…that go bump in the night, review of Nathan Curnow’s Ghost Poetry Project.
Puncher & Wattman, Glebe NSW, 2009. rrp $21.95
Cover design: Matthew Holt.
James WF Roberts
Do you live alone? Do you live in an old house that creaks in the night. Do you swear someone is watching you, peering at you from the corner of your bedroom at night…is someone there in the window watching you right now, you turn to look and all you see is a street a lamp? Do you suffer night terrors? Do you think that humans are just fragile bio-machines, clumsy and for the most part lazy, and nothing we do in the here and now has a consequence that lingers forever more after we have fallen off our mortal coil?
Be quiet. What was that? Did you see it? What? Seriously you didn’t see it…there was a dude, a man in the corner of the room. I swear.
Wait! What was that…something was moving across the floor…Don’t look at me like that, I saw it. How could you not have seen that…it was bloody huge!
Nathan Curnow has always been surrounded by an impenetrable sense of terror. As a child he suffered from night paralysis . Who better to write a poetry book about ghosts, and hauntings, and the energy we leave behind, than a Nathan Curnow.
Victorian Poet, Playwright, Nathan Curnow has delivered one of the most amazing poetry collections I have read in a very long time. The Ghost Poetry Project (Puncher and Wattmann); has Curnow travelling the length and breadth of Australia, in ten nights. Ten haunted locations. One horrifying and astonishing trip across the country. Curnow delves into our Colonial past, guard houses, parsonages, quarantine islands and penal colonies and so many more spine-chilling and entertaining locales. Curnow uses two major narrative frames in this collection, the most obvious and straight-forward, is the historical travelogue, framing the sections; the different towns and homesteads etc. The historical framework is an interesting approach to a poetry collection, whetting the taste buds for the reader, whilst the poems draw you in, slap you across the face and almost make you reach for your phone to book the cheapest flight to Tasmania or in some cases Western Australia. Interesting places of note include the Fremantle Arts Centre, once a lunatic asylum, Monte Cristo, the most haunted house in Australia, in Junee, which I think I have actually been to a very long time ago, visiting elderly friend’s of my mother’s and grand mother’s.
He visits and has experiences in the most amazing places, from a parsonage at Port Arthur and an old store on Norfolk Island (one of the book’s most beautiful poems, ‘Whaling Song’, comes from this part of the book). This pieces is alone holds so much gravitas of the collection. It is about two-thirds into the book, but still the wait is tremendous.
“‘come down to the pier at night/Their heads held high to the pines’
and wait upon the ever-changing name of the moon
and creatures before dawn turning memory in the shallows
scraping bellies upon the rocks of the shoreline (‘The dead’)”
There is also a direct translation of this poem, in Native Norfolk.
It isn’t a grizzly wanna-be Poe-esc style of writing happening in this collection, though Poe does make an appearance, well a homage at a very early point in the book. The dead are treated with the respect and reverence they deserve. Curnow respects the stories, the histories that are told to him on his ghost and graveyard tours. There are so many elements that make up his own style of writing, and this collection that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what are trademark Curnow tropes and what are pure acts of spontaneous art. Curnow seems to be able to write from his own world view, and transport us into the lives of families left behind and sometimes even the inner workings of the mind, of a recently deceased convict, without being contrite or dumbing down his skill as a master wordsmith:
“wrap the body for me
I am not coming in
sew it up in a blanket
drag it over to the door
there is a coffin waiting…”
Curnow arms himself with lots of video and audio equipment. Speaks with eye-witnesses and experts throughout the prose narrative of the book, and the brilliant thing is, you are never totally convinced that Curnow believes in what he has experienced or not. He is not trying to ram a world-view down your throat. He is letting his words, his art speak for him. Which I always find is the true mark of a great writer.
I really don’t want to give too much away in this collection. The universality of the language works very well. Curnow is a highly educated and sophisticated writer, but he doesn’t need to show his intelligence or his mastery of language at every stroke of the pen. He seems to hold back the drama of whatever situation he is in, without lessening the tension. I think a few horror writers, I read regularly could benefit, immensely from this approach. First rule of being a good writer, is showing not telling. In someone else’s hands, this book could have been supercilious and overblown. Curnow delivers what he sets out to do. Tell the story of Australia’s ten most haunted buildings, towns, bridges, etc.
The whole gamut human emotions are on display in Ghost Poetry Project; tender reminisces of one’s children, afraid of Bunyips, a wife texting her husband to come home, to the absurd and , humourous of a Parson who is too concern with one’s taste in porn, “do you like American or European”; to a some moron switching on a torch when everyone’s supposed to be quiet and in darkness looking for the fuzzy glow upon the staircase and everyone going nuts at him, both these instances had me in stitches. To the dark and terrifying; walking along a railroad track at night, a spectral locomotive is approaching…is it real or just in the imagination?
The book is designed not just to be an artistic statement. It is also a travelogue, a brief history lesson into our colonial past and a regret. Kevin Brophy’s review in the Famous Reporter, # 40, talks about an undercurrent, a counter-point that lies at the heart of Curnow’s collection. Perception. What is our own perception of reality and the super-natural. There is a beautifully written piece in Ghost Poetry Project all about the Broadarrow Café in Port Arthur. Anyone who was alive in the 1990s knows exactly what I am talking about here. Truly a terrible day in Australian history.
But, is it selfish in those haunted places around Australia, where cruel and vile acts by white people are committed against white settlers and convicts, that we don’t show the same reverence for the massacres committed by those same people to Indigenous Australians? I guess we only ever truly see what we want to see, what we are all looking for. Maybe those haunted, tortured sites around the country are so haunted because they are still bleeding. Still remembering all the blood spilt on those particular sights, over and over again, in an extremely short period of time.
That is what I like about Curnow’s style of writing, he allows you to think. He gives you a compass and a torch, and only very vague instructions and let’s your own imagination do the rest of the work.
This is one of those books that readers of Australian Poetry, Australian History, Australiana and true crime buffs will absolutely adore. If ever a poetry book could breech the fortress of mainstream Literature sales in this country, this would have to be one of them.