Simon West: The Ladder

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, 57pp.

The Ladder is Simon West’s third book (after First Names of 2006 and The Yellow Gum’s Conversion of 2011) and it gives readers an opportunity to see more of the complex world its lyrics inhabit and explore. West is a very sophisticated poet who can be seen – now that we have a hundred or so poems – as rather more resistant to schematic plotting than my review of his first book, published on this site, might have suggested. But while we always speak of the way poets develop through their first books perhaps we should also speak of the way that our own responses as readers of that poetry develop as well. In that first review I wrote of two elements: an obsession with the tactility of language and a fascination with the vertical axis which moves from the under-soil – the word “humus” kept appearing as a kind of talisman – to the surface of the earth and on to the celestial view, re-enacting Dante’s three zones.

The Ladder, as its title suggests, contains poems which do develop the second of these interests. In fact the book’s epigraph is taken from that moment at the end of Paradiso XXII when Dante and Beatrice are about to ascend to the eighth heaven, after Benedict’s discourse about Jacob’s ladder: “The little threshing-floor which makes us so fierce was all revealed to me from hills to river-mouths, as I circled with the eternal Twins. Then to the beauteous eyes I turned my eyes again”. (I’ve used the Singleton translation here and should point out that by rendering l’aiuola as “threshing-floor” rather than “little plot” it perpetuates what many feel to be an over-interpretive, liberty-taking translation. And if I sound knowledgeable about all of this it is entirely thanks to the resources of Google and Wikipedia!) This epigraph should be enough to alert us to the fact that vertical axes still operate at the basis of West’s poetic imagination. Of course the passage in Paradiso is about seeing our little world – the place of all merely human drives, including savagery – from the perspective of the cosmic and may be as much about perspectives as it is about those drives. It may, in other words, be a comparatively abstract view which reminds us that everything seen is seen from somewhere and thus fits in with a number of other poems (beginning with “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarara Tjapaltjarri” in First Names) which are about point of view – or its lack.

At any rate, this passage from Paradiso is the basis for one of the poems of The Ladder, “Speckled World”. The narrator, like an Astronaut in the space-station, finds himself sailing over “deserts and the lights / of towns clustered against the dark”:

. . . . . 
                                               But then
I was taken with fear at the thought of drifting so far
I might lose the smell of soil on a frosty morning
when the sun refracts through dew on grass blades
and the tops of hills float in a layer of fog.
With longing I looked down on the speckled world
and knew my betrayal of Gravity could not last.
She would tug me back once more from this mad flight,
and I would return to plot my Res Gestae thus -
in my thirty-fifth year, after a long struggle,
I conquered my mistrust of life. . . .

Although it’s difficult for a reader to orient him- or herself in this poem – is it a rewriting of Dante’s experience (which occurs in the fiction of the Commedia at the age of thirty-five), a dream of the poet’s who is, coincidentally of the same age, or is the narrator neither Dante or the poet but a separate, invented character? – the general point is the same. Ascending into the heavens is one thing but the loss of the feeling of earth and its tactility – the smell of its rich humus – is intolerable. The narrator, as I read the poem, is going to focus on the horizontal dimension of this world and, indeed, many of the poems of The Ladder, despite its title, develop into discussions of the possibilities and protocols of this “speckled world” as well as what occurs when we break free, or at least half-free, from it.

The first poem, for example, “Roman Bridges”, concentrates on one of the defining features of the horizontal world: the way we move into, through and across it. The bridges, whose arches make a kind of leap, show that there is

           grace in holding gravity at bay
and a certain poise in being in between.
My ideal landscape has room for bridges and hills,
spires, birds and echoes: halfway things.

A later poem, “The Go-Between”, tells of a bridge in northern Italy built across a gorge by a devil in exchange for the soul of its first user. As often in these folktales the devil is tricked when a dog rushes over in pursuit of a bone. But you can see the schema of the thing and the way it appeals to West. The context of the poem is one with a vertical axis – it is about a demon pulling, or trying to pull, a member of the human world down into hell. But what is left is a horizontal bridge which, as the poem says, is a “marvellous / go-between” that leads the rest of us “somewhere else”.

It’s also chastening to see that this interest in way a bridge makes a kind of horizontal step into space is present in First Names too. A poem there, “Flight”, was about a couple arriving in a new country (“a change both of money and language”) at an entirely new kind of house (“all narrow stairs, and doors of different sizes”). Nothing really happens except that, “with a cry of joy you jumped / forward and ran a few paces ahead”. Taken on its own, in a first book, it was difficult to see what sustained this poem, apart from its desire to represent a brief, important moment in a relationship. Read alongside “Roman Bridges” it can be seen as one of those moments of horizontal leap into a new world, like the arches of the bridges:

. . . . .
at last it seemed so easy to break
from that poise which had
borne the weight of times past.
And my heart jumped behind you, startled
at having to catch up, busy collecting
the slipstream of a new intent.

And there is a striking, autobiographical poem in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion, “Door-Sill” which is about a bare “slab of red gum” serving as a door step, a threshold between the inner world of the house and the outer world. Initially one read it – in a rather Maloufian way – as a poem about liminality, interested in the doorway between two worlds. Rereading it, one can see that it is the step forward, rather than the different worlds, which interests West:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes,
after a poise
that seemed about to come
when top-heavy we pitched,
and were too quickly seeking
peace with gravity . . .

