When Frank Prem offered me a copy of his “free verse memoir” through a writers’ Facebook group  I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted it. But then I reckoned the idea was so outrageous that I might as well read it anyway and I’m ever so glad that I did.

I wouldn’t exactly think of it as a free verse memoir. It’s definitely free verse – the absence of all punctuation and capitalisation gives it a very 1960s feel that I’m not sure improves it – but it’s not exactly a memoir. Rather it’s a chronological series of poems describing the author’s life growing up in small-town Australia. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book of poems and felt enthusiastic about all of them. There is a strong subjective element to poetry and what pleases one person won’t please another, but there are some real gems here. He captures a lot of the ambivalence of a young child’s feelings about life. He captures, too, a vanished way of living. There are poems about the dubious charms of the outhouse and the odiferous work of the night-soil men and then, later, a poem about the blasting of a sewerage line heralding a new world:

of filtration
and treatment plant
and of sculpted porcelain

It is, the title of the poem assures us, “the dawn of civilisation”.

There is a strong sense of place and time – not only the period, but slow cycle of the seasons and the events that mark their passing in this small town. Here’s the church fete:

once a year
it happens once a year
the noise shatters the afternoon
as an old ute with two loudspeakers attached above the roof of the cabin
does circuits of the town
and can be heard in a garbled blur
from three streets off
and not much better up close

but it doesn’t matter what they’re saying
because we already know

And bonfire night:

a couple of tuppenny bangers
and a short detour
to blow up the deputy headmaster’s mailbox
is an annual event
and he’s long practised
at straightening its swollen metal sites
on the morning after

As Frank grows older (there’s a nice poem called ‘growing pains’) girls feature more often, from the gentle innocence of ‘sweet maureen’

I rode my bike for sweet maureen
from beechworth to yackandandah

I was drawn
down the road
descending like a bullet
from the barrel of my rifle

drawn to ride
to sweet maureen

to the rather less innocent Judy.

judy runs the supermarket now
but I remember her as fifteen years
of laughing dark-brown eyes
that once upon a time
closed to kiss me
on a new year’s eve
in a crowded street
that vanished
for the whole
of one
single
moment

As the book goes on, the sad reality of the lives of some of these women is cruelly exposed, like the popular girl at school who

… stopped coming
to classes
then moved away
before the baby arrived

Eventually, though, there is love:

hey I think we’ll get by
won’t our folks
be surprised
they think that we’re lost
but I don’t suppose
we’re so bad

and a child.

I watch over
my tiny wonder

Despite the pessimism that slips in through many of the poems

we were formed
as small-town kids

was there ever a chance

this is, in the end, a life affirming collection of poems. I’m glad I took the chance to read it.

 

Small Town Kid is available on Amazon in paperback or as an e-book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07L63WS2D

You can hear Frank reading some of his poetry on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvfW2WowqY1euO-Cj76LDKg

Frank’s second book, Devil in the Wind (poems inspired by the bush fires of 2009) is also available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07Q9YLD8V