Todd Turner: Thorn

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019, 79pp.

A second book always gives readers a chance to see what in the first book was central and what was tangential, stuff to be got out of the way before moving on in one’s poetic career. And Todd Turner’s Thorn begins by making an immediate connection to its predecessor, Woodsmoke. The last poem of that book called “Fieldwork” in a deliberate reference to Seamus Heaney’s poem (and the book it gives its title to) was an extended move down into the detritus of a forest floor, into the lives of beetles and their larvae, nesting in the rotting remains of dead birds. It summarises the recurrent images of leaf-rot and its inhabitants which recur in the poems of that book. But it’s also about the searching as much as the symbolic significance of creative decay, the foul rag and bone shop of a particular heart, and perhaps it’s also about the limits of poetic knowledge. The first poem of Thorn is called “Thread” and is about a similar search, even if the setting is the inside of a person’s body and mind rather than the forest floor.

It is actually quite a daunting poem for a reader to come across first up. Something begins internally – “A pulse, an inkling. Numinous wellings” – and tracking it to its source opens out into a metaphor of landscape – “an unremembered wilderness”. We are told that this is done “more out of hope than quest” which is possibly a reminder that the archetype being invoked here, Theseus in the labyrinth, uses the unspooled thread (the English word “clue” develops out of the word for a spool of thread) not as a way in on some quest but as an exit strategy. At any rate the landscape becomes an internal one, overlaying images of the natural world with those of the body, overlaying silt and sinew:

. . . . . 
Though it takes something more or less
like groundwork for the tracks to reappear
in the vein and slipstream of a path
made unfamiliar to you now. Still,
you forage the pith and purblind chamber,
the heart hauled bloodlines of inherent bone.

And out of the marrowing absence comes
an undertow, tinctured within the weight,
a kind of nothingness that’s been threading
away in the silt and sinew of some buried truth,
like the pause before the breathless becoming
of a word that draw on its implicit shape.

This is complex and not entirely comfortable for the reader. The main issue is the question of what it is that emerges out of this weird internal geography, and the two candidates are probably poetry and one’s genetic history. If it is the latter then the reference to a word will have to be read as an expression of features of one’s past. Certainly, as one tries to work one’s way into Turner’s complex view of the things that make up his interior landscape, these are themes that recur.

At a fairly basic level, there is the theme of work, given a pre-eminence in both books. The first poem of Woodsmoke was a strange little piece about regularly shelling peas and there is always an emphasis on labour in Turner’s poetry. It is encapsulated, of course, in the pregnant phrase “field work” in which one works in an actual field of grass, grain and rotting plants but also in a metaphorical area of one’s expertise. (Interestingly, in this latter use of the term, fieldwork is seen as one method of research for sciences like Anthropology or Linguistics in which one actually gets out of the library or seminar room and into “the field”.) In “Thread”, field work is recalled by a related and equally pregnant word, “groundwork”.

“Thread” shows us is that the commitment to being “bottom-up” and always beginning with a respect for the ground of any issue, whether it is something as internally complex as the metaphor here or something comparatively unexceptionable like domestic tasks or rural labour, is a part of Woodsmoke that will continue in Thorn. Thorn also shows us that the interest in parental forebears isn’t something that the earlier book got out of the way but is, instead, a continuing obsession. I use the mealy-mouthed phrase “parental forebears” because there isn’t much in the two books about current family life (partner, children) and what there is is easily outweighed by poems devoted to the poet’s parents. The poem, “Kooravale, 1959” in Woodsmoke, which dealt with his mother’s flight from an overbearing father, is expanded into an eight-sonnet sequence in Thorn. And the greater length allows for some really interesting explorations. The title, “My Middle Name”, gives something of a clue since the series is not only about the way his mother and father fled by train to the capital but about the way in which such a denial of a parent on her part produces an absence in her son, reflected in his lack of a middle name. And so the sequence begins:

The sound of my middle name is silence -
my birthright by my mother’s reckoning.

We were bound by the broken bond,
the standoff between my mother

and her father . . .

Among the pulses and inklings that rise from the lower depths of consciousness and have to be listened for carefully and attentively are the inheritances of parents and grandparents in the form of our genes. “Heirloom” (which is “after” Hardy’s poem “Heredity”, itself a celebration of the way facial features outlive their incarnations in an individual and thus defeat time and mortality) focusses on these intimations. Genetic features are, in the language of the forest floor, things “you sense by impulse, like shoots of an under-level earth” and which resurface having been “sprung in roots”. Hence the title since these genes are “not a jewel or a thing you can touch” but instead a kind of loom in which a recurring pattern appears as long as one is receptive to it. It’s no accident that the poem includes the words “clue” and “trace”.

