This is a book about the business,
or busy-ness, of mind. It is a book that minds very much — a book about minding — in the double
sense of giving care to things, and exploring the workings of human consciousness.
Indeed Paul’s own busy consciousness is foregrounded as a leading
trope of these poems. This could be said of all poetry, which is a conversation
between perception and the languages in which we choose to describe and
discover it. However it applies to Paul’s work in very particular
Paul is interested in a politics of intimate confrontation. He has an uncanny knack of getting to the quick of thoughts that are usually suppressed in the domains of polite and public speech, even though they might be driving our communications and actions at a more limbic level. In making room for these kinds of acknowledgements, Paul is reserving poetry’s right to mind, to take account of things as they are. His book champions honesty and satirises hypocrisy, sometimes with a kind of heckling bravado — as in the poem ‘Sydney’, which voices disgust for the spoiling of a city by cynical development sell-offs: “The cheap face-lift you fucked the city council for / Is peeling all around me” (26).
Paul is often unswerving in the rhetorical excess with which he piles words up against each other to show the workings of a restless mind. This technique creates a music of repetition whose roots lie in a steady questioning of the human tendency to leak words — to rush at matter with syntax — when confronted by things that seem to exist beyond language. ‘Newborn Redux’ is a good example. In a biographical poem of deliverance dedicated to his son, Paul appears awed by the physiognomical majesty of his wife giving birth and sustaining their child with “the heartbeat of a planet” (13). The experience is “untranslatable”, “unreachable” and “epiphanic” (13). Paul compares the “umbilical disconnection” of his son to his own sense of “the end of the line”, his literal inability to speak or do justice to the moment of first holding his child: “what can I offer?” (14) There is a certain self-deprecation at being lost for words, and equally, an overpowering instinct to throw as many words at the experience as possible, without any assurance of finding the mark — a very human desire, and a dilemma that is built-in to language itself. The poems gives us a series of visceral repeats that are assonant, female-centric and celebratory: “amniotic ocean flaring”, “tidal blood receding”, “ovarian probe floating” (13). We are seeing a poetic vocabulary that is both anxious and liberated, speechless and effusive, overwhelmed and frantically agile, adrift and aware.
This classical dilemma of language and reference is basic to Platonic philosophy and its expression in Paul’s work is far from accidental. In some respects, the structure of Imagining Winter is overtly classical. The book is in three parts. The first is called ‘Explorations’ and gathers together poems that each deal explicitly with poetry itself, and matters of poetic language. The theme of language dancing around its subject in an elusive romance is introduced in the book’s first and title poem, ‘Imagining Winter’, in which the poet asks of an Autumn afternoon: “Why try to describe it?” The question is followed immediately by a lyrical description that is ironically self-aware and yet undeniably romantic: “Exhausted sky, lilacs, passage of time / Romantic excess, poetic simulacra” (3). At other points in ‘Explorations’ the poet “look[s] for syntax in the clouds” or hears “the syllabic beat of rain” (11), or reflects that “This poem / is a sentence / undone” (16). The first section of Imagining Winter is an exposition, a critical address to the craft of poetry, or to the classic ‘Muse’ (however much these poems mistrust that term).
‘Assertions’, the book’s second part, is a development of this exposition. Its subject is the Polis: the public sphere, political wrangling, the poetics of place and location, and the messy detritus of city living. This section contains Paul’s most acerbic and flamboyant poems and is studded with literary coordinates and ambitions. Many of Paul’s most intimate lyrics, including those dealing with private and domestic spaces, are gathered together in the book’s third part ‘Preoccupations’. Staying with classical themes, I think the concluding section — the final act of the poet’s very urban drama — can be read as an address to Eros and Psyche, theatricalised in the book’s penultimate work ‘Tonight’.
