Reviews: Johnson, Madsen, McGuigan

The Clothes-Prop Man
Martin R Johnson
Wakefield Press

Portraits of Rust
Garth Madsen
Five Islands Press

What the Body Remembers
Lorraine McGuigan
Five Islands Press

Is there too much poetry being published? That may seem like a ridiculous question if you’re a poet struggling to get your name into print. Nonetheless, I feel like I’ve been to more book launches in the past year than I’ve had cooked meals. And the experience of poetry can - like dining out – vary in quality and enjoyment.

Martin R Johnson, like Les Murray and the late Philip Hodgins, has built a reputation on writing poems about the land and the people who work it. The first part of his latest book The Clothes-Prop Man "celebrates the lifestyles of the men and women who lived at the work camps during the building of the South Para Reservoir" in South Australia. Construction of the water catchment lasted from 1948 to 1958. The last section of the book is a recollection of growing up in the nearby country town of Williamstown in the early 1960s.

Johnson is of my generation so I was able to easily relate to memories of working-class lifestyles and stories of pubs closing at 6 o’clock in the evening, seeing a television for the first time and firecracker nights. His impressions are captured in a language unsentimental, blunt and direct. This was a time before political correctness, where the author and his mates "weren’t/confined by townee ideals". In ‘Meet’ Johnson takes a Hemingwayesque delight in hunting and killing of game. When the ritual is complete by eating the kill, the poet makes no apologies: "we picked our teeth/with a clear conscience".

I enjoyed the first two sections of The Clothes-Prop Man with its naturalistic descriptions of the construction camp and tales of immigrant displacement and personal hardship. However, I felt the last third of the book fell away with too many poems about quirky characters and their eccentricities.

Garth Madsen’s first book Portraits of Rust has been a long time coming for someone who has published over 200 poems and won more than 50 literary competitions. As they say, patience is a virtue. It has been worth the wait. Susan Kruss’s comment on the back of the book best describes the nature of Madsen’s poems. "There is a sense of disintegration and at times a strong sense of loss, yet there is also humour, wit and a technical control of form and language…"

From the very first poem in the book, the ironically titled ‘Back in One Hour’, we know we are reading a poet who has honed his craft over the years. Madsen deals with the subject of suicide with understatement, suggestion and subtlety – not drama and hysteria. The poem builds menacingly by a series of impressions. The protagonist drives through "barbed fields of/flowering rape" and "under rickety canopies/of brittle white gums" until he reaches the sea where he shouts in desperation "at the clouds that/the oceans were leaking".

Portraits of Rust is rich with descriptions of characters or events which affect people’s lives. Although Madsen tends to philosophise, his poems never fall prey to abstraction. He cares for humanity too much to be cynical, and like the man who has been married to the same woman for 57 years in ‘Return to Eden’ he writes as if he has "always liked her most for her sins". Some of the more impressive poems in this collection are ‘Phantom’, ‘Quince Jam’, ‘Adventure Holiday with My Stunt Double’, ‘Ferry’ and ‘Taste Buds’.

Like Madsen, Lorraine McGuigan has had to wait a long time to have her first book published. Whereas Madsen can accept the foibles of human nature, McGuigan finds it hard to put her demons to rest. "I would practice the art of forgetting/but there are no lessons, no guides". (‘Another Country’). The poems in What the Body Remembers are dark and disturbing, dealing as they do with a tormented relationship between a mother and daughter, a shadowy father figure, mental and physical abuse, and the harshness of life in rural Victoria. The first lines of the opening poem ‘Dreaming the Father’ set the tone of menace and innuendo which pervade the book.

He has come in from the rain
& in the half-dark of bedtime

my father thin as air slow-dances
from room to room then back to me

The poems in this collection are fraught but never febrile. A lesser poet may have been tempted to use emotive language and dramatic effects to describe such disquieting subject matter. McGuigan shows remarkable restraint – and the poems are the more powerful for it.

There is a line in ‘Songs for Three Children’ which echoes the book title: "A mother’s body remembers". This line is a more accurate description of the book’s contents. There is a strong, resilient female voice which shapes this fine collection. It describes – and survives – birth, abuse, displacement and death. Reading What the Body Remembers is not easy, and, some say, life wasn’t meant to be either.