Graeme Miles: Infernal Topographies

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2020, 95pp.

In a poetic culture where individual poems often seem to be cut from slabs of discourse spun out from a recognisable set of obsessions, Graeme Miles’s poems stand out as having a strong individual integrity. They are poems (this is his third book after Phosphorescence and Recurrence) which, in other words, you have to live inside a bit before they begin to suggest their power. The “recognisable set of obsessions” is there but because each poem tries to be a free-standing event, it might be better to call them interests. It does pose a problem for a reviewer since the default approach is usually to search out underlying themes. I’ll be doing this in the case of the poems from Infernal Topographies but at the back of my mind is always the knowledge that the best approach to poems like this (as in the case of the poems of Peter Porter, say) would be to look at a few in detail and comment fairly obliquely on their shared themes. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a good or readable review for readers looking for some overall sense of what a book is doing. So I’ll look mainly for patterns of themes but compensate by calling them “interests” to try to take away some of their usual dominance. If I’ve space, at the end I’ll look at one or two poems in detail.

One of the places that looks as though it would provide a good position from which to describe these “interests” is the final section of the book called “Dream Genres”. Since a note tells us that this was a sequence written on commission, there seems a likelihood that its subjects are things thought about consciously rather than simply popping up one day as a poem among poems and setting readers the task of finding how it fits into the poet’s work. “Dream Genres” is made up of a couple of poems each under a series of five general headings: “More Rooms to the House”, “Dead Friends”, “Trying to Get Back”, “In the Vicinity of the Temple” and “The End of It All”. That’s five sub-headings to which can be added a sixth: dreaming itself. We could interpret the dreams of the first section – in which the dreamer, who lives in a “weatherboard bungalow”, finds doors leading to new, unknown and spectacular rooms – as being about visions of domestic life but also, using popular modes of dream interpretation whereby a building represents the dreamer’s self, as being about the self and the expansion of that self in surprising directions. We could also interpret these rooms as metaphors for poetry, a great expander of consciousness but also something which, at its best, leads poets and the readers of their poems into unexpected areas. Each of the four elements so far – dreaming, domesticity, the self and poetry – are major interests in Miles’s poems.

The second section touches an interest that anyone would identify on the most superficial of readings of Infernal Topographies: extinction, the dead, and the way the dead revisit us in memories and dreams: as the book’s title poem says, “since if / there’s one thing certain from infernal topographies / it’s the neighbourly feelings between deaths and dreams”. The dead can be dead friends – a number are about the death of Lucas North including one whose title, “The Inevitable Elegy”, seems an attempt to forestall the objection made by one part of the poet’s brain to another, that a poem like this is too entirely predictable – but they are not necessarily as immediately personal as this. One of a sequence of poems called “Domestic Fauna” details the visit to the family home, either in dream or in an imagined scenario, of a Tasmanian tiger. Although there’s the inevitable plucking of the guilt string, there is more of the unconventional in what the poem makes of this visitation from the dead:

. . . . . 
      It was like meeting someone
whose suffering you’d heard about,
someone excluded come out
of the past. It could almost have been
a person disguised or a sleazy god
in an old myth, hidden in a skin.
It had the look of someone condemned
who knows he’s innocent and has something on you.

“A sleazy god / in an old myth” seems to take us into territories not entirely predictable in a poem about the extinction of the thylacine. It recalls another, quite different poem, “Vehicle”, a breezily written narrative (its first sentence sounds like the beginning of a joke – “A mortal and a god step into / a vehicle”) which explores the situation in which gods act as drivers of chariots: Athene in Diomedes’ chariot in the Iliad and Krishna in Arjuna’s in the Mahabharata. Although it might seem a stretch to call this a visitation of the dead, in a sense it is because the poem is set in a modern car and the gods are dead figures from the past, here communicating by inhabiting a living body, that of “the mortal’s mortal friend”. Interestingly, getting into a mortal body, feeling its limitations and scars, not to mention its future decay and death, is described as a frisson for the god. But eventually the gift that the god gives to his mortal companion is the ability to see everything around him not as forms of vibrant life but as things living under the sign of future extinction. Eventually he is allowed to look into the mouth of the god:

. . . . . 
Instead of the homely apparatus
of digestion, you see how it’s alright
that worlds devour themselves, that some
old fault
in ape-kind can’t help but poise
its everything on a final drop, pretending
it’ll save itself at the last chance. . .

