The Dining Car Scene : Homer Reith
Thornhill strikes a customized match
suavely; from a matchbook;
she leans forward, into the flame,
takes his hand, with the match in it...
Brian Edwards has said that Homer Rieth’s poems are ‘markers of the culture’. The title poem in The Dining Car Scene, taken from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, previews his approach. He presents an incident, a landscape, a book remembered, or the occasions of love or death, crisply and directly. Then he effortlessly goes further: he invites us into a meditation on earthly life and what it may mean. An entire period, Carlton in the Seventies, comes under his celebratory and critical eye, in his longer tour de force ‘Siberia’. And he does the delicate lyric.
Any poet who enchants, writing of the outer suburb of Mount Waverley, or the music of Vaughan Williams, clearly has the skills. Homer Rieth’s first collection has been long awaited. The collection was shortlisted for the 2002 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.
Poetry from Black Pepper
Melbourne Elegies, Bread, Russian Ink, The Dining Car Scene
Mattoid, No. 55, 2006
Homer Rieth’s The Dining Car Scene is extremely impressive. The immediately obvious richness of his poetry comes from combinations of sharp ‘local’ detail and an erudite field of reference informed always by his special feeling for the resources of language itself. Provocatively metaphoric, lyrical and romantic, these poems invite listening and rereading.
As a tribute to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, the 1959 thriller with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the leading roles, the title poem intermingles recollection and analysis. With precise details setting the scene, and with the poet become both director and critic, we are reminded, as well, and economically, about the larger narrative of which it is part and about the world beyond the dining car. As film characters. Eve and Thornhill may be symbolic figures played by actors, but in its precise attention to the scene’s careful construction (to position, gesture, music, and lighting), the poem invites us to participate, again, in another mode of interplay between art and life, artifice and reality, and in ways that remind us that such distinctions are not so simple. As its replay demonstrates, our responses to art are emotional and intellectual; and the process of making connections and meanings is its own reminder not only of the complexities of involvement but also that the borders are down:
across their table, through the dining car window
you can see the soft dissolves
of sunset, river and mountain scenery,
the milestones of another journey.
Later, after betrayal has left its wound,
you will remember all this
As the train moves through its landscape, with driver Hitchcock in control, the viewer (now poet) is simultaneously in and out of the scene, compelled by its dynamics to review its significance and to transcend its moment.
The local is precious and Homer Rieth invests it with special significance. In ‘Found Objects,’ it is not only the sculptor’s transformative vision that is valuable, the talent that turns enamelled tin and copper wire into a grand piano, but also a profound sharing ‘as if suddenly tea was no longer an evening meal/but provisions for a journey into a maze.’ In these poems late autumn in Melbourne is celebrated in fondly detailed rituals at The Francis; ‘Perceval’s Yellow Painted Ship at Williamstown’ becomes a smorgasboard of vegetables, literary reference and waterside work; falling for love can bring regrets ‘like reading Herodotus with a hangover;’ a patch of country Victoria is evoked in laconic images and stuff of dreaming; and in the gold country of Ballarat’s layered history, a ‘leather-bound Utolff Beethoven’ prompts thoughts not only of the great composer but also ‘all who fell on Bakery Hill.’ There are many sources of enchantment in this collection.
For me, the stand-out piece is ‘Siberia,’ a long poem that works through so many different registers. Its provocative blend of landscape and cultural reference creates Siberia as not only a place but also a state of mind. What does the word evoke? ‘You mustn’t believe everything they tell you / about Siberia, comrade.’ Concessions to images of vast distances, cold and human suffering are followed by:
In Siberia the spider weaves his cosmic web
in the ministry of the Milky Way
the icon of the madonna is kissed by passing asteroids
the Venusians beam faint signals to the voyager
who’ll never come home
In this territory ‘you have to remember Siberia was the end of the line / before the line was ever drawn.’ A finely felt tribute to Yevtushenko leads to ‘little boy little poet / you knew even then/in the end / we’re all Siberians’ which itself leads into a statement of community, a people’s collective that allows ‘Siberia’ a place in Melbourne with the messages coming in, as well, ‘from Nantucket to Ben Bulben’:
The society of poets is a freemasonry of the word
the months passed into a paroxysm of years
spring gave way to winter and no one thought it strange
the word was made flesh at Naughton’s
where philosophers met to talk of truth and beauty
at Jimmy Watson’s wine bar east of the Urals
at Irkutsk north to Lake Baikal The Albion Hotel
like kings wisely following an unlikely star
poets passed their secrets along the underground
like delicate incendiary devices
Here the litany of place names documents a social history (the Pram Factory, Johnny’s Green Room, the Yarra, Punt Road Hill, Festival Hall...) that incorporates memories across time and place and is lit with the revolutionary fervour of poets at the barricades, a community who share drinks and moments and who cry out against atrocity. Declamatory and gentle, nostalgic, insistent, passionate and occasionally comic, this is a great poem. Against a history of appalling abuse, terror and death, it offers community, sharing and of course, the words of poets.
