TEXT review

I am ‘modern’ but want to go back

review by Jack Ross


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:hawke-aurelia_large.jpg
John Hawke
Cordite Books, Melbourne Vic 2015
ISBN 97809942596
Pb 67pp AUD20.00


An arresting image, ‘the skeleton of a kitten killed by frost’ – certainly no minimalist understatement there – was my first impression of John Hawke’s collection, Aurelia, which has won the 2015 Anne Elder Award for a first book of poetry. The line which contains the image, quoted below in full, reveals the book’s defining qualities: its richness and luxuriance of language, its revelling in the long line, in poems that turn the page and then have to turn it again, so much material does he have to pack into them.

Under a gnarled quince tree the ghosts of three children
guard the skeleton of a kitten killed by frost. (‘What Was There’ 11)

It’s not as simple as that, of course. This is no poet intoxicated by his own verbiage. Looking again at those lines, one senses a certain despair, a deep pain behind them. Nor is it really clear if it’s the author’s childhood or someone else’s that’s being evoked – that detail later in the poem about ‘the two old sisters who shut themselves / inside this house for twenty years’ (12) sounds a little too baroque to be strictly autobiographical – but then, how would I know?

How could I know? There is, admittedly, a good deal to be known about Hawke’s book. Some of the information is provided in his own preface; even more in the short introduction by Gig Ryan. Ryan is particularly useful in providing details about ‘Aurelia’, the title-poem of the volume – or, more specifically, about Gérard de Nerval’s Aurélia ou la rêve et la vie, the novella / prose poem the latter had just completed at the time of his suicide in 1855.

Ryan, however, does not choose to emphasise that final connection, explaining instead that:
‘Aurelia is a manifestation of art – “I first fell in love with Aurelia / in the face of that woman painted by Giovanni Bellini” – that is, love clasps the actual simultaneously with its ideal, just as Proust’s Swann imagines in embracing Odette, he embraces Botticelli’s Zipporah, whom she resembles’ (xi). Hawke, in his preface, appears to agree:

When Nerval writes that dreams are a second life, he not only refers to the dreams we experience in sleep, but also to the dreams that arise as a consequence of lost desires, dreams perhaps thwarted by chance: of lives once meant, but never lived. (ix)

Aurélia is as much a record of Nerval’s own descent into madness as the simultaneous love story / dream diary it purports to be on the surface. Is it this Hawke has in mind when he claims that ‘to write is always to admit to, but also to dwell with, loss – to experience the loss of a once-loved person as a mode of living’?

It’s no use: such biographical hints and semi-deductions bear little fruit. Too much is hidden, half-hinted-at, veiled in the ambiguity between poem and reader – what Ryan refers to as the ‘labyrinth between world and Being’. This could be a collection centred around a defunct love affair, or a series of elegies to one (or more) ‘once-loved persons’. It seems too various, the product of too many different moods and times to fit easily into such a definition, however.

Nor is that surprising in a writer who seems to aspire to be some kind of latter-day Symbolist. One can imagine Hawke – from his poems, at least – as an eager attendee at Mallarmé’s famous Tuesdays, perhaps even a satellite of Proust’s Madame Verdurin. He is, after all, the author of a 2009 monograph on the influence of the Symbolist movement in Australia, which argues (according to David Callahan in Reviews in Australian Studies) that ‘Symbolism is as important as Nationalism in the development of Australian literature’ (Callahan 2010).

It all sounds a bit old-fashioned, one must admit: Art for Art’s sake against the Art of Social Utility: Walter Pater vs John Ruskin. Just because it’s an old argument doesn’t mean it can ever be resolved, however: like that other perennial, content versus form, the answer is – inevitably – both, and neither.

Reviving old forms and ideas can have its uses, though. TS Eliot’s revaluation (one can hardly call it rediscovery) of the seventeenth-century Metaphysicals gave impetus to the whole of New Criticism, not to mention opening fresh perspectives on such ‘difficult’ new poets as Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore.

Has Hawke had similar success in plumbing this strange territory between reality and dream – between the lofty European artists he fantasises about and the Australian here-and-now he inhabits? It hardly seems probable in prospect, but I believe he goes a long way towards carrying it off.

There are some breathtaking poems here. My favourite, ‘The Point’, does a wonderful job of blending the two themes. First:

this is the place where a foreign novelist
once stood briefly before continuing his pilgrimage:
a part of my spirit will always remain here,
gazing like a ghost across this dark line of hills. (18)

Then returning to the more quotidian: ‘I simply halted where the bitumen ran out, / banking the car against the tussocky sand’ (19). Novelist, narrator, and Aboriginal land protestors combine to construct a kind of epiphanic vision of Australia today.

Ryan, in her introduction, singles out its longest poem, ‘The Conscience of Avimael Guzman’ – about Peru’s Communist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) leader – for particular praise. Certainly Hawke balances Guzman against his fellow mythomane, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, with consummate skill. For myself, as a fellow colonial (albeit one raised in New Zealand rather than Australia), I have to admit to a preference for those poems where the garish colours of our part of the world seem to leak in most strongly. ‘Pietà’, for instance, with its:

five degrees of nostalgia:
bad posture, imposture,
A glossy Ted Nugent poster, post-it notes in a volume
of Rameau’s Nephew… (5)

Or Hawke’s opening piece ‘Reliquary’, where ‘somewhere it is September 1986’:

And I’m feeling sorry for all the noise
beautiful poems will never contain,
because I am ‘modern’ but want to go back
for a few words, not many (1)

There are so many things that John Hawke does well that it seems almost insulting to single out only these few strands. I’d like to keep quoting, pointing out particular pages and lines for praise, but perhaps it’s more useful at this stage to reiterate how churlish it would be to criticise Hawke’s desire to go back as far as the nineteenth century for those ‘few words, not many’ (1).

This is no phony Aestheticist posturing – no attempt to ‘maintain “the sublime” / In the old sense. Wrong from the start’ (as in Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ sequence) (Pound 2016 [1920]). Hawke is most definitely modern (with or without the screamers). He has a sense of humour, for a start (anyone who’s ever had to live with a Ted Nugent poster could hardly doubt it).

He’s a devilishly efficient poet. It’s hard to catch him out. No plangent last lines, no Ashberyesque cadences (for all that he undoubtedly owes to that poet). My one quarrel with this book is that its forty-odd pages have made me impatient to read more from the same pen, soon.


Works cited



Dr Jack Ross works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University’s Auckland Campus. His latest poetry book A Clearer View of the Hinterland appeared in 2014 from HeadworX in Wellington. His other publications include four full-length poetry collections, three novels, and three volumes of short fiction. He has also edited a number of anthologies and literary magazines, including (from 2014) Poetry NZ. He blogs at:


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