Toby Fitch, Sydney Spleen (Giramondo 2021)
There are four poems with the title ‘Spleen’ in Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857). Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen is roughly structured around those poems – its first three sections begin with his version of one, and the third section finishes with his version, or perhaps re-imagining, of the fourth.
The translations are a long way from word-for-word French-to-English transcriptions. Only the first of the four preserves Baudelaire’s conventional line-by-line layout, but even in it the Fitch version moves the action from Paris to Sydney, and in its final couplet, rather than two court cards muttering sinisterly about their defunct loves, the looming climate catastrophe disinters ‘whole centuries of fear’. On close reading, though, these versions astonishingly true to the originals – recreations of the same mood of disgusted melancholy in a different cultural, geographical and ecological context. (I have had quite a bit of nerdy fun comparing these versions with other more conventional ones. If you’re also inclined that way, you can find Baudelaire’s first ‘Spleen’ and a handful of English translations at fleursdumal.org. The Fitch version is online here.)
In the rest of the book, poem after poem vents its spleen on this city and this country, articulating – to quote the excellent back-cover blurb – ‘the causes of our doom and gloom: corporate rapacity, climate change, disaster capitalism, the plague, neo-colonialism, fake news, fascism’. They do it with gusto, with dazzling wordplay, and with the engagement of a parent of small children and owner of an ailing small black dog.
I’m not a critic or a scholar. Mostly, I read poetry for pleasure, and even though in a number of the poems in this book I have no grasp of their organising principles or structures, there is almost always something to give pleasure. I feel a little the way I did on first hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ or ‘Desolation Row’ – the words have a magic that doesn’t depend on me understanding them. For example this, from ‘New Work Metaphorics’ (page 19), which seems to be the inspiration for the book’s cover:
I've got over 73 tabs open in my hot skull right now, one of which on death-cult capitalism says, There are more important things than living and
I agree with the whole of my man-o'-war heart still beating its stung drum. Skeletal, diaphanous, I am traversed by grace, a windowpane
The image of multiple open tabs in one’s hot skull is fabulous. I don’t understand that man-o’-war image, but I love it.
There are poems that play around with the n + 7 game invented by the Oulipo poets in the 1960s – you take a passage and replace every noun with the one that comes seven after it in the dictionary. A pretty soulless activity you might think, but when you do it to a certain kind of public utterance, and tweak it a little, the results can be savage, as in this mangled mash-up of Scott Morrison’s ‘I will burn for you’ and ‘This is coal’ speeches (in ‘Captain’s Cull’):
I will burnish for you every deadbeat, every single deadline, so you can achieve, your amnesties, your assemblies, your destinations. That is what's at the torch of my aid. And this is coalface. Don't be afraid. Don't be scared. An ideological, pathological feedback of coastline won't hurt you.
There are poems that use homophones to similar effect, like this, from ‘The Last few Budgets in a Nutshell’:
Wort I'm swaying is, Barry, the primonastery has my combpleat confit dense. It's imply inTrumpting bracket creep and I tink the sir plus is a goner schtick. HoWeber the diss royalty of sum has been outray juice.
So many levels of splenetic wonderfulness in ‘the sir plus is a goner schtick’!
There are found poems, including one that claims to have been copied verbatim from the label on a bottle of water, and others that play around with found texts. There are prose poems that may be accounts of dreams, especially a sequence titled ‘Pandemicondensation’. And there are poems that take us on a ride through conversations with the poet’s young daughters, online idiocies, dire environmental news, encounters with the police, and more, all tossed in together but somehow making a whole.
The part of the book I really love is the fourth section, a single prose poem in 25 parts called ‘Morning Walks in a Time of Plague’. It’s exactly what the title says. The poet goes for a morning walk during Covid lockdown with his partner, their two young daughters and their little black dog. In the first eight parts they go to the lovingly evoked ‘chicken park’. I’ve been to that park with a little girl more than once, and am delighted that it has been immortalised. Here it is:
In the rest of the poem, they go to Camperdown Cemetery, whose celebration in verse I’ve already blogged about (here).
Both these places come wonderfully alive in what purport to be – and I believe mostly are – straightforward accounts of daily visits to these locations. Sometimes the adults join the girls’ imaginative play, which mostly involves unicorns, or alicorns to be precise. Occasionally they yell at them. Sometimes they get lost in their phones, reading news about the pandemic or plague-related texts from Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus and contemporary scholars, the latter via Twitter. The narrator is aware that the late John Forbes lived nearby (I’m guessing it was in the sunlit brick building in the photo above), and quotes lines from his poetry. The two imaginative worlds co-exist easily with the natural world of high winds, dropping pine cones and orgiastic lorikeets. Once the poem moves to the cemetery, the context broadens out to include precolonial and colonial history, as well as a pervasive sense of mortality, and, oh, a hint of Lovecraftian horror. All this happens in unforced prose narrative, so that one barely notices the dark, melancholy undertow: the dog’s body is failing, the girls have little accidents, there are countless tales of the buried dead, they come across a dead bee, and all the time the pandemic looms just outside the poem’s frame.
It’s hard to find a short passage that conveys the pleasure that this poem gives, but here’s an attempt, from the 17th part, featuring the poet’s daughters Evie and Tilda:
Once we reach a clearing, Evie spots an alicorn flock in the sky. They eat the belly-sized candlenut leaves we offer them. When we reach the other swamp mahogany, in the northwest, it's clear the lorikeets are coming and going between the two, raucously. The tree's thick chunky brown bark looks super tough but up close is pliant, squidgy. Tilda needs to do a 'bush wee', which ends up going down the backs of her legs into her gumboots. On the way home Evie finds a feather which I decide is from a pigeon, though she says it has too much shine. In the back alleys we meet, perched on a back gate, a black- and-white cat adept at keeping his distance from our loose hands. It is forbidden to spit on cats in plague-time, writes Camus.
See what I mean? This is funny, affectionate, and melancholy all at once. The play between adult and children is fresh and respectful. There are notes on nature and some acute social observation – the cats of Newtown are notoriously self-possessed. These paragraphs quote The Plague, feature My Little Pony figures, and arguably allude to Bluey. With apparent effortlessness, they invite us into an intimate world. The tiny hints of something being amiss, in the description of the tree’s bark and the trouble with Tilda’s wee, are unstrained, and we could almost forget there’s a pandemic on, but the cat sets off an association that reveals the pandemic is always hovering in the poet/father’s mind.
For quite a few years now I’ve enjoyed the fruits of Toby Fitch’s labours as organiser and MC of poetry readings, editor and critic. I’ve heard him read, I’ve read a number of his poems in journals, and I’ve tagged him in this blog a number of times (here’s a link). I used to see his distinctive unruly head of hair behind a stroller in the local park (not the chicken park) accompanied by the small black dog. But though he has had seven books of poetry published, Sydney Spleen is the first I’ve read. I’m very grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.