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.



Michael Sharkey: The Sweeping Plain

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2007, 84pp.

Almost nothing in Michael Sharkey’s previous work – and it is voluminous – prepares us for the shock of how good, how sheerly enjoyable, The Sweeping Plain is. As his previous volume, History (Five Islands, 2002), was a kind of selected, it enables us to trace more clearly what earlier books like The Way It Is (Darling Downs Institute Press, 1984), Alive in Difficult Times (Kardoorair, 1991), Look, He Said (Kardoorair, 1994) and a host of pamphlets were doing. And we can search inside it for the seeds of this recent outstanding work.

History begins with a poem in which an RAAF F111 crashes at Guyra and it devotes the whole body of the text to recounting what is happening “on the ground” in a world that has precious little interest in what is happening in the sky. In fact the crash of the fighter-bomber is an opportunity to sketch in the local geography, physical and human.

. . . . .
The day the Air Force came unstuck was quiet;
from Guy Fawkes you couldn’t see a thing,

except cleared paddocks. Down by Bielsdown, no one heard,
and Whittakers by Styx was undisturbed:

the falls went under,
to Jeogla, where a man died on a tractor.

Two bricklayers left a dozen empty beercans
underneath the bridge, at Copper Rocks.
. . . . .

And so on. You can read it as writing back to Les Murray’s “The Burning Truck” where the results of a violent visitation from the sky cause the locals to follow it like disciples, or you can read it as an antipodean rewriting of Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” where everybody goes on with the processes of living and working and is unable to see “a boy falling out of the sky”. Whatever the intention in this regard, “Plane Crash, Guyra” sets a tone of remorseless anti-transcendence. In the Sharkey universe there are no higher orders, no angels peeking into our world, no rewards in another life: everything is on the plain of the here and now. When “high-culture” references are made they are butted up against the ordinary of life in Armidale, Sydney or Wellington. Ophelia in “Fall of a Flapper” is stripped of any exoticism:

. . . . .
Later, she went for a swim, as she used to do
after a few tall sloe gins - and of course
some damn fool at the school had said
she had some style. Free-style, of course,
wasn’t what she did well, and the weather
was nippy: result - there were flowers
all around the chinoiserie. . . . .

And in the long series “Pictures at an Exhibition” characters in the painting are imagined to be talking (rather as the dead do in Master’s Spoon River Anthology), but talking in a way that focuses on their own lives rather than the privileged act of finishing up in a painting that is remembered. So a character in McCubbin’s “A Bush Burial” says:

It’s always been like this.
At picnics Grand-dad reads
his famous cousin’s wretched verse
while the hangi’s cooking,
the kid wants to know
when the ice-cream’s arriving,
and Mum’s had enough.
Sis reckoned Granpa went on
for an hour this time
till the family shot through,
and the dog got the pig.

The message, then, is: no transcendence either in religion or art. Nor even in love because the many love poems in the Sharkey corpus tend to end in frustration and despair – though never frustration and despair raised to a high enough pitch to escape the ordinary. It is always wry-mouthed. This makes for a fairly bleak appraisal of life and it is nicely captured in “Anything Goes” a poem whose opening seems to recall the first poem of the book:

The truth is life is mostly very dull,
and peace and war are ordinary things.
Most jumbo jets don’t fall out of the sky,
most bills get paid. Most people do not die
by firing squad. Most houses are not full
of revolutionaries: their occupants
are born into a class they did not choose,
. . . . .
The quick familiar things revolve like days
that idle or rush on in retrospect
and hurry us toward what we expect:
no stunning glory, or outstanding grief,
but lights on in a daytime cavalcade:
the only time we lead the big parade.

Only by dying to get to raise our heads momentarily above the great, predictable ordinary.

