Theodore Ell: Beginning in Sight

Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2022, 73pp.

Theodore Ell’s book has all the features that one hopes to find in a first book of poems: a distinctive manner, a distinctive tone of voice and a distinctive view not only of things in the world but of what a poem might make of these things. There is also an avoidance of the conventional styles and solutions that one is likely to find in contemporary Australian poems although the book’s title, which works at a number of possible puns, does use a technique common among poets. “Beginning in Sight” can be read as “Beginning Insight”, but its more apparent meaning is that we should expect the sense of sight to be the dominant one in the poems that follow – it will be where they begin. And this is certainly established in the book’s first poem, “Mooring” – whose title also suggests that it will deal with the way that the poems are anchored – which begins with two stanzas of very precise visual registration:

An estuary no road has reached. Staked mangrove flats,
forest shelved high above the sea-grass. On surfaces wavering and firm.
a brightness fit to crack. Beneath still keels,
green stirrings. Late lamplight in coves, where at some noons
white sails slide in or away. Slow skirmishing dragonflies.

Brief haven. Dwindling retreats. Vacant, intermittent houses
crouched over the shallows: slant timber, wavelets at doorsills.
Unfamiliar craft laying creels in the channels -
striped shoals hurry to gaps among the mudbanks
where the heron is poling. . .

All of this is brilliantly and confidently done. One of the poem’s dedicatees is Robert Gray and for these two stanzas we almost seem to be in a Robert Gray poem. But the rest of the poem moves away from registration to think – in complex and not easily graspable ways – about the interaction between this bucolic holiday scene and the perceptions of the humans who inhabit it. The stillness of the scene encourages the feeling that “the present” has been “editing matters in our absence” and the poem goes on to a complicated conclusion:

. . . . .
                                The upriver wind
carries voices after every wake. If they too came
only in rare crossings, low hearsay,
as when thunder out to sea sends tremors through the ebb-tide pools -
then we might overhear the teeming that has weighed this air

past remembering, that drifts among the stilts of creaking floors. Know,
as though blind, an old touch at the elbow. Dive through
    the sun’s clutches
from grey pier boards into cool cyphers.
Fluent silence, occlusion of echoes. Hours when not a vessel moves,
when the sky infiltrates standing water, screens cloud=abysses 
     on the inlet –

then we might take peace unawares. Then hide it among these 
     remnants, these appearances.

Despite the difficulties of this passage for a reader, there is no doubt that, at the widest interpretive perspective, it wants to explore the relationship between the painting-like stillness of the estuary and the reality that lies outside it (it can be heard in the words spoken on boats which go past, leaving a wake, and an impression of an active social world). In other words, it’s a poem which registers the sight-impressions and then goes on, after that elegant twist – “In stillness we suspect the present of outwitting us” – to explore the relationship between the human and the landscape. For all its difficulties (which may, it’s true, derive from my inadequacies as a reader) it’s a really impressive opening poem, tying in with the book’s title, and establishing its author as a poet to be taken (that is, read) seriously.

In fact, one way of approaching the poems of Beginning in Sight – not necessarily the author’s way, of course – might be to look at how visual registration interacts with what a specific poem seems to want to do. At one end there is a group of molto espressivo poems led by “Whitsunday Passage”, which begins with the author in extremis – “Where, wearing love’s cast-offs and dreading all faces, / once ever, I wished not to be saved from poetry”. What follows is description:

. . . . .
The shielding stance of the waves, ushering islands away.
Slender hands – blue veins beneath those shining robes –
leading émigré mountains, arms around their offspring,
towards the vanishing line, where broken spray glimmers

sometimes, beckons from past the edge. The rumoured
mazes of the reef. A distant laughter. Beside me, mute sands,

sleepless, altering their shapes. Drifting in the end and wading out.
For the disbanding of years. Its beginning in sight.

There is a complex interaction going on here. Personal distress doesn’t entirely impose on the reading of the landscape in the style of the pathetic fallacy, although this is part of it. The landscape is metaphorically humanised at first so that the flowing currents look like slender hands with blue veins and the mountains seem to have arms around each other, but by the end of the poem, it is the fluid nature of the water, and, especially, the coastal sands, that the poem fixes on. Again, it can be read expressively as saying, “my life in this crisis seems to be becoming shapeless and directionless” but this is counterbalanced by the strong verbless style in which description is done in the poems of this book. The registrations are the opposite, in other words, of the shifting shapes of the sands off the Queensland littoral or the “mazes” of the Barrier Reef.

None of the other poems of Beginning in Sight are quite as anguished as this although there are poems of loneliness. “Votive Lines” deals with the grief of loss – “Friend, you have left hours of silence” – and “Watershed” deals with recovery from pain and illness. Both move straight to landscape, “Watershed” beginning with:

Sleep over ministering sleep,
tresses of rain

drift over the lake -
pins and needles,

intermittent silvers
where no depths stir:

water rising to know water,
allaying creases.

At last this is your only pain. . . 

