The Subject of Feeling – Peter Rose – Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Poetry) 2016

“Poetry”…what a large genre/style of literature to be captured in a single word. The Oxford dictionary tells us; “ (n) – Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature:” So what takes your fancy when reading poetry? Is it an art form that requires you to be learned in the art?
When reading Peter Rose’s “The Subject of Feeling”, it would appear as though a background in poetry is almost a prerequisite. Rose, the editor of Australian Book Review, previously the publisher at Oxford University Press in the 1990’s, novelist, winner of the Queensland Literary Award and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for ‘Crimson Crop” (published in 2012 by UWA Publishing, the same publisher as this collection) is a man steeped in literary knowledge.
This collection has literary references galore throughout, Beckett, Pinter, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Bishop (the poem “The Fish”), Frank Wilmot (the poem The Victoria Markets Recollected in Tranquillity”), art references, Titian’s painting “The Vendramin Family Venerating a Relic of the True Cross”, music references through Maria Callas and conductor Jeffrey Tate.  And these references all happen before the section “Twenty-Five New Poems in the Catullan Rag”, a “continuing series of satires in the style of Catullus, the Roman elegist and love poet.”
The collection opens with a very clever and thought provoking “Twenty Questions after Donald Justice” and moves to section I and “Impromptu”, the very Australian image of a swooping magpie;
Moments ago, back from the library
and the noisy, populous park
(that shrill of infantocracy),
I was entering our building when
a magpie swooped – taut dart of surprise.
Day too blithe for amour-propre,
I grinned at the bird, but it was sharp,
implacable, bobbing on the wall like
a boxer in a ring. He would do it again,
and the next time he would aim closer
(that much I knew) –
no veering taunt this time.
For us older folk, the memories of childhood come rushing back vividly through the image of schoolyard incinerators, Derwents, maps, explorers, personally my pre-school days came straight back to me through a single poem “Pinewood”.
A collection steeped in memory and very Australian ones at that, with trips up the Hume Highway (the major road that connects Melbourne and Sydney), the heat of the Mallee (a flat low lying area in North West Victoria – although the definition of the region is somewhat loose), the gnarled hands of the locals, Collingwood Football Club (a much followed Australian Rules Football Team that is the team you either love or hate, black and white their colours and their nickname is the Magpies). With these references thrown on top of the literary ones I could imagine this collection would be hard to decipher for overseas readers.
Although the memory theme is prominent throughout other life events, wheelchairs, paralysis, hospitalisation, and although a book filled with humorous daily observations it is also a very personal journey. The poems taking place in recollection, without the immediacy of the present moment, poems that have evolved as the poet muses over life’s significant events and recollections.
One and on it goes:
self-flagellation followed by recrimination.
The earlier sections very much Australian in theme and subject matter, even more specifically Victorian, with the last section “Twenty-Five New Poems in the Catullan Rag” a contemporary Australian satire on the poems of Catullus (for an online collection of these poems go here), the majority raising a wry smile on my face;
I won’t have it, Suffenus.
Stop lying to your go-go girls,
those dizzy flatterers in the brothel.
It’s not true what you say – it never was.
Catullus may despise you
but he’s never done you an actual injury.
Who took you to Casualty
when you passed out at the discothèque –
who pulled you out of the hedge
when you fell off your bicycle?
Suffenus appears in Catullus’ poems, a bad poet, over rating his own work, a poet who never revises, and Pose has taken this to another level, partying, an audience of admirers who work in brothels, a buffoon.
Again, an understanding of Catullus’ works is probably a pre-requisite here, however I have no background in his poetry and with a little research was able to add more substance to the twenty-five poems, although I am sure a deeper knowledge would allow a better understanding of the satire on show here.

Another fine collection that has made it onto the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for 2016, following on from my reading of “Crankhandle” by Alan Loney. I will finalise my reviews of the Poetry shortlist for this 2016 Award with a review of Lucy Dougan’s “The Guardians” later this week.

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