Carmen Leigh Keates: Meteorites

Geelong: Whitmore Press, 2016, 49pp.

I have to begin this review with a declaration of interest. Most of the poems in this book I have seen in earlier incarnations when I myself was in an earlier incarnation as an academic and Carmen Keates was a doctoral student for whom I shared responsibilities with Bronwyn Lea. I don’t think I have had an intimate, editorial relationship like that with any of the other poems which have turned up during the ten years of this site’s existence. I realise that I might be accused of having a sort of foster-parent’s fond regard for these poems but, as someone said, there are two kinds of hometown referees: those who shamelessly favour the home side and those who treat its players harshly out of fear that they might seem to be playing favourites. I like to think that I belong to the second group. At any rate, many of these poems are pared down and so much improved from the early versions that I saw as to be almost unrecognizable.

Having said that, I also want to say that this is a really striking first book announcing an important talent with the ability to engage with issues and perspectives far from the habitual ambits of most readers. It’s something we always look for in poetry: a sign of a unique voice which we hope is good enough to engage us and take us with it on a journey we might otherwise never have made. And the journey of the poems of Meteorites is a complex one touching base with the films of Tarkovsky, Bergman and Kurosawa, dreams, family history and travels in Scandinavia. And the mode of journeying is distinctive: these poems do not operate by smooth, lyrical graces but rather by sudden juxtapositions and detours.

Two examples will demonstrate this nicely. The book’s third poem, “Gålrum Gravfält”, is based on the author’s surprise discovery of one of the great Bronze Age sites on the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. We know from other poems that Keates is riding a bicycle on a longish journey from Ljugarn to Nãrsholmen in order to visit the site where Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice, was shot in 1986. (To the north of Gotland is Bergman’s island, Fårö, where, three years after Keates’s bicycle ride, the annual Bergman Week festival would celebrate the film’s thirtieth anniversary):

. . . . . 
                                     Today I bike for six hours
in an upright sickbed inside a fever-dream
where a Baltic Sea island creates a road to move me
in an unwitnessed procession past actual milestones.

I’m on my way to somewhere else but pull in
where I see a sign saying something here is historical . . . 

In other words we meet the “seven boat-shaped graves” – one of which has a “motherly juniper over it” – as a distraction on what is really a pilgrimage, usually the most end-focussed of journeys. And the pilgrimage itself is undertaken in a mildly bathetic way, riding a humble bicycle while “incredibly ill” from a long flight. All of this makes the sudden appearance of the graves of the site not so much a distraction, a turning at right angles to one’s road to explore another world, but rather a kind of ambush staged by another reality. And, as I’ve said, this is mirrored in the structure of the poem itself since what might have been a solemn meditation on the unreachable minds of the Bronze Age builders of these stone boats is interrupted by an account of a story told in Helsinki by an art historian about his deaf grandfather.

In the book’s title poem, a long meditation on the great scenes towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker where the three protagonists are in The Zone, there is a similarly shocking irruption derived from an anthology of Eskimo poems edited by Tom Lowenstein:

The Eskimo Uvavnuk
has a poem in which she tells
how she was hit by a meteorite
and as a result was made a shaman.

Uvavnuk waves her arms towards
the bad fortune and spirits, crying,
Away with it! Away with it!
We should all try this in our homes . . .

I don’t want to be seen as hammering a simple point but this is a poetry whose structure and methods of development and movement follow one of its central themes: the irruption of other worlds, other ways of perceiving, other “levels” of reality into a life. The journeys of this book are never likely to be merely the movement from one country to another or one culture to another.

As we might expect, gateways (“portals” in contemporary argot) are going to bear a lot of examination. In “On the Border Between the Parishes of Garda and Lau” (a poem, incidentally, which alternates between scenes set in an art gallery in Brisbane and scenes on Gotland at a site near Gålrum) we follow a pathway which is both into a forest and back in time into the Bronze Age. Although gateways can be crossable in both directions, in this one “Hoof prints go in- / to the forest, yet none come back out” and the forest has an absorptive quality, sucking even sound out of reality. This is a feature of the most potent “portal” in the book, the well that Writer sits on the lip of at the end of Stalker in “Meteorites”. As the poem describes it, the scene begins with Writer being resurrected, rising from “a death pose”, though the interest is really in the way he has been “elsewhere”:

. . . 
This place has killed him first
then released him and for a moment
he has been elsewhere –

like the owl that disappears
in that jump-cut
on those low, indoor horizons
over artificial dunes
of soft and dangerous dust . . .

Just as The Zone in Stalker is capable of making life (and owls) disappear, so it is also capable of rendering a well bottomless by making a stone thrown into it go “elsewhere” at a stage of its descent. The well is thus “a mouth that does not speak / but only swallows, / like outer space” – a more intense version of the forest that exists in the liminal space between the two Gotland parishes.

Although “Meteorites” finishes by pointing out that we always say that Earth was struck by meteorites, never the other way around, there are cases here of two-way portals. In the book’s first poem, “At the Bergman Museum”, the author rides away from a storm building up over the Baltic:

The lightning is concerned with a secret
affair far off in the unlit Baltic.
Only the rain comes home.

