Roger McDonald: Airship; Ken Taylor: At Valentines

Airship, Warners Bay: Picaro, 2008, 72pp
At Valentines, Warners Bay: Picaro, 2010, 84pp.

One of the few consolations of staggering into one’s sixties is the experience of rereading books which were important to you in the past now that the gap between the first readings and the second has become so alarmingly large. When Ken Taylor’s At Valentines was written the Vietnam war was not yet over and Roger McDonald’s Airship was published not long after the fall of the Whitlam government. When the pleasure of retracing the steps of one’s own reading is coupled with living in a national literary culture that seems only too happy to consign books of the recent past to history, you have a double reason to celebrate this “Art Box” series from Picaro Press. So far it has republished, as well as these two books, earlier works by Judith Beveridge, Geoff Page, Rhyll McMaster, Judith Rodriguez and a number of others. Australian poetry will be all the healthier and richer if it continues indefinitely.

Airship was the second of Roger McDonald’s two books of poetry. It followed Citizens of Mist (UQP, 1968) and seems, on rereading, still to be an extraordinary advance on that first book. I remember that, at the time, it seemed so radically different a book that it was hard to believe that Citizens of Mist and Airship were actually written by the same poet. This is not a judgement that stands the test of time – today it is the lines of communication between the two which stand out: though that doesn’t alter the surely indisputable fact that the first book is a comparative failure and the second a great success. The poems of Citizens of Mist are, generally, socially oriented. They are interested in people but are not extended portraits: they tend, rather, to be impressionistic and focussed on crucial moments in character’s lives. Thus the first poem, which narrates a visit by Charles Wadsworth to Emily Dickinson, reminds us that this is his last visit before leaving for San Francisco. It alights on a central moment in Dickinson’s creative life, speaking of the poems which “upstairs are tight in their packets” – presumably both in the attic and in the poet’s head. This focus on crucial moments does reveal the eye of a certain kind of novelist: the period detail is absorbed but not included and the reader has the sense of large and complete worlds standing behind the poems: there is certainly nothing vague about them. The iconic poem of this type is probably not the title poem (which is positioned at the centre of the first and larger of the book’s sections) but “Sniper”. This is not only because it is the first poem to suggest its author’s interest in the history of warfare (McDonald’s novel, 1915, was published in 1979) but because it suggests itself as a metaphor for what the author is doing in these sorts of poem: selecting a target, preparing the ground and making the kill:

. . . . .
                    Two hours ago
He set its aim; when the first horseman
Steers down the hill
He knows the exact wagon rut
For a hoof to touch
As a mark for the kill.
. . . . .

The first two poems of Airship seem, superficially, to set out an entirely different agenda. “Components”, true to its title, sets out the objects in the poet’s surrounding space in a highly formal and formalised way: three visual images are followed by three sound images (“three components / equally clear”) though the initial group of visual images is followed by a sound, “And distant thunder / walking into glass”. It’s obviously an important “statement” poem – being placed first is evidence enough for this – but I’m not entirely sure how it should be read. Though the visual contrasts with the aural, there is also the fact that the visual components – a teapot, a desk on straw matting and a mango tree – are part of the poet’s world whereas the sound images – a millet broom, a child’s fist, a woman’s voice – are intrusions which are, at least for most writers, inimical to writing. And it is tempting, as part of a process of looking for continuities with the first book, rather than disjunctions, to feel that the three sound images also represent a wider social world which is demanding to be admitted into the poem.

The title poem, “Airship”, suggests visitations from an invisible world that have a decidedly transcendental quality:

Recovered from pale blueprints
and forgiven its heritage of charred metal
the airship moves at the wind’s direction
through the next world. A high
slipstream of time
brings it in view: just
bouncing, it seems, from cloud-edge
to treetop, almost a milky bubble.

Now, this moment we peer,
throats tensed ready to shout,
the ship tilts its nose to the sun
and its oval shadow contracts to a grasspatch
as it shimmers and disappears.

What message arrives from the mariner
trapped in this bottle? Silence.
A freak technology has lifted his tongue -
someone, somewhere, knows and speaks his name:
perhaps he’s among us now, not yet alone.

