In Proportion

Blushing Hotbook cover

Poetry review by Angela Gardner

Sputnik’s Cousin: New Poems

by Kent MacCarter
Transit Lounge, 2014
ISBN: 9781921924675
144pp  AUD$24.00

Sputnik’s Cousin: New Poems, his third collection in six years, is subtitled New Poems but in reality the 141 pages contain not just poems but also interspersed prose pieces. The book is divided into sections: ‘Smoke Odes’, ‘Stencil’, ‘Fat Chance’ (prose), ‘Gazette’, ‘Beiderbecke’, ‘Pork Town’ (prose) and ‘Zoo’.

The first section, ‘Smoke Odes’, probes the human need for addiction, (our addiction to addiction), the once blighted habitat of the lungs and that rift between language and meaning when specific medical jargon reads like computer generated poetry. In hospital to have a stent procedure

…a shaky hallway menthol smoke and gastric wind. Design:
Cock-out calligraphy. Smock. A catheter of Winnie Blues. …
          Medtronic built my Hotrod p19

In ‘You and a clandestine getaway after John Forbes’, the opening poem of the first section, there are places where the gender neutrality of personal pronouns in English is replaced by its gendered alternative

a lover who slid down
an out-of-town waterfall between
brushy gropes of real banana
leaves and nematodes
into he lagoon…


                                            …Since, you’ve split
apart a wayward dinghy can’t resist
when kissing Dover’s chalky arse
our clapping
she limestone riffs your fibs engaged in rhythm
games. …
           ‘You and a clandestine getaway after John Forbes’ p15

To show these are not typos or printer’s errors the instances are italicised. Indeed this substitution also happens in later poems. A way of saying – see how gender changes everything, even the way you see an object or relate to a phrase within a poem. Gender makes a difference to our understanding of the concrete and the abstract and MacCarter wants us to notice, to think, react and respond.

At some point in reading Sputnik’s Cousin I thought of the Australian artist Ben Quilty and his ‘flawed masculinity’ project. Yes there are poems containing flawed characters, but also the best and worst that men can be: Bix Beiderbecke and Hitler/Albert Speer. I started thinking of Sputnik’s Cousin as an essay in masculinities but that also is too simplistic a reading of the work. Yes this is first person and the stance is male, and sexual and yet, and yet, I am aware of his use of a quote from Kathy Acker in the epigraph to ‘XX. Dining out with ms pac-man’: “We don’t have a clue what it is to be male or female”1 acknowledging gender’s construction existing in relation to our place within society, but also the difficulty of mentally inhabiting the other’s different bodily experience. Yet MacCarter through research in language and society (academic papers in sociolinguistics) as well as the non-fiction public radio of This American Life does not let this set a limit on his exploration. It is unsurprising then that his poetry, all dazzle and overwhelm at its first read, come into better focus on a second read.

The author is wakeful, alert and at times hyper-active. He is bored by the disambiguation of a famous puppet show (‘You and a clandestine getaway after John Forbes’ p15), but also you feel by too literal expression, he moves language away from descriptive semblance easily to metaphor and meaning. There are traditional forms: pantoums (‘Regarding that brunette from Idaho’ and ‘Modern institution built from concrete and glass’) and an entire section, ‘Stencil’, containing 33 sonnets set out as paired quatrains followed by paired tercets, poems utilising the unifying convention of end and half rhymes among the thoughtful configuration of line-ends that split apart and are respliced.

The strong narratives of the two prose pieces (sensational in the case of ‘Fat Chance’, meaty in the case of ‘Pork Town’) each contain sustained metaphors that are consciously selected and ordered from their raw material of ‘fact’. It takes the repeated telling of vignettes of miraculous survivals (or not) from the wreckage of air crashes, death by drinking water, the unnecessary felling of an ancient tree or the putting down of a pet for the reader to see the commonalities of the tales of fact or possibly fiction. These incidents of reportage always end with a seemingly related yet slightly disconnected coda – less a punchline more awkward twist that requires an ironic double-take.

It takes thousands of words in ‘Pork Town’ and some great images ‘His jog intact, but coasting now at the pace of trivia’ (p111) to tell the story of “…that prick? That meat. That cheeseburger. That shit. This footpath. A breakfast. Your arteries. My carcass.” p117. It is well worth the journey from a stranger shitting in the street to the history of an abattoir, through Strasbourg and weisswurst to another stranger and his exposed erection in a front yard, to the pork barrelling of ‘swine visionaries’ and ‘pork magnates’. The narrative does not shy away from the details of butchery, the use of “lips and assholes, spleens, sphincters and penises’ (p121) that then ties in all the elements of the story, reminding ‘that perhaps it is you who is the gerbil’ (p121) up the arse of the city. I wasn’t going to write much in this review about the prose, but the audacity and strength of the writing adds to the experience of reading the collection and gives a showcase for MacCarter’s versatility as a writer.

A stunning poem ‘Convocation of three men at a suburban train station’, in the section ‘Gazette’, tells the story of three under-employed men jerking off together at a train station – the epitome of ‘idle hands’. It opens with a description of fast food litter and chaos theory an alignment both unexpected and perfect. As trains “detumesce a city’s juice” (p71) the men ready themselves with porn “ecumenically handed off/ between them…”(p.72). Unattainable business women are delivered past them by the carriage full as naked the men are “nothing more than cornered deer” (p.72) the fight or flight of adrenaline releasing the overwhelming desire for sex as “…the bones/ of men clack together with all that which remains.” (ibid p72).

The section ‘Beiderbecke’ named after Bix, the legendary jazz musician, is a syncopated response to the music itself. The poems reference its time and what was condemned as degenerate by the Nazi’s is shown as the real thing…Jesse Owen’s achievements posed against a snake-charming alternative. And at the end of the section the music of the Velvet Lounge in Chicago pulses out “bolt after bolt of Velvet.” (The Hose Candidate p.108)
The final section ‘Zoo’ is a Noah’s Ark of animal references and contains poems of a jailbreak of animals from Melbourne Zoo, cloning and the closest of genetic relationships of chimps to humans. I was struck by the use of like-sounding substitutes ‘bi-products’ for by-products, ‘the valet of the dollies’ for The Valley of the Dolls and how this enriches the text. The emphasis in this poem is on understanding what it is that is the essential human: hairless, undressed, its life compared to possibility and counterpart in wide-ranging images ending spectacularly in an airborne hermaphrodite flying over a very sexual delta.

The front cover image by James Bonnici, with its atmosphere of a ‘Nighthawks’ that has been drained of humans and replaced by vending machines is in a way incongruous to the content of a collection that is so densely peopled. The epigraphs have quotes from a who’s who of poets and thinkers that MacCarter has been reading: Forbes, Ashbery, Gunn, Kleinzhaler, Acker, Dorn, Kristeva and Stephen Jay Gould to mention but a few. The collection also travels in a physical not just a literary sense – from a cosmopolitan grunge-Melbourne to the USA. With MacCarter’s early life spent in America, as was Philip Hammial’s, it may be unsurprising that that it is American influences on his work that appear most profound with the secular ecstatic of August Kleinzhaler, though not quite the ease and musicality of rhythm, being brought most prominently to mind. But MacCarter’s own voice is strongly his own and consistent and rich as it ranges across his subjects.

Not every reader believes that poetry’s purpose is to challenge and confront but prefers a safer domain – this book is not for the faint-hearted. MacCarter’s subject matter and muscular diction challenge the appalling ‘nicety’ of much Australian poetry. In the opening poem, the poet says, “I’ve juiced of my years a curious patchwork/ a dosage of diminishing returns”. There is of course something male and sexual about the choice of the word ‘juiced’ but also it says that every last bit has been extracted, has been thrown in the juicer and had the hell bashed out of it to get to what is nourishing and essential. Denis Diderot said, “Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.”2 In Sputnik’s Cousin MacCarter has achieved this. This is poetry that does not (thank god!) ‘keep itself nice’.


Angela Gardner's biography —>

The full quote “We don't have a clue what it is to be male or female, or if there are intermediate genders. Male and female might be fields which overlap into androgyny or different kinds of sexual desires. But because we live in a Western, patriarchal world, we have very little chance of exploring these gender possibilities." Cited on Wikipedia as but no longer found.

"On Dramatic Poetry" (1758), as quoted in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker