Andrew Taylor: Impossible Preludes: Poems 2008-2014

Witchcliffe, WA: Margaret River Press, 2016, 86pp.

Andrew Taylor can be a hard poet to write about. Although he has never seemed especially prolific (in contrast, say, to John Kinsella, who contributes a brief introduction to this new book) his cumulated work is very substantial – another two books will see it cross the thousand page barrier. It’s also very consistent without being at all the same and a reviewer, aiming for any kind of conspectus, will be torn between the opposed tasks of mapping out changes of manner and documenting the recurrent themes that give his work a strong sense of unity. There are changes of mode but they are not really radical. If we compare the title poem of his first book with the title poem of this new one (a cheap tactic, I know, but one which can have some value):

The Cool Change

We say: After a hot day the cool change
is like a fresh shower and the spirit stands
renewed and alert despite the summer thunder.
Despite the summer thunder and despite
the jagged fulgurations of dry rage
over the Brighton Yacht Club and beyond
the enclosed alerted small boat anchorage,
despite the ominous clashings in the trees,
after a hot day and a sea like slate
the cool change comes like mother with light skirts
sweeping the torpid gulls from their malaise.
Like mother with cool drinks the cool change gathers
families out of the tea-tree and the water,
moving with her urgency among hampers
caressing, hurrying, to her mysterious ends . . .
The cool change sweeps us back into Sunday night,
the long drive home, the children to be fed,
bathed, put to bed. It makes us parents again.
Later we think of the sullen sea, the obtuse
and adolescent arrogance of the sun,
the dominant zero, pointless, tyrannous.


Impossible Preludes

A leaf floating up
memory drifting along a line
of music
whump of bass from a car
beside you at the lights
goldfish –
                         have you ever
tried to count the shifting
of goldfish?
of light across a river
that phonecall
you never made
or received

all impossible
all possible
all preludes

True, the subject matter here is very different but that is just a matter of accident: I might have matched “The Cool Change” with “Two Dates” or “How Much Better Can It Get?” from Impossible Preludes, just as I might have matched “Impossible Preludes” with “Exemplary Poem” or “A Vision of Myself in the Window” from The Cool Change. But, stylistically and conceptually there are marked differences. “The Cool Change” obviously sees itself as a free-standing poem, an object where enough is going on internally – by way of echo, repetition and extension – for it to have a strong presence as a thing despite its apparently lightweight material, material that resists a reader’s search to allegorise it into something more challenging and profound than parenthood and weather. The heavyweight language of the last two lines is definitely a conventional way to achieve some sort of climax. I used to read this poem (before I knew how sensitive Taylor is to ambient conditions like weather) thinking that perhaps it was a kind of critique of the “well-made” poem (as Waiting for Godot can be read as a critique of the well-made play) where the content is trivialised or evacuated but the form remains predictably the same.

By the time we reach “Impossible Preludes” (more than forty years later) we can see a more gestural quality. The gestures are not images but ideas, ideas, in this case, about what might instigate the writing of a poem. Though this poem has its own elegant shape (a list, the last item of which contains mutually exclusive possibilities followed by three propositions about the contents of the list which share the mutually exclusive structure of the final item) it suggests intellectual reverie rather than the sturdy, stand-alone quality of poems like “The Cool Change” or “Developing a Wife”. You feel that, as a reader, you are not so much being presented with an object as lured into a universe of speculation involving paradox and unresolvability. If there is an overall change in the mode of Taylor’s poetry over the years, I think it has been the rise of such poems at the expense of sturdy, well-made pieces like “The Cool Change”.

