Simon West: First Names

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2006, 58pp.

This impressive first book is marked by an elegant lyricism and is accurately described by Chris Wallace-Crabbe on the cover as containing poems which are “intensely observant, gravely acute”. There are poems about place (usually a very cold Italy), about relationships and about, well, metaphysics. It is also a very tightly organized book deriving from a consistent and complex poetic personality so that readers feel confident in allowing each of the poems to provide a context for others.

Take, for example, “Mountain Pass”, from the middle of the book:

Cloud veils sweep up a gully towards us.
In the rivalling currents of open air they flounder
like small birds. There is nothing to hold but wind.

Our bearings are scenes snatched from a slow procession.
A broken string of peaks and ridges, sheer
faces, fragments that continue to disappear.

Stones click beneath our feet. Rawness
of rock or in pockets and dips, the flesh
of soil or snow. Inhuman realm. Inconstant.

One lone larch tree has grown to the height
of a man. But already down to its torso
it is worn by wind, clean as driftwood or bone.

Our guide says anything that rises above the level
of winter snows - snow that spreads its blanket
of white life - anything at all is punished.

Learn to grow low, we think, grip rock,
trust to a single limb
or a handful of day-long flowers.

Read in isolation this seems a fairly straightforward poem with the only worrying surprise being that the snow is described as a blanket of “white life” rather than something less positive. It invites, certainly, being read as a “poem-poem”, one of those pieces, common in first books which, allegorically or otherwise, give us clues about the poet’s sense of what his or her poetry is. This poem seems to say, in its conclusion, that the flowers of poems come from keeping one’s head down, relying on the earth, and not expecting to produce anything epic or earth-shattering but rather small, evanescent lyric poems. But in the context of other poems in the book it becomes a little more complex.

One of the reasons for this is that the poems are very sensitive to the idea of a vertical axis. There is a down-below, there is an up-above and there is a half-way between. In other words, you don’t innocently find yourself positioned between sky and land. It is also a book full of its author’s Italian influences and Dante figures prominently: so below, halfway and above allegorizes out not only as soil/origins, culture and sky/transcendence but also as hell, purgatory and heaven. For me, at least, this adds a dimension to “Mountain Pass” since the word “guide”, used in conjunction with Dante, inevitably recalls Virgil, Dante’s guide in the first two parts of the Commedia, and the fourth line strongly suggests that we should be thinking of the weird procession at the end of Purgatorio.

First Name’s key word – it is repeated four or five times – is “humus”, that generative material produced by the movement of living material downwards towards darkness. West’s poetry is clearly obsessed by this basic material which seems resistant to the pressures of the surface-world. An important, if not entirely successful, poem, “And Your Insistent Need”, is about the vertical scale at the bottom of which humus lies. Here the “need” is the drive towards transcendence, towards the blue of the sky. We are lifted up “by the eye” in a way that recalls Eckhart’s “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me”. It concludes:

Mind, demented blow-fly,
you who won’t renounce your want of the source,
the sex of stars beyond the sky-light,
you who butt the glass of meaning’s window,
ignoring the cataract and downpour of
dust and weather, the tug of gravity.
Your green fingers make a humus balm, aid
the spread of mushrooms full of moisture.

An interesting poem, “The Halfway Garden”, gives us more clues about this axis. The garden contains both upper and lower (its higher, fruiting plants are aligned with the sky so that “your jewels hang like stars and planets”) despite being positioned between them. The final stanza reads:

The air thickens, strands
 darken and turn,
 like vespers the wind whispers above
 the fosse of no man’s land. Here I’ll continue
 to fathom the workings of your eyes.

“Fosse” is a Dantesque word but my inherently dirty mind focuses on its sexual meanings. Yes this is Dante first meeting up with Beatrice in the last cantos of the Purgatorio and thence being able to ascend to paradise but it also suggests the endless, horizontally human world of sexual activity and exploration as well as the other activities of mundane social life. There are not a lot of love poems in First Names but they are charming and not simply cute, in this respect like the poems about children.

