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John Tranter: Reviewer



John Tranter reviews

In Casablanca for the Waters
by Nigel Roberts; Wild & Woolley, Sydney, $8.95 cloth, $3.95 paper.
Seven Poets, the winning entries to the Artlook/ Shell Literary Award 1977. The Nine Club, Perth, $2.50.

First published in The National Times, 16 — 21 January 1978.
This piece is 1,000 words or about three printed pages long.

The search for the perfect pub

It is a journalistic cliche that literary and artistic movements have their birth in particular suburbs — the beatniks in Greenwich Village, the Paris intellectuals of the Left Bank, the San Francisco Renaissance. The real focus is usually not a group of suburban dwellings, but the meeting-places: the restaurants, clubs and especially the coffee houses.

But the story of the Sydney intelligentsia is writ in alcohol, and its odyssey was the search for the perfect pub. Most of the good songs, stories, novels, poems and little magazines in the 1960s and 70s were born in the haze, good cheer, raging arguments and cacophony of pubs — the legendary Royal George, the Newcastle, the United States, the Criterion, the Vanity Fair, and in Balmain the Forth & Clyde and the London. Out of that school of hard knocks and hangovers grew the Balmain Renaissance.

Like all cliches, it is hard to define clearly, but a few main features stand out. The time was the late 60s and early 70s, the place was more often than not Balmain, the form was mainly avant-garde poetry and prose. You could see it all at the Annual Balmain Poetry and Prose Readings, held at different venues around the locality.

This event was something like a blend of literary amateur night, floating brothel, and the nastier parts of World War II, and no writer was considered really in until he or she had suffered something dreadful at one of the readings.

The magazine that best reflected the virtues of this maelstrom of creative activity was Free Poetry. It was roneoed — though with a great deal of graphic panache — and most of the best young Australian poets appeared in it, together with older writers who were on the side of the revolution, and a few Americans and Canadians. It was a forum for new approaches to poetry, it was good-humoured, often obscene and always irreverent, and perhaps more than any other magazine, it helped drag Australian poetry out of the Billabong of Despond.

The chief driving force behind Free Poetry, and the poetry side of the Balmain readings, was Nigel Roberts — school-teacher, part-time football player, heavy smoker and poet. He has waited 10 years to bring out his first collection of poems, In Casablanca for the Waters.

It’s over 90 pages long, and black-and-white photos are scattered throughout. The opening four shots are from the film Casablanca, where Bogart is being politely interrogated:

“And what in Heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?”
“My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.”
“But this is a desert — there are no waters.”
“I was misinformed.”

In many ways, this clipped dialogue is a key to the poems in the book. The taciturn masculinity exemplified by Bogart is part of Nigel Roberts’s style. There is also wry humour, and a dry tone that implies more than the words on the page, as in this extract from a poem about the poetic life:

a poet is a man/ who
camphors his chest/ &
inhales the mendicant air
of himself.

There are many puns like this buried in the poems, designed to elicit from the reader not a gasp of admiral ion, but a quick double-take and a smile.

Drugs are mentioned, but not in the technicolour psychodrama style of writers like Adamson, Dransfield and others. A joint is not a big deal: one poem, for instance, considers the fantasy that Waltons makes a bulk purchase of marihuana and holds a giant sale. Sex, art and women are demythologised in the same way, and even the poet himself comes in for a put-down at the hands of another poet, in the poem ‘Dialogue with John Forbes’:

why/ at your age
do you still
play football?

a test of self
physical fitness/ &
a matter of duende.

Jesus —
then wait
until you discover
the private
and existential / terror
of golf.

The main problem I think this book will face is trivialisation. It’s easy to think of a collection of poems dealing with sex and drugs (among other things) and published by a poet living in Balmain as — well, as a “trend,” a faddish artefact, an ornament for the bachelor pad’s bookshelf And because the poems are easy to read — there are no academic linguistic tricks or complexities — Nigel Roberts could perhaps be seen as the thinking man’s answer to Rod McKuen.

I hope the honesty, commitment and tough wit employed in these poems will save them from that undeserved fate. They’re not the most important poems published in 1977, but then what saves them from the pretentiousness that afflicts so much contemporary poetry is the fact that they don’t set out to be “important.” They are angry, and funny, and sad, and thought-provoking.

In all, In Casablanca for the Waters is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable books of poetry I’ve read for a long time. Five stars.

A quite different collection of poems is Seven Poets, a special edition of Artlook, the West Australian arts newspaper. This issue, printed as a 60-page paperback book, contains the seven best entries to the Artlook/ Shell Literary Award for 1977.

Kate Lilley, a Sydney schoolgirl, won the $1,250 first prize with her poem A Family in Exile, a dreamy Edwardian piece that uses language in a colourful and effectively atmospheric way.

The Batavia, by Mark O’Connor, came second, and the runners-up were Diane Dodwell, Dorothy Hewett (Kate Lilley’s mother), Bryn Griffiths, Caroline Caddy and Susan Whiting.

The general standard of poems is quite high, given that this sort of competition usually seems to produce verse of the level expected from a creative therapy course. If the poems often give the impression that the authors are talented and passionate amateurs, at least they avoid the aridity and wry ironies that coloured the bulk of our published poetry during the 1950s and 60s.

The book is overblown and somewhat unsophisticated compared to Nigel Roberts’, but many readers will enjoy it.

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