Lyn Hatherly reviews Coda for Shirley by Geoff Page
by Geoff Page
Reviewed by LYN HATHERLY
What a shame that light verse is currently not the most popular genre. For Geoff Page’s new book Coda for Shirley is playful, intriguing and beautifully constructed. This verse novel makes you wish that other poets might ‘Bring Back Scansion! Bring Back Rhyme’ as it does its best to persuade readers and other poets to share Geoff Page’s love of formed verse and the music that accompanies it. Geoff himself it seems has much in common with the gentle and ironic tutor who taught Shirley:
to master my tetrameters,
avoiding, with more stringent pen,
the doggerel of amateurs. (p.8)
Since these verses never lapse into doggerel, or waste words, they are both stringent and nicely astringent. Perhaps Geoff Page, like Whitman has found:
that free verse wafted off a little;
rhyme stayed closer to the ground. (p.5)
This verse novel follows on from Geoff Page’s 2006 verse novel, Lawrie & Shirley: The Final Cadenza, and like that book it’s amusing to listen to as well as to read. It must have taken Geoff some time to get the metre and rhymes right, and I’m sure there were times he was tempted to give up the struggle. Finally, I think the effort is well worth it since these satirical tetrameters managed to fix themselves in my mind as mnemonics and stay there echoing through my dreams and days, entertaining me long after I’d put the book down. Geoff Page might be modest but this book is an immodest celebration, of love and poetry and joy, as well as a further addition to the definition of Aussie culture. As an example, his view of life in a nursing home is as darkly irreverent as it is comic:
Each day comes and each day goes,
the next exactly like the last
with all the shipwrecked sprawled in chairs,
thinking only of the past,
a small Titanic, if you will,
with one great iceberg up ahead,
our buoyancy half-gone already,
the lookout, in a deck-chair, dead. (p.29)
His older readers may not be reassured but they are amused. This latest verse novel also confirms the fact that this award winning writer is ever prolific, since he has now published eighteen collections of poetry as well as two novels, four verse novels and several other works including anthologies, translations and a biography of the jazz musician, Bernie McGann.
Except for Lawrie Wellcome who appears in Coda for Shirley only in memory, the characters from that previous verse novel carry on in this new narrative, one that is again unique in theme and narrative style. Each member of the cast is memorable and sharply drawn and the situations and antics in which Geoff Page involves his characters are fun to read or hear (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmsniQUuDKw ). His stars may not be young, but I appreciate the way they remind us that uproarious life and love and sex do go on after 60 or 70 or even 80. The memory of Shirley’s affair with Lawrie and his caresses wafts musically throughout this book:
that sweet cadenza to his life
a duet only love can sing – (p.4)
Geoff treats his characters tenderly and with affection so they charm or intrigue their readers. No euphemism here; the characters are all too honest, human and multi-dimensional. Shirley, ten years on from the first verse novel, is still witty, passionate and insightful in regard to herself and those people she loves. The action in Coda for Shirley revolves around her final will or coda and the way, in life and after death, she is determined to enforce her wishes on her daughters, Sarah and Jane. It was these errant progeny who tried to undermine her relationship with Lawrie, her great love, while Sarah’s children, Shirley’s grandsons, supported that relationship. There’s irony in the way she settles her possessions and those who inherit them. The book begins with Shirley’s voice, idiosyncratic and always amusing. She sets the scene, reminds us of past events, and introduces the other characters. While she may concur with Geoff Page about matters such as rhyme and metre, she’s very much her own woman.
Coda for Shirley has three sections and three sets of voices and each tells one version of the story and gives a response to Shirley’s coda. The book begins affectionately and directly and with some mystery:
Dearest daughters, Jane and Sarah,
You’ll read this only when I’m dead.
I’ll leave it with my cheerful lawyer
who, with her very well-trained head,
has seen how things might be arranged
when I am truly ‘done and dusted’,
about what goes to whom and who
might, at the end, be truly trusted.
The language seems clear and unambiguous but there are layers and certainly a hint of what’s gone on before. ‘Trusted’ gives a firm ending to the stanza but it’s also quite suggestive. And I like the collusion of ‘cheerful’ with ‘when I’m dead’. It does set a tone for the book and its author’s attitudes to life and death. The poetic lines of the first section reverberate through the second as Shirley’s dearest but unsympathetic daughters, Jane and Sarah, come to grips with their loss and their mother’s wishes:
The funeral was bad enough;
their mother’s poetry is worse,
reciting all their ‘failures’ via
the rigours of accented verse.
There’s some resolution in the moment when they finally accept that perhaps Shirley’s affair with Lawrie Wellcome may have been more positive that they previously wanted to believe. I like the way Geoff Page takes time for transformations and affirmations in this verse novel:
They stop a moment; both are smiling,
There’s not a smidgeon of chagrin,
They strike their glasses once together.
‘Here’s to Shirley’s “year of sin!”’
The characters from the third section who take the novel into the future are Shirley’s grandsons Giles and Jack. In the previous verse novel, Lawrie & Shirley, they were sent by Sarah as shock troops to remind Shirley of her grandmotherly duties. Even as teenagers they were smart enough to see that love is not only more important, it had made Shirley happy and more beautiful. Now, having retreated from their parents expectations of ‘law and med’ they are working, each in their own ways, to improve the world. They seem to be as clear-sighted as Shirley and to have been blessed by the terms of the coda that so annoyed their aunt and mother:
‘Correct,’ says Giles, ‘but in proportion
it’s mainly down to Grandma Shirley.
She left her money straight to us,
not worrying about how surly
such a move would leave her daughters.
She knew how it would leave them numb,
those two up-market girls of hers –
one of whom is still our mum. (p.74)
So the book begins with mystery then sings and plays through three generations before it ends with joy and hope for the future. There is whimsy and rhyme and rhythm but also irony. There is death here but it not tragic and comedy overcomes any negative moments. Geoff Page’s character studies are, as Peter Goldsworthy remarks, ‘scalpel-sharp’ and his characters are always entertaining. They made me want to go back and read the first and connecting verse novel: Lawrie & Shirley. Geoff’s second verse novel is satirical and can, at times, show us life’s shadows. But it is such fun to read. Coda for Shirley is a celebration of life, love and a distinctly Australian way of speaking and thinking.