Stephen Kelen’s new book is an ambitious, wide and free-ranging journey through past and present, war and peace, family life, travel and technology. It has all the hallmarks of Kelen’s previous books: a marvellous ear and restless eye, a gift for narrative that challenges as much as it reaffirms, and a willingness to tackle anything that takes his attention. These (mostly) narrative poems have a relaxed, conversational style, even when Kelen’s subject matter is bleak and charged with menace: ‘The gun going off / made us laugh till even our / humanity couldn’t give a shit // The police came and went / and we thought about that’ (‘Deadheads’). This relaxed, colloquial style is at the heart of much of the book, and the opening poem, ‘A City’, works as a short, lyrical template for what is to come: rural, urban, celestial, domestic, political, technological. Kelen works a spell and places them all into fourteen lines. It is a tight, promising beginning.
In 1927 the London firm Chatto & Windus published a book titled A Chinaman’s Opinion of Us and of His Own People. Supposedly the translated letters of a young Chinese man, Hwuy-Ung, sent home during his years spent in Melbourne, the writing suggested itself to its European and Australian readership as a delightful take on their society as witnessed by an innocent outsider; an enchanting, amusing and unwittingly insightful journal of a sensitive and bewildered Oriental gentleman. Written by an Australian called Theodore John Tourrier, the book was eventually exposed as a hoax, a cheeky, vaudeville-style tease hamming up the image of the courteous and comical Chinaman.