Poetry has the capacity to allow many voices to speak and this is what makes the verse novel a unique form through which limiting understandings of the teenage experience can be challenged. Robert Petrone, Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides and Mark A Lewis seek to re-vision the assumptions that young people in general are naïve, self-interested, moody, hormonal, volatile, and risk takers. They have therefore introduced the term Youth Lens (Petrone et al 2014). This critical lens offers an approach to literary representations of adolescents and young adults that challenges ‘reductive, deficit views of young people; and [conceptualises] youth as complex, contradictory individuals, not fully determined by the body’ (ibid: 3). The multi-voiced verse novel enables explorations of real difference. An analysis of the multiple, distinct voices in Catherine Bateson’s poetic representations of adolescent experiences reveals the complexity of youth as a category. This paper will focus on how the voices in Bateson’s young adult verse novel His Name in Fire are made distinct through the lexicon and diction of the characters. An analysis of this text through a Youth Lens reveals that Bateson is attuned to a diverse range of personalities and experiences that constitute the category of youth.
Keywords: verse novel; poem cycle; voice; line breaks; syntax; lexicon
Young Adult (YA) verse novels, such as Catherine Bateson’s His Name in Fire (2006), offer a range of voices, which enables the poetry to observe, question and critique the teenage experience. This text also includes adult voices; however, it is the youth voices that I am most interested in here. Where I am discussing adult characters, it is to explore what their characters reveal about the young characters, either through the adult observations of the youth or through comparison between the younger and older characters. The adolescent characters in this verse novel reflect the writer’s awareness of the category teenager being a social construct and challenge the ‘single story of adolescence’ that sees young people as self-interested and unpredictable (Patel 2012: 68). Robert Petrone, Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides and Mark A Lewis seek to re-vision the assumptions that young people in general are immature, naïve, moody, hormonal, volatile, and risk takers. To do this, they have introduced the term Youth Lens (Petrone et al 2014). This critical lens offers an approach to literary representations of adolescents that challenges ‘reductive, deficit views of young people; and [conceptualises] youth as complex, contradictory individuals, not fully determined by the body’ (ibid: 3). It is, of course, impossible to critique representations of young adults without considering the intersectional identities of the adolescent characters, which is why I will be discussing class, gender and ability, alongside age. Petrone et al ask critics to analyse representations of adolescents by considering setting, plot, theme, metaphor and characterisation (ibid). This essay will complement the framework that Petrone et al propose for critiquing representations of young adults by analysing how voices are made distinct through lexicon and diction. Voice is, after all, one device that is used for characterisation.
Poetry has the capacity to stage prolific expressions of voice, to allow many voices to speak. This is not fundamentally different from prose, but a widespread conception of poetry that privileges the personal lyric tends to forget poetry’s capacity for multiple voicing. His Name in Fire is multi-narrated/multi-voiced. Kate Deller-Evans asserts that the form of Bateson’s verse novel ‘allows characters to speak for themselves’ and she continues to discuss the strength of verse novels that are multi-narrated, stating, ‘even if it is, say, the one author writing the characters’ different voices, the fact is that there is variety. Crucially, authors give their individual characters the liberty to speak in their own voices’ (2013: 69). This capacity for prolific voicing is what makes the verse novel a unique form through which limiting understandings of the teenage experience can be challenged. Although prose has the ability to allow many voices to speak, there are rarely the kinds of quick transitions between perspectives that are found in the verse novel. These transitions, which Mike Cadden calls ‘alternating soliloquy’ (2011: 23) and Deller-Evans calls ‘voice-zones’ (2013: 69), constitute a unique formal aspect of poetry which enables explorations of real difference — or at least, its representation and expression. Bateson’s verse novel brings authentic teenage experiences into the light, challenging stereotypical assumptions of what it is to be a teenager.
