Tom Shapcott: The City of Empty Rooms

Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2006, 125pp.

Every decade or so I get the chance to reread the poetry of Tom Shapcott in order to try once again to make some sense of its shape. There is a productive stretch of forty-five years between the first book, Time on Fire, and this most recent one, The City of Empty Rooms, and that amounts to a lot of poems. The shapes we see in a writer’s career are always provisional, of course, and always likely to be inflected by one’s current concerns, but on this read-through I find myself wanting to account for the reasons why Shapcott’s last three books seem so successful compared with their predecessors.

One pattern within the body of work, obvious to all, is the way poems continually return to Shapcott’s Ipswich origins. There is a movement backwards that seems to grow more pronounced as time passes. In a way it is a kind of reciprocal movement because movements outwards – in travel or the acquisition of high-cultural stock – seem to induce their own need to return to base. It will come as no surprise to readers of Shapcott that this new book contains a series of poems called “Beginnings and Endings” and that the first of these are set in Ipswich mentioning, in the first line of the first poem, that shabby icon, Denmark Hill. It will also come as no surprise that it is a series of sonnets with the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, tricky because there are only two rhymes in the octet. (Shapcott’s skill in the sonnet form is something that goes uncommented on since his career generally has taken place in a non-formal phase of our poetic culture but it ought to be given some attention. It may be that a sense of craft status – easily measured by the ability to produce cleverly rhymed sonnets without the desperate enjambments and twisted syntax of most writers’ attempts – gives a kind of poetic confidence that allows the poet to run the risk of seeming to fill up poems with material of a personal and often uninteresting kind – what one of the poems calls “this utter / Concern with trivia”).

The first poem of the “Beginnings and Endings” section finishes very denotatively:

Dad was a lieutenant in the VDC. They climbed
The shaky ladder to the top of the water tower
To signal messages from Brisbane over
To Amberley Air Base. The camouflage convinced us but we named
Our dugout air-raid shelter "The Spider's Lair."
We stored blankets and comics and first-aid dressings there.

But things are not quite as contingent as they seem here. The last poem of this sequence takes the image of the spider and expands it into a symbolic figure of the poet:

I have become a spider living in dry places.
A huntsman behind the lavatory door
Among stale smells and in the shadows of a poor
Attempt at secretiveness. My meals are pieces
Of forgotten fragments, dust-mites and the minute carcass
Of something once animal. I need nothing more.
I have a terrible patience. But you may be sure
That when I move, the action is an abrupt process.

I have many eyes and I live in no real past
Or in an eternal present - I am not lovely
But that does not mean I am withdrawn. I am not overly
Gregarious. I wait and I watch. I keep a decent
Silence. But there are some skills where I have power.
At times I have spun a silk web strong as wire.

If we are tempted to see this as a fairly stylized symbol celebrating the ability of one who feeds on trivia and detritus but who can spin from his body a strong poem, it is worth looking at the first poem in the book, “Totems”. The point is made here that, if it were possible for the poet to choose his own totem (and thus choose an image for himself) he would have chosen the noble Red Cedar or the Black Bean tree. But, as the poem says, you don’t choose your totem, it is always there and eventually recognizes you. The final section of “Totems” leaves us again with spiders.

Yes, a tree,
I thought.
The bark spiders waited.
I shuddered
Perhaps sensing
Even then
Their time would come.
Feet soft as the undersides of leaves
And a quickness like bird-shadow
They remain
Not to be understood
Even when they are predictable.
They return
In my dreams
And I come home
To them
- as befits a true Totem.

There are a number of issues raised here, not entirely relevant to the review of a book but not irrelevant either. One relates to this idea of totems: it is the issue of the history of Shapcott’s conception of the self, something tied in with the history of his conception of poetry. Another is this theme of recognition and its counterpart, annunciation.

