Paul Croucher is the owner of Red Wheelbarrow Books in Melbourne’s Brunswick. The store’s name – recalling William Carlos Williams’ famous poem – suggests much about the provenance of his poetry. Croucher’s The Landing exhibits an imagist (and orientalist) aesthetic of uncluttered lines, a faith in observation and everyday language, and a commitment to the local, whether the poet is roaming around the world or at home.
Many poems are set in Asia and are concerned with Eastern spirituality. Croucher’s spare and witty style is starkly different to the lush aesthetic of Australia’s celebrated Buddhist poet Judith Beveridge, but it also demonstrates a degree of lyrical power. In “Guttural”, a Tantric priestess or dakini resembles the bikini-clad “Bond girl” Ursula Andress: “a white / dakini / in the waves of // under- / tones and // trumpets / and drums falling // on the / roof of the / world like // thunder- // stones”.
Sometimes Croucher’s wit recalls the work of Li Po or Bashō. In “Midnight in Laos”, the poet reads Kafka’s Metamorphosis “in a // hut / at the foot // of a steep mountain”, finding his “lamp-lit / page more / insect than text”. “Zen Keys” parodies the exotic wisdom expected of haiku: “Recalling / how Thich Nhat / Hanh lost his // temper with / Frank, who had / lost his // keys.” Other poems are appealingly grounded in the familiar geography of Victoria, referencing Swanston Street, Blackburn station, Cinema Nova, Marysville, Aireys Inlet, Wilsons Promontory. The poet also works to subtly defamiliarise common experiences or metaphorical forms of speech. “Chinese Burns”, for example, cleverly attends to the violence of romantic idiom: “An old flame. A current squeeze.”
Some poems seem inauthentic and too easy, such as the satire of Toorak women sent chasing their hats by “a bluster // up from /the Ant- //arctic”. Moreover, the representation of women in terms of sexual temptation and mythic regeneration is ultimately tiresome and alienating. This is compounded by the contrast between the rollcall of dead white men – Conrad, Dickens, Goethe, Yeats, Keats, Baudelaire – and the send-up of a woman’s poetry as “negli- / gible / as her / négli- / gé”.
Nevertheless, Croucher’s reinvigoration of the imagist aesthetic is a rewarding reminder of the importance or gravitas of everyday language. Quoting from the poem “Burma Survey”, its “emptiness” is revealed as “full to the / brim”. KN
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 25, 2017 as "Paul Croucher, The Landing". Subscribe here.