Nth Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2009, 122pp.
Andrew Sant’s previous (his tenth) book was called Speed and Other Liberties and carried as an epigraph a quotation from Marc Bloch: “Contemporary civilisation differs in one particularly distinctive feature from those which preceded it: speed.” The title of this new book suggests that one of the things it might do is to explore the material which is combusted into producing that speed. And it’s true – fuel and speed do make regular appearances here but they do so from surprising perspectives. Fuel is really more about location, balance, self-awareness and, well, perspective. Sant’s recent poetry seems, to me at least, to be happy to avoid those things which knock us out of balance, things such as erotic love, transcendence and the arrival of the divine in the form of visitations. It is humanist, in the old sense of the word, in that human life is at the core of its concerns, but it has very little patience with the tendency to inflate the significance of that human element.
A good example of these interests is the first poem of the book’s fourth section, “The Promethean Gift”. As the title tells us, it is about fire and, in this respect, it balances the section’s final poem which is about water. In “The Promethean Gift” humans are situated between fires and lizards in terms of their need for fuel:
. . . . . In appreciation of this, I raise a whiskey, and to friends who, unlike hidden lizards in the woodpile, as a species need ready fuel. The fire is keen about this, like smoke in clearings before humans moving coldwards cleared more and more. . . . . .
In a sense this issue is taken up again in a series of poems called “Cycle”. In one of them the image of the human flanked by the fire and the lizard is repeated. The wood-burning fire has a fast metabolism, faster than that of its human owner and feeder, but the lizard which has been hibernating in the sawn up logs has one which is slower than either:
. . . . . When it slid its few burnished inches into the open, the skink unfroze a trick rehearsed in the Triassic of riding idle with the inanimate while woodsmoke showed whose metabolisms aren’t for slowing . . .
So the volume of demand for fuel and the speed of its consumption, not to mention the activity of the heart, is one of the ways this poetry wants to situate us: what one might call a biological positioning. But there are many others. And one of the most attractive throughout the poems of Fuel is the drive toward fitting us into geological frameworks. The first, very fine, poem, “Revisiting Cliffs” specifically contrasts our sense of the elapsing of time with geological time. Clambering up cliffs in the search for fossils, the adult man thinks about the boy in him and about the passing of a few decades that makes the massive change from child to man. But the act of climbing is taking place over sedimentary rocks which cover millions of years and contain, between their strata, fossils which themselves contain a “glimmer” of the mammals which we will eventually evolve from. So the growth of a single human is also set in the context of evolutionary growth that goes back to the Jurassic. The end of the poem is interesting:
What a strange wonder, on this latest day of all creation, to be human, scramble up a cliff face to extract, with a pick, a bunch of old stones and look into it deeply for orientation.
The word “wonder” (which appears twice in the poem) has a suggestion of the miraculous which the poems of Fuel generally avoid, though there exist, of course, perfectly secular wonders, such as looking at images from the Hubble telescope. But the search for an orientation is close to the heart of the book and another good poem, “Rock Music”, takes up the geological theme, operating, as many of the poems do, in terms of contrasts. There are two kinds of rock music: the stuff that comes out of the radio – absolutely up-to-the-minute and focussed completely on the present – and the strange sounds made by rocks themselves. If you switch off the radio, the poem says, you can attempt to tune into “the frequencies of stone” working through sandstones, schists and flint:
Elsewhere you, as audience, facing Triassic strata, may get transported by sediments bound together like pages that predate the break-up, layers of the supercontinent Pangea.
Ultimately you arrive at a meteorite in a museum which “signals, mysteriously, all / it can about how life modestly began. “Rock Music” has the attractiveness of being a comparison built into a single phrase in the title. It’s not a powerful poetic technique but it is one of the things that Sant is good at and it lightens and animates the poems. To be without direction is to be “all at sea”, for example, and one of the poems, “Mr Habitat at Sea” exploits this (Mr Habitat is a kind of alter ego whose experiences fill out a dozen poems of what looks to have been, originally, a sequence and is now spaced out throughout the poems of Speed and Other Liberties and Fuel). A small but intriguing poem, “The Misses”, invokes the formidable teachers of primary school but is really interested in the way that formal education contrasts (or, perhaps, complements) the immersion of informal education:
There were fields, seasons containing forever, to quicken in; nests, eggs, chicks in the hedges - grazed knees, open space. As well there were the firm Misses at the beginning of our formal educations: I remember Folkes, Powell, Josa. . . . . .
What you get from the formal component of your education, the poem wants to say, is identity, location and orientation.
Contrast, the way Sant’s poems use it, is not a way of correcting (one road wrong, the other right) but of locating. The second poem of the book, “Two Fisherman”, is built from an intriguing contrast. For the first man, fishing is a social activity and takes place on a petrol driven boat fuelled, metaphorically, by dreams of the big pelagic fish out beyond the harbour. He gets a single thirteen-line stanza, as does his counterpart:
Fisher two is stationary, with a heron’s patience, edge of a lake, and if there’s no strain on the line, nod of the rod towards promise, there’s meditation. He waits, winds in the fly, casts and recasts a gossamer arc. The lake is corrugation, then it is glass. Or in his boat he stays put, anchored as he might be at a bar, looking dreamily to see what might happen, beyond his beer. The trout is elusive, tactics and a Sunday gambled might win it. The man’s moves are sudden, spiderish. He’ll use many old tricks till, by nightfall, he too may be spent. Eleswhere, women later might surface.
