John Millett: Circles of Love

Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2008, 72pp.

Since his first book Calendar Adam of 1971, John Millett has hammered out an impressive poetic career but one which, to use a phrase that might not be entirely a cliché given how much of his poetry has documented his wartime experience in the bombers of the 10th Squadron RAAF, has rather flown under the radar. Chris Wallace-Crabbe described him recently in The Age as “undervalued” and I wholeheartedly agree. The three books about wartime experience, Tail Arse Charlie (1982), Iceman (1999) and Last Draft (2002) are fascinating in ways that we might expect them to be: they document one variety of extreme experience and record information from a generation of people now leaving the scene. But they are also fascinating in the way they come to grips with these experiences, especially in the way they spin out into interest in the lives of others rather than focussing on that of a single protagonist. The two books devoted to Millett’s childhood locus – the upper Macleay in Northern New South Wales – West of the Cunderang (1977) and Come down Cunderang (1985) – are also people-oriented works rather than, say, geologically focussed in the way common in the 70s and 80s. There are two other books which make a good introduction to Millett’s work. The first, Dragonfly Tie (1997), is built around four locations but is also, essentially, portraits and the second, the recent The People Singers, is a collection of poems devoted to people on the south coast of Queensland.

Millett is especially responsive, in his portraits, to the hidden lives of characters. Rather than make character depend on genes, geography or climate or whatever, he seems to want to remind us that such ideas are reductive: we can hardly begin to understand the complexity of people’s inner lives. And the structuring of the inner life is not a matter of psychology or repression: it is the natural process whereby people of necessity bury whole areas of experience – to use the language of this recent book: they draw circles around these lives and carry them within. “The Prisoners”, from Dragonfly Tie, is a poem which, among other things, worries about this:

. . . . . 
There are times that go into
the past almost unnoticed, of their own
accord. They are the moments
when the village is in remission -
when the prisoners from the jail
inhabit it like fleas on a dog.
Crimes are unlocked and unpunished.
The river tries to pull down
the willows into it.
It is a woman pulling a man
into her or a man into another 
man – secret and silent under
the lips of its surface.

I try to pull down the clouds
into my garden, but they are already
spoken for, above the small
shops and the tourists with their
money hidden in pockets, where they keep
the secrets of their lives.
They are like the crimes
of the prisoners when they behave,
those who are trusted,
let out to decapitate grass,
pick up pieces of their lives
like scraps of paper tourists discard.
. . . . .

Although this is a poem about tourism and heritage and may seem to belong to the same stable as something like FitzGerald’s “The Wind at Your Door”, its real subject I think is the relationship between the life of the present – lived on the surface of time, so to speak – and the hidden lives of the past. The tourists with their wallets and rubbish visit the little village which contains the old gaol, a perfect symbol for the hidden and slightly disreputable experiences of our lives. Another fine poem from Dragonfly Tie, “Japanese Visitors on the Walk at Circular Quay”, has a similar vertical axis. As the Japanese brides step on the names of the poets on the plaques, the fire of the poets’ words runs up along their legs, “They whisper the words so hard these girls / can hardly wait to be visited by / the chiming apples of their new husbands”. Millett’s real interest in his portraiture is the interpenetration of hidden lives. “It is a woman pulling a man / into her” may seem just a metaphor here but in reality sex is the subject that an interest in portraits, especially of the material that lies within us, almost overwhelming in its detail and complexity, is going to gravitate towards. So perhaps it is no surprise that now, at the end – or near the end – of a long career, Millett has produced a fascinating book about love and sex: about what the narrator of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine calls, “the austere mindless primitive face of Aphrodite”.

Which of her faces does Aphrodite show in Circles of Love ”“ fruitful domestic union or anarchic erotic passion? The answer is that the two are balanced or, more accurately, held in a continuous opposition. Like all the great poets of love, Millett is fascinated by the timelessness of erotic ecstasy and the way it exists in a framework of time-driven change, what one of the poems calls, “that hidden / changeling each minute makes into / another shape”. I think eroticism is our fundamental experience of this opposition and for this reason have always thought that something like Slessor’s sonnet sequence “Out of Time” has an erotic base though the poem itself gives no sign of this. Of course, ascetic medieval mystics popping in and out of trances in which they are unified with God – in order to sign the cheques and cook the meals of ordinary life – might disagree.

At any rate, erotic ecstasy in Circles of Love is a matter of interpenetration, of the breaking down of borders. It is an absolute good to be celebrated: one of the women in one of the poems wants her lover’s muscles to shout to the world, “It’s beautiful to be in another body”. Understandably there is a lot of fluid imagery involved either of the sea or of music and one of the more difficult poems in the book is titled, tellingly, “A Place the Sea Knows”. The loved-one’s body can also be figured as a river, the medium that the lover exists in. The opening of another poem, “Mario and Jessica”, will give some idea of this:

Mario, a critical mass, has the power to cripple
the blind aces of other man – but now, touching
Jessica so, he becomes something never before existing -
and she, touching him, becomes so much more than
she was not, a thermal wind, swallows flow down, onto
the face of the river, to touch water asleep – as he and
she sleep in the undercurrents of each other’s breath.
. . . . . 