This is all very bracing and Australian but it has the problem that it neatly knocks out many of poetry’s traditional props. In “Look, He Said”, a writer who is able to get published only in the local literary journal complains about things to the poem’s speaker who, in turn, suggests that poetry’s material should lie not in the stars but in waking up to the ordinary horrors of life round about:

. . . . .
How come if I hear this story from the lady’s sister
& I hardly even know here, this guy opposite
can’t see what’s going on outside his window?
And the beating that guy gave his family last month
just before he went & shot himself
except he messed his eye up so it hung down like stiff jelly
from his face & he was wondering how come he didn’t have
another bullet left while everyone was screaming
and the jacks lobbed that his missus sent the kid for on a bike.
I hear about this stuff, how come he doesn’t.
. . . . .

But nothing in Sharkey’s work lives up to this credo and one suspects that that way lies predictability and boredom. Poetry, through the entire historical spectrum that we have of it, has never appeared at places where it is told by either governments or ethicists that it should appear. Much of the history of Sharkey’s poetry deals with the problems of a materialist but social-justice ethos and getting the thing to work in poetry. Generally it has been a story of honorable failure but things begin to look up at the end of History, perhaps fittingly in those poems that follow “The Triumph of the Takeaway: A Threnody for John Forbes”. I say fittingly because Forbes, more than anyone, wrestled with the problems of a materialist poetics and, generally, refused to let his poetry sink into a kind of “Cultural Studies in Verse” a fate that would be, in its way, no better than “Journalism in Verse” – which he described as “the poet on the site of the significant”.

The final poem of this selected, “Park”, shows one useful technique. It takes what might be called a cultural phenomenon – the park – and approaches it from every imaginable angle (it’s a thirteen page poem) in a highly disjunctive set of short stanzas. You can appreciate what is going on. Anything more coherent is immediately describable as a method involving assumptions. To begin with material about the park’s Persian origins might be historicist or, even worse, positivist. To investigate its changing relevance would be anthropological or, conceivably, political. To focus on the poet’s experience of parks would be lyric-poetical, and so on. The poem delicately skips from perspective to perspective preventing the reader too easily pigeonholing it while, at the same time, suggesting that its subject escapes all of these limited perspectives.

Another poem, “Floors”, uses a technique which will prove fruitful in The Sweeping Plain. Firstly it personifies the subject:

With no pretentiousness they bear us.
It is no concern of theirs what we propose to do,

or do. They stand us,
mimic earth’s pull, hold us to it.

Flat rejections do not trouble them;
indifference cuts no ice.
. . . . .

Secondly it provides a kind of perspective that is logical but disorienting, as though it were that of a man from Mars. It is the effect familiar to us from childhood in sayings like “A chicken is an egg’s way of producing another egg.” This is really an inversion of the age-old fellow-traveller of poetry, the riddle. One could, in fact, rewrite “Floors” as a riddle: “What am I? I carry you but do not concern myself with what you do or propose to do . . .” In History “Past” and “Juice” operate this way and another poem, “More Characters of Jokes” extends the technique. Here a world is built out of texts:

. . . . .
World of Make Believe,
where blondes and turtles
are both screwed on their backs;
where Essex girls with half a brain are gifted;
Polish goldfish always drown;
the Reverend Spooner counts his phoney bucks,
. . . . .

And like the world of “Floors”, “Past” and “Juice” it is a world we recognize but which is not the ordinary world. This is a breakthrough for Sharkey and sets The Sweeping Plain up as a book which will have a far higher number of successful poems than any of his previous ones.

To return to the first poem of History for a moment – the one in which the fighter-bomber crashes in a generally uninterested landscape – it is worth noting that, in its last lines, it humorously misquotes Paterson: “There was movement all along the railway station / at Uralla, when the afternoon train came”. Similarly the title of this new book is a slight misquoting of Dorothea Mackellar’s much misunderstood “My Country”. It is hard not to suspect that “the sweeping plain” refers not so much to landscape as to poetic method and there are a host of ways of construing it. Perhaps the sweeping (noun) will be plain (adjective) (a construction that recalls “And the rough places plain” from The Messiah) or, equally, all transcendent gestures will fall before the sweeping (adjective) ordinary – the plain (noun). Whatever is intended, the book is also accompanied by a noteworthy cover which contains the entry which one second prize in the 1911 competition to design Australia’s capital city. I hope I don’t seem overheated when I say that this design – by the Finn, Eliel Saarinen – looks to me like an Art Deco expansion of Auschwitz. The function of this cover is, I assume, multilevel – like that of the title. It provides us with a nightmare image of the site of our government (and social engineering) but it also reminds us that one way of looking at the poems in this book is to see them as providing an unexpected perspective on the familiar, to turn the ordinary into a vision of itself seen from an unexpected angle – though always, of course, in the same plane.