It seems a long way from the gentle, Hardeyesque scepticism of the last two poems of Citizens of Mist – “The Roses of Guadelupe” which contrasts the immense beneficial importance of a vision of the Virgin Mary with the fact that it is shown, in the last stanza, to be fraudulent and “Jack Hope” which is essentially a gloss on the bleak joke that the light at the end of the tunnel is usually that of the oncoming train – to this visitor from “the next world”. And yet one could make the argument that the poem is, fundamentally, not interested in some message from another world, what it is really interested in is the person in this world who has summoned up this apparition. Probably it’s a metaphor for the poet, but it does reinforce a predominant interest in this world which is, after all, the world inhabited by the sniper, by Emily Dickinson and by the other citizens of mist. One could also argue that the intellectual gesture is essentially the same: McDonald’s interest is in that odd nexus (the waist of an hourglass) where something brief and compact can be described but where this brief, compact thing opens out on both sides to whole worlds. In Citizens of Mist, generally, these worlds are both social ones, whereas in this poem, at least, they are the social on the one hand and the “otherworld” on the other. Interestingly the title poem of the first book, “Citizens of Mist”, can be read either way. I had always read it as simply suggesting that the nineteenth century figures with which the book tended to concern itself were rather shadowy:

Watching the rain, they find no course beyond
The skim and random scattering of sound;
Walking with care, they only gain
What sight one footstep gives of ground.

Later, by firesides, they cry for warmth.
In gentle company they sit alone.
Somewhere a blue they’ll never touch 
Curves over bone.

Reading this back from Airship one is inclined to see it rather differently. One could read “the blue they’ll never touch” as intimations of another world (the one the airship came from) but one could also read the poem as being about characters waiting to be summoned into meaningful existence by a poet, much as someone has summoned the airship from its haven.

If “Components” shows its importance by its position and “Airship” by being the title poem, “Two Summers in Moravia”, the book’s third poem, provides Airship’s epigraph: “This was a day / when little happened / though inch by inch everything changed”. In a sense it’s a manifesto for a whole kind of fiction: that which focuses on the historical crux and finds this in little, apparently insignificant things. But though it is a theory of fiction, it is also an idea that lends itself to expression in McDonald’s poetry in the way that I have been describing because it is yet another example of his fascination with the individual moment, beyond which – on either side – lie large worlds.

The portraits of Citizens of Mist continue in Airship but they tend to be rather more abstract, as though they were examples of this perspective on life and art rather than portraits in their own right. “Sickle Beach” narrates, as its crucial moment, a man’s death, but it is located in a poem which stresses the landscape. And “Woman and Boy” occurs at the moment when a mother and son in the bush hear their dog bark:

. . . . . 
Brushing through low grass
she walks to the dray -
paused here on a journey
at the junction of two
invisible streams
she thinks
in all this time on the move
I have never travelled,
. . . . .

The fact that her personal life is empty and repetitive and that movement is not change (one thinks of Dawe’s “Drifters” here) is expressed in that wonderful phrase “at the junction of two / invisible streams” but the idea of junction and the focus on that crucial moment is part of the larger pattern of these poems.

And then there is the issue of what kind of messages might come through the portal from other worlds. On the surface, one of the differences between the two books is the amount of nightmare imagery that Airship focuses on. But there is a poem in Citizens of Mist, “Introspection”, which prepares for this. In this poem the physical set-up – the subject is imagined positioned between double mirrors – is designed to dissolve conventional perspectives:

. . . . . 
The nightbird to his nightly round
Trills from a distance.
Always almost there.
No compromise – he draws the sound
In closer to his touch. He waits.
Only a darker shadow of his mirrored face.

But soon the capture will be made,
The double-dealing done.
To that glassy glade
Will come unbidden, fly
Clear through the hollow of his unreflected eye.

The nightbird/nightmare world of Airship is a very striking one. It allows the poems to move from capturing social worlds to psychological worlds. It also allows the irrational into tightly written poems. One poem, “Nightmare”, is simply a description of a nightmare, relying on the power of the images of the unconscious to sustain it. “Flights” is (I think) a semi-comic collection of anxiety dreams about flying in passenger planes (a rather different kind of airship) and “The Accusers” allegorises what must have begun as a nightmare image into a confrontation with those who accuse the poet of various unnamed crimes:

Heavy-footed, wrapped in slimy furs,
the accusers plod through trees
and climb the gravelly slope
to my window.
They loiter in dark reproachful groups
tapping on glass. Above them, behind,
the stars they arrived from
gather and drift. A million rotting years
they stand there, picking at noses,
scratching the bleary pane
with waterlogged matches.
. . . . . 

The issue in this poem is surely whether these figures were declared to be the guardians of conscience in the dream itself or whether they had to wait for the writing of the poem. One suspects it is the former.

