The Wagtail Series, Nos 62 – 72

Warners Bay: Picaro Press

Chris Wallace-Crabbe: The Thing Itself. Wagtail 62 (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro)
Robyn Rowland: This Road. Wagtail 63
Philip Salom: The Family Fig Trees. Wagtail 64
Anna Kerdijk Nicholson: What was lost. Wagtail 65
Michael Sariban: The Riddle of Perfection. Wagtail 66
Anne Edgeworth: Purdie’s Meditation. Wagtail 67
David Malouf: Guide to the Perplexed. Wagtail 68
Judith Rodriguez: Manatee. Wagtail 69
Bruce Beaver: The Flautist in the Laundry (selected by Craig Powell). Wagtail 70
Lee Knowles: Lucretia. Wagtail 71
Richard Deutch: Floating the Woman. Wagtail 72

The Wagtail series comprises monthly issues of a selection of a poets’ work. Each pamphlet is exactly sixteen pages, attractively designed and uses print-on-demand technology. Unlike your reviewer, the editors allow themselves one month a year off – so eleven issues are released annually. And this series is not the limit of Picaro’s activities: they do a chapbook series and are also beginning to release reprints of books of poetry which have, in that odd phrase, fallen out of print. The sixteen-page Wagtail series can be looked at in two different ways. At the atomistic level, each little pamphlet is an introduction, successful or not, to an individual poet’s work. At the holistic level, the series makes up a kind of giant, evolving anthology of contemporary Australian poetry where everybody gets sixteen pages in the spotlight.

To take the first, first. How good an introduction to these poet’s works are these little books? It’s not always an easy question to answer. Some poets are, for example, more easily introduced in sixteen pages than others. Generally, the more multifaceted your poetry is and the longer you have been writing then the less likely it is that sixteen pages is going to be enough. And there are different types of introduction: there are those that are a sort of sampler and there are those that aspire to be a “Greatest Hits” – though I can’t think of any living poets for whom that would be a good strategy – you need to wait till the band has broken up.

Take the case, first, of Bruce Beaver. This is poetry I know well so I feel fairly confident in my judgements though, it has to be admitted, Craig Powell – who selected these poems – knows the late poet’s life and work far better than I do. In The Flautist in the Laundry (70) I miss both Beaver’s brilliant portraiture and his sense of himself as enmeshed in the creative lives of others, as part of some overall human creativity. Powell’s selection is made up of:

“Harbour Sonnet V” (from Seawall and Shoreline)
“The Flautist in the Laundry” (from Open at Random)
Letters to Live Poets V
Lauds and Plaints I
Lauds and Plaints XII
Day 7 (from Odes and Days)
Death’s Directives II
“Lady Made for Love” (from Poets and Others)
“Quiet Companion” (from Poets and Others)
“Vespers” (from Poets and Others)

I’ve bitten the bullet and constructed my own counter Beaver collection, making sure that it will fit within the confines of the Wagtail booklet:

“Under the Bridge” (from Under the Bridge)
“ ”˜Remembering Golden Bells’ and Po Chu-i” (from Under the Bridge)
“Impresario” (from Open at Random)
Letters to Live Poets XII
Lauds and Plaints XII
Ode VII (from Odes and Days)
Day 38 (from Odes and Days)
“R.M.R. Muzot 1921-1926” (from Charmed Lives)
“Late Afternoon” (from The Long Game)

Photocopying these and making up my own imitation booklet and then reading it alongside the Powell selection was revealing. Of course I think mine is the better introduction (it would be perverse if I didn’t) but my Beaver comes across as a rather “heavier” figure and my collection does miss the light but serious charm of the title poem of the Wagtail collection. Also I see that I have shamefully omitted the poet’s wife who is the subject of the first and second-last poems. My group begins (well, nearly) and ends with Po Chu-i. All told it is less domestic, a bit less human, a bit more literary. And yet there is so much Beaver that both selections are forced to omit: above all the Beaver of As It Was ”“ surely one of the great Australian autobiographies – but also the Beaver of sexual mythology and psychology.

Philip Salom and Chris Wallace-Crabbe are difficult poets to introduce in sixteen pages. In Salom’s case this is because the best of his poems occur in a distinctive matrix. An early book like Sky Poems, for example, was made up of poems that either existed in an alternative world of the sky or involved sky in some other, less radical way. When two poems are removed from this mesh, as “Smithy’s Dream” and “Being There Perhaps, Or Not Quite” are here, the reader is left without a lot of context to help in making sense of them. Even poems which make perfect sense on their own – like the one about finding a Buddha statue in Singapore:

. . . . .
Not the knot-haired door-knocker brassy kind
or the pissy-nosed, prefect and perfect.
And never the sleek reclining Buddhas like clones
dumb on opium in Penang, counting the tiles
on the walls opposite, each tile the wise
ceramic face – of Buddha.
. . . . .

lose a lot when they lose their context: in this case an enormous, multi-faceted poem about living in Singapore.

