B.R. Dionysius: Weranga

North Hobart: Walleah Press, 2013, 67pp.

Weranga – a town west of Dalby in Queensland – shows up on Google Earth but, interestingly, there are no accompanying photos. What it gets in B.R. Dionysius’ book is a sixty-seven sonnet sequence perhaps as a sort of compensation for being one of the few towns on earth which haven’t attracted the attention of photographically inclined tourists. But though the book takes its title from the town, its real subject is its author’s rural upbringing and you can’t help but feel that in a sense what is valuable about its material is that it is typical rather than uniquely of its region. To some extent it must stand for all rural, or at least semi-rural, boyhoods – it certainly chimes with mine spent on the outskirts of Bundaberg twenty years before that of Dionysus.

Weranga is Dionysius’ fifth book of poems, seventh if you count two chapbooks. The previous book, Bowra, is also titled after a place (a bird sanctuary in Western Queensland) and is also a collection of sonnets but the closest connection that Weranga makes is probably with Dionysius’ first book, Fatherlands, published in the first year of this millenium. This book also dealt with rural upbringings and its poems, like those of Weranga, circled around issues of fathering and fatherhood though the degree to which they embodied their author’s personal experience wasn’t always easily detectable and the first poem, “Wilhelmine Schluter at Fourteen”, dealing with first infatuations among migrant families and workers, was a dramatic monologue. Weranga is a lot more overtly personal.

Seen purely in terms of its content, its representation rural life, Weranga is a memorable book. In style it is the opposite of a realistic novel’s detailed but dry portrayal of rural upbringing using the full extent of the wide imaginative range that poetry can deploy as well as the capacities of a sonnet sequence to interweave motifs. There is also a marked difference in the authorial perspective: the early poems are full of a young boy’s immersion in the experience but in the later poems there is the more elegiac perspective of the adult who – now a father himself – comes back to revisit the places of his childhood. And the experiences of the author as a child are full of the conflict between a sensitive boy (“a soft boy who trained hard in the art of gentleness”) and a pretty tough environment. The early poems recreate a number of the mild traumas of sensitivity: night terrors, a fear of being asphyxiated in a dream of passing through a huge hour-glass and a fear of being left alone at night that persists even when he is of an age for his parents to drive into Toowoomba for a fortnightly dose of late-night shopping and leave him in charge of the chickens and the house. At the same time this is a place of brown snakes, trapdoor spiders, viciously territorial tomcats and thuggish children as well as those endemic threats of drought and flood which have always been part of the Australian rural tradition.

By the time we get to the later poems, beginning perhaps with “Firesale” (because it has a kind of wider perspective in response to the “three hundred lots of a life / Laid out on the trampled winter grass . . .” and including the last six poems which are poems of revisiting, we are in the world of the documentation of loss. A visit to where he played tennis in a couple of the earlier poems produces only a sight of “waving heads of grass” and wattle trees:

Some outbuildings survive where children drank Milo,
& the hooting of the train made hide & seek ethereal.
Who keeps the score on what rites are collectively lost?
Billabongs are revered, but not the Sunday tennis ghost.

I like this focus on the loss of unfashionable rituals rather than icons. The last poem focusses on the people themselves, explicitly at the expense of the land:

They’ve all gone the way of the Thessalians
Remembered for the landscapes they inhabited
More than the rhetoric they bled. Guardianships
Of the soil come & go; they are winter rains
That never sired . . .

In this respect, Weranga belongs to that tradition of recreation of rural experience which moves into a sort of pastoral lament. But it’s a genuine contribution rather than a merely genre performance. Like all experience, Dionysius’ life in Weranga/Dalby is simultaneously unique and typical.

So much for the content: there are also formal aspects to be looked at in the way the individual poems are organised and in the way the sequence itself is structured. It’s useful to look at the first two poems here. The first, “Minoan”, deals (I think) with the moment of his father’s meeting his mother and falling in love, the central ab origine moment that often preoccupies children having their own first thoughts about their lives. And “falling” is the operative word since the event takes place in the context of bull-riding at a rodeo: “He fell at Dayboro once, in / The fifties but won a different trophy . . .” The poem looks ahead to his father’s death by cancer, dealt with in later poems – “One day it was his own black bull that bucked & threw / Him, as darkness leapt over his body’s oracle . . . ” and, as the title suggests, the bull-leaping rituals of bronze-age Crete are co-opted to give perspective. All in all, it’s a complexly structured poem, not at all clear on the first couple of readings, and it’s a warning that the overall structure which it introduces won’t be a simple diaristic recording of major events in someone’s early life.

