Toowoomba poet uses his personal experience of 2011 floods in Cadaver Dog, his debut collection

Toowoomba poet Luke Best. Picture: Supplied

Toowoomba poet Luke Best. Picture: Supplied

  • Cadaver Dog, by Luke Best. University of Queensland Press, $24.99.

Toowoomba poet Luke Best has published his first book, Cadaver Dog, a prize-winning verse novel derived from what seems to have been a close personal experience of the 2011 floods on the Darling Downs.

Although the story covers only a few days, it moves quickly and is well within the Australian gothic tradition, going back into the 19th century.

What makes Cadaver Dog rather less typical is its unusual verse form and its focus on the guilt of the two main protagonists.

The traditional trope for Australian floods is heroism, but here we have guilt and shame.

Because the story is revealed in small accretions from a single viewpoint, the details of events can sometimes be less than explicit.

At the centre of the story, however, is an unnamed husband and wife who, we learn from flashbacks, already have a less-than-ideal relationship and whose house and family are suddenly overtaken by an inland tsunami.

It's clear that both parents do a lot less than they should have to save the lives of their two young children.

The father escapes in his car; the mother survives in the flooded house, deeply traumatised and unable to face (or even confirm) the death of her children.

Into this situation comes a police cadaver dog who will almost certainly reveal the mother's shame to the world.

To tell this story, Best employs nine-line stanzas with each third line comprising one word only.

At first, this can seem arbitrary with the one-word line having no particular emphasis but it soon ceases to be a problem.

Best's text is also highly metaphoric, with more than a little flavour from the Old Testament.

Indeed, its epigraph is from the Book of Job:

"They feel the pain of their own bodies and mourn only for themselves".

It's a forceful combination and adds to the book's considerable individuality, already established by the compromised moral position of the two main characters.

An indication of Best's distinctive tone can he had from the book's penultimate stanza:

"I took a rotting steak to coax her away. / An open freezer hatch of grey meat in vying / phases / of spoilage. In the dark, I re-entered the house, / feeling my way to the kitchen, pulling open the door / of / the freezer, scraping its contents to the floor: a reeking / mound for the dog. I heard her at the door, preening in the / waft."

  • Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.
This story Aus gothic and natural calamities in debut collection first appeared on The Canberra Times.