The title poem sets out to do this – in the way I have been describing for the last poems of History.

War is what they do well, whether winning,
when the fresh-baked teenage veterans’ toothy grins
appear in snaps beside guess who,
between his photo-ops in stadiums,

or making sure that corners of some country
far away are full of heroes:
they are magic at such moments.
When they’re choosing to ignore the bleeding obvious,

they do that well, as well, and blame some other
who has let the whole team down.
. . . . .

and so on through fourteen brilliant and very funny four-line stanzas. One of the problems of this faux-riddle structure is, of course, that there is only one answer and this, if not handled by the author with a strong sense of how much the reader will understand, can lead to readerly anxiety. For most of this poem, the subject could be Americans as much as Australians and, even by the end, I have the slightly nagging doubt that the subject may not be “Australians” but “Australian men”. Most of the poems in The Sweeping Plain handle this issue (wherein the poet has to trust the reader) well. When we get to the five-poem sequence called “The Nations”, there is not too much doubt as to which country is which: first Germany

These people, as we know, admire music.
Their composers are required to drink coffee,

steal each other’s wives, turn fairy tales to operas,
and provide the world with clichés.

They’re renowned for spending all their lives just thinking.
Once, they worshipped spirits of the forests;

now, they keep the trees in line.
. . . . .

then France (“These people plant reactors on the borders / of their neighbours and consider this esprit”); then England (“The native population is one thousand, all descended from / Somebody. Nobody is all the other fauna”); then Australia (“Apology is next to apoplectic in their word-book. // Little of the country past the beach is known by heart: / the centre’s stone”) and finally, America, where the inhabitants are described as pursuing an ideal existence that can be found only in bad television:

. . . . .
They attempt to be as beautiful as humans,
but are dogged by rotten luck, bad hair and headaches.

They drive cars into a desert, conjure dust,

They take up sport and hurt their feet.

It is a rich mode if it is done well – as here. Or in “The Travellers in the Teach Yourself Books” where a world is made up out of the phrases used in the Teach Yourself language learning series. This world is familiar (if virtual) and reflects our needs and concerns, though often with unusual and comic emphases:

. . . . .
At first they’re well, until they lose their luggage
and have difficulty buying masks and telegrams,
umbrellas, two more pens, a handsome fish,
a pair of swimming trunks,
suspenders and a can of gasoline.
. . . . .

When they don’t work so well the failure, I think, revolves around the issue of solvability. So in “Wine”:

I was in my late teens when I met you,
Though I’d seen you at the edge of things before.

You were Claret then, in casual dress
In a two-quart flagon.
. . . . .

the jokes are just too easy and obvious and the whole poem seems to be a working out of a rhetorical strategy that doesn’t sustain our engagement with it. In “Sleep” however, the opposite occurs. It is worth quoting in full:

Better in here than the fantasy realm
Of interest, output, demand.

Sudden things happen and pass, and are no way connected:
Silent doors open and shut upon rooms with more doors.

People give chase or are hunted by strange moving shapes.
Here to act is to think.

Sex is a play where no guilt or remorse ever darkens the script.
People converse in the tones of a Nielsen quartet.

Everyone plays at behaving
Like people who never have dreams.

There’s no Larousse for each dish that is served in this trance:
A café sign announces Cordon Blur. And so it is.

Children have toys that can talk, and they watch
As black columns of smoke embrace towns.

When people die they are beautifully slain with their loves
And entombed face to face.

