Book Review: The West, by John Mateer

New Poetry

Readers not previously familiar with John Mateer’s poetry will in part find here a suburban world as widely spread as is any new city. In part, they will find the subjective, personal world of a poet searching for his historical and mythological context.

Those of us who have been reading Mateer’s work for the last fifteen years or so since the appearance of his first book will also recognize a consistent key element of his ongoing achievement – namely, his particular mix of blunt directness with, at the same time, a consciousness of how language is tricky and cannot easily or innocently be personalized. Reading him, we all become that reader he signals in one of the later poems in this book: this is the reader whose tongue hesitates to voice words blindly, even the words of the greatest, most stylish Imperial poets.

Perhaps, he suggests, this hesitation is especially needed when faced with the words of the best, most memorable, poets. Rippling throughout this selection, that sort of irony- the spreading rings of association around a deeply conscious attention to the act of writing and reading poetry- is one the great pleasure of looking at his poems. For his poetry is both confrontational and, at the same time, seductive and aesthetic.

There is beauty, insight, acerb, epigrammatic ease, outburst and longing in this book. But, perhaps more than anything else, what underlies his poetry is a special sense of history, a particularly honest awareness of how the historical dimension of experience impinges on – ‘occurs’ – in the present: literally in the present moment of awareness.

Much Australian poetry flees from this sort of history. From Charles Harpur on, the emergent tradition of Australian poetry has powerfully reworked (and sometimes ironised) inherited poetic language, form and style but largely only as they derive from European and American antecedents.

Mateer sidesteps both. While he treats style as a brilliant container for speech like any postmodernist might, he achieves a language of acute psychological sincerity and even pain. He seems to speak from nowhere as a sort of supra-national poet. Yet by the very same token he writes (as very few Australian poets can) with an on-the-pulse awareness of what it feels like to live out there, in some outlying Australian suburb, on the freeway, over there, truly in the West.


John Mateer will read Apr. 23 at Shakespeare & Company. See World of Books. This article is exerpted from the author‘s Introduction to Mateer‘s latest collection, The West.

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