John Hawke: Whirlwind Duststorm

Flinders Lane: Grand Parade Poets, 2021, 60pp.

Poems come claiming many different identities. There are those that aspire to be no more than songs, those that exemplify a previously worked out aesthetic theory, those that worry at an aspect of their author’s inner life, those (“I do this, I do that” poems) that want to take a slice of random individual experience of the world, those that are slabs of discourse engaged with issues of the world, and so on. The feeling I have about the fine and rather unsettling poems of John Hawke’s second book is that they aspire to be strong, free-standing objects. And I don’t mean by this that they are just tightly structured well-made pieces – though they are that – rather that they shun being dependent on meaning for their strength and stability. At the same time, they don’t seem to relate to the generative imperatives of Surrealist poetry where, in that deeply French way, unity derives from development out of a single unified process.

Trying to be clearer in my own mind about this, I go looking for parallels in the extensive domains of poetry. One local similarity might be with the poems of Emma Lew which I have written about on this site. Each of these tends to be a self-contained narrative scene whose threads of connection to place and time in the world are often not clear. It isn’t a comparison that can be pushed too far though because her poems are usually thematically consistent in themselves, they don’t juxtapose elements as Hawke’s poems tend to do. Another analogy might be with the first poems of Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium which introduce puzzling but consistent worlds – though the surprised/rhapsodic/baroque tone is a long way from the tone of the poems of Whirlwind Duststorm. No doubt a bit more thought would dredge up other analogous poetries but for the moment an example might help to make this murky description a little clearer. The obvious place to start of course is with the book’s first poem, and sometimes the obvious place is one of the best places. The poem is called “Axis”:

One sulphurous puff, then the white stick
is flicked spinning in a flare of sparks,
red globes throbbing down the harbour channel.
One vulnerable hand lifted, its sallow disclosure
pallid as the history of human error
pasted on placards, where arc-lights scatter
a brittle confetti: the florilegium of choice.
These itinerants marred by the stages of grieving
gather by handfuls at the terminus, swell into masses.
Some still bear marks of disfigurement
like mortal wounds, gashes insecurely bound,
heaped in the exhaustion of travel.
Most are older than usual, in loosely
drooping camisoles, or subsiding gowns.
A woman offers a baby she has never fed
to another for burial, passing in aura
through the mirror’s cathexis, the attendants
hunched in flag-bright uniforms,
paddling a ghost-train sleigh under the patchwork
awning of a coral tree, through scarlet petals
and tunnels of black opal. Then a steel door slams to.

The strength here seems to me to lie in the visual clarity of the images. The weakness in the slight straining at the level of elevated language. These are features that can be found in most of the poems of this book. For the reader the pleasure (or frustration if you are used to a different kind of poetry) comes from the natural attempt to harmonise these strong images. A group of people are treated to three different ways: they derive from a fun park, gas chambers and a Dantean approach to the river Styx. My reading of the poem – entirely tentative – is that we are presented with several unifying readings, none of which can be fully defended. One is that this is just people entering Luna Park (the metaphoric reference to ghost-trains, later in the poem ensures that this reading can’t be simply dismissed) and the other possible readings – the dead awaiting transportation into the afterlife (a reading that would balance this opening poem nicely with the last line of the final one – “He doesn’t realise that he’s dead”) or victims of the gas-chambers awaiting their fate – are simply metaphors. But people entering Luna Park do not have “gashes insecurely bound” though those on the edge of the afterlife well might. And then there is the odd title which could be read as guiding the reader towards the idea that these visual images are to be seen as being on an axis or thread. As I have said, this represents only my tentative response to a single poem but the tension between precise visual images and a kind of suspension of interpretation is not a bad way of describing what goes on in many of these poems. It also, interestingly, locates the unity and strength of the poem not in the poem itself but in the reader’s responses to it, an interesting move in aesthetics and one which recalls the shift made by phenomenologists. But more of that later.

A similar interpretive suspension could also be said to happen in the next two poems. “The Demolition of Hotel Australia” looks on the surface like a reasonably approachable allegory. The hotel was demolished in the 1970s (a period that a number of other poems look back to) and it must have been tempting to see this as a symbol of that Australian tendency to bury its past, especially the creative elements of that past, in the interest of new national narratives. But the poem itself resists these simplifications. Yes, Australia’s history is there – the hotel has a “midden-room”, for example, with a “full-size figure / of a Gadigal warrior blackened with charcoal” – and so is the hotel’s history – Sarah Bernhardt’s suite is there – but the texture of the poem, simultaneously surreal and sharply precise, means that a reader is unsure of the status of the individual images. “Running with the Pack” seems to set up and then subvert an equally simple structure. It looks on the surface like a set of images of Sydney that might be seen from a car or bus travelling down Paramatta Road, a structure that recalls Slessor’s “William Street” and establishes that poet (who also appears in “The Demolition of Hotel Australia”) as a key text behind Whirlwind Duststorm, or at least behind those poems in it which take Sydney as their location: sharp but fragmented visual images, “snippings of idiot celluloid”, are the raw material. But “Running with the Pack” has a far more surreal set of images than Slessor would ever have allowed himself and, in the central part of the poem it allows itself to move into biographical snippets before returning, at the end, to images of the street:

. . . until one night a car skidded on its roof
against the pole outside our front door –

the topless waitress from the pub across the street
brought hot sweet tea in her netted singlet

to the white-haired suspended passengers.
Singed by the traffic slipstream we passed

secure in an insulating cloak of diesel, running
with the pack over six lanes of Parramatta Road.

