Review: Rathaus, by Duncan Bruce Hose

Hobart: inken, 2007

The title of this first volume of poems from Duncan Hose is one of those irrepressible puns: the German Rathaus, or town hall, place of meetings, ceremonies and local government, a survival of an earlier communitarian age into the postmodern present. That’s the primary denotation, I guess. But to the Anglophone ear there is also, obviously, the suggestion of the rathouse: the classic fairy tale place of scary people and uncanny events with swarming rats, rat tails, rat families, Dracula’s landfall, etc. With all the ambivalence of rats: filthy vermin to be exterminated; easily anthropomorphised rodent families (like Ratty and Moley).

The pun seems to be enhanced by the stylised gothic font of the cover and the pen and ink illustrations accompanying the poems: gingerbread gothic houses; reversed out, scratchy portraits of female figures; wallpaper designs; paddle-steamer profiles.

This eclectic iconography of the book sort of complements the multiple perspectives and rhetorics of the poetry. The speaker of the opening poem ‘Zeitgeist in Babylon’ perhaps evoking the corruptions of the postmodern world, is a kind of slightly demented Ahab, alternating between descriptions of his inner state of mind and randomly shouted orders to ‘Head straight for Smolensk,’ ‘Get out of the carpark.’ The shifts and tics of the speech – including occasional coprolalia – suggests someone suffering from a mild form of Tourette’s syndrome.

Other times, the attractions of declamation are backgrounded and Hose is interested in how to represent surreal dreamscapes, which ‘I entered Berlin on foot with Sascha,’ a prose poem, does brilliantly. This poem is festooned with ersatz medieval props – a ‘tethered Romany bear,’ the ‘charming coal light’ of an inn called ‘The Golden Infidel’ – driven by the surrealism of a dream narrative. Here, and elsewhere in these poems there is an attraction to the operetta-like costume and style of an imaginary middle Europe, the ‘demi-monde,’ the double-headed black eagle of Austro-Hungary, all this is a form of jokey dandyism – plumed regimental uniforms, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, e.g. – entirely appropriate in a first book.

Hose pushes this role-playing further in ‘As Long as I can hold my breath’ by adopting a pseudonym for the performance: the deadeningly end-stopped Harold Budd. The irresistible sensuousness of words and their fabric takes over: ‘Duck Butter Blue,’ ‘the thaumatropic trick of your/ face.’ Actually, this turns out to be perhaps the overriding characteristic of these poems: deep fascination with the seductive sounds of word-conjunctions and their denotations. Their subject is language, whatever their ostensible subject.

The experiments with arrangement on the page are fun, as in ‘Speak Russian,’ which requires the reader to turn the book sideways, spine horizontal rather than vertical and to use typographic clues to follow the sense. And ‘Pick Nicking with Eila Lee,’ calmer, temporally sequenced, absorbed by the pathos of time passing.

Beneath the frogging and the absinthe, there’s also something more serious going on in these poems about the experience of antipodean Europe from the perspective of Hobart – mentioned in ‘Put yourself there.’ This is the subject of ‘Still, there- Europe!!!’ – an impressive meditative sequence. Something about the memories of Europe and how they get sorted and assimilated is probably the overriding obsession of these poems. One even begins with the self-mocking evocation of ‘Berlin, my bride, you are an/ invention!’ Because the processing of the experience of Europe is also bound up with the thematic thread of love (‘Russian Romance’) that runs through the brocade of these poems: ‘Marmalade’ is a good example, plainer, Charles Simic-like, in its rhetoric: ‘it wasn’t … it wasn’t … it was the tiny furze/ of red hairs on your cheek’. The final poem in the book, ‘Amsterdammel.’ is a lyrical expression of the desire for the excesses and beauties of a contemporary Babylon – is this meant to mirror the opening poem? –

                              Get me lacquer
                              slick and hardy
                              for the retouching of the
                              of the red tube whores,
                              I’m going to Amsterdam

You can hear the reedy, Jack-White-tone of this, both swagger and imprecation – ‘I’m going to Amsterdam’ – but in the midst of an unrepentant celebration of the attractions of the layered, heterogenous city.

It’s not a shallow tourism-effect that’s being displayed, but a turning over and sharpening, at the same time, of persistent images and moods: we go along with Hose’s attempts to figure out for himself what the experience and dream of Europe has been, even as it remains in the form of an imagistic, even phantasmagoric procession.

So, a short sequence of fractal, seductive, talented poems. What’s also communicated clearly by Rathaus is Duncan Hose’s poetic instinct, which is almost faultless. He instinctively understands the stupid waste of explanation, the fact that poems are separate from us, even as they speak to us from behind the glass that seems to enclose them.