Review of John Dolan's New Collection of Poems Stuck Up (Auckland University Press, 1995)

Lucy McAllister
Department of Engish
University of Otago
New Zealand

Deep South v.1 n.2 (May, 1995)

Copyright (c) 1995 by Lucy McAllister, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.

I think it would be fair to say that the cover of Stuck Up is in direct opposition to its contents. Facing the reader is the handsome face of a Great Dane dog: his expression is partly shadowed -- but evidently he's not stuck up. He stares unashamedly at the photographer -- his gaze bypassing the centre of the lens. Borstal has the naive face of a curious animal: but he is dependent upon someone to feed him, walk him and make his life worthwhile. Stuck Up is about the human dependency upon others for a sense of who we are, and what we should or could be. After reading the book I made the mistake of turning on the TV, anticipating something banal and mindless: naturally I was stunned when the theme of the talk show mirrored some of the ideas in Dolan's poems. Dolan's poems are far from the clichés of society revealed by television interviews, rather they embody one problem faced by nearly everyone -- the dilemma of the body image and the me-image.

As the title implies the narrator embodies sense of snobbishness, elitism and a seperatism. The opening and title poem launches into a conversation between the narrator and Cindy. According to the narrator Cindy is loud and drunk: she thinks that he is a "snob and 'RE-cluse'" and "all stuck up". The indignant capitalisation of the first syllable of 'recluse' is evidence that the narrator is as much offended by what she is saying as how it is said. Criticism is familiar territory for some, yet this is not the kind of familiarity which makes one cringe. Dolan's approach is funny, often surprising, simple and not the re-hash of teenage/ mid-twenties/ mid-life etc angst poems that one might expect. Stuck Up opens with one of life's little ironies: "First they wouldn't talk to me,/ Now they won't shut up" but after progressing through various states of mind, cleaning up dog-sick, arguing with the neighbours, fishing, swimming and reading the narrator concludes in the last poem: "'Our day will come'".

Stuck Up is more than a poem-diary of a Summer in Vancouver: it chronicles the growth and change of the narrator. Inspired by events as uncomplicated as the weather: "Meat Rule already Broken", the wildlife: "Bats and Spiders", and relationships; "Cuckoldry" and "I dreamed we walked" the poet moves through specific and recurring themes. In "Bats and Spiders" the poem is highlighted with the metaphor of bats as blue collar workers. But this is not an animal fable; it has an ominous agenda. At the climax the narrator confides in the reader: "I killed one." The bat's fate -- as well as the insult of being mistaken for a large spider -- is death. Grotesquely described as an alien: "trying to make peace by iterating shared equations /via tachyon-burst-transmission" the animals body is finally mummified as a "little plastic wrapped Beowulf." These images make it clear to the reader that they have witnessed the death of the bat in cold blood and yet the narrator is hyper-conscious of the bats existence and potential. This act of savagery is not merely forgotten or trivialised in the poem, but illustrates the power of words and language. This is particularly frightening -- when literally the bats life was squashed under the weight of a volume entitled Life of Johnson -- a parallel to the impact of the words "all stuck up" upon the narrator.

Power appears to be a recurring motif, in "And I'd do it again" the narrator taunts a fly: "'Fine, fly, you wanna die? Die then!' /Raid in hand. Two sprays/ and the second got it good." and in "Archeopteryx" he imagines a squashed Archeopteryx on a clay tablet. Is the narrator a sadist? With a dog like Borstal, who he can cavort with? I think not.

Power and strength are twin images in these poems, the reader encounters Vikings Waterloo soldiers, and Mongols. The latter in "A couple of Mongols" is so comic that the ominous threat is dissolved with the quip about nutrasweet. And this is not the only comic moment, the parody of Star Trek in "In which I materialise . . ." is accomplished by the focus upon individual characters: McCoy's shock, Spock's praise and Kirk's admiration. Each cameo rings true, somewhat overiding the ominous message of the poem. The pitchfork or achetypal knife protuding from the narrator's back, is the narrator's affliction -- it is "no big deal", yet who chooses to be stabbed in the back?

The comic becomes the ridiculous with the satirical view of a Walt Disney movie in the poem "Imagining an Otter staring back from the lake". The laborious effort in reproducing the individual imagined film scenes which comprises the first part of the poem, is sharply contrasted with the following comments on the art of irony itself. The poem moves through a series of comments on the nature of pets, citing film and media, leaving the reader slightly breathless.

Despite the comic and ironic moments in the poems, the reader relates to the experiences to the point where they are almost as self conscious as the narrator: the feelings of jealousy and frustration, the accusations of being stuck up, the low self esteem. The frank honesty in some of the poems is cleverly blended with the comic and the ironic, the images of pitchforks in the narrator's back and the death of the bat are two examples of the power of the accusation of being "all stuck up", a burden that is often upon us all.

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