Philip Neilsen: Without an Alibi

Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2008), 111pp.

Philip Neilsen is a poet whose work ought to be better known. There are a number of volumes preceding this new Salt Publishing book including two small Gargoyle Poets pamphlets as well as the full length Life Movies of 1981 and, though the poems have appeared irregularly, it all amounts to a fairly substantial output even for a poet in his late fifties. Somehow it seems to have glided under the radar of anthologists and translators and that is a pity since there is much to admire – and, as publisher of two and a half of these volumes, haud inexpertus loquor. One of the things that Neilsen does which may make him a poet of our time is articulate fear. In We’ll All Go Together (a shared book with Barry O’Donohue, 1984) this was fear of nuclear annihilation. In this new work, Without an Alibi, it seems, on the surface at least, fear of ecological catastrophe. But I don’t know that fear is a response that, in itself, has ever produced a good poem. Certainly panic hasn’t – to my knowledge. What we get from Neilsen, and it is his characteristic poetic movement, is a way in which assertiveness (always something that can sustain a poem) deals with fear.

Without an Alibi has two sections. The first is devoted to the forest. Here we meet a fear for the forest but it is balanced by a fear of the forest. The first of these fears resolves itself as a fear of reductionism (always a good thing to fear). Robinson Crusoe, in the third poem of a sequence, “Literary Forests”, looks at a tree and sees “congealed / within it a sled, five stout barrels, a fort” – that is, for all our sympathy for someone trying to survive in the wild, his view of life (late-seventeenth century, mercantile, practical) reduces the tree to the sum total of its value to him. Finally Crusoe is stranded on “a thin strip of sand” and behind him “indistinguishable groves hovered, / hissing with insects, promiscuous scents, / backward-looking, taboo.” Paradoxically, he hopes for a miracle, that the ocean “might one day puff its cheeks and send ships, / wooden angels flying for captains of industry, / the bold ecstatic prayer that is engineering.”

In these early poems in the book, the forest is best represented by the wild-woods (of The Wind in the Willows) and there is nothing cosy about the experiences they offer. The fear is for the various ways in which their potent magic is reduced. In “The Imperial Forest” the Amazon is reduced to a place from which drugs can be brought to Europe:

. . . . .
Adventure and profit are multiplied
by the fruits of bark and seed,
the magic, once-secret garden,
a home-brand pharmacopeia.

In another poem, early Christian saints defeat the ancient spirits of the forest in Germany and in “The Fairy-Tale Forest” the dread forest of Germanic folktales becomes properly sanitised – the wolf of Red Riding Hood does anger-management classes, Pooh and Piglet study hospitality at a polytechnic until finally:

. . . . .
All the woods were accessible and safe
as Woolworth’s. At night they were patrolled
by axemen, monitored by CCTV. But sometimes
the forest folk peered out at the trees hung
with safety lanterns, paths lined with hand rails,
and yearned for unimaginable menace.

This seems nicely to sum up the paradox in these poems. The fear is for a reductive process which will remove the fear of the forest. And it is continued in another fine comic poem “Public Liability”. Here, the civic fathers, motivated by childhood terrors (“they are the lost child again, / running through a forest / from animal noises”) destroy the city’s trees and those they have left are reduced to trying to “project benevolence, avuncular interest”, they “try not to stir alarmingly in the breeze.”

So what is it that the wild-wood represents and which is valuable enough that we should overcome our fear of it? In Tolkien’s world, it is a kind of social/ecological harmony that is threatened by the rapid changes that go on in wartime. In Neilsen’s poetic world, it seems to be either the wellsprings of the imagination or a part of the world not subjected to a contemporary fashion of brainless mercantile reductionism. A crucial poem here is “Brisbane, 1959-1960” – dedicated to David Malouf and very Maloufian in style and sentiment. It begins by recounting the childhood world of the encroaching bush (a sensibility that the civic fathers of the previously discussed poem have not outgrown):

Each night the bush moves closer
to the suburb and the mosquito net,
and in winter the wolves come.

Outside my parents’ house,
the sweet-pea trellis, Oleanders,
dissolve into fir trees.

At dawn the pack is drunk with moon,
running the rim of hills that holds us here.

Still half in sleep, lungs swollen,
I cough phlegm into a china bowl.
The grey tree tops are jagged, as obvious
to me as paw prints on linoleum.

Why does the child imagine that there are wolves on the south side of Brisbane? They must come from the world of European folktale brought over to Australia by English settlers. Or is the idea here that all children have night terrors related to the natural world and the form they take is unimportant? At any rate the poem’s second section describes the child, one year older, accidentally setting fire to the bush. The poem finishes:

Fire, asthma, the genial doctor’s night visits
to administer adrenalin injections.

Lizards appear again in the charred bark,
beetles luminous as watch dials.
But no wolves rise from the ashes.

This poem is important because it is a personal one detailing how an individual can lose the fear of the wild-wood. The issue that makes this a complex poem, rather than a good performance, is the fact that we are not exactly sure whether getting rid of the wolves of nightmare is a good thing or a bad thing. There are no easy targets in this poem: no civic fathers, no neighbouring vandals, no blinkered imperial merchants. Two other poems in this section belong to this more lyrical, open-ended mode. “The Need for Seclusion” talks, very elegantly, of the mind-expanding effects of wilderness, but seems to associate it with a return to infantile perception:

. . . . .
Though we lack the migratory path
of geese to the wetlands,
our radar leads us back
to the first database,
evergreen and deciduous,
a mental woodland
many days wider than
Thoreau’s cabin on the pond.

