Star Struck launch
16th October 2016
Paton Books, Geelong
I should begin this launch speech with a disclaimer. Actually, two disclaimers. The first is that I’ve never presented a launch speech before, so I hope I strike a suitable tone and do justice to David’s work. The second disclaimer is that I’ve been a friend of David’s for the last twenty-odd years; he was my supervisor for a Masters degree at Deakin University on Australian Poetry that I regrettably never completed (which was in no way David’s fault); some thirty years ago two of my aunties rented the house in which he now lives; and that house is practically next door to my parents’ current house in Highton. Geelong’s still a small town. So my comments about David’s poetry are of course going to be filtered through that friendship and those connections. I make no claims to this being an objective approach to David’s work.
I was recently asked by an esteemed Melbourne-based poet – who may or may not be the poetry editor for The Age newspaper – whether there is a Geelong poetry mafia. My answer to said poet was ‘no’, but given today’s occasion and looking around the room, it strikes me that maybe there is a Geelong poetry mafia, and that most of its members are gathered here today. And going a step further, it’s probably also correct to suggest that today we are launching another poetry collection by one of the Dons – perhaps the Don – of this small, and mostly reclusive, group of poets. So, before saying anything about the collection itself, I present to you Don McCooey! That has an iconic Australian ring to it, yes?
As most of you will already be aware, for a resident of Geelong, David is an unusual character. He has zero interest in Australian Rules football and seemingly has nothing but scorn for that sacred Geelong site, Kardinia Park. I’m not even sure he knows what ‘holding the ball’ refers to and given there’s a poem in this collection – ‘Jim Morrison’s Aubade’ – that begins ‘You grab my morning / hard-on’, I’m reluctant to ask. I think it’s also fair to say that even though there is an intense interest in local space in David’s poetry, the range of cultural references that permeate his work create poetic spaces that are quite unlike the poetry of other Geelong poets (with the possible exception, unsurprisingly, of Maria Takolander).
During the week I briefly considered discussing Star Struck in relation to David’s two previous book-length poetry collections, Blister Pack (2005) and Outside (2011). I decided against doing so because I don’t want this launch speech to drag on for too long (launch speeches can get very tiresome). However, in rereading those books this week a couple of things struck me (no pun intended). Firstly, in revisiting Blister Pack, I was startled to come across the poem ‘A Perfect Heart’, the third section of which reads:
How could a thing
so melancholy, so ancient,
softer than words, smaller
than a hand, turn out
to be so mechanical
so eighteenth century–
a messenger of nothing
but its own pathology,
waiting like a lover
for a doctor to unlock
with his keyhole surgery? (p 65)
If you’ve already had an opportunity to read the first section of Star Struck, you’ll be aware that the poems there revolve around the heart attack David suffered in 2013. It’s a strange thing (perhaps ‘uncanny’, to borrow a favourite term of David’s and Maria’s) how poems – and indeed collections of poems – ‘speak’ to, and modify, one another. The heart – as poetic symbol in Blister Pack – is something quite different in this new collection.
The other thing I noted is David’s propensity to explore different modes and forms in his poetry. Often when I consider David’s poetry, and his poetics, I think (with admiration) of the quiet tone of the poems and their evocation of defamiliarised local and domestic spaces. But in doing so I’m being simplistic; both Blister Pack and Outside, and now Star Struck, display a keen willingness to experiment with a variety of stylistic and formal strategies. This is certainly not a poet who has mastered one particular mode and keeps trotting out the tried and tested, but rather a poet who is clearly committed to challenging the possibilities of his craft; and that’s one of the reasons, I think, that David’s poetry is held in such high regard by readers of his work.
So, what to make of a title such as Star Struck? I was chatting to Yvonne Adami a couple of weeks ago in the East Geelong Fruit Market (how very mafia of us!) and Yvonne made the comment that Star Struck is ‘a wonderful title’. And it is. It’s also wonderfully apt on a biographical level, since for as long as I’ve known him David has idolised, with considerable self-awareness, a number of celebrity figures, most notably – at least for me – David Bowie, Brian Eno and (and here I’ve often struggled to understand David’s taste in music) the band Wings. I believe Sam, David and Maria’s son, has inherited the obsession with Bowie, but I’m hoping he’s spared Wings.
There are certainly plenty of ‘famous’ names invoked in Star Struck, especially in the book’s third section ‘Pastorals (Eighteen Dramatic Monologues). I’ve already mentioned ‘Jim Morrison’s Aubade’, but here are a few other titles from that section: ‘Mick and Bianca, Newlyweds’; ‘How to be a better Elvis’; and ‘Before and after science (Brian Eno in hospital)’. If these ‘pastoral’ poems are in any way star struck, then it comes with a heavy dose of irony (and irony is a key signature of David’s poetry).
However, I suspect Star Struck, as a title, may be relevant to the poetry in the collection in at least one other way. According to the Intrawebs, there is a dated English usage of the term to mean ‘under the malevolent influence of the stars’. I may be misrepresenting David’s intentions here, but it’s not a huge leap to align this usage of star struck to the book’s first section ‘Documents’ and its moving – and at times very funny – poems relating to David’s heart attack. While these poems might be (as the book’s blurb suggests) confessional, the unsettling use of the second-person and the ironic humour on display ensure that these lyric poems resist melodrama or any wallowing in self-pity. I love the casual tone of ‘Speaking the language’:
And then one day you appear
in Accident and Emergency.
You state your concerns,
and you’re rushed through,
like you’re holding a special pass.
You are put on a bed and hooked
to a machine that soon confirms
a cardiac event. Almost as if
they were not yours, tears start
coursing down the side of your face.
‘What’s the matter?’ a doctor asks.
‘I’m just labile,’ you say,
and the doctor is satisfied.
You are speaking his language.
Language is, of course, what poetry is all about. That final line resonates throughout Star Struck, even as the poetry abruptly changes tonal registers and shifts between different formal strategies and thematic preoccupations. At the core of David’s poetry is a brilliant capacity to ‘speak the language’.
I’d like to conclude this launch speech – not with some rousing enunciation of how fine a collection Star Struck is, even though the book certainly deserves that – but instead by reading the final poem, which I think captures perfectly a sense of being star struck by the everyday, the wonder of simply being alive:
The hum of the late train
begins the night’s soundtrack.
Bats make their ungodly
noise just outside your window,
above the distant growl of
trucks working down their gears.
A voice that could be yours
murmurs in your son’s bedroom.
You bless everything
that is yours to lose,
a sunless bid for all the things
that go without saying.
Is that ‘sunless bid’ not just a little ‘star struck’, to put a different slant on the term? I think so. And with that, I’d like to officially launch Star Struck on its way. May the poems be read far and wide.