Kit Kelen’s Scavenger’s Season

Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Scavenger’s Season; Fragments of an almanac  (Puncher and Wattmann 2014)

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Kit Kelen mostly lives in Macau, but there’s a patch of bush in New South Wales where he has spent a lot of time over the last quarter century. The 150 pages of Scavenger’s Season are filled with poetry of that place – as the title page says, they are ‘poems at Markwell, via Bulahdelah to mark the quarter century’. We’re invited to immerse ourselves in the poetry as Kelen immerses himself in his bit of bush.

Drought, rain, fire, the sounds of the bush at night, bush regeneration, the passing of the seasons, white and black cockatoos, wild and domestic animals, pastoral lyric, blokes and sheds, and through it all the experience of being humble with the bush. I just loved this book. I’ve read most of it a number of times. Some of the poetry is difficult to decipher, and I just plain gave up on two long poems, but mostly the difficulty is of a kind that offers new rewards every time you go back to the poem.

Kelen’s relationship with his patch of land is a kind of groping opposite to the colonising farmer attitude so elegantly articulated in David Campbell’s ‘Cocky’s Calendar’: ‘The hawk, the hill, the loping hare, / The blue tree and the blue air, / O all the coloured world I see / And walk upon are made by me.’ The ‘me’ who makes that world does it as farmer, but also as poet. Kelen echoes this idea  uneasily in ‘minor manifesto’:

one should acknowledge mastery

among sunfall and foliage
loathed and admired
is it not I who make
the landscape looking?

But there’s no hint of Campbell’s triumphalism. It’s a question, and the next lines suggest that the answer is complex:

I am the field here
cattle numb in
rain is waiting
for thirst to be spoke
taps on my shoulder home

That might be hard to follow if you haven’t acclimatised to Kelen’s language (more about that later), but I read it as continuing the acknowledgement of ‘mastery’, but modifying it – he doesn’t just make the field for cattle to be numb in (I don’t think he likes cows much), he is the field; and in the last three lines the ‘mastery’ becomes very tenuous – thirst may give rain meaning, and rain when it comes may serve the speaker’s purpose, but rain exists independently of how we need it, understand it or welcome it.

These line’s from the title poem, ‘Scavenger Season’, are more characteristic of Kelen’s attitude:

it’s true that I make no use of the land
that the land has no use for me

if each has a voice and neither has spoken
then there might be a treaty yet

‘little manifesto’ , which I quoted from above, is one of a dozen long poems in the book – it runs to eight pages. In a moment that’s characteristic of the book’s understated humour, the poem ‘manifesto’, not a little one this time, consists of just four lines:

from my door

everywhere leads me
every way home
nowhere but the way

I want to say a little bit about the language of the poems.

From my brief time as a 19 year old schoolteacher, I  remember only one piece of student writing. It’s a sentence in an essay written by a boy in Year 8, describing his arrival home from school: ‘Dog barking and jumping and licking my face.’ I knew that this was not a proper sentence, and it was my job to correct it. I did so, but with a heavy heart because I knew that pushing the sentence into a ‘proper’ shape (‘The dog barked and jumped up and licked my face’) would rob it of vitality and only theoretically make it clearer. My student had recently arrived from somewhere in China, so I guessed that his syntax wasn’t so much mistaken as transplanted. And technically incorrect as his sentence may have been, I remember it 50 years later.

Towards the end of my second reading of in Scavenger’s Season I realised that something similar was happening. The opening lines of the first poem, ‘think of this’, are as good an example as any:

think of this
a string of pearls
trail of droppings
as you’re disposed
or as light catches

The paraphrasable meaning is clear enough, but something odd is going on. It’s as if some words have been erased: ‘Think of this [as] a string of pearls [or as a] trail of droppings, as you’re disposed  [to] or as [the] light catches [them.]’ Almost every poem in this book asks for that kind of work from the reader.

Filling in the elisions isn’t always as simple in those five lines. The very next lines are pretty opaque:

think this where you’ve always been
and this advice could not have sought you
these your ageless friends among

But mostly the words cohere in response to slow, open-minded and open-hearted reading. It’s not unpleasant: it’s a little like reading in a language one learned long ago and has a rusty hold of – there’s a deep pleasure in feeling meaning emerge. I think that Kelen, who has taught at the University of Macau for 14 years, is doing what my Year 8 student did: writing English that is influenced by Chinese syntax. The result is richly memorable.

So there you have it: a book that invites you to join the poet in an immersive experience of the Australian bush, flavoured by a deep familiarity with Chinese culture and language.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publishers. I’ve read and re-read, used and abused it so much I may have to buy a fresh one with my own money!

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