Adult Characters as interlocutors and interpreters of teen stories
His Name in Fire (2006) is set in a monocultural, semirural town with high youth unemployment, suicide rates and teen pregnancy rates. Mollie is an adult who has been employed by the town council to raise the morale of the unemployed youth by teaching the young people circus tricks and having them perform in front of their family and friends. She has a special status through her work with the ‘dole circus’. She hears the stories of the younger characters and is often the interlocutor and interpreter of those stories. There is an interesting exposition strategy employed in this verse novel where Mollie writes letters to a dead lover, Seb, who was previously her mentor, saving her from similar circumstances to those that the young people of this town are in. Seb is necessarily absent, and therefore in a position that resembles the reader’s. This strategy naturalises the exposition, because the dead lover can't know about the situations, and it licenses intimacy: the narrating character can soliloquise freely. Mollie tells us in ‘Letter to Seb — I Remember’:
This is an Abattoir Town. Despairsville.
Some stats today from the council arts
a tight-arsed boy wannabe with a head for
high school drop out rate, teenage pregnancy
tertiary intake figures and finally
youth suicide rate – one of the highest in the
(Bateson 2006: 6)
The reader is invited to hear Mollie’s voice through the exposition strategy of the letters to Seb. In considering the lineation of the above extract it is clear that the character, Mollie, often punctuates her sentences with words that are stressed. The repetition of ‘figures’, the placement of the word at the end of the line, and the narrow page layout that sees two of the instances of ‘figures’ on an indented line, followed by a pause marked by the em dash and comma, reveals the way that Mollie gives prominence to particular words. Bateson has used the end-stopped lines in her free verse to capture Mollie’s unique voice, the way she modulates her sentences with stresses and pauses. Poems from Mollie’s perspective are usually lineated to correspond to breath groups. Charles Olson makes much of the connection between breath and line endings in his 1950 manifesto ‘Projective Verse’ where he writes: ‘And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes’ (1997: 242). The pauses marked by the line breaks in Bateson’s poetry help to convey the diction of the speaker, to construct an oral voice for their character.
The inflection in the above extract, combined with the colloquial language used to describe the man who is reporting to Mollie from the ‘council arts’, ‘a tight-arsed boy wannabe’, captures Mollie’s disdain for the reduction of these young people to a series of statistics. Mollie’s disdain suggests that she desires to know these young people, who they are beyond the nomenclature that has been used to identify them. The use of the satirical ‘Despairsville’ conveys Mollie’s fear that she won’t be able to do anything for the young people that she will be working with in this ‘Abattoir Town’. Bateson has emphasised the word ‘state’ through the internal rhyme with ‘rate’. The stress that is placed on ‘state’, through both the rhyme and the placement of this word at the end of the line, also reflects Mollie’s concern that the young people’s problems are too big and too many. In talking about line endings, Catherine Barnett, discusses ‘after-silence’, stating that ‘some after-silences are louder than others, some more choked and death-inflected; some are acts of great intimacy, others acts of aggression’ (2011: 50). The ‘after-silences’ in this poem from Mollie’s perspective are loud with her trepidation. Furthermore, she describes this job as ‘the gig from hell’, saying:
Oh, fab, the gig from hell.
I’ve got this mob with
no work, no money, no hope
and I have to make
(Bateson 2006: 6-7)
The sarcastic tone conveyed through the interjection ‘oh’ and the abbreviated ‘fab’ further demonstrates Mollie’s fear that she will not be able to help the young adults in this town; their experiences may be too complex for her to face on her own. The placement of the word ‘circus’ at the line end invites reflection on the word and made me think of its common root with circle. With this connection in mind, making a circus implies joining people together to form a ring, and Mollie is afraid that without Seb she won’t be able to pull this off. By discussing the low education attainment, teenage pregnancy and youth suicide rates that are the norm in this town, this adult character introduces the complex experiences that the young people in His Name in Fire have either already encountered or have to look forward to. The characters are thrust into a world full of challenges and responsibility by the economic and social circumstances of the town. Importantly, Mollie is interested in who these young characters are beyond the stereotypes that they may fulfil.
