Book review: How Decent Folk Behave, Maxine Beneba Clarke

Poetic roaming across the contemporary landscape.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is one of those rare writers who can move fluidly across various formats: she works across poetry, short fiction, memoir and picture books (even drawing its illustrations) and has produced ten publications. Her latest book, How Decent Folk Behave, is her fourth volume of poetry.

The preface, by Nina Simone, is an accurate summation of its contents: ‘An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.’ Indeed, Clarke’s book has a steady pulse on the Zeitgeist. Divided into eight sections, it roams across contemporary issues that reflect our time: from pandemic woes and blessings, to climate change, parenting, feminism, the black lives matter movement, domestic and sexual violence and #metoo.

Not for Clarke the obfuscating, pretentious and impenetrable waffle that can sometimes afflict modern poetry, with the reader none the wiser as to their meaning even after half a dozen viewings; her work is clear-eyed, deceptively simple, and its impact immediate. Clarke after all comes from a slam poetry performance background and you can see this through the cleanness of her exposition and the rhythms and beat of words that beg to be read aloud. There are no extraneous details muddying up her message, no padding that will break your fall. Her poems are missiles aiming straight for the head and heart.

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She writes about ‘Generation Zoom’ who had to learn ‘how to grow the world/from seed’ and how caregivers had to parent from 1.5 metres but also, ‘how the cities, silent/were so beautiful.’ There are poems here about children marching to save the planet, about raising them in an imperfect world; about a fierce love and braiding of hope and fear for the future.

There is no coyness here but provocation. One of the longer pieces opines on how much feminism is predicated on matters of race and class; how for instance, coloured women’s lives are worth less than white women’s, even when they are murdered, ‘their bodies/don’t quite make front-page.’ How, in short, you are less likely to have a large public outpouring of emotion and midnight vigils if you are not young, pretty and white.

The title itself comes from a poem about tutoring a young boy how to be a good man in the face of toxic masculinity, ‘but if the time comes, every woman is your mama,/when it comes to saving.’

How Decent Folk Behave is a collection that provides a voice and a ballast to the vulnerable, the sidelined and the forgotten. Both local and globalised in its settings, the book, written mostly during lockdown, is a poetic diary of all that has happened in recent memory, and as the last three lines of the final poem says, ‘and how fiercely we realised/how fiercely we realised/we all will fight, to live.’

How Decent Folk Behave, Maxine Beneba Clarke

Publisher: Hachette
ISBN: 9780733647666
Format: Paperback
Pages: 184 pp
Release date: 27 October 2021
RRP: $26.99

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She's the outgoing books editor of The Big issue. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press. Her next collection, Decadence, will be published in July 2022. Twitter: @thuy_on