Peter Porter: Better Than God

London: Picador, 2009, 81pp.

It would take a long, exhausting (though ultimately pleasurable) overview of Porter’s previous sixteen books to say something sensible about how this new one fits into the overall shape of Porter’s poetry. But the Porter poetic profile – a huge range of references, immense compression, sardonic humour and a meditative cast that yokes together surprising ideas and follows them down mysterious paths – is not radically different in this new book from that of at least the past two. Much of one’s interest in mapping the shape of a great poet’s career might, anyhow, only be morbid: although the treasured hive of experiences and references must continue to grow, at what point does sheer aged exhaustion begin to abrade the ability to write? Peter Porter has just turned eighty and Better Than God shows no sign of any slackening in his poetry’s ability simultaneously to challenge and to give pleasure: a reminder that in these days of vastly extended lifespans, Porter may be no more than reasonably matured, latish-middle-aged. There may be, God willing, many more books to come.

To say that a book is brilliant, funny and entertaining is not the same as saying that it is particularly easy, though. But the one thing that you can say of the difficulties in Porter’s work is that they don’t derive from an a priori aesthetic theory: you don’t have to go away and “get something up”, you just need to read the poems very carefully, live with them a little and allow them to talk to you. There is a tremendous density in a lot of these poems and it is a density that emerges in different ways. You get compressed allusiveness, for a start. Most of my first few readings of the poems of this book were done to the nagging accompaniment of afterthoughts about the title and the little poem that introduces the collection: “As He said of the orchestra / at the Creation, they can play / anything you put in front of them”. What is this intended to mean? What is better than God? It could be music, for a start, though it’s not clear whether this would be human music or the singing of angelic hosts (though there exist aesthetics in which these two things are related). Most likely, and harmonizing with a number of poems in the book (especially “No Infelicitous Phrases Need Apply”) it might well be the assertion that creation (or Creation) is the setting in train of an incredibly complex series of developments and potentialities for evolution rather than the making of a fixed universe in the medieval way. Or perhaps flexible, interpretive, human artists are better than creator-gods. Or perhaps poetry and music are better than theology. And running along as a kind of undercurrent is the fact that this little poem makes us think instinctively of Haydn’s great work: perhaps we should read “the Creation” as Haydn’s oratorio rather than God’s fiat lux.

Sometimes the compressions are in the movement of the argument. There are many poems here in three-line stanzas. Some of them are terza rima, some not, but in all cases the three-line form acts as a little warning to expect some bumpy reading. “Lost Among Lizards”, for example, is, in its broad structure, a kind of eighteenth century “essay” – thoughts prompted by the author’s holding a lizard on his palm. But structurally it is a long way from the leisurely, meandering expatiation of the traditional essay. “This beauteous quadruped / [which] sits in my hand and wonders” doesn’t appear until the eighteenth out of twenty-three stanzas, making the bulk of the poem a kind of extended introduction. And it makes some very sharp sideways steps:

To ask yourself do lizards ever dream
Will entertain a burning afternoon
As uselessly as any other theme

You might cull out of thought. You say the moon
Has served its misanthropes as perch
To set despair out, stage a night cartoon

Of Nineteenth-Century divine research,
The ever-loving, ever-seeing eye
Of what kept faith when at a fatal lurch

The Sun of Sureness seemed to fail the sky
. . . . .

Even the poem worries about this shift (“Yet, why . . . / bring out the moon to simplify a state / of nervousness”) but the underlying idea is that, once the nineteenth century had removed a conventional God, issues such as the status of other forms of life (lizards, for example), or the status of humans as animals, or the relationships forged between the macro events of the universe (stars) and the micro (fireflies), all need rethinking. And the very movement of the poet’s mind, so restless, must be opposed to the living-in-the-skin immediacy of the material world:

But now the circuit of my mind has gone
Behind the burning light; I cannot feel
That warm-limbed, lizard-like phenomenon

Of living in the real world, the real
Unpersuaded territory where
No truths impose, no needs can break their seal.
. . . . . 

Eventually Porter decides (I think) that he might be able to share with the lizards of the world a fear of impending apocalypse and, if the lizards had a literature, it would be one of little, Gulliver-like heroes in a world where “we know the source of every scream / And pitch our ears to dying’s monotone”. Unlike the lizard’s, the human’s eyes look inward and the poet feels that reading a book might be a safer option that mind-melding with lizards. In literature living is “forever independent of surprise” and is basically about love, life and other social matters pitched comfortably at the dimensions of the human. It’s a fine and complex poem and recalls the Porter theme of preferring the city over nature (“On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod”) or gently mocks the American desire for a poetry of immersion in the sensual at the expense of any ratiocination.

All this is done in a fairly expansive meditation where it is the shifts that make for initial difficulties. Sometimes the compression is so intense that there is a kind of exhilarating gnomic density. Take the wonderfully titled “That War is the Destruction of Restaurants”:

All occasions bloom within priorities.
Insensible and more insensible selves
Choose to marry in their most-frayed cuffs.

They are promising riches in the Afterlife
Where every thread unravelling is a star
Within a plain of anecdotal stars.

This is the only true intelligence
Of taste: you open eyes in infancy
And see a dog in death-throes from a bait.

The prunus clipped, a glorious parent and
A fearful one speak of themselves at tea.
The five-foot line is waiting to usurp.