Young adults, mental illness, and challenging the ‘single story of adolescence’
Bateson constructs some characters to be cautious, such as Emma (a member of the high school band who volunteers to join the circus with her friend, Matthew), who is inhibited by apprehension. Emma’s character contrasts with that of Mollie, who is worried but enterprising. It is Emma’s apprehension, her restraint and conscientious character, that challenges the ‘single story of adolescence’ as she is not hormonal, rebellious or defiant (Patel 2012: 68). These characteristics of Emma are reflected by the lineation of the poems in which she speaks, for example:
Inside me, my voice struggles to get out.
It’s like having a bird live behind your ribs.
I am most myself in the shower in the morning
the tiles bouncing my pure notes back
through the water.
I hate the self you see
caught dead in your stare
like road kill.
Each afternoon I think today I’ll open my
and knock you all sideways
but I don’t
(Bateson 2006: 115)
The beginning of this poem, titled ‘What You Don’t Know About Me’, uses end-stopped lines mirroring Emma’s inability to take any risks because of her anxiety. This cautiousness is conveyed through the momentary pauses at the end of the lines. Silence and white space in poetry can be both empty and ‘palpable’, as Catherine Barnett explores when she writes of ‘the way what is missing [in poetry] — even in the momentary missing that is the end of a line — is simultaneously present and absent’ (2011: 48). Barnett states that ‘line makes language into material… line also makes its opposite — white space, the silence out of which the line arises, the silence into which it falls — more palpable’ (50). Bateson uses line breaks, the momentary silences at the end of the lines, to capture Emma’s fears. She is a thoughtful and introverted character, which can be seen through Emma’s diary-like monologue where she contemplates her need to sing, to share her ‘pure notes’ (Bateson 2006: 115). Yet, at this stage of the verse novel, she concludes with the resigned ‘but I don’t’, revealing that she is not yet ready to publicly put herself on display.
Similarly, in John Foulcher’s poem ‘Why Alan Won’t Come to School’, from his poem cycle[i] The Learning Curve, we are seeing Alan at a time when his anxiety seems to be debilitating. The structure of the prose poem conveys the teacher’s feeling of inadequacy within the bureaucratic structure of the school. The speaker/teacher relays a conversation they’ve had with Alan’s mother:
…she says there’s darkness in
school people there wade in it when they speak to alan
there’s lies there’s rumours in the words the faces and bells
and blackboards are like tar and he can’t move his feet are
set in it if he doesn’t run it’ll stiffen it’ll set it really will so
he stays at home…
(Foulcher 2002: 15)
Alan’s name is written with a lowercase ‘a’ to highlight the disempowerment of this student as he struggles with his mental health and the inadequacy of the school to meet his needs. There is no punctuation or line breaks, which means that each sentence bleeds into the next. Alan’s emotional state is mirrored through the overlapping possible syntactical constructions: ‘there’s darkness in school people’, ‘people there wade in it’; and ‘there’s rumours in the words the faces and bells and blackboards’, ‘the faces and bells and blackboards are like tar’. This gives the poem a thickness and a stickiness that mimics what Alan is feeling. Alan, like Emma, is not merely a ‘moody’ teenager. In contrast to Bateson’s verse novel, in Foulcher’s poem cycle we only get a quick glimpse into the lives of the characters, and, thus, they are not developed in the way that Bateson’s characters are. Alan doesn’t return until near the end of the text where he is briefly mentioned in a poem from the drama teacher’s perspective:
yesterday, little Alan Ford
who disappeared in June
snuck back into class.
We all thought he’d gone for good.
It turns out Donald Ritchie
was taking books for him to read
and chatting with his mum and dad.
Seems he got them to believe
their little boy would be all right
(Foulcher 2002: 75)
In this poem it is revealed that at least one of the teachers has maintained high expectations for Alan and, with the teacher’s support, Alan has been able to access an education and remain a part of the school community. Both Bateson and Foulcher’s poems move away from stereotypical portrayals of teenagers, in the case of Bateson, by developing an authentic voice for the adolescent character, and in the case of Foulcher, by conveying the young person’s perspective and his place within the community of the school. Although ‘Why Alan Won’t Come to School’ is in the third person, it’s a close third person; his point of view is adopted by the speaker.