And in “Death Will be Unsighted” (a title with a delicate allusion to Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have no Dominion”), the primal fear of death is dispersed by the forest “this anchor to earth / this complicated light . . .” How does the experience of the forest lead to an overcoming of the fear of death? I think by associating it with the social (“the creaky staircase, / the level crossing, or beery pub”). What I like about the conclusion of this poem is that it doesn’t try to rationalise the experience of the forest: it goes on narrating the effect it has on the mind and the question of death simply melts away from the poem:

Wild plums grow in tangled weight
each September, and over there
is a courtesy of wildflowers
where the thinking animal falters
beneath a flock of parrots,
is suddenly wrapped
in the same instinctive colours,
the details of existence brilliant,
more precise,
walking on dusk.

After the forest, what next? We might expect more concentration on the social world. The second section of the book is called “Metamorphosis” and it is a puzzling title that sets the mind scurrying. The final poem of the book shares this title and is an inversion of Kafka’s story: here a beetle turns into a writer and has to deal with a lot of problems including the bleak fact that the books containing the writing that the beetle is forced to do in his new incarnation will ultimately be “consumed / by insects”. How should we read this? Does it mean that possessing the requisite skills to be a writer turns you into the one person capable of seeing the futility of the process. It would be a bleak vision with which to conclude a book that does have a positive core – the forest. Does it refer to the fact that writing is contained in books which are processed out of forests and which will, courtesy of beetles and their friends, return eventually to the natural world? This would make it a bleak meditation on the function of consciousness and, as such, would fit in with a poem like “The Anteater” which begins this section. In this poem human behaviour in current wars is detached from the preferred metaphor of the anteater (which locates its prey precisely and with minimum collateral damage) and lined up with the metaphor of Swift’s yahoos:

In the desert dawn
a machine with polished snout
sniffs the confusing air.
If it had a heart
it would flirt with indecision.
History beckons us backwards:
we leave the jungle
for the grassy plains,
manipulate sticks,
discover language,
still shriek and shake our paws.
Swift’s man-monkeys
rattling our digital spanners.

Metamorphosis (incidentally the name of a poem of Neilsen’s second book) might also, conceivably, refer to Neilsen’s tactics of finding the basis for a strong poetic voice amongst themes of angst and fear. Changing yourself into the bluff speaker of an often ironically positioned monologue is one of these. A poem from Life Movies begins: “When Alice got back from Wonderland / she had a few questions to ask” and “Lewis Carroll’s Counsellor” from this book begins: “And so, reverend, when you took / those photos of young girls, / you thought you were preserving / a memory of innocence, is that right?”.

Whatever the answer, the second section of Without an Alibi has poems with the same themes as the first but with a lot more humour. “Harry Potter Book 8” tells us what happens in a world where the magic and terror (like the magic and terror of the wild wood) have been removed: Harry becomes headmaster of a sanitised Hogwarts, Voldemort enters a retirement home, Hermione’s career descends to joining a pop band:

And Harry, now middle-aged, paunchy,
two novels published to mixed reviews,
takes to visiting the magic wood each night,
walking marathon, thoughtful miles like Dickens.
The wood seems smaller than in his childhood,
and dark shapes follow him everywhere.
He thinks of slowing so they can draw closer,
to see if he recognises anything in their faces.
He considers never going home to Ginny or the kids.
Just staying here
where there is always more to wonder at
than to forget or justify.

This kind of comic inversion is something Neilsen has always done well, partly because he can do a confident narrator’s voice so well. It is a light-verse genre but here given depth by being consistent, thematically, with the book in which it appears.

“The Romance of the Clockmakers” is a comic, symbolic scenario in which Charlotte of Paris, weighing up her suitors, is won over by the one who has invented the spiral spring. The wedding is happy but the poem finishes with yet another image of reduction:

Charlotte relished the certainty of measure,
freed from the sun’s uneven passage,
the autumnal loss of Nature’s treasures.
The coach sprang and sped on polished wheels,
dashed from cobbles to country lanes,
past peasants at work in the shrinking fields.

The best poem of Without an Alibi is, I think, “The Lie of Biology”. It is one of those poems one meets often in books where the author is speaking very personally but in a way that readers find a fraction equivocal. There are no double fears here, but there is a concern for the author’s personality and his place in things. It might also be an allegory about the scenario poems that Neilsen does so well – or at least about where the author is located in such poems. Four stanzas are devoted to each of the four grandparents, the first three describe photos of visits made in which the author consistently looks out of place: he has a Dennis Lillie moustache in Southampton, a padded jacket among sun-seekers in Scotland and a “long-haired / conscientious objector” look among the culture of officers and bureaucrats of Konigsberg. The final stanza is devoted to an imaginary photograph from a yet-to-be-made visit:

Great grandfather Nilsson left Bergen
in 1874 for the Windjammers and tropical
Queensland. I am delaying this fourth
and final trip, the one to Norway.
I can see the photo already. There I am,
standing by the multi-coloured boats glistening
with rain, or on the edge of the fiord
with a beanie pulled down over my ears,
looking genetically uncomfortable,
trying to smile my way into the frame.