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Marcelle Freiman reviews
Goddess of Mercy
by S. K. Kelen

72 pp paper. Brandl & Schlesinger. AUD$22.95.
1 876049 40 8

This review is 1,800 words
or about 5 printed pages long

Alive in an imperfect world

Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the ‘simulacrum’ in Simulacra and Simulations (1983) — that ‘the real’ of the contemporary world is obliterated through the dominance of its signs, images, and representations — comes to mind when reading the poems in S. K. Kelen’s fifth book, Goddess of Mercy. Kelen’s poems confront the normalization of the images of consumerism and television culture through which we come to ‘know’ the world, and which, for many consumers, especially the young, are indistinguishable from lived experience. But whereas Baudrillard claims that the simulacrum does not obscure the truth, but that it ‘is’ the truth, the poems in this collection make a bid for the resurrection of truths of human experience and the natural world, which are obscured by (post)modernity and consumerism.

While satire and irony are the dominant tone of the poems, the irony is also self-directed and genuinely questioning; the poems implicate both poet and reader in the self-consciousness of their critique. Kelen allows for the influence of popular images on our imaginations and memories, while noting the numbing effect of their proliferation and messages. For example, in ‘Venice’ (26) Disney cartoon figures become “unanimated cartoon” when they lose their initial force in childhood imagination:

And Bugs, Sylvester never heroes
of a World Cup victory no pizza or basilica
ever dedicated to you saints of my sanity
for years and years you were art
and life’s about more real
than any fresco

Here, with a complex tone of double self-irony, life is “about more real” than the modern tourist experience that devalues Renaissance art and architecture. Kelen’s concern is with the way popular images can inform our perception of the real, so that we lose touch with our local physical environment. In ‘Magpie Hill’, a poem that celebrates a local sense of place, the view of the mountains is compared with the background of the ‘Mona Lisa’, a work of art so often reproduced as to become a popular image. The aesthetic of high culture is doubly transformed in the poem to carry the critique of both the habitually conditioned, urbanized visual experience and the positioning of art as consumerism:

Blue emerging within the green calms thought
And action though it’s much sunnier here
Here than in the painting and the misty bits
Are the heat haze eucalypts ooze sweating summer’s
Fine air, not trapped behind a metre of bullet-proof
Glass like poor old Mona Lisa ...” (11).

This comparison, in some of the poems, between the local environment and (popularized) European art and culture (or American television images) can be confusing. For example, the Greco-Roman god Pan, god of flocks and shepherds, is appropriated into ‘Kambah Pool’ (12) signifying an aspect of “some native spirit’s power” for the children playing freely in the pool. He is an “old goat”, “All glands and rankness, his shaggy coat/ Putrid with the smell of ewes, wallabies”. But the physicality evokes local place, while the use of Pan implies that we name what we fear from within our own cultural resources. The poem acknowledges Pan’s transitory presence in the Australian bush: “The immigrant god moves inland — / Raucous the cockatoo never shuts up”.

The strength of nature’s endurance despite the damages done to the earth by consumer technology forms the ecological ethos of poems that frame the collection. Yet there is a conscious ambivalence about a contemporary identity formed in this environment: ‘O’Connor Ridge’ remembers a waste dump, which spawns both cottage industries that fail to survive the pace of the scrap-pile’s growth also forms an archaeological relic beneath the surface, an image of permanence, compressed under “Ghost gums, rough grass and walking trails” (10).

If, as the poems suggest, life and nature are ‘more real’ than the art (both popular and ‘high’ art) that we consume, how does the poet, who is also an artist, deal with modern life? Kelen’s irony prevents any solipsism as the poems confront the contemporary in order to find pockets of compassion in what it means to be human and alive in an imperfect world. The poems themselves act as fissures in the surface of consumerism, defamiliarizing cultural meanings. Perhaps the greatest satire is aimed at the reception of American television culture, and how it creates systems of interpretation and values for living, which are perceived as ‘the real’: “Welcome to the motel of life!” exhorts the fragmented voice in the poem ‘Helicopter’ (30).

The role models presented to television consumers are creations of a dominant American media, hero figures whose violent solutions to conflict are naturalized by their television medium: “Shoot and shoot and shoot until sadness is forgotten” (‘Imperial Vampire’). These figures provide solace for viewers, who are constructed in the poems as either passive — as in ‘Ballad of the Texas Ranger’ (36) where Walker Texas Ranger’s violence makes “life a beautiful ballet at the end of the day” — or as more active in their adoration, as in ‘Buffy’ (27). In ‘Buffy’ the heroine is interpolated as a cult figure of worship, providing a panacea for the fear of violence and the powerlessness in the barren lives of her fans: “Buried in a grave they crave war, sex/ And machines smoothed on a screen”. The register shifts emphasize the poem’s critique, reminding of its local, familiar context: “If Buffy gets a hard time at school those vampires/ Are so killed....”. Yet behind the irony in the final rhythmic incantation we read an emptiness that is neither spiritual sustenance, nor love:

A cold wind blows from outer space.
Any ghost will tell you: Love is forever.
Light the incense now and call the spirit.
Good will triumph in her light.
Kick those demons. Kick ‘em high
Buffy bless and sanctify.

