Year of the Wasp
Joel Deane is a novelist, nonfiction writer and former political speechwriter. He is also a poet whose work successfully incorporates these other roles. His poetry has the narrative drive and desire to “say something” more typical of a fiction/nonfiction writer. It is also concerned with how the abstractions of the political world are, for many, painfully real.
Year of the Wasp was written following a stroke, an event that lends Deane’s poetry both a sense of human frailty and a fierce urgency. This is not poetry – or politics – as some kind of game. It is a powerful intervention in our understanding of human suffering.
The collection begins with an arresting image of plague: “South of Shepp, / the Renault punched a hole / the shape of the first man / in a storm of locusts.” The tension between the sacred (evident in the Adamic figure) and the profane (highlighted in the abbreviated reference to Shepparton) is explored in a number of poems, which portray life as sacred against the ultimate obscenity of death.
Images of animals also recur – crows, sparrows – at times recalling the work of Ted Hughes. In one extraordinary poem, the poet remembers accidentally hitting a fox with his car – itself figured as a kind of beast, “purring its soft red clouds of carcinogens”. In another superb poem, an owl “floats across the darkened ward” and stares “at the face shining on the pillow, / white as a pharmaceutical moon”, before beginning to claw that face. The wasp is a key motif, as the title of the collection suggests.
In such poems, the natural world is transformed into a place of uncanniness or even menace in the light of the body’s betrayal. However, that transformation is also bound up with the depredations of the political landscape. For example, the poet angrily reflects on the “scourge” of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers – “the petrified faces / of those turned back, / those drowned, / those embalmed alive / with razor wire” – thus expanding the plague metaphor with which the book began.
While Deane’s poems respond to the absence of “life eternal”, they also point to images of “grace ephemeral”. The final poem concludes: “though we have no time to live, / we have just enough time to love”. Would that our politicians, who claim to espouse such a “Christian” ethos, attend to Deane’s words. KN
Hunter, 80pp, $19.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 23, 2016 as "Joel Deane, Year of the Wasp ". Subscribe here.