Poet John Hawke's second collection of poems is humorous but may well go over the heads of its readers

The title poem of this collection is among its best. Picture: Shutterstock
The title poem of this collection is among its best. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Whirlwind Duststorm, by John Hawke. Grand Parade Poets, $19.95.

It will be interesting to see what mainstream readers and reviewers of Australian poetry make of John Hawke's second collection, Whirlwind Duststorm. In some quarters it may well be overpraised; in others, undervalued or ignored.

Undoubtedly, the collection is not without humour, but the butt of its satire can sometimes be elusive. The cultural references are extraordinarily wide, almost hyperbolically so.

Its provenance is not obvious. There is more than a hint of French symbolism though the sardonic tone is probably from somewhere else (with Baudelaire the exception perhaps).

In parts, the book is deeply European; in others, resonantly Australian. Certainly, as poetic avant-gardists like to say of their rivals, it does not "infantilise its readers".

If Hawke is primarily a satirist, as his publisher claims, satirists need to aim at the heads of their audience, not over the top of them.

Of the book's 23 poems, three stand out as tours de force: "The Demolition of Hotel Australia", "The Wedding" and the title poem, "Whirlwind Duststorm".

They are among the longest poems in the book and benefit from momentum built up over several pages.

Hawke's Australian credentials are more than clear in the first of these three. The famous Sydney building was torn down in 1971. Hawke may be incidentally ridiculing the philistinism that did this but the poem is primarily a lament (though hardly a naive one) for something distinctly Australian now lost.

Its tone is suggested by the statement: "... The fixed ecstatic mask / of Kenneth Slessor is laid out on a billiards table / as returned servicemen circle, brandishing their tusks / to the strangulated, despairing cries of two-up / from an elevator permanently frozen." Just exactly what Hawke means by the servicemen "brandishing their tusks" is less than obvious but this doesn't impede the poem's onward progress.

"The Wedding", subtitled "after Archie Shepp" (the avant garde saxophonist), is a seven-page prose account of an extravagant, and somewhat surreal, wedding by a narrator who seems to wonder what he's doing there. It has all the sustained and confused vividness of a nightmare.

The title poem is even stranger but no less effective. Its protagonist seems to be a radio announcer with ageing and disappointed communist affiliations. Again it's a fairly surreal trip which captures more than a little of what we can now, with the advantage of hindsight, see as the impracticality of that movement in Australia at the time.

  • Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.
This story Hawke's new collection of satire is strangely elusive first appeared on The Canberra Times.