I hope it isn’t my stupidity that finds this a difficult poem. Difficulty is usually bracing and something to be expected in poetry but I’m not sure it can be sustained too easily in the kind of poems that this book is experimenting with. It begins by saying that the waking world (“of interest, output, demand”) is a fantasy world, unlike the world of sleep. The next three stanzas seem the describe the world of dreams (not at all the same as sleep) but their sinister language of doors and pursuit looks as though it could apply (or be intended to apply) to the corporate world. So instead of being given a description of the world of dreams (in the manner of the world of the Teach Yourself books’ dialogues), we are given a description of the “real” world which makes it seem the same as the world of dreams. I think. The issue I suppose is whether the doubt we have about the exact nature of the world of discourse – something that usually attracts us in poetry – is deliberate here and, if it is, is it tenable?

My favourite poem in the book is “The Advantages of Daughters” which appeared three years ago in The Best Australian Poetry 2003 (wrongly titled, in the acknowledgments of this book, as The Best Australian Poems 2003). Here the familiar world of parents and daughters is made constantly funny by sharply different perspectives. The essential standpoint is, again, that of the of the man from Mars (a realistic description of most parents as seen by their children) but the generalizations shift like a kaleidoscope:

. . . . .
And in their charity they help their parents comprehend
Postmodern sex, when parents come home early and discover daughters

Deep in exploration of their sexual orientation with the local pastor’s help,
Undressed and tantric on the lounge room floor. Don’t ask.

(I once held a class that used this poem – amongst others – and found my students shocked because they had read “help” as “assistance” rather than “assistant” a misreading that might have provoked a long disquisition on intended meaning, misreadings and riddles and jokes in poetry. We were spared by the clock.) Some of “The Advantages of Daughters” is fairly standard humour – only a level or two above a comedian’s spiel – but, at its best, as in these closing lines, it transcends this suggesting perhaps that the nightmare vision it elaborates is not much more that the paranoid fantasy of the father of a young girl:

Their men are hopeless, always waiting
For the right job, as if anyone needs jobs, they say and grin at you,

While noting how your eyes say Go and die a long slow death,
But somewhere else. It isn’t that they love to torment women (and they do),

But that one day, when writs are flying (and they will be),
That sweet child the monster’s with now might imagine you approved.

At present, in the playground, where the child is eating ice-cream
And reflecting on the compliments the people in the Indian ice-cream

Shop serve with the ice-cream (seven flavours: mango, cardamom,
Pistachio . . . Banana best of all she says, definitive), the clouds come

Hauling shadows through the park, where pigeons glide
Among the nikau and a possum snores contentedly in daylight,

And the wind is in unequalled form, as fathers look abstracted,
Now and then observing how the arms and eyes etcetera make a daughter.

Are there any examples of a more conventional lyricism in The Sweeping Plain? Yes, there are, but as in the case of later Forbes it is a lyricism often driven by the absence of a loved one. Thus words and images, instead of making transcendental gestures, try and fail to make up for lack of presence.

The darkness of the house returns;
you’re gone;
the fire’s low.
The wattle blossoms hung with ice,
the snow-filled yard remain.
The bell that tolls across the city
tolls my best thoughts of you
far from me.

The only real exception to this is the final poem, “Ghosts”:

I come back,
a ghost of twenty years
to haunt these places
I have been in.

Ice hangs off my lips,
air’s thick with mist;
the brown earth
disappears in clouds.

In twenty years
the wind will move dead leaves,
the birds will sing,
their parents, ghosts.

This is a poem about presence but, of course, it is presence in the form of a revenant. It feels as though the concrete reality of the place (established in the poem which precedes it, “High Country”) diminishes the reality of the visitor who is, any way, meshed in the usual animal processes of breeding and then moving off stage. It is an odd poem to put last unless its message is that we should trust the sweeping plain of reality rather than the poets who haunt it in such a provisional way. Interestingly it also appears in a 1984 book, The Way It Is, (different only in that there the title is “I Come Back”) but is not included as one of the selected poems in History. Perhaps Sharkey intends to include it in cycles of twenty years and History (2002) came a little early. The Sweeping Plain, by this reckoning, is three years late.