Phillip Hall Reviews ‘All Suspicions Have Been Confirmed’ by Shane Strange

Reviewed ByPhillip Hall

Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne, where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. His publications include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press, 2014), Borroloola Class (IPSI, 2018), Fume (UWAP, 2018) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press, 2015). He also publishes the e-journal Burrow:

‘All Suspicions Have Been Confirmed’ Shane Strange

Published by Recent Work Press

ISBN 978-0-6488343-7-3, $19.95

Shane Strange’s debut collection of poetry, ‘All Suspicions Have Been Confirmed’ (yes, great title, isn’t it?), features on its front cover a gelatin silver print by the New York street photographer and poster artist, James Jowers. The image, titled ‘E. 8th st.’, centres a couple in a moment of calm before a spiralling image of postmodern psychedelic confusion. This artwork is framed on one side by a portrait of a U.S. Marine, while Marlon Brando (though absent on the truncated image shown on the cover) struts his stuff on the other side. So, here we have a couple captivated by boys: how they are socialised (both healthily and otherwise) and the familial relationships they depend upon. Feminist scholars have led the way in interrogating the cultures of toxic masculinity that so many boys have been socialised in. And with their insights in mind, Strange follows the lead of such creative writers as Tim Winton, Philip Hodgins and Brendan Ryan, in exploring this emotional terrain largely within the context of rural and regional disadvantage, and his interrogations are worked with sensitivity, honesty and humour.

Many of Strange’s most memorable explorations of this country are set against a background of hard pastoral: where damage to boys is set against a backdrop of harm done to country and non-human animals. One such consideration is the prose poem, ‘The order of things’:

‘The cows are obedient as they line up for the dip. Shitting
in the mud where they stand, they move forward down      
the race: inch by inch to the edge. Two men with electric
prods force the cows into the dipping trench: one by one    
by one. And the boy sees from the fence how they work as
a machine: the line of cows; the men.‘

‘The dip itself is milky blue and splashes across the yard as
each cow jumps in. When the boy gets some on his skin    
his grandfather tells him to ‘wipe it off quick’ with his red
handkerchief. The boy does as he’s told. ‘Chemicals’, his
grandfather mumbles. But the boy is more concerned about
the red handkerchief, and the bull in the yard next door,
waiting, he has been told, to be neutered.’

There is a rich tradition of prose poetry coming out of Canberra where Strange resides, led by such practitioners and theorists as Jen Webb and Paul Hetherington, and Strange is obviously comfortable within this experimental milieu. ‘All Suspicions Have Been Confirmed’ is not written wholly in prose poetry, but many of its finest poems are certainly splendid contributions to this form. There is a matter of fact tone to ‘The order of things’ achieved by its commonplace and pared back language. And the humour of the boy more concerned with the bull waiting for castration than in cleaning himself of dangerous chemicals gives the poem an eery sense of foreboding. While the use of caesura and repetition causes the poem to ebb and flow, ‘inch by inch’, in a way that is almost mechanical, and is evocative of rural daily rhythms and work routines.

Strange is intensely interested in our relationships, in how they sustain us through times of difficulty, but in ‘Near Kyoto station’ it is our weakness for becoming overly self-absorbed and failing to show proper appreciation towards those who love us that interests him:

‘I carried my postcard to you in the rain and the words  
washed away and the post office was closed. As I passed the
Bar Populare the waiter stood inside the door watching a   
line of empty barstools against the wall. A crowd caught     
me on the corner and washed me in to some place under
florescent lighting and it yelled at me like a storm, and              
I remembered my eyes were sore, and people were staring   
at phones because it was the only way they knew home.
When I got out of that place and found my way back, I        
had nothing, not the smallest thing, to show for it. And I
thought about you, and how you kept me warm, and how
sorry I was I hadn’t written’

With such unadorned language, Strange is able to evoke a moment of drama, the pain of separation and the self-censorship that comes from the realisation that you have not adequately said thank you. This poem beautifully captures the wrench of regret.

Another preoccupation of ‘All Suspicions Have Been Confirmed’ is the experience of place. Strange has a wonderful ear and eye for a lyrical and evocative use of language that celebrates spots of scenic beauty in and around Canberra, and in Japan and South-East Asia where he has travelled. One of these poems is ‘Canberra’:

‘Spring breeze off drainage channels.
Four-lane roads taking
people away like a finger
wiping dust from the sill.
One could drive all night
to find a sky so blue. Yet,
here it is, in used car lots
and Pepsi cans:
the shale weight of the world
pressing down like a joke
and a promise – all at once.’

Here, again, we have the distinctly Strange use of humour and juxtaposition. And that image of ‘the shale weight of the world’ is unforgettable. In just eleven lines, Strange evokes sublimity and avoids pomposity through his clever use of comic incongruity.

‘All Suspicions Have Been Confirmed’ is a marvellous debut collection. While exploring the socialisation of boys and their relationships, Strange also makes a significant contribution to a poetics of pastoral and place. This book is disquieting, tender and heartrending. Its language might be pared back, but it is also evocatively dramatic and sympathetically probing. There is a sly comic edge and imagist confidence to Strange that is at once precise and immediate. This is a collection that is honed with startling intent.