John Hawke. Aurelia. Melbourne: Cordite Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-9942596-1-5
On a first reading, Aurelia is quite a challenge. It is not a book to pick up for pleasure and read to fill in a few minutes. There are only twenty five poems, but they are tied together by the extravagant use of language, and in his ‘Preface’ Hawke provides a glimpse into reading his poetry, warning the reader ‘the relationship between poetry and loss, by which to desire is to necessitate, even invoke, obscurity’ (ix).
Even with this hint, these are difficult poems that at first reading are hard to understand, but with perseverance you may get a glimpse through the obscurity, or as Hawke so elegantly suggests, what we are reading is:
like the scaffolding of a lyric poem mounted briefly
in a newspaper frame
There is a sense of ‘place’, but then is seems to disappear into memory seen through kaleidoscopic glasses,
The lake of charity, the ice cream sandwiches
the moulting lagoon: it is all falling
into the past inevitably, like the last
pack of cigarettes you’ll ever buy
and then descends into nostalgia, igniting a wistfulness that evokes a yearning. But a yearning for what, a return to the ever changing memory of childhood?
There is a crumbling border a child might walk
tentatively, giddy with the danger of falling
(‘Emily Street’, 25)
Or maybe even the ambiguity of mortality:
His signature is death. He wears
Death’s photographs all over that
unshaven chin. He is alone, a servant
of powers beyond his reach.
(‘The Police-spy as an Owl’, 30)
Tonight I am grave as a graven image,
cowled in the white wings
of the Owl-king.
Even more explicitly, Hawke writes:
In the circuit of photographs, exchanging one generation
for the next, locked in their age-differences
perpetual children becoming their own grandchildren,
(‘What Was There’, 11)
This ambiguity of mortality is hinted at in ‘The First Man into Hiroshima’ (27) and Hawke’s numerous references to photographs as the memory inculcates the image with its own poem to tell:
We sat beneath photographs tinted with a fading brush
(‘Mountain Train’, 10)
The face of Bhopal in a ragged photograph
white eyes blurred at the edges
staring into invisible light.
(‘Death of Saint-Just’, 31)
The idea of photograph, as the teller of truth, is muted by the ‘fading’ and the ‘ragged’ leading to the possibility of the loss of its vitality as truth, as truth encompasses the dream world always obscured within the image.
In these poems there is harking back to obscurity as a shroud loosely tossed over the gravestones of life’s loss,
I gaze across this emptiness studded with coloured lights,
to find her again in a portrait
silhouetted against a dying sky,
the only photograph that survives
In Hawke’s Aurelia, we are taken on a trip up a mountain that reaches the apex in the disturbing images of ‘The Conscience of Avimael Guzman’ (32) and falling off the other side with the final ‘Black Highway’ (39). This was not apparent with the first reading, but with reflection and rereading, this movement was discernible.
In his preface, Hawke writes, ‘[Lost] lives often coexist with our own as lost alternatives, counter-experiences or impossible possibilities; they lie within the everyday like a subtext, or a haunting’ (ix), and he certainly draws out the damaged dreams that haunt our living, or possibly inhabit our ‘lost lives’:
I speak the empty name of this day
in the rhetoric of memory
where every word transforms its object
into an echo of itself, the lament of endless night.
These night dreams or remembered lives evolve into a desire to forget:
I did not stay long at this turning point:
there were no good omens to be discovered.
(‘The Point’, 20)
And yet in forgetting, we remember, not what is but what our fractured memory torments life with.
This seems to be a work of academic poetry and this is not a criticism but rather a pointer to understand the complexity of the poems. To read this book of poetry takes an effort, and to tease out meaning is well worth the effort. It is not populist poetry or performance poetry; this is experimental and requires effort on the part of the reader, but this should not put you off from reading Aurelia.
Craig Coulson is now retired and lives with his family on ten acres outside Ballarat. He has written poetry all his life, but became serious about writing when he took on a Café Poet position in Melbourne’s east in 2013. His poetry can be found in a number of anthologies, and he is active in the spoken word scene in Ballarat and Geelong.