Michael Sharkey: Another Fine Morning in Paradise

University of Melbourne: Five Islands Press, 2012, 100pp.

The best of the poems in this new book of Michael Sharkey’s follow the pattern of the best of those in his memorable The Sweeping Plain. They have a humorous engagement with Australia and with our visions of it though they often have a bitter edge. Sharkey’s project seems to be built on a desire to make poetry once more (or more satisfactorily) deal with life as a socially lived phenomenon. As I said in my review of The Sweeping Plain, there is precious little in the way of transcendental pieties in his view of things and this can pose structural problems for the poems. But part of the attractive quality of this poetry is that it looks for imaginative ways of solving such problems. In an odd kind of way – and one which would need a lot of careful qualification – he belongs to the nationalist tradition. Though this is now rather discredited for its broad assumptions and lack of theoretical sophistication, Sharkey’s poetry is an attempt to speak to many of the issues that obsessed the nationalists while inventing new models for ways to do it.

One of Sharkey’s methods, for example, is what might be called the metaphorised abstraction. The subject of “Anger” becomes a country whose cultural norms can be humorously delineated:

. . . . .
they speak of blowing up and throwing fits,
and talk of body parts that shift:

a rising gorge, a touchy dander;
when they travel, they use vehicles called dudgeons;
they keep pets, and say, “You’re getting on my goat.”
. . . . .

Similarly “The Good Life When It Happens”- a comparatively positive poem despite its emphasis on the rarity of those moments when the good life actually can be said to appear – imagines the good life as a person: “You changed address and blinked out / now and then in art and plays”. One of the last poems in the book, “Bad Poems”, takes this technique a little farther. On the surface it seems to imagine bad poems as a kind of environment where bad poems appear with the same sort or regularity as the poor do in our actual, non-metaphorised environment. But the fate of the poor seems to a reader a good deal more significant than the existence of bad poems and one suspects that the metaphor might be the reverse of what it initially appeared to be. This is, in other words, a poem about the world’s poor and the metaphor used for them is that they are everywhere, like bad poems. The poem finishes:

No use putting distance in between us:

they’re like landscape seen in glimpses
from a skybus ten miles high:

we know it’s ugly down below
where local colour is a body

in a minefield,
not the lilt of phatic chatter in the sky.

Whatever its intended subject and the complexities of its method, this seems an important poem in the universe of The Sweeping Plain and Another Fine Morning in Paradise, because it suggests that “phatic chatter in the sky” – an appeal to poetic verities of, if not transcendence then at least superiority – is a bad thing. And in doing so it touches on the book’s central theme.

The first (small) section of Another Fine Morning in Paradise is called “Times Out of Mind” and it is largely made up of “The Plain People of Paradise” which is really a set of sonnet-length comic attacks on notions of theological transcendence built around unanswerable questions. Why do saints like Giles have the specific departments they do? Who assigns them? Who keeps tabs on all the promise-prayers so that only the earned rewards are permitted? What kind of neighbourhood is paradise? And, more importantly, how do the dwellers above relate to the world below in which their behavior got them where they are now:

Why would those in Paradise give any thought to us?
Do they hang out to meet arrivals

with “Is Nana doing well?”
“Is my rat husband with the floozie?”

“Is my ex-wife with the creep?” And
“Who is managing the shop?”

Who cares aloft, if Uncle Russell’s
off his chump or Aunty Janna’s been promoted?
. . . . .

These preliminary assaults on transcendental visions are significant because you feel that Sharkey is irritated by a tendency to see Australia – the subject of “Life in Common” which forms the bulk of the book – in terms of being an earthly paradise. The companion piece to “The Plain People of Paradise” in this section is “The Custom of Cockaigne” a description of Armidale done in a similar style to the earlier set of poems although, interestingly, the poems all have an extra, fifteenth, line – as though earthly life were worth precisely one more line than heavenly life. Of course Cockaigne is not heaven but it is Arcadia – the nearest equivalent. At any rate, Sharkey’s view of this Australian earthly paradise is unremittingly bleak, a portrait of a feral social-and-even-ecological disaster:

There are some, deluded, who declare that life is better
anywhere beyond the boundary and

twelve villages that flutter on the edge
of being tits-up: “Who would miss us?” as they say.

Twenty-two kilometers of roadkill lie between us
and the next town: might be anywhere, and everywhere’s

too far from where we are. Some imagine life
could be much better if the people here

were not so dingo ugly, dumb and craven
as to make a vampire gag. But where would we be

if our doubles did not meet us cruising like them
for the stuff of dreams, some manna

never found inside the shopping cubes
we haunt? . . .

