A Tragic Television Star, The Brain Of A Genius, And A Prize-Winning Pig 3 New Books Are Brilliant Examples Of Contemporary Australian Poetry

Author: Sam Ryan

(MENAFN- The Conversation) All art comes from some abstraction of reality. What is written on the page or painted on the canvas is the artist's representation of something real. Through that representation, the real becomes abstracted and is transformed into art.

There are different degrees of abstraction. There is the real of reportage, the quasi-real of television, the semi-real of thought. We take journalism to be based on real events. We know television pretends to display the real, but has no need to base itself in reality. And our thoughts are certainly subjective abstractions of reality.

This is not a new concept, of course, but it is a useful frame to consider these three books of poetry. Television by Kate Middleton, Einstein's Brain by Mark O'Flynn and Fat Chance by Kent MacCarter all perform some degree of abstraction. They take something real and transform it to draw some greater meaning.

We might classify these three collections, in broad terms, as examples of“non-fiction poetry” – that is, poetry with elements of non-fiction, centred somewhere in a sense of reality. This too is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that seems to be gaining traction in Australian poetry.

Middleton's subject is television; she writes her biography anchored in her experience with it. O'Flynn lets his rich trains of thought run wild as he dissects the mundane. And MacCarter shows us the varied possibilities of reinterpreting and reimagining non-fiction.

These books are brilliant examples of contemporary Australian poetry. If they are anything to go by, we're in a good spot.

Review: Television – Kate Middleton (Giramondo); Einstein's Brain – Mark O'Flynn (Puncher and Wattmann); Fat Chance – Kent MacCarter (Upswell)


It is refreshing to find a collection of poetry that draws on the mythology of television, rather than some other more high-minded mythos. I sometimes get annoyed when a poem is so dense with secondary references that I spend more time on Wikipedia than with the work itself.

This might speak to my subconscious anti-intellectualism, or maybe my lack of intellect, and is likely a symptom of the academy's capture of contemporary poetry. But I think most people would prefer to read poetry without needing to go to secondary sources. This is not to imply that Middleton's work is lowbrow or simple, rather that it speaks to a common reference point and in doing so opens up the form.

Television is so much a part of culture that it seems natural to refer to it while writing autobiographically. The book's first poem begins,

Gut bacteria is an interesting simile here. We know that has an unseen influence on many parts of our health. It is infused in our being and influences us in unknown ways, whether we like it or not. It looms larger in our lives than other media, whether we like to admit it or not.

The first poem begins to draw the links between Middleton's experiences growing up and the effect television has had on her life. She

For those unfamiliar with the mythos of television, Dylan McKay was the character played by Luke Perry on Beverly Hills 90210 . Middleton hints at a secret we perhaps all share to some extent. I, for one, frequently tell people that the early poetry of Leonard Cohen taught me empathy, when in reality it was more likely Captain Janeway's caring and thoughtful approach to her crew in Star Trek: Voyager , which I contrasted with Picard's hierarchical management style in Star Trek: The Next Generation .

Luke Perry died in 2019 from an

Middleton, like many members of Generation X (she places herself in this generation), was affected by his death. For her, it prompted a meditation on fame and the ways in which Perry became his character: dark, brooding, unstable. He suffered from the alcoholism, among other afflictions, perhaps due to the unique pressures of his job.

This first poem gives readers a concise and affecting account of Middleton's thesis: television is all-consuming and, although it is an abstraction of reality, it affects reality. The real-world influence of television appears throughout the book.

The sexual assaults on the set of Hey Dad! are mentioned:

Bill Cosby's attacks on his co-stars (and others) are also mentioned:

This breaking the fourth wall, where television reaches beyond what we see on our screens, is incredibly successful. These are not simply characters in a series or even actors portraying characters on the screen, but real people whose wholesome images acted as smoke screens behind which they could commit their crimes. Middleton says as much:

Reflections of reflections and twistings of reality draw a complex picture of the nature of television and our relation to it. Middleton complicates her thinking when she wishes the reality of television news had a more satisfying narrative structure, as in other forms of television:

Middleton points here to the unreality of television: in real life, there are no beginnings, middles or ends. There is simply the ongoing procession of events with little resolution. No matter how hard they try, news anchors can't make a satisfying story from reality.

The poems in Television are numbered, with the first line of each used as their titles in the contents. The collection is also set almost entirely in couplets, save for a few single final lines. These features give the poetry and the book itself a television-like quality. Couplets have a way of driving a narrative forward, like beats in a scene or even frames in a film – there is almost a frame-by-frame quality in this technique that is appropriate for the book's subject.

