Reviews of 'Second Thoughts'
The Canberra Times, Saturday 31 January, 2015
Reviewed by Geoff Page
B.N. Oakman’s Second Thoughts is a very different sort of book — much shorter for a start and a tight collection of free-standing poems. Some are related by subject matter e.g. the poet’s deep appreciation of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado (1875-1939) and Spain more generally. Others have a reasonably savage political edge; still others are love poems to his partner, Barbara, who has been prone to serious illness in recent years.
Nearly all the poems are strongly affecting emotionally, partly as a result of Oakman’s unusual skill with last lines. These can turn quite suddenly in a new and disconcerting direction — or brutally sum up what we’ve just seen. This directness of feeling, along with Oakman’s leftish political edge and fluency with different linguistic registers, brings to mind the early poetry of Bruce Dawe when he was making his mark on the somewhat conservative Australian poetry establishment of the mid-1960s.
Two early poems stand out in this regard — “Neurosurgery” and “Watching TV News in Madrid, All Saints Day 2011”. The first reminds us how, when visiting a loved one in hospital, we can also be deeply upset by the situation and fate of other patients whom we don’t even know. “Neurosurgery” is constructed of simple observations, cleverly arranged e.g. the rapid plot development in: “She’ll be dead by now / The woman with bright curly hair / The one I saw in Admissions / She and her man and her boy and her girl.” Later, the poet sees the woman’s empty room and senses the impact her death has had on all three members of her family. The poem concludes: “And then I returned to another room to sit beside another bed / And I took a woman’s hand in mine / And gripped it / Hard / Too hard / Much too hard”.
The second poem, “Watching TV News in Madrid ...” is one of several set in Spain, often dealing with the impact of the Spanish Civil War. Oakman watches an old man on the television screen whose “words defeat my feeble Spanish”. He is looking through graves recently excavated in “a town overrun by rebels early in the war. / The weeping man is Rafael Martinez. / He is 89 years old./ He’s searching for his father.”
Among the other forty-seven poems in Second Thoughts, there are many of comparable quality. Don’t read them in a coffee bar; you might well embarrass yourself by shedding justified but unseemly tears.
Arena Magazine, No. 135, pp. 47-8.
A Lyrical Realist
Second Thoughts, by B N Oakman (Interactive Press, 2014)
Reviewed by Ian Irvine (Hobson)
...Stay. There is no better place./
The undergrowth, so robust, holds the madding crowd/
at bay. Leave - and never find that glade again.
Bruce Oakman, formerly an economics academic, only took up poetry seriously in 2006. Though at first glance economics and poetry may appear to be strange bedfellows, the ability to perceive life’s larger patterns required of economists is also required of poets. In Oakman’s work the two identities-realist poet and progressive economist-coexist fruitfully, though the economist has long since been integrated into a complex political vision. Second Thoughts is Oakman’s fourth collection of poetry and in it he breaks new ground as a poet.
This review opens with a quotation from Oakman’s poem ‘Mr Hardy’. As with many of the writers, artists and poets referred to in this collection, Thomas Hardy was interested in themes that also hold charge for Oakman.
The ‘madding crowd’, or the maddening crowd, or the madness of the crowd, is a major theme in Second Thoughts and in Oakman’s poetry generally. He is fascinated by the fragility of human beings in the face of ‘hyper-objects’- those social, cultural, historic and technological forces that are frequently invisible, and difficult to apprehend in their full geographic and temporal spread; forces like class, human-made environmental change, authoritarian political structures, social norms and so on.
Hyper-objects can also be personal. They are the elephant in the room of the self and the other things that are difficult, if not almost impossible, to talk about. Oakman’s poetry, like so much good poetry, addresses both social and personal hyper-objects, as well as our unwillingness or inability to talk about them.
Political hyper-objects, such as the threat of totalitarianism, are addressed in unique ways in the collection. Spain functions in a number of the poems as what the Celts referred to as the ‘summerlands’, or ‘the bright lands’- a place of reverie, inspiration and sacredness in the Romantic sense of the word. However, many poems in which Spain features also suggest more realist concerns. Spanish themes, in particular the civil war and its aftermath, serve as both a compass and an anchor for the poet’s desire to remain vigilant, watchful, anxious and engaged with all things political. Politics mattered to the Spanish poets of the early twentieth century; when these poets and Spanish history are referred to in an Oakman poem weighty themes are usually under examination.