At the poem’s end some quite complicated things occur as the passenger sees, in the depths of the god’s devouring belly (the images here are more Bhagavad Gita than Iliad), himself looking in:

your shoulders relaxed, eyes fixed
on the shifts from cells and thermal vents
to eyes and mouths, and thoughts about thoughts
about thoughts.

That is, spanning evolution from simple life to material life to intellectual life. Interestingly, intellectual life – “thoughts about thoughts / about thoughts” – is seen in terms of a Chinese box structure, or one of replicating mirrors. It makes intellection progressively less tangible rather than stressing, say, the ability of thought to understand the processes of evolution and extinction, though that might be too naively positivist for its author. But the structure of these receding repetitions seems to occur often in Infernal Topographies. It produces a poem about imaginative language, for example, in “Some Similes about Similes About Similes”. It also ties together extinction with an interest in perspective making meaning out of the simple perspectival terms, “vanishing point” and “lines of sight”, each of which produces the title of a poem. A vanishing point is the moment of extinction, the loss of something’s ability to self-replicate, a singularity – to draw on the language of cosmology – rather than something which makes a representation realistic and acceptable.

As usual, in reading Miles’s poetry, following up connections drags one inexorably away from the main point which is here, the interest in the dead and their tendency to communicate with us. There’s a poem in Recurrence, “In Himachal Pradesh”, which has stayed in my memory. It describes the way in which “a family planned all year a wedding / for a groom dead fifteen years / and a bride never born” because it was wrong if he were “left single / with his sisters all married”. That’s communing with the dead with a vengeance. The happy couple are impersonated by “local kids”, but the parents “called them Radha and Krishna”. Perhaps the gods slipped into their skins during the ceremony. The second section of “Dunes”, in a way that mediates between reality, dreams and fiction and recalls Cervantes (or, perhaps, Calderon, or, perhaps, just the Spanish narrative tradition generally) imagines the poet dying at the age of eighteen and living out the rest of his life up to the present as a brief dream, shaped by the familiar dream mechanisms of wish fulfilment and anxiety, compressed into the last few moments of his life:

. . . . . 
               The dream fades
a bit when I suspect what it is
and there’s a furtive, lying feeling when I write
the date, knowing it’s really ’94.

Among the dead who are inveterate communicators with us are, of course, the poets of the past who start talking the moment we open one of their books. Infernal Topographies includes a translation from the poem by Callimachus in the Greek Anthology which is addressed to his dead friend, Heraclitus (not the Heraclitus) stressing the inability of death to destroy poems. It’s a classic trope but the issue is dealt with in far greater complexity in “An Archaism”. It seems at first that this will be a poem about the way the past is contained (and speaks to us) in old forms of language: like, the poem says, “eremite” rather than “hermit” but it develops rapidly so that archaism is imagined as a set of messages from the past – oracles – whose reliability is always suspect (one of the book’s other poems deals with the story of Croesus who, in Herodotus, is remembered partly because of his trick to test the accuracy of the various Greek oracles before entrusting his future to one of them). And just when you think you have a reasonable handle on what is happening in the poem, it shifts gear again:

. . . . . 
                                 He coughs
like someone knocking in morse code.
And he tells you all his correspondences:
a perfume, a virtue, an image.
Names and orders of angels, a leader over each,
a series of doors, corridors, mazes
of playing cards and tarocchi, to paper over
what neither is nor isn’t, where you can
pile up the negations as deep as you like. . . 

I read this as examples of archaic beliefs and poetic methods. Although the poem later speaks of “grails and trances” and this might lead one to think of the whole history of beliefs dating back to the twelfth century and extending into the seances of the fin de siecle, I think, on reflection, that it really is speaking only about the poetic practices of the French writers of the last half of the nineteenth century for whom the Kabbalah and the grail of Arthurian romance were an important part of their mythology. These are the Symbolists, of course, and one’s confidence in reading the poem in this specific way – rather than being, generally, about the beliefs of the past impinging on the present – is that another of the major “interests” in Infernal Topographies is the issue of French Symbolist theory. Matching the two translations from the Greek Anthology are translations of poems by Jean Moréas, Maurice Rollinat and Georges Rodenbach (the only one in any way a familiar name to me because one of his works formed the basis of Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt). You get the sense here of a writer exploring the works of this group and trying, in a poem like “An Archaism”, to come to grips with an inheritance that involves a lot of beliefs to which the only response might be a pile of negations. But two other poems in Infernal Topographies relate to the Symbolist movement. “In a Symbolist Mood” (which immediately precedes the translation of the poem by Moréas) looks like an experiment in that mode:

Distant, untouchable night is stooping
over fingers of street-lights
that push her away. And the children of night?
The children of night are in hiding
wherever the dark still is,
under their mother’s gauzy veil
or in the street where an ambulance
just passed.
          I was drunk once
in a dream, years ago.
The bushfire sun was orange
and I said that I wouldn’t 
remember this.
            So disjunct things drop,
as you forget them, with an oily, lurid swirl
of dream, a little drum-roll on the lids of the eyes.

