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In Defence of Hawaiian Shirts

B N Oakman

B N Oakman’s deceptively conversational tone and wry humour complement writing that is elegant, sometimes confronting, and which shuns obscurity in favour of clarity. He elicits feeling through style, phrasing and understatement rather than by imposing emotion.

You’ll be drawn into topics ranging from the socio-economic to the personal – the ekphrastic to football – the political to the historical.

ISBN 9781921479410

RRP: AUD $25
NZD $28
USD $18
CAD $20
GBP £12
EUR €14


PB 96pp


Of Castlemaine, the novelist and resident Alex Miller has remarked that it has a population of 7000 of whom 13,000 are poets. B. N. Oakman lives not far away, but is a regular reader of his own work at the monthly poetry event in the town. He would be well worth hearing, on the evidence of this splendidly titled book of verse,
In Defence of Hawaiian Shirts.

It is also heartening to learn that a principal
influence in turning him towards poetry (Oakman had been an academic teacher of economics) was listening to ''the distinguished American poet Ted Kooser read two of his poems on television''. That they are such different poets is happily beside – or perhaps to – the point.

Oakman is an adept at striking first lines. In the title poem, ''Too many uniforms mean a country's turning dangerous''. In ''Remembering the Corporal'', ''You never spoke of the war, childhood's favourite/ uncle from those distant railway towns''.

There are wry poems about the poverty of modern academic life and a tender remembrance of his father in ''Ballarat Bitter'': he was one who smiled ''a revenant's bloodless smile,/before vanishing into his sunless exile''. The back cover cheekily confides more of Oakman's range: ''ekphrastic to football''. The noun of course means Australian Rules, as in ''My Football Team is Hopeless''. The adjective, as all school children know, involves treating one artistic medium in terms of another. Thus, here are poems about two of the Van Diemen's Land paintings by Samuel Glover.

Oakman also offers poems about Franco and his foe, the Spanish poet and rector of Salamanca University, Unamuno; a reflection on Wallace Stevens's dictum ''Money is a kind of poetry'', with the riposte ''money is not kind to poetry''.

There is an affectionate tribute to his aunt
Josephine, ''I Mean to Say Love'', while he also writes by far the sharpest political poem of the three collections. In ''A Credo for a Labor Leader'', we are instructed, ''And by these refrainings you shall come to know me''.

May Oakman thrive in Castlemaine, and beyond.

– Peter Pierce, The Canberra Times

Wistful without being whimsical, poignant but tough, Oakman’s poems subtly rhyme and chime their way into our consciousness and gnaw at what might remain of our conscience.
– Ian Britain (Editor, Meanjin, 2001-8)

Oakman writes of the known world with compassion, humour and intelligence, making the familiar new, and the forgotten remembered.  These are poems to think with, to carry with you, and to draw upon.
– Valerie Krips, Arena Magazine

Oakman is a forgiving observer of human frailty, as well as pretence. He listens to the daily language of his neighbour and turns it into wry wisdom.
– Philip Harvey, Eureka Street

A rising star of Australian poetry wearing a particularly vibrant Hawaiian shirt!
– Ross Donlon, Convenor, Poetry in Castlemaine







B N Oakman came to poetry after spending much of his working life teaching economics at universities in Australia and England. During this time he also wrote and published short stories, most of them prize-winning. In 2006 he started offering poems to publishers. Subsequently his work has been widely published in magazines, journals and newspapers in Australia, the UK and the USA.

He was awarded a grant by the Literature Board of the Australia Council for 2009. A chapbook, Chalk Dust: Poems from the Social Domain (Mark Time Books), appeared during the same year. He reads from his work publicly, most often at the popular Castlemaine Poetry Readings which take place monthly, not far from where he lives in Central Victoria.



In Defence of Hawaiian Shirts

Too many uniforms mean a country’s turning dangerous,
that’s what I thought as I watched Triumph of the Will 1 -
masses of Germans marching (in step)
kitted out in matching threads and shod with leather boots (named Jack)
and the film’s star is The Führer (he of curt salutes and silly poses)
who shouts a lot about the rules for partying with his tidy mob.

And today it frightens me nobody simply works a job,
they are members of a team and trussed
in corporate garb for fish shops, planes and pubs and banks
and embroidered with their masters’ names - even those
who drive a taxi are buttoned in a company shirt
(with insignia, epaulets and badge)
and every one of them commands that I enjoy my bloody day.

So it’s with some fondness I remember
(and I don’t believe I’ve made this up)
being served one cold July (in Customs) by a silent splendid clerk
who wore a loud Hawaiian shirt
where the waves were blue and the sands were gold
and lithe brown girls in grassy skirts
with hibiscus flowers in their raven hair
swayed beneath his printed palms and shimmered with Alohas.

1 Triumph des Willens, Germany, 1934, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, b&w, 114mins.


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