The verse novel’s attention to developing character and plot allows Bateson to explore the lexicon and diction of Emma to convey a more fully developed character who struggles with mental health. 23 out of the 88 poems in His Name in Fire are from Emma’s point-of-view, which allows Emma’s voice to be heard in a range of tones and moods. Emma desires growth and her emotional journey towards confidently expressing herself gives readers insight into how poor mental health can place limitations onto an individual’s development. The placement of ‘mouth’ at the end of the line in the above extract emphasises the word (Bateson 2006: 115). The emphasis that is given to ‘mouth’ reflects the creativity that Emma desires and the opening of a channel of communication that singing will provide for her. The use of colloquial language and idioms — ‘knock you all sideways / and gobsmacked’ — reflects the strength of Emma’s desire to express herself creatively and to be more confident. Emma perceives the other characters to be confident as they speak in a casual and comfortable way; for example, Mozza comes across as a self-assured larrikin and he regularly speaks in slang. He is a young man who is receiving an unemployment benefit and joins the ‘dole circus’. In one of the earlier meetings of the ‘dole circus’ Mozza says, ‘G’day music kids’ and then he passes a ‘tinny’ to Matthew and says, ‘Share it with your girlfriend… then you won’t get pissed’ (94). In contrast to Mozza, Emma is reserved. She has always been too scared to sing in front of an audience, but she wishes that she could. Her parents are separated, and she ends the poem, ‘What You Don’t Know About Me’:
Everything we’re given
takes something else away.
What would I lose this time?
The resigned tone conveyed through the earlier ‘but I don’t’ and the pessimistic tone in the question ‘What would I lose this time’ are symptoms of Emma’s anxiety, as are the end-stopped lines and the formal lexicon which signify her cautious nature. Within this poem Emma shifts between a formal and informal register. Her use of an informal register, as mentioned previously, reflects her desire to be more confident. The conclusion of the poem in the formal register reveals her inability to act on this desire at this stage.
Bateson’s exploration of disability is realistic in that Emma does not overcome her disability and become ‘normal’ (Curwood 2013)[ii]. The verse novel ends with Emma:
handing out water, still holding herself
as if she could break
before she ‘stands / and her ethereal, haunting voice leads us / into the darkest night / and up towards heaven’ (Bateson 2006: 165-166). Emma does not speak again after singing on stage, only singing, as Mollie tell us, ‘as we walked each other home’ (168). Emma’s silence at the end of the verse novel is significant as it gives the impression that, although she was able to overcome her anxiety to act on her choice to sing in front of an audience and participate more fully in the ‘dole circus’, this does not mean that she no longer has anxiety. One in five teenagers experience ‘disturbed emotions, especially depression, anxiety, and anorexia; or disruptive behaviour; or a mixture of these’ (Graham 2004: 22). It is important, therefore, that there are representations of young adults who are struggling with mental health issues in poetry if poetry is to authentically represent the teenage experience. However, as Jen Scott Curwood argues, portrayals of disabilities should move away from exploring ‘didactic, condescending, or pedantic’ themes and instead ‘envision high expectations for the character with disabilities, include positive contributions to society, build on strengths, show the person acting on choices, depict expanding reciprocal relationships with others, and ensure that the character with disabilities is afforded the same citizenship rights as others’ (2013: 17). Bateson’s portrait of Emma aligns with this program in that it explores Emma’s strengths and the ability she has to make choices and develop positive relationships with other characters.
On not representing teens through a ‘deficit view’
The characters in His Name in Fire are not hierarchised in terms of psychological robustness or awareness; in fact, it is revealed that the adult characters, such as Emma’s father, Jack Van, are just as emotionally vulnerable as the teenage characters. The vulnerability of both the adult and teenage characters challenges the clear divisions that are often used to separate these developmental stages. His Name in Fire is told through ‘alternating soliloquy’ which allows Bateson to explore the various moments of empowerment and disempowerment that both the young adult and older characters experience (Cadden 2011: 23). The use of ‘alternating soliloquy’, in a way, is an anti-realist strategy, as when do we ever, in real life, have access to a range of other people’s inner voices? The YA verse novel wears its artificiality proudly, but it is not an artificiality that impedes access to the lives depicted, on the contrary. In the poem ‘Letter to Seb — I can’t Work Her Out’, Mollie says of Emma:
Why does she come every afternoon
standing as wooden as a coffin
her smile so thin it hurts?
