Geoff Page Reviews B N Oakman’s Second Thoughts

Geoff Page, Poetry Editor at the Canberra Times, has provided an in-depth review of B N Oakman’s latest IP title, Second Thoughts.

B.N. Oakman’s Second Thoughts is a very different sort of book – much shorter for a start and a tight collection of free-standing poems. Some are related by subject matter, e.g. the poet’s deep appreciation of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado (1875-1939) and Spain more generally. Others have a reasonably savage political edge; still others are love poems to his partner, Barbara, who has been prone to serious illness in recent years.

Nearly all the poems are strongly affecting emotionally, partly as a result of Oakman’s unusual skill with last lines. These can turn quite suddenly in a new and disconcerting direction – or brutally sum up what we’ve just seen. This directness of feeling, along with Oakman’s leftish political edge and fluency with different linguistic registers, brings to mind the early poetry of Bruce Dawe when he was making his mark on the somewhat conservative Australian poetry establishment of the mid-1960s.

Two early poems stand out in this regard – Neurosurgery and Watching TV News in Madrid, All Saints Day 2011. The first reminds us how, when visiting a loved one in hospital, we can also be deeply upset by the situation and fate of other patients we don’t even know. Neurosurgery is constructed of simple observations, cleverly arranged, e.g. the rapid plot development in: “She’ll be dead by now / The woman with bright curly hair / The one I saw in Admissions / She and her man and her boy and her girl.” Later, the poet sees the woman’s empty room and senses the impact her death has had on all three members of her family. The poem concludes: “And then I returned to another room to sit beside another bed / And I took a woman’s hand in mine / And gripped it / Hard / Too hard / Much too hard”.

The second poem, Watching TV News in Madrid … is one of several set in Spain, often dealing with the impact of the Spanish Civil War.  Oakman watches an old man on the television screen whose “words defeat my  feeble Spanish”. He is looking through graves recently excavated in “a town overrun by rebels early in the war. / The weeping man is Rafael Martinez. / He is 89 years old. He’s searching for his father.”

Among the other 47 poems in Second Thoughts, there are many of comparable quality. Don’t read them in a coffee bar; you might well embarrass yourself by shedding justified but unseemly tears.

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