The second section of Thorn, devoted to poems about animals, looks, on the surface, to be a kind of relaxation into poems of observation, but actually it forms an extension of the themes of the first part in that it is their relationship to the ground, their “field work”, that interests Turner. Magpies for example are immediately introduced by a process of correction (as was the concept of inheritance in “Heirloom”) as being creatures of the ground rather than the air:

Easily mistaken as unearthly
yet far more grounded
than otherworldly,

poised and counterpoised
on two taut limbs,
strolling the parks . . .

The snail and the echidna (whose image features on the cover) are celebrated as indefatigable dwellers on the floor, especially the latter who gets a six-poem sequence to itself concentrating on its slow evolution “past the bones of dinosaurs” and development into a “site-specific excavator / of the underground”. Two poems of this section are devoted to the horse which does not, superficially, seem a candidate for celebration since it was domesticated specifically to carry humans rapidly across land in a way which ignored the gritty specificity of the mud and gravel of the long-trodden tracks that our distant ancestors were stuck with. The first of these poems is about a fall, and thus is interested in the way the rider and her horse make contact with the ground. The former says that it (ie riding) “is in my blood” which suggests that we should transfer the interest in the subtly felt intimations that Thorn is interested in into a pattern of the self that can derive from the forest floor of genetic instincts, rather like the face in “Heirloom”. But, at the same time, it’s hard not to feel the poem’s interest is also in the literal mud which both rider and horse finish up in.

The second “horse” poem (it’s not its fault that it’s just called, “Horse”) looks like a set of metaphors derived from the landscape whose function is to “capture” its subject. But what the poem does is conceptualise its horse as an embodiment of that landscape:

Bending to the earth, the silhouette of a horse
is a hillside, dense as almond wood.
From wither to tail, a bristling escarpment
drops to a levelling range and a broadening flatland,
its bare-blank spine, cradles the sprawling horizon
and valley depths . . .

It’s a most unusual perspective, carried on through a lengthy poem, until, finally, the dozing horse moves not into the landscape but into its own mind – “Motionless, under half-closed lids it has slipped, / as if flown from the bars of an unlocked gate, / bolted to the blind spot between its eyes, / dawning headlong deep in the dew” – a movement that recalls the first poem of the book as well as a fine poem about horses in Woodsmoke, “At Cobark”.

As though to make clear that this pattern of belief and imagery is not the whole truth about life and poetry, and that to see Turner’s poems as an assault on all forms of rising above, of transcendence, is to see only half the picture, there are a series of poems in Thorn which are exactly about balance. “Solar Lunar” explores the interaction between sun and moon in a “dance between gravity and space” that determines the interaction of light and dark on the surface of the earth. Although this cosmic perspective seems a long way from the forest floor, the interest is in the balance of light and dark and the final lines – “the bright rhythms / in sync with the dark degrees of under-goings” – suggest that our “under-goings”, interpretable as experiences (what we “undergo”) as well as deaths, involve a return to earth and mud. “The Juggler” and “A Ladder” are both concerned with balancings between the earthy origins of things and some kind of transcendence, what the latter poem calls, “ascension / as if the world were put on hold”. One of the most interesting poems of this section is “The Sweet Science” a poem about, of all things, boxing – it follows a poem called “The Ring” but that is about a wedding ring! “The Sweet Science” fits in with earlier poems because, in being about “ringcraft”, it recalls those words, “field work” and “groundwork”. Boxers work their ring as echidnas work their fertile detritus and poets work their themes and obsessions. The poem’s material derives from the well-observed variety of the boxers – amateurs, old pros, a “toe-tuned Joe Marvellous”, and so on – but its focus is on the common experience which is, in a phrase that deliberately recalls the end of “Solar Lunar”, “the undisputed dance to undergo and overcome”.

