Contemporary Australian Poetry.
book review - Love Poems and Death Threats by Samuel Wagan Watson
(Love Poems and Death Threats, UQP, 2014)
‘We are all watermarked without signs of recession,
The river lurks in the shadows of our apocalyptic horizons’.
Samuel Wagan Watson has said that a death threat is essentially a love poem in its composition, written with the same urgency and passion. The key point in this statement in regard to Wagan Watson’s poetry is that the poems seem to always hit their mark as a death threat might.
Simply put, his fourth collection of poetry, aptly titled Love Poems and Death Threats, is a triumph: a gathering of emotional endurance and experience and a book of searching and discovery.
This collection is a fine example of what Wagan Watson has done so well throughout his career, voicing the anguish of an Indigenous Australia still scarred by invasion and history’s cruel denial, while also exploring the current state of the country. A key strength in the work is the approach Wagan Watson takes, always acknowledging positive beside the negative and using personal reflection to evoke his raw, sometimes dark vision.
Expanding on the work he began in his first collection Of Muse, Meandering and Midnight (1999), his engagement with political injustices is uncompromising and very carefully considered.
There is a large focus on heritage and ancestry, looking back at the past in order to consider the future, where the elders ‘are well acquainted with the unlucky’ (‘Throw Salt’). There are also harrowing reflections of growing up in a changed Australia. ‘Finn’, a haunting poem that uses the comparison of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as its basis, is a fine example of an invaded childhood, lamenting the change of the land following colonisation, calling up the memory of a river that is no longer ‘a vent of childhood adventure’.
An aspect of the work that makes it hit home is the fact that Wagan Watson takes a very personal stance, using his own childhood to demonstrate the impact of such changes to the landscape, as Indigenous landmarks and heritage have vanished after Australia ‘relinquished association’:
‘It has been known as Miramar and Brisbane and Lord knows
any other alias in these days of terror and suspicion.’
Here the dark undertones serve as a vehicle for a direct and thorough exploration of the changes within culture and country. The ‘death threats’ in the collection aren’t so much promises of violence as swipes at perpetrators, detractors and the self-concerned, the heartless and the oblivious, who ‘look upon you as a ‘trash heap’ and not a factotum from an ochre Babylon’.
Although people often appear within the poems, the primary focus is on the land, namely an Australia where ‘the sea is threatened, the earth torn’ (‘Sentinel’).
And despite the cruelty and violence it has endured, the poet admires the land and its power and beauty despite those who attempt to conquer it:
‘the midden remains: guardian of memory.
The midden remains sacred.
The midden remains, sentinel.’
As well as its exploration of indigenous Australia, this is also a book of simple reflections on love and the inevitable negativity one holds towards love that has passed, be that in a personal or cultural sense.
When love goes wrong it can be piercing, but the simple celebrations of connection are beautiful.
In ‘This Wonderful jezebel’ Wagan Watson writes of his ‘torturous, sweet muse’ and professes that ‘telling me she loved me was the best literary fiction she’ll ever compose.’
The stark contrast of love and resentment is powerful, and the reader gets the sense that perhaps these two sides of the spectrum aren’t dissimilar. Like the landscape of a country, the body is invaded by love, and it is clear that some scars may never heal, and even in healing leave their mark. This creates an effective marriage between the two subjects and the results are stunning.
The love poems are very moving, naked in their honesty, odes to past love and the tumultuous journey the mind endures for deeper connection.
For all of his brilliant work documenting the plight of indigenous Australians amidst injustice, some of the finest poems in this collection are the ones that simply recount personal instances of heartbreak and longing, or even celebrations of intimacy.
Simplicity is used as a weapon by Wagan Watson, choosing to state directly in order to expose a feeling. His lyricism is evocative and his voice feels concise and genuine.
Unforgiving is a standout, reflecting on a declaration of love within his past:
‘I will never forgive myself for telling you
that I loved you
Struggling on my knees for a season in hell
little glass skulls dingle in my ears
as the breeze whispers
from the memory of your salty lips.’
Most of these works are prose poems, free flowing and centred on an event or experience, but Wagan Watson also experiments with form and metre freely and at times very effectively. Humour is also welcome to stand beside the darkness, as we have come to expect from this highly interesting poet.
The idea of home is explored subtly throughout the work; home as a material place and as a spiritual one. Wagan Watson also raises questions about the possibility of home being a connection shared by two people in love.
The reader also finds themselves questioning if home can ever truly exist for a people that have been uprooted and taken from all they know to be a sense of belonging, while also showing a resilience and an ability to accept and adapt:
‘… although prone
To insomnia, self-loathing and
I feel quite comfortable
In this city that can’t seem to sleep.’
An extremely rewarding book from an important and fascinating Australian voice. With its deft explorations of such basic human experience and its uncompromising and expert studies of the nation’s history, Love Poems and Death Threats may just be Samuel Wagan Watson’s finest work to date.