Noel Rowe’s poetry crafts a meditative and compassionate vision of the human beast. His work is dirge and psalm: a song of sly praise, politics and openhearted humour. It spans the everyday experiences of friendship, family relations, politics, religion; evokes the nature of suffering and the inequalities of the contemporary world; examines the lies and wisdom we are all capable of; and does so through a voice rich with the experience of the world and its deep contemplation.
Presented in Rowe’s poetry are the fleeting and contradictory experiences of beauty, suffering and language, where each grapples with the other towards moments of understanding and grace, a grace that exists in the here and now. An almost Buddhist sense of detachment underwrites experience in Rowe’s poetry, as transience predominates throughout these poems meticulously geared to the world in articulo. Rowe’s poetry is vested in a spirituality that draws force and insight at once from Christian theology, Buddhist thought and an existentialist grasp of absurdity. It articulates the realities and possibilities of the world through these varying influences, but affords them the warmth and honesty of the individual speaking voice. While not confessional, Rowe’s poetry presents an integrated voice that capitalises on autobiography as much as on contemporary theories of subjectivity. His humour, at times sharply satiric, vaudevillian, absurdist and mordent, sustains a very human vision, not given to transcendence but to this world, and speaking freely and openly in the knowledge of death and of joy.
Often Rowe’s work is a work of mourning, deeply but respectfully felt and expressed. Drawing on family history, in poems such as ‘Perhaps After All’, Rowe affords a consolation and compassion that moves far beyond the personal. Similarly, in the poem ‘Next to Nothing’, with a literally brutal honesty, Rowe looks directly at death, breaking the Orphic caveat and so pushing the poem beyond any simple lyrical intent. ‘Next to Nothing’ clearly and profoundly evokes a family’s divisions and oppositions, the contradictions and collusions.
Along with a sense of transience, there is often an accompanying sense of love and beauty, as though such things only exist in their moments, vanishing or becoming less than they are at the point one tries to grasp them and make them permanent or possessions. For that, the world Rowe creates is far from wistful, but built out of close observation of the concrete and the real and the spirit’s struggle to exist in such an environment. Poems presented here, such as ‘Kata Beach’ and ‘Bangkok Never Really Sleeps’, show that from this struggle with impermanence, beauty and love may be found, enough to substantiate and sustain the human.
The difficulties and traps of naming, of determination, and the consequent shackling of word to meaning, experience to moral, are gracefully sidestepped and parried by Rowe’s keen wit and constant insight into the hypocrisies and dead-ends that poetry as much as thought are capable of. Perhaps most of all, Rowe writes a poetry that flows from a deep ethical base. He does not seek to use poetry as a mouthpiece for ethics, but throughout, in his treatment of key concerns such as mourning, politics, the spirit, suffering, friendship and community, the reader is again and again greeted by a vision of the world premised upon compassion and respect, gently guided by a sometimes devilish humour. The best example of this may well be Rowe’s advocatus diaboli, Bluthorpe (it can only be hoped that, as with J.S. Harry’s Peter Henry Lepus, Bluthorpe rolls on in the future to a full-length collection).
Rowe’s is a poetry of local and common experience. It offers a vision not inured to the grand or magniloquent, but above all responsive to the humble and eloquent. It is the very commonness of the experience and the very directness of its statement that give Rowe’s poetry much of its appeal: the personal giving breath and life to the universal; the quotidian to the spiritual. In these poems, human wisdom offers its quiet, often contradictory, grace.
Lineoleum and Love
Bangkok never really sleeps
Bluthorpe finds it hard to introduce himself
Bluthorpe Thinks About Probing Mars
Perhaps, after all, 1999
Next to Nothing, 2004
Modern Australian Poets, 1994