The same could be said of “Feng / Abundance (Fullness)” a tart political poem which concludes: “when / abundance is over, auditors arrive”. This is one of a sequence of brilliant poems in A Cretive Life based on the I Ching. Somehow it looks more whimsical alone than it does in context. Perhaps the most intriguing poem is the title poem, “The Family Fig Trees”. Salom has a powerful imaginative drive that almost needs a conceptualised matrix in order to express itself as something more than just hectic rhetoric and it is almost a disorienting shock to encounter as conventional a poem as this. Salom is brilliant with the dead – “Seeing Gallipoli From the Sky” is one of the best poems in Sky Poems ”“ and in “The Family Fig Trees” dead ancestors make a dignified appearance prepared for by a long meditation deriving from the intersection of the fig trees of the farm of his boyhood and the metaphorical idea of “family trees’.

The difficulty in the case of Chris Wallace-Crabbe derives mainly from the extent of his writing life. His first book was published nearly fifty years ago and by the time of his Selected Poems of 1995 there is only room for a handful of poems from each book. The tactic here, faced with this fecundity (and a concomitant level of variety) is to select from late in the career. The earliest poem in The Thing Itself is “The Amorous Cannibal”, the title poem of a book published when its author was over fifty. But late Wallace-Crabbe can be an exhilarating country and a small selection could do worse than act as a guide for readers venturing into it for the first time. What you get here is a small, self-contained and self-consistent little group of poems. The themes are God (the first poem describes a mobile phone ringing in a cemetery and the second is a dramatic monologue in which God thinks about his creation), reality, the dead (“Trace Elements” is a wonderful poem from the early nineties beginning “. . . but surely the dead must walk again. / They stroll most oddly in and out of / small corners of your being, optical [b]lips.”), consciousness and language, love and the self. The final poem is not “Afternoon in the Central Nervous System” with its wonderful conclusion:

. . . . .
                                        The dumb gene
says nothing at all, but sits at home in my soul
writing me still across its illiterate plan:
a singular man chewing some general cabbage,
looking out across the second millennium
and feeling as fit as a trout.

but the much more circumscribed “At the Clothesline” which in a highly formal style (that recalls early Wallace-Crabbe) faces extinction with a slightly unconvincing image of hope:

What I’d thought a fallen shirt
Under the lines, flat on the grass
Was nothing but my shadow there,
Hinting that all things pass:

That many we loved or used to know
Are dragged already out of sight,
Vanished fast, though stepping slow,
Folded into remorseless night.

My dark trace now has quit the lawn.
Everything slips away too soon,
Yet something leaves its mark here like
A rainbow ring around the moon.

David Malouf’s Guide to the Perplexed (68) is a selection whose coherence indicates that it offers one view of the poet’s work. It is an introduction to one side which, perhaps at the moment, its author feels to be the most valuable side. Here, we are generally in the world of the domestic and the unflamboyant erotic. The wildest perspectives tend to end up with a solitary individual, or a couple, in bed. The book begins with “The Comforters” – a poem which announces the transition to the adult world in which dolls are replaced by partners who feel real pain, but which also records the tendency of the childhood world to remain. And it ends with “Stars”:

. . . . .
                    From centuries

off, out of the reign
of one of nineteen pharaohs,
a planet’s dust, metallic,

alive, is sifted down,
hovers in a bright
arc upon your cheek.

Miraculous! I lean
across the dark and touch it,
you smile in your sleep.

How far, how far we’ve come
together, tumbling like stars
in harness or alone.

What is omitted are examples of Malouf in the grand manner: “Bad Dreams in Vienna”, “Report from Champagne Country”, “ A Poet among others”, “At Ravenna”, the suite “A Little Panopticon” and so on. As a sampler it is not entirely satisfactory but it is a coherent collection and does give us some sense of what must be Malouf’s judgements on his own poetry. Significantly, his most recent book, Typewriter Music, is consistent with the poems of Guide to the Perplexed though no poems from it are included.

