Lynda Scott Araya reviews John Bartlett’s ‘Awake at 3am’

‘Awake at 3am’ by John Bartlett
Ginninderra Press
ISBN 978 1 76041 975 2

John Bartlett’s poetry anthology ‘Awake at 3am,’ published by Ginninderra Press, 2020, draws on the experiences of regret and despair, the passing of time and the hidden dangers of love. Some, such as ‘Vulnerability,’ shock the reader with their vivid imagery of a person’s fragility but perhaps also strength in an unkind world:

‘[t]he white porcelain cup cracks
A hummingbird trapped in a box
We balance on high wires.
At 18 he hanged himself.’

That line, which is repeated throughout the poem reflects the way in which Bartlett portrays life as something that is always hanging in the balance, balanced on a knife edge and we see this again in his poem ‘Danger.’ In this poem, danger is everywhere, lying where it is least expected. It is ‘[a] knife in a drawer of spoons’ which ‘smiles unsheathed like swords’ and the world is a place where ‘[s]harks tread water politely at beaches’. In this poem, however, there is a recognition that, despite it all

‘[t]here’s something compelling about living
Even it it’s all over just too soon.’

Bartlett, then, explores the dichotomies of human existence, of the banal superficialities of life with the darkness of its realities. There is almost a tone of resignation, perhaps even acceptance in some of his poems in which he portrays a less-than-perfect world. In ‘The Suburbs,’ for instance,

‘[d]evelopers circle
In their purring Lamborghinis
like patient birds of prey, ‘

and the last line reminds us of the sharks treading water at the beach ready to tear apart unsuspecting bathers. For Bartlett, even the beaches have lost their beauty. Hidden dangers and pollution lie just below the surface and, according to his ‘Plastic World,’

‘the whales are wearing plastic
this summer on their heads.’

Many of the poems explore a more sinister world. In ‘Rewind,’ ‘young men wrap themselves in flags/and suicide on sunny days’ while people fruitlessly try to repair war’s damages by ‘allowing tears to defy gravity … putting the whole fucking world on rewind then creeping softly from the room closing the door behind.’

Bartlett’s ‘Awake at 3am’ has the real sense of a poet preoccupied with the futility of existence and the fleeting fragility of life, which often is lived repeatedly through memories and regrets. Indeed, in his poem ‘Life is,’ life is a

‘journey through
the neglected gardens of my childhood.’

Memories can be unpleasant and several of his poems focus on family dysfunction and disintegration such as in ‘Saying the Rosary,’ which again contrasts cohesion with breakdown:

‘The family that prays together, stays
together until the rosary snaps,
as needs it must, beads scattered.’

Families are not always as they seem for Bartlett and, in some,

‘[m]en close the curtain silently
To drown out the sobbing
Of their wives.’

Love, therefore, can become twisted, bitter and violent and, in ‘The ambiguity of hands,’ ‘hands that stab or strangle/[c]an cradle babies.’ My favourite poem in this anthology is a playful one titled ‘My Brief Affair.’ This hooks the reader in by detailing the stages of a love affair and, after all of his more pessimistic poems, I was delighted that this was more upbeat. It was a relationship that I wanted to succeed. However, when I read

‘[u]ntil stop sixty-nine
When you abandoned me
Without a backward glance’

I understood that the affair had taken place solely in the narrator’s imagination while on a bus journey and that ‘stop sixty-nine’ was simply a humorous double- entendre.

While I enjoyed Bartlett’s ‘Awake at 3am,’ it was not, unfortunately, an anthology which wholly gripped me. His exploration of life, death, regret, and despair was thought-provoking and, at times, touched me on a more personal level, especially his poem ‘Vulnerability.’ However, at times, his structure seemed forced and this detracted from the meaning as well as the flow of the poem. This was most notably the case in ‘Waiting’ where it seemed that he had worked hard on both the structure and the line order of the repeated lines to the detriment of the poem’s meaning. However, this jarring effect was only with a few poems and, generally, they were well-crafted, and the anthology is worth reading.