“what is the point of being almost human?” (Wright ‘Bears 2’ 27)
The poems of Ed Wright’s third poetry collection, Gas Deities, are as vivid as Howard Arkley’s well-known paintings of mid-century Australian houses, and like Arkley’s paintings, they take as their subject a distinctly Australian suburbia. The poems, which are rich in character and narrative, depict a familiar milieu of Colorbond fences, activewear, Netflix, TikTok, ALDI, and Miele appliances. It’s a setting that Wright deftly evokes with all its complexity of motive and relation. The narrator of one poem confesses: ‘Mostly I’m a copywriter selling the Great Australian Dream’ (‘Baked Gods 3: Legless’ 36), and there’s a prevailing sense that, for Wright and for some of the characters inhabiting his poems, it’s a dream they aren’t quite convinced of, even if they work assiduously to keep it alive. Wright’s suburbia of aspiration, half-cooked dreams, strained mythologies, and compromises is, as he puns in one poem, ‘a surface paradise’ (‘Surface Paradise – The Conference Version’ 31). The poems are colourful, playfully vernacular, at times poignant and ironic, and always smart.
Wright favours the use of a long first or third person narrative form, which is well-adapted to the evocation of character. Though there’s much that’s tawdry about the lives presented through Wright’s poems, they’re not without pathos, and they’re artfully drawn. Take, for example, the poem ‘Baked Gods 2: Absence’ in which the poem’s narrator grieves the absence of a stillborn son from the home he would’ve been born into:
I didn’t want to stay in that death house
any longer than I had to, didn’t want
to lie on the nursery floor replaying the unknown,
seeking the moment his little heart stopped,
between the glass of champers at Josie’s wedding
and the ultrasound three days later.
And this loss is also a loss of aspiration, or purpose: ‘As soon as his little heart stopped beating, / my dream went wandering, / life was somewhere else’ (21). While the poems’ protagonists are sharply drawn, they often experience the people they encounter as one-dimensional: ‘Odd, which strangers we need to impress. / Some are just cardboard cut-outs in our path, / or faces forgotten by the end of the transaction’ (‘Baked Gods 2: Absence’, 23). Similarly in the collection’s title poem, in which the narrator is loomed over by a larger-than-life dentist:
[...] the man was all enamel,
an anger coated in achievement, my mouth
was his McMansion, his shirt an admission
of life being elsewhere. Probably Hawaii.’
(‘Gas Deity’ 29)
There’s a casual interconnectedness between several of the poems, in the way that suburban lives are often casually interconnected. Evan, the real estate wunderkind of the book’s first poem, has an encounter with the mother of the stillborn son in the poem, ‘Baked Gods 2: Absence’. And a few pages later, we find the mother’s grief vignetted as a fragment of real estate copy in the poem, ‘Baked Gods 3: Legless’: ‘Owners keen to move on. Can’t stand the place / since they lost their baby son.’ (37). If the suburban malaise can be transcended, it is not through poetry either, as we learn from the narrator of the poem, ‘Baked Gods 3: Legless’: instead, poetry is a ‘hard-won’ obscurity (41), and an unproductive folly that ‘doesn’t pay for the air-con’ (39).
But the primary themes of Gas Deities are universal, not just suburban: ‘Billions have gone before us, / billions more will follow – / wonder and meaninglessness – / what to do when our gods have gone / to the long view’s hungry sun?’ (‘Hungry Suns’ 45). And so, we find, in another poem, that the children playing cricket in an Indian slum also grapple with elusive aspirations—whether they dream of Bollywood stardom, sport sponsorships, or requited affections. It is late in the day (‘Still, the game is close as stumps draw near’), and whatever is dreamed of is tantalising, but beyond their reach: ‘As the tennis ball flies / along the arc of a lofted drive, / they dream brief rainbows, crying / ‘Catch it! Catch it! Catch it!’ (‘Borella League’ 63).
While the collection’s first half is decidedly suburban in its setting and preoccupations, the later poems—such as ‘Baked Gods 4: High and Lonely’ and ‘Baked Gods 5: The Last Professor’—are predominantly reflective, searching inner monologues. Yet they too are concerned with closed dreams, interrupted stories, lost mythologies, and scepticism. The final poem, ‘Baked Gods 5: The Last Professor’, suggests, at least, that some sense of peace or rapprochement is possible. It is the collection’s most reflective poem and finds the narrator looking back on her life: ‘all my rain has fallen’ (64). The narrator has found some sense of peace with the unrequited, and life’s ‘abandoned options’ (67), and surmises: ‘The memory was never as good / as the anticipation, which was mostly / better than the thing itself’ (64):
I realised that I had not fallen,
rather the psychosis of eternity had cleared.
The moment was the moment,
I was not distracted by other times and places,
It would not last forever. I thought of you
in your suburban idyll, staring out the window
through your scruffy trees...
The poem’s final phrase—‘and that was fine’ (70)—is a fitting resolution for a collection of poems so preoccupied with the burden of dreams and aspirations, and the breakdown or destruction of the structures of meaning in which these dreams attempt to play out. Gas Deities is a deeply satisfying collection, not only for its vivid and memorable poems, but for the facetted ways in which the poems return to the book’s central themes, with an incisive and ironic eye, but also at times with poignancy.