The seminal figure in the Spanish Poems is, however not a poet but an artist: Goya, whose feverish late career depictions of the monstrous aspects of modernity loom as a backdrop to Oakman’s collection. Some of the starkest images of modern humanity and, more specifically, modern warfarewere painted by Goya. Oakman shares with him an unflinching honesty about humanity and the poet honours the artist’s vision in a number of poems.
A poem that explores most starkly the ‘madness of the crowd’, is ‘Belchite, October 2011’. The village of Belchite was leveled by Nationalists in1937. The poem begins and ends with the line: ‘Belchite’s dust inside my clothes, it’s hard to shake it out’. As the poem progresses the ‘murmurings of ghosts’ gradually turn into ‘screams pouring/ from souls more savage than the wrath of any god’. The tourist narrator is surveying ‘someone else’s ruins’, but at crucial moments he reimagines the battlefront at the height of the fascist assault by placing the reader among ‘the damned’ who are ‘imploring god to stay/ the barrage from the heavens’.
Throughout the collection Spain features as a bittersweet place, an exotic ‘otherland’ illustrating the extremes of the human condition-extremes that, the poems suggest, Australians like to avoid. Perhaps Oakman had to look beyond Australia, to a country that has known terror and war, to remind himself of the crucial importance of politics to ordinary people.
In some of the poems the insanity of the crowd morphs into a general pessimism about human nature. Figures selected to oversee the progress of the poet’s carefully wrought inner dreaming Freud, Goya, Hardy, Hayden, Lowell, Machado assist him to ‘see clearly’ as a poet. Elsewhere, though tentatively, he affirms a fragile goodness and worthiness in humanity—usually while speaking of love, for a muse or lover, for friends who share an understanding of the greater journey, or for the poets, thinkers and artists to whom he turns.
From his friends, real and imaginary, comes the sense of a shared journey that mitigates the challenges that arise in the autumn of life. In these poems pessimism is tempered by affection and humour. Ageing is not for the squeamish, Oakman suggests, but in the poem ‘Golfing with James Ellroy’ he maintains a sense of humour despite being on the ‘back nine’. Domestic happiness, on the other hand, is hard earned. Paradoxically, it comes after the miracle of love. Even in our intimate realms he affirms ‘eternal vigilance’, or rather ‘eternal honesty’. Nothing should be taken for granted—the world is ever ready to pounce on the complacent.
The central relationship that enables Oakman to tolerate and perhaps redeem all the other human failings, and to ward off nihilism and unwarranted cynicism, is the poet/narrator’s love for his partner and muse. Poetry focusing on love has featured repeatedly in Oakman’s work, and in Second Thoughts several poems explore the impact of illness upon it. These raw and emotional poems are some of the best in the collection.
Oakman’s encounter with Goya’s famous painting, El Perro (The Dog) in the Museo del Prado in Madrid led to his poem of the same name. The poem’s last verse grapples valiantly with the hyper-object that is modernity and the terrors of the human condition generally:
I only see the dog’s head, snout upturned,
ears drawn back. Alone, forlorn, hopeless,
it peers over the rim of unstable ground, perhaps
quicksand. Abandoned on oblivion’s brink
it invites me to tarry, heed its plight,
feel the anguish of unassuageable loss - then
dash for the bullets, bludgeons and blood.
Though strong themes are explored throughout this collection, and people, rather than nature, provide the main sources of, and reprieve from, pessimism, there are lyric moments that affirm something like a contemporised Romantic poetics. ‘Castile in Autumn’ best articulates the ‘Spain as summerlands/ dreamtime utopia’ theme with lines like ‘From brown and tree-shorn hills wind turbines trail/ long white sails, taunting any wandering Quixote’.
Technical excellence and formal variety are also evident throughout Second Thoughts. Oakman is a consummate professional—in public statements he has spoken of seeking precisely the right structure and wording for his poems. Sometimes his free verse meanders along within consistent stanzaic structures, while at other times we note a dramatic edginess to a poem—a kind of directness - emanating from experiments in lineation. Subtle forms of assonance also feature often - though we are rarely aware of the artifice. Phrasal repetitions within poems, a feature of much twentieth-century verse, are also common, but the technique is never overused.
