How Decent Folk Behave

Maxine Beneba Clarke

 
How Decent Folk Behave
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How Decent Folk Behave

Maxine Beneba Clarke

we are all just one small disaster
away from sinking,
and sometimes you only realise
when you’re gasping for air


On a daylight street in Minneapolis Minnesota, a Black man is asphyxiated - by callous knee of an officer, by cruel might of state, and under crushing weight of colony. In Melbourne the body of another woman has been found - this time, after catching a late tram home.

The Atlantic has run out of the English alphabet, when christening hurricanes this season. The earth is on fire - from the redwoods of California, to Australia’s east coast. The sea draws back, and tsunamis lash out in Samoa and Sumatra. Water rises in Sulawesi and Nagasaki. Bloated cod are surfacing, all along the Murray Darling.

The virus arrives, and the virus thrives. Authorities seal the public housing towers up, and truck in one cop to every five residents. Notre Dame is ablaze - the cathedral spire blackened, and teetering.

Out in Biloela, the deportation vans have arrived. Every Friday, in cities all across the world, children are walking out of school. The wolves are circling. The wolves are circling.

These poems speak of the world that is, and sing for a world that may one day be.

Review

Maxine Beneba Clarke hardly needs an introduction. The author of several award-winning titles including The Hate Race and Foreign Soil, Beneba Clarke will delight readers with her fourth poetry collection. How Decent Folk Behave is many things – a testimony, a living history, a retrospective. The majority of the poems focus on the wide array of events that 2020 and 2021 encompassed – not just Covid-19 and lockdowns but also ongoing social justice fights such as Black Lives Matter, protests against police brutality and detention policies, climate change and bushfires, reproductive rights, and so much more.

While some readers may be reluctant to relive the last two years through poetry, I was relieved to read a fresh perspective – to escape the news and instead approach current events with a poet’s eye. If all news could read like this, the world might be quite different. At times, Beneba Clarke’s poems (such as ‘The Monsters Are Out’, ‘Proximity’ and ‘Capital’) are chilling in their assessment of the realities for women in Australia – ‘this place / is where women / get raped’. There is anger, certainly, that fuels this collection (‘get the fuck back, / i am warning you: / i’ve got poetry’ the prologue cautions), but I found the voice of unity so uplifting. Many poems use ‘we’ frequently, which incites both the fire of protest and also a sense of storytelling, of Beneba Clarke sitting down to tell future generations about the beginning of the 2020s.

This is an accessible collection that would be great reading for the summer – you can dip in poem-by-poem or read the whole lot in one sitting. How Decent Folk Behave cements Beneba Clarke as a captivating and refreshing Australian poet.


Clare Millar is from Readings online.

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