The last poem I want to visit is “Destinations”, one of the most powerful poems of Airship. At least it announces itself to me as such on this reading – I don’t remember having paid much attention to it thirty-five years ago. For a start it concentrates on the macro and micro perspectives, “when crickets tap like sticks / and wet stars glide / down gullies”, locating the human as an inhabitant of both or, in terms of the kind of description I’ve been presenting so far, seeing individuals as a crux with cosmic forces on one side and homely local forces (like those detailed in “Components”) on the other. The poem goes on to describe how, at night, other worlds come in to focus:

then a loosened width
of landscape lies revealed: the far side of the earth,
where outer limb, rooted trunk, leaf-mulch and bedded granite

swing in hollows between stars
un-dreaming discovery. Here pale roads wind
through hills lapping on silence,

while destinations offer themselves
at any moment, or else nowhere along the way.

It’s a potent image – “a loosened width / of landscape” – for a world that comes to us through the gate of the night. In a poem like “Woman and Boy” the frustratingly unachieved destinations are largely sunlit in that one can’t help but suspect that they are matters of personal fulfilment and an enriched life, but in “Destinations” they have a deeper psychological and perhaps creative significance.

Although Ken Taylor’s At Valentines was published in the same year as Airship, its poems go back to the mid-sixties, not far in terms of years from the poems of Citizens of Mist. But At Valentines, and especially its title poem, always stood out as a marker of difference. Whereas McDonald had to emerge from a kind of poetry that recalled the Judith Wright of “Brothers and Sisters” or the Tom Shapcott of “Elegy for a Bachelor Uncle” – a kind of gentle and sensitive, rurally inflected, fifties poetry – At Valentines seemed to come from nowhere and demand attention as a different way of dealing with issues that Australian poetry had always wanted to deal with. The problem with thunderclap newness, of course, is that if it is successful it becomes absorbed and quickly seems conventional. The probably apocryphal story of the lady who thought Hamlet was simply made up of a lot of common sayings is a case in point. And of course, Taylor’s poetry didn’t come from nowhere: he had begun writing while attending A.R. Ammons creative writing classes at Cornell in 1966 and the remorseless interest in particulars and how to organise them organically is a feature of the poetry of that most American of poets. Nor has At Valentines ever been totally “absorbed”: it is just that to a reader of Australian poetry now, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century it would seem perfectly reasonable rather than outrageously experimental. Rereading it in conjunction with McDonald’s book makes me realise how little it assumes is shared between writer and reader. A poem like “Destinations” – to choose at random – can begin with some metaphorically dense allusions (“When crickets tap like sticks / and wet stars glide / down gullies of insect-haunted black”) that connote Night to all readers. As soon as we read the title poem of At Valentines we feel that we are being shown things whose realness is more important than what a poem can do with them:

At Valentines now
we potter
with boxes,
(the smell of ants,
urine by the
corrugated iron,
dried gum leaves,
rain spattered bottles
show the dust of
drops of rain
near the shed)
still keep
small ends of wire,
copper wire
snipped and
scattered near the
base of poles,
copper wire,
to be wound
for something,
brass wire to go into
tins of cigarettes,
with names
slightly rusted and
pictures of
eight gauge wire
for rabbit skins,
twelve gauge wire in circles
because it coils in circles,
crockery packed in
Bromwich Suns and
Larwood Heralds,
. . . . .

and so on for another seven hundred or so lines. But “At Valentines” is not a poem pushing an aesthetic theory of the supremacy of particulars over the conscious constructions that poets and other searchers for meaning incline to make of them. I may well have tended to see it this way when I first read it, but this late rereading stresses how personal and emotional it is and how obsessed it is with being Australian. The positioning in time and place is crucial. Valentines was the name of Taylor’s grandparents and they had retired early to Lorne on the Victorian south coast. Their world (embodied, literally, in these particulars) is the end of pre-war Australia, an end marked by the arrival of American forces during the war. The particular that the poem associates with the Americans is the bulldozer which at one stroke rendered the complex labour interactions involved in major earthworks such as dams almost irrelevant. The poem was written during the Vietnam war while Taylor was out of his native country. A war (as Robert Kenny in an essay quotes Robert Duncan as saying) is “a time of revelation” and this poem sees a later postwar generation picking over the remains of the lives of the prewar one. Acting as a kind of entree to the horrors of the second world war in the poem, are the 1939 bushfires which, with their horrific loss of life, occurred when Taylor was nine. The poem is alive to all of this, and wants to speak of it, just as it wants to see Australian history as occurring during the fag-end of the British empire, seen most clearly – in all its ambition and seediness – on the borderlands of the empire, such as Australia.

