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