While Middleton's book does have a familiar reference point in television, she is thoughtful enough to provide a few brief pages of notes for each poem to draw out the specifics of the references, and she includes some longer explanations of why she has included them and how they relate to her biography.

Einstein's Brian

Albert Einstein's brain is a strange object: an organ, the same as the organ we all have in our heads, but this one came up with scientific theories so advanced its owner's last name became a stand-in for genius.

There is a mystery here: how does something so common do something so uncommon? To find out, we must look beyond its exterior, beyond its reality. That is what O'Flynn does. First, he considers that genius brain, then on to a range of objects, incidents and scenes: a golf ball, a glacier, hippos in Venezuela and a dog hit by a car, among other things.

O'Flynn's thesis, if he can be said to have one, seems to be that when we dissect and analyse the mundane, we can draw some greater meaning. I say“dissect” here, but that may be too precise a description for what he does in this collection.“Dissection” implies some scientific intention. It might be more appropriate to say O'Flynn“picks apart” the mundane, though that may be a bit imprecise.

The book's first poem, which gives the book its title, may be a good way to counterintuitively explain myself. The poem Einstein's Brain has five parts: Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion and Conclusion. Graduates of high school science classes will recognise this as the classic design of an experiment.

The poem begins by naming some other famous body parts: Ned Kelly's skull and Phar Lap's heart. These are presented as examples of, respectively,“[p]hrenology and the history of morbid awe”. The first section finishes with a flippant flourish that both degrades and emphasises the experiment's (and by extension the book's) mission:

The remaining sections of Einstein's Brain take readers through the eponymous organ's journey. The brain was removed from Einstein's body by Dr Thomas Harvey . It weighed an“ordinary three pounds (approx)” and was

Imagine treating such an artefact so callously. Perhaps Dr Harvey expected it to weigh more, or less, or have some other feature that would make it stand out, and when he saw that it didn't he treated it accordingly.

The brain was eventually dissected and sent

The possession and dissection of Einstein's brain did nothing for Dr Harvey, who

There is a soft implication here that it was more trouble than it was worth. The poem finishes with Dr Harvey behind the wheel,

The sly humour is typical of O'Flynn's voice throughout the book. We are not sure if this account is true, but that doesn't really matter. He has filled in the gaps in the true story of the brain's journey for poetic effect. Of course the brain would not reveal any deep secrets, in German or otherwise. But we had to do it, we had to dissect this awesome artefact, just as O'Flynn has to dissect the mundane to search for meaning, which he can't find unless he fills in the gaps. Why? Because.

O'Flynn takes this approach in each of the poems in Einstein's Brain. In Golf Balls on the Moon, he ponders what aliens might think when they find the golf balls hit by astronaut Alan Shepard on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 14 mission. They might peer

The poet has taken a fact – golf balls were indeed hit on the moon during that Apollo mission – and gone poetically rogue to draw a greater meaning: what is a golf ball or indeed any human achievement to an alien? We are all just hitting golf balls on the moon.

A brain is a fitting central object in this book. Each poem reads as a train of thought, jumping from one idea to its intuited next, starting with some object or incident and letting the poet's imagination take over. But there is a lot more going on here than simple pondering. O'Flynn employs an eclectic array of forms to draw out his thesis. Almost-dadaist poems like Egg Beater are followed by fairly formal quatrains, as in Bio Note.

O'Flynn is not too concerned with structure or formalities, or sticking to one aesthetic. He wants to illuminate the mundane. I can't think of a better mission for any poet.

Astronaut Alan Shepherd hitting golf balls on the moon, February 6, 1971. NASA/YouTube. Fat Chance

Kent MacCarter's Fat Chance stands out among these three books as the least“poetic” – or at least it may seem that way. In her introduction, Jessica Wilkinson writes:“we could be mistaken for believing there is no poet or poetry here at all”. The mistake would be understandable. A quick glance through the book reveals large, justified paragraphs – not the sparse, enjambed lines one might expect in a volume of poetry.

Each section in Fat Chance takes a different kind of non-fiction text and transforms it. In the first, MacCarter rearranges journalistic texts to draw out either a different or a greater meaning. In the second, he entwines a child's letters to Santa with medical texts about surgical instruments left in the body to haunting effect. The third reflects, or reflects on, a variety of film prints, the minimalist style imitating the forms it is interpreting. And the final section recounts the story of a failed toy line through descriptions of corporate operations and intrigue.

The epilogue is a single poem, told in tight triplets, recounting the infamous murder-suicide of August and Marilyn DeMont on the Golden Gate Bridge in 1945.

The first poem in Fat Chance is called 18 July 2011. Each poem in the opening section follows that naming convention – presumably the date the story was published or perhaps written.