To begin with the self. Time on Fire, published in 1961, is a very mixed book and I feel confident in saying, with the wisdom of hindsight, that the faultline that runs through it to make it shaky is the idea of the self. We meet a newly in-love man, full of the kind of rhapsodic inanities that (cynicism tells us) comprise a very dangerous hubris. We also meet a kind of over-inflated haranguer lecturing about time and cities. Shapcott won’t thank me for quoting any of this but something like

Blind city! Blind world again! denying all
the true discovering joys, grown stale and gross
even here, in this new land! Yes, yes, this is
Man’s metaphor, this is ourselves . . .

has a morbid – almost pathological – fascination. It comes out of a stance which is ultimately, perhaps, derived from the Jindyworobaks (though you would have to know a lot about Australian poetry in the fifties to work out the full etiology) but which simply doesn’t suit the deeper personality of the poet. It looks like empty bluff. This is nothing but praise because it means that Shapcott lacks the kind of proto-megalomaniac absolute certainty that you need when you set yourself up in this way. Later we meet other Shapcotts. Some – the world-weary documenter of urban life with small children and marriage problems – are less effective than others. In two of his best books, A Taste of Saltwater (1967) and Inwards to the Sun (1969) we meet a poet developing his dramatic powers and becoming involved in historical narratives and lyrics. Whether this hides the self or enables someone to express it allegorically depends on the poet’s stake in the poem. In “Macquarie, as Father”, the last poem of A Taste of Saltwater, Macquarie is conducting business and meditating on the colony while his wife is going through a difficult birth. It is tricky to work out why Shapcott is writing this poem (good, as it is). As a father himself, is he finding a connection with a generally rather remote but immensely important colonial governor, a connection that enables the poem to come alive? Is it an allegory about the birth of the country? Or is it a poet moving from the hectoring style of the bad public poems of the first books into a way of annexing Australia as his true ground by imaginatively entering its history as dramatist? It’s hard to be sure.

And then there are those poems, beginning with a dramatic portrait, “Medea of the Salt Swamp” from The Mankind Thing of 1964, which harness the power of myth. This can be done allusively (as in “A Country Marduk’, which is predominantly one of Shapcott’s portraits of a disaffected city-dweller) or directly (as in the dramatic sequence, “Minotaur”). I think these are the best of Shapcott’s early poems and so I can’t go along with the obvious objection that myth is merely a way of shoring up a poet’s shaky sense of who he is. The theory must be that poetry draws power from great archetypes when they are embodied in individuals. It is a theory that poetry, in actuality, ought to rebut. But in Shapcott’s poetry it usually works very well. If that seems a subjective summation, look at the second poem of the “Minotaur” sequence:

Before anything else, my hands – strong
and obedient as weapons, the meaning of power.
But then these only as extensions of my stature,
corridors of the palace, my body. To belong
to the immediate creatures, to feel in my deep chest
lungs claim tribute from the subservient air,
and to know in my dark bloodstream where
all chemistry comes kneeling – there is no last
reward of consciousness. Proud, and in awe,
like the upthrust messenger of my naked thighs,
I move beyond animal. Everything in me is praise:
blood to seed-time, thought to power, fear
to knowledge, and the beast made marvelous.
It is my tongue, only, falters. Language remains monstrous.

There is a lot of energy here, some generated, probably, by a mastery over the form of the thing – I love the way that the crucial line “there is no last / reward of consciousness” straddles the conventionally important conclusion of the octet and beginning of the sestet. But a lot of the energy must come from the identification of poet with minotaur. The exact nature of this is something I’m not entirely certain of: the minotaur represents the animal world celebrated, in different ways, in Rilke’s eighth Duino Elegy and in that entire American tradition of desiring an immediate, preverbal apprehension of reality. But language remains beyond his achievement and, as a result, when he dies (in the fifth poem) he is nothing more than divided-up and disappearing flesh. The best I can do, interpretively, is to suggest that the minotaur represents a kind of critique of a drive towards poetry of immediate experience coupled with energy that derives from a frustration on the poet’s part that he has trouble finding a balance between poetry and experience. As the first poem after the introductory “Totems” of The City of Empty Rooms says, “Language is alienation / But it’s what we have.” As is so often the case, this painful stake in the poem, helps to produce a terrific result.

