The Tomb of the Unknown Artist
Puncher & Wattmann, $25 pb, 88 pp, 9781925780376
Andy Kissane, who (with Belle Ling) shared the 2019 Peter Porter Poetry Prize, is one of Australia’s most moving poets. He is unfailingly empathetic, a master of poetic narrative – and of the ‘middle style’ where language is not an end in itself but an unobtrusive vehicle for poignancy (or, occasionally, humour or irony). The Tomb of the Unknown Artist, Kissane’s fifth collection, is divided into four thematic sections, all of which contain powerful and memorable poems. Of these, Part Three, a series of monologues from the Vietnam War, is the most disturbing.
Part One comprises mainly personal and family poems, some autobiographical. Others (such as ‘Marriage Material’, a monologue by an Edwardian bride on her wedding day) are examples of extreme empathy – ‘metempsychosis’, as Kenneth Slessor would have said. (‘When I imagined walking down the aisle / I did not know that it would feel like this: / as if I’d been blessed with much more // than I deserved, more than I could grasp: as if / the scent of gardenias and orchids would cling / to my skin for the rest of my days ...’) Other poems in this section also embody this feeling of unapologetic joy, a hard thing to achieve without sentimentality. They include the book’s opening poem, ‘Alone Again’, and several others such as ‘Domestic Dreaming’ and ‘A Personal History of Joy’. The latter ends with how the ‘two-thumbed salute’ of a childhood VFL boundary umpire on a muddy pitch can be ‘a perfect accompaniment to the endorphin light that swamps / your mind as you rise again in the shining world’. It’s not hard to hear an echo of the early Bruce Dawe here.