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Review: Unsettled, Harry Laing’s Third Book of Poetry, Has Scattered Highlights on Various Themes | Mercury of Illawarra

lifestyle, books, unstable, harry laing, canberra poetry, walleah press

Unsettled is Harry Laing’s third collection of poetry in nearly 30 years. Originally from Scotland, Laing lives just outside Braidwood and is also well known as a comic performer and author of children’s books. This new book is divided into five sections that present different aspects of his work. The first refers to his Scottish ancestry and the later years of his Scottish father. The second, “Unsettled”, is a fairly comprehensive and balanced look at the accomplishments of some of his ancestors, particularly on the Victorian Frontiers and Van Diemen’s Land. The third includes ten pages all around the experience of driving and the road. The fourth section, “Narcissus is Us”, presents Laing’s comedic side, as does the fifth to a lesser extent where he occasionally employs satire, if not comedy, in the service of some quirky poems about the impact of climate change. The highlights of Unsettled are scattered throughout. They include poignant poems about his father suffering from dementia, several subtle and evocative poems about his 19th century ancestors, the best of the comic poems (always a difficult genre) and a few of his idiosyncratic eco-poems. The tone of the sequence of four poems about the poet’s father, “Born Again”, can be heard clearly in the following excerpt, which also illustrates a sardonic tone heard elsewhere: “You’re a shuffle-man in slippers / but still neatly buttoned / in your old fashioned ways. // Such a gentleman they call you / and I guess they don’t know it / but why talk about it now, here / where no one knows what they were …” A fine example of Laing’s ancestry poems is “Gallery of South Australia” in which the poet, examining an old family portrait, draws “a line through water and time / making a ripple in the quiet gallery / time banished here / no squalls off the Southern Ocean / nothing to stir the temple air / no dirt certainly no blood / nothing to ruffle those ivory faces / the past so carefully lit …” That’s a nice use of understatement and implication. The section “Narcissus is us” reminds us of how there is not enough comic poetry in this country at the moment. Obviously, all of Laing’s poems here would be interpreted well by the author, but not all of them are equally funny on the page. Strangely poignant though, and to some extent typical, is “Hair, hair” which begins: “I’m in recession / my hair waves goodbye politely and white…”

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