In ‘Homer’s Dream’ (38) Kelen highlights The Simpsons as a vehicle for promoting the dominant ethos of consumerism: “The day just feels better owning lots of things/ and knowing soon you’ll own more”. The poem examines the influence of television on questions of how families construct themselves, their values, aspirations and questions of how to live, again emphasizing the religiosity of the television cult with chilling satire:

       O little baby Maggie her photos
brighten Sector 7G’s grey walls, sweet enough
to make nuclear power safe for all.
The little baby’s what the story’s really about
in the end what a lot of stories are about
and that’s how the Simpson family’s
love redeems America’s savage affluence.

Homer Simpson is an everyman capable of producing his own deeply compromised art in this environment. The poem ends with reference to others in this collection (“Venice” and “Magpie Hill”):

One day Homer floods Springfield
to make the streets canals, his town
a work of art like Venice the city of art.

The comment that art is necessarily compromised in contemporary culture is disturbing in a collection of poems. Kelen’s work walks a fine line between the danger of undermining its own premises and creating genuine fissures that break through the surfaces. The poems succeed, I think, because they are in fact not critical theory, but poems whose critical edge is tempered, if not softened, by humor and idiomatic language, and by their self-reflexiveness.

In ‘Chinese Movie’ the poem’s criticism is aimed at the glorification of war through the “official account” that poet Li Po was authorized to write (but did not), while advocating a different kind of poetry that maintains its focus on truth telling rather than on obfuscation and distortion. Poetry’s power is in its cutting away of illusion, using its defamiliarizing language to represent alternative significations to those that dominate.

In the long poem ‘Attitude: Don Juan at the Shopping Mall’ (49) Kelen adopts the eight-line stanzas and thematic characterization of Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ (1823), which combined satire with the tragedy of the romantic hero. In Kelen’s poem the shopping mall is metonymic of contemporary Australian society. Before he is born, Juan’s parents, post-war migrants, enter the myth: “The past could be forgiven beginning with happy endings/ In the brave new lucky country of the mall” (50), and Juan spends most of his time where “Shopping’s a way of life” even for kids without money whom the management attracts. Dealing drugs in the mall, he eventually creates a life based on values of the mall, marrying Indonesian Lee Lin and buying more businesses with her more successful family: “Juan knew it was too late to save the Earth./ You might as well enjoy the technology and the girls” (58). Juan’s life is a construct of mall values and he is happy in this frame, the poem implying that we are all made thus. The poem addresses the emptiness behind the mall-façade, adopting the tragic into the satirical form and shifting the focus onto the self:

But Juan craved love the way a poem might dream many
Readers or a parched traveller chase desert mirages
And found oases real enough, felt oneness
With a calling to see loveliness like a bird set free. (56)

The framing poems of the collection focus not on urban development, but on nature. Sometimes this is the compromised nature of “domestic wildlife” — “whatever shares the human cage” (61) in ‘Understand’ — or the “sad bear eyes” of a caged bear in ‘The Café Bear’ (60). Moving between an intimate, urban, domestic perspective which views postmodernity with some bewilderment to a larger, wider planetary view, Kelen’s poems inhabit spaces at the edges of city and country. Underlying all the poems is the questioning of possibility and change. ‘Crab Nebula’ (63) considers the limits of our understanding:

.... here during our brief stay we can intuit
or theorise, guess and wonder, hope or blame
we can see crab’s claws floating in space (63)

‘Modern Problems’ closes the collection with a question that recalls the spiritual longing of the earlier poem ‘Buffy’:

why go to all the trouble?
                 of the reason for galaxies
                   there are many ideas —
      how worlds are born
    why anything happens
         who steers the thunder bolt?
       strike and illuminate
             earth and sky
          bless star dust’s
     hard light incarnations.

The Goddess of Mercy observes the world with compassion and humility, a presence in these poems, including the most satirical, with her hope for the potential of human knowledge and spirit to transcend the controlling forces of contemporary life. Kelen’s often challenging poems fight against the possibility of the simulacrum, the loss of the truths outside ‘the real’, and to my mind, they succeed.

Marcelle Freiman is a lecturer in creative writing and post-colonial literatures at Macquarie University, Sydney, and has completed her doctorate on the novels of J. M. Coetzee. Her book of poems Monkey’s Wedding (1995) was highly commended for the Mary Gilmore Prize in 1996. Her poetry is published in journals in Australia and England and has been read on radio and in performance.

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