John Tranter reviews
Damaged Glamour, by John Forbes
Brandl & Schlesinger, 60pp, $17.95, ISBN 1-876040-10-6
Paragraph One follows: 1:
This collection of recent poems was complete and ready to publish when John Forbes suffered a heart attack and died suddenly at his home in Melbourne on 23 January 1998. He was forty-seven.
So, sadly, he joins his friends (and mine) the poets Martin Johnston and Robert Harris, and Michael Dransfield, the slightly older contemporary he never met but whose work he knew well. All dead before their time.
John Forbes was part of that vigorous generation of young writers whose fresh styles and new ideas began to be noticed in the late 1960s, though he was younger and arrived a little later on the scene than most of them. When I was editing an issue of Poetry Australia magazine, I rejected some poems he sent to me — he was still a teenager — in late 1969.
But I published his second book, Stalin’s Holidays, in 1981.
His growth as a poet and critical thinker during the decade of the 1970s was extraordinary. He absorbed masses of novels, poems, military history, philosophy, and cultural and art theory, and developed a cynical understanding of politics. All this found its way into his subtle and ironic verse.
What did he write about? Simple-minded poets and earnest readers always want poems to be about matters of the “heart”. Okay, Forbes wrote about the “heart”. Like this, from the poem “Troubador”:
like an old tyre
filling the air
with flecks of carbon
& a terrible stink…
He wrote about politics too. His “Ode to Karl Marx” begins with a nod to Miss Havisham from Great Expectations —
wedding cake has finally collapsed…
Years of training in art theory lie behind poems such as “On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra” (the painting is helpfully reproduced on the cover) which opens:
could catch this scene: flash Euro-
trash surveys a sulky round faced
überBabe who’s got the lot…
And he wrote dozens of love poems, almost all of them ornately oblique. One in an earlier book goes into lengthy technical detail about the sounds of the various armaments audible in a television news report of the bombing of Baghdad. A love poem in this book, though — a kind of “still life with girl and heroin” — comes close to the simple sentimentality he had previously abjured.
For all their intellectual dexterity, his poems are easy to read, and Forbes was almost self-consciously Australian. There are a handful of poems in this book that pin down our larrikin style with grace and accuracy. Forbes grew up on the fringe of the military — his father was a civilian meteorologist attached to the Air Force — and his poem about the Anzac Day march (the last poem in the book) compares various military cultures, from the English to the Germans, from the French to the Scots. All this is just a leadup to his final point:
proof we got at least one thing right, informal
straggling and more cheerful than not, it’s
like a huge works or 8 Hour Day picnic —
if we still had works, or unions, that is.
He was sardonically aware of the contradictions of a society that occasionally gave modest handouts to poets (he had enjoyed a small number of Literature Board grants) and lavishly rewarded greedy entrepreneurs like Christopher Skase and Alan Bond for their cunning. The sneering references to rich yuppies that pepper his writings, though, seem to me to be tinted with envy.
In Australia, success can cost you your friends. Forbes turned his back on it, and wrapped penury around him like a patched overcoat. In “Lessons for Young Poets” he says
but not to be
too cute about it — I mean
it’s the empty future
you want to impress,
not just the people
who’ll always be richer
& less talented than you.
This is the Laconic Mode, a way of talking that is peculiarly Australian, and grows from a dry refusal to acknowledge either the hurt of failure or the glow of success. Except for his art — and there’s no doubt it will impress the empty future — Forbes was more acquainted with failure than success, and the sting of various defeats (menial jobs, unrequited love, friendship gone sour) was not assuaged by the knowledge that he was mostly to blame.
But even that bitter pill can be turned into piquant verse, if you’re clever enough, as he was. Another stanza from his “Lessons for Young Poets” —
the expectations of others,
this way you will come to hate yourself
& they will be charmed by your distress
In the poem “Anti-Romantic” he concludes that self-conscious bitterness is the best response to a consideration of “poetry driven by love or breath”. Art or life both require this, he tells us, but in case you are inclined to be too cute about this hard-earned insight, there’s a final admonition — an ethical scruple that surely bears the imprint of his Catholic schooling:
leaves you ugly & stranded,
the moment you admire it.
Sadly, all of our large publishing houses are now controlled by foreign-born managers whose main loyalty is to the profits their overseas shareholders demand. Few of them now publish individual volumes of new Australian poetry. It’s left to small firms like Brandl & Schlesinger to carry that baton.
This book is a worthy publication and a wonderful read. It’s heartening to see that it’s also a stylish and elegant production.