Not unsurprisingly there is sometimes a Wordsworthian turn in some of these poems, a detailed narrative of external experiences which form part of the “growth of a poet’s mind” as they do in The Prelude. We can see this in “The Raft”, “At Willabah” and “Tent”. There’s a relaxed expansiveness about these narrative-based poems that isn’t found in dense poems like “Thread” and, as with all such expanded narratives, the meanings are allowed to unfold as part of the fabric of the poem resulting organically from the events it recounts. True, each of them finishes with a climactic image. In “The Raft” which is written in the past tense and recounts a childhood experience of launching a raft, we are left with the symbolically significant image of someone leaping from the solid ground onto a raft, becoming “suddenly adrift, / all at sea, toeing the waters of uncharted skin”. It could be about that moment in adolescence when we realise that, far from being the centre of the universe, we are afloat in an inconceivably complex social ocean. Or it could be about what happens to poets when they begin a poem and find themselves frustratingly but creatively “all at sea”. “At Willabah” is also about setting sail – this time in a canoe – and it concludes with an image of the poet on his back looking upward at the stars. “Tent”, the book’s last poem and hence not one to be taken lightly, also seems to be about the balance between the forest floor and the stars but also the balance between the private world, symbolised by the tent, a “pinned-down dwelling place, / small abode”, and the great world outside. It may even be committed to investigating the notion of the perceiver and his or her interactions with the perceived.

These narratives are fine, stately poems and, presumably, Turner is faced with the issue in his further work of how far he should go down this track (an apposite metaphor) and how far he should confine himself to the intense and compressed meditative lyricism of pieces like “Thread”. He is such a good poet that it will be fascinating to see what choices he makes.

Aidan Coleman: Mount Sumptuous

Mile End, SA: Wakefield Press, 2020, 55pp.

Aidan Coleman’s first book, Avenues & Runways, is an example of a comparatively rare thing in Australian poetry: something in the minimalist tradition. To risk a gross generalisation, Australian poetry, viewed from a very distant perspective, does seem word- and assertion- heavy as though, in a country with a very small audience and a fairly low professional standing, poetry and poets have to be seen to be working hard and producing nice thick texts. What subtle suggestivenesses there are are likely to be framed by dense text. Avenues & Runways belonged, I think, to a sub-branch of this minimalist mode which is usually called Imagism. The word (and, probably, the mode) was invented by Ezra Pound in 1915 and he is responsible for one of the examples that all poetry readers know: “In a Station of the Metro”.

It’s clear that part of the drive behind the Imagists was a reaction against the verbosity of the Romantic and Victorian traditions. As with the processes of poetic history generally, the natural movement was towards the opposite extreme. But, just as a contemporary minimalist Australian poet has to withstand the accusation of being no more than an effete gesturer, so Pound was compelled to emphasise intensity and compression rather than cultured suggestion. His own description of the lengthy drafting that produced “In a Station of the Metro” is probably not trustworthy but it does stress the process of compression and extraction that resulted in a more intense and focussed result: it isn’t a bland putting together of two images – like a student’s haiku writing exercise – but rather a capturing of an intense but fleeting moment of experience conveyed through an image. And the experience isn’t a culturally general one: it’s a unique experience of a unique individual. If the mode still speaks to us it is probably because, although we are in no way like Ezra Pound (in personality as well as in historical context!) we know that we have similar intense and fleeting experiences and if we were good poets we might have been able successfully to convey them. That’s the roundabout way in which the Imagist poets “spoke for” their generation.

They also – though this might seem to be wandering a long way from Aidan Coleman’s new book – cleaned out the language of poetry: no mean feat at the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s the language rather than the imagery that places the Imagists at the beginning of English-language modernism. Pound’s poem is, compared to the poems of his first books, fairly denotative. We might quibble at “apparition” but generally there is nothing in it that might not have been written today, more than a century later. The same could be said for Hulme’s rather marvellous, “Autumn”. But the same couldn’t be said for all of Pound’s poems in Lustra because of his complex engagement with the literature of the past, both Romance and Oriental. One of the interests of “In a Station of the Metro” is that the two images which are combined are, respectively, something drawn from the European world – Paris – and something suggestive of oriental art traditions, but also something absolutely modern combined with something suggesting the japonoiserie of the previous century.

As I’ve said, this seems a long way from Aidan Coleman’s poetry but it does set it in some kind of perspective since someone choosing the minimalist path is likely to run up against many of the issues foreshadowed a century ago by the work of the Imagists. In some of the poems of Avenues & Runways the imagist form is exploited for its mix of compression and surprise. Take “She’s”, for example whose compression is advertised not only in its shapely skinniness (whose swaying lines visually mimic the subject) but in its refusal to allow the title to require an extra word:


the choppy swing
of hips

a cool breeze
this café

like the sea
for Egyptians

Everything depends here not on a red wheelbarrow but on the last word. Where we would expect Israelites, we get Egyptians. The Reed Sea parted for them too but it closed over their heads and destroyed them. It’s a nice poem about casual eroticism – it’s after all a “cool” breeze – and its mesmerising effects on others. It’s also structured so that the knife isn’t turned until the last word, and that in itself provides a strong formal pleasure.

