IN THE INTRODUCTION to his first volume of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed, John Passant tells us that, as a child, he wanted to be a poet but his life took a different turn when he studied law and economics at university.
He spent his subsequent working life in the area of taxation, first as an academic and then as a senior tax officer.
On his retirement, Passant returned to his early goal of writing poetry, and now brings a passionate socialist world view and mature reflections on life to his writing.
This first book is a mixed bag of the personal and political, in which he demonstrates an eagerness to pass on political and personal wisdoms, and the baton for social and political change to the next generation.
This overarching theme is evident in these lines from 'We must not fail':
We will grow, I tell myself
That is the point of this tale
And risings past and present
Not to resent but to love,
We may be frail,
But for our future
We must not, cannot fail.
Passant’s poems are strongest when the subject of his writing is clear and weaker when he employs a somewhat rambling philosophical tone, especially when addressing the political. When he doesn’t pull any punches, his poetry has more clout.
'Oh we can’t tax the rich' is a good example of this and works well in performance.
Oh we can’t tax the rich
Cause they make all the jobs
And we can’t tax the rich
Cause they are fucking nobs…
…Let’s tax the rich instead
And hear them cry no more
Let’s tax the rich instead
Until there are no poor.
Political poetry rarely finds favour with Australia’s literary establishment and it is unlikely Passant will enjoy a warm welcome there at this early stage of his career. He has already found a more receptive audience for his work in the vibrant musical and performance space. This is good because his work deserves an audience and his political poetry is better when he is unashamedly direct. When he doesn’t strive for the “poetic”, but brings keen observation to these subjects, he also reveals a talent for satirical humour.
Passant has a strong sense of rhythm and a talent for playful rhyming and, unlike many beginners, he rarely forces a rhyme. He has begun working with musicians to set some of his poetry to music, with this first collection launched earlier this year at the National Folk Festival in Canberra.
He demonstrates his lyrical potential in 'I can hear the violins':
I hear Trotsky sing
And March, violin in hand
Trudge Trudge Trudging,
Through our red, black, ancient land
The song, the band, the poetry
Cascade and echo down
The winding paths
That are history…
Perhaps surprisingly, Passant finds a compelling poetic voice when addressing the personal. This collection is not uniformly political, there are poems about love, loss, memory and ageing, which are full of pathos.
'I saw you at the mall' is just one example:
I saw you at the mall
Pretending not to notice
Did you forget those times
Of hurried kisses and more…
…The glaciers of love
Have avalanched that past
But the memories, the memories last…
…I saw you at the mall
You did not notice
It would have been nice if this collection ended on a more uplifting note, but the final poem in the book addresses the right-wing legacy of conservative former Australian Prime Minister John Howard:
…The sun is gone
there is no mention
of the fast
or the forward
We trudge back from our beginning
and see the ghost of Howard,
Passant’s revolutionary optimism is often tempered with bitter realism borne of long life and experience.
I’m a keen reader of his astute political analysis and John Passant’s first book of poetry also contains many delights — with a promise of more to come.
Sara Moss is a Queensland-based poet and freelance editor. She has co-produced and edited two multimedia poetry anthologies on CD, including Slam the Body Politik, Synaptic Graffiti Collective.
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