But there are a host of metaphors used for the boundaries that are penetrated. There are rooms of the self, languages of the self, books of the self, countries of the self, bodies and minds of the self. And I think that in these metaphors lies the experience of change which stands opposed to timeless ecstasy. In Millett’s poems, the principle which is opposed to erotic love is not the descent into a kind of humdrum domesticity but rather the solidifying of boundaries. We meet this in what is the book’s central image: the idea of circles. The fourth poem of the book, “Two Circles of Love” prepares us for this. Two lovers, Mario and Shani, have two stanzas of erotic fulfilment:

. . . . . 
They touch a pleasure older than Africa
and she is a glove enclosing his whole life -
the jewels of his semen white as ferns in the frost,
then after sex, lost countries of sleep.

But, of course, the usual temporal processes apply:

Over time love fades until he becomes nameless,
his world no bigger than a finger. He moves to Italy,
draws a circle round that part of his life.
She remembers how the wind opened his door
and walked in, how daylight blew across
the carpet – and his shadow would touch her -
his name asleep on her hands.

Now the room is locked and her life weeps.

The idea here, and throughout the book (where, as in the book’s title and in the titles of many of the poems, “circle” is used as though it were a poetic form), seems to be that everyone’s life develops and changes but carries within it past experiences which are dealt with by being turned into self-contained narratives sealed by a barrier. When a poem focuses on one of these experiences it, so to speak, describes a circle. And so, one of the borders that can be broached in erotic love is the border that isolates and parcels up previous experience. Such experience is often erotic experience, but it can also be the kind of extreme experience of warfare, encountered while young, that Millett writes so well about.

Of course, in a book made up of poems about eroticism, the shameless gossip who lives inside the head of every reader wants to know what the author’s stake in this is – how much is autobiographical? This is a drive almost as powerful as the erotic itself and I’ve always thought that we shouldn’t suppress it or even be ashamed of it. The first thing that can be said is that, in some poems, the author appears as virtually an observer. “Two Sides to a River” begins with the poet watching “young Mrs Jones” cross a bridge to visit her lover, Matt Lyall, while her husband, a Vietnam veteran, waits on the other side of the river, locked in the encircled world of his trauma. “Hooker Singing on Beach Avenue”, “The Hollow Created When Lights Go Out” and the comic and much admired “The Widow Lovers” seem reasonably distantly observed portraits of the kind that might well have appeared in The People Singers (in fact the last of these does, in a slightly different form). And there are other poems which, in their mode and references, seem to suggest that they want to be read as autobiography. One of these is “Her Own Life” which begins with the woman leaving, contains a stanza in which the man himself leaves (at least metaphorically) to return to the world of bombing raids over Germany:

. . . . . 
Sometimes he goes back to the
grim aircraft flying through flak and
into the nightmares of all air gunners
who survived raids on Germany.
They never again became human.
. . . . .

Now this might well be fictional, or it might be exploiting the experiences of a wartime mate but probability insists that we read it as a poem true to personal experience. As we do “Love and Holy Jesus Country” which describes, with a Dylan Thomas-like swagger, an early love affair in Sydney to which the narrator brings his rural background “trackless paddocks, / post and rail poverty, stringy bark, black / sallee, mulga, the sly grasses . . .”

Others of the poems in Circles of Love form a sequence which is distributed throughout the book. It is tempting to read this autobiographically as though it were a roman a clef with names changed regularly to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent. But, ultimately, only the author knows the extent to which it maps his own experience and it is probably best to try to read it only for the fascinating story that it tells. There is a lot of infidelity underneath the tortured relationship between husband wife and various lovers. There is also a pattern of imagery dedicated to these poems which includes clock faces, scarves, smudges and the moon. The centre of this sequence is, perhaps, “Circle for the Thin Man”, a poem which meditates on the genetic results of infidelity. These include the knowledge the narrator has that his father was unfaithful to his mother and that he has, as a result, a half-brother: “I saw the boy once. / My father looked out of his face.” When his own wife is unfaithful and sleeps with an Indian visitor (among many others), the results are significant:

When she said, “Your son kicks my heart.
He is a poem inside me,” we sifted through words
for a name that would join us in a single sentence.

Then – “Do you, William, take this . . . (foetus)?”
The calendar moved past us and the future
was hungry. Months later the poem I read
might have been Lebanese or Italian - 
though an Indian looked out of his face.
I remember his birth date – the afternoon
suddenly still – the old tree I loved
on the boundary between us said “Goodbye.”
When the child first cried his tears were crushed
petals against my cheek and against his dark skin - 
his face a map of India drawn by an old master and
my wife. I knew then marriage was a scratch ticket
and this child, a small coin dropped through
a slot in the world’s money box.

It’s a measure of the strength of the poems of this book that, after several rereadings, we go on wanting to make sense of its narratives rather than become bored with them. This leads to the thought that it is not easy to write well about eroticism. For a start, once the first flush of voyeuristic pleasure fades for the reader, there has to be something really powerfully-done to sustain a reader’s interest. And secondly there is the widely held suspicion that Australian male poets do not write well about love. The Vitalist tradition (which must be incarnate somehow in Millett’s work) legitimates eroticism by raising it (and slightly abstracting it) to the power of a life-force, but individual readers are still fussy about whether there is too much or too little explicitness and so on. I can’t think of a recent book of poems which “does” the erotic better than Circles of Love. It is a logical extension of the interest in human personality and intense experience that has always been present in Millett’s work but here it is followed logically into the darker, hidden countries of the self.