I’d shoo her away but she’s here for some
Her Dad’s the snake man —
He’s a tea-and-toast man, warm and calm.
His daughter’s like a trip-wire
We work around her
The similes of Emma being ‘wooden as a coffin’ and ‘like a trip-wire’ reiterate the characterisation of Emma that was developed through the previous poem, ‘What You Don’t Know About Me’, which was written from Emma’s point of view. Emma’s demeanour is contrasted with her dad’s. Mollie’s description of him as ‘warm and calm’ contrasts the nasal sound of ‘m’ and the long vowel sounds, which suggests warm appreciation, with the plosive of the letter ‘t’ and the shorter vowel sounds in ‘trip-wire’[iii].
Interestingly, when Mollie takes her concerns about Emma to Jack, it is revealed that Mollie and Jack are just as emotionally vulnerable as Emma is:
He pours the wine while I wander
through his books — history, politics, snakes —
and wonder how to talk to him about Emma.
Music? he asks and waves me to one of his CD
I put Freeman on
wait for her lush voice.
I love Freeman, I tell him.
Her voice is heartbreak
and solace, midnight
and the sun’s first flare.
It flows between us
winding around our separate griefs,
an intricate cat’s cradle of sound
it doesn’t matter
Jack reveals to Mollie that Sarah Freeman ‘was… is… was / my wife, / Emma’s mother’ (122). Jack’s hesitance at telling Mollie about Sarah is a symptom of his sorrow. Just as Emma has been scarred by her mother’s bipolar behaviour and the separation of her parents, so too is her father. Emma says, ‘She’s just my mother, between gigs, / between drinks, in the cracks of her madness’ (65). Mental illness impacts not only the sufferer, but also their families. Furthermore, Mollie has her own grief. At the beginning of the verse novel she introduces us to Seb, her lover who passed away: ‘You were my home, Seb’ (3). The music from the CD being played in the above poem offers a bridge between Jack and Mollie as they share their grief, yet their grief can also be ‘dividing’. The music means completely different things to each of them, but that doesn’t matter, because it clearly does mean intensely for both of them. The exploration of loss and mental illness from different perspectives allows young readers to understand the complexity of these experiences and the range of responses that characters can have to the trauma of losing a loved one or watching a loved one struggle. In this way, instead of inviting the reader to identify wholeheartedly with a single character and espouse their point of view, His Name in Fire invites readers to consider the impacts of mental illness more broadly. Experiences of power in relation to an individual’s circumstances and that individual’s own demeanour are also shown to be complex. Mental illness and grief are shown to be not always debilitating. The vulnerability of both the adult and teenage characters challenges the clear divisions that are often used to separate these developmental stages. Furthermore, the similarities between the grief of these different characters challenge deficit views of teenagers according to which youth are measured by what they lack in terms of emotional maturity when compared with adults.
Steven Herrick’s verse novel Love, Ghosts & Nose Hair similarly explores the emotional vulnerability of both adult and young characters in a way that does not hierarchise the characters. Many of the poems in Love, Ghosts & Nose Hair are narrated by Jack. He’s ‘a normal guy. An average sixteen-year-old. [He] think[s] about sex, sport, & nose hair. Sex mostly’ (Herrick 1996: 8). Jack introduces his family to the reader three times, firstly his ‘dream’ family:
There’s my Dad
dressed in his best blue suit
she'll be home soon
The title of this poem, ‘My family (the dream one)’, foreshadows a complication and, on the third attempt, Jack introduces his family, in the poem ‘My family (the truth)’:
I live with my Dad
and my sister.
My Dad works at a newspaper
which means I never see him.
He leaves home at 7am
and returns at night
smelling of cigarette smoke and defeat.
He’s OK though.
He talks to me on the weekends
>and that’s enough for a parent.
