A review of A Vicious Example by Michael Aiken

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

A Vicious Example
Sydney 1934 1392k1 – 1811 1682k2 and other poems
by Michael Aiken
Grand Parade Poets
$24,95, 2014, 9780987129185

Taken as a whole, Aiken’s A Vicious Example presents the reader with a series of paradoxes. The poems move between the seen and unseen; the commonplace and the unfamiliar; the immediate and the forgotten past. These disparate notions overlap in his work, causing the reader to feel both a sense of déjà vu, and a cognitive dissonance that comes with finding yourself in a familiar place made strange. It’s an unusual mix, but it works, partly due to the Aiken’s deep, micro-type observations, and the undercurrent of an almost physical pain in the unfolding that seems to drive each poem forward. All of the poems are set in Sydney suburbs, often presenting the same scene in different light, with a different gloss, as a painter might do. The book opens with the section ‘come and see…’ and this is something of a theme throughout – the notion of looking at the familiar in a new way, so that it opens out. The scenes are generally domestic ones – shoppers walking through a park in Burwood, frogs croaking at St Marys during night patrol, aircraft flying overhead in Dulwich Hill. These are all familiar sounds; people getting on in their neighbourhoods – pedestrian perhaps, and yet there’s something almost sinister in the way the moment is taken out of context and brought into the foreground, as in the many poems about “night music”:

– not car after car in the rain –
and sporatic street machines heard only briefly,
somewhere in the distance
beyond the silence of the owl-filled trees. (“Night music, Dulwich Hill”)

Each of the poems is linked to the natural world and there are many birds, animals, parks, ponds, trees, clouds – a shifting series of scenes that create a bridge between the human and the non-human. Humanity however, comes across as the perpetual loser – an antagonist creating an anti pastoral:

    A tern
ribs and skin
squalls out lead

as pliers are applied
to the hook. (“Augury”)

There is an ongoing play in the way the poem subverts the country scene, placing it into a cityscape full of people, where the concrete becomes earth, and rubbish is a seascape:

Sluiced through with Styrofoam bits
and bags that imitate jellyfish
to linger in the harbor like ornaments. (“Take a step in exotic suburbia”)

Wry humour works its way throughout the collection, sometimes subtly, as in “Sixty-nine poems,” a series of haiku that provide short, sharp and often witty visions with more than a hint of self-reflexiveness:

A man sees a bird die
picks at it with a pen
puts it in a book.

At times the humour is ribald, passing off insults, and even poking fun at poetry, the writing process, humanity, and language itself: “A shell is./And, now that I have said so/it cannot be undone. (“Object”)

This humour often has a political edge. In “Translations from the English” (the title itself something of a joke), a poem presents a series of insults that border on Shakespearean:

Your career has had such an impact on this country
that when you die,
they’ll have to give you a very large, flat tombstone,
big enough for twenty million people
to dance across at once.

Aiken plays games with the pastoral tradition, calling up a scene that seems static, Imagistic, and bucolic but then creates a disjunction that that unravels the scene:

The wandering jew pithed with potato vines makes the place so verdant
you no longer see the broken cinder blocks and half bricks in tiers
as anying other than a stage
for all this dramatic vegetation to do its thing. (“Gerasimou”)

Most of the poems in the longer (title) section “Sydney: 1934 1392k1-1811 168k2” are more overtly experimental, playing with form, structure, rhythm, white space, sound, parataxis, and theme, breaking down meaning into a tonal, aural, and even atomic parts, without ever leaving the Sydney setting. The visuals of these poems are still nature images: sky, animal, flora, space – the close, careful observation of a scientist playing the empirical visual world against language. This forty-one page poem picks up echoes from the rest of the work, but is able to stand alone, working up a dialogue between the poetry and Tim Low’s The new nature, and John Birminham’s Leviathan. These found texts provide an interesting prosaic counterpoint to the poetry, providing historical context and continuity, as Aiken puts it, as well as an alternate voice that functions as an echo of the past layered beneath the present, and of another form of communication. The poetry itself is structurally beautiful – splaying itself all over the page in concrete visuals that create their own kind of eye rhythm, echoed by a sonic rhythm:

 Intermittent     wind     in

leaves    (and fronds)

lofty purr of exhaust

breaks  engaging.

coming down the hill (137)

These are human sounds, though they reflect off a tawny frogmouth, feral animals, and the waves of the beach. These sounds are simultaneously soothing (the ‘blab of the pave’) and also create the impression of grief, loss, for all that humans have done, and continue to do in the whirlwind of busyness, of business, building, destroying, fighting for dominance over nature, losing a little more with each win:

The Land Beyond Beyond
is gone
The Land Beyond
Beyond         is gone
still (123)

Through the dystopia of Styrofoam cups, depleted forests, rotting garbage, and an overabundance of aggressive species – colonists or currawongs, there is still laughter, a sense of hope, and a deep, abiding love for the city. In Aiken’s world, the human is absorbed into nature as just another animal, a predator who will one day be supplanted by another species. Though that may not sound like the prettiest of visions, A Vicious Example presents a collection of great beauty, and intense reflection.