Another poem, “Estates”, uses the imagist mode to describe suburban sprawl:

Here, on empty blocks,
the grass fists and flames,
sizzles by day
or hums with the dull voltage of insects.

The houses built are set out neat
as breakfast on a tray:
the water tank,
the shed, the velcro-lawn.

Now it’s evening, lights come on.
You hear the echo
of a bouncing ball, 
bikes rewinding the streets home.

A train brews to boil
then simmers;
the crossing bangs
its pots and pans.

In a sense it is four separate imagist pieces put together to make a combined portrait and the structure of the combination is based on time: two daylight stanzas are followed by two in the evening as though the structure were a kind of expanded example of the old one-image-matched-against-another. This larger structure is one protection against the charge that the minimalist approach is merely precious. Of the individual stanzas probably only the last one has an immediacy and force that Pound would have approved of and it’s a moot point whether the entire poem could not have been successfully reduced to this single stanza. It does, after all, have all the implied connections between suburban domesticity – the “pots and pans” – and the infrastructure of housing developments along railway lines. On the other hand it’s an aural image (and a strikingly accurate one) and the larger structure of the full poem allows for a mix of visual and aural.

Finally, “Wednesday Nights” describes driving home after an evening class:

And then these Wednesday nights
driving home; the meditation
of a straight road; the cut and paste
of shopping centres, service stations,
the rhythm of street lights.

Three lanes and few cars,
there’s nothing else to read or mark.
The road opens onto fields;
the airport, set against the dark,
calling in lost stars.

It’s “about” the relaxed meditative state that a regularly repeated, and thus familiar, journey on an empty road can induce. It’s intensified because the previous activity had involved a high degree of concentration on specifics: reading and marking. Just as the road opens up into fields and an airport, so the mind, too, expands. The “lost stars” will be plane lights which do, in the distance in the night sky, look like moving stars. This poem works more allusively than the other two I have quoted because Coleman’s first book reveals a general interest in airports – in its title, for example – and we add to this poem the framework image of takings-off: of meaning in a poem as well as planes. “Wednesday Nights” is thus, in its own small way, a poem-poem, revealing an interest in expansion, of “taking-off” not only of the mind’s movement into meditation but of the poem’s movement into wider meaning than its homely domestic material. It’s a point to return to when looking at Mount Sumptuous.

Such a first book would normally have made its follow-up especially interesting because minimalism as the path of an entire career rather than a single, first volume probably requires even more daring. External events – in the form of brain cancer and a devastating stroke with long-term implications – made the situation of the second book much more complex. Most of Asymmetry is an exploration and expression of this crisis. Just as Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness tested how well his surreal poetic mode could cope with something as overwhelming and ordinary as the grief of loss, so Coleman’s illness is a test of the imagistic style which he continues into this second book. Peter Goldsworthy gives a good description of the situation on the back cover of the book (not a place that is usually full of enlightenment) when he says that the poems of Asymmetry “read like some profound and moving metaphor for the process of writing poetry itself”. This is true but the nature of the situation, of extreme closeness to death and then aphasia protects the poems slightly. Since what they deal with is of itself powerful, they are not as reliant as the poems of Avenues & Runways on the sophistication of the poems’ shape, images and resonances. Some are no more than pared-down descriptions of hospital experiences: “. . . The click / and dull bounce of machines . . .” But later, as the poems describe rehabilitation at home and a shaky return to work, the true imagist perspective is recovered. In “Reading Aloud”, for instance:


The eyes nervous
over the hazardous page

A deep breath in .  .  .

Then mount the wobbly tightrope bicycle of speech


Each syllable locked
in an opaque shell

Each word to be jigsawed,
parcelled, stamped
in a wink or flash of the tongue

Like America sometimes
I trick the iambs
or guessmudge my way clear

Again, in imagist style, this is really two different images: one for the preparation to get back on “the wobbly tightrope bicycle of speech” – a very memorable final image – and the other for the actual performance with the tricky syllables. And yet each stanza has its complement of interestingly clashing images: the first, for example, of an image from the natural world – the eyes moving nervously like dragonflies – butted up against an image from the circus world.