Two approaches to life are set up here and both seem viable – neither at least is explicitly condemned. One blasts through its element in search of fulfilment, the other floats patiently on it. One works by capture, the other by luring; one by action the other by stealth.
A more significant matter may be the ambit of the allegory. Do these men represent approaches to life or approaches to poetry: fishing – using lines to bring strange things up from the depths – has been a metaphor for poetry long before Seamus Heaney got out his fishing rod. And the issue of what licence readers have to read these poems as allegories about poetry itself extends to other poems in the book. “Two Fishermen” is followed by “Marvellous Harbours”, which is also, at heart, a contrast poem. It juxtaposes open, wild water with enclosed water; the fishing boat’s arrival with the tourist liner’s, the view from the harbour’s surrounds and the view of the harbour from the “cannon level” of approaching boats. One wants to read it as being, like the fisherman poem, about open and enclosed, raw experience and calm processed experience. This makes it seem an allegory of ingestion, always something close to poetry and its response to experience.
And then there is “Dedication to a Potter Wasp” contrasting, on the one hand, the torpor of a poet from temperate climates who has finished up in the tropics and, on the other, the remorseless energy of the wasp which goes about building little clay poets for its eggs and filling them with paralysed caterpillars:
. . . . . Nine cells I’ve greeted – two already set hard when I arrived as a guest – each deftly erected during slack afternoons or treks from the house; the lot being rendered – this northern wasp cannot stop! - smooth as a pot, while I, sluggish in the tropics, praise this maker, now pack to fly in pursuit of the south.
“Maker” in the last line signals “poet” but, apart from that, I suppose there is no really compelling reason that it should be read as a contrast of the productivity of two poets. In fact, given the rest of the poems in the book as a kind of interpretive context, it is most likely that Sant is interested in contrasting the metabolisms of the wasp and the human.
The poem that perhaps best sums up this interaction between biology and geology, between fuel and perspective, is “Heart on a Summer Afternoon”. Here Sant addresses his own heart, beating rapidly after climbing (as in the first poem) to a place where there is a perspective, “a view / to die for, if you’ll excuse / an expression that smacks / of conflict.” Again, the place of perspective leads to a meditation about where humans fit in the scales of things and here it is the swallows, so fast that a “target summer fly moves / like a Zeppelin in their sight”, which contrast with the human. If the wasp was dogged application personified, the swallow is a frantic life-in-process:
. . . . . Now I have my breath back, many thanks, quite steady along, I guess, with the swallows’ intake as they swoop, squeal, and rise above the house, all thoroughly in the present, unlike the slow, reflective humans on the path.
The poem finishes with an acceptance of torpor in the summer heat and locates the evolutionary origin of the human heart in African warmth, rather than the paleolithic conquest of the cold forests of Europe:
The African beat you keep in my chest is great; we’re sunned and fed - as if, in this equatorial heat, vast Europe might still be the risky domain of strange primeval forest.
Fuel is, as I said initially, largely about the implications of a humanist view of existence and perhaps prizes perspective as the ultimate gift of the self-knowledge that derives from this. I said it was a book without much interest in those potent experiences – erotic love, epiphanic experiences of the divine – which disturb that humanist position. That was a little misleading since there are poems which focus on these issues but the fact that they seem unusual poems in the context of the book actually supports my case. The erotic appears in an odd and intriguing poem, “August”, where, after extended descriptions of place and an extreme sensitivity to perspective – an aeroplane’s view is imagined and then a hawk’s or eagle’s and then that of the lowly oystercatchers at the ocean’s edge – two lovers appear on the beach, significantly described in evolutionary terms as “late arrivals”. The intention seems to be to see erotic intensity from an evolutionary perspective and the poem finishes:
We might be headed, right now, arm in arm, down a platform at a grand station, lovers pressing forward through a crowd in the Age of Steam.
And there is another poem, “In the Land Called Desire”, which is also about love, setting up an allegorical landscape where mountains are mere blocks to fulfilment and the streets of the town have one mission which is “to offer rapid passage”. It remains a very Sant-like (Santly?) poem though in its interest in what fuels the erotically charged heart:
. . . . . Fuel exists, carboniferous heat, and harnessed water that drives townships, lit up, into the night; but there’s no energy as inexhaustible as that seen in a lover’s eyes while crossing a bridge or square . . .
And, finally, there is a puzzling poem, “Visitants”, about, as its title says, visitations. A door slams and the house’s owners think in terms of ghosts. The author, a visitor himself (hence the plural title) sees a raven land clumsily in a tree and is of the opinion that the bird is the cause of the various goings on, falling leaves on a windless day, and so on. I don’t feel completely confident about this poem but I want to read it as an assertion that there is a logical answer to the phenomenon but that that logical answer – the raven – is, seen from the right perspective, a miraculous one because life itself is miraculous.
A human-centred view of life is a complicated one for poetry since it removes as a motivic force the power of the numinous. Visitations are phenomenally powerful poetic (as well as personal and cultural) experiences. Poetry itself is also, of course, a power in the human-centred universe and Fuel doesn’t seem to focus much on this – at least not overtly. But what can be said about the poems of Fuel is that they are never reductive and are very alert to what that first poem calls the “wonder” of true perspective.