Category: Books

Review of Aboriginal to Nowhere ~ New Poems

Review of Aboriginal to Nowhere ~ New Poems

Brentley Frazer’s language is electric, ornate, oddly formed and brilliant, poignant, sometimes surreal images and passages abound. The longer poems have a mixture of sharp, even dazzling writing. The vocabulary is massive, events and situations are charged, and the voice of the poet compelling. These collected meditations rip apart what we image to be ‘order’ . . . Frazer performs his trademark linguistic magic, penetrating everything from personal trauma to world order. In his hand, little is left unnoticed or forgotten by the poet, who has about him both the dreamer and the theorist, whose keen eye infiltrates everything it sees. ~ Takahē Magazine

The centrepiece the collection is the title poem, “Aboriginal to Nowhere”, sub-titled Song Cycle of the Post Modern Dispossessed. The poem is a tour de force in 13 sections that elegizes even as it celebrates the counter-culture suggested in the work. Bentley Frazer’s language is electric, ornate, oddly formed for such subject matter, as the opening lines indicate:

The Citizens Netflix & chill in their minimum eight hundred
thousand dollar concrete sky-coffins in the river city;
streaming a hot series in air conditioning; Gen Y & Millennials
staying in for dinner.

Plate up & Instagram, change the rotation with a PlayStation
control, post a clever meme on Facebook, consider the likes,
speculate on advertising revenue & thing of the friend requests.

Much about Frazer’s thematic as well as stylistic aims can be seen in this passage. The poem searches endlessly for hidden, elusive secrets behind the everyday world, one that results naming in the most poetic language.

Here are poems that proceed to pay attention to large-scale social issues. His is an intensely subjective juxtaposition of ambitious ideals and everyday circumstances, as we see in “Cigarettes and Tending Orchids”, a poem about a funeral:

This is him I will always remember.
In my best suit
at his funeral. The apocalyptic
tramp preacher says that before we
know if the worms will have their
way with all of us.

Brilliant, poignant, sometimes surreal images and passages abound: “a few / bullets collected from the washing machine / over time.” (“Forgotten Corpse of a Boy”); ‘Worm on the ruined carpet / an hour before Oscar choked / to death on a bowl of pasta’ (“When Did the Dance End”); ‘Guns & bibles spill / from his jacket.’ (“Vulture Boundary”). Yet it must be said that the longer poems have a mixture of sharp, even dazzling writing. The vocabulary is massive, events and situations are charged, and the voice of the poet compelling. In “Untitled Plane Crash”, for example, Frazer begins the poem:

Let’s roll now, man, the shadows have that dull edge
like nightsticks through phone books on abdomens.
Let’s forget our poverty, if only for this dawn.

The poem gathers momentum for six pages, before ending:

 O, should I stay or should I roll
in this place I never know.

After such energy, it’s good to read some of the shorter poems, such as “Developing”, a simple description of domesticity that engages the reader:

The sky bruised over

slate roofs, the wind

moaning through louvers

leaves brown as coffee


Another lengthy poem, in five sections, “A Green Pasture”, is dedicated to the Australian poet Les Murray. Here, Frazer is engaged passionately in, not only the present but the past, as we see in this passage:

I remember as a child I met Bob Hawke at an

indigenous festival. My father took me down to

shake his hand & I felt shy. He said:

Brentley, Brentley, pleased to meet you . . . did

You enjoy the corroboree?

Several poems in Aboriginal to Nowhere recall the past, and “A Cacophony of Grey”, in three sections, takes a sombre tone, remembering his aunt’s ‘malnourished arms’, ‘the staggers’ and at centre stage

a new player, jaw set with malice, #

shoulder coiled for a straight-arm punch, produces a blade and

murders her (the audience sprayed with blood). He guts her like a

beast, practiced, precise, with lust. – Beauty. Skin. Deep, he

mutters, untouched.

“Elizabeth Arcadia” is a more traditional poem in ten short stanzas. It tells the story of the ninety-nine-year-old Elizabeth Arcadia, which the poet visits on google maps, only to find everything has changed. The poem ends:

Oh, Elizabeth Arcadia

your edge has dulled.

We used you as a thoroughfare

to Archive Books, or a short-cut

to Circle on Albert.

Several of Frazer’s best poems focus his technique of associational imagery in a dramatic scene or the beginnings of a narrative thread. “Paris/Abattoir”, for example, which describes the city of Paris, centres on the fact that, deeply though he loves Paris, it is an ‘abattoir’, but it also allows him to recreate the endless stream of kinetic images that assault the senses:

I love Paris though the sun

makes the streets smell feculent

and the discarded fruit from the

markets clog the gutters.

The poetry is very successful when the images are anchored in this way. The short poem “Bloodle” begins with these lines:

A scene is a séance (of sorts)

in an abandoned water station

above a weeded dam. Numerous

dead turtles, smashed shells,

spray painted pentagrams &

quotes from Marilyn Manson.

