By Olivia Arcaro
West Footscray’s own critic-turned-poet writes to resonate with language-lovers.
It was inadvertently perfect that I met the West Footscray-based poet, Thuy On, to discuss her heady new collection, Decadence, in a near-rhyme: eleven a.m in Seddon. We sat in the sun at Cafe Lola, On’s tribute to syntax and intimacy, with its bright-red and pictureless cover, between us. The title split into three groups of letters, echoing the three chapters of the book: Meta, Physical, and Spaces.
On has been a critic and editor for over twenty years, and Decadence is full of winks for writers and knowing readers, amplifying ironies and contingencies of the industry with courageous irreverence. A stand-out of the Meta section, Book Blurb Bingo parodies the “hyperventilating language of press releases,” as On put it to me, encompassing all the predictable descriptors for propping up a book. Grant Me—bound to comfort those who understand first-hand—vivisects the taxing process of trying to procure a grant for a project, illuminating the dubious requisites and the emotions one is obligated to swallow. I can imagine drained English students and jaded academics getting a kick out of Apocalypse in the car park and Get Lit, both of which challenge authors and icons of canonical literature with a brazenness that made me laugh out loud.
Physical is where things shift from playful to (as you might expect) sensuous, drawing on more conventional ideas of the collection’s title, although terms unique to the publishing world still serve as hints. On does not compose her poems in retrospect, but rather from the heat of the moment, the midst of a love affair; she trusts that if her emotions are fresh the resultant words will do them justice, vesting her voice with the potency it needs. And yet, On understands the difference between a resonant outpour and gratuitous rambling: these poems, even at their most breathless, are remarkably refined. Favouring brevity, On strives to enshrine the crux of an experience, to alchemise months of courtship into one timeless takeaway. “Whatever happens to you,” On said, “there’s passion and anger and sadness, but then you need that level of introspection… and that’s where the writer-mind kicks in.”
More than semantics, On “thinks in images”—nature, objects, artwork, flesh. She has a genius for crystallising the oblique. It’s easy to luxuriate in Decadence’s snapshots of carnality and languor, of strolling Williamstown Pier peaceably with a lover, of feeling electrified or assuaged by passion. The control granted by writing versus the helplessness we often endure in life is a disparity On is attuned to, wringing its comedy and poignancy in, for example, Errata, wherein comic sans—the font—is equated to a misstep. How ideal it would be to always move through the world with the aplomb of Times New Roman, On and I agreed, and how impossible.
The final section, Spaces, contains some of On’s most memorable work yet. I’d purchase Decadence just for Melbourne in concert, a surging evocation of the busy city, hilarious in its awareness of our trends (lofty minimalism anyone?) and archetypes (to quote directly from the poem, “salarymen in hermetic bubbles of importance”). Milk conveys, in eight terse lines, the chasmic burden of white supremacy. Kitchen Sink Melodrama captures the déjà vu readers are perhaps most predisposed to, and takes the stimulating liberty of resembling a script, making you wonder what exactly constitutes a poem, and what the form is capable of.
We are fortunate to claim On as a member of the West. Beautiful, barbed, and supercharged with honesty, Decadence has grandeur that will withstand the test of time.