In this poem, we hear the story of Corndog, a prize-winning pig, who won“special honours at the 2006 Minnesota State Fair for being the largest contestant boar. Ever.” At that point, Corndog weighed 520 kilograms. He died years later from the summer heat. At his final weigh-in, he was 600 kilograms.

This short note on a prize-winning pig, who was rewarded for the obesity forced on him, only to have that same obesity kill him years later, epitomises the dark humour employed in Fat Chance. There is a lot of morbidity, especially in the first section.

9 December 2005, for example, recounts the story of Robert James Mauleverer Garnett , a manager at a McDonalds restaurant, who“poached himself by zipping up in a rubber suit after ingesting an enormous amount of cocaine and other narcotics”. We get to that fact around the middle of this three-page poem, having first been informed of the manner in which chicken carcasses are processed to be turned into chicken nuggets: they are“forced under high pressure to pass through grates that reduce matter into a paste”.

We are told that Garnett's body temperature peaked at 45°C,“exacerbated by a 90% diminished capacity to sweat out toxins and release body heat”. We are also advised that“chickens are harvested at age 40 to 50 days”. The poem finishes with a note on Big Macs, which are“pre-made and housed in air-tight steam trays, awaiting sales, assembly and consumption”.

The parallel that MacCarter draws here between the broiled chickens, preserved Big Macs, and Garnett's broiled body is obvious. But it comes through arrangement and selection, and some insertion.

A purely journalistic take on this story might point to the double life of the mild-mannered manager, working at the restaurant during the day and taking drugs and dressing in a rubber suit by night. In MacCarter's version, which starts and finishes with facts seemingly unrelated to the story, we are treated to the absurdity of death, the processes we put our food through, and perhaps the ways we create our own fates.

The book's second section is a child's letter to Santa –“Dear Santa Claus / thank you for the electric train set and thank you for the new shirt” – interspersed with medical notes:“An 84-year-old woman was admitted to hospital with weakness, lethargy and infectious secretions of the umbilicus.”

I'm not entirely sure what MacCarter intends here. There is a rising sense of menace throughout. The child continues to thank Santa for various gifts he receives as he ages, mentioning he is in a basement, then that he is growing fonder and more interested in fireworks. The grammar starts to fall apart:

I think childhood trauma is, for MacCarter, like gossypiboma : something left inside us, forgotten, only to slowly emerge and affect us.

The third section of Fat Chance engages in what MacCarter calls“reverse ekphrasis”. Ekphratic poetry describes visual art; accordingly, the works here take the reverse position, acting almost as instructions to the art or artist – in this case, the photographer.

Each poem in this section is named after an image and subtitled with details of its origins and technical descriptions. Portrait of Huddie“Leadbelly” Ledbetter, ca. 1940s is subtitled 3x4 Series Graflex with Cooke 2.5 lens. American Folklife Center. It includes lines like


The maxim that“a picture is worth a thousand words” is challenged here – perhaps with the right poetic constructions, accordingly sparse and semantically saturated, a few words can make a thousand pictures. Reverse ekphrasis indeed.

The fourth section is, I think, the least successful. It follows the zigs and zags of a company trying to create and market a line of toys, ultimately unsuccessfully. We are treated to various operational information: issues with the structural integrity of the dolls, the dyes and plastic deteriorating due to springtime temperatures, the revision of quarterly earnings.

The poem could be interpreted as a kind of generic biography, with its ups and downs, best intentions and various setbacks. Or perhaps it makes the point that the life of a business is like the life of a person, the non-fiction form of business dealings melded with the sometimes-fictional forms of biography. It's not entirely clear either way.

The Epilogue is the shortest and most poetic section in this book. It is a single poem titled“Cyan: 0%, Magenta: 69%, Yellow: 100%, Key: 6%”, which is the CMYK code for pantone orange.

Told in tight triplets, save for one single line, with sentences that end too soon, written in an awkward, sometimes incorrect grammar, we are given flashes of the events that led up to one of the Golden Gate Bridge's many infamous suicides. One such triplet reads,

Another reads,

Each stanza uses this detached, incomplete structure. It is not until the end, when we have read the poem in its entirety, that we have a chance of understanding its narrative of a father who forced his daughter to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before jumping himself.

The stilted quality of the sentences replicates a journalistic tone. The narrative is dehumanised in favour of facts, just as a CMYK colour code abstracts the colour it describes.

This epitomises MacCarter's book, where the detached language of journalism, indeed of any non-fiction text, might be reimagined, recontextualised and rehumanised. If MacCarter was kinder to his readers, he would have begun his book with this poem. Fat chance, he must have thought.

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