I don’t know whether the model for the structure of this book is the Commedia or La Vita Nuova but it begins with bleak poems about the world that could equally well suggest either hell or a life before one meets one’s Beatrice. The best of these is “I giorni della merla” (wrongly acknowledged in the book’s prelims as appearing in The Best Australian Poems of 2006 when in fact it appeared in The Best Australian Poetry of that year, though I suppose only an editor of one of the series would be concerned about this, given the irritating closeness of the names of the two series of annual anthologies). Here we meet an Italian town in the dog-days of January, the very bleakest season of the year. “Winter: Prali” is not only located in the same season, but also includes a burial:

. . . . .
Someone had dug those months down to the earth:
a humus balm, dark and gleaming with ice,
a sinister fecundity from which the line
of people stretched across the bridge to town.
. . . . .

Whether the structure comes from the Commedia or not, the last poems of the book – beginning with “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarara Tjapaltjarri” are decidedly “philosophical”, concerning themselves, especially, with the interaction between the three levels that I have already spoken of. Although they conclude with two poems, “Higher Elements” and “Flower-Echo” where the references, pace the Paradiso, are suitably celestial, the overwhelming sensation of reading them is the surprising one of fear of the dark. This fear permeates the world just above the warm and productive humus. It is after all, the world in which we live, but it is conceived here as a world of almost motiveless threat. I’m not sure what kind of cosmic perspective generates this. Certainly Dante can help because he invented the idea of a “selva oscura” that needs to be woken up from but it is unlikely that a twenty-first century Australian writer is going to take on board the full ramifications of early fourteenth century Catholic theology. At any rate, these final poems are full of sinister thickets.

Even the humble Banksia in “Seed Eyes” becomes sinister:

. . . . .
Mute spirits locked in wood and all
anguish, all wordless knowledge. See it
in the quicks of their eyes, eyes that seem
                    to accuse                  us?
                    to judge                   us? 
seed eyes that germinate fear over
here here in the thick of the mind,
flashing as if we had something to hide.

I notice, as I write this, that on my first or second reading of the book I’ve written “Why?” in the margin at this point. No doubt I assumed that I’d eventually be able to answer this question but I’m as far from being able to do this now as I was then. In the final part of “Seed Eyes”, the trees become associated with postcolonial guilts and paranoias:

Did it gleam like the tip of a spear
or a wordless thought, that fear, for Banks
who pinned them under his name, and took them
in under the shadow of his tongue,
. . . . .

and in the second section, which I have already quoted, they recall the wood of the suicides in Inferno xiii. But what, ultimately, generates such an intense response in the poems of this book (suicide and settler-angst seem only two unlikely possibilities) I am not sure.

So far I have spoken of First Name’s structure and the dominant image of the vertical axis between earth and sky. The other dominant theme of the book is the experience of language. Though this is predictable enough in poetry, West’s engagement with it is quite surprising. There is a genuine fascination with the word, its sound, almost its taste in the mouth that fascination continually alters the path of what might be, otherwise, predictable poems. The first poem in the book, “Mushrooms”, really comes from later obsessions but is put first because not only is it a stronger poem than those set in Italy, it also demonstrates this theme of the tactility of language:

This morning by the path I saw them.
Bold heads clean as paper
had butted aside the earth, and rose
like probes all about my feet,
capsules eager to outgrow
the dark grounds of their birth,
to join at last the light of day.
The soft-fleshed name, mushroom,
of humus and moss, tugged at me
as if it had something to say,
as if it too could be prodded
 nd wielded by the tongue, turned
over to expose an under-
belly’s hidden treasure of gills.
And the bloom of meaning when thought
breaks from such pods, then spreads outward
like the scattering of spawn?
Shhh . . .This tissuey fruit is all
syllable, is already
bowing to the moisture of the earth.
Mushrooms fulfil their word, and then some.