The imagery is exact and illustrates the appalling devastation of the prospect. “Shock & Awe” is another short poem, again illustrating violence, which chronicles grandmother and mother and their acts. Disparate images blend and become part of the speaker’s own life:

My mother filled my head with stories

about her own childhood of corporal

punishment & emotional violence,

torture of which this tuttering old dear

did not seem capable; & suspicious

I became when she encouraged my


Because Frazer’s language is generally challenging, the more straight-forward statements that appear from time to time are even more powerful. In “The Oasis”, for example, Frazer writes about ‘a bush / track in outback Queensland’, which is interrupted by thoughts of the place:

The Oasis they call it &

besides a few car batteries

leaking among the dinner

plates of mud on the edges

I guess the name seems fitting.

Such a reference is significant because it refers to the ‘real world’, returning from ‘laughter to alarm’ as ‘several men run to them from / opposite shores.’ In the final poem, “Query Flocks” Frazer remaps language itself as he questions life itself: silences, gaps and interruptions, as in these lines:

I refuse to lose my life in the

myth of place

instead embrace the dusty ragged

heroes & broken villains, here &

now in the

mythic outback of our mind.

In these collected meditations that rip apart what we image to be ‘order’, Frazer performs his trademark linguistic magic, penetrating everything from personal trauma to world order. In his hand, little is left unnoticed or forgotten by the poet, who has about him both the dreamer and the theorist, whose keen eye infiltrates everything it sees.

t. 90, Brentley Frazer, Aboriginal to Nowhere.

A Goodreads review of Scoundrel Days

A Goodreads review of Scoundrel Days that I can’t help but crow about . . . I mean, share: (spoiler warning)

This autobiographical tale traces the development of a boy into adulthood and for that reason you could call it a coming-of-age story . However, in Scoundrel Days, most of the genre conventions are turned upside down, and the narrative is so different, it feels more correct to call it an “anti-coming-of-age” story.

I just googled “anti-coming-of-age” and sure enough various critics have used the term to describe a wide variety of stories. I’d like to cautiously propose that in this type of story the protagonist is far less mutable than they have any right to be. Instead they are stubbornly sure of themselves and resistant to change. Rather than stumble with trepidation through their teenage years they seem to bypass puberty entirely and charge into adult situations with an unwarranted confidence.

The Basketball Diaries is a good example of an anti-coming-of-age story (I read this recently). Another example may be “the Catcher in the Rye” (Holden Caulfield is only a school student but frequents bars and passes for an adult). But that’s enough of that, let’s move onto Brentley Frazer (there are spoilers that follow).

Scoundrel Days begins in outback Queensland. Young Frazer grows up with a Police officer for a father and a religious family attached to Christian cult apparently known as “the Friendlies”. From here Frazer moves to Townsville and begins highschool. Incredibly, he loves literature from an early age, and often mentions the books he’s reading – the collected works of Byron among others. It’s not explained how he is exposed to such material. Frazer doesn’t seem to frequent libraries and his attendance at school is rather thin.

Anyway, back to the story. In Townsville he commits petty crimes with a gang of other young teens and makes a close friend: Reuben. Reuben develops into a key character that dominates the first half of the book. Reuben loves fighting, is exceptionally handsome and extremely promiscuous. He is also deeply conflicted and bent on revenge – his uncle abused him as a child, culminating in a savage attack that left his feet scarred and without toes. He also has only one testicle.

Frazer and Reuben have many adventures. Occasionally they aren’t above rolling kids smaller than themselves, despite complaining about the exploitative treatment they themselves receive from society. They also smoke a hell of a lot of cigarettes. So many scenes involve the sharing and smoking of cigarettes that I was surprised they didn’t contract emphysema.

Towards the middle of the book Frazer meets Candy, and she becomes his girlfriend and the key character in the second half of the book. They have a lot of sex, and travel around to Port Moresby, Brisbane and Melbourne. Candy shares her girlfriend with Frazer. It’s clear to the reader that Candy is a rare find. Not only a beautiful, intelligent sex-fiend, but also wealthy, and incredibly – possessed of an unending love and tolerance for a scruffy young poet with no prospects. Frazer however treats her badly. He repeatedly sleeps with her two sisters and cheats on her often.

It almost hurts to read this part. I wanted to reach into the book and brutally slap Frazer. He throws this extraordinary girl away, apparently believing instead in some libertarian code of rotten behaviour. Arguably, this relationship and the failings of the protagonist are the most important part of the story.

Following their split up Frazer returns to Townsville and then Brisbane. He becomes jaded. He hangs out with performance poets, sleeps around a little, but nothing seems fun anymore. Time goes by. It’s not clear how old he is. Presumably many years have passed. The story ends as he falls into what he feels is a different kind of love. He meets a girl called Sunny and he implies he will treat her differently.

This was the best Australian novel I’ve read in a long time. There was a lot here I could relate to. I wanted to give this four and a half stars (but alack that’s not possible in Goodreads). I have deducted points because I often found myself wanting more than the author was giving. I would have liked more description (in a couple of places the poetic description is amazing), and I would have liked just a little more consistency in detail (some years skip by, then we get pages devoted to just a day or two).

There’s a lot of material here and I think the author could easily write further novels based on the same experiences. One novel might focus on Reuben, the second work on Candy (I’d like to see that anyway).

Amazing, crazy tale. Check it out.