A review of Year of the Wasp by Joel Deane

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Year of the Wasp
By Joel Deane
Hunter Publishers (Penguin)
May 2016, Paperback, 112 pages, RRP:$19.95, ISBN-13:9780994352859

The wasp paralyses its host by laying eggs into them. The sting is painful, aggressive and unlike the bee, the wasp can sting repeatedly. In Joel Deane’s new poetry book Year of the Wasp, wasps carry many meanings. The most concrete is the pain and paralysis caused by sudden stroke. In 2012, Deane suffered a stroke, and much of the work is charged by those experiences. Wasps also represent retribution, incoherence, confusion, anxiety, motivation, the buzzing noise (our ‘lizard minds’, the to-do lists, or perhaps even social media) that fills the modern world, transformation, and the sting of a painkilling needle that leads us to paralysis. Wasps fly through the pages, even as punctuation marks – causing excitement, exclamation, action: “Turn people into verbs.”

The book is divided into three sections. The first section begins with the shock of stroke: a story in verse of transition through pain, helplessness, and above all the loss and rediscovery of language. The character arc is compelling, and draws the reader deep into the heart of pain, helplessness and fear in the most intimate and powerful way. This section is driven by the initial drama: the moment of sting when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, and everything changes. The speaker prays for rain and abundance as we all do, and instead wasps rain down, stinging and paralysing:

every wasp was born in fury
and showered down and
stung and did not slake the thirst. (2)

Though the narrative presents a fast-paced story of ambulance, medication, confusion and return, we’re in the realm of poetry, which can be dream-like, with a multitude of simultaneous meanings. The poems operate on several levels at once, from the struggles of a failed body and its attempts to come back from the nightmare of motor neurone degradation, to the writer’s daily struggle to make sense of language and the self against an increasingly incomprehensible world. Throughout there is the wasp, deliberately distracting us:

           The wasp
that was inside
the ward
is now inside
(his head) (9)

The writing is rich with allusion, but also medical language, allegory, political speech, and mythology. Tithonus and Icarus mingle with Japanese Keiju; printmaking with filmmaking. Meanwhile wasps are everywhere, creating mass aphasia with their buzzing. The only way forward is through the sting:

Drowning in darkness,
car buffeted on the bluff,
they wait
for the Ferris wheel of the horizon
to crawl forward
and face another day of fire.

And call this faith. (27)

The second section of the book is called “Eight Views of Nowhere”, a nod to artist Meredith Squires’ 2014 exhibition by the same name. This series of poems begins is like a journey to the centre of the self. The wasps have returned, though metamorphisised into something rather different:

And the wasps, born anew
diurnally as deities would,
should they be reproduced to scale on
the digital archival paper that holds tehse views,
be reborn as dragons (31)

The journey invokes Icarus, with his hubris and fall, and reminds the reader that humanity is also flying too close to the sun:

fear sets me free, gives me flight,
transforms me from an insect
into something greater/lesser, blinding me
to the moment fast approaching when
these wings are no longer able to defy
gravity and I, too, shall fall
from the monochrome sky
and break my imagined self against
the footpath of a confected world. (31)

The poems in this section explore the artistic process and the relationship between illusion and beauty:

hard as obsidian,
that will burn until I fade –
blind the eternity of midnights
with the blink of one midday. (37)

The final section, “Time’s Carrion Compass Course” is the most confronting and political. Though the themes are subtly handled, Deane presents a catalogue of state-sanctioned crimes, such as the internment of refugees on Manus Island: “embalmed alive//with razor wire”, roadkill in Yarra and Toorak, poverty, guns and violence in Knoxville, Tennessee, drone strikes in Afghanistan, and bombs dropped in the 1940s on Tokyo. Wasps once again make an appearance through this section, but they’re the wasps of retribution; the visible sign of our greed:

This devil’s bridge
buttressed by the bleached stones
of bodies broken
by our scourge. (49)

Though Year of the Wasp is an intense read, it ends on an affirmative note. From the battlefield, detention camps, hospitals and prisons, the reader is pulled back into the domestic. There is no promise that we will get out unscathed: “I would like to say otherwise,/say that such a day shall never come;” (53), nor are we absolved from all that we have done, and must attempt to make right, but all we can do is our best: “will have to be enough–/it will—“ (55).

The last two poems in the book are particularly exquisite, charged by the guilt that precedes them, lightened with the black humour of open source software gods, and concluded with the most tender of couplets. Year of the Wasp manages a perfect balance between the intimate and the political. For its precision, its relevance, and the striking aptness of its metaphors, Year of the Wasp is a tremendously moving collection that deserves close attention.