Shann Publications, 2011 – for availability contact author at Melbourne Poets Union
Reviewed by Christie Williams, Helen Addy and Ross Kightly
Off the Menu has a found poem from Tasmania on the cover. Seven days’ culinary options consist of six dishes; mostly pairs (“Sunday: Junk and Duff”), although “Tuesday: Bread, Junk and Duff” and “Wednesday: Hog, Peas and Duff” have a trio of treats on offer. Without even opening the pamphlet, we taste Leon Shann’s humour and music, the peculiarity he finds in the everyday.
Inside, twenty eight poems take us from 1950s England to Shann’s adopted home of modern Australia. The first poem, ‘Nasho’, is a prose poem of three paragraphs—the beginning, middle and end of his national service. The density is difficult on the eye, and the margins are narrow as if he’s trying to squeeze as much as possible onto the page.
And he does. The predominant flavour of this book is of Asia, past and present. In ‘Hair Salon (1959)’ and Indian barber in Singapore “could nick my neck now and I’d bleed like an empire,/ but he shines with his lotion, juices palm oils.” In ‘1997’, the British relationship with the orient is encapsulated with the return of Honk Kong to “a grittier lord/ after a shotgun marriage/ of one hundred and fifty years”.
The other preoccupation is with aviation. Three poems are titled by flight numbers. His attention focuses on fellow travellers—“a lady travel agent with a transplanted liver”, a Korean couple flying with him from Tokyo to Brisbane and a hyperactive Vietnamese boy, “a restless blade torn from a helicopter”.
The result taken together is a banquet of chance encounters and devoted relationships. Shann is a keen observer, and clearly well-travelled. The poetry is heartfelt, and written with wit and sensitivity.
‘Lost Horizon’ has the epigram “those who return have never left” from Pablo Neruda, and in these pages Shann returns to the places and people he has loved with a curious and compassionate mind. He is enjoying his poetry as much as he is enjoying his life. And so am I.
Like the found poem on the pamphlet’s cover, this is a meaty book of poems. The well-travelled locations range from Blackpool to Saigon, with many of the poems containing some reference to food and drink.
On the first reading, I found the poems sure-footed, but the imagery dense and impenetrable. This felt rather like walking round a gallery of modern art, failing to find meaning in the plethora of colour, senses overwhelmed. However, on slow inspection, I found the images to be carefully assembled and although their messages still felt weighty and mysterious, I was fully emotionally engaged. I was also struck by Shann’s fascinating talent for using nouns as adjectives. This line is from the poem, ‘At Wong Tai Sin Temple’:
ghost money, incense gum; charm light
One of my favourite poems in the pamphlet is the evocative and clever ‘Hair Salon (1959)’. It describes a visit to an Indian barber’s shop with a dazzling display of physical, in-the-moment freshness. This line sits in the middle of the poem:
Humming bird scissors delay unctuous words
I was also delighted to see a concrete poem, the hauntingly titled ‘The Nowhere Man’. Through the course of the poem, the first line is repeated, and fragmented, with different words present and absent. It seemed to embody confusion and isolation.
‘Flight 761’, a poem I felt was the most direct and straight forward in the pamphlet, turned out to be one I returned to again and again, hypnotised by its apparent simplicity. I enjoyed this irony and started to enjoy Shann as a poet not easily pinned down. The poem describes a couple on a flight from Tokyo to Brisbane and the narrator’s brief interaction with them. The man is plagued with hunger, dissatisfied with the meagre snacks provided by the airline. At first, the air hostess toes an official line:
I cannot give . . . , she says one dinner only
The man repeatedly states that he is hungry and the air hostess eventually brings him more snacks. There’s an interesting atmosphere of detached observation and attention to detail.
Although not an easily digestible pamphlet, I found Shann’s poems refreshing, well-crafted and exotic. His absolute conviction in his craft encouraged me to trust the journey rather than merely await the destination.
'Nasho'. Full page, narrow margin, three paragraph prose poem of considerable verve and rhythmic impulse—immensely enjoyable to read and reread for those whose experience makes it more meaningful, we who know about Nasho, Korea and Vietnam both, Maralinga and sunnies, one-eyed, one-horned flyin' purple people-eaters looking strange, who can picture Hastings as a fat-fuselaged RAF transport aircraft rather than a seaside town or battle site. Even if the specific details of life in Singapore of the 1950s are not directly experienced, they possess a frighteningly vivid familiarity of emotional colour; Shann obviously has a few years of age on me so he went through the stuff that I heard about from older blokes and read about in the papers or saw in cinema newsreels. I only wonder if the vividness and energy can communicate as effectively to those outside the loop.
That's my commentary on the opening poem. Through the rest of the 26 poems we visit a lot of places and . As well as the UK and Singapore, there are most interesting stops in 'Windsor, Ontario", China, Hong Kong, Dubai, Tokyo, Vietnam, Vienna, Buenos Aires and Edward Hopper-land. After a brief return to the England of his birth, the poet returns on 'Flight 781' via airspace over Indonesia, East Timor, Alice [Springs], the Simpson Desert, Broken Hill and Mildura to Tullamarine airport in Melbourne.
I started off liking this poet and ended up really wanting to meet him. Despite the possible pretentiousness of the list of travel destinations above, the real schedule of the journey has been emotional and—yes, spiritual even. The most important feature of the collection is its tolerant humanity.
Fool that I am, I like books that make me cry. I cried a lot reading this.