The middle books are Shapcott’s least successful. We meet Shapcott the experimenter, Shapcott the poet open to contemporary influences, especially those trying to solve the issue of how to be “immediate” and Shapcott the traveler. All of these seem provisional. To take the last, for example, it seems to me an almost insoluble problem how a poet should deal with travel experiences. Almost by definition they are some of the most profound things that happen to us. They can change people into poets (Byron, for example) when the experiences need clarification and expression. But, since the advent of mass air travel, they are experiences open to virtually all Australians. So a poet is likely to get caught up in the dreary “I am a traveler not a tourist” game and poems of travel begin by looking portentous. It would take an exceptional poet – or a poet exceptionally lucky in his or her experiences – to alter this default setting. Some of Shapcott’s travel poems are good ones in that they are momentary solutions to the problem of this mode, and he is never an arrogant or self-satisfied traveler. But it seems to me to be an uncomfortably, though necessarily, adopted self.

The poet of the books that date from The City of Home (1995), seems on much surer ground. All these patterns seen by looking over a poet’s career are, as I have said, provisional, but in these most recent books the self seems a really stable entity: stable and complex. I think it comes from life-experiences having gained sufficient momentum that they are now worth contemplation in their full complexity. I think it has taken Shapcott a long time to establish a stable poetic self, longer than most. Some poets, even while young, seem to have an astonishingly precocious grasp of the complexities of life (Auden is the first example that comes to my mind) while others, Michael Dransfield, for example, early on write out of their particular life situation. In The City of Home, Chekhov’s Mongoose (2000) and, now, The City of Empty Rooms we meet the same kind of exploration of the self’s experiences so that poems of Ipswich oscillate with poems of travel, poems of personal experience oscillate with poems that explore the genetic inheritance that has its role in the way experience is shaped. All in all, the structure of Shapcott’s work can be said to be about the structure and interrelations of the sum total of our experience.

It is not only in the poems of the section “Beginnings and Endings” where the characteristic move is backwards. That gesture is shared by the poems of the first section. My favourite poem in the entire book is “Cape Lilacs for Elizabeth”, a poem about many things including Perth and the Western Australian writer, Elizabeth Jolley:

“Cape Lilac, we call these.” In South Perth
Elizabeth pointed to the massive crown of blooms
That made the modest trees a great posy
So delicate no Kodak film could pin them.
“In Queensland,” I said, “we call those White Cedar;
It is a rainforest native.”
I learned, later,
It is ubiquitous. It thrives in the Balkans,
in Asia, in warm Africa. The rainforest examples
of my youth proved birds were the first migrants.
Late spring, Adelaide. I am taken back
with a sudden pain to that park in the West,
and our day together. Cape Lilac.
I hear your voice in that name, Elizabeth,
and again its flowering canopy forces abundance
from a delicate framework, like ghosts in the flower shadows,
and like your voice, re-naming for me
a whole new territory from things
I had assumed I knew unerringly.

This is the kind of poem that deserves to be well-known, especially to people learning something about the immense capacities of a seemingly simple work. Yes, it is an elegy for Jolley, the flowering canopy of whose prose arose from a very delicate framework – both intellectually and physically, but it is a lot more. It is also, for example, about the way the name is preserved in the other’s voice and the way it preserves that voice. A later poem for Bruce Beaver (fittingly conceived as a letter) emphasizes the way text can be a miniature score for the voice, more important even that its generalized information-carrying capacity. So, like poetry, names can enable the dead to continue speaking to us.

Shapcott’s imagination has also turned the White Cedar in a species indigenous to his own environment but, as we know, the appeal to indigenous purities (“He is a true Serb”, “Ich bin echt deutsch”) is a chimera. Everything is begun by migrants. This is true of the ideas in our head – which turn out to be imported – and it is true of our inner selves – which are compounded of our genetic heritage. This is the kind of material that the best poems of Shapcott’s most recent books have worried about. In “Looking for Ancestors in Limerick”, Shapcott makes it clear that he took not documents but his own self – actually a highly distinctive genetic document – when he went searching for his grandmother’s family. In another poem with the same setting, “Reclaim”, we see the poet beginning by rejecting angrily the kind of genetic determinism that leads people to assume resonances but being lead, at the end, to accept that no individual is utterly self-contained when it comes to physical and psychological features:

. . . . .
I felt anger.
No, I felt drawn in
I was who I was and it had nothing to do
With them.
. . . . .
My life had been discovery and the truth
Though it seemed everything was sudden
And unfamiliar.
. . . . .
We hear your genes, they said.
The rocks in my mouth
Had grown huge as volcanoes. Mountains
Were remembering rainforest
And the ancestral voices were as foreign
And familiar as each part I sought to disown.

