Patricia Prime is a powerhouse of a reviewer… it never ceases to amaze me, the number of books she so lovingly critiques. Here is a recent review of Gavin Austin’s collection, Shadow Play.
Shadow Play, Gavin Austin. Chrysalis, PO Box 613, Potts Point, NSW 1335, Australia. 2010. 76 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9807612-3-8 (pbk.) $AU20.00 + p.&h. ($25 posted).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
In his collection, Shadow Play, Gavin Austin’s poems carry weight, the weight of humanity that is sadly missing from two many practitioners of the art today. His poems of urban and rural life in Australia speak of love and suffering, often in a domestic setting; comprehensively modulated and adjusted to the situation.
Central to the collection is the urban content. I can identify with Austin’s description of city life, of, for example, his focus on lovers, sneaking a precious hour from their daily lives:
You rise from the bed,
reach for the dress
discarded to the floor,
run hesitant fingers
through tangled hair,
and hurry back
to the life you left
Austin’s poems reflect the tensions and dangers of city life, as well as the equally vivid pleasures. There is a constant sense of activity, of relationships and of clandestine meetings, as we see in the poem “Duet for One”:
I didn’t mean to meet you –
not then – not now.
Surely an accident,
a collision of probability and timing.
“Friday’s Colours” is held together by the description of a meeting with a young woman of the streets:
A pinpoint stare slow and solicitous
as a painted talon raking punters’ flesh.
She probed the coldsore in frayed corners
of her mouth with a pale tongue,
licked like a stray cat in a doorway;
legs splayed in lewd promise.
Austin is intensely aware of what it means to be this kind of woman, and especially one who is a drug addict, and his descriptions of her are vivid, serious and imbued with foreboding, for there is “Only a wailing siren to cry for Friday.”
Simplicity of language and imagery impact and freshness is resonant throughout. In “My Window Box,” the poet “four storeys up, / framed in my bedroom window” watches as a lover dresses to leave:
I say nothing,
my thoughts scattered
like clothes across the floor,
kicked into dark corners
to brood with lost socks.
The bleakness of this statement emphasized by the word “hope” isolated on one line indicates the situation in which the persona feels so hopeless.
Even a poem which begins “On these perfect days” (“Summer”), ends with the words “just you, me / and a diagnosis / wedged between us.”
Death also pervades Austin’s Shadow Play. Although it’s the joyful time of Christmas celebrations in the poem “In the Garden,” Austin explores the relationship between himself and a dying friend. The sentiment – “You told me you loved me – that I had been a wonderful friend” – is interposed with fundamental questions regarding the questioning of one’s motives, pretence, and resolution. Austin’s quest for honesty remains paramount. Nevertheless, he doesn’t offer slick answers to the questions he posits. Rather, he is an unsentimental observer of what happens:
Yet I question if I did all there was to be done,
or if you saw my carefully veiled tears
as I pretended not to know what you meant
when you said: ‘the dark vehicle is waiting.’
Loss pervades this section of the book: loss of personal worth, loss of innocence, loss of one’s friends, loss of relationships, such as we see in the poem “Baggage”:
It is time for me to move on
the glass in the frame holding
your picture is cracked but I have packed
the memories inside my heart
Inevitably his characters may be seen, somewhat, as simply a vehicle for Austin to explore inherent dilemmas, dilemmas fused with urgency now that the poet is able to look back and asses his life so far, for, “Like myself, / you have no answers / only questions.” (“Scrutiny”)
In the second section, “Rural,” each minute being is necessary to and connected with the earth. It is this connection with, and empathy for the whole of life that imbues the poetry with instantaneous joy. Each moment of life, each small every day occasion is embedded within the spiritual:
Blunt green fingers,
born of earthen womb,
for the nurturing
hand of sunshine.
Nearby, the bole
of an ancient fallen tree
is shrouded by lichen and fungus:
the king being returned
to his kingdom.
Austin takes the objects and the creatures of the Australian landscape, focuses on them, and draws out significance. The language is informal, the imagery exquisite: “Hazy blue hills like brushed-on cobalt / blend into the canvas of distant sky” (“Grandad’s Farm”); “Last night’s diamond frost / becomes damp glassy beads.” (“Winter”); “Pearl clouds scalloped with pink / jostle as they range overhead;” (“The Barringtons”). In these poems Austin is particularly interested in birds, and writes engagingly of magpies, wagtails, kestrals and the kookaburra. The everyday is focused on, illuminated, and given meaning, in calm conversational words. For example, in “Scotch Thistle,” one reads the way in which Austin compares the common thistle to a king fighting slaughter by the hoe.
He stands tall
beneath a purple crown;
against the enemy.
His swords slash and stab,
draw plumes of scarlet
from callused hands
at the assailing hoe.
“March Afternoon” allows Austin to evoke the starkness of the Australian landscape, desperate for water, and the unexpected and unearned beauty of the natural world:
Beyond the post-and-rail fence,
by the creek that barely flows,
the willow trails
long verdant tresses
into dark pools
where dragonflies hover
above the brown surface . . .
“Night’s Hunger,” on the other hand, is a beautiful love poem in which the lovers “embrace cautiously.” “The Willow” is a detailed examination and meditation on a particular tree:
Tall and slender
she stands by the river,
a graceful nymph
swaying her gown of green
Sprinkled throughout the book are some of Austin’s haiku and tanka, several of which have been published in various journals. Two of my favourite haiku are
with his scrawled messages
afternoon light spills over
Of the tanka, two I enjoyed are
after the squalls
of driving rain
the sky clears –
a long puddle
holds the full moon
beyond distant hills
your voice whispers
through the gums
The collection is beautifully produced with a front cover photograph by Roger Fitzhardinge and back cover photograph by Grant Fraser. The book is representative of a kind of strong poetry that is both contemporary and traditional, a personal lyric that can light up the material and emotional world, and give it a powerful resonance.