Like God, our animators are upset
By nought on nought, always too many noughts -
Stop dying now, they say to Dacca floods.

In Pantheons the heroes may not snore
Or be androgynous in twilight tombs
Since sexual peace is firmly cut in stone.

Year on year the wars arrive and raze
The science plains: we want to order fire
And do so staring at the plat-du-jour.

Not the kind of poem that approaches you wagging its tail. In some way it is about the vagaries of an individual life from infancy to the discovery of poetry (“The five-foot line is waiting to usurp”) contrasted with the patterns that religion and art impose. But the movement is so abrupt and so dense that it reads like a set of propositions, an impression supported by its title which suggests a kind of medieval exercise in argument. This won’t be to everybody’s taste, especially the taste that runs to “lyric grace”, but to me it belongs to those experiments which push disjunctiveness to the limit. Its formality is heightened by the fact that, apart from a couple of the opening lines, it is in a rigid ten-syllable form.

Many of the poems in Better Than God, especially the later ones, return us to the world of Porter’s Queensland childhood. “The Burning Fiery Furnace” takes up one of the themes of “That War is the Destruction of Restaurants” – that of individual life over mass-life – and mocks Australians’ continuous fascination with defining their national self-identity. Why bother with the mass, the poem says, when you have the infinite complexity of the unit to deal with:

. . . . . 
Henry Ford was right: what’s history,
Why do Australians wonder who they are?
Infinite stars in heaven – your one star
Is your own life – the millions don’t agree.

They sulk in digits and symposia
And measure muscle-tone and their synapses
. . . . .

“My Parents Were Walking Islands” revisits the “glorious” and “fearful” ones of the earlier poem, and “Ranunculus Which My Father Called a Poppy” follows his father’s later life but these family poems are also inclined to extend the ambit of the word “family”. Maternal and paternal uncles killed in the first World War appear as does an earlier ancestor, Robert Porter, who carefully worked the middle ground, giving Australians what they wanted and needed architecturally. He rose to be the architect of the appalling and little-lamented Boggo Road Gaol – surely an example of the mystical bond between object and name since both could hardly have been uglier. It is probably no accident that the first poem in Better Than God looks forward, among other things, to these family poems. “Buried Abroad” begins with the discovery of the body of Bert Hinkler, the Bundaberg aviator, in the mountains of Tuscany years after his disappearance:

. . . . . 
His first bi-plane hung
in the Brisbane Museum
while a captured German tank
stood guard outside
to stop imagination 
sorting out its dead.

My Father’s only brother -
with no known grave in France
or any cache of letters sent
from London back to Brisbane -
suggests his nephew join him
anywhere but home.

It wouldn’t be a Porter book if it didn’t include its share of meditations on death and this establishes that gloomy subject immediately. Extinction can be dealt with on a personal level – “The Burning Fiery Furnace”, generally about childhood, concludes with night saying, “State your preference, the stake or sword” – but it can also be dealt with biologically and socially. In “Young Mothers in the Square” the young go about thoughtlessly blossoming, much to the poet’s amazement:

. . . . .
How can they play, as Gray observed,
Unconscious of their fate? The curved
Blades of their death swing round
Like frisbees looping to the ground
Where everything is burgeoning,
A rose, a laptop, someone’s bling.

Death can also be approached abstractly in poetry. “The Dead Have Plans” is one of those three-line poems, structurally very interesting in being in triplets where the rhymes are disjunctive in terms of meaning. One gets the sense that the rhymes might have been determined first and the exercise in writing is to compose a poem around them. “Men/man/cumin” would be a challenge as would “passions/pensions/positions” and “gods/words/tides”. Though the effect is intensity rather than comedy, it rather recalls Lewis Carroll’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song”.

And, together with death, there is art. “The Judgement of Cambyses” sees Gerard David’s oddly cold painting of judicial torture as being about the complicity between observer and torturer; “When Did You Last See Castagno”, while referring to Andrea Del Castagno’s painting of the hanged citizens, is really about scale, about a sparrow’s position alongside the painting of the last supper. There are two poems to poets and, even closer to home, a poem like “Whereof We Cannot Speak” which begins by taking issue with Wittgenstein’s famous formulation and then continues by inverting it:

There is nothing here “whereof”. We are
philosophers and drainmakers,
prospectus-holders, vainly gripping
the under-edge of a minor star.

On which we know we can’t stay quiet.
How many sonnets must we write
before the great gong sounds in Heaven?
. . . . .

This vision of humankind as language-animal appears in a slightly earlier poem in the book, “We do Not Write the Way We Are”. If we are encrusted with parasitic words then this lends strength to the idea that words are evolved by the mass to produce the meanings of the mass, rather as Cultural Theorists are inclined to see narrative, or Jungians a Collective Unconscious. Porter’s poem is unhappy with this and wants to assert, as so often in his work, the individual over the mass. The tone is deliciously bathetic and it is fitting that, in this review, Porter should have the sinisterly named “last word”:

. . . . .
How do we scan the things we write?
Is this our fabled Second Sight,
the huge reflective Self interred
in generations of the Word?
I’d love to pose as Terrorist
or Trotsky under House Arrest,
       but sadly I’m not mad.

Instead, a circumstantial Truth
without the vanity of proof
is mixing in my double mind
with darkness lining up behind,
an unfree kind of Free Trade Zone,
a Fascist rule insisting words
       report to me alone.