But to return to “Cape Lilacs for Elizabeth” for a moment, there is also the issue – interesting to me – of what might be called annunciation. What prompts the poet to make the movement backward to an experience in Perth a movement that is a sort of temporary reverse migration? Why is it that in late spring in Adelaide he is “taken back”? We might guess that it is news of Jolley’s death, but it is not made explicit. It could be a similarity in air temperature or another element that resonates with the poet’s current position. It is not a question that I can answer here, but one day I would like to look at the body of Shapcott’s poetry and examine these – for want of a better word – triggers. The issue emerges again in one of the poems in this first section of The City of Empty Rooms. “Rain in the Courtyard” begins, like “Cape Lilacs for Elizabeth”, with the poet in Adelaide. It is a rainy day and, after two stanzas, we are in the past, in Tuscany, where crucial experiences occur “Tuscany / Altered everything”. But the transition is made very abruptly and without explanation:

Looking through thick walls of my window
In Tuscany I had the courtyard
The well in the centre with its twisted iron scrolls
And its small core of darkness
Where sound was a dropped stone.

This issue ties in with the idea of recognition, common in this book. In a very early poem “River Scene” (it is the second poem of Shapcott’s first book) kingfishers are used as a symbol of the heralds of annunciation. It is a clearly set up symbolic scenario with the poet’s friends focusing on the river shallows where water plays over pebbles that are what time (or Time as it conceived abstractly in this book) does to mountains. Only the poet sees the kingfishers whose startling blue appears and disappears within trees:

. . . . .
Their sudden snap
and whip of air and sunset-blue glass was sharp
and feather soft; and brief, was brief; too small the cymbal-
tapped time of their flight through the unknowing trees. I only
saw them between the seared and vanishing branches harp
and glitter away. And only I saw, for the others still
talked and stoned the shallows. “That magic 
of Kingfishers – did you see?” Again. There! Again – and a shower
of turquoise remoulded the trees. . . .

I like this poem (though I suppose it has an uncomfortably and probably Vitalist touch of the-artist-as-privileged-being staring at the trees while the common herd play in the shallows) but the fact remains that the kingfishers are external agents. In the poems of these recent books, annunciation is replaced by recognition and resonance. It is as though the self’s submersion in reality creates pathways that are not generally recognized. And these pathways lead to connections between elements that are surprising to those prosily constructed of us who are not so sensitive or aware. It is natural to move from Adelaide to Elizabeth Jolley, for example, because Shapcott and Jolley are connected by their individual responses to the same tree. These are the “intangible resonances” spoken of in another poem, “Returning to Looe”.

The issue of the individual and his or her double status as genetically determined object and free-floating self is carried over into the third section of the book which deals with artists, most especially musicians. In an intriguing poem like “Mozart, Mahler, Those Russians” this double-status is worked out as a meditation on the old literary-historical issue of art’s relationship to its times. Is Mozart a function of his period or a free-formed genius? Both and neither, the poem seems to say. Though “I hear the tumbrels / Beyond the next allée / In Mozart”, the balanced structures of Viennese classical music are balancing between surface and an understood and registered deeper reality, here symbolized by the stubble and the head rash under the aristocracy’s wigs. The temptation to read music as a response to the horrors of its period (the emerging determinism of psychology in the Vienna of Mahler’s day, the mad Stalinist regime overlooking Prokofiev and Shostakovich) tells a lot of the truth but not, it seems, all of it. The poem concludes:

Music has been weighed in the balance
Like any other object. It is as if
We might hold the scales.
This is why only we can agree
They are all right,
Allowing us to decode the music as symptomatic
Or in sympathy with each very decade.
Yet somehow things are not right.
Something’s omitted. There is the squint
Of the specific man, there is the convention
Or the breaking of convention.
But how do we fit the silences
In our Balance sheet?
We are restricted
By the very idea of balance.