The second poem, “Moon”, is set at another important moment when his mother is pregnant. It is worth quoting in full as a representative of what Dionysius’ poems are like:

When the men came in for lunch, his mother
Switched on the television. As the Astor’s black
Faceplate warmed up, its inner tubes flaring like
Gas giants, she would carve the corn beef, piling
Layers of salty meat across moon-coloured plates,
The pinkish flesh steaming like a rim of sunrise.
As she eased herself into the tubular steel hull
Of the couch, her body, marooned by its own
Elliptical orbit, bent with spacesuit clumsiness.
As men stepped off their metal ladders, workboots
Scraping the dusty soil, the weightlessness of fatigue
Hit her. In the flicker of shadow, an invisible foot
Kicked out, brushing the spongy ground beneath;
Imprinting the new face growing in front of her.

There are so many connections here and they are done with what almost seems like a baroque relish in manic detail. Working men coming in for lunch at the time of the moon landing connect with the astronauts stepping off their ladder; the television’s inner workings are described in cosmic terms and his mother’s pregnancy is spoken of in terms of weightlessness while her couch’s steel frame is connected to the lunar module. Even the plates are moon-coloured. The moon landing context of the poet’s own growth in the womb produces the poem’s close when his own foot kicks out inside his mother, an act connected to the famous footprints in the lunar dust.

There are so many connections here that, if the poem failed (which I don’t think it does since I find it oddly memorable) it would be because it worked so hard to load every rift with ore that there was no room for poet, poem or reader to breathe. One of the things that helps its success is that, because it’s a sonnet, you can see all the metaphoric connections as being bracing inside a single limited structure. If this had been an open-ended poem, free to roam to any length it wished, the connections might have seemed more gratuitous and the result might have been a more bathetic one. In fact the different way in which metaphoric bridges like these are articulated in the poems becomes one of the main ways in which the poems play on variation in the sonnet form.

But not all of the poems are as strongly cross-braced as “Moon”. At the other end of the scale is a poem like “Scorpion” which describes his mother’s being stung by a scorpion. In a way the poem is structured as a contest between two metaphors for the event. The mother, at first, thinks she has “jagged / Her finger on a bit of lost tackle, / A fishing hook still impaled . . .” but when the source of the pain is revealed, the metaphor switches to that of a gun “there it / Sat, cocked black as a trigger . . . Its tail loaded like some primitive gun”. And then there is “Funeral” which is made up of a series of sentences beginning, “This is . . .” all of which say something about the way the memories of his father’s funeral are stored faultily: “This is where memory’s spool of film unwound”, “This one’s all fiction . . .” The structural climax is reached by the sudden shift to the figure of his father’s father. It’s a movement outside of the boy’s mind but the poem finishes back with the boy in the most satisfying way, like a “classical” sonata getting itself back to its home key only to find everything is slightly different:

                              This one’s about what the
Old father thought about burying his middle-
Aged boy, & where amidst all these relations
& anti-celebrations, was his little boy’s son?

And then there are the larger structural issues of a sonnet sequence. The first of these is variation: in fact early sequences in English like Spenser’s Amoretti and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella play with formal variations as well as architectonic ones within the slightly obsessive repetitiveness that seems fitting for love poems. In Weranga you notice, first, that there really aren’t any tonal variations: almost all the poems, even those dealing with the most personal, buried experiences, come out in the relentless assertiveness that can be seen in “Moon”. We are a long way in this poetry from a free verse which responds to, and resonates with, subtle alterations in perception or sensation and one feels that it is a poetry that should be described as complex rather than subtle. The variations that stop the poems of Weranga being endlessly repetitive markers on the road through a rural childhood, adolescence and revisiting adulthood tend to come in the way in which the individual poems are built and the way they use their metaphoric connections both as bracing and as a way of building towards closure. There is also a lot of structuring going on at the macro level. There are many repeated motifs, for example. The references to space exploration in “Moon” recur regularly to the point where one might guess that the origins for the sequence might have been in a shorter sequence of poems like “Moon”, “Mighty Mouse”, “Skylab”, “Columbia”, “Challenger” and “Halley’s Comet” with a title something like “Space Exploration: My Role in its History”, but this is only one of a series of interwoven concerns.

I think Weranga is by some distance B.R. Dionysius’ best book. Both Fatherlands and Bacchanalia are, like many poets’ early books, uneven and full of poetic directions which don’t ultimately exploit their author’s strengths. Universal Andalusia is a lot of fun and taps into a talent for humour. It bills itself as a verse novel but is really a set of humorous travel poems documenting a voyage through Turkey, Greece, Spain and India undertaken by an overweight Australian channelling Alexander the Great and his no-nonsense wife (inevitably Roxanne) who is described as “an ex-kick boxer”. Bowra, like Weranga, is built out of sonnets and you can pick up many of the themes of Weranga there: the poems, for example, dealing with the death of seventeen miners at Box Flat in Ipswich in 1972 recall the boy’s fear of asphyxiation in the poems of Weranga, but there are simply too many poems in Bowra that seem misconceived: not least the ones in which the speaking voice is that of the Bremer River. Weranga avoids all these faults and seems to have worked best, so far, in harnessing the strengths of its author’s talents.