I want to concentrate mostly now on the poems in ‘Assertions’, because to deal with Imagining Winter, readers must confront its centrepiece: a snarlingly pornographic and often bleak trio of poems entitled ‘Adrift (after Rimbaud)’, ‘Lunatic Brothel’ and ‘Gutter Buns’. The latter sets sail somewhat unsteadily under the flag of Christina Rossetti’s lusciously perverse poem ‘Goblin Market’ (1862), while ‘Adrift’ borrows the form of Arthur Rimbaud’s visionary long poem ‘The Drunken Boat’ (1871) — a work that also haunts Paul’s ‘Lunatic Brothel’, a hyper-charged and cataclysmic work of fantasy. ‘Adrift’ describes a homophobic gang rape from the victim’s point of view, and we can hear Rimbaud in the graphically persuasive last stanza:
They will lick my blood from their knuckles
And nights, steaming or frozen, they will dream
Of tearing flesh, rusting their buckles
As I float, a leper, down stormy marshes. (p.33)
I also want to quote here from Rimbaud’s later work Season in Hell (1873), which advanced a language of muscular imagination and uncensored fire that had profound repercussions for 20th century Western poetry. In ‘Bad Blood’, Rimbaud identifies the task of contemporary poetry in excoriating terms:
… you’ve drunk a liquor no one taxes, from Satan’s still. This nation is inspired by fever and cancer… Boredom is no longer my love. Rage, perversion, madness, whose every impulse and disaster I know — my burden is set down entire.
And in ‘Night in Hell’, also from Season in Hell, Rimbaud writes:
I will tear the veils from every mystery — mysteries of religion or of nature, death, birth, the future, the past, cosmogony, and nothingness. I am a master of phantasmagoria.
These words, I think, are important coordinates for Paul’s relentless exploration of the limits of human corporeality and fantasy. Without wanting to push the connection too far, it’s clear that in some of his earlier poems, Paul chose the task of delivering a contemporary Australian version of Rimbaud’s injunction to “tear the veils from every mystery”, and to “set the burden down entire.” This is especially true of his poems that position themselves in the fiery seam between intimacy and public modes of address, which might be seen as a principal burden for lyric poetry.
Imagining Winter nominates a handful of literary-historical predecessors for this task of inquiry, most of them from the English and continental European romantic and lyrical traditions of the 19th century. A clue to these periodical fascinations can be found in ‘Newborn Redux’ when Paul refers to himself as the “lyric vestige of an avant-garde century” (14). We might also compare ‘Lunatic Brothel’ to Kathy Acker’s assertively literary take on pornography, which began of course as a written medium rather than a form driven by images. ‘Lunatic Brothel’ cites the medieval antecedents of pornography alongside contemporary philosophical obsessions with the disciplined body, taking as its models “The Narrenschiff, Ship of Fools, / Foucault’s Renaissance Hell ” (35). Published in 1494 by the German satirist Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff was a satirical catalogue of medieval vices, some of which are revisited in startlingly contemporary form in Paul’s ‘Lunatic Brothel’.
I want to touch on two emergent themes here, both crucial to Paul’s project: the role of satire, and an unsteady hinge between ‘morality’ and ‘freedom of speech’. Paul seems compelled by moments in which a moral argument becomes an act of censorship and a constraint to imagination. Imagining Winter is not a transparent advocate for ‘free speech’ as such, but a consideration of the complexities of that idea. For example, in the sharply observant poem ‘Thanks for the poems, Pauline Hanson’, the right to protest and Hanson’s right to speak to an assembled gathering are brought into brutal and historical collision at the moment when a police horse knocks down a spectator (who, importantly, is not identified as protestor or listener or passerby):
Then the lighthorsemen, the cossacks, the men from Snowy River,
The Victorian Mounted Police, round the corner
At the gallop, sparking flint from the concrete
We plunge into ourselves, I see a man
Tumble beneath hooves,
Skull slapping the pavement. (24)
Paul is astute to the hypocrisy of political and moral grandstanding, and prises open expressions that are founded on repression, coercion, denial and refusal. Almost nothing in Paul’s world escapes this Rimbaud-esque version of “tearing down the veil”, including his own participation in rituals of cultural belonging: “Hushed by dripping branches and bitten-off sharpness, we traverse the bushwalk like a McCubbin exhibition, admiring the collapse of distance between land and eye, searching the trees for perspective. We play identity politics in the company of a national landscape…”. (‘Daybreak’, 11)
This brings me to possibly the strongest achievement of Paul’s book when set onto the proscenium stage of contemporary Australian culture. Imagining Winter is the absolute antithesis of “relaxed and comfortable”, the Howard-esque, sedative ideal that has been peddled in popular media as a new holy grail of Australian social values. Paul’s business is to expose the double-speak and danger of such apparently neutral terms: everyone likes to relax, and it’s not a bad thing to be comfortable. But Paul wants to probe the subtext of this innocuous phrase, and to undo a quasi-mythical aura of complacency — a form of self-censorship — that has become an undeniable feature of Australian public discourse over the past five to ten years. One small example might be the poem ‘Sydney Park, The Old Brickworks’, where Paul pushes the urban gentrification of Newtown out into the harsh light of its driving engines of consumption: “the young couples / with profoundly gifted babies and aspirational mortgages / watch the shopfronts tumble, the lifestyle choices multiply” (19).
