Simon West: Carol and Ahoy

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 59pp.

Simon West’s fourth book begins with two poems which, in a way, embody the major themes of the work. The first, “River Tracks”, is a kind of celebration of the Goulburn River working its way north-west through Victoria to its meeting with the Murray just before Echuca. It’s a free-flowing meditative poem (recalling someone like Coleridge) and one’s first response is that this kind of poetry is a long way from the Italian influenced lyrics of West’s other books but the word “free-flowing” is slightly and importantly inaccurate. Inland Australian rivers aren’t free-flowing, they are muddy, rainfall-affected, often broken streams and “River Tracks” wants to exploit this quality. It isn’t just a matter of making a poem which mimics its subject: the rest of West’s poems show us that it is more likely that he sees an unavoidable harmony between what he wants his poems to do and the landscape that he inhabits. And it is a very distinctive landscape of river red gums standing in the channels, overflows and sandbanks of the Murray and its tributaries. The poetry, to match this, wants to move not by logical or imagistic assertion towards a triumphal conclusion but by surprising shifts and disjunctions. The significances which poetry seeks won’t be found here in a steady flood flowing majestically out to meet the sea but in oddities and surprises symbolised in the isolated pools left behind near the river after a flood event. So the poem ends with the poet, walking around a park in Shepparton made on the site of a place where the river has scoured out a track which it will fill at the next flood “letting us bide for a bit in common reflection”. These words, the poem’s end, are designed to be read in a number of ways. The first would stress the word “common” with its double sense of ordinary, unpretentious, far from the conventional Romantic sublime but also of communal, social, far from an incipient Romantic solipsism. Another would focus on the word “reflection” – also a crucial term in Romantic epistemology – with its double meaning of thought and physical reflection: the water will cover the complexities of the muddy, detritus-filled ground that West is very interested in and reflect the sky.

True to its plan of being more like a Murray-Darling river than, say, one of the east coast “Northern Rivers” like the Tweed or the Clarence, “River Tracks” spends its second stanza in a slightly unexpected investigation of the original names for the Goulburn:

Round Murchison it’s said the Ngooraialum
called you Bayungun, but Mitchell
might have got this wrong. Waaring
was also recorded, while downstream you were Kialla
and Goopna, deep waterhole,
living on in Congupna and Tallygaroopna.
Tongue sounds taken for runs, then stations
and finally the towns that drank you . . .

It seems a detour with a double purpose, at one level recording the processes by which original names were transmuted into the names of properties and towns and thus venturing into the territory of the study of the function of naming in landtaking. But this respectable and conventional interest is balanced against the very distinctive interest West always has in languages and their sounds. “Climbing the Tower of Babel” from The Ladder speaks of the complex emotional experience of language learning – “and doubt echoed, / ‘This isn’t yours to call your own’. / It was love kept me going . . .” – and it’s a theme traceable to the title poem of his first book.

And then there is the first stanza of “River Tracks”:

Never a straight line or a single course,
never blue. Most maps mistell you.
Eager to find where you finish,
they mistake your daydreaming, your loops
and faux pas and odd sidesteps,
your misgivings and floods of largesse . . .

On the surface (an appropriate cliché when speaking of rivers) this says that the complexities of the Goulburn’s course can’t be mapped (ie represented) without considerable abstraction and stylisation – that is, reduction. But it’s also a poem about poetry of course (another appropriate phrase), and may well want to make the point that various descriptions of poetry, especially those found in end-oriented disciplines such as literary history and literary theory, are always reductive, missing the point that the richnesses of poetry are often to be uncovered in unexpected twists, turns and seeming dead ends. It might also be read not as a general statement about poetry but as a specific description of West’s own poetry and thus a warning to anyone writing about it, saying something like, “In my work it’s not so much the big picture that counts as the surprises to be found in lesser things: bear this in mind when you write about it!”.

This all makes “River Tracks” a significant, even pointed, opening poem and raises the paradox that it might be a pointed poem about how poems aren’t pointed in the same way that Coleridge’s Dejection ode is partly a poem about not being able to write a poem. “Hans Heysen” also has a specific point to make. It is a poem about a painter’s problems in representing a gum tree and it uses material from Heysen’s own letters. The difficulty – as the poem begins – is “to keep the gum tree solid” given the way in which the distinctive morning light is echoed in the tree’s bark and thus tends to etherialise what should be a solid, earth-bound lump of timber. I read this as an example of the tension in any art between significance and “thinginess”. The Romantic tendency is inclined to favour the former and there is a swing to the latter embodied in movements like Chosisme and Neusachlichkeit. This might be a lot of weight for a comparatively small poem to carry and the last two lines – “as truth, world’s truth, not absolute, is blent / and filters through our pulsing temperament” – seem to locate significance not as universal, undeniable meaning but as a subjective, Romantic experience in itself.