Oakman also uses various traditional forms in loose ways - in particular he enjoys experimenting with the sonnet. The coexistence of tradition and experimentation pushes many poems close to the lyrical despite the generally realist subject matter. Such lyric flashes constantly surprise because Oakman works hard to convince his reader that everyday conversations or interior monologues are being overheard. Whether lyric or realist, readers of this fine collection will do well to heed the advice of the poem ‘Mr Hardy’: ‘Stay, there is no better place./The undergrowth, so robust/ holds the madding crowd at bay'.
More Comments on 'Second Thoughts'
Geoff Lemon (editor Going Down Swinging):
'Oakman writes poems for those annoyed by poets. These are honest stories drawn from history, sometimes the personal, more often the sweep of the world beyond, with an even-handed empathy for the subject of each telling. Resisting the florid and the abstract, Oakman drives directly at the point, with here and there a verse like Incan stonework, so carefully composed you barely see the joins.'
Ian Britain (formerly editor Meanjin):
'My favorite film is probably Brief Encounter, and it's lovely to find it here as the focus of Bruce Oakman's title poem in this collection: a collection of not just second but infinitely reconsidered thoughts on all the major themes of life and literature; a succession of brief encounters with a rich, and enriching, array of people, places, passions. 51 compact poems encompass whole worlds of emotion and experience, from hospital beds to hilltop towns in Spain, politics to prisons, films to the footy field, each freshly fashioned to prompt our own thoughts and second thoughts.'
Reviews of 'In Defence of Hawaiian Shirts'
'There is a gentle, but occasionally disconcerting, power in all Bruce Oakman’s poetry. He has an extraordinary talent for revealing and confronting us with aspects of reality about which we are either unaware, or tend to ignore. His poems are filled with surprises, sometimes making us smile, but the unexpected distilled truths he uncovers about ourselves and the world in which we live, can leave us weak and trembling, but always wanting more.'
Valerie Krips (editor Arena Magazine):
'Bruce Oakman’s writing grows ever more robust and compassionate. He goes to the centre of things, drawing on both past and present as he creates landscapes of feeling in poems in which history, politics, people and places are refracted through a deeply felt understanding of the human condition. With a vision committed to looking at things straight, these are poems from the heart.'
John Flaus (actor, critic, raconteur):
'Oakman's poetry moves deftly, but no less aptly, between the commonplace and the insightful, the particular and the universal. Moments of frolic are shot through with wisdom, as elsewhere a purposeful ruggedness leads on to refinement. So many poems are distinguished by their final line: demonstrations of organic closure – conceptually retroactive, forceful yet elegant.'
The Canberra Times, Saturday December 18, 2010
'Dressing Up the Personal and the Political'
'In Defence of Hawaiian Shirts' by B N Oakman, Interactive Press, 84pp. $25
Reviewed by Peter Pierce
Of Castlemaine, the novelist and resident Alex Miller has remarked that it has a population of 7000 of whom 13,000 are poets. B N Oakman lives not far away, but is a regular reader of his own work at the monthly poetry event in the town. He would be well worth hearing, on the evidence of this splendidly titled book of verse, In Defence of Hawaiian Shirts
It is also heartening to learn that a principal influence in turning him towards poetry (Oakman had been an academic teacher of economics) was listening to ‘‘the distinguished American poet Ted Kooser read two of his poems on television’’. That they are such different poets is happily beside – or perhaps to – the point.
Oakman is an adept at striking first lines. In the title poem, ‘‘Too many uniforms mean a country’s turning dangerous’’. In ‘‘Remembering the Corporal’’, ‘‘You never spoke of the war, childhood’s favourite/uncle from those distant railway towns’’.