Robyn Rowland’s This Road seems to me to be an excellent introduction to her work though it may be that the reasons behind this response are not good ones. Taken in bulk, Rowland’s work can be oppressive with its endless fixation on the history of the poet’s self. This is just my reaction of course and there are, I know, readers who find this personal nakedness brave and stimulating. But I still feel that her second book, Perverse Serenity, is no more than poetry as soap-opera or, more generically accurately (since it involves two competing loves) poetry as romance. The best of her later poetry has been a climbing out of this pit and a looking at the world which is inflected by the self but never wholly and solipsistically dominated by it. I really like the title poem about a meaningless road built by the starving Irish during the famine so that the “frugal English” could “avoid feeding the starving for nothing”, though this liking probably comes from the stony impersonality of the poem. The fury is there, as it should be. So is the wry response to the symbolic potential of a directionless road. But they seem so much more potent when the poet isn’t standing in the picture as well. There is also a wonderful poem called “Young Men” where a whole set of generalisations are made about the creatures of the title. You read it, first amazed and then outraged that anyone should make such crass (even if benevolent) statements:

. . . . .
The hearts of young men are patient and calm
not furtive or selfish as the middle aged tell us,
they share, they say “wait for me to help
I’m here and not hurrying away,
with me the job takes half the time and is half as heavy”.
. . . . .

But you finally get the point that all this derives from one young man. The leap from one young man to the whole crowd of them is an example of benevolently judging the group by the best. I may have read this wrongly but it works by injecting the self into the poem in a puzzling and fascinating way. I know that this can look like bad criticism: judging a poet’s work by what is atypical rather than facing up to what the poet chooses to do (like preferring all the Yeats poems that don’t involve Ireland) but it derives from the immediate response that This Road is a really good little book and a really good way into the poetry of Robyn Rowland.

Judith Rodriguez’ Manatee is also a good introduction. You get examples of her in her distinctive riddling mode at the beginning and end in “Is it Poetry? They Ask” and “The Line Always There”. Poems like these (one could add dozens of others) remind one how underestimatedly difficult a poet Rodriguez is, but they work poetically because of the tension between their forthright, almost bluff, tone and the slippery possible meanings that make the reader bracingly unsure of his footing. There are two examples of her slyer indirections (what I call her “this poem is not about houses” style) in “The Mahogany Ship” and “Manatee” both of which are really about poetry despite the tug of their solid, significant “topics”. And there is the much admired “Eskimo Occasion” a cross-genre piece where bringing up children in Australia is conceived as an Eskimo poem. One of the reasons Manatee is a good introduction to Rodriguez’ poetry is that it reminds us that it is still there and still demands the kind of detailed critical engagement it has never received. I always go away from her work slightly breathless with the sense that this is far more difficult (because more complex) than I had imagined.

Michael Sariban probably deserves to be better-known than he is. The blurb of his most recent book, Luxuries, is written by Philip Salom and is, unlike most blurbs, really accurate. It speaks of the poems’ “surreal epiphanies” and the way that they tend to move from inquiry through perception to “a kind of acceptance”. His best book is probably Facing the Pacific whose three sections are, more or less, built out of encounters with the sea, with the land and with darkness. And these are distinctive encounters because the slightly bluff, confident tone of the poems is always being compromised by the outside world. So “Remembering the Southern Sky”, the last poem of this Wagtail and selected from the first section of Facing the Pacific, begins:

Of course, of course it’s not the same sky
I saw with the uncluttered eyes of the young
that midsummer night I decided to sleep

alone on an empty beach . . .

but concludes:

                    And ghosts of stars still hang
frozen like spray from a cosmic speedboat;
Republican gum trees fly the Cross with no

sign of a Union Jack; and the moon keeps
ageing at the same rate as us, though we
cannot be sure of the stars.

That is a wonderful finish and exactly captures the movement from certainty to a kind of nervous acceptance that is common in Sariban.

Although many Sariban poems begin with a meeting between the poet and some aspect of the natural world, there are, in The Riddle of Perfection, two wonderful poems about the animal world. Here the confrontation is (literally) of a different order. In “Close Encounters” we are the devils in the lives of the animals who “hurl / their whatever package of fur / across our dazzling path”. In “I Hate to See Their Eyes” there are three stanzas of a kind of superior, pitying lament for the apes whose eyes express their anxiety “the brows / knitted as if over a crossword”. It is all caused by a “tiny shortfall of DNA”

that has them leaping from tree
to tree, a leopard at their heels,
falling at times like Lucifer,
but never into our dim
enlightenment.