Two logically disconnected images are juxtaposed, together with a brief statement of this fact, to form the structure of the poem. The first is of street-lights (which appear in other poems in this book). I’m not sure whether the “children of the night” are Count Dracula’s wolves or something more obscure but the contrast with the bushfire is extreme. One of the features of French Symbolist poetry is that since the unifying thread is unstated, the surface of the poem can be made up of a rapidly shifting set of correspondences that have no relationship to one another when seen as the objective part of the poem. It could just be a matter of European poetry stumbling on the power of poetic disjunction and it’s reflected in this poem. Another poem “Salt and Ash” describes the burning down of an old house built “in the year of the Symbolist Manifesto” (1886). It’s one of the poems in Infernal Topographies set in Tasmania, a state haunted by extinctions and the convicts of its past. I don’t know whether “Salt and Ash” attempts to be a poem in the symbolist mode but it finishes with rituals which attempt to stop the ghosts of the past reappearing in the present:

. . . . . 
The house where coaches stopped
on their way to the Huon, let down
a limp, thick arm of smoke,
pointed to the gap where the Southern Ocean starts.
Bury its ashes between high and low tide.
Salt seal it against unhappy returns.

I promised at the outset of this review to look at at least one poem in terms of itself and its structures alone, rather than as part of an intersecting mesh of “interest”. I’m very attracted by the complexities of “From a Colony”

Here stones, there sea. Some
hills, a river. Enough to make a world.
In the river flecks of gold so the people
come and from the hills watch
each other moving. On this hill
they see a horse, say esva,
on that hill say hippos. The head man
of hippos meets head man of esva.
Hand shoves into soft chiton. Hand shoves
into leather. Esva-chief falls under kicks
from lanky kids at hippos’ side.
Everyone watches. And the esva-folk decide
not to go to the hippos-hill with long knives
but join them, use them against the others.
And in years they bury the hippos-chief
under their hill, remember him
with black goats and warm blood.
Under esva-hill they hide their man-god
swallowed by the earth, the horseman
murdered in his sleep. They watch
from the hills, and in the pits and on low altars
warm blood and black fleece, sand.
Hands are shaken tight as strangling.

It’s a drily recounted, almost parabolic narrative. What holds the poem together, and drives it on, is its fundamental oppositions between the two tribes. The poem’s opening, geographical, setting is based on binaries – land vs sea, hills vs river – and this acts as a preparation. The story the poem tells is one of those which, in its simplifications and abstractions, seems almost on its way to myth itself. But it can be read in the opposite direction as a fleshing out, in this case a fleshing out of the old linguistic classification of the Indo-European languages into centum and satem. (For those not familiar with this early piece of historical-linguistic analysis, the Indo-Iranian languages developed some proto-Indo-European consonants differently to the Western languages and the difference is captured in the different words for one hundred: Latin centum and Avestan satem. It’s also expressed in the different words for horse: Latin equus and Greek hippos as opposed to Sanskrit asva.) If it fleshes out an opposition it does so at the most abstract level because it is hard to imagine such separate branches of the Indo-European family ever facing each other: that doesn’t really happen until the time of Alexander and Chandragupta. So I think it’s ultimately a poem about two very different cultures. Both are treacherous but the “esva-folk” (it’s significant that the word “folk”, redolent of Herder and nineteenth century German romanticism, is used rather than “people”) work by engaging with their enemies and using them against others. Most importantly they spawn different notions of life after death. The leader of the hippos people becomes, when he dies, a noble warrior, possessor of imperishable fame in the Greek sense and celebrated with sacrifices while the leader of the esva people is converted into one of the many gods who will later populate the subcontinent. But though it is a poem about two cultures, it is also a poem interested in the acts of narrative becoming, whereby an abstraction is fleshed out into an imagined event and an event is abstracted into a myth. A poem full of interest in a book full of interests.