Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review of Physick by Pete Hay

Review of Physick by Pete Hay

The poem ‘Sound to the World’ blazes with an intensity that runs throughout Pete Hay’s new collection of poetry, Physick.  

“I will keep a jurnal this is the ferst day.
It will parse the time I hope.
The man Devlin down the Turnip Feldes he gose down the town
he give me paper and this stubb of pencil."

The poem embodies the voice of Gentle Annie, inspired by Gentle Annie Falls at the Waterworks in Hobart. ‘She’ – or the poet -  writes, in a robust vernacular of her time from above the town ship she has fled, in her ‘jurnal’. This poem was first published in the elusive Picton Grange Review, which prints only three copies and are allowed with the reader for only 48 hours each, brainchild of the increasingly recognised Tasmanian writer Ben Walter. I nearly wept passing this one on, to lose that poem from sight – but here it is, still both dark and luminescent and in the company of a whole book of poems that demand to be both whispered and roared.

At the recent Hobart launch of Physick, author Pete Hay wondered why a small publisher in Nottingham, a recently declared UNESCO City of Literature, would publish his book as surely no one in the UK would understand a word, possibly no one from the mainland either, he ventured – and maybe only some Tasmanians. It’s true that the book is rich with throaty convict and contemporary Tasmanian vernacular, and it’s true that many of the poems capture the heart and soul of the many strata’d lives of Tasmanians past and present, and the tortured ambrosia of the island, and it is true that some of the language used, particularly in the first (of three) sections of the book is foreign to the modern ear, but this book transcends any parochialism that the subject matter may cover.  
The first section of the book, Physique is concerned with poems that tell stories of people and place. They begin with a title, and a place, including the captivating ‘Death Song for Matthew Brady; Murrary Street, Hobart 1826’ inspired by an elusive reference that the author found to a death song sung, as Brady was hung for his bush ranging crimes. ‘Fair Old Clip’ Roberts Point Ferry Terminal, Bruny Island 2008, is another. The latter, through the story of a young woman’s horrible realization of the malevolence and ignorance of her boyfriend, captures a narrative not restricted to Tasmania, one of  racism and abuse, and one of decaying relationships. It also names up our forest wars and, from where I sit in literate, middle class safety, reminds me of the educational and literacy crevasses in our community.

Physis is the second part of the book, and it includes some ekphratic poems, inspired by paintings. A highlight of this section, ‘Reading PattiAnn Rogers at Recherche Bay’ crystallises a night on a boat and is indicative of the poise and humour that is shot through the book, bought to the surface in this poem, by mozzies on the boat, “Insect pulp punctuates the bulkhead”. This humour also manifests in pun-full titles such as Goethe By Sea and The Old Mind and the Sea.

Physick is a book of poetry that sears and coaxes and it could have been written by no one apart from the scholar, poet and elder that is Pete Hay. No one else takes the temperature of this island like him and no one else uses Tasmania as such an effective prism through which to consider human nature. Physick is a book of transcendent poetry which helps us understand not only place but the vagaries and passions of the human condition. It should be prescribed reading for all of us.

Here is a recording of Pete reading 'Sound to the World' at the launch.

Physick is published by Shoestring Press, Nottingham

A version of this review was first published in Tas Weekends, 10 September, 2017.

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