My sister I like!
yeah I know
you're not supposed to like your sister
In this poem, Jack’s father is presented as mostly absent, both physically and emotionally. There is another absence in this poem. Jack’s mother isn’t introduced until the second section of the verse novel (the text is divided into five sections or chapters) in the poem ‘Cancer’:
They said it was a harmless lump
they said the signs were good
they said she had six months
they said the pills ease the pain
they only gave them to Mum
they said Dad was being strong
they said Desiree and I didn’t understand
they said it was hereditary
now Dad calls the doctor if I get a headache
they said the hospital room smelt fresh
it smelt of death
they said the funeral was stirring
we came home alone
Herrick uses the short lines in this poem to juxtapose the hopeful attempts at making the teenage characters less anxious about their mother’s health and later, her death. These shorter lines also work to show that Dad, Jack and Desiree are all equally aware of the seriousness of the situation and are all equally struggling with the grief of losing their Mum/partner. Similarly to Bateson, Herrick’s characters are given voice through diary-like monologues. By giving Jack voice to express his grief and his dream of having his mother back, as well as giving Dad voice — for example in the poem ‘The Family Holiday’, ‘I remember that last holiday with my wife … / my wife, my wife / talking to me / and I’m drinking it in’ — both the adult and teen characters are shown to be struggling, understandably, to accept this loss (23).
Using Stereotypes: Class and Gender
At a certain level of generality, we all fulfil one stereotype or another, but that stereotype never exhausts who we are. Bateson’s use of a different lexicon and diction for Mozza and Shazza (mandatory members of the ‘dole circus’), who are characterised as having limited education, being unemployed and young parents, in comparison with Emma, who is still in school, is intellectual and anxious, highlights some of the differences between the experiences and personalities of the characters. However, these characters are not limited to their social positions. Mozza and Shazza, on the surface, are stereotypical characters — the larrikin, drunk, young country man, and the young mum who has sacrificed her future education and employment opportunities for her child. Yet they are both capable of being creative, and Mozza takes on a leadership role at the end of the verse novel. In the poem ‘Shazza’s Philosophy’, Shazza thinks:
I know they think I was a monument girl
hanging out with those boys and their dogs
going down the river, getting pregnant.
Harrison is the best thing
Pete and me ever did.
I look at him and my heart flips over
The idiomatic me, instead of I, and ‘going down the river’, where going down to the river would be grammatically correct, contributes to the characterisation of Shazza. The idiom ‘monument girl’ has been used to express the shame that society associates with young women’s sexuality (75). It is shameful to be young and female and having sex. This issue around shame is addressed by Bateson through Shazza’s pride in being a mum which is shown through the romantic cliché ‘my heart flips over’ (ibid). However, Mollie expresses her relief at not becoming ‘a monument girl’. Perhaps Mollie’s relief is more about having got out of the town and seen more of the world. Nevertheless, it seems to undercut Shazza’s story.
Seb was the ringmaster of a circus and he helped Mollie when she was a troubled teenager:
I could have been a monument girl,
pregnant at sixteen,
but you turned up — my passport
to a different country
Mollie has a de facto authority by virtue of her centrality in the book’s structure, but we need not read her letter to Seb as implicit criticism of Shazza’s choices. If we read these passages in functional terms, perhaps their function is ‘cognitive’ — inviting us to temporarily adopt a variety of viewpoints — rather than ‘exemplary’ or ‘affective’ (inviting us to see Shazza as a negative example of conduct or to empathise with her) (Landy 2012). The inclusion of multiple perspectives could be understood as allowing us to see that there are many ways for humans to flourish. Although Mollie has expressed a sense of freedom at not becoming a young mum, which is shown through the metaphorical ‘passport’ that Seb gifted her by introducing her to the circus and employment opportunities, Shazza is still granted a voice (Bateson 2006: 84). Shazza and Mollie’s experiences are different and the fact that both of these characters have been given their own ‘voice-zones’ positions their different life experiences on an equal footing. Neither of the characters are forced to exist in a particular way. Roberta Seelinger Trites states ‘Much of the [YA] genre is… dedicated to depicting how potentially out-of-control adolescents can learn to exist within institutional structures’ (2000: 7). However, Bateson’s book doesn’t show Shazza and Mollie being subjected to institutional power or Mollie exercising institutional power over the people who participate in the scheme; that’s not how this dole circus works.
