Mark Roberts, concrete flamingos. Woodford, NSW: Island Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-909771-95-9
Thriveni C Mysore
At first glance, it seems all too easy to make overconfident generalisations about the flow and pattern of poetry in Mark Robert’s concrete flamingos, but it takes an unexpectedly longer time for a reader to move from one poem to the next, perhaps the way the poet intended. Robert’s Poems in concrete flamingos are thought provoking of a different kind, for, they pull in the reader mind-and-all like a whirl, instead of giving an option to the reader either to carefully swim by or to delve into the whirl all by herself. Authoritative poetry with no frills is the need of the hour in this fast-paces world, where readers have little time to sit back and enjoy art for art’s sake, a fact that is clear in concrete flamingos.
Whether a Shelley, a Keats, a Wordsworth and their like would ever approve of new-age poetry, pattern poems, erasures and equivalents remains an unanswered question, but like art, poetry has evolved to be a free expression in form, in thought, and in poetic elements.
In an article written in 1894, to serve as preface to a Russian edition of a selection of Guy de Maupassant’s stories, Leo Tolstóy writes:
Maupassant evidently submitted to the theory which ruled not only in his circle in Paris, but which now rules everywhere among artists: that for a work of art it is not only necessary to have any clear conception of what is right and wrong, but that on the contrary an artist should completely ignore all moral questions, there being even a certain artistic merit in so doing. According to this theory the artist may or should depict what is true to life, what really is, what is beautiful and therefore pleases him, or even what may be useful as material for ‘science’; but that to care about what is moral or immoral, right or wrong, is not an artist’s business. (33–34)
The poet as an artist means business and poets at any rate have to connect to the reader either by collecting the reader’s thoughts or by scattering them in all possible directions! There lies the success of any art. Like an abstract painting, the beholder might make a mountain of a molehill, that was never considered by the artist; there is also the unpleasant vice versa, where the unparalleled, unique thoughts of the artist may never pass on to the beholder. Aware of such dangers, and taking visualisations as a credit, poet Mark Roberts begins his poetic migration from ‘concrete flamingos 1’: ‘Deep like a poet’ (9). These words are shrunk, blurred and arranged in 8 columns perhaps repeating 296 times. The humour lies not in counting, but in the umpteen times a thought gets stuck in one’s head, very similar to writers block, like the lines of a song running in spite of aversion as a background music, like the repeated aspirations and yearnings of an individual. Like crowded flamingos, this may look like dried up trees for some, rows of concrete houses for others, tessellations tricking one’s senses.
The poet explains common human responses to surrounding nature in the poem, ‘river currents’ (10). Longer pauses inevitably bring up yawn, a mark of getting bored, in any human who is less appreciative of nature. Alternatively lightning up the beautiful nature, the poet juxtaposes richness of nature against poorness in human appreciation by saying:
the mist hugs the river in early morning light
you watch from weathered rock at waters edge
yawn at a filtered dawn
as memories emerge from the fog
but there is still the unease of sitting under a precipice
knowing that the rock you are sitting on
has fallen from the cliff face
a bird answers another yawn
The idea that no one ever gauges where their thoughts might end up is nicely put by the expression:
you stand and move inside still thinking
of the deep river current and where it might lead
In the poem, ‘poem(mist’, the poet says:
it’s difficult to find the poem
in fog like this
thoughts are shadows
a hint of meaning
you don’t dare follow
With no pretence, the poet explains the difficulty in making one’s creativity work for benefit, not only in this poem but also in other poems about writing poetry in ‘concrete flamingos’. This definitely brings some kind of comfort for any struggling writer by realising that similar situations arise in others’ lives too and for a reader, it brings in some refreshing humour of kinder intensity.
Poems with titles in intentional brackets (14) are on similar plane. The poem, ‘(written)’ says:
you tell me/i am not a poet/ you tell me/i am not a poet
keeps running through out, but somewhere in the middle it says:
tell me/one word/i am not a poet
So, one can either take up ‘you tell me’ as one word or ‘i am not a poet’ as one word, thus expressing that it is not statement made once in some context, but is repeatedly hit like a volley leading to desperation in relation to the poet’s aspirations, very similar to a nagging feeling one finds when faced by repeated failures.
Likewise, in the poem, ‘(under)’, the poet expresses his habit of voracious reading, so nicely:
yellowing pages dancing/ i could tell you that when I close
my eyes/ i can see my books/ i can read my books/i could tell
In yet another poem, ‘(duress)’, the poet mocks:
my computer has been disabled/my typewriter has had its
typebars removed/ no pens work/ paper crumbles to dust in
my hand/ i walk in my small yard/ eyes closed/ reading the
poems/ i did not write
The poem, ‘poem in orange’, though is about the way the poet expresses his working style, is quick and sharp in truth:
i take the words & layer them
thick on the edge of the page
then slowly spread them
from right to left
till the letters
that don’t fit
drop off the page
& land on the floor
for greater depth
i take an image
thin & translucent
& spread it across the top
of the page
then sweep it down
till in snaps leaving only a shadow
The poem, ‘the only marigold in erskineville’, is way too deeply laced with actual depictions of Erskineville, a southwest suburb of Sydney, infamous for Swanson street mews, shady characters, peddling and drugs, and home to a wide variety of ethnicity. The poet says:
i walk through a black & white suburb thinking
of a poem i could write about how longing & desire
creep up on you like a shadow on a cloudy day.
how to read a weed? from left to right?
or is it a question of colour?
