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From Toorak through Fitzroy

Here is a poetry of hard lessons, a beating out of tough facts into sayings that are smooth as he can make them. Shelton Lea wants to fix it in the least words. This last collection before Lea’s death this year (Nebuchadnezzar, Melbourne, Black Pepper, 2005) contains poetry of mature control. Within the personal world of his own experience and its geographic confines (“where distances cannot be described by maps”), Lea does what he does best: talks out his bravado, his passions, his temperaments, his dreams and his griefs.

The moods and status of an adopted child troubled Shelton Lea:

it wasn’t that i was different to them.
they were different to me.
that ache, that longing in me
was as certain as the sky.

(‘to lael’)

His poetry dramatises the quandary of identity, sometimes defiantly, sometimes softly. He is someone at odds with those around him, waking each morning to “wonder at the source of self.” Perhaps it explains his praise of other heroic loners like Barrett Reid and Adrian Rawlins, his attraction to groups of fringe dwellers. And in ‘my unknown father’ the unbearable tear between longing (“i had dreamed that i had actually touched / my unknown father’s shoulder”) and pathos (“yet we have never met. / i turned to leave the room”) shows up again and again in other relationships.

Between the lines of this poetry we see an aging man who believes that kicking against the pricks is still worth the bloody effort. Shelton Lea was always one of the main subjects of his own poetry. When a collection suddenly turns posthumous (he died on the evening of the launch of this very book), we see the choices the poet made with a stark focus,

from toorak through fitzroy;
from reform schools through jails;
from deserts to seas.


He knows politics, social inequity and the clash of wills. Yet his poetry is leavened by camaraderie, a shared suffering and a shared survival. He talks to his kind, be they Aborigines, drug-takers, boozers, jailbirds, or fellow authors. Many poems speak directly to ‘bra’, the brother who, though an outsider to society, is an insider to the Australian society of this writing and its memory. He shouts:

you don’t hurt me none bra
for the wind is different here in fitzroy.
it is our land won by fists and diatribe
where we can stalk the remnants of the sense of tribe,
where within ourselves we count.


When the voice gets aggressive or surges into violence, the perspective inevitably turns also from the subject to Lea himself. The connection between lowlife behaviour and stints behind bars cannot be lost on the reader. He is a marijuana-smoking Villon, too ready it seems to up the tension or find a fight. A challenge for any of us is judging when he is aggressor and when the threatened. When is he the criminal and when is he the victim? Lea’s personal voice will brag or swagger, then switch to threat or attack in a moment. His wistful moments sometimes come as a relief, like coming down after a high, or recovering from a punch-up. Then his lyrical talent serves as antidote, as in this subtly ironic portrait, ‘clifton hill’:

the paradigm of early afternoons
filled with birdsong
fishgurgle through still ponds.
spiders and their webs describe the sky in perfect mathematics
the parabolic curve of nits and gnats.
the Clifton hill train sound slap
is sea sound;
the regular fatwah, fatwah
of wheels over sleepers.

This possessive, intense connection with place is expressed in a language of hardship tinged with sentiment. In Oxford Street “buses collide with the air.” Melbourne is “all that grey skyline / below the liveried clouds.” Sitting in Barwon Jail he sees

looming in the background
the you yangs
a sullen frown

When the locations for his poems are not breakfast tables or hotel bars, Lea is usually found in the streets or out in the bush somewhere. Polite and proper locations are absent; there is no scent of the salon or the seminar room.

We did not hear everything we could have from Shelton Lea. Perhaps that’s true of all poets, but in this collection we notice attempts at reconciliation and personal resolve that are a change in his personal trip. The book is even given the dry dedication:

for Leith
who head-butted my shattered heart
back into shape.

And one measure of the man can be seen in ‘poem from an adoptee’ in which he goes from addressing his Mum, “last time i saw you / i glanced at your flatulent arse,” only, by the end of the same poem, lauding her:

for i have lain betwixt your legs once
as warm and wonderful as a pet bear,
and yea i yearn for the knowing of you
because you are never there.
and yea i bless you for my life.

One of Lea’s great strengths as a poet is his unremitting honouring, like John Forbes and others of his peers, of the permanent lower-case. This well-nigh universal practice was anything but when he started his apprenticeship; out of non-capital poetry he has gained huge returns in terms of a natural voice, the true language of the streets, a spacious accommodation for listeners.

Other strengths that come especially to the fore in this late book are heartfelt recollections of the Heide art scene, Kings Cross in the 1960s, and the lifestyle of the young and stoned. He has perfected the art of line reduction. Experiment is not his scene. He has trusted to the end his brand of common voice, a combination of the vernacular and the well-earnt truism.

At the same time there are certainly weaknesses in some of these poems. For me a particular temptation is his sentimentalism, as distinct from sentiment. Lea can accidentally devalue the beauty or effect, even the meaning, of a poem by trying too hard for the lachrymose, or the merely flowery, effect. I won’t trouble you with examples, suffice to say there are lapses. The other problematic weakness here is that
some of the works do not translate from their performance roots onto the page; they may only mean something to those who were there at the time.

One of my favourite poems in Nebuchadnezzar is ‘it can only be once’, an expression of acceptance about loss and death that is a fitting way to close. It opens:

it can only be once
in your life
that you take the orange train

The classical weight of these words holds the attention. The orange train is life’s passage, but also the transport of your death and my death. The poet knows enough though to add that “we never travel alone”, a consoling thought when we find out that

there is always baggage that is blues
and the stops
which are stops.
you lug your life up
and down
so many steps that you are fatigued

The poem plays out a series of hard facts, of brutal realities, then softens them with a kind of stoical happiness, made most agreeable in the beautiful lines

yet your steps quell the shadows
on behalf of themselves

This could be enough, self in equilibrium. Acceptance rather than resignation should be a decent end in itself. However the poet then expands the witness of his own life by exclaiming “the dream is an absolute”, then concludes with an unexpected analogy of that absolute:

like dancing in the meadows
with tough bright girls
whose dresses swirl
with their fingertips’ turn.

The poem displays many of the excellent qualities of Lea’s best poetry. There is an ordering of the pragmatic and the emotional into a coherent narrative. His love of the well-placed saying is matched perfectly by his delight in the personalised image. He lets his positive motives win out over his warring negative tendencies. His favourite free verse form gives Lea the freedom to put all these factors together, where they hold together under their combined strain.

-- Blue Dog, 2005


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