Benito Di Fonzo reviews B. R. Dionysius
(in www.cordite.org.au Jan. 2oo6.)
Bacchanalia by B. R. Dionysius
Interactive Press, 2002.
The title poem of Bacchanalia by B. R. Dionysius is a muscular, vivacious and absorbing piece of prose poetry that starts like a fifteen year old’s diary entry but morphs darkly into something more akin to a police statement. It is original and exciting. Unfortunately, however, many other poems in this collection do not share these qualities.
When the verse in this collection does work, as in the title piece and poems such as ‘Il Duce’ and ‘Browning Street’, the images are vivid and lively as they seamlessly push along a fast flowing narrative. In ‘Bacchanalia,’ for example, one unpunctuated image runs into another taking us into an unstable brain’s mechanics while never judging the unfolding action even at its bloody climax:
that night shazza and i got shitfaced on a bottle of rum a bottle of vodka anything we could find in my mother’s bar we made cocktails mixed shit together sharon chucked all over the toilet floor the piss coursed through our bodies like molten lead…
Or in the potent and rhythmic imagery of ‘Browning Street’:
in the early hours
of the morning,
an albino cockroach
anointed his bare feet.
I felt that too many of the other poems, however, got tangled up in self-conscious pop cultural references – be they Apocalypse Now or Pepi le Phew – that often distract from and do not at all enhance the narrative and momentum of the pieces. In ‘Stars In My Eyes My Country’, for example, the reference to the seminal surrealist film seems unnecessary and superficial:
Sometimes I want to drag
a cutthroat razor across
my eyes like in that film
Un Chien Andalou.
Or the naming of the famous Vietnam War film in ‘Observations From The Herb Garden’, which seems uninspired and unoriginal:
Tiny grasshoppers (an air-cav unit
sic Apocalypse Now) snip Rorschach
shapes out of the chocolate mint.
I found the pop culture and poetry train-spotting annoying after a time, particularly in a piece like ‘An American Trilogy’ which manages to reference everything from Malcolm in the Middle, to Blue Velvet, Gabriel Garcia Lorca, and even an entire quote from (again) Apocalypse Now, all in a poem that mimics the voice of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’ too closely for my liking:
… Amerika, they still call you Trinity, don’t they?
Besides the Emperor would’ve been freaked
out with just a demonstration & surrendered
anyway, but as Capt. Willard says,
‘I needed a mission & for my sins
they gave me one.'
‘An American Trilogy’ is not the only place where Dionysius evokes the voice of another poet. There is, for example, what appears to be a Queensland spin on classics such as Ted Hughes’s ‘Crow’ in ‘Crow the Birdbrain’, or on Ginsberg’s ‘A Supermarket in California’ in ‘Lorca in Highgate Hill’:
I saw you Mr Lorca
steal a Milky Way bar
& give it to a boy
who stood on the footpath
dismembering a camellia
for no surrealist purpose.
In some of the Queensland poems he successfully evokes a sticky pungency that reminds me of everything I hate about places of heat and humidity. Here it seems the poet is exploring a different kind of Bacchanalia from the one you might have initially imagined on the basis of the collection’s title, or the poet’s surname for that matter: a submersion in hot nature, and a death through which humidity evokes the natural qualities of decay. In ‘Ragnarok’, for example:
fed on our flesh,
If cocos palms collected
the souls of the dead…
… Moreton Bay figs
asleep in coffins
by the Brisbane River.
Overall, Bacchanalia is an uneven collection. While the title piece struck me as a powerful narrative prose poem with imagery both unsettling and engrossing, most others seemed to lack this clear sense of ‘story’ or vision to propel them forward, and hence came across as self-conscious and insecure, often ending up being poems about poetry itself. Poems about poetry are often as bad as rock songs about rock and roll, but everybody writes them occasionally. It is, however, possible that this eclecticism could work for some readers. One man’s Malcolm in the Middle is another man’s Ginsberg after all.