A review of Not What You Think by Clark Gormley

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Not What You Think
by Clark Gormley
Pocket Poet Series
Flying Island Books
December 19, ISBN: 978-99965-57-41-5, $10aud

Clark Gormley is a funny guy. As President of Newcastle’s Poetry at the Pub, he’s a well-known local, who also performs his one and sometimes two-man shows all over the country. Fans of Gormley’s theatrical productions and impromptu performances will recognise some of the pieces, and will enjoy printed access to the same brand of irreverent, light-hearted but topical pieces. Not What You Think very deliberately and pleasurably counters the idea that poetry has be about “serious”, “high art” topics, or key transitional moments in life. The poems in this collection are about many things that would normally be considered outside the realm of poetry: large screen TV, bluebottles, living room furniture, lever arch folders, soap, and cargo trousers (in this instance the author walks the talk, as I have only ever seen him in cargos):

Pockets and pockets! Pockets galore!
Hanging from your hip they swing and rattle
with your stride, a dance partner apparel
that’s guaranteed to follow your lead.

As the sample above shows, these are poems in the best kind of oral tradition – lighthearted and witty, utilising rhythm and rhyme, repetition, aphorisms, axioms, and wordplay. The work is consistently fun, but also shines a light on human foibles. In a way that is unique to Gormley, the poetry comes on like a dad joke but often ends up hitting a serious note, exploring such serious topics as device addiction, Melanoma, climate change and solar power, crass capitalism, the loss of civil liberties, government ineptitude, gullibility, and big business greed. The book never loses it’s droll wittiness, nor does it ever take itself too seriously as it takes an easy approach to securing a mattress to the roof of a car, hanging in a hammock or decluttering:

That Zen business of
giving it away with
all of its paradoxes seems
to be innately worthy
being cleansed by simply
letting go.

The book is structured into six sections: “Sea and Sun”, “Domesticity”, “Haiku”, “Senryu”, “Technology”, and “Suburbia.” Aside from the Haiku and Senryu, which are, of course, types of short Japanese style poems, the other sections are built largely around thematics and subject matter. Haiku and Senryu have the same construction, but the Senryu focus more on the human and less on nature. I particularly liked “Black Wash”, which, like many of the poem in the collection, had me nodding knowingly:

tissue in the wash
confetti on everyone
at the funeral

Gormley, a self-confessed nerd, is well up on his technology and pokes fun at modern processes that we’ve all struggled with like paywave, drones, getting an attractive passport photo when you aren’t allowed to smile, meditation apps, Polaroid glasses, booking an appointment at the barber, editing, and googling:

I was searching for the milk of human kindness
so I looked it up on the net.
I found it in the land of milk and honey.
Apparently you can get it
in soy as well these days. (“So I looked it up on the net”)

As you might expect, both the Sea and Sun and Suburbia sections are locally situated in Newcastle, parodying the Club TV screen on Memorial Drive against the beauty and activities of the beach itself (“Must be at least 10,000 inch./In fact, I can’t even see the edge of it.”), Dixon Park, the Stockton Ferry, and whales on bar beach to King Edward Park and The Station all figure in this book, which will have a ring of familiarity to local readers. The Suburbia section has a flaneur quality, following the rhythms of regular observations: the pavement, trees being stripped near electricity wires, a sprinkler system, a backing truck alarm, or the monotonous repetition of an Eastern Koel:

And you think that you can sing?
Your screeches aren’t fooling anyone.
I’m sorry, but you simply don’t have
the range. You start way too high.
The intervals in whatever obscure
scale you’re attempting get smaller
as you approach your upper limit.

For anyone who thinks poetry needs to be experimental, difficult, overly-complex, or high-blown, Not What You Think is the antidote. Gormley’s poetry book is a pleasure to read and even more of a pleasure to read aloud.  If you’re able to catch Gormley performing his work, that’s the ideal, as these are poems that are not only able to be sung, but work perfectly accompanied by acoustic guitar and a wry vernacular, but they also work beautifully on the page.  This is work that operates in the language of the people – or as Les Murray put it, the ‘vernacular republic’. In looking so closely at the everyday, Gormley not only reminds us that poetry is everywhere, and everything is fodder for a rhyme, a ponder, and a turn of phrase, but also that our lives are all richer than we think.