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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Pam Brown reviews

Shimmerings, by S.K. Kelen

ISBN 0 86418 592 8
Five Islands Press, PO Box U34, Wollongong University NSW 2500, Australia

Stephen K. Kelen is a prolific poet, publishing seven collections since his first, The Gods Ash Their Cigarettes, appeared in 1980. His books’ titles provide a good notion of Kelen’s particular energies – Zen Maniacs (Modern Life Studies), To The Heart Of The World’s Electricity, Atomic Ballet, Dingo Sky, West of Krakatoa and Trans-Sumatran Highway .

As well as teaching in the U.S. for a time, Canberra-based Kelen has travelled widely in Asia and the Pacific. His poetry reflects his knowledge of Buddhist and Hindu concepts of circular time and relishes the imaginings brought by immersion in cultures different from his own. He also engages, often humorously, in a critique of tourism and its plastic-fantastic reductive universals and simulations.

Many of the poems in Shimmerings were written during his residency in mid-western North America. Hopefully questing after ‘great moments’ Kelen writes a sequence of road-poems like ‘Mid-West 1’ –

So the free spirit changes gear
Fuel-injected, turbo charged,
Chants the sky’s tyre mantra

‘The Burger King’

It’s snowing on the Burger King’s crown
He is at play on the highways,
A well-fed baby god picking up cars
In the parking lot turning them
On their backs like beetles.

and ‘Happy Meal’ –

     Drive and drive.
Head for the hills; imbibe roadside
     hype-burgers & hearty food
        all the way
The highway is an eating trail
   with all the pancakes
           You ever dreamed of, sonny

and in ‘Route 66’, like a slightly stunned visitor from a bygone counter-culture, he condenses his responses down into a kind of purely-dreamt USA  –

Unpoliceable haven, spine
Of  liquid rebellion
A song to take drugs to
Snaking its way
Down a ridge-backed continent
With so much love it was dangerous
And you could get it right away.
The Government took Route 66 off
The map, had miles dug up
And dynamited, planted trees
On it, the AAA Road Atlas USA
Records the ruins – dispersed county
Bypasses, not the mighty Trans-American
Artery it had been once.
The bars stayed open
& flowers and sycamores grew
In the churned tarmac.
TV stayed friendly, though.
Four-lane freeways took the time
Out of travel. And cars
Became slow jets flying over cement
- just one town a day,
Now that it’s a rocket dream.
Journeys remember and go again,
The motels move back to town
And buffalo graze on wasted track.

In 1998, under the auspices of Asialink, a federally-funded Australian cultural-exchange program, Steve Kelen lived for a lengthy period in Hanoi, Vietnam. Kelen’s range has always been capacious — exemplified here by a long, allegorical poem called ‘Thousand Star Hotel, Hanoi’. It’s based on the well-known Vietnamese description of homelessness and sleeping rough as staying in a thousand star hotel. ‘Dragon Rising’, the book’s last section, is a brilliant homage to Vietnam and its courageous, spirited people. This writing brims with energy as if mirroring the volatile, yet benign chaos of Vietnamese city life, and rural poems like ‘Red Dzao Village’, are, like much traditional Vietnamese poetry, simply, beautiful —

‘No guide book describes the ecstasy
brought on by a breeze blowing down terraced fields
of rice green, green full of water — Asia green’

Kelen’s poetry is also breezily zennish. It shimmers with characters, sayings, spirits, gods and goddesses from a pantheon of faiths. Never evoked for wisdom or mere symbolism, they inhabit Kelen’s world naturally, alongside sporting heroes, tv shows, punks, babes, the internet, birds, animals, politicians, kids, cyclo drivers, American cowboys and more. Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog dies without even having dreamed of seeing the Queensland Gold Coast where Kelen’s samurais rest in a retirement village at Coolangatta –’the blessedness of / hanging out the washing’.

Kelen can be very funny. In defence of smoking, before quitting the habit he calls ‘filthy as filth itself’, he writes ‘The fact is / History’s cool people did it’, citing famous smokers; Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill, Australian Labour Prime Minister, John Curtin, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Kelen’s fascination with and affection for fauna is evident in many of these poems. ‘House of Rats’ describes an infestation of rats in the ceiling of a suburban home — ‘They’re up there alright,/ In the roof playing scrabble’ — and it’s a hilarious entertainment.

And Steve Kelen can be elegant. In ‘Empery’ he takes a cue from the early twentieth-century Australian symbolist poet Christopher Brennan. Brennan wrote

I am shut out of mine own heart
because my love is far from me,
nor in the wonders have I part
that fill its hidden empery

Borrowing this ‘empery’ Kelen makes his own poem quietly receptive –

tree shadow empery curtained for night
an open window lets in the world.



But wait — there’s more! ...from Pam Brown’s author notes page here on the Jacket site, you can link to a photo and a biographical note, and also to dozen or so Jacket pages where her work features or where she is reviewed or interviewed.

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