Joel Deane's free verse is direct and seemingly simple. What layers it possesses are of the emotional type. He doesn't hit us over the head with grim reality; rather he insinuates it into the reader's psyche in a way so artful that it appears artless.

Deane is no clever-clever writer, obfuscating meaning behind obscure metaphors in a vain attempt to appear more erudite than the floundering reader. His goal is to communicate the things that matter to him, and this he does well.

The collection is described on the cover blurb as a 'travelogue – following him around the world, from Australia to the Americas to the Himalayas, and into the great interior of human frailty', and this seems an apt description. Divided into two sections 'South' and 'North' (as in southern and northern hemispheres), the poems begin by hearking back to the author's Irish ancestry. He describes himself as a 'boy' who sets sail for the past, trawling through memories of his grandfather (gruff in 'brown-suede brogues'), his father (who 'speaks a foreign language'), and his mother (always working in the family shop, while the boy wishes he could take her away somewhere where she could 'sit down for lunch'). The early childhood is spent on the Goulburn River, with its fruit pickers and pubs, before the family relocates to Coburg in Melbourne.

The poem 'Good Friday' (p.14), in four parts, introduces the nub of the collection, a child that is stillborn, whose ghost haunts the text, even the travel poems. Its second section, 'Residua', describes the pathos of packing up the waiting cot and putting it in the garage; in the third section, 'Postmortem', the poet and his partner debate the 'whys' of the situation. The poem ends abruptly with the devastating 'In Utero', a cremation scene, in which the fire becomes the welcoming womb for the stillborn baby: 'The womb of the incinerator / now holds you / at nine-hundred degrees / centigrade'. But this is not the end of the story. On page 20, the poem 'I build a little house where our hearts once lived' describes Deane's attempts to reassemble his life, to 'remake rooms I cannot find'. As an evocation of grief, it's hard to go past these heartfelt pieces.

The remainder of the first section is comprised of largely descriptive pieces about seaside holidays in Victoria (Portsea, Rosebud), rock climbing at Hall's Gap, and driving at night on Old Melbourne Road with no headlights. The final piece evokes the continuance of grief: 'Under Westgate' is ostensibly about driving from Footscray to St Kilda along the Beach road, via Port Melbourne. But the subtext is that this is a young man driving too fast, taking risks, trying to block out 'the terrible nothing' in his head.

The second section, 'North' begins with a series of impressionistic poems about place: a Mississippi Highway, Massachusetts, remembering a first visit to New York with a girl with 'heroin eyes' with whom he stayed in the Cole Porter Suite at the Waldorf (she locks herself in the bathroom while he plays Chop Sticks on Porter's baby grand piano - p.39). 'Summer Storm, Las Vegas' (p.40) reflects on gambling and its addictive qualities, on how 'the afterglow of that first Vegas win / has long since begun to sting'. 'Left-hand drive' (p.44-45) describes the terror for Australian travelers hitting the American freeway system ('Try to indicate, but on flick the wipers'). Having myself quite recently reexperienced this very same terror, this poem made me laugh out loud - only to be swiftly brought back by 'Tectonic domestic', about an argument over a 'hot-pink raincoat ... / I said it looked bloody stupid', followed by the familiar fear that occurs when a loved one leaves in a temper - the fear that they may not return safely.
A collection of poems that deals with American culture wouldn't be complete without reference to the Beats, which Deane does in 'Luger pistol', describing a night on tequila and methamphetamine, playing 'William Tell ... to mark Burroughs' passing'. The partner in this poem, waiting for the candle on her head to be shot at, was doubtless less blase about this than was Burroughs' unfortunate wife, who was killed playing just such a game.

In 'First daughter' (p.62) the poet again reflects on his grief and evokes Whitman: 'I excavate the sorrow / ... / My America, my first daughter / who, tenfold times, tried to be born / might yet resurrect the father / from the strata that has formed' and we know that the poet is struggling to break through the hard shell he's developed to protect his psyche from the pain of what appears to be another miscarriage. 'Ad Nauseum' (p.64) continues in this vein, but also includes his partner, powerfully portraying pathos, poignancy, a palpable sadness, and disappointment, in few words: 'The house was a room short, / we thought / ... / But the house has our measure, / ... / Pack away the plans / and maternity jeans'.

