Andy Kissane’s Out to Lunch

Andy Kissane, Out to Lunch (Puncher & Wattman 2009)

Continuing on my advance reading for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: here’s another title from the shortlist.

This book’s cover, featuring an electric plug that looks more North American than Australian, led me to expect some kind of postmodern smart-arsery that would speak to a placeless, hip readership. Then ‘The Earlwood–Bardwell Park Song Cycle’ on the contents page seemed to promise more smart-arsery, this time taking the mickey out of Les Murray’s ‘Taree–Buladelah Holiday Song Cycle’. I was prepared, one way and/or the other, to be alienated, left out in the cold, feeling like I was too just old for this world.

It didn’t happen like that at all. After being tantalised by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s poetry and wrestling with Francis Webb’s, I took to Andy Kissane’s like a duck, or perhaps a horse, to water. The first poem, ‘Loaves and Days’, describes a baker at work; the second, ‘Bus Ride with Grey Owl and Dancing Woman’ has a woman dancing on a bus to the music from her Walkman while the poet reads Native American poems at the back of the bus. There are poems about surfing, about the death of friends, about the joys of fatherhood, about visiting friends and family in Melbourne, about adolescent ideals (what does happen to them?). The poems are mostly conversational – no extreme compression of language or dense metaphor, none of the quality I think the blurbs mean when they say poems are permeable or unfenced (something like,’Here are the words, you make the meaning’). Some are pleasantly silly – ‘The Humble Sausage’, for instance is a collection of short pieces having fun with famous lines (‘I wandered lonely as a sausage / Without a slice of bread …’). Some celebrate quotidian joys:

My daughter runs ahead, hair flying out behind her
like the tail of a beloved horse – an appaloosa

mare or brindle stallion – her hoofs kicking
up sand as she jumps the creek and canters
towards the rocks.

As for ‘The Earlwood–Bardwell Park Song Cycle’, there’s nothing smart-arse or mickey-taking about it, though it’s not without humour. In fact, I just checked and found that Les Murray included a section of it in his Best Australian Poems 2005. And it’s deeply deeply rooted in a place that isn’t far from places I know well myself. Let me quote the ending, because it’s lovely, and also because it mentions my new home suburb:

 _________________The moon rises over the hills
of Marrickville, the moon of workers and mystics, the moon
of the tax return and the tax refund, the cadmium yellow moon
of homework and tears at bedtime. The moon of the coming
election, of palm tree and  hoop pine, of all things passed and yet
to pass. Swaying peacefully in the water until a fish jumps
and the globe breaks, before forming again – the full moon
hanging in the dark sky and floating in the dark water.

Paradoxically, the book’s final section, the source of its title, is the one that appealed least to me. The poet has lunch with a series of literary figures – Osip Mandelstam, Atticus Finch, Raskolnikov, and so on – and tells about them in poems with a studiedly dashed-off feel. It’s a nice idea, one that makes me itch to give it a go for my own amusement – just imagine lunch with one of Marilynne Robinson’s patriarchs, or Sam Pollitt, or for that matter Henny Pollitt! But compared to the rest of the book they feel (to me – I may be missing something) so light as to be hardly there at all.

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