Andy Kissane, Radiance (Puncher & Wattmann 2014)
Andy Kissane’s poetry is rooted in white, middle-class, heterosexual, inner-west Sydney. Among other things, it features memories of a Catholic childhood and celebrates non-dysfunctional domestic family life. And it’s terrific.
Maybe I think it’s terrific because all those descriptors apply to me as well. But the thing is, it’s a poetry that’s modest, witty, at times quietly ecstatic, and capable of looking well beyond the inner-city horizon.
As in Kissane’s earlier books, there are a number of dramatic monologues and other poems dealing with people suffering at the pointy end of capitalism – in Victorian London, on a Mexican street, at an airforce hangar, on a Cambodian garbage dump. Also as in earlier books, there are witty and poignant engagements with other writers – Keats, Shelley, Virginia Woolf (who criticises Kissane’s ‘infernal overwriting’), Dylan Thomas, Miklós Lorsi, Buddy Holly, Nick Hornby.
For me, it’s the more personal poems – poems of domesticity, if you like – that are the richest. I’ll try to articulate why by using the book’s title.
Forms of the word radiance occur in three poems. The first is ‘Trip to the Ice Rink’. The poem’s speaker performs ‘a role / crucial for adolescent wellbeing: efficient driving.’ In the opening lines his daughter gets into the car in a black mood, but:
By the time I pull up outside the Canterbury ice rink,
the thunder has blown away and the sky
is now a radiant, cloudless blue. ‘Thanks, Dad,’
she says, as she goes off to practise her Lutz.
The speaker’s focus shifts from wry acceptance of his utilitarian role:
I can see her as she concentrates on the long backward
glide, digs her toe pick down hard into the ice, lifts
and spins into the air, striving with her whole body
to land this difficult jump for the first time.
It’s a commonplace moment. But there’s a suggestion of the numinous in that father’s mental image of his daughter doing what is after all something fairly ordinary. The daughter’s smile is not the only radiance.
The second ‘radiance’ is in ‘Schooling the Heart’, whose three pages invoke scenes from Anna Karenina, kindergarten experiences with plasticine and cuisenaire rods, the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon in 1963, and Catholic iconography remembered from childhood: ‘the immaculate heart / of Mary radiating light, exploding like a penny bunger / wedged into a pine cone’. Despite the comical simile, that radiance is not to be discounted: the poem is suffused with a yearning – and the potential – to let one’s heart shine forth in spite of the rebuffs that have schooled it into caution.
Then there’s ‘Sea of Tranquillity’, the suite of nine poems that make up the fourth and final section of the book. The first, ‘Total Eclipse’, begins:
The Moon drinks tea from her favourite china cup,
decorated with the flowering tassels and green leaves
of a yellow gum.
The Moon turns out to do many things that a middle class woman in the inner west suburbs would do: she grows vegetables, argues violently about movies, serves up pizza, works with teenage drug abusers, goes to a poetry reading where she
________longs to read the book hidden
in her overcoat pocket, only she doesn’t want to appear
She’s clearly an ordinary woman, the speaker’s long term partner. ‘The Moon’ is not quite a metaphor, but it’s more than a nickname. Her pain – physical and emotional – is described as craters, and the poems are shot through with light imagery: at their first meeting (in ‘Total Eclipse’) she opens a door and he sees her lit from behind with ‘a fluttering corona pulsing around her outline'; elsewhere she sashays across the sky
with that long stride of hers, poised and frisky,
her radiant beauty set to shine all night long.
In another poem she is explicitly not ‘the celestial moon’. It’s playful, whimsical, and – though an epigraph from A Midsummer Night’s Dream warns against solemnity – lyrical. I read the sequence as a brilliant rebuttal of the truism that long term relationships by their nature become matters of habit, companionable maybe but pallid in comparison to the first flush of passion. This is completely convincing love poetry, and if I had to tie down the meaning of ‘radiance’ here I’d say it was the way the loved one (or the loved universe) appears to the lover.
One other thing: at a poetry reading in ‘Moon Rocks’, the speaker has an experience that would be familiar to many people who have attended such an event. The first reader’s words
______words collapse in on themselves
and I’m being sucked into the core of a black hole.
Not that there’s anything wrong with black-hole poetry, but Kissane doesn’t write it.
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have co-written a short film script based on one of Andy Kissane’s poems. I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.