From here, the collection takes us to London, Glasgow, Mexico, and, finally, Cuba (an image of whose streets provide the marvelous cover image). In 'Romeo y Julieta' (p.72) the poet is traveling with his 'kid sister': 'Both of us in remission / from births, deaths / and marriages'. The final poem, 'Arrival' (p.80) describes the coming home to Port Melbourne, and the poet's sense that he has lost something of himself on his journey. This he compares to a man's memory being lost after he has had a brain tumour excised; in the same way, the poet feels he 'never quite arrive[s]'.

There are many fine poems in Subterranean Radio Songs, but they work best together as a collection, allowing us insight into the thoughts and feelings of a grief-stricken man seeking healing and understanding by jumping feet-first out into the world.

– Liz Hall-Downs, Thylazine

Although uneven in quality, this is an impressive collection, a first-hand glimpse of other countries, other lives. Ultimately, though, it’s his own life which Deane explores. The volume is in two parts: ‘South’, set in Victoria, and ‘North’, taking us into Las Vegas, Havana, New York. ‘South’ explores childhood memories: ‘The boy sets sail for the past’ (‘Passage’), and marriage, loss of a child and subsequent divorce. Mostly using the first person, Deane gives immediacy to autobiographical experience and continuity to the collection. His style is conversational and often used laconic.

In an exceptionally moving sequence, ‘Good Friday 4. In Utero’, by distancing emotion, he intensifies it; ' the womb of the incinerator / now holds you // at nine-hundred degrees / centigrade.’ In ‘Freckle’, his own reflexion in a tram window sends him spinning back to childhood, swimming in a local river, with its hidden menace and thrill of the unknown: he and his mates, ‘found tissue paper, / once the muscle of man, / stretched over sunken branches’. The culminating poem in the first section, ‘Under Westgate’, is a tour de force, where rhythm builds the momentum of a breakneck departure from Melbourne, from a broken relationship through a disintegrating landscape.

In ‘North’, the style becomes more cinematic, with its rapid pace and accuracy of observation (Hemingway and Kerouac come to mind). There’s spontaneity and freshness in evocative images; in ‘Summer Storm, Las Vegas’, it’s easy to visualise the sleazy rented accommodation, where the speaker sits ‘evaporating in the humidity’ watching ‘the naked light bulb inside number four on the second floor / simmer its sealed room to the boil’. The discovery of new places triggers rediscovery of places deeper in the psyche. Through relationships with people and locations, Deane shows unsentimentally that loss can also strengthen: ‘in remission from births, deaths and marriages’, the traveller returns to Melbourne.

This is raw, unrefined narrative poetry, demotic, energetic and ultimately optimistic. It has a strong rhythm, some fine imagery, ironic objectivity; above all, it is first-hand and unpretentious. It’s poetry in primary colours.

– Janet Upcher

Joel Deane’s Subterranean Radio Songs is relaxed and full of flare.

— Kevin Brophy and Robyn Rowland, judges, Anne Elder Award, 2006

Good writing can take many forms, and I have often wished for a greater mutual appreciation, between poets and journalists, of the fine things with words that both are able to do. Joel Deane and Penelope Layland, former journalists, bring well-hones skills to their first volumes (Deane is currently the speechwriter for the premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks.) In their work we find much clarity and a strong facility for description. Deane is flexing his descriptive muscles in ‘Freckle’, a poem about childhood and memories of a long-drowned man: ‘… how, last summer, / when the river bed fell, / they found tissue paper, / once the muscle of a man, / stretched over sunken branches.’

Deane has an eye for the telling detail, enlivened by a wry, insouciant attitude to life. Deane has many travel poems, and this is typical: ‘[I] … wade into the night. / The courtyard is quiet. / I kick my legs over the crater of a peanut-shaped pool. / Sit, evaporating in the humidity. / Watch the naked bulb inside number four on the second floor / simmer its sealed room to the boil.’ (‘Summer Storm, Las Vegas’).
Deane has a respect for accurate and colourful observation, plus a certain distance and objectivity, often ironic: ‘Come Glasgow / we let the Volkswagen turn into an igloo of German engineering …’ (‘Glasgow’)

Deane likes to put things in wider contexts, and his work demonstrates distinct undertones of both worldliness and urbanity. He is also alert to what constitutes a ‘story’, including its colour and drama. For Deane events are related through the first-person singular – an authorial ‘I’, usually presented in a natural and straightforward way.

