All illustrations by mad Australian serial pencil stealer, Dave Freeman
Rat atouille for the rindless
Rat atouille for the rindless, John Irvine.
PreShrunk Press, Colville, New Zealand. 37 pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime for:
Stylus Poetry Journal www.styluspoetryjournal.com
So what happens when we turn to John Irvine’s Rat atouille for the rindless, with its wonderfully expressive drawings by Dave Freeman of the personified rat, Brian? As one of the most intriguing writers of New Zealand poetry, Irvine offers the reader a larrikin rodent as hero. How does the poetry emanating from such a thoughtful and through-provoking figure read?
Firstly, the book is very diverse and it is precisely that diversity that makes it an enjoyable dipping experience though, I suspect, for most readers, a mixed one. Secondly, Irvine’s short lyrics produce some powerfully satirical poems about the life of Brian who, as the author tells us, “is a lover, a gourmet, a hardnosed commie, a bit of a loner, a real rootin’ tootin’ rat’s rat . . . yet this tortured soul also enjoys the deep thinkers like Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Browning and Bush.”
Although each poem begins with the phrase “My pet rat Brian” and ends with a take on the word “rat”, the poems do not differ from each other in poetic form, as Irvine allows the events surrounding Brian to lead the poem. Often it is possible to discern an internal shift that perhaps mirrors the life of the author with that of rat. The mind perceives one visible or mental perception, then shifts to another way of seeing or perceiving and concludes the moment in qualified resolution, even revelation. An example is the poem “On how division avoids multiplication”, where Brian contemplates marriage:
My pet rat Brian
even became engaged
to be married once.
Sweet young thing
with delicate, pale grey whiskers
and a certain promissory
gleam in her black button eye.
They seemed destined
for urban ecstasy
until she suggested
lots of cute, tiny, little
b rats . . .
I particularly like “On whether matters of extracurricular sex out to be debated on live television” for the mundanity of the circumstance of Brian’s mental journey and for the keenly observed detail:
My pet rat Brian
considers himself an intellectual.
But he met his match during
a recent debate
where an invited socialist ant
carefully prepared argument
of extracurricular sex
in less than 3 minutes.
Man, was that wild
ra n t!
I cite the whole poem so that the reader can see the stages the piece moves through towards the carefully crafted last lines.
In other poems, I enjoyed Irvine’s references to mind, body and soul. In the poem “Gauguin lives on in rodentia” we see Brian taking a holiday in the sun, stipulating that he doesn’t care for more conventional venues and enjoying the maiden bringing him coconut milk martinis. Dave Freeman’s drawing of Brian in his La-Z-Boy, being attended by a sloe-eyed maiden perfectly complements the poem with its humour.
A character plucked perhaps
from an early Gauguin canvas
in designer shades
Brian prefers to be stress-free
on a remote tropical island
sipping coconut milk martinis
lying on his la-Z-Boy
in the shade of the bamboo
eating mangoes peeled for him
by dusky, sloe-eyed maidens
and working on his rat tan.
At their best, the poems succeed in tracing a pattern of thought and sound in their well-composed lines. In poems such as “Arak as a viable alternative to sodium pentathol” and “Shine on August moon”, Irvine makes skilful use of enjambment to create the energy of the poem in which phrases run down the page and on to the next with wit and vigour:
In “A Strat for a rat and that’s that” we see Brian studying the “astral science”, watching Star Trek and then changing his mind when his desire to be the new Jimi Hendrix takes over:
After a spirited rendition
of All Along the Watchtower with two encores
and a solo three part harmony,
Brian had an epiphany.
He was heard to exclaim
around his second double spliff,
“Man! I just can’t leave this axe behind, y’dig?
I mean, it’s a St rat!”
The poems are written solely in the narrator’s voice. They have a conversational quality, humour and just the right amount of tension to capture the reader’s imagination. Here is the second section of “Ornithology and the significant role of the Portuguese”, which is a poem about Brian’s life as an amateur ornithologist:
When he was once offered the opportunity
of interviewing NZ’s famous flightless birds
for National Geographic magazine,
he packed his bags with a round of ripe cheddar,
Salon Professionals whisker shampoo and conditioner
and two dozen bottles of a rather cheeky Portuguese port.
The seriousness of Brian’s undertaking is wittily undercut by the author’s list of the things he has packed for his trip. In the accompanying drawing we see Brian tucking into his meal, knife and fork poised, as in his imagination he thinks about the kiwi he is supposed to be interviewing.
Dave Freeman thoughtfully provides an “Afterword”, in which he explains that “Brian was not always a rodent but he was always a rat.” He also provides a “Glossary of Terms” used in the poems and “Biographies of the perpetrators of this piece of pap” – all written in his signature tone of wit and jollity.
At one level, these poems are a tour de force in which the quest of the rodent making his way in life, is described humorously, wittily and in detail, compared with the way in which many of us approach life with its prejudices, red tape and pc. And, at another level, they are priceless for their humour and take on the vagaries of life.
Irvine is a principled poet who thinks every element of his craft through for himself, abhorring received opinion. I think the New Zealand poetry scene is the richer for such a figure in its midst that can poke fun at many of our precious views on art, science, philosophy, literature, and so on. This book is a good introduction to his poetry.