Stephen K Kelen

Mount Parnassus remains a proscribed destination for the moment, but Aidan Coleman’s Mount Sumptuous (Wakefield Press, $22.95 pb, 56 pp) provides an attractive local alternative. Following on from the poems of love and recovery in Asymmetry (2012), this collection marks the poet’s reawakened appetite for the sublimities and subterfuges of suburban Australia, from cricket pitches ‘lit like billiard tables’ and Blue Light Discos to the flammable wares of Best & Less and the implacable red brick of ‘all-meat / towns’. As these poems and their pseudo-pedagogical endnotes show, Coleman is a keen philologist of the language of commerce. The title’s ‘sumptuous’ (from the Latin sumptus for ‘expense’) keys us in to the vital ambivalence of a poetry, which on the one hand honours the rituals of everyday consumption (‘lounging / book in hand, Tim Tams / … tea a given’), and on the other speaks to the exploitative logic of consumer capitalism (‘Take the juiceless fruits / of day labour and a white / goods salesman’s leaden chicanery’).

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In 1982 a young Steve Kelen published a slim volume by an even younger poet by the name of Luke Davies. Four Plots for Magnets was a chapbook of thirteen poems written mostly when the poet was eighteen and nineteen. Published by Glandular Press, an outlet established by Kelen and the painter Ken Searle in 1980, this ‘sampler’ (as Kelen later calls i ...

‘Dark satanic mills won the day’, S.K. Kelen tells us in one of his strongest poems, ‘Slouching’. ‘Cold modernity followed, a brooding European / monochrome hinted at worlds passing (the good old days).’ What many critics take to be William Blake’s damning of the Industrial Revolution – ‘And was Jerusalem builded here, / Among these dark Satanic Mills?’ (from ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, c.1804) – could easily have served as an epigraph for Kelen’s Island Earth. The industrial age, its intrusion upon great swathes of the ‘emerald world’, has been variously and often compellingly dissected by Kelen throughout his poetic career, which spans more than three decades and is represented in this New and Selected. Also scrutinised is industrialism’s accomplice and enabler: the increasingly global economy that, for Kelen, has made a hostile takeover of human activity at almost every level.

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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.

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Most of the poetry books reviewed come out in issues of less than one thousand, most of them well below five hundred. This must make Australia’s census of avid poetry readers no more than five thousand, or .002%. It is not surprising, then, that most published Australian poetry revolves around the process of writing for the poet’s poetic friends. This creates a very élitist form of communication and promises to do nothing to encourage more Australians to read poetry, because often the poetry written has nothing to do with the lives or interests of 99.998% of this country’s population.

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