These are interesting collections. Black Pepper continues to present writing that warrants attention.
The Dining Car Scene
Famous Reporter, No. 24, December 2001
The town of Minyip in Victoria’s Wimmera district is small, flat, tired and doesn’t at first glance seem to have much going for it, but among its population, barely large enough to keep both its pubs in business, are two remarkably gifted poets.
Eric Beach’s work, both in print and in performance, is well known to most Famous Reporter readers, and, to be fair, he has lived in Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart for considerably longer than in Minyip, but not as well known is the poetry of Homer Rieth.
The Dining Car Scene reveals Rieth as a perceptive and talented observer of the details of Australian life, rural, urban and suburban, but beyond that as a chronicler of the human condition in a wider geographical, historical and cultural context.
His long poem, ‘Siberia’ which is the most significant piece in the collection, moves effortlessly between the imagined (or imaginatively received) landscapes of Yevtushenko, Tolstoy and Solzhenytsin and the wine bars of Carlton. Melbourne’s Festival Hall, where both Yevtushenko and Johnny Famechon have performed, becomes a metaphorical venue for the convergence between poetry and pugilism. The spirit of the 1960s poetry scene in Australia is summed up in the line, ‘We got the trans-Siberian to Sydney’.
In a rather different vein ‘Fairy Penguins’ is a wry piece not so much on the effects of the Low Head oil slick as on the role of other species as ‘a slow / and easy catch for tomorrow’s headlines’. In fact, for all that Rieth comes across as very much the suburban poet, the poet of laburnums, golf, Tupperware and thinking about Duns Scotus in the back yard, he has a very interesting take on ‘nature’.
Some of my favourite passages in the book are those where he deals with ‘the sheer amazingness of animals’ (or of plants or minerals). Even thrip, slugs and snails are vividly evoked, while his intense scrutiny of green walnuts on the tree or the way ‘the light / prickles the sugar gums’ demonstrates a willingness to observe closely in order the more interestingly to transform what is observed into art.
And yet he is also excellent when dealing with people. The moving ‘Requiem’ makes this reader believe that he not only knows but loves the subject, an old man dying in hospital whose ‘neat hand had crossed a good thing in the last’. The paean for his lover, ‘the sort who’ll die with her Doc Martens on,’ who ‘can roll a tin of tea in her sleep’ with a similar clarity evokes both a character and a relationship.
Among the most convincing passages are those that are set in the suburbs and country towns where ‘the street lamps have found a good line and length’ or where one is made to wonder ‘how much pressed ceiling roses / remember’. His ‘Twenty Fifth of April’ gains its strength as a poem about Anzac Day as much through being set where ‘the trenches meet the suburbs’ as from his calling up of images redolent of military nostalgia.
Above all, what I really like about Rieth’s poetry is its scope. He can contemplate a culvert, a toolshed or a nun and create memorable poetry from the contemplation, can apply parodies of well-known advertising slogans to war in a witty and timely piece, and can celebrate a world where the interaction between humanity and the environment is a fruitful source of images and ideas, not just a simplistic battleground.
The Dining Car Scene
Imago, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2001
Homer Rieth’s poems, in The Dining Car Scene, are far less complex than those of Hammial [Bread]. They are about moments captured in time by one medium or another - in the title poem by a camera shot in a Hitchcock film - and laid out in detail, real, associated or imagined, and comparative. One has the impression of Rieth walking through streets, through the countryside, through the literature and personae of other countries, with his eyes wide open, taking note of the finer points that go to make up those surroundings and giving them equal place and significance with the large and obvious.
There are three longer poems, that is of over two pages, the longest being ‘Siberia’, which deals with the various conceptual deserts, or places of the lost, created as a metaphor to the real Siberia. ‘In the end we’re all Siberians’; ‘Siberia your frontiers never end!’; and ‘Wherever you go Siberia’s waiting for you’.
Mostly these are reflective poems, although a shaft of irony shoots out in a few, such as ‘War’ which satirises not only the place war holds in our society but also the clichés that surround our attitude to it and to the society that can produce it.