I quote this poem in full because, as well as being a fine poem in itself, it encapsulates the best of this book. The mushrooms grow in the humus and reach into the middle world of air. In other words the poem begins with the theme of the vertical levels, a dominant obsession in First Names. But at the point where we might want to plod on with a fairly predictable allegory the poem changes direction entirely to speak of the word “mushroom”, its textual quality and the near puns it generates (not to mention near anagrams – you can nearly find the letters of “humus” in the word). It is this change of direction to something which is, in itself, less predictable but which is, in the context of the book’s themes, entirely predictable, that makes “Mushrooms” such a strong poem (despite the spinelessness of its subject). “Seed Eyes” – the Banksia poem – is prefaced by Dante’s “Nomina sunt consequentia rerum”: “Things determine their names”. This is a long way from the arbitrary nature of the sign but it does express a partial truth about language that poets are sensitive to. Somehow connections keep emerging between, on the one hand, sound and even the visual shape of a word, and, on the other, the object that the word refers to. The lover of Beatrice is likely to find the meaning of her name entirely fitting.

The fine poem, “Persimmon”, works a little like “Mushrooms” in that it makes a similar shift. Two stanzas describe the fruit, and the fact that it must be eaten at the point of rottenness (like the more familar monstera deliciosa here in tropical and sub-tropical Australia). Again the essential allegorical significance is clear – we ingest this stuff only at the moment when it has almost slipped over the edge into humus – but the poem’s final stanza, instead of exploiting this, shifts gear to speak of the fact that Italian has, apparently, a word for that indescribably precise experience of eating a not-yet-rotten-enough persimmon. And this, in turn, recalls the person who taught him this – lover or teacher, perhaps dead.

But to wait until it is almost too late,
to have to handle and break open that decay,
to scoop out the flesh with a spoon, to risk
the sudden coat of fur on one’s tongue.
I wonder how you would have described that taste,
and imagine your mouth flexing each of its muscles
to accommodate the vowels of allappare.
No English verb is ever likely to do it justice.
Mind the gap, you might have said, pleased to
span it with such an agile leap of the tongue,
relishing the sweet existence a lack can have.
Allappi. Allappa. And already my mouth has roughened
to roll these words out in memory of you.

Poems with a strong sense of hierarchically ordered levels of space as well as the tactility of words are going to both embody and, occasionally, speak about, a poetics. The best of the comic poems, “All or Nothing”, begins with two stanzas of elegant play with the letter “O” – the zero behind things, the marker of the vocative, the groan of love and war, the exit from the womb, etc etc. But its conclusion suggests what poetry is and where it “lies”:

O naught, I want you.
What I want is to lie with you
and reach your source, know
all there is to know,
though thought will twist away from there,
play its echo games, its word games.
I want to overcome these
and silence everywhere,
and fill your void with words.

This suggests two poetries: that which frenziedly reaches the source of generation (“the humus theory of poetry”, or, to mix metaphors, “the salmon theory”) and that which is produced by the mind’s swerving away from this generative nothingness (“the baroquely decorated doorway theory”). We meet the latter in the last two poems of the book. “Higher Elements” is, of all the poems in First Names, the one done in the most high of high styles, and it sustains this elevated level remarkably well. In my tentative reading, the poem is a group of “loving syllables” cast upwards “like a die”:

. . . . .
parched northerlies crying wolf,
the bowels of insects feeding on the sun,
trees fawning before it with green fingers
charged with photosynthesis,
water curled at the edges into
a liquid echolalia.
And this baby talk, this babble
you give voice to, rising high from spheres
of life, this bold cry, binary of vowels,
takes its place among the elements.

Here the words “babble” and “echolalia” are the ones which connect this poem to the conclusion of “All or Nothing” and the same image is continued in “Flower-Echo”. Rather daringly, this poem is written not in high-style but in a way that recalls the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. But the message – a version of “as above, so below” – is that the flowers of the natural world are echoes of the generative capacities of the cosmos and, since “Mountain Pass” used flowers as an image for poems, poems too have their place among the elements:

Twinkling logo, little word,
made flesh
and fallible by tongues;
ephemeral thought, wee
how I wonder what you are.
Re-sounded here, now,
from past springs,
echoing on in us, into
bright with atoms.
. . . . .
Tiny star and insubstantial
up above
the world so high,
radiating across the ages
and over
galaxies of black,
your thin light
is beautiful,
takes its part in makeshift
Resound then,
here, now.