While significance flows through the particulars of the first part of the poem, the second, shorter part is overtly analytical. It’s another mode which Taylor brings off well but its analysis and assertion has always struck me as a less valuable mode. Lines like:

In a father to son process
unbroken by the most demonstrable wars,
we have, in love, preserved an ancient empire
to points beyond relevancy,
gaining the illusion of a fresh start
for all contestants
with each colony, each awful dominion.

while alive enough (“demonstrable” has a second meaning of “fit to be demonstrated against” and “in love” is a sharp reminder that this is not a world of villains and heroes) is doughy stuff compared to the intense details of the first part of the poem. Later the poem reverts to a kind of expressionist description that is neither the organised particulars of the first part or the assertion of the opening. The result is brilliant:

And now the little guerrilla roofs hide in
lightly timbered country,
the Empire dwindles to a single, sun-bright
dusty detergent country store.
We live in the distance of shadowed ground
between you and the grey palings of memory
inclined to earth.
Each year the nails rust,
each summer is dryer than the last.
And what is without is within,
as fish people trees
in occasional brown floods,
as flies engage the boxed green shade
of cypress dust,
as passionfruit tendrils
tremble with honey-eaters and
miles of mauve grass move
with the weight
of one ibis.

At Valentines begins with its title poem and ends with another extended poem, “Pictures from the Sea”. It shares with “At Valentines” the structure of a long opening part built up out of details followed by a shorter, more analytical second part. In the first part, however, the details are individual scenes taken from Taylor’s experiences as a natural history feature-maker in the Southern Ocean. Whereas Valentines is a place of slow decay, fadedness and dust, this is, in contrast, an apocalyptic landscape:

. . . . . 
Stomach stones dribbled in death like walnuts
among the spines of white shells,
the crusted bull kelp,
the carapace of a crab, discarded claws
and tented skins,
rent from skeletons,
broken by the weight of live seals 
. . . . .

The poem takes as its challenge “And the sea? What pictures have we of the sea?” and attempts to use the sea as a kind of biological matrix for humans: a broader perspective than the cultural one of the title poem.

Many of the other poems in At Valentines exist, modally, between these extremes of raw particulars and extended analysis. This is true of important poems like “Maurie Speaks About a Secret Australia while in Iceland” where the significant differences involve the invention of an alter ego (and interlocutor), derived from the phrase memento mori, and the highlighting of the fact that the setting of the poem is outside Australia (in fact it is set, nearly enough, in Australia’s actual antipodes). This setting – children’s swings held at an angle by the wind – represents immense energy in stillness and is used to underscore the idea of life taking shapes through details which are basically descriptions of men (I read them as soldier-invalids from the first world war and the setting of the poem as being between the wars though it could well be a post second world war image) dying or waiting to die in small town hospitals, “a secret Australia / of dark green paint, / scrubbed floors, / shaved heads and sunlight.” There are at least two ways of coming to grips with this “secret Australia”. One is to see it as a prewar set of conditions of life which were never properly recorded and are now sinking into oblivion (how many of us can name the common brands of cigarettes or tea or soap of this period?). The second is to see it as a “true” existence, an authentic Australianness which is not part of the overarching national conceptions either of that time or of the cultural historians of the present. This second reading is rather more abstract but the two are not mutually exclusive.

It is no mean feat to offer in one’s poetry a new way of seeing (even if the roots of that way of seeing can be said to lie in a very different culture). Now, At Valentines seems a wonderful and important book in a period full of important books of poetry in Australia. It is less well known than many others and that is an unfortunate accident, but it is, at least, being kept in print and available. Although Taylor’s career has been, in overall creative terms, extremely productive (his work in the ABC’s Natural History unit is especially important) he has never been prolific as a poet. But he did, after At Valentines, publish a book of travel haiku, Five, Seven, Fives, and, in 2000, a fine book of poems, Africa, which was, at least, received favourably and which went on to win major prizes. I mention this to remind myself that, poetically speaking, he is actually a more prolific poet than Roger McDonald. At any rate, both Airship and At Valentines are books that should be in the collections of all serious readers of Australian poetry and Picaro Press deserves admiration and thanks for making this possible.