A love of paradox and paradoxical meditation, taken as a theme rather than a structural method, has probably always been a component of Taylor’s poetic sensibility. The much anthologised “Developing a Wife” is quite straightforward but it rejoices in the way the metaphor of photographic developing endlessly draws towards itself images of violence (“he held her face two inches under the water”) and of domestic “education” (so that developing might mean “changing to suit” or, more likely, “changing oneself to match an existing wifely personality”). There is nothing paradoxical in the nub of the poem which is, after all, about nothing more than the now archaic technique of developing a photograph, but paradoxes are suggested by the metaphors. One of the most potent pieces of Impossible Preludes works in this way and recalls that earlier poem: “Dark Employments” deals with interactions between the dreamer and the characters of his dreams but it does so under the metaphor of business meetings, the “clandestine meetings in the small hours”.

One of Taylor’s central paradoxes is the idea of absence as a presence. It’s not anything new and is a topos beloved of composers but absence is a powerful presence in Taylor’s work at an emotional level. Early in his career there are three books which move away from notions of a stand-alone poem in different ways as though experimenting with possibilities. These are The Invention of Fire (a kind of psychodrama where the poems are fragmentary expressions of the inner self), Parabolas (a series of prose poems, very much focussed on paradox and elegant meditation) and The Crystal Absences, The Trout. This last book is a series of meditations marking off the days to the lover’s return. It is, in other words, generated out of absence.

In Impossible Preludes we have “Shells” whose complex structure – “as complex and better designed / than a legal system . . .” – speak of “oceans lost to their memory”. And a series of poems lamenting the death, during the poet’s absence, of a loved cat, Maxi (a companion piece to the early poem, “The Old Colonist”, which celebrated the passing of an earlier cat) finishes up by moving beyond grieving to think about how we might carry favourite ghosts with us:

It’s fine having a cat
but having a cat haunt you
is something else. Maxi’s ghost
waits at the back door as we bundle in
at 2 a.m. from Frankfurt
three years now and I greet him
with the ghost of a grin
an ethereal hug. Can I
shift him with us when we move
to Sydney? After all
he’s silent and weighs nothing.
I could take him as hand baggage
or – more to the point – heart baggage.

It’s all more complex than the light surface might lead us to think: a loved ghost is an absence that is a powerful presence even if it is just a cat. One of Taylor’s gifts (and markers of style) is to be serious but never portentous. The title of this group of poems – “The Maxi Poems” – is designed to recall Olson’s Maximus Poems a sequence which, whatever can be said about its virtues and vices, is extremely self-important.

The force of absence is, in a way, recorded in a number of poems in the book which deal with writing. “Lament for the Makars” (another allusion-by-title, this time to Dunbar’s great poem about the deaths of his contemporary poets) is a mildly comic piece about the way, as we age, the number of “predeceased / contemporaries” rises. The dead are all categorised and given – Dante-like – fitting afterlives: I like the fate of the Rationalists who are “undoubtedly / scrutinising the bill” in their “immaculately designed / resort (their last)”. But the poem finishes with the poet: “I’ll be forever revising / that poem, you know, the one / I said I’d read to you / when it was finished” suggesting not only an inevitable incompleteness but, further, an inability of poetry to make a final comprehensive judgement on experience. Perhaps this is not so much an absence as an incompleteness and endless chasing after the powers to express a changing reality. Impossible Preludes carries an introductory poem, “Writing”, which begins by describing the act as “tracing a spider’s footprints / across a web” and concludes by saying that writing is “leaving oneself behind / as a spider does // as it spins its web”. Given this is the case, perhaps the best introduction to Impossible Preludes might be the “The Impossible Poem”, last poem of The Unhaunting, Taylor’s previous book:

There are only two poems -
the one you write
and the one always undoing
your words

and as you get older
that impossible poem
stretches its fingers toward you
and you can – maybe – just

feel what it might be -
as Adam might have felt it
when God leaned across the Sistine ceiling
toward his touch

or as a cat waking
on warm stones reminds you
or as alone
in a language you don’t understand.

you know a stranger’s smile
is a word even or a phrase.