This section on music is followed by what one has to call a section on travel though it is not a victim of the failings of this mode that I spoke of earlier. The denseness of the book’s obsessions means that travel experiences know exactly where they belong. The first poem, “London 1972”, is not a list of Australian writers met in London but rather a reflection on the perversity of those meetings and of the situations of the writers. This is because, as the poem says in its conclusion, “everyone I met in London came from elsewhere”, all are migrants and the resonances with the place they are living in are not predictable. Another poem from this section deals with seeing Chekhov’s Ivanov performed in Montenegro and what is this but art migrating to another language and culture? It is not a big move from Chekhov’s Russian to Montenegro’s Serbian but it is a big move for an Anglophone poet to enter “the other world” of such a performance. Interestingly the poem is about another “move” or, I suppose, migration: this time from the metaphorical to the actual.

. . . . .
This performance, under the olive trees and the night sky
Was clearly designed for the climax of the Second Act:
Instead of the offstage fireworks display, in fact
We are given the real thing. Rockets fly
And crumble above us. What were the words again?
A card game, dull neighbours, desperation. The gun.

As in “Cape Lilacs for Elizabeth” there is more going on in this apparently simple poem than immediately catches the eye. When the curtain falls on the climax of the second act – where the wife discovers her husband kissing another woman – we expect “fireworks” to occur offstage between the acts. But in fact, through a mysterious but accidental “rightness of things”, there is a real fireworks display taking place in the area. So the event moves from metaphor to reality. But it also moves in the opposite direction because, of course, a performance in the former Yugoslavia that ends in suicide must be, unintentionally, a metaphor for the events in that area in the 1990s.

So The City of Empty Rooms is built on a stable and very complex view of the self and the relationships between the self and the complexly structured world it inhabits. The self floats much more than in Shapcott’s early books but continually makes connections, makes movements or has connections made with it – as when the self is “recognized” by its totem. It is a book obsessed with migration conceived metaphorically and also literally. It has a section, which I have ignored so far, which is made up of angry poems. I don’t think these are very successful but much of that may be a prejudice on my part against polemical poetry. Each works hard to have a complex enough rhetorical strategy to retain our interest. The first of them, “The Ballad of Razor Wire”, pretends to focus on the manufacture of the wire which seals people in camps:

Once it was simply ore in the ground
Out in the lonely places
Then heavy equipment gouged it out
And put it through its paces.

Heat and pressure and good hard cash
Make it a solid investment
And ingots grew from the furnace mouth
To quantify what the rest meant.

Spin rock to wire and make it sharp:
Skill is a marvellous weapon.
Razor wire is iron rock
In its ultimate concentration.

Here is a concentration camp
Stuck like a harsh outstation.
Do not think of the people inside
Who appealed to our generous nation ”“

Remember the steel and remember the money
Remember that God is a liar
Remember the key is “misinformation”
And remember strong razor wire.

The only point I am going to make about this poem, indeed all the angry poems, is the obvious one that the event which lies behind them and generates the anger (and which, for the first time in at least my life, made me ashamed of being Australian) is related to migration. Thus this section, so unlike the others in tone, is part of a deep unity which The City of Empty Rooms possesses. Is it an accident that Shapcott is outraged by this particular event or are there resonances between the complicated theme of the sensitivities of the self in this book and the events of the Tampa? It is hard to be sure but it is a question worth asking and one which, itself, chimes in with the questions that the poems of this book ask. It also makes some sense of the book’s title. At first, The City of Empty Rooms seems mainly designed to recall the title of The City of Home two books earlier. The poem called “The City of Empty Rooms”, which comes at the end of this second section, is not about an allegorical city (as “The City of Home” was) but about the Gold Coast. But as we read its description of virtually empty high-rise towers, where “if one figure moves it is an event: / Like a spouting whale, or like a lone sea eagle”, it reminds us, intentionally or otherwise, that we inhabit a country in which it ought to be possible for us to be generous about space – if Australians were just more generous, that is, than we actually are.