B R Dionysius, Wagtail 108: The Curious Noise of History and other poems (Picaro Press 2011)
I first heard of the Wagtail series a couple of years ago when a member of my book group told us he subscribed: chapbooks, tiny publications each featuring work by a single poet, one arriving in his mailbox eleven times a year. They didn’t cost much, so if you didn’t hit it off with a particular poet you hadn’t wasted a fortune, and if a chord was struck you could go searching for more. More than 120 issues of the series were published by Rob Riel of Picaro Press in Warners Bay, New South Wales, before it finally folded last year. You can see a full list, unnumbered, here (it’s the Ginanderra site – Picaro is hard to find on the web), and an incomplete list with numbers, prices and availability here (at Gleebooks). The best account of the series I could find was this article by Warwick Wynne in Famous Reporter in 2004.
I came to Wagtails more than a day late and a dollar short when I spotted Book 108 among the economics textbooks and salvation tracts in an Erskineville Street Library. B R (Brett) Dionysius is a much published poet. A quick look at his web site, Bitter as the Cud, shows him to be a mover and, especially recently, shaker in the Queensland poetry scene. I’ve previously read poems by him in journals and anthologies and online, most memorably a sonnet sequence about the Brisbane floods, but never a whole book. Taking this 16-pager home seemed like a good step forward, even though it doesn’t send any money his way.
The Curious Noise of History is full of assured poems, mostly about violent or overbearing men, mostly a father who may be drawn from Dionysius’ own life. Possibly all of them appeared in his first book, Fatherlands. In ‘Crossing‘, the poem I want to single out, the man in question is the poem’s speaker. I’m drawn to talk about it because a) it’s probably the simplest poem in the book, and b) it reminds me of the mortification and joy of being a parent to young children.
(In case you can’t read it here, it’s on Dionysius’ web site at this link: you need to scroll down quite a way.)
I remember turning into that ogre myself more than once.
The narrative is straightforward, but there’s plenty to linger over. For example, what is ‘it’ in the first line? At first blush, it’s punching the pedestrian button. But the poem is about a different kind of hurting. The man is in a rage for an unspecified reason (what he says to his daughter isn’t necessarily the truth), and aims that rage at his little daughter. The ridiculously hyperbolic image of fairytale monsters captures, with just enough irony, the horror a raging parent feels at his (or possibly her) behaviour. But in this case the child takes a stand – she may be twisting her ring because internally she is terrified, but her words brings perspective to the emotional storm with the mundane adjective ‘grumpy’. So perhaps the first line also refers to the dissipation of the speaker’s rage; the daughter wasn’t hurt by the rage, and her calling him on his poor behaviour didn’t hurt either.
His wrist starts to throb. They hold hands. There is no more talk of monstrous ogres, but it a little man turning from red to green.
The poem is sweet enough, but taken in the context of the other poems in the collection – in which, for example, a father plays a game involving a stock whip and his children’s toes – it is also powerful. In those other poems, Dionysius looks at male domination from the perspective of one who has suffered it. Here, the perspective is that of the man swept up in the compulsion to voice, and one feels a rush of gratitude to that little girl.