Simon West: Prickly Moses

Princeton & Oxford: Princeton Uni Press, 2023, 60pp.

I think of Simon West as one of a number of Australian poets who could be described as trying to make a possible contemporary lyric poetry. And this, his fifth book, continues the slow and intriguing evolution of his poetry in this direction. It builds on themes, obsessions and motifs familiar from early books but takes them in rather new directions. The homeland of the country around the Murray at Echuca has always been present both as a distinctively Australian environment – redgums and their filtered light, overflow channels, leaf litter and winding tracks – and an emotional home: what they call “a ground”. To balance this, there has always been West’s experience as an Italianist, inhabiting a very different physical and poetic environment. There has always, too, been an interest in the status of words – seen sometimes almost as though they were objects in themselves – and especially in the way they interact with the natural objects that they try to describe, a sense that the reality of a leaf or small piece of bark is almost infinitely complex and that language, even at a poetic pitch deploying all the techniques of tactility and available metaphor, can only really gesture in the direction of full description. This would result in a lyric poetry which, though falling short of the hypothetical goal of complete description, can also offer (or hope for) expansion, a fuller interaction with the world resulting in a fuller inner life for poet and reader. It’s a direction that the poems of Prickly Moses clearly want to explore.

And the exploring is done, not in the cryptic, compressed mode that often appears in earlier books, but rather in more extended pieces. This was a development that I noticed in reviewing Carol and Ahoy and here it’s taken farther. There is, to be brief, a lot of movement in these poems: one of the central propositions might be that the reality of one’s environment is best examined by moving through it. An obvious example from Prickly Moses is “Paddlesteaming” a three and a half page description of a trip on the PS Alexander Arbuthnot along the Murray from Echuca (there’s a Youtube video of exactly this sort of trip for readers who want to get even closer to the poem). It’s a deliberately unpretentious piece – about as far from an intense lyric mode as it is possible to be – and is replete with humble half-rhyme couplets and deliberate “Aussieisms” that almost create a sense of benevolent gormlessness, the poetic equivalent of a labrador dog, perhaps. In contrast to the elliptical lyrics of, say, First Names, The Yellow Gum’s Conversion and The Ladder, this seems to want to take a journey through the magical home country and extend it in exactly the opposite direction of these earlier poems: towards the demotic, even towards chat and casual asides. This even includes self-referential comments on the poet’s own themes – “Red gums still? You’d think I’d done that trope to death! / But why be coy about obsessions?”.

Yet, despite this tone, it’s still very much a poetry of the sacred, or at least, what is sacred to a particular individual. Since, a short distance beyond the gums that line the river, there is nothing but “sand / and plains of saltbush scrub” as far as the horizon, the boat is moving along a kind of stream of meaning, a magical bright ribbon:

. . . . .
                                    So we cling to the cortege
of reflected light, this baptist whose largesse
speaks for an ampler religion than the human heart,
harder too, and not one from which you can part,
though acolytes of speed and noise still try.
Like the nave of a church that has doffed its roof to the sky
when it empties, quiet follows the speedboat’s water-quake . . .

It’s also interesting that in this utterly Australian (well, northern Victorian) environment, the classical Italian world still has its place. When West recalls his father – “who brought us here as kids” – he does so “by way of Aeneas in Dis”, referring to “The Twofold Tree” in Carol and Ahoy which is a translation of a passage in The Aeneid dedicated to his father’s memory. And we are told that the largest of the red gums along the river can be dated as being older than Dante whose “selva oscura” always seems to be an allegory lurking behind earlier West poems involving trees.

Before I look more closely at the emerging, overt autobiographical element in these poems, I want to continue for a while, to think about this idea of a poetry of movement. The poem preceding “Paddlesteaming”, “Elemental Song – Yarra Bend Park”, seems, at first, to be a “rendering” or “catching” poem, trying to convey the immense complexity of the way water moves on the surface and below, the way it shapes land. It’s the sort of task that brings out the best of a certain kind of imaginatively intense language-use that poetry has always held the rights to:

I wonder at the windways water carves,
has always carved in loam,
river’s running vein, glossed glass

that gives back bush cross-sectioned from those mud-packed joints
down to her threadbare baldachin. Water taut in a flute,
the top brushed silk whose shine

is bent around each fold or, under wind,
will ripple through riddles forged
faster than starlings on the wing.

Current works a slower change. Surface plots
of shadow pulse for it,
and pulse for what

rides roughshod down below . . .

It’s lightyears in tone from “Paddlesteaming” and seems to be a meditation frozen in time as though the observer were sitting on the side of the creek. But we learn at the deliberately bathetic end – “though I’m pulled up short now by Heidelberg Road” – that it’s actually observations made while moving. There are a lot of possible ways of engaging with this that may or may not have been intended. Does understanding require a kind of physical alignment of observer and observed? Does he movement of the poet alongside the movement of the stream suggests the movement of a human life in a kind of parallel to the movement of the water?