In The Ladder, “Nothing Ventured” – the title exploits the many ways of reading that phrase, as part of a cliché and as complete in itself – is about, as a child, crossing the wire fence into an empty field for the first time. Again, the emphasis is a little unpredictable in that the poem is interested in the way the mind and the body are engaged in this crucial step – rather as they were in “Flight”:

. . . . . 
Something came of nothing, though, when first
I leapt that fence alone. Giddy with lag,
my head raced to catch where my feet now stood. And did,
and was pledged, like saying to a mirror, here I am.

And a poem about Tintoretto’s weird “Miracle of St Mark” in which the saint, seen from behind and rather below, floats through the air, about to save a slave due to have his legs broken for worshipping the Christian god, is interested in the way in which this odd pose is a matter of capturing the moment before the miracle, the step (if one can make a step in mid-air) from which “Everything / set in motion must occur”.

One of the features of this “halfway world” whose landscape is made up of bridges, spires, echoes, mountains and rivers – but also doorsills and birds – is that it is a place where boundaries are less clear than is usually assumed. There is a halfway state in which, say, under the effects of fog, shapes lose their precision. A longish poem late in the book, “Chimera”, is about the patron goddess of this state who sounds a little like Spenser’s Mutabilitie:

. . . . . 
Eagle-eyed when she surveys the land
each leaf is lucent as in Vermeer,
and all at once softens to take its place
in a patchwork of colours by Klee.
It is thought she is the patron saint of nay-sayers,
and easily consumed by spite, but when at twilight
the trees unmoor in winter fog
and, in a panic, you reach out as if they could be held,
don’t despise her clown hooting from the bank. . .

And “The Perfection of Apollo”, about Ribera’s painting of the flaying of Marsyas, contains a stanza which, quoting Pico della Mirandola, claims an ethical virtue, deeply humanist, for the race of humans who live in the halfway world of continuous change:

. . . . .
          our dignity resides in having
no fixed seat and no form of our own,
in being placed halfway; not wholly mortal,
rather free to mould and make ourselves. . .

Another poem, with the faux Chinese title “Outside on a Warm Evening I Consider My Confused Ideas about Poetry. For Now I Offer This Brief Account” (a title that ensures all critics will return to it to read it carefully) revisits the same idea. It begins with something of an assault on the idea that poetry (together with the other arts) is a way of expanding our inner lives:

The poets of my youth spoke of dwelling
in themselves, as if they meant a secret
cavern of emotions where an essence
might be found purring like a cat. . .

It’s the defined stability of this model of the inner life which is being criticised though West doesn’t invoke the usual philosophical and psychological arguments of the last half-century. For him it seems more an issue of poetic temperament:

Too restless to abide, I’ve mostly lingered
round the threshold which the senses keep.
Outside there is so much to contemplate.
Some talk of depth and things as they are. Others
see layered surfaces alive with light. 
. . . . . 
In the poetry of mountains and waters
a path meanders through vast landscapes. Sometimes
it is hard to distinguish a man from a cloud or a tree . . . 

And it’s important to have not only the correct perceptual perspective but also the correct ethical protocols in this halfway landscape: “Here too, I imagine, before crossing a stream / it is wise to wash one’s hands and offer a prayer / while gazing into the flood”.

It’s a distinctive poetic perspective and West is a distinctive and, already, powerful presence in Australian poetry. My own perspectives on poetry are not much interested in national or ethnic distinctivenesses but one could imagine readers of First Names thinking that much that was distinctive about this new poet came from an acquired Italian component of his creativity. If so, well and good. But the second and third books have enough of Australia in them – especially at an autobiographical level – to make readers feel that this issue of Australianness, however murky and unhelpful the debates about it might generally be, is one of the issues raised by West’s poetry. There is a poem in The Ladder, “The Mallee Singer”, which is a tribute to Shaw Neilson. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect from this poet but the poem contrasts Shaw Neilson’s sensitivity – “you sought quieter weightings in your line / for the balm of green and flight of water birds, / for children in the sunlight in the spring” – with the louder, cruder music of his contemporary world, “Salvation drums, and blokes’ ballads / thudding over the black flats”. This aligns Shaw Neilson not just with sensitivity but with a sensitivity to the fluid boundaries of West’s halfway world where outlines are not so rigidly maintained as they are in Salvation Army hymns and in bush ballads.

The gum trees that begin to turn up in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion play an important role here and perhaps they do add a precision and specificity to what in First Names was inclined to be a generic “dark wood”. They are celebrated, in a way, in the first of twelve poems about Rome in which the author sees a gum tree among the Roman ilexes. The eucalypt has a particular quality that the poem wants to celebrate. Because, when we look at one we also look through its slim, falcate, downturned leaves, it is obviously very much a halfway tree:

Unreal city, still. By default. And then
the jolt of recognition hitting home - 
a gum broke the shade of holm oaks.
Its exhortation – remember, make known.

It was how light sifted through those swinging leaves - 
you looked at it and beyond it all in one.
. . . . . 
Intimate, drab and tragic, the branches curved
like Christ’s limbs in a deposition scene. . .

I think it is this odd quality of the gum that appeals to West – the poem doesn’t want to celebrate nostalgia. And after all, it’s a moot point how “Australian” the gum trees are nowadays. They are grown throughout South East Asia, for example, as a source of quick-growing hardwood impervious to local diseases and predators, and are common in North America and around the Mediterranean. I myself once saw a stand of them on the road between Kashan and Qom in Iran.