This is all some kind of background to a reading of Coleman’s third book, Mount Sumptuous. It was an interesting book to think about in advance of reading. Would it be a kind of return to the style of the first book? Would the events recorded in the second provide a new perspective on the possibilities of the imagist style? In fact, what the third book does is focus on issues of meaning and especially of authorial control over meaning. In this sense it is a far more challenging book than the first two, but more challenging for the author as well as for the readers. I think its aim is to retain the minimalist component of the imagist aesthetic in its resistance to all kinds of lushness, especially verbal lushness, but at the same time to explore ways of widening the gap between the items that are brought together in the poems.

Sometimes the rationale for the images makes obvious sense to the reader. There are, for example, a series of six poems spread through the book with alternative titles of “Primary” and “Secondary”. This gives plenty of warning that these poems will be based on the colour wheel whereby three primary colours – red, yellow and blue – are interspersed by colours – “secondaries” – formed by the mixing of the primary colours on either side. The six poems are organised so that each primary is followed by the secondary across from it on the colour wheel: red is followed by green, yellow by purple, and so on. Since each poem is basically a group of images united by their colour, they are given a logical rationale, but if the colour is stripped out (either by readers imagining themselves colour-blind or by imagining the images on an old black and white television) one is left with the issue of the interaction between images at the level of meaning. The first poem, “Red”, doesn’t really present any great difficulties for a reader. Its series of images includes a first car, mouths and apples in stories, children’s scraped knees and teacher’s corrections, carefully and unthreateningly written in green rather than red:

My first car red as a half-sucked
Jaffa, the crackling bacon
of its radio. The brick of all-meat
towns you dress
to kill on Fridays. The O
of mouths and round
of targets – you recall, in panic-big letters,
the shiny apple from a story

best avoided. Red is not
my favourite colour the child screams,
over khaki shorts and wounded knee.
Now the teacher chastens gently
in lowercase green.

Although these images are all butted up in imagist fashion, there is a clear overriding theme derived from the fact that they are all about the past and actually move backwards in time as the poem progresses. There is a case of cross-over between images when the auditory image for an old car radio – “crackling bacon” – connects to the “all-meat / towns” that the adolescent goes to the movies or dances in. The second image puns on the cliché “dressed to kill” in its meaning of “well-dressed” and the unpleasant but widely accepted euphemism that slaughtering animals for meat is “dressing” them. This links across to the phrase “wounded knee” in the second-last image which, apart from its homely meaning of childhood gravel rash is also a reference to the notorious American massacre of the Lakota Indians in 1890. So one could say that the larger units which are being connected here are about childhood and slaughter. More than that, as a reader, I can’t say, except that perhaps the poem’s interest is in the way in which, as children, we are prepared for “adult” horrors by stories.

My point in looking at this poem in detail is to explore whether this series of poems is organised so that they become more open, more tenuous, more “difficult” for the reader as they progress. The last of this suite, based on orange, is the last poem of the book:

Easier to paint
than rhyme, this volatility. A poet-envy
of the art-fluke, or ripeness
cut in segments sucked to the pith.
A plaintive case deflating
on a snack bar counter
where citrus men
swash fizz through lunch
and later repair the voltage of night
in the out-of-sync bounce
of signal and blinker.
You take a little kindling, the light
of a cupped match,
to hazard across deciduous campuses:
the vast, blue continent of theory. Go softly on.

It begins with a reference to the fairly well-known fact that “orange” is one of those words in English for which there is no rhyme. But, of course, for someone writing in an imagist mode it’s a reminder of the primacy of the visual. After this introduction there are two main images: a group of electrical repairmen having a lunch that involves swigging orange soft drink before going out “to repair the voltage of the night” and the poet himself lighting a match on campus – a hazardous thing to do when there are a lot of dried winter leaves around – and an attack on “the vast, blue continent” of, presumably, abstract thought (I don’t think it refers to the “Theory Wars” since they are too far in the past). That this continent is “blue” is a way of bringing the poem up against the primary colour opposite on the colour wheel. I don’t think, on reflection, that there is a great difference here with the first of these poems in terms of the demands it makes on a reader. Its final words, though, do lead on to another issue of the poems of Mount Sumptuous.