Making use of colours, grey and pink, the poet beautifully portrays the gentrification of Erskineville that happened in 1969, shifting neighbourhoods, trying to cleanse the composition by saying:
like it was 1969
& they had taken some new drug.
it didn’t take the police long
to track down the vandals. Following
a trail of pink paint splashes
to a house around the corner. a week later
the government painted over the pink
with a slightly darker shade of grey.
Besides carefully choosing words, the symbolic marigold, that stands for despair, grief, cruelty and coldness due to jealousy, remembering and celebrating the dead, trying to cheer up good relations, all of these, is used here to best advantage:
i transfer your postcard
to my coat pocket & notice
again the explosion of the marigold
outside the church.
The futility in learning of prehistory for common day to day living is expressed in the poem, ‘Prehistory’ (20); the aftermath of World War II is raked over in the poem, ‘onions’ (21-22), where the poet says:
temptation was not an apple but the crispness
of a raw onion freshly dug
tears of passion as layers were stripped away
there is no god
The poet explores the ferocity of human actions as against nature and ecosystem in poems like, ‘ishmael’ (24), ‘after arrival – storm at sea’ (42), ‘byron bay’ (72):
there remains the discussion
of how to remove tons
of dead whale
without destroying the pool
an old woman
tells us of a storm at sea,
of birds dropping
exhausted into the waves.
a whale carcass
on a trolley
rows of workers’ cars
in a sandy carpark
These poems critique a human society that thinks foremost of the inconvenience to itself as against the seriousness of ecological situation.
Changing landscapes and city life are expressed in the poems, ‘walking the landscape’ (41), ‘spring lamb’ (65), ‘crossing the mountains’ (66-71), ‘sea cave’ (75), ‘two photographs’ (76), and ‘fishing at swansea’ (77), stripping human society to necessary and essential truth.
Adding to the list of serious humour are the five poems under the title, ‘reading poetry’ (33–34), where the poet says that he spent a day and a night until closing in the university library stranded by the dewey decimal system reading numbers instead of poems, and lists his literary reading journey in dewey numbers instead of the titles of the browsed books, listing International Australian 20 C Poetry, Three centuries of American Poetry, Poetry of Jennifer Rankin, Complete poems of Emily Dickinson, Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Poetry of Henry Lawson, Australian Poetry, Poetry of Sebald, Poetry of Rosemary Dobson and The Newage Poetry.
Three variations of the opening poem of the collection, ‘concrete flamingo 1’ pop up at different intervals, tugging the reader playfully towards the poet’s mind like some centrifugal force. The second variation is ‘concrete flamingo 2’ (31), where the words, ‘Deep like a poet’, arranged in columns are blurred, the third being ‘concrete flamingo 3’ (48), where the words, ‘Deep like a poet’, are twisted to form a whirlish wave like pattern.
Another interesting pattern poem is ‘concrete flamingo 4’ (54), which is not a variation of the previous three but stands out for its blurred words arranged like flamingo flight formations in the sky. In this poem, the poet subtly asks about thoughts that are bit tired, sinking low and slowly getting lost in exhaustion, just like the birds in long and tiring migratory journey, then gaining momentum and flying up, higher and safer.
The poetry collection closes with another profound poem, ‘city circle’(79) where the poet says:
you close your eyes & hear the rats in the ceiling. they have
always been there waiting for the tunnel. after the last train
they will take you there. they have their own poetry which
you wouldn’t understand & they have already written your
epitaph. you know that they will make their home in your
Following the trail of the poet’s thoughts, the reader by this time nevertheless realises that the ‘rats in the ceiling’ are one’s own thoughts and they are there to stay till the end.
The poetry of Mark Roberts has a singular taste, a true taste with great richness, fullness, strength and variety, but the poet’s thoughts flies higher like his flamingos, making the subject matter less intelligible for a gullible reader. As a result the book, concrete flamingos circles in higher – learned – luxuriously intelligent classes rather than floating lower to satisfy the simplest pleasures of an appreciative class of universal poetry readers, for they fall into that class that thinks (which Voltaire famously explained to mean): All styles are good except that which is not understood, or which fails to produce its effect.
Here in concrete flamingos Mark Roberts has succeeded in running deeper than still waters, in thoughts, meaning and expression, without counterfeits.
Tolstóy, Leo. What is Art? and Essays on Art, translated by Aylmer Maude. Oxford: OUP, 1950.
Thriveni C Mysore is a science teacher from Karnataka, India. She is locally acknowledged for her critical essays and articles on Philosophy and Education. Her books in Kannada on Philosophy and Science have won State awards. Being actively involved in Environmental Awareness Programs, she holds lectures and presentations for students. Amidst life’s complexities, she finds divine-solace in reading Nature poems.