Review: Gig Ryanon Rae Desmond Jones

Rae Desmond Jones (1941-2017): ‘The fractured poetry / of commerce and power’

Rae Desmond Jones has stated that for him poetry and politics are mutually contradictory pursuits, yet his poetry, concerned with how people and classes interact, is, like all art, necessarily political. Poems explore, often comically, types of capital, and its deployment of power, from the cruising ‘sharks’ in the street menacing bypassers, to teacher-student relationships finally pushed into hatred: ‘the room constricts us all / i almost say get out / go back to your DVDs & your hopeless dreams: / be unemployable… let there be war between us’ (‘Decline and fall’). Jones limns a dichotomy between the powerful and the powerless, fumigating, and sometimes almost deifying, its ambiguity and irresolvability.

In ‘Blast furnace’, time and space map this dichotomy, between the manufacturing of goods and the manufacturing and marketing of art. A visit to Sydney’s Cockatoo Island, once a shipbuilding dockyard and now used for art installations and cultural festivals, reminds the poet of his time working at a steel foundry in Whyalla, where a worker falls:

a man in khaki overalls slipped & fell in a slow arc,
left hand grabbing air.

nothing –
a scream & a smear of opaque oil –
nobody knew him so nothing happened
because there wasn’t anything to bury or remember.

Characters are defined by, contained in, their relations to others: their social contract assembles their history, and this poem itself replaces the formal burial of the anonymous worker, destroyed by a foundry that – ironically – creates products. The poem then acts as mausoleum, or eternal flame with its actual vat of boiling steel, enshrining what it simultaneously destroys. The poem finishes:

but now, in this dour place, walls bloom with paintings
& T shirts of spring brilliance
as though dust & earth & molten steel
can melt into a pond of glittering self-absorption

Thus art can also appear as sheer solipsism, concerned only with its present flourish, and this is one of the currents Jones pushes against, by his determined enmeshment in the everyday.

Early dramatic monologues such as ‘The electric chair’ and ‘The palace of art’, have an Auden-like foreboding (see also Peter Porter’s ‘Your Attention Please’), while others, particularly the controversial ‘The deadshits’, in which rape is imagined as an attack by one class on another,  ostentatiously intend shock.

even art in your hands has become
an expression of contempt as it takes
away from human creation its humanity.

                                                                       (‘The palace of art’)

There was a 27-year gap between the publication of The Palace of Art (Makar Press, 1981) and Blow Out (Island Press, 2008). During this period, Jones published two novels, The Lemon Tree (Angus & Robertson, 1990), and Wisdom (Blackwattle Press, 1995). Jones was also Mayor of Ashfield in Sydney’s inner West from 2004-2006.

In ‘The new tenant’, awareness of class division is encrusted with an Australian resentment of difference and hierarchy. This is one of Jones’s underlying themes, perhaps even underlying contradictions, and some characters are reminiscent of Himmelfarb (and his mock crucifixion) from Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot, in that there’s a similar persecution of difference, of non-conformity, coiled within an aggressively ‘democratic’ ethos. Characters are condemned for, or redeemed by, crossing class boundaries, stepping outside their allotted roles: the gassed war veteran with damaged sight who doggedly persists in reading Joyce (‘The ghosts of Bourke Street, 1969’), the unwieldy unrefined grandmother surprisingly treasured by her grandson (‘In memoriam’), the dying woman recalling the distant optimism of her youthful wedding day (‘Cupcakes’), the café threesome in fluffy slippers transformed into the Greek furies (‘The kindly ones’). There is also what John Jenkins calls a ‘corrosive, cordial despair’, with which harsh observation can transform into empathy. In ‘Old fat bastard’, for example, a drunk blocking the narrator’s car is at first pitilessly sketched but finally ecumenically acknowledged:

He stands on the road, hoping,
Adjusting his droopy gut
Over his slack arsed green track pants

An expensive Japanese car behind me honks
But I wait as the lights turn red

Sorry mate, I would say if he was listening,
There was a time
When I could have been you

That is, many poems seek to overturn self-serving assumptions, to wallop the sanctimonious omniscience of traditional lyric, such as ‘It feels good when someone hates you’, that parodies Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’:

Because you occupy his head
So there will always be some foreign frontal lobe
That will remain forever you

Poems tug between satire and choking pathos, between bald critique and zen acceptance, and it’s these implicit antagonisms, ‘the chicken halves of intellect & / feeling’ (‘The wishbone’), sometimes cartoonishly clichéd and exaggerated (as Ken Bolton observes), that most typically define the poems.

I walk on past the sushi bars
                   & doner kebab stands,
Breathing the richness
                  Of burning oil & scorched meat,
Listening to the fractured poetry
                  Of commerce and power,
wheeling & dealing;
                  The pimp with acne scars,
A policeman with his sagging gut,
                  A thin girl with dead blonde hair
& needle scabs along her arms.
                  Meaning passes through me
& whispers then moves slowly on.

Above my head a monorail car
                  Slides pneumatically
Into the future
                  Gripping a single greasy rail.

                                                         (‘A brick and sandstone ymca’)

Why here does ‘meaning pass through’? Because each observation, each description already encompasses its meaning (to borrow ex-PM Kevin Rudd’s hypophoric style). From a depiction of the YMCA building, built in 1907, the poem moves across the modern city, as the city’s activities then eclipse, or dismantle, the building’s original intention, its meaning; yet though he laments this ignored history, Jones, like all satirists, also rejoices in what he criticises, describing in loving detail the passing trade that seems to implicate the earlier memory. These strangely elegiac poems, in which a droll realism is interspersed with satire, overlap in their tone with the more formal elegies, ‘Poems to my father’, ‘El Niño’, and ‘Cupcakes’.

