Peter Rose: The Subject of Feeling

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2015, 78pp.

One of the best descriptions of Peter Rose’s poetry is to be found on the blurb (not normally a site of good descriptions) of his third book, Donatello in Wangaratta, which, after mentioning intelligence and a delight in language, speaks of “a heightened awareness of life’s surprising gifts and irredeemable losses, a contemporary and cosmopolitan sensibility”. Of course there is no causal relationship between the two parts of this description but both are, in their own way, true and serve as a good way of describing this new book.

To begin with the second part: one of the things that marks out Rose’s poetry as so distinctive is that, while it explores a complex and intense inner life, it’s a life which is lived in the context of an urbane, cosmopolitan, professionally literary outer life. Everyone’s inner life has, of course, an outer life as a sort of vehicle or protective shell – we are all, after all, situated somewhere in our lives, in a job, an age group, a country – but Peter Rose’s outer life of the activities of a major literary editor, the inevitable visits to the opera or a gallery or a book launch, hours spent at mind-numbing proofreading etc, isn’t really like the outer life of any other Australian poet. It has been said that it feels rather English but this is only because such a professional life is more likely to occur in England where publishers and non-academic intellectuals are rather thicker on the ground. Rose’s national identity (or perhaps, Victorian identity) is, anyway, impeccable since he grew up in a rural town the son of one of Australian Rules Football’s greats.

My feeling about the slight strangeness of the milieu in which the experiences of these poems occur is that it tells us more about other Australian poets than it tells us about Rose. It’s surprisingly odd to read a poet with, apparently, absolutely no interest in landscape, for example, and it’s a reminder of how important landscape, and the various ways its significances can be configured, is to Australian poets. Even Slessor, whom one might look to as a similar literary intellectual, equally a man of the city, has poems about landscape and at least one about the cosmos even if those poems make the point that those things are alien and disconcerting. One might look to Peter Porter but Porter’s exterior life was spent in England and though he happily speaks of “the permanently upright city where / speech is nature and plants conceive in pots” there is a lot of confrontation with landscape and alien geographies in Porter’s poems. And then there is the fact that Porter’s and Rose’s poems seem so entirely different that you feel that the comparisons were made out of ambience rather than poetics.

Then there are “life’s surprising gifts and irredeemable losses”. In Rose’s poetry the former can derive from art but they are usually amatory. He writes brilliantly of the revelations of falling in love even though the experience probably contains the seeds of its failure. There is a poem, “Cheap Editions”, in his first book, The House of Vitriol, which describes those intense moments of literary discovery that happen in one’s late teens. First St John of the Cross encountered in “one of those nasty American editions, / putrid spores and tight-arsed spine” and then Camus’ outsider introduced at “one of those ill-lit parties” turns the world of the saintly doctor upsidedown. But the poem finishes: “Then I met someone, for the first time. / Contentment, voluptuousness, blasted forever”. In other words (as I read it) the early literary passions are essentially trivial and self-indulgent in the face of a real, if temporary passion. Rose has always done this really well: the title poem of Donatello in Wangaratta is about the revelation the child experiences when he sees a print of Donatello’s David.

The failures and losses the world imposes are always present of course. “Sentence” from Rattus Rattus, imagines the self as a kind of Roman victim waiting for the senate’s decree and, probably, the method of execution. As the poems progress, the failures of love become less about love and more about memory, a memory which fixes certain scenes, dates and anniversaries. Thus “Bait”, from The Catullan Rag, begins:

It was one of your last visits.
My memory is sharp, even clinical,
gives interviews like a criminal . . .

Much of this comes together emblematically in the first poem of The Subject of Feeling, “Impromptu”. (Actually, technically, it’s the second poem since the volume is prefixed by “Twenty Questions” an answer to Donald Justice’s poem of the same name. Interestingly the first poem of Rose’s first book, comprises twenty reasons for failure and “Notionalism” in The Catullan Rag is a list of twenty kinds of notion.)

Moments ago, back from the library
and the noisy, populous park
(that shrill of infantocracy),
I was entering our building when
a magpie swooped – taut dart of surprise.
. . . . . 
Well, I was beyond cavilling,
too full of the poem that Donald Justice
had absently enjoined me to pen,
the poem that might lead somewhere
or fail to ascend. Four flights up,
our terrace doors open to summer,
you were playing an Impromptu
by Schubert (very carefully),
arpeggios audible on the street,
if the street cared to attend.
I stood there listening,
mindful of the magpie
and his fierce, nesting, arrowy urge.

There’s stable love, intimacy and music in the upper floors here and they are approached by a poet with his head full of a poem that might or might not work (described in terms of leading somewhere and ascending). And yet the whole thing is framed by a dangerous magpie. I take this to symbolise the darker side of the world and its treasures. It’s tempting, momentarily, to try to be a bit more precise – the magpie is ferocious because it is protecting its nest but poet and partner have no young; or the magpie comes from the natural world into this urban world of flats and music that deliberately excludes it – but in the end, I’ll stay with the slightly more general interpretation.

The “irredeemable losses” that the world imposes are not only amatory ones, of course. There is a trauma at the heart of this inner life and it is one that is continually revisited not to probe a sore tooth but to explore memory: Rose’s brother, Rob, became a quadriplegic after a car accident and died comparatively young. Rose’s much admired memoir, The Rose Boys, details these events but they have always been part of his poetry going back as far as “I Recognise My Brother in a Dream” from The House of Vitriol. In The Subject of Feeling the second section is devoted to poems which are memories of family and the long poem, “Tiles”, which seems, at first, to be about his mother’s experience of eight months in hospital with rheumatic fever and no visitors quickly becomes a story about Robert, in hospital, staying sane by trying to count the tiles in the ceiling of the ward.

