Les Wicks reviews ‘Plague Animals’ by Rebecca Edwards & ‘A Happening in Hades’ by S K Kelen

Plague Animals Rebecca Edwards. Puncher and Wattmann 2020. ISBN: 9781925780772

It’s no spoiler to let you in on the secret, we are the plague animals.

This becomes most clear in the third section situated in Japan, where the vast human busyness has only led to a void. Where nature has been consigned to growing secretly under the eyelids of statues (95). Where:

Even in Tokyo

the rich rice land calls up through subways 40 stories deep

and a salary man on his way to work

stops at a construction site

to crumble friable soil in his hands.

(97)

Degradation of the environment is further explored across several key points in the book, ranging from garbage in Bali toDays of Heat’, but this work is no generic indictment of humanity, no prosecution brief. In many ways it is a plea for clemency, for understanding. Even men with dubious pasts in ‘The Dementia Ward’:

They left their habits of evil and good

in the rooms upstairs.

Family has fallen from them.

Guilt forgets to visit.

(48)

Even they deserve compassion and re-creation on paper.

Edwards’s book is not a new and selected but it feels like it as it spans several lifetimes, even epochs (82). At the same time, it is deeply personal:

I fight myself

with myself

alone.

If I succeed

no-one will recognise

how vast it was, how violent

If I fail

no one will be surprised.

(44)

In the end neither herself, estrangement from her daughter (‘… the child is the flesh that is wounded over and over’ 58), lovers or

… a man

feathers plaited in his beard

crystals slung around his thin blue neck

crying in the bric-a-brac section.

(27)

are judged. We are led to empathy.

I will admit to an initial reluctance approaching any writing about writing, it’s just another of my flaws. But the first section, ‘Manifesto’, is extraordinary:

poetry is a joke that gets better each telling is predictable as the egg

(14)

I don’t like abstract nouns like gravitas or lucidity

at least not in a poem. Give me a sound, like crunch

(22)

There is imagery anthropomorphic in nature (but it works). We also see the humanity given form painted within the frame of environment. But you must read ‘The Exile of the Imagination’, wherein life is so vividly painted by itself, the them-ness of each species engraved on our eyes.

Another of my obsessions is the need for quality covers for Australian poetry books. Plague Animals has a cracker.

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A Happening in Hades S K Kelen. Puncher and Wattmann 2020. ISBN 9781925780611

Leonard Cohen had a line that I remembered reading this book—’I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far’. Add in a familiar Zen colour filter, an incendiary sense of hard humour and a vast facility with language then you have SK Kelen’s A Happening in Hades.   

I’m just living on the planet,

absorbing what’s said on television,

on the internet. What are you?

(We’re all dust, anyway.)

Don’t care at all, but believing,

still believing everything I want to,

(62-63)

Kelen hints that his journey beyond-above-below, but rarely within, had a beginning in year 8 with ‘The Outsiders with Ponyboy and Soda Pop’ (59). While The Plague Animals sees the ‘I’ character firmly embedded in every page, this book more or less starts in an airport and traverses a panoply of ‘worlds’, destinations and perspectives. There is a loving cynicism, he can’t be part of so much of this, but that distance allows him to write it all, whether it be wrapped in loss, barbarism, neglect or inevitability.

But there is yet a further contradiction. In the process of writing he too becomes a part of the whole—I have the image of the poet skating on a frozen pond, looking down, being appalled at seeing so much drowning beneath the black ice. The cynicism and distance contains the uncontainable for those of us lucky enough to know his work.

Leading on from his worlds concept much of the book takes us on travels: Paris, Venice ‘is the ocean’s pet’ (44) and Chang Mai where ‘Noodle–fed dragons/and happy buddhas/hold up the sky.’ (46) to name a few. Only he could sum up the history of China from 1959:

You used to be a

bony wreck now you’re fat, cashed

up, and oozing sex

(53)

Writing a location one passes through is a process fundamentally divergent from the perspectives a long-term resident brings to their home. One is not automatically more valid than the other, but Kelen’s aerial photography is so well suited to this exercise.

There are moments in the book where the personal emerges to great effect. ‘Kiss’, ‘Packing up the House’, the remarkable ‘Teetotal’, ‘Soldiers’ (‘the Sword’) and ‘Dog Day’ in differing ways, all let us in to the poet’s own ‘world’. This is a privilege.

From an environmental perspective, our outsider has pretty much given up—’hotter here than in the last world, things fall apart fast’ (12). Everywhere he sees ‘Humans mistreating Nature (and hoping they get away with it)’ (13). What hope when ‘the future was electricity’ (17) andHappy Days’(24) paints an incandescent picture leading to the brutally sad last line.

Kelen gives us a dystopian universe, but you’ll never get bored travelling across it.

Les Wicks For over 45 years, Wicks has performed widely in Australia and internationally. He has published and broadcast in over 400 different channels, magazines, anthologies and newspapers across 33 countries and in 15 languages. He conducts workshops around Australia and most recently edited To End All Wars (Puncher & Wattmann, 2018). He also runs Meuse Press, which focuses on poetry outreach projects like poetry on buses and poetry published on the surface of a river. His fourteenth book of poetry isBelief (Flying Islands, 2019).

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