Jones turns the immediacy of overlooked characters and scenarios into emblems of a social contract, jolting the narrator from his or her remote perch. In ‘The massage’, the Chinese masseur mentions that his son is about to face an Indonesian firing squad, and in ‘Witness’ a car crashes, while the radio obliviously blurts its pop-song – implying again the despised self-absorption (as Jones intermittently sees it) of art. Yet reflecting his interest in Buddhism and other religions, he is often preoccupied with ‘self‘ (or its preferable impossible loss), to crack the truth of self – ‘the calm shroud of self’ (‘Poems to my father’), ‘the blind numeral of self’ (‘The Strad’), both perhaps echoing Wallace Stevens’s ‘warm antiquity of self’ (‘A Fading of the Sun’) –  to locate and quell the inner being into some hope of transcendence. Spirituality, along with physical diminishment, is more pronounced in later poems such as the ghazals, or in the sustained metaphor of ‘Memory’:

The walls begin to crumble
Softly at first as outside
An army of invaders wait
Patiently while their fires sparkle
Uncertain in the darkness:
Our Governor watches from the tower
& above the gates a sentry sleeps.

Through a steel shutter the third eye
Opens as nervous horses stamp
& neigh not far away.

For a poet determined to resist conventional lyricism, who was editor of the anarchically provocative and offensively-titled Your Friendly Fascist magazine between 1971 and 1986, it is perhaps unexpected that this poem echoes Eliot, while others suggest Yeats, Lowell, and Hopkins.

Contrasting with many bleaker human scenes, plants, animals and weather are recorded as innocent because inactive or without real volition: ‘the white bone moonlight’, ‘a sparrow rattles a shrub’, ‘the feathery March rain’, ‘wind snoring at my window’. While many poems imagine a catastrophic future poisoning this innocence, in others the future is more quietly amusing than terrifying, such as in ‘On an autumn night like this’, in which the poet envisages his own departure from the world, stoically flaunting an unsentimental cool:

                    I prepare to leave,
Rising through the clouds...
I weave past dead robots as they roll,
                    Arms outstretched embracing
Spinning corpses of cold war space junk...
While far below
                    My innocent dog grinds my bones
On the verandah

In ‘The siege of Bundanon’, set in the artists’ residency complex, where ‘poets mope / & the dancers twirl’, the invading wombats are imagined as eventual conquerors: ‘They will march to the great cities of insult / That will fall, as things must in time, / To those plain lumpish creatures who contain / The humble wisdom of disguise & patience.’ Tension between nature and civilization, between an idealism, yet also a resistance to change, that underlines satire, and a somewhat mystical acceptance, can be evoked through metaphor: ‘the bow-legged little man & the pony / With a white patch / Shuffle on their clockwork hooves’ (‘The midnight pony’).

Many of Jones’s poems finish with the natural world as aloof, seemingly unaffected by the odd juxtapositions in human life – schoolgirls slurping Coca Cola outside the Holocaust museum, a displayed pumpkin resembling the Sun King. Yet in ‘Blow Out’ planets are comically anthropomorphised as counsellors to a polluting earth: Saturn ‘with these grim rings of rock & ice / Hanging about like a massive bun’, and Pluto ‘A little squirt with a sneer and a razor blade grin’ wobbling off course. But mostly nature serves as pool of comparison, as site of possible transcendence, with what Jones wishes to see, gracefully, as the insignificance of big-noting humanity: this is the descant strand hovering over his fervent engagement in this gritty world – viewed partly in ministerial solidarity, partly in a parody of disdain, and partly in raging shit-stirring protest.

This essay originated from the launch speech for It Comes From All Directions, at Charles Weston Hotel, Brunswick, November 30, 2013.

Works cited:
Ken Bolton, Review of Blow Out, Southerly, 2009.
John Jenkins, Review of It Comes from all Directions, Cordite, 2013.

Rae Desmond Jones bibliography:
Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973.
The Mad Vibe, Saturday Centre, 1975.
Shakti, Makar Press, 1977.
The Palace of Art, Makar Press, 1981.
Blow Out, Island Press, 2008.
Baygone and other poems, Picaro Press, 2011.
Thirteen Poems from the Dead, Polar Bear Press 2011.
It comes from all directions, Grand Parade Poets, 2013.
A Caterpillar on a Leaf, Puncher & Wattmann, 2016.

The Lemon Tree, (novel), Angus & Robertson, 1990.
Wisdom, (novel), Blackwattle Press, 1995.
Walking The Line, (short stories), Red Press, 1979.

Further reading:
Martin Duwell,  two interviews with Rae Desmond Jones, ‘A Possible Contemporary Poetry’, Makar Press, 1982.
review of ‘A Caterpillar on a Leaf’ (Puncher & Wattmann, 2016).
review of ‘Blow Out’ (Island Press, 2008),  Jacket 37, 2009.
review of ‘It Comes from All Directions’ (Grand Parade Poets, 2013), Australian Book Review, December 2013-January 2014, No. 357.
John Edwards, launch speech of The Selected Your Friendly Fascist, Rochford Street Review, 2012.
Geoff Page, review of ‘It Comes from All Directions’ (Grand Parade Poets, 2013), The Australian, 2014.
Mar Roberts, review of ‘Thirteen Poems from the Dead’ (Polar Bear Press, 2011), Rochford Street Review, 2011.
Tranter, John (editor), The New Australian Poetry, Makar Press, 1979.
Introduction, The New Australian Poetry, Makar Press, 1979.