As I’ve said, you feel that, as Rose ages, memory itself becomes the subject of the poems rather than the event which is memorialised – something that occurs in Tony Judt’s brilliant memoir (equally devoted to trauma), The Memory Chalet. And movement is involved here in interesting ways. Sometimes you feel the poet move towards memory but, at other times, memory moves towards him. That’s the reason, I think, why “Late Autograph” stays in the mind: Rose is signing copies of The Rose Boys when he sees, in the queue approaching him, an old flame from his adolescent past. What to write? In the end, words fail to solve the problem and the friend gets “something fond and anodyne” but though words fail, memory doesn’t and we are left with a sharply focussed image from the past:

. . . . . 
                                       And then,
transcending those wraiths of reality,
you were standing in front of me again
brazen amid a horde of admirers -
naked, panting, grazed down one side,
towel over your shoulder, teasing me,
calling me nicknames, sweet, aromatic.

If we stand back from this poem a little we can see a situation in which the trigger of a memory moves towards the poet through the mechanism of a queue. Another, “Dux”, which involves meeting with an older woman poet, also is set in a queue though here the queue symbolises a procession of poets slowly getting older but always retaining the same relative positioning. It has a wonderfully oblique opening (a bit like the first sentence of A Passage to India) – “I always remembered her, / if I remembered her at all, / which was not very often, say once a year . . .”. But it is really about another issue of memory: though our memories may be clinically clear and we may be confident as to what the actors of those memories mean to us, we cannot be equally clear about what we mean to them in their own memories. Memory, as an important early poem, “The Wound”, suggests unfortunately inclines towards solipsism and here the older poet says “cordial things about a past / more apparent to her, more vivid, tangible.

The quote from the cover of Donatello in Wangaratta which I’ve used to structure these observations so far, also has a comment about Rose’s “delight in language”. It’s an interesting issue and one remembers another early poem about his brother which says:

You never understood my lexical craze
but I could spend eternity hunting for a
long beautiful word for addicts of anniversaries.
There must be a name for it, a need. . .

In Rose’s previous books I’d always felt that part of the structure of individual poems involved a certain linguistic tension. Many of them seemed to have one unusual or unusually-used word which, you felt, was a way of tightening the poem’s cross-braces or, perhaps, of suggesting the existence of a more complex lexicon that might produce a poetry that is more precise but less comprehensible. I haven’t spent any time on this issue here because I have a sense that it’s not as consistent a feature of the poems of this new book than it might have been in the past. But one poem demonstrates it nicely. “The Vendramin Family” is about Titian’s famous painting:

And why the shocked awe on the staircase
leading nowhere but infinity?
Tell us now, earnest youth
in the second row, mouth open
in something like mystification - 
the idiot as inspirado?
Listless we shelter in the gallery,
the gallery as reliquary -
wet from the London rain,
shaken by wonted sirens,
half-expecting catastrophe
in a handsome guise. Who knows
which way the wind blows,
why the candles lean fondly to the west.

The final section of The Subject of Feeling is a twenty-five poem addition to Rose’s “Catullan Rag” a series imagined to be in the style of Catullus. I think the function of these poems is to allow the poet to let his hair down a little and enter a reasonably scabrous version of literary life, its petty hatreds, viciousnesses and loves, without causing insult to anyone in particular. Thus:

Give up, Catullus. Bury your umbrage and head for the bush.
Warty Suffenus has just got an OAM,
Postumia a Pulitzer for her comic sequel to Moby-Dick.
Wither away, Catullus. Why don’t you just die?

The first thing to say about this enjoyable series is, I suppose, that they tap into only part of Catullus: the epigrams. I don’t want to appear like a picky pedant here, but I love the poetry of Catullus as much as Rose does and I can’t help but feel that someone who went from Rose’s poems to those of Catullus would get quite a shock at how much more they are than mere literary scabrousness – imagine coming up against any of the poems from numbers sixty-one to sixty-four. And even the epigrams almost always sustain themselves not by the shock of their coarseness but by their complex (though witty) structures. It’s also worth pointing out that these poems might now be seen as part of a genre: there are versions of Martial (who I think might be more like Rose’s Catullus than Catullus is) by Peter Porter and Laurie Duggan, David Malouf’s continuing series of modernisations of Horace, some imagined poems of Catullus by David Brooks and Geoffrey Lehmann’s rather wonderful imagined poems of Nero. Someone, one day, will write a long and involved essay about this and what it might mean in Australian poetry.

The second thing to say about the poetry of Catullus vis-a-vis that of Rose is that the former is marked by two traumatic experiences, represented by the two lines of Catullus which have passed into the language. The first (“vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus” – “Lesbia let us live and love”) introduces Catullus’ experience of the agonies and ecstasies of true love and the second (“atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale” – “and so, forever, brother, hello and goodbye”) the untimely loss of his brother whose grave, in the Troad, he is able to visit only in passing. None of Rose’s poems about his brother, Robert, have any connection with his “Catullus” poems, and chronology argues against it, but still it is hard to suppress the idea that a hidden link of loss between the two poets has somehow suggested the idea of inhabiting Catullus’ voice.