The exception is Deane’s excellent ‘Dogma 95’, which toys with the ‘problem’ of authenticity. In this poem, two lovers on a beach act out roles, as if in separate movies. The ‘problem’ is this: we only have culturally determined strategies for any representation of self, all of them ‘second-degree’, and hence falsifying. I like Deane’s strong grasp of the so-called ‘dilemma’, and his nerve in sending it all up as bad faith and absurd intellectual cowardice, cutting through to the lovers’ genuine feelings.

Deane’s book is an autobiography in two parts, with the first section (‘South’) taking us breezily through his childhood, to his first marriage and tragic loss of a child, then a traumatic break-up. ‘South’ concludes with the brilliantly energetic ‘Under Westgate’. In this virtuosic ‘poem in motion’, the hard, jerky, foot-down rhythms and kinaesthetic imagery convey a visceral experience of driving under the site of the famous bridge disaster, while everything spins emotionally out of control.

The second half of Subterranean Radio Songs, titled ‘North’, sees Deane off to Las Vegas and numerous casinos (no wonder he works for Bracks), the precariously zipping down the disorienting left-hand drive lanes of spaghetti-junction US. In these escapades, Deane is on the road in the wake of the Beats, sipping tequila and speed highballs, hanging out with prostitutes and digging the sleazy romance of it all. Deane returns home briefly, then is suddenly all over the map again, heading down to Miami and beyond. The book ends with him getting all the hurt, dirt and angst out of his system, going home and vowing to be more himself, rather than an overdetermined reflector of Americana, whether in earnest or ersatz.

Deane is not beyond fanging his narrative along with speedy – though lightweight and easily consumed – page-turners. His ‘I discover America’ efforts are often ‘boy meets Jack Kerouac’. All the same, there are some nice novelistic touches, and I enjoyed the ride.

— John Jenkins, The Australian Book Review

Deane’s first book...was a novel, Another, a bleak account of suburban strugglers. His poetry book has a photo of Cuba on the cover, but not because it focuses on politics. As the dedication says, it is all about family. About the father who supported his Labor leanings, even though he himself remains hostile; about the pain of losing children; and about learning to survive loss.

Deane identifies as a poet, not a political operator, and has since boyhood. The poem that hooked him was not a weighty piece, but W.H. Auden’s cheeky Letter to Lord Byron, written in 1936, a work Eliot did not applaud, mainly because of its lightness of tone. In it, Auden sends up poets as immature and lazy. “You must admit, when all is said and done/His sense of other people’s very hazy,” it says.

But then Auden understood the importance of language and politics. As he says in another poem, August 1968: “The Ogre does what ogres can/Deeds quite impossible for Man/but one prize is beyond his reach/The ogre cannot master Speech.”

— Peter Ellingsen, The Age

Deane combines his storytelling skills with a natural instinct for the rhythms, rhymes and finely tuned lines of poetry. His work owes a lot to the tradition of the Beats and spoken word generally. The poetry is natural, fluid and accessible but there is emotional complexity, and a beating heart. The poems speak directly to the restless human spirit and hunger for experience. It made me long to grab a backpack and hit the road.

- from the IP Picks 2005 Judges’ Report

Shortlisted, Anne Elder Award, 2006.

Winner IP Picks Best Poetry, 2005.

Subterranean Radio Songs is a collection of poetry that forms a travelogue of the author’s travels from Australia to the Americas and the Himalayas, with frequent detours into our mind and soul.

The collection melds travel with urban life and the trials that we face, brought to life by Joel Deane’s vivid language and evocative description.

IP Picks Award 2004 winner for his debut novel, Another, Joel Deane has had numerous works published, particularly between 1990 and 1995. He fell silent until 2004 and this collection is the story of those silent years.

He currently works as a speechwriter for the Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks.

Joel lives in Melbourne with his wife and two children.

Have a look at Joel Deane's IP Picks Award Winning novel Another.


Judges’ report on IP Picks 05

Interview with Joel

Interview with Joel in Cordite