There is a lot of complexity here in the comparison with Lucifer and in the word “dim”. Sariban deserves, as I have said, to be better-known and he certainly deserves to be carefully read. The Riddle of Perfection contains only one poem written since the 2001 publication of Luxuries and one wishes there were more. He is the kind of poet who might well benefit from a New and Selected poems.

I have left the other booklets of this year – those by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson, Anne Edgeworth, Lee Knowles and Richard Deutch – till last not to belittle their authors but because they are poets whose work I do not know. Thus these are introductions of a quite different kind (at least for me). I had never read a word of the late Richard Deutch and I’m mildly disappointed that all the poems from his Floating the Woman come from only one of his four books – I would have liked to have had the chance to see a more representative overview. The energy of these poems seems to come out of autobiographical reminiscence – shoring fragments against ruins, perhaps. There are poems about what seems to have been a generally dysfunctional childhood in country USA and others about a cast of equally dysfunctional characters. But all this is prefaced by the fine title poem which uses the metaphor of a conjuror’s act to talk about poetry:

. . . . .
Trying to do one thing, I usually
end up doing something utterly
different, like floating a woman

or making the sentence as simple
as I can, pretending insouciance
later . . .

One would like to know more about how this plays out in the poems of this book which seem to know exactly where they are going and, though powerful, don’t have any obvious surprises either for reader or poet.

Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s What Was Lost is made up of poems from two sequences. The first are from The Bundanon Cantos and the second from a manuscript about Cook’s voyage in the Endeavour. It is a nice balance: poems about a creative couple (even a creative site) juxtaposed with poems about a great public figure: the great navigator of the south. The cantos devoted to the Boyds are part of a complex matrix – they are introduced by pungent little statements which are put together to form the classic, thirty-six verse renga that is the opening poem. The world of art weighs heavily on this set of poems and you feel a sense of making, constructing, collaging seeping through into the poems in a way which is rare in poetry. James Cook is an altogether more difficult subject for poetry because he exists as icon of human seeking (or cipher of colonialist rapaciousness, depending on your position) and icons can only ever be seen from the outside. This leads to an inert poetry: the history of Australia’s voyager poems is an attempt to overcome this (Slessor’s “Five Visions of Captain Cook” explicitly announces that its character is an object and only the responses of others can be recorded). Cook’s interior is especially hard to penetrate both because we lack contemporary biographical material and the man himself has a bluff, none of your business, Yorkshire quality about him. Nicholson makes a good attempt, in these few poems at least, to allow the interior of Cook to be what lights up the verse, but I’m nervous about the hearty tone and the fact that the poems are written to Cook, “You feel you’re falling and jolt awake . . .”

Anne Edgeworth’s Purdie’s Meditation begins and ends with poems of travel but the real subject is the passage of time – something which, if you are (as this poet is) so old that you were a child in the depression, you would be especially sensitive to. But passing through time is a form of travelling and as the end of “Nomad” (a comic recital of the rooms the poet has slept in) says “Although journeying / continue when one can raise energy and the fare / I suspect I’m there”. Lee Knowles is also an inveterate traveller and the poems of Lucretia contain poems about the places and about the experience, especially of travel by sea. Much of this is hard-won wisdom: “it’s sometimes worthwhile going too far, too late” and “Leave / your old ways behind. / Not your old self, / you’ll need that”, but I really like the poem which contrasts the world of starched white clothes above the waterline and the more relaxed goings on that happen below the waist lines of the yachts and their owners:

. . . . .
The pens of control have the wind
by the collar tucked away
in official notes. But below
jetties these yachts tug as
they please and their owners
sleep long and late in and out
of dreaming. Their stories go
uncensored. No one can stop
too much love or murder in these
all too human vessels . . .

As I’ve said, these comprise eleven interesting introductions to a suite of very different poets. And as I’ve also said, the entire series can also be looked at as a kind of egalitarian, continually-growing portrait of what is happening in Australian poetry. Looked at from this perspective, there are, however, some notable omissions: Murray, Tranter, Adamson, Maiden, Kinsella, Wearne to list the first that come to mind. It may be that some of these poets don’t want to be part of the project or it may be that the series editors want to space the larger-calibre cannons out a little. And what about periodicity? When is it safe (and desirable) to “redo” certain poets. Eleven poets a year makes well over a hundred poets every ten years and that seems about the right number for the kind of virtual anthology I am thinking of. Perhaps after ten years, poets can be revisited and their number of poems, consequently, doubled. But by then, if everything goes well in Australian poetry, there will be so many young poets anxious to get elbow-room among what they consider to be their dreary elders that there won’t be any chance of repeat visits to these individual poets.