St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2012, 61pp.
This book gives us an opportunity for a second look at the challenging and sophisticated work of Graeme Miles, his first book, Phosphorescence, having been published in 2006. In one sense nothing has changed: he remains a powerful lyric poet – his poems almost always have enough self-confidence to stay upright as well as walk with their own gait – the exact nature of whose poetic sensibility is very difficult to grasp. The first poem of that first book, “Nest”, is an introduction to at least part of the Miles method:
The wasps are making a nest on the weight of the wind-chime, deaf, I think, to its sound, and undisturbed by its sometimes swaying for no reason. They build a paper house as a launching pad for violence in a calm. I’m thinking of a final call, when waiting, feeling like the luggage is packed, the phone will ring, be answered. The house will be locked already and it’ll be time to go.
The problem for a reader isn’t so much of guessing the intended (and thus structuring) meaning so much as choosing between all the possible meanings since the poem is dense with allegorical possibilities. Somewhere in here is a kind of Frostian poem about the nests that creatures make, usually in inappropriate places, and how humans have to leave such havens. By a further Frostian shift, the “final call” can be read not as the language of airlines but as the final summons of death. The fact that the wasps build “paper” nests suggests that the whole poem might be read as an allegory involving poetry since a poetic career is, in a sense, a “paper house”. The first stanza is full of noise and movement – both of which the wasps are insensitive to – whereas the second stanza, though it is about a noise (the telephone) and a movement (the leaving) is, as a stanza, full of a kind of calm stasis. And that is reading the poem as though it were anonymous; Miles’s poems tend to be full of houses, places stayed in and places left, not to mention places revisited just as they are full of movement.
When I reviewed Phosphorescence on this site I clung rather desperately to an extended poem, “Circle and Line”, which looked as though it might provide some clues about its author’s views as to what poetry was doing. In retrospect I’m not sure that that was the correct procedure; one ought to able to work out such things by looking carefully at the poems. In Recurrence Miles has gone some way towards mapping at least a part of his poetic by dividing the poems into three sections: “Down”, “Across” and “Up”. It is in the first of these where the significance of the titular direction is least obvious. True, a poem like “Libations”, traces the downward path of water, milk, honey and wine – conscious or unconscious offerings – through the earth to the point where “the only way to go on forever / is to become as small as nothing at all” and “Mineral Veins” explores the way that, in sleep, the self gravitates downwards towards its natural home:
. . . . . Then sleep is only half-sleep. Better to turn down, find you can breathe easily under a world’s weight of earth, and that air was no more your element than the endless vacancy it fades to.
Gravity, the prevailing god of downwards, is in fact celebrated in a poem of the same name. A large part of the expressive side of Miles’s worldview is made up of mythologies, especially Classical, Norse and Indian, and so it isn’t especially surprising that such a poet should begin with Hesiod’s locating of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld on a vertical axis and then work through the idea of the gravity of an extreme mass as a “Samadhi of space”. The conclusion of the poem also makes a distinctive move, slipping effortlessly from the macro-physical to the inside of the brain: “she’s all herself / fixing and destroying, like the colourless dot / at the beginning of migraine / that grows to swallow the world.”
Down is allegorised out in other ways too. In “The Problem of Other Minds” (the second poem of a fine sequence with the ambiguous title “Causes”) the movement downwards appears as a pit into which our life experiences are thrown. Again the shifts of this poem are distinctive. The initial image is an interesting one and you can imagine most poets being happy to explore it. Each of us carries a kind of black hole which is being continually stocked by our experiences as they sink into the past:
. . . . . All the toys I could find didn’t fill it up. My thin books just lined the bottom. Put in my friends and they were small down there, craning their necks up to see what I’d done to them. Put in all the houses I’d lived in, so I wouldn’t have to see them again, then left my grave with a last house-load of furniture . . .
But this poem goes on to ask about the pits of others, especially those who have disappeared into the author’s own pit. It is, as its title says, really a poem about the inter-relationship of the experience of subjectivities; we are experiences for others as they are for us. Continually meditating on what we are to others – apart from our usual egoistic obsession with what we are to ourselves – shakes our sense of our own identity. After returning to his own pit (he hears it “slurp as something else fell in”) he sees flecks on the surface spelling out a message, “’What’s it like / to be you?’ And when you looked closer, / ‘Is it like anything?’”
The same sequence has a descent poem, “Forgetting to Laugh”, in which “When you’ve drunk the water to remember, / and the water to forget, they slide you down / into a dug-out cave”. What follows is a kind of cross between a Mithraic rebirth initiation, an MRI scan and the act of dreaming, followed by the everyday – but still mysterious – process of waking. What is typical here is the way in which mythical, allegorical and metaphorical meanings, distinctive to Miles’s cast of thought, are held in suspension.
The book’s final section (to proceed out of order) ought to be a simple inversion of the first but turns out to be rather different. Certainly, in Miles’s poetry, the view upwards doesn’t involve any simple-minded transcendence. When the eternal is considered, as in “Two Guesses at Immortality”, there is no superior, heavenly reality. The two possibilities are either a kind of eternal present containing all the past (“Everything is here and everyone. / You’re home once and for all / at the moment when it’s all new again.”) or a kind of Groundhog Day endless recurrence (“the one day repeats itself / with its long night to be slept through”.
In other poems, like “Dioscuri”, the emphasis is on the reciprocity between the upper and lower worlds though “Above, Below” contradicts the old relationship of as above so below to contrast the love of the immortals for mortals (“a gold-haired boy or girl . . . too squeamish to stay / for the squalid fact of your death”) for that of mortals for mortals – in this case parents for children:
But the ones who wait below will only be as frightening as necessity, quiet farmers keeping their kids from the dangerous machines and the gun.
