Book Review: Paul Kane’s Work Life: New Poems

Work Life: New PoemsWork Life: New Poems by Paul Kane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poetry is mostly undercover these days, so I think it’s interesting how you stumble across a book. I happened to be at a reading in Glebe in Sydney, Australia where three poets had been invited to read, Robert Gray, Kevin Hart, and Paul Kane. Kane was the poet that I hadn’t heard of but I found his reading engaging, both lyrical and light-hearted, and I decided to give his book a try –

Which is one of those great strokes of luck, when you find a poet who you like enough to vow to search down his or her other books, and whose work you really, really like.

I really enjoyed ‘Work Life’. While the voice is consistent, I like the range of subjects treated in the 5 sections of the book: the forbidding and political first, the elegies of the second, the long poem “psyche” in the third, nostalgia and teenage years and the hilarious two-liners in the fourth, and a final section that gathers together religious imagery and myth.

Kane’s intellect and wisdom is evident, as is the breadth of his life experience: they manifest in lines that are clear and accessible and at the same time complex in idea. I like that I don’t have immediate comprehension of “Psyche” or some of the other poems – that I’ll have to work at them, faced with intelligence greater than mine.

At the same time, I marvel at how he takes a few plain words and transforms them with poetic ability to something magical: “What are we to ask of a shadow? / At noon, night flickers around us / as we walk in the cold sun’s light.” (‘The Night Heron’). I find this simple, graceful and bloody beautiful.

And though I’m perhaps making Kane sound like an intellectual poet, his work is full of feeling as well, a tenderness that in lesser hands would come off as sentimental, but I found resonant and touching. “What do I owe / the past”, he writes in ‘Third Parent’, “except to settle the accounts / I bring into the present as my special sorrow?”

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