A review of Ambulances & Dreamers by Bel Schenk

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Ambulances & Dreamers
by Bel Schenk
Wakefield Press
ISBN 9781862548183, RRP $19.95, November 2008, PB 96

There’s a funky youthful quality to Bel Schenk’s Ambulances & Dreamers that almost belies the intensity of her poetry. The book opens with a little game (“Begin with a Gift”), forcing the reader’s attention and tricking us with its unmet promise. This playfulness invites participation, and follows through to the “Special Bonus Track” at the end: a familiar gift in an unfamiliar format. The co-mingling of the playful and serious; the immediate impact of modernity with the timelessness of emotion, continues through the book. Although the poems are dynamic and fun, with playful structures, contemporary references, and a kind of pop progression, there is almost always reference to a lonely interior where silences can never be fully bridged.

The poems take the reader on a series of travels: from cafes, festivals, and restaurants in Australia and around the world – London, Germany, Canada, America. The poetry tells the story of a wanderer; of transitions, of train stations and bus stops, of foreign food, and observations. Much of the terrain is dusky evening. Many of the poems chart the moment when something changes. When the familiar becomes unfamiliar or a friendly situation becomes confusing. All the poems co-mingle the ordinary with the extraordinary. Toilets flush, people prepare meals, laundry spins, and magazines get flicked through. Meanwhile, under the routine, life changes, love affairs end, murder happens, genocide is recalled, suicide occurs. It’s a heady mix that both mirrors and parodies life:

And on this train ride. With hangovers and hunger
and packets of crisps, licking salt from the bag,
with plastic cups of coffee and tea…
we talk about writing to change.
About wasting nothing. (55, “Bars and Concentration Camps”)

The iconic references are frequent enough to lure in the hippest of readers, and much of the poems are humorous. A series of “available” fortunes are listed in “These Fortunes are Currently Available”, including such things as “He may be ugly but remember how desperate you are.” There are lighthearted “inbox” poems, footnotes that outdo the main poem, the surprise pleasure of a Chinese food burp, a series of reflections on Felafels, the continual appearance of Val Kilmer, a variety of coffees and meals in all sorts of places, and the sound of an iPod playing through headphones. It’s as contemporary, easy and instant as a ‘slam’, but deeper, more intense, as an unerring sense of solitude creeps through in the oddest places:

the freeze of a movie embrace
the dull ache of a last kiss
the numbness of the still. (5, “Birthday Dinner”)

Though there is a deep, warm sadness that underlies even the funniest of poems, there is also often an upbeat twist: some permanent beauty in the original metaphor that breaks through the undercurrent of pain. The Kilmer mystery is left unsolved and just a little titilating, the trip comes off, dinner is served, the kiss takes place, and there is the perfect ten somersault grandeur of sunrise:

To see sunrise reappear
like a friend with two full pints
drifting back from the bar” (“Drift Back”)

Bel Schenk’s Ambulances & Dreamers s a pleasurable and exciting book from a poet who has primarily become known through her distinctive performances. The innate music and obvious buzz of modern life flows through these poems like electricity. This is a collection which has power and joy in its freshness.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast www.blogtalkradio.com/compulsivereader, and Bel Schenk is our next guest.