Not all of the poems of the book work in this way: that is taking on the challenge of creating a sense of the integrity of individual poems that doesn’t derive from its usual source in a reader’s interpretive comfort. “Wheat” – “The long tresses of wheat sobbing / as the wind stamps out its black dance . . .” – is almost a conventional lyric to the extent of having a conclusion

where even the wind’s tongue is caught, the canvas blowing
like a lost mouth,
like someone who has been forgotten
but now wishes to speak, after so many years of silence.

which introduces an image that deepens the significance of the strongly visual image that the poem is mainly occupied with. And “Underground Comedown” develops straight out of its title as a concatenation of visual images perfectly coherently threaded on the theme of a thoroughly seedy life.

The two most overtly surreal poems in the book are both sonnets and form something of a pair. “Sea Priestess” and “The Illustrated Library” don’t offer interpretive clues which they then whisk away, as “Axis” does, although the former, in being dedicated to the English musician “Jhonn Balance” and using a title from an album he contributed to, may suggest that clues lie in the lyrics of these songs.

Situated right in the centre of the book is something that seems, at least on the surface, as utterly unlike the kinds of poems I have been trying to describe as could be. It is a seven page prose description of the experience of attending a wedding reception at a local RSL. This makes it sound rather trite but it is far from a bland realist account and has kind of Proustian quality in its high style. And in Proustian manner, the narrator is led into processes of evocation:

. . . . . The guests’ cars, moulded to a sneer in the latest design, lie silent beneath a sheen of ice, as the final words of a contract that will cause an irreparable division in time are recited. The private essences of that previous life are retained, like your olfactory association of shell-shaped stones with the perfume of a privet bush, fleeting as the brown striped tail of a tiger snake as it slides from the track before your advancing footfall, concealed in pine-deep shadow at the mossy corner where a small dog once sank its teeth into your grandmother’s stockinged calf . . .

There are a couple of ways of approaching this piece (tentatively sidling up to it might be a more accurate metaphor). The first might be to acknowledge its daring since it could look to a casual reader like a filler stuck in to bulk out a slim book of poems. Of course it isn’t this but the author takes a big risk that it might be seen this way. A more generous way might be to see it as an experiment of the same sort that the poems are – a piece which has a structural integrity derived from tensions within it. And just as “Axis” contained interpretive tensions – none of the three images is the dominant one – so this contains tensions which are more about style and the way styles deal with reality. It suggests to readers that it might be read autobiographically and this leads us to expect an elegant but essentially bland prose style. But it continually moves into more expansive and “higher” stylistic realms. The Proustian quality is one of these but so is the conscious exoticism. Take, for example, the omniscient analysis of the lives of some of the participants:

. . . . . Some regard nature as a resource to be transformed by labour into an earthly paradise. Others, having perfected their housing renovations to a lacquered sheen, believe in conservation – even to the extent of the exclusion of any human presence, including the Baku pygmies, Mongolia’s Dukha, and the Lickan Antay people of the Atacama Desert . . .

Finally, there is the piece’s epigraph, “after Archie Schepp”, which creates a tension for the reader that is going to persist throughout the seven pages of the piece. Archie Schepp, who dwells well beyond the borders of my musical knowledge, is an American jazz saxophonist who, interestingly, left a musical career of very high credentials to become an academic. The “after” suggests that the mode of “The Wedding” might either derive from a recorded piece of Schepp’s or, more likely, derive from his improvisatory style. Ultimately it isn’t a question I can answer but it does point to a final comment that needs to be made about Whirlwind Duststorm: it is drenched in musical references from Rachmaninoff to Captain Beefheart. There is hardly a single poem in which music does not appear to the extent that it is tempting to say, only slightly hyperbolically, that this is a book that comes with its own soundtrack.

These are poems that work as poems, as I have said, attaining a solidity and independence that doesn’t depend on consistency and simple interpetability. Music may lie behind that as a structural model but the book itself points readers in a rather different direction by having, as its epigraph, a quote from Sartre:

If, impossibly, you were to “enter” a consciousness, you would be picked up by a whirlwind and thrown back outside to where the tree is and all the dust, for “consciousness” has no inside

a Delphic comment that simultaneously suggests, explores and denies a possibility. It can’t be ignored though because it provides the title of the book’s title poem and seems to be taken up in the blurb: “Consciousness is like the experience of the poem – of being in perpetual motion constantly distracted by the images before us . . .” This presents us with the possibility that, lying behind these poems, is the philosophy of Phenomenology with its focus on the individual’s experiencing apparatus rather than on the outside world of contingent phenomena. A poem, it says, is to have a structural integrity which is analogous to the self and not derived from its accuracy vis a vis externalities. It’s an intriguing possibility but it isn’t possible for a reader, having only these poems, to know whether it is the driving force behind their creation or just a post facto idea that helps create a sense of unity in the book. What matters in the end are the poems: it’s hard, even for a potent theory, to turn an uninteresting poem into an interesting one – and the poems of this book are both interesting and possessed of a disturbing strength.