There are wry poems about the poverty of modern academic life and a tender remembrance of his father in ‘‘Ballarat Bitter’’: he was one who smiled ‘‘a revenant’s bloodless smile,/before vanishing into his sunless exile’’. The back cover cheekily confides more of Oakman’s range: ‘‘ekphrastic to football’’. The noun of course means Australian Rules, as in ‘‘My Football Team is Hopeless’’. The adjective, as all school children know, involves treating one artistic medium in terms of another. Thus, here are poems about two of the Van Diemen’s Land paintings by John Glover. Oakman also offers poems about Franco and his foe, the Spanish poet and rector of Salamanca University, Unamuno; a reflection on Wallace Stevens’s dictum ‘‘Money is a kind of poetry’’, with the riposte ‘‘money is not kind to poetry’’.
There is an affectionate tribute to his aunt Josephine, ‘‘I Mean to Say Love’’, while he also writes by far the sharpest political poem of the three collections. In ‘‘A Credo for a Labor Leader’’, we are instructed, ‘‘And by these refrainings you shall come to know me’’. May Oakman thrive in Castlemaine, and beyond.
❢ Peter Pierce is editor of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature
The Sunday Herald Sun, January 23, 2011
'In Defence of Hawaiian Shirts' by B N Oakman
Reviewed by Bryan Patterson
You sometimes can judge a book by its cover, or at least get a good feel for the contents. This cover, dominated by a bright red palm-decorated shirt, suggests this is no ordinary book of poems.
Poetry is not a fashionable art. It's gone the way of madrigal singing and letter writing with a fountain pen; feasts appreciated only by aficionados.
But thankfully there are well-versed contemporary poets such as Australia's
B N Oakman to enrich our lives with something different. Oakman came to poetry after years of teaching economics at universities in Australia and England. Who knows what urged him to write poetry? But it was a stroke of genius.
His masterfully written poetry is direct and conversational, and sometimes confronting, but almost always elegant. The writing has a beautiful economy that gives it immediacy.
Writing on war, love, travelling, football, politics, popular culture, Christmas cards and other obscurities, he is genuine, intelligent, witty and emotional.
He draws an exquisite, brilliant and painfully beautiful portrait of the last time he spoke to his father. And of shyly buying flowers for the first time for his partner.
Beautifully composed words leap effortlessly from the pages.
It's definitely a poetry book, as opposed to a book of poetry. Go buy a copy. Now.
Other Comments on 'In Defence of Hawaiian Shirts'
Ian Britain (Editor, Meanjin 2001-8):
'These wry, compact elegies for lost souls, doomed worlds, vanished ideals double as powerful protests against the rationalisations and reductions of post-modernity. Wistful without being whimsical, poignant but tough, they subtly rhyme and chime their way into our consciousness and gnaw at what might remain of our conscience.'
Valerie Krips (Poetry Editor, Arena Magazine):
'Bruce Oakman’s poems about economics or uniforms, Ypres or his father, arrive as gifts you have always dreamed of, things you marvel at and recognize at once. In these poems he writes of the known world with compassion, humour and intelligence, making the familiar new, and the forgotten remembered. These are poems to think with, to carry with you, and to draw upon.
Ross Donlon (Convenor, Poetry in Castlemaine):
'The publishing record of B N Oakman both in Australia and overseas in the past four years has been phenomenal and attests to the range and quality of his poetry. There is social commentary with a bite as well as sympathetic consideration of the intricacies of personal relationships. A rising star of Australian poetry wearing a particularly vibrant Hawaiian shirt.'
John Synott (Poetry Editor, Social Alternatives):
'Form and meaning in B N Oakman’s poems sit comfortably together, such that we meet a voice and intelligence that searches through the trends and presentations of everyday life to explore the deeper seam of meanings and nuance. The title poem deplores− and with some anxiety− the trend of uniform-wearing and ‘badging’ in contemporary times that has echoes of fascism in its emphasis on conformity. In finely modulated cadences Oakman searches out the poetry and the social meaning of personal encounters and events. These include a gracious tribute to two very different gardeners: the poet’s father and Peter Cundall ; a compassionate portrait of a town derelict; and expressions of bitter sadness at the delusions of war and patriotism. These reflective understandings are brought to the reader in carefully crafted verse that flows with easy weight and tempo.'
Philip Harvey (Poetry Editor, Eureka Street):
'Oakman is a forgiving observer of human frailty, as well as pretence. He listens to the daily language of his neighbour and turns it into wry wisdom. On either side of disappointment is happiness. This is what makes Oakman a good companion and, like anyone from the bush, he never overstates the case.'