“Heading North through the Goulburn Valley” and “Variations on the Walk Back from Bushrangers Bay” declare, in their titles, that they are poems of movement. But, taken together with the sequence that follows them, “Exeat”, they might be better seen as openly autobiographical poems. (Interestingly the Latin title is a subjunctive which means “Let him leave”, a chit given to students to permit them to leave school or, in the olden days, university. Thus, in a sense, it refers to movement as well. It’s certainly more apposite than, say, “Memories of My old School”!). “Heading North through the Goulburn Valley” is about the train journey north at the beginning of a school holiday – “It’s summer’s end and you’re led back home / down tracks as plumb as higher laws”. The railway tracks contrast with the “meander routes” of tracks in the bush and, interestingly, it’s a poem celebrating the moment when the line of gums along the river appears. In other words, you could see it as a poem about the moment when you intersect the kind of environment that the PS Alexander Arbuthnot is going to be traversing. Like “Heading North . . .”, “Variations on the Walk Back from Bushranger’s Bay” lures readers into thinking that the movement described – “From headland rock / we’d watched up close how water can charm its own weight . . .” – takes place in the immediate past whereas it is, in fact, set in the distant past of childhood. “Variations . . .” concludes with the moment when, as a thirteen year old boy, West commits himself to poetry:

To reach the car
in fifty steps
will mean I’m meant
by fate to be a poet.

That was the lot
you dealt yourself . . .

There’s a sense in which all poetry that can be called “lyric” – even the stoniest imagist productions – involve the self and the autobiography of its development. “Exeat” is a set of interesting perspectives on school experience, for example, but there is something especially intimate about a poet’s first commitment to poetry: it’s something usually glossed over in the most I-based of poets.

“The Campanile” is another poem of movement but one that takes place far away from the northern plains of Victoria. It is a reminder of the second component of West’s poetic self – the Italian. The poem describes not linear but vertical movement, ascending the stairs of an old bell-tower:

Old stairs pitched steeply round an open heart, 
rigged to walls by worm-holed traves,
girders and joists as thin as stilts, and landings
like the platform an acrobat might use. Trusting
to each hung step as though we trod on unlit
yards of air, we climbed alone, with hunched
and blinkered gaze set on the rung
below our feet . . .

This is not only vertical movement, it is also a spiral. Many of West’s earlier poems, even those set in Australia, have, underlying them, a Dantean allegory: gum trees can also make up a “dark wood”. So I’m inclined to read this ascent in allegorical terms as parallelling the climb up the Mount of Purgatory and it’s intriguing now to think of the journey through the dark wood as being horizontal and the descents and two ascents of the rest of the Commedia as stressing vertical movement. At any rate, there’s no Beatrice at the top of this spiral, only the bell, the symbol of poetry itself “from where / song breaks and expands / evening and morning and at noon”. The Italianist component of West’s self isn’t simply a matter of different landscapes and cultures. It isn’t even to be limited to the sharper perspective on language and the quality of individual words that being bilingual makes possible. It can be a matter of poetic technique itself, especially the drive towards Dantean allegory.

“Notes on Clouds” – the book’s first poem – is, at one level, a poem challenging words to “capture” what is said (along with moving water) to be the most uncapturable of phenomena, but it also establishes this “culturally-double” self. The first two stanzas fix us firmly in the North of Victoria:

. . . . . 
I used to watch that mirrored ocean foam
          float in slow motion over plains vast and rambling
as a pelagic vista, the crickets’ metronome
          set largo fortissimo, the Goulburn untangling
north to the Murray – the valley’s one clear border.
          The clouds moved east and drew your eye in their flanged
wake like a lure in whose shine you saw Dookie, Benalla,
          and a sweep of land to the Dividing Range . . .

But the next stanza moves to Italy:

Later I loved the high-rise fleece in old
          Venetian oils: your gaze drawn up tiers
of rough-hewn fog that angels scale
          like go-betweens. They bridge the stratosphere,
freeing the bounded eye to rise like Dante
          when he glimpsed the whorls of the empyrean . . .

It’s interesting that a poem which seems resolutely to be about a single topic can convey so much that harmonises with other poems. The contrast is strong between the prosaic (though, admittedly, exotic) names of the towns east of Echuca and the rich imaginative possibilities of the clouds in Italy. There is also an oblique touch of unexpected autobiography in the poem in that it might signify childhood years being followed by student years in Italy, and perhaps it isn’t an accident that, as in “Heading North . . .” and “Variations . . .” the exact time is left, at least initially, vague: we have to work out when the individual stanzas are “set”.

Finally, on this subject of a culturally doubled personality, there are the first two stanzas of “The Sun in the Door”:

As gum trees seen through morning fog
dispute for us the fate of Job

so Roman ruins stay the sky
and animate our inner eye . . .

In mode it has a touch of Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” to it and seems to hope that “riddles and linked rhymes set free / reason’s hounds to chase a key” but that initial pair of couplets nicely combines the Australian and Romance environments.

As I’ve said, one of the underlying issues in this kind of lyricism is of words and the way they cannot adequately convey even the smallest fragment of reality. This is best seen perhaps in “Writing Sounds” where a terrific poem is made out of the doomed attempt to “capture” not a piece of bark or a leaf but the sound a pencil makes when it’s drawn over paper in the act of writing:

First the sound graphite makes drawn across paper:
a rustle like a dog circling in to nestle, or a tight-lipped
whisper as trance-like a child traces her name. The pencil labours
onwards but keeps manically crossing itself, as it plots its pitching

tracks in snow, or shuffles insect antennae into drift lines.
Then the bristles-sweeping sound, the rub-of-rosin sound, as the side
of the hand jumps like a wren in dead foliage, frightened
by the apparition of each new word. And finally
the swish of fingers tugging or run through hair. . .

It’s a different kind of poetry to the poems of movement that I have focussed on but that is part of the richness of Prickly Moses. It is a handsome book in a distinguished series but it certainly deserves its place.