The issues raised in these first two poems appear in later ones in the book. “Floodplains on the Broken River” is a dip into personal history and place (as is the preceding poem, “On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land”) but is interested, as are many of West’s poems, in the richness of the subsoil: “I trod on litterfall and felt under foot / a stir of living things”. This takes us back just over a hundred poems to the first poem of West’s first book, “Mushrooms” – but it’s a recurring theme, a kind of alchemical change from decay to fruition that might – at a stretch – be made into a variation on Judith Wright’s “coral” approach to Australian culture whereby generations of the exiled and failed dead make a kind of base from which something might flower. And this idea of the riches underneath is the theme of “Walking in the Bush at Whroo” where the activity of the nineteenth century’s gold miners – digging downwards hoping to stumble on wealth is contrasted with that of the cicadas, “miners in reverse”, which move upward from the darkness to the light. I think this is connected with the question raised in the first poem of where significance is to be found and how it is to be found, suggesting that the answer is not as a random symbolisation but as a long-held loving development that sees, rather than makes, connections. At any rate these cicadas are not merely insects with a weird life-cycle:

. . . . .
But I listened and it seemed
those insects from the stones
were driven by a need
to avow old love with their own,
to fathom a dying branch
and the eggs left as a gift,
the spider-like nymphs that fell
to a course of katabasis
where, fostered by black roots,
the imago grew well-fed
as the living learn to bear
visions left by the dead . . .

This all rather makes Carol and Ahoy into an exploration of aesthetics, which is part of its interest but not the only one. There is, throughout the book, a strong personal theme. “On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land” is about the poet’s family history:

. . . . .
Death wiped a shipwrecked generation’s slate.
Their children seemed to spring from wind-tossed seed
and grew staked to the mores of English State.
My grandmother denied her convict breed,
kept corgies . . .

But the poem does end in a poet’s resolution, significantly flavoured with a Latin (ie early Italian) reference to Aeneas carrying his father.

In a sense this is a preparation for the last three poems of the book. “Swimming” is about the death of West’s father and, to a lesser extent, his paternal grandmother and grandfather, figures symbolically carried from the wreck of Troy by pious Aeneas. It’s a more sophisticated poem than perhaps I am making it sound, as interested in absence as in significant, if inexplicable, presence – “The thought bridged both your being / and not being and made no sense”. This is followed by a version of part of Book VI of The Aeneid, “The Twofold Tree”, dedicated to West’s father. One can see why this is being done, even though it seems at odds with the style of the other poems. Aeneas’s descent into the underworld (the mythical equivalent of the “litterfall” and productive humus of the earlier poems) is prefaced by an encounter with the Cumaean Sybil, the instruction to find a golden bough (in which he is assisted by doves sent by his muse/mother), and the correct filial behaviour towards a drowned friend. All of which sets out Aeneas as a symbol for the poet, above all as someone concerned to carry his predecessors and their household gods to safety, rather as the cicadas “bear / visions left by the dead”. The final poem continues this Virgilian theme by being an eclogue, a conversation between two farmers (but, in reality, two opposed positions inside the poet’s own head) in which the complaints of the younger – an inevitable catalogue of personal miseries derived from the social set-up in which he lives – are countered (or, at least, opposed) by the elder who argues for making the most of your luck and going on writing: “Such fears / are better sung than dwelt upon.”

Describing the concerns of Carol and Ahoy and showing that they are present in the earlier collections rather obscures the fact that this book feels utterly different to West’s earlier books. One superficial feature of this might be the comparative lack of Italian elements. The earlier books showed someone inhabiting two different cultures and two different languages – climbing the Tower of Babel. When such things do appear in this book it is only in the distant echoes of Virgil’s Latin. But a more important feature is the mode of the poems themselves. As I said earlier there is often a kind of Coleridgean quality to them (I am thinking of important pieces like “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode”). They meditate in sophisticated ways while working along in a mundane environment. They sometimes sound extraordinarily old-fashioned – a word I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to use in these reviews – recalling pieces like FitzGerald’s “The Wind at You Door”. At one moment – in the second stanza of “On Looking into a Chinese Scroll” – I think I actually winced. When a poet is as good a writer of lyric poetry as West proves himself to be in his earlier work, this is something of a surprise, and the impetus to change one’s mode of working from complex lyrics like “Mushrooms”, “Out of the Wood of Thoughts” or “Roman Bridges” to this sort of post-Romantic ambulatory meditation must be a powerful one. Perhaps he is looking for a way of thrashing out issues that might, in the future, form the basis for another kind of lyric. Perhaps he wants to recreate the meditative mode for a new century. At any rate, I’m contented with reminding myself of the truism that really good poets follow their own imperatives and it’s the job of critics to keep up.