“Go softly on” is a quotation from Hamlet. Fortinabras, Hamlet’s alter ego, the man he might have been, or might have wanted to be, were he not cursed by irresolvable indecisions, says it while giving instructions to one of his soldiers. Coming as it does as the last words of the last poem of Coleman’s book, it is almost inevitable that readers should see it as a kind of note-to-self, a decision to continue in this “soft” imagistic vein which is quite capable of starting fires. The quote is also part of the book’s extended web of allusions. Some of them are to such high-culture items as Hamlet, but many are to far humbler phenomena. The balance between the two is interesting since it shows a desire to avoid a poetry with nothing but high-cultural allusions and resonances in the classical Chinese way. There is room, in other words, for bandaids, brillo pads and Blue Light Discos. Many of these are explained in the extended notes at the back. And these notes are far more detailed than they need to be: nobody capable of reading poems needs to have explained what Auslan is, or that band-aid is the generic name “for a small adhesive bandage” as well as the name (without the hyphen) of a “charity supergroup”. The effect is odd and these notes become part of the book and part of the reading experience of the book in a way that is quite different to the explanatory notes that turn up at the back of a lot of books of contemporary poetry. In a sense they are a bit like one of the poems themselves, extracting brand names and television show names from the poems not with the aim of explaining the references but of putting them together in a set of statements that is organised in the same way as the poems are – by surprising and powerful juxtaposition. Looked at this way it brings Coleman close to something that one would think was a long way from the aesthetics of his poetry: an oulipo-like generating of a text out of previous texts.

The other poems of Mount Sumptuous traverse a scale from, at one end, complex but intriguing and engaging to, at the other, really incomprehensible to the reader. Comprehensibility doesn’t here mean “with an understandable and paraphrasable meaning” so much as something which, though resisting simple interpretations, still gives a reader something to grapple enjoyably with. The first three poems, “Oracular”, “Cartoon Snow” and “The End of Weather” belong to the easier end of the scale. Their juxtaposed images are intriguing to an outsider and continuous rereadings produce, at least for a while, a feeling of familiarity and confidence. A poem like “Proper Opera, a Rom-com” comes perhaps from the middle of the spectrum:

Laws I follow
your lead

in breaking
we kiss

the lights turn 

with recidivism

The title which has a near anagram followed by a rhyme puts a high culture form next to a popular culture one – as though anagramatisation and rhyme might be ways of making the things connect. The sixteen-word poem that follows might be barely comprehensible but I think we know roughly in what area its meanings lie: in erotic love processed through the laws of two different forms. As an example of the far reaches of the spectrum, I would choose “Jolt”:

Men’s heads pull them
through the suburb like fists,
their trolleys missed and lately collected.
Skin is not equipment
in this shaking off
of targets. Living is all
you digress for:

your heart tuned to the plane’s
engine, the slide of air
plateauing at speed,
in what seems certain, blank
and endless - the countenance
of our hostesses.

It’s not a poem entirely without footholds (images of movement through, suggestions of taking off and flying that recall poems of Coleman’s first book) but, after many rereadings, it yields only nugatory results – at least to me!

I think it is at this extreme end of opaqueness that some of the interesting issues in this book and in this mode arrive. If an author, writing in a minimalist mode, retains absolute control over meaning, the writing process might be no more than throwing out a series of clues to the reader while having the answer firmly in one’s pocket. The reader then jumps through the hoops provided and, like a good dog, returns with the answer. This is undesirable for both writer and reader and one can appreciate Coleman’s abdication from this sort of imperial control over meaning. But once it happens, all the emphasis is thrown on the writer who must be confident that the images he or she is juxtaposing have a rightness in themselves independent of meaning. As a non-poet I can’t say whether that is easy or difficult, commonly done by poets or rarely done, but it is a form of creative intuition and the entire viability of a poem is a heavy burden for an essentially unexplainable process to bear. Mount Sumptuous avoids the pitfalls that the poetry of Coleman’s first book might have led him into but it will be interesting to see whether it provides a viable and sustainable model for the future.

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.

John A. Scott: Shorter Lives

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2020, 136pp.

John A. Scott’s spectacular Shorter Lives is made up of a series of poetic biographies of crucial figures in the development of what is usually called Modernism but which, as the distance from it lengthens, looks less like a movement and more like a rejection of the nineteenth century and everything it stood for. Developments in art, literature and music, often violently ideologically opposed to each other, were gathered together by this common drive to a rejection of the past on the basis of the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And the rejection of the European nineteenth century is something that continues to this day, one hundred and twenty years after the formal end of that century, especially in the grotesque parodies of nineteenth century culture – as embodiments of all the issues contemporary Western life disapproves of – that appear in popular culture. This seems unprecedented: it’s normal to kick your parents as you struggle to make an individual life, but not normal to keep on kicking the crumbling skeletons of your great-great-grandparents.