Yes, it is a metaphor for a kind of post-pain sleep but, like all metaphors which are not merely conceptual, that landscape of water meeting water as rain brushes across a lake, has a strong tactile presence. It’s interesting that another poem which could be said to belong to this group is the final poem of the book, “Convalescence”, which, as its title suggests, focusses on a recovering patient returning to his garden. Thematically one can see how it ties in with Ell’s fascination with sight in that the garden has physically changed while its owner has been away – presumably in hospital. What is odd – at least to me – is that this is the most conventional poem of the book, the only one that might conceivably have been written by a number of other contemporary poets: an odd situation for the poem with which the book takes its leave of us.

At the other end of the spectrum, well away from the lyrical expression of pain of poems like this, are the poems in Beginning in Sight which are narratives, at least, narratives of a kind. “Generators” is an unusually extended (thirteen page) piece detailing the lives and doings of three generations at the one place. It’s difficult for an outsider to know the poet’s exact stake in this but presumably there is a family connection (suggested in the title, “Generators”) with the pre-war university student who converts the windmill on the rural property into a generator, the girl who looks at the way things work through a microscope and the two children who accompany their mother to the place when that girl has become an old woman. The poet’s position may be unclear but the tight narrative method is not. As expected, it focusses on the visual to the extent that the opening of the first poem is a description of the windmill that will be rigged to power the generator. In a fairly minimalist poem, this is quite an extended treatment which speculates on which metaphor is likely to be most accurate:

All patina, dial and pirouettes
the windmill

hovering above the corrugated roof
could be an airman,

standing, arms folded by a runway
. . . . . 
three-sided ladder, sunflower in chains,
face like a second’s glare from a locomotive wheel,

slow cards dealing hand from hand
but not into a deck –

a sudden peak above the house . . .

It’s not only a poem about precursors, it’s also a poem about sight and the different perspectives that can be involved. The pre-war university student goes on to work on aeroplanes and planes, with their god’s-eye perspectives, are recalled later in the sequence as “a chalked line following / minute wingtips, // an arrow in blue silence” where they are contrasted to the two children who look into the black of a letterbox – “a hole in brightness” – to see how far a breeding pair of doves have got in their own “generation”. The bird’s-eye view might seem to be contrasted with that of the microscope but the view through the lens does have the capacity to convert whatever it is minutely examining into a landscape – “You’d swear it put whole acres / under glass – pasture in medleys, wheat parquet”. In other words, “Generators” is a minimalist but very complex narrative with not only works by emphasising visual images – that windmill is hard to get out of a one’s mind’s eye – but by being a poem whose theme is, at least partly, about sight.

Another poem that might come under the heading of narrative is the four part “Verges” which details, in an unusually lively tone, four driving experiences: a near accident, overtaking a cyclist, looking for a house in someone’s past and arriving at a holiday destination. Although, as the title suggests, these share a kind of liminality, it’s a subject broached through precise description so that, for example, the “not so elder” cyclist who the car overtakes, has a “rear wheel laden side to side, all kit and gear, / the caricature of a snail swagger”.

Another two poems which might be included provisionally under the heading of narrative deal with the first world war and the embarkation of Australian troops for Europe. The first of these, “Vessels”, is based on one of the photographs of these embarkations from Albany so that its engagement with the descriptive is obviously a part of its conception. It begins,

Lavish even for spring,
these brass mornings.
Picture-hats, flags and insignia,
anthems on the quay –

never mind the rust on the clear air,
milled and scuffed up
by four-abreast files
laddering the roads in khaki . . .

And you feel that Ell wants to animate a frozen black and white image by precise description and make the kind of exhilarating transformation that occurs in the “colorizing” and sound editing of war footage in the recent They Shall Not Grow Old. “Sojourners”, about a quarantine station, tries to do something similar, I think, when it introduces “this cove // for the dozing pennants, the bared nodding masts” and it seems entirely a part of Ell’s style that the opening sentence should be a single word, “sea-grass”, which is a reference not only to the place but metaphorically to the underlying currents that cause soldiers to be laid-up in this way.

Finally, in this sketchy catalogue, there is one of my favourite poems in the book, “Freehold”. It begins with a violent storm and, again, focusses on the visual, especially in the effect the storm has on how the landscape might be seen:

. . . . . 
of rearrangement. As if a coverlet

lifted and shaken would model new hillsides.
As if an unstrung vine would throw a road off,

sling tar. Sheer weight mows sun into avenues,
battles to cull loose wood and stake new orchards,

a charge finding loopholes in the barricade
of settled shapes. As if to clear the homesteads,

take up the trodden floor, part land, peer in.

It appeals to me because I want to read it as a poem about what poetry (including a poetry like Theodore Ell’s) might do: restructure reality or, at least, restructure how we see reality, overturning and reconfiguring all those things which our established and approved cliches force us to see in a particular way, mounting an attack on “the barricade / of settled shapes”. It might be over-reading one small work but if that’s the case it’s an over-reading I’m happy to pursue. It emphasises that sight is more than just part of the book’s thematic material and its distinctive approach to that material: it can be part of poetry’s wider responsibilities. The more “glimpses of rearrangement” the better.