The fragmentary form of verse narrative in short soliloquies enables Bateson to represent and express a range of personalities in this ‘Abattoir Town’. One of the effects of this verse novel is its ability to grant readers ‘access to knowledge’ (Landy 2012: 5). Critics differ on the kind of knowledge that texts are perceived as conveying, from knowledge about the ‘world at large’, to knowledge about a ‘cultural moment’, or knowledge about the text’s composer, and finally, the text may reflect on us, the readers (ibid). Regardless, reading with a Youth Lens encourages us to focus on how texts might convey knowledge about what it means to be a young person. The character of Mozza challenges stereotypes of the young, country town man who drinks a lot and doesn’t think all that much. The ‘dole circus’ performers get nervous four days out from the dress rehearsal, so Mollie runs a bonding activity with the crew. Two days before dress rehearsal and Mollie
…thought the crisis was over —
kite flying, a couple of beers afterwards
we were all back-slapping mates
but Mozza’s been thinking.
I didn’t know that was something you did —
I wait for the laugh but there’s just a wooden
and I realise he’s serious.
When he looks at me I see for the first time
the grim lines around his young eyes…
(Bateson 2006: 149)
The dry humour of Mollie’s dialogue reflects the stereotype that Mozza is just a ‘Strong Man’ (173) with ‘no jobs no money / no way out’ (80). However, Mozza is given the last word in the verse novel, stating:
…head pounding like a heavy metal song.
Mollie had just left
Back home I had a hair —
more like the whole shaggy coat —
of the dog that mauled me the night before.
I’m going to miss making a fool of myself,
I told Tracey when she got home.
You don’t need Mollie to help you do that.
I stood there like the tequila had slammed me.
I nearly asked her right there and then
to marry me but I was too scared she’d say no.
We don’t need Mollie.
As soon as my head stops thumping
I’m going to call the circus together.
Forget the Strong Man —
next cheque I’m getting a penguin suit —
Mozza is characterised as a young, country town man through the lexicon Bateson uses when writing from his perspective. Mozza speaks in idioms, such as ‘hair of the dog’, which Bateson renews by introducing Mozza’s humour and hyperbole to the sayings. Bateson is reflecting a verbal inventiveness that characterises playful speech regardless of educational level. Although Mozza does fit the stereotype of the country town youth, in that he drinks regularly, he is also positioned as being sensitive and clever, as he considers asking Tracey to marry him and is scared that she will say no, and as he prepares to take on a leadership role in the community, promising to keep the circus going.
Read through a Youth Lens, it is clear that Bateson’s young characters are not being constructed through reductive or deficit views where adolescence is defined by what it lacks, and which apply rigid expectations around behaviour, life experiences, and emotional and social maturity to teenagers (Petrone et al 2014). The form of the verse novel, where the story is told through ‘alternating soliloquy’ provides a platform for a range of voices to be heard. This attention to different voices allows readers to conceive the complexity of youth. The range of characters who have their own ‘voice-zones’ prompts the reader to acknowledge differences and perhaps also to find their own imaginary place in this world. The multi-voiced verse novel may leave the reader freer, or oblige them to make up their own mind about the situations evoked, because they cannot simply adhere to the perspective of a single narrator.
[i] Where a verse novel tends to follow a single story line, the poem cycle lacks a single plot. This allows the writer to give greater attention to a range of characters and to explore a network of intersecting stories.
[ii] Jen Scott Curwood discusses ‘normalcy narratives’ and ‘disability counternarratives’, stating that in ‘normalcy narratives’ the ‘disabled character must either be normalized or removed’ (2013: 21).
[iii] Marilyn L Taylor writes, ‘Phonetic studies show that the “plosives,” for instance--the ones produced by blasting open a closed space in the oral passage (p, b, k and t, among others)--will create a rougher, harsher sound in a particular poem than the “nasals” (m, n and ng)…’ (2011: 19).
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