Robbie Coburn reviews Sputnik’s Cousin by Kent MacCarter and Intercolonial by Stephen Oliver

Kent McCarter, Sputnik’s Cousin: New Poems. Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2014. ISBN 9781921924675

Stephen Oliver, Intercolonial. Auckland: Puriri Press, 2013. ISBN 9780908943401

 

Robbie Coburn

 

Kent MacCarter defies most expectations typically placed on the poet in regard to construction and form. His poems have a freedom of experimentation while his use of language is adventurous and exciting. It’s very hard to define MacCarter’s work or categorise it in any particular genre. In fact, it would be madness to even attempt to do so, as his work scoffs at convention and moves confidently into its own invented genre.

His third collection of poems, Sputnik’s Cousin, is his most realised work yet; chaotic, original, weird and brilliant. It’s important to note that, in their originality and linguistic experimentation, these poems don’t have easily-understood narrative structures or easily identifiable sentimentalities, but that isn’t their purpose. MacCarter takes the everyday and rewrites it is his own voice and commands language to operate in whatever way he pleases.

Much of the poetry reads like a surreal journal of observations, and the apocalyptic undertones of our present society are scrutinized with humour and wit. There is a purposeful blurring within the lines, where images appear in an almost stream-of consciousness fashion:

 

Daughters knelt in front of taut Chernobyl, a

degustation on the cherry pill which Ms.

Pac-Man ate. Hot, pink bows her coders chose –

raw porterhouse adept in salmonella

(“XX. DINING OUT WITH MS. PACMAN”)

 

His voice feels extremely modern and speaks to the technology-conscious generation in its language and stylistic choices, while still retaining acute accessibility and appeal for long-time poetry readers.

In “Kissing Frank O’Hara [not on the mouth remix]”, McCarter draws his influences from dozens of obscure places, even referencing the likes of Tom Baker and Neil Gaiman. One of the finest poems in the collection, this unique take on the lyric is perfectly assured and controlled:

 

I’m ready

for your injection-mould stamping. Get me…

let my polymers cook in your image

(‘“KISSING FRANK O’HARA [NOT ON THE MOUTH REMIX]”)

 

The most impressive aspect of the work is its readability despite the characteristics one would assume would make this impossible. These poems are bold ventures in language, an exercise in form and linguistics before all else. If poetry is intended to document and analyse the human condition, this collection of “poetry and non-fiction” does so with a uniqueness most writers would fail to outdo.

 

It’s too much skin for Grandpa Ed. Our lunch undressed

miscast, a maitre d’s escort. The menu steep

[…]

 

Off a gender, sex is parked as product hunger

reverses humans into with trig’s precision

gears.

(“II. TOO MUCH SKIN FOR GRANDPA ED”)

 

A voice for a new generation of poetry readers and critics, Kent MacCarter reinvents the wheel and drives it in a direction where many fear to tread, and does so with undeniable skill and authority.

 

Stephen Oliver’s book-length historical poem Intercolonial is a journey through cultural identity and landscape, drawing its title from the “trade, shipping and connections between the colonies of Australia and New Zealand”. Oliver’s roots lie in both countries, and this serves as a personal expedition through the sea lying between the two nations. Begun in Australia in the mid-90’s and completed in New Zealand, the work, Oliver states, might be considered a transtasman creation, and his list of references allude to the considerable breadth of the project.

The ground covered is vast, drawing on extensive historical research, from Maori tradition to convicts hanged in Van Diemen’s land; this is a work that is close both to the poet and the cultural history of the two nations. The figure of the poet’s great-grandfather, Thomas McCormack, to whom the poem is dedicated, is present throughout the work, and also spent time in both the Australian and New Zealand colonies in the 20th century.

Beginning in Wellington, the journey is accompanied by wonderful evocations of the land; the streets, the landscape and the people:

 

Tusked cauliflowers and herded carrots, onions in piles,

tumbled pumpkins, potato scree, boxed and stalled in between

scales that swung and creaked from the cream cabin roof

of the Indian greengrocer’s Bedford truck.

 

Oliver’s imagery is consistently effective in placing the reader within a variety of landscapes, and the precision of the lines makes Oliver’s objective brilliantly achieved.

His exploration of convicts during early colonisation is approached with amazing depth and compassion, and history is shown to reveal a human cruelty often ignored in modern writing. In one passage, Oliver writes of an English man named Solomon, who “worked the Oxford canal boats until sentenced / to fourteen years transportation for forging base coin / setting sail / with 252 male prisoners on the Sarah”, revealing the common nature of such cases during this time. Solomon goes on to be appointed Constable in the colony before becoming a hangman and executing Timothy Walker, “the last ex-convict to be hanged”.

Oliver’s historical documentation, combined with an impressive imagination, is unique, but his narrative skill as a poet is astounding and this is the most striking feature of the work.

 

Robbie Coburn is a poet and critic. He was born in June 1994 in Melbourne and lives in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria.

1 reply

  1. I thank Mr Coburn for his review of my book, INTERCOLONIAL. One small correction: As clearly stated on the Dedication page, ‘Thomas McCormack 1841-1923’ is, therefore, my Great Grandfather – not as written here, grandfather. – Stephen Oliver

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