Paul’s writing intuitively swings to the counter-valent point of any idea that might be approaching ‘comfort’, and this turbine drives the book as a whole. We settle into the book’s language-smart opening poem ‘Imagining Winter’ only to find, later on, a parallel poem called ‘Imagining Terror’ that becomes a more Draconian and much less whimsical double to the romantic impulses of the first poem. In Paul’s unflinchingly honest world-view it’s as easy to imagine winter as terror, one as the other. Perhaps the ‘winter’ of the book’s title is this less-revealed side to things — to public life, to romance, to consciousness, and to language itself. Or to quote Paul’s troublingly mortal poem ‘The Father, The Law’:
And if the morning brings you, spongy,
reborn afresh, if I press
my nose to that point on your head
where the clean buttermilk smell rises
from feathery hair, and rips through me;
so do those implacable imaginings, ruinous
because it is the terror, not the laughing,
which punches love to its purest newborn raw
that bubbling in my chest which tells me
the heart is no metaphor
for you who have yet to discover gravity (53-54)
Paul Dawson’s edgy, questioning and sometimes brittle book thankfully has no business being an ‘easy read’ and is, rather, an energetic and engaging read. Not all the poems are successful; and better poems may come in future when the author jettisons the sometimes-bulky cargo of 19th century romanticism in favour of more adventurous reading in diverse poetical fields, and works toward a more nuanced and less skittish kind of lyricism. However in an era often overtly hostile to intellectual inquiry, it is relieving to read a book that makes no attempt to ingratiate itself with any sense of cultural or political ‘establishment’, and that is not intended to ‘comfort’ readers. Which is not to say the work provides no solace. Especially in its third section, Imagining Winter is scattered throughout with moments of considered and lyrical quiet — moments that can be fretful, but that are also close, desiring and treasured. Or as the book’s final lines reveal to us: “it is the thing in between / the thing which sustains us” (77).
– Kate Fagan, Five Bells
Harsh. Cutting. Uncomfortably touching.
This poetry collection delves into the darkness of the modern world.
Dawson’s work has tremendous scope and agility. In the title poem, in a single breath he ranges from the Renaissance to postmodern sunsets in trying to imagine a metaphor for winter:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Stars squint and yawn, unfolding, the moon bleeds dry
Why try to describe it?
Whether addressing issues such as racism, homophobia and terrorism, or turning a wickedly scathing eye on the failings of writers and other misfits, Paul Dawson’s poems are angry and unforgettable.
He explores the bleakness of city landscapes, seeks meaning in the heat of eroticism, and lays bare the things people will not admit to thinking, even to themselves.
— from the Judges’ Report, IP
Winner, Best Poetry, IP Picks 2006.
in Imagining Winter investigate contemporary urban existence, including the
politics of national identity and the culture of inner city life in Sydney,
Melbourne and Brisbane.
Each of the three sections considers a different perspective of metropolitan landscapes and relationships.
Poems within the first section, Explorations, manifest a reflexive awareness of the genre or of the process of writing itself: poems which consciously explore the ways in which a poetic state of mind can engage with experience and thought.
The second section, Assertions, includes declarative poems which deliver a political point or social commentary.
Poems in the third section, Preoccupations, mirror more personal emotions, and ponder the nature of human relations.
Paul Dawson’s poetry and fiction have
previously appeared in a range of literary journals and newspapers, including
Slope (US), Southerly, Blue Dog: Australian Poetry, Meanjin, Island, Imago:
New Writing, and The Sydney Morning Herald.
He is also the author of Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London/New York: Routledge, 2005).
He is now a Senior Lecturer in the School of English at the University of New South Wales, where he teaches Creative Writing and literary studies.