Scott’s book includes biographies of Rimbaud, Virginia Woolf in her childhood incarnation as Adeline Virginia Stephen (this biography ends in 1904 at the time of the breakdown which followed her father’s death), Andre Breton, Mina Loy and Picasso, with brief suites devoted to Charles Cros (an erstwhile friend of Rimbaud) and Ambrose Vollard, the great art dealer of modern painting and commissioner of Picasso’s famous series. A note at the end of Shorter Lives tells us that this volume is the first of a projected trilogy and so the cast of characters will treble. But even then, these lives can only be a sampling of the tumultuous events of early modernism. One’s sense of the project is that the sheer size of the material of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century means that no biographical overview is possible, and no single character can bear the burden of representing the movement(s). This makes it possible to approach the entire issue poetically, looking, as I will try to show, for patterns, threads, connections, repeated images and so on – the kind of thing that a major poet would do almost instinctively.

And so the first thing I would want to stress about this book is that these are poetic biographies and the word “poetic”, as usual, is open to a slew of interpretations. The crudest, perhaps, involves the notion of obsessive interest. Scott has been concerned with the literary and visual arts of this period, especially in France (which usually claims the privilege of inaugurating the modernist movement) from the beginning of his career. In an interview recorded in the early eighties he spoke of the impulses behind his earliest poetry:

In fact a lot of my early poems and many in The Barbarous Sideshow were part of a vast master scheme which I never completed and which was going to be a sort of contemporary, twentieth-century mythology. It had two major fictional characters named Rudolph and Miranda whose lives were intertwined with those of a lot of people in the first twenty years of the century – the Dadaists, for example . . .

Forty-odd years is a long time to harbour a project and Shorter Lives is obviously a long way from the projected work of the seventies but the impulses are clearly the same. Of course it could be argued that there is nothing unique to poetry in obsessions – sober historians have their lifelong projects as well, no less renowned than those of poets – but obsession is only a preliminary poetic feature here.

A second involves the issue of imaginative freedom. Not everything in these biographies is “true” or “real” according to the principles of historical honesty. Scott doesn’t only allow himself the freedom of imaginative reconstruction or speculation as a conventional biographer might, he allows himself a full imaginative engagement, changing the reality where he wants. One way of describing and comparing the portraits of Shorter Lives is to look at the degree of imaginative freedom that each contains and to speculate as to the reasons for it.

The first life is, fittingly, that of Rimbaud. Whereas most cultural historians are prepared to credit Baudelaire as being the first “modern”, he always seems to me to be an artist going about his work without an unusually intense animus directed towards the artistic culture he inherited: he was a devotee of Wagner, for example, perhaps the quintessential locus of late nineteenth century art. It is Rimbaud who throws the first sizeable grenade. One of those geniuses who, very quickly and very early on, run through all the possibilities of past and contemporary art, Rimbaud was just as profound an enemy of the early precursors of modernism – the kinds of multiple movements of the fin de siecle – as he was of the past. Scott’s life goes from his arrival in Paris to his death in 1891. It contains a section in which Rimbaud returns to London and lives in a basement flat flooded by water which rises and falls according to the tides. The material comes from Rimbaud’s own Illuminations – as it does in the next section which imagines Rimbaud in Aden – but it is also a theme in Scott’s work. His second book is called From the Flooded City and it may be worth pointing out that one of the most powerful of his earlier poems, “Elegy”, is built around Rimbaud’s death. Dismemberment (Rimbaud’s leg was amputated) is another recurring theme. At the conclusion of “Rimbaud”, there is a section which imagines a later life for a Rimbaud not struck down by syphilis. Here, readers not entirely au fait with the lives of French poets in the late nineteenth century will be relieved to know that the imaginative status of this section is clearly signalled:

Arthur Rimbaud misses seeing the Twentieth Century by nine years and three weeks. How different if he had chosen to resist the desire to lie with one of the beautiful Adari women . . .

