Another Country

Review by Angela Gardner


Goddess of Mercy

S.K. Kelen
Brandl & Schlesinger Poetry; Blackheath NSW; 2002 71pp
ISBN: 1 876040 40 8


Many of S. K. Kelen’s poems that I have read describe another country. The most recognisable is Vietnam and I have wondered if the excitement of new places has facilitated his work. In Goddess of Mercy there is a sensuality recognisable from his Vietnam poems, or those that I attribute to that country, but in the almost prose-style Canberra poems, which are the entry point of this book, there is also an honesty and strength. The god Pan is “All glands and rankness, his shaggy coat / Putrid with the smell of ewes, wallabies, / Kangaroos…” [‘Kambah Pool’, p.12]. The language is robust and fit for its task in describing his own country “Household junk, permanently carked-it” [‘O’Connor Ridge’, p.9] or ”the misty bits / Are the heat haze eucalypts ooze sweating summer’s / Fine air…” [‘Magpie Hill’ p.11]. 

But the heart of the book, as with all of S. K. Kelen’s poetry, is the scope and vision he allows himself in describing his country which as one reads realises itself as not just this place he lives, Australia or the place he visits but more particularly the inner country he inhabits that informs his work. He is not circumscribed by subject matter but rather frees it into a larger vision.

“…prayer that illuminates heart
spanning galaxies, each star
a lamp lighting the path or revealing
a world that is a dancing girl in bas relief
who can dance five thousand eons
one way and five thousand eons the other.”

from ‘Neon Halo’ [p.18]

Yet he also inhabits the current ‘world’ of consumerism and mass media; weekend magazines full of escape and possessions (promises with their attendant caveat ‘as long as you can pay for them’). This is a poet who is not above Buffy and Homer (Simpson, that is) and so is able to make his serious points through subject matter that is varied, effortless and playful.

But life is not always playful and S. K. Kelen recognises and acknowledges that in the 41 poems in this collection, many of which have been published elsewhere, but which collected together allow him to engage more deeply with his varied subject matter. In ‘Back Home’ he writes of ‘Those epic journeys to Centrelink…” [p.20] acknowledging that not all of the dimensions he opens up or describes are physical.  Also in the same poem his imagery and metaphor of the non-native trees planted in Canberra,

…‘The road is
Deepest bitumen and trees, immigrated
And assimilated, wave from the nature strip’

struck me as perfect in its ability to give multi-layered satisfaction. The ideas in these poems allow you to be left with questions rather than answers.  Is it significant that these immigrants are on the edge of the road? Is Canberra the perfect example of assimilation? Being an artificially created city and renowned, perhaps unfairly, for its sterility and the politicians that blow in for the working week? This aspect of Australian society appears again in the long poem ‘Attitude: Don Juan in the Shopping Mall’ [p.50] where the eponymous subject of the poem finds ‘an island / Of peaceful streets and shopping malls’.

Sometimes a word or phrase breaks an image beside an image too large to describe. It is a captivating device. I particularly enjoyed ‘far thunder laughs (chariot) a few rain drops’ from ‘Falling Rain’ [p.22] and ‘I’ve / fallen for technology (fleeting magic)’ from ‘Fuel Injection’ [p.23]. These for me are examples of the poet being generous enough to give us clues which allow us to use our imagination, to put together the image ourselves so we may make our own journey. Although the poems traverse many landscapes their fulcrum is a constant still point. The poet has not achieved disinterestedness but rather a deep engagement.

There are times though when I feel the weight of the poet’s seriousness, when I worry that he is too earnest, too didactic, but then the words seduce me again. In the poem ‘Understand’ [p.61] Kelen describes the loss of habitat to bulldozer and concrete but rewards us with the counterpoint of some delicate images

‘the snails who sips spider’s milk
eat flowers they live as frogs once did
when it rains and just after…’

This is the realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and for those who have visited Australia’s rainforests it is also almost documentary. It is the strength of the poet that he can make it appear both. Yet the danger is real and worth the poet’s care in both dreamy description and documentation in this poem and also in ‘Wood’ [p.24] for ‘wild animal souls / depart for the cloud world / (where else is there for them to go?)’.

S. K. Kelen’s Goddess of Mercy was shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year, The Dinny O’Hearn Poetry Prize and The Victorian Premier’s Literary Award The C.J. Dennis Prize for Poetry, it was also shortlisted for The Australian Capital Territory Book of the Year Award in 2003.