For me, discovering Adrian Flavell’s book of poems in a local bookstore was a matter of rediscovering his work. His début collection, on drowning a rat, was published by Picaro in 2014, but my first encounter with his poems dates perhaps as far back as 1998 or 1999.
In my mid-to-late teens, The Weekend Australian’s “Review” pages served as a piecemeal introduction to contemporary Australian poetry, a counterpoint to the mid-20th century Australian poetry I was studying at school. And it was in the “Review” that I first came across Flavell’s poems.
Two of the three poems by Flavell that I scrapbooked at the time appear in the collection: “two views of camera” and “the lighthouse”. The third poem, “logic” (which is not included in the book), is a perfect example of the keenness and economy of his work:
you douse me / with the disinfectant / of your logic // and wonder / at the sterility / of my life
The book is dominated by similarly short poems, and the same concise, minimalistic phrasing. The appearance of the poems in the “Review” testifies to the appeal his pared-back poems must have had for a newspaper editor with very few column inches to work with.
on drowning a rat moves through clusterings of topically related poems – from poems about animals, to social and domestic portraits, to poems about relationships, dogs, violence, death, fruit, food, coastal environs, marine animals and places/locations – to name a few. It’s a satisfying arrangement.
Collections of short, variously themed poems can often seem miscellaneous in their ordering, but Flavell’s grouping of the poems by subject matter, with occasional poems between them, offers a sense of coherence and design.
However, the book’s first half-a-dozen or so poems make for an uneasy beginning, in describing the death or injury of several animals, including the rat of the book’s title. “the freeway” describes the following:
what was a koala / now spread like / vegemite / across asphalt toast
It’s Flavell’s social and domestic portraits and the poems about relationships that I enjoyed most. Many convey senses of emotional isolation or abandonment, which are rendered more subtle by the understated-ness of his style:
under a peach moon / she peeled him back / to the beginning // skinning his fox of memory (“their last date”)
she develops // in the dark room // of his heart // a snap shot / of uncertainty (“two views of camera”)
As a reader of poetry, I find myself looking for memorable lines and fresh images or metaphors, and Flavell’s poems do not disappoint – as in “anchovies” (“horse hair of the palate // nautical fur ball”), “her smile” (“her smile / is spreading / like spilt paint”) and “over it”:
their love disappeared // like a dog // chasing its fear / of thunder
Other South Australian poets write with a similar economy: Jules Leigh Koch, Rory Harris and Lidija Šimkutė come to mind. They are poets of varying ambitions and accomplishments, but – for all the concision of their work – each has a distinctive style and preoccupations, as does Flavell. In addition to poetry, Flavell has written scripts for children’s television and three children’s books. on drowning a rat is a welcome rediscovery of his poetry.
- Flavell, A, 2014, On Drowning a Rat, Picaro, Cardiff (NSW).