Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

or £2.50 from Leon Shann, 2/50 Ashmore Street, Brunswick, Vic 3056, Australia

http://home.vicnet.net.au/~mpuinc/MPU/Home.html

Reviews by James Roderick Burns, Emma Lee and Annie Clarkson

 

James Roderick Burns:

The potted history of Leon Shann on the back cover of ‘Perfect Yorkshire’ invites the reader into an interesting world: born in Newport Pagnell, RAF service in China, cross-cultural marriage, two migrations to Canada then Australia and half a life in education, half in the transport industry.

 

It makes its pitch to the reader of poetry with one foot in the real world—'here is a poet who’s lived', it says. Not the narrow intricacies of the academic hothouse, or shiny metropolitan sophistication between these covers. Something earthy and actual instead. 

 

Digging deeper into the history of the MPU (Melbourne Poets Union) reveals more. Started in the late 70s to democratise poetry, expanding its reach and social impact (insisting, for instance, on paying poets for performances) and still going strong after thirty years, the Union underscores Shann’s grassroots appeal.

 

The collection starts strongly in this mould. ‘Yorkshire Pudding and Roast Beef’ pursues fresh possibilities in the ‘food as memory’ exercise. “Thirty-eight years from home,” he is drawn not to recreating the English kitchen out of nostalgia, but to exploring whether it is worth saving, “a land of frozen milk,/ warm beer and rationed orange juice”:

 

No range door opens its darkness

on questions lingering in the tray

 

Perhaps going forward, even with a life of such frequent change, is the only way to go. Poems dealing with the complexities of Shann’s developing life are certainly more successful than those which stop to look back (‘Evacuee War Lord’, ‘My Usherette’). In ‘Backyard Sonnet’, for instance, dedicated to his brother and ostensibly singing the praises of that lost time, Shann brings forth the energy of the new world in a brilliantly captured sunflower: “a sixteen-foot thirst drunk on ultraviolet”. “We are what we do best”, he concludes.

 

Shann struggles occasionally to match the voice of each poem to the range of his experience. ‘Exotic Scar’ opens with a direct address to an out-of-place colonial character—“You look like Sunday at Brighton”—then wavers between first and third person narration, adding in not edginess but unease. ‘’My Great Leap Forward (1967)’ undercuts what could be a bracing look at the complexities of a culturally mixed marriage as perceived from the outside with a curious mixture of prosiness and poetic cadence, sometimes within the same stanza:

 

Sweet-sour still features on restaurant menus today,

its batter mixed, its taste pedestrian.

 

Shann’s most successful work comes when he brings every sense of himself (history, culture, past and present) to an examination of contemporary circumstance. ‘Melbourne (1990)’ rounds out a mixed collection with a perfect note: sour, jealous, snarky but ultimately, frustratingly in love with its subject and hymning it nonetheless:

 

Melbourne, I should have known better.

I’m saying goodnight and good luck to your lease

on liveability, derricks and sky-line cranes

 

that pick the dead bones of interest rates.

You have turned me into a beachcomber

turning back pages for your dreams.

 

 

Annie Clarkson:

Perfect Yorkshire is a 19-poem, hand-folded and stapled pamphlet, exploring the poet’s memories of his earlier life. 

 

There are colloquialisms and a down-to-earth feel to the first few poems. We read about a time of rations in England, war evacuees, and a gambling father. It is working class, grounded, and distant from the ‘now’ of the poet’s life in Melbourne. There is vividness in certain images, for instance the iron poker being thrust into granny’s stout. These poems about early childhood are visual and are perhaps stronger than others in the pamphlet.

 

Later poems focus on the poet’s travels, his emigration to Melbourne, and to be honest, I found it a little difficult to work out what several of the poems were about. They are less specific than the poems about childhood, they use more complicated metaphor that I was not convinced by, and referenced memories without giving all the details needed for me to work out that the poet was trying to say.

 

Yes, there is the occasional phrase that stood out for me like the “perfect Yorkshire, apple sauce afternoons”. But then there were other phrases that seemed cluttered or clichéd, for instance, “Tourist voices jolt you Swiss cuckoo clock/ safe as sixteen frames joy-view numbered.”

 

There seemed to be a tension between poems that are earthy and physical, and those poems that were perhaps trying to be clever or ‘poetic’, drawing on politics or the art world for metaphor and using a tone that for me, jarred a little with the more poignant everyday of childhood memory.

 

This is a shame, as the poet gives us glimpses into a rather interesting life. 

 

 

Emma Lee:

Leon Shann has lived in England, Canada and Australia, spent time in China and is settled in Melbourne where he helps run the Melbourne Poets Union. So he has a rich experience to draw on. In ‘Yorkshire Pudding and Roast Beef’ he finds himself “In an Australian kitchen,/ thirty-eight years from home”  and is “drawn back in search/ of a country trying—why try,/ carve that on your gravestone—/ to save a roast in a land of frozen milk,/ warm beer and rationed orange juice”, packing his mother’s warmth, father’s arrival and brother’s perfection into an over-cooked Yorkshire pudding.  

 

In ‘My Great Leap Forward (1967)’, he acknowledges the discomfort that can come with travel and marrying into a different culture:

 

Could Lenin and Marx fried sweet

and sour have more flavour than bubble-and-squeak

bed-sit Luton? Stomach juices treat old-fashioned meat

differently. Her Chinese face opened China’s

 

Charge d’Affaire. She addressed him in Mandarin.

He turned to me: Are you a teacher? he said.

Momentarily, I felt like Gladys Aylward,

 

under qualified, Inn of Sixth Happiness death.

I lived with China for thirty-six years. Why go?

the missus said. Look at me you see one hundred percent.

 

Now the bamboo curtain’s retro and Mao’s dead.

Sweet-sour still features on the restaurant menus today,

its batter mixed, its taste pedestrian.

 

The enjambment keeps the poem moving forward and the image of Gladys Aylward here is natural and appropriate. (Aylward was rejected by the China Inland Mission because her academic background was inadequate, though she funded her own travel to China; the film The Inn of Sixth Happiness tells her story.) 

 

Leon Shann seems happily settled in Melbourne, showing a particular warmth for the city in ‘Melbourne (1990)’

 

Melbourne, I should have known better.

I’m saying goodnight and good luck to your lease

on liveability, derricks and sky-line cranes

 

that pick the dead bones of interest rates.

You have turned me into a beachcomber

turning back pages for your dreams.

 

And there’s where the poet’s strengths lie—the observation and compassion shown for both people and places. Occasionally the seam of references that flow in the poems can overwhelm, but Leon Shann’s appreciation of place overcomes that. He is a poet of warmth who understands how to share experiences with the reader through poetry.