Rod Usher’s “Sly humour, understated lament”

Judith Quaempts reviews Rod Usher’s Convent Mermaid, in The Internet Review of Books

Rod Usher has authored two previous poetry collections, three novels, and three non-fiction titles. His second novel, Florid States, was short-listed for the MIND Book of the Year Award in the UK, and his work appears regularly in leading literary magazines and anthologies. He has worked as a journalist, is a former literary editor of The Age, former chief-sub-editor of The Sunday Times, London, and a former senior writer for TIME magazine in Europe. 

No surprise then that his third poetry collection, Convent Mermaid (Interactive Press, The Literature Series) is filled with imagery and wit, loss and sadness, themes universal to us all. 

“First Hotel,” opens the collection, taking us on a wild ride from our ‘First Hotel,’ to arrival in the world. “If I Go First,” is the last poem, about dying and what we might hope for those we leave behind.

Many of Usher’s poems begin in a humorous vein and end on a serious note. One example is, “If Not More.” Here, a Cro-Magnon man enjoys the simple comforts of his cave while thinking of retiring from long days of hunting, though his wife is against the idea because she doesn’t want him ‘getting in her way’ all day. His children want to ‘move up a rung,’ and modernize the cave. The reader sympathizes while smiling – his predicament isn’t so different from twenty-first century concerns – until the final lines, when this husband and father ruminates on the meaning of beauty and we realize there are more important things in life than, ‘moving up a rung.’

One of my favorites is the deceptively simple, “Hard Rain,” an understated lament of loneliness and sadness over the loss of a pet:

tongue-lashes the bedroom window
water talking its way in
through the unsnug frame,
pooling on the tile floor.
I ought to get up, I say,
do some caulking with the red towel
that dried the dog before…

As in all good poetry, Usher’s poems contain more than meets the eye. His sly humor shines often, as in the title poem, “Convent Mermaid.” A modest, convent-bred girl sheds her clothes to swim in the nude. She is far enough from shore that a voyeur cannot see anything of note, but then he calls out with a request to take a photograph. At such a distance, she thinks, what could it matter? 

Guesstimating distance to darkness of pine,
She treads the wrapping water, shrugs.
Once more she is supine.
He clicks before shyness can its shell resume,
Before Convent Mermaid has time to remember
Our camera has zoom.

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