Tracking down the road, my bicycle, my eye,
past the Viking huts with their weird antennae,
I am riding a lightning conductor away
from a museum about a recluse . . .

The poem wants to explore the allegorical possibilities of a fraught situation: perhaps the pursuing cloud is Bergman himself, haunting his admirers like an avenging angel. But the poem finishes by considering the possibility of a two-way interaction between inspiration and masterwork:

                         For if Ingmar’s films broke

into his dreams and, as he said, sat at the base
of his soul, maturing comfortably like mighty cheeses,
perhaps now he haunts the work right back . . .

The final image of the final poem of the book, a poem about Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, is, perhaps fittingly, about a gateway, in this case the strange gateway of memory whereby we can move into the past (when we remember) but the past can, often in dreams, move into our present. “Memory”, the poem says “is a demon that walks / like a soldier from a tunnel”. I think this image probably derives from the dream in Kurosawa’s Dreams in which a soldier is confronted by all his comrades killed in the war emerging from a sinister tunnel. Interestingly, the first one to emerge from the tunnel is a suicide dog, complete with explosives, a reminder of the dog in Nostalghia who in the previous poem, “Domenico’s Dog”, “stalks / the perimeter of Gorchakov’s sleep / as though there were a fence there he / finds a hole in”.

The dominant issue of the poems I have looked at so far is the way the various levels of reality and “foreign-ness” that we live within and which live within us can be activated and explored and, when we have no control over them, accommodated. The poetic problem – which I think Keates handles with great success – is how to keep such poems unified and coherent. But the poems of Meteorites have other interests too. “Cloud on Mount Wellington”, a poem about a much homelier totemic site than those of far-off Gotland, has a decided interest in the interrelationship between perspective and creativity. It juxtaposes a tourist’s trip up the mountain (with the bus driver/guide’s comments inserted in a dry demotic) with a dream about the elements of a novel seen from above; that is, seen from the physical position of a mountain top:

. . . . . 
Last year I dreamed I saw the plan
for some wunderkind’s novel laid out
on the floor of a warehouse. Chalk outlines
of different continents and Scandinavian coasts
were drawn on the bitumen. Regions demarcated.
Artefacts grouped on blue tarps.
Everything was meant to be

viewed from above. . .

The result (as I read it) is a description of what happens when an artwork “works”, when the bell, the forging of which occupies a very long stretch of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, actually rings:

This writer was revealing
something he knew to be right
but its elements had to first be
arranged properly, tended,
for it to manifest at all.

What he was preparing to reveal
would as much be disclosed to himself
as it would be shown to others . . .

There are a lot of complex things happening in the poem (the obsession with cloud and condensation, for example, which appears in many of the poems relating to the Tarkovsky films) and it would be oversimplifying to see this as a “poem-poem”, one engaging with its own method and the principles that lie behind the other poems of the book, but that is undoubtedly part of what it is doing.

Although reality and dream interact in “Cloud on Mt Wellington” it’s tempting to group it, in this book, as one of a series of domestic poems, a series which would include “One Broken Knife”, “Burning Train”, “I Bought My Father an Axe”, “I Remember Two Lines Upon Waking” and “Leaking Through”. Though the basic situations are far from those of Andrei Rublev or Nostalghia, the way the poems work and what they want to explore are not dissimilar. In “One Broken Knife” and “I Bought My Father an Axe” we are in the world of totemic objects, no less dangerous for having been (or being in the process of becoming) domesticated. And the poems, though domesticated and having none of the glamour of Gorchakov’s Italy or Rublev’s Russia, have their own, rather wonderful weirdness. In the second of them, the poet, having got her gift home, puts it on the kitchen table:

. . . . . 
I put a bow on it. My axe. I tried to introduce myself more,
just until I handed it on. I had this feeling it wouldn’t come when called,
somehow, not just yet. No trust. I wondered, Is any axe new? . . .

It’s strange, distinctive and as far from cliché as it is possible to be.

“Burning Train” and “I Remember Two Lines Upon Waking” are dream poems, the former an especially powerful vision of passengers inside a passing train who barely register that it is on fire. But this dream is interspersed with memories from childhood and, especially, with the misunderstandings of childhood that create yet another reality:

. . . . . 
As a child I remember Dad calling
the electricity company to report
that on the pole outside our house
the transformer was humming.

To me at four, these words meant war
was coming, and I packed
my baby doll’s clothes in a suitcase
and waited in that living room
to hear the tanks come down the road,
cracking our bitumen . . .
And “Leaking Through” recounts hearing (perhaps at the edge of sleep) a woman’s shout and deciding that it belongs to another world which is “leaking through” – not all interactions between worlds need to involve wide open portals that can be crossed in either direction.

Of course, separating the poems of this book into those about Gotland, those about family and those about film obscures the fact that their interests and methods are remarkably similar. There are two newer poems though, “The Bandit Without Mifune” and “Smoke Talk” (the former alluding to Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the latter to Bergman’s Persona) that seem more like poetic meditations in that they don’t have the startling juxtapositions and alterations to a different mode of reality that the other, earlier poems have. Whether this heralds a new method is something that only a second book will reveal, but for the moment it’s enough that we should content ourselves with the remarkable poems of this remarkable book.