This is a long way from “South of My Days” and even “Niggers Leap” but one can see the point. By the standards of most of the world Armidale is an earthly paradise; but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a place composed of the ugliest results of an entirely material view of life.

So Sharkey’s position seems to be simultaneously opposed to transcendental fantasies and to materialist excesses. This may be a false opposition, of course, in that the former is a vice of the way in which life is viewed – especially by poets – and the latter a vice of the way life is lived. The interaction between the two is perhaps the subject of an interesting poem, “Romantic and Modern”. It begins with a fairly predictable assertion that the Romantic poets, noted for their drive towards the transcendent, were creations of the material phenomena of their society:

How did they live before paper was all that remained?
What legacy freed them from toil?

Good, you would say, that the pater kicked off
and left coalmines and crest to young Byron,

that Wordsworth could find someone rattling, when shaken,
with cash . . .

but the poem goes on to think about the modern world, especially the modern Australian world:

Then, when the concept of leisure had not been invented,
words scattered like birds: freedom, equality,

brotherhood, all of that jazz born of reason and Angst:
easy, when beauty and truth were the top of the pops

in those fantasists’ Fairyland.
Here in the People’s Republic of No Problems,

fun is obligatory, words are for laughs,
and the only good angels are dumb.

Not all the poems about Australia are as interestingly divided as this one. Some are fairly straight comic pieces. “Heroes of Australia” describes those in the grips of brutal hangovers – “In bedrooms of Australia they are waking up and saying / What did I say and you know you should have stopped me . . .” – and “The Paradise of Kevins” does for Surfers Paradise roughly what “The Custom of Cockaigne” did for Armidale. Poems like these tend to be structured as anatomies, working through a list of possibilities generated by the subject. Other poems, not necessarily about Australia, such as “Shoes”, “The Superheroes in Old Comics” (a kind of sociological analysis of the culture that the superheroes operate in) and “The Thought That Counts” (a hilarious poem about travellers’ gifts) work in similar ways. Although these are good poems of their kind, the imaginative contribution is made at the level of content rather than at the level of conception and structure and, as such, you would have to say that they aren’t as far above good stand-up comedy as critics of poetry would like to see poems being.

Focussing, as I have, on the poetry from the book which is essentially about our country and how we conceive of it, does have the disadvantage of omitting those poems that are about the inner life or, at least, the author’s biography. I just don’t think that these are as resonant, as poems, as the socially oriented ones. It is no surprise that the best of these “inner” poems, “Aubade” – which describes what happens inside the brain while the victim is lying ill in bed – is very much in the style of the socially oriented poems, speaking of the “metal theatre troupe” which checks in at 3.am when the Carnival begins.

The last poems of Another Fine Morning in Paradise are a series of five centos, “Where the Bunyip Builds its Nest”. In most circumstances, the cento comes just after the pantoum as one of my least admired verse forms (if it can be called a “form”), but these are really remarkable poems. Each of the two hundred lines is a quotation from an Australian poem and the attributions are given at the end to spare the reader a long (and possibly fruitless) exposure to Google. I think the experiment lives by its conception. It is as though Sharkey had taken the romantic/nationalist cliche that a country is defined by its poetry and set out to make up an image of Australia literally based on its poetry. It is a wonderful idea and works pretty well. The first poem, for example, sets out the nineteenth century visions of the place:

. . . . .
The magpie sitteth silently,
above us spreads the brightening sky -
How nobly dost thou rise above all forms,
O intellect! without thee, what were life?
. . . . .

(lines from Robert Bruce, R.K. Ewing, S.H. Wintle and George Vowles!) The poems work their way through to contemporary Australia and its poets and, fittingly, its final subject is Australian poetry itself. In the final stanza, lines from, among others, Kate Lilley, Zan Ross, Bronwyn Lea and Peter Minter, produce:

If I don’t discontinue straight away,
I’ll grow large in Tibet, transmorph to Dakini:
yarnevano/ wotyarfind/ downther/ people
psychopomp and ceremony
{formless? paradox of construction -
Socrates said when our feet hurt we hurt all over.
My way is to make a large fuss and then I get over it.
Lines I improve, boundaries erode.

It’s quite an extraordinary achievement of scholarship and jigsaw puzzle patience as much as poetic power but the idea of a country’s poetry being given a chance to define it – at least in a provisional and slightly comical way – is a wonderful one. As far as I remember there are no lines from Sharkey poems included. That presumably derived from the author’s modesty or, at least, from his desire to stand only on the outside of this particular net, but not many people are writing so well and so humorously about the Australia we inhabit.