Here poetry’s ultimate inability to “grasp” the world is configured as the existence of a kind of anti-poem that matches each existing poem and whose presence becomes slightly more detectable as we age. The fact that the poem refers to cats and to the Sistine Chapel (which an early poem associates with spiders) is a sign that several of Taylor’s distinguishing topics have accreted here. Just as a poem here has an antipoem, so in “This is the Empty Page” from Impossible Preludes, every printed page has an anti-page that, if looked at correctly, peeps out behind the various words that are trying to conceal it:

. . . . . 
I’ve tried to disguise it 
with writing 
my printer hums and buzzes 
across it
but if you look closely
you’ll see the empty page
peering out at you
from behind the letters

In a way, here, we are being returned to the paradox of the doorway that one of the prose poems in Parabolas deals with: “Because a doorway is nothing, this fact is often disguised by tremendous decoration. For example, the portals of Chartres, or the Sphinx couching around the tiny doorway in its breast”.

There are also other poems here which, if not necessarily invoking the presence/absence paradox, also want to speak about poetry and perception. One of the recurring motifs of Taylor’s poetry is swimming. It is the basis of many poems about growing up in southern Australia but it is also always likely to touch on issues that relate to poetry. Swimmers (and kayakers) move on the surface of an element which has a lot of things going on underneath. In “Beginnings” the canoeist watches a dolphin explode out of the depths through masses of ordinary rubbish which it feeds on in a way which, you feel, is designed to refer to a certain kind of experience-hungry poet. Taylor modestly contrasts this with himself:

. . . . . 
                      While I
skimming the surface in my kayak
might have brought a glint of query
even pity, to its inquisitive eye.

I don’t think we should take the self-deprecating tone too literally here. In the following poem, “The Sea Eagle”, the observing animal is the opposite – “aloof and interested / he charts my splashy transit / from the high branch of his / detachment”. Two poems, “River” and “Where the Track Ends” focus on these watery issues. The former speaks of the kayak’s inscribing patterns on the “universe’s mirror” and the latter is a symbolic scene of poet and lover arriving by track to the “almost / limitless expansion of sea” – expansion of consciousness, of course, as much as physical dimensions. Intriguingly the partner is described as a “river / person” while the poet belongs to the sea: “I / scanned for rips, stripped off / my clothes, carefully / walked to the surf and plunged in”. Again any hint of ecstatic symbolic triumphalism is undercut by that little word, “carefully”.

One theme which has developed in its own way as Taylor’s life has gone on is that of our perspectives on our own lives. What appear at the time as moments of trauma – separations, divorces, deaths of friends, of parents – get fitted into a retrospectively viewed pattern. Taylor writes well about this. He clearly enjoys the paradox that what seems at the time, when looking forward, to be host of possible directions becomes, when looking back, the only path that could have brought you to the state you are in now:

There are many paths 
through a childhood that offers
when you look back
only the one you took. 
. . . . . 
That’s where you find
if you’re not too traumatised
there was no other way
inexorably to you.

One of the poems about childhood, “Vanishing Species 3”, exploits, structurally, the same sort of tensions that animate poems like “Developing a Wife” and “Dark Employments”. It begins, “I went back to my old school” and, by the time it begins to speak of talking to “my old teachers” we begin to start doing those calculations of age that the elderly always do. Since Taylor was born in 1940 his youngest teachers must have been born in the teens of the twentieth century and that would make them etc etc. The poem quickly resolves this:

. . . . . 
had died or retired to their own
pastures or coasts. But they had not

I remember Gunner Owen
I remember Chesty Bond . . .

It’s not that the teachers were entirely icons of popular culture which can always outlive the normal lifespan of a real person, it’s that these and the actual teachers “Mr Ingwersen who heroically / tried to teach me French” are present absences in the poet’s mind.

As I said at the beginning, Taylor can quite hard to describe as a poet. Some features are not difficult to talk about: the love of certain paradoxes, for example, and the way the poems are anchored in an entirely distinctive Taylorian(?) world of homely realities (made up of weather, cats, spiders as well as more complex experiences such as a double life lived on two continents). But I always feel that the deepest, most essential component of his poetic personality – made open as it seems to be to readers – somehow resists really accurate description.