One of the metaphoric associations of downwards in the earlier poems is the idea of descent through the family line and so it is, in a kind of way, logical that a poem about the poet’s parents and grandparent should be associated with a look upwards. “Verandah” is a really fine poem, familiar from its appearance in John Leonard’s Young Poets: An Australian Anthology, and though verandahs – the quintessential Australian liminal space – might suggest movement across, there is a certain rightness in this poem’s appearing in the final, Up section. It is also, of course, an example of a modern version of a classical invocation, summoning mother and father out of the past into the present.
Ultimately the vision affirmed is a humanist one and two poems, “Shivery to Think of the Long Spaces” and “Ascesis” make this fairly clear. The former begins as a view upwards to the stars, recalling Pascal’s or perhaps Slessor’s poem’s fear of the spaces between the stars, spaces which have become even more mindboggling vast since the twentieth century’s development of cosmological measurement. The result of this perspective is described as “shivery while it’s measured / by this piece of skin” but the poem goes on to imagine a perspective beyond humanism where there is “object with no subject” where “the suns flame silently” in their death throes “and don’t return from their last / going under, don’t care to”.
The book’s final poem, “Ascesis”, seems to have an unequivocally humanist perspective as it mocks the results of labouring to be released upwards into the cosmos, free of the earthbinding sins of the body:
They let go, lift clear of weather, soil’s vapours that tint the mind like plot. . . . . . Free of conversation, the long dispute of history, language is crisp as salt, and with no air to talk through their words are flawless, discrete and unanswerable.
Both of these poems casually mention orbits and straight lines and one can’t help feeling that this interest derives from “Circle and Line” in Phosphorescence. Miles’s poetic world, as readers who have got this far will register, is a complex one.
A reader who expected the Up poems to be about transcendence might well come to the book’s middle section expecting poems of narrative and Ovidian transformation and, it is true, there is a lot of that to be found there. It begins with “Photis”, a suite of poems (also familiar from Leonard’s anthology) that form a narrative about an artist inclined to bring out animal shapes in the bodies of those who sit for portraits. A lover whose self-image is that of a hawk finds through the process of art that his totemic animal is, instead, the ass (for those of us who missed it, the book’s blurb points out an allusion here to Apuleius). When a baby is born – going through its own metamorphoses in the womb and then outside – it becomes an anthology of animals:
Your soft skin is full of animals. There are fishes in the movement of your sucking cheeks, reptiles in the glaze of your eyes overtired, the stillness of a kangaroo when you watch light slide over the ceiling . . . . .
And the artist’s work undergoes an equally profound metamorphosis, focussing on the world her child might live in rather than the animals under its skin: “she paints the night as a newsreel of frightening things, / waters above and below”.
“Ariadne on Naxos”, based on the version of the story found in Plutarch’s life of Theseus, focusses on the way an individual can transform into a complicated set of rituals; “Aggregore” revisits the idea of a child’s evolution in the womb; “At the End of the Seventies – Streets in Marmion” reproduces the way in which a beachscape is transformed when it is seen by moonlight; “Chennai” looks at the way individuals (or families) are always the centre of their own universe and carry their own gods and experiences with them in environments that are utterly different and a related poem, “Diminuendo”, imagines, from the distant location of India, all of the houses previously lived in since birth as a concertina opened out into one of those medieval maps.
This threefold division of the book is useful, but I cannot help feeling that it isn’t much more than a guide, uncovering only a small portion of what is in these poems and what animates them and gives them their integrity. If I had to focus on a single poem as an entrance into the poems of this book I would choose one from the first section, “Purusha”, which links the Norse proto-god Ymir with a similar figure from Indian mythology:
Ymir, who is Purusha, the Person, is sacrificed but goes on. Its skin is cinematic, the light breaks through it. Endless eyes watch it sliding by. Its body is standing waves frozen, and it crinkles with crystals of ice, empties into the roaring absorption, the nuclear introspection of suns. Its sound is the crowd roaring in Geiger-counters, it goes on forever and mostly is invisible. Moves down and down is the static blur of sandgrains, the place that barters crops for corpses. Moves across inventing plot, walks on or runs forever in Zeno’s physics. Moves up spies out the thinning, the spinning direction of vertigo. It’s promiscuous and virginal, celibate and incestuous. It’s family at war with itself. When a standing ape looks up it sees air catch fire, water thicken with mud, harden to land. Objects are smashed in the slow riot and the prickling of skin when reading a poem is each pore expecting a bruise to cover it. And the poems fit together like a dry-stone wall, jagged edge to edge, just making do.
Perhaps this should be thought of not as poem-as-key but as poem-as-digest (or, anatomy) since one can hear nearly all of the poems in Recurrence in this single work. The central section is a compressed explanation of the three directions and the over-riding image of the fate of Ymir (whose blood becomes the sea, whose skull becomes the sky and whose bones and teeth become rocks) as a sacrifice whose body goes on changing and expressing itself in the activities of the humans who live on and within him echoes throughout the book, down even to the poem about the child’s cutting his first teeth. Even the interest in light in the second and third lines recalls a number of poems. Recurrence certainly complicates the world of Phosphorescence (itself complicated enough) and it would take a review longer than this to go back to that first book and reread it in the light of this second one. Eventually it will have to be done but I will leave that for the appearance of Miles’s third book – something that admirers like myself will hope happens quickly.