In this section there is both imaginative expansion of the “what if” variety – Rimbaud serves as a war correspondent for Le Monde during the First World War – but also expansions whereby the line between the real and the imagined become blurred. One of the rare later pictures of Rimbaud is a photograph of him as a trader in Harar wearing a fez. Now, in this imagined later life, his head has adopted the shape of the fez so that he needs only to colour it to attain “a permanent headpiece”. He also travels to Venice and unwittingly introduces the plague which will kill not only Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach (from Death in Venice) but also Visconti’s Aschenbach – a very different character but from a film “adaptation” of the novella. There is a sense here of one of the dominant modes of the entire book: what is present within the poetry (or art) enters into the world of “reality”.

Rimbaud is also imagined to have been a pioneer of the process of cutting up texts and making new texts from them – a process that has survived into modern poetry where other textual practices of the time, automatic writing, for example, have not. The first section of this “Life” shows him borrowing a journal which has poems of Baudelaire but whose pages he must not cut. Hence he makes his own poems out of the half-lines that he can make out by prizing apart the joined pages. At the very beginning of Shorter Lives we meet the significant phrase, “misreading where necessary”. Something similar happens in the brief suite of poems “by” Charles Cros which follows the Rimbaud life and in which the poems, a note says, “were assembled from mistranslations of the French originals”. Again it’s a recurring theme/method in Scott’s work: there are “versions” of Propertius in the earlier “Preface” (which, with “Elegy” shows Scott at the grand guignol boundaries of his art).

The Rimbaud portrait, which is at heart derived from a careful study of everything that is known about him, allows itself, in other words, a good deal of imaginative license, often deriving expansions from the works. If one approaches the book from this point of view, it can be seen that the Picasso portrait, a set of twenty-four prose poems, allows itself (I think) only a couple of such expansions. In the fourth poem, Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, produces the kind of demon-child that “Elegy” concerned itself with:

. . . . . 
For several months the creature remains hairless; what will be horns are barely knuckle-like lumps. The genitals, an inheritance from Picasso, are fully-formed and would be of prodigious size even for an adult. From the first, Marie-Therese deems it satanic. She quickly learns how it shies away from candle-light, rears, swivelling aside with astonishing dexterity. Mercifully, the horned boy dies, par hazard, glimpsing its own grotesqueness in a glass – death by self-sight – a condition previously noted in creatures half-bull, half-human . . .

The studio used by Picasso in the rue des Grands-Augustins is where Balzac wrote his famous story “The Unknown Masterpiece” in which three painters – including an as yet unfamous Poussin – discuss a work by Porbus. At the end of Scott’s life of Picasso, Porbus and Poussin reappear to look at one of his paintings, converting Picasso into the third of the painters, the fictional Frenhofer.

The central “life” – that of Andre Breton – is entirely fictional (and very funny). Breton is imagined as arriving in Melbourne during the Second World War and, while in a hotel, having Trotsky dictate a manifesto about art and revolution to him in a dream. Breton writes the words on his bed sheets and then later finds that all the hotel’s bed-linen is dealt with by Chang’s Chinese laundry which, he discovers, has affiliates throughout the world, all of which contain libraries of sheet writing including one in Djibouti which contains the bulk of Rimbaud’s work imagined to have been produced in Africa. The Breton “Life” is almost entirely in prose that doesn’t aspire to be read as prose-poems. It is in fact a part of Scott’s novel, N, which was deleted from the final version. It fits in very beautifully here as a centrepiece which looks at Australia in Surrealist terms – Breton is fascinated by the rebel and proto-surrealist, Ned Kelly, and by Nolan’s photographs of Kelly’s armour which recall the African masks which became influential in the twenties. It may not be intended but there may also be some sort of judgement passed here on Breton, a walking mixture of gullibility, excitableness and quarrelsomeness whose history remains locked in narrative prose, rather than poetry. Again, significantly, the work alters reality, especially early on in Breton’s voyage to Australia:

. . . . . It was at this time Breton came upon the idea of charting the course on his copy of the Surrealist Map of the World. As, perhaps, a direct consequence of this (for what other explanation could there possibly be?) islands mysteriously began to amass and to disappear to the astonishment and consternation of the crew who, for example, would be confronted by shorelines hundreds of miles in excess of the islands they had visited many times before. The Bismarck Archipelago, for instance, was now a group of major islands easily exceeding the size of India. Breton’s map and glass were confiscated and the remainder of the journey via the British-French Condominium and New Caledonia passed without incident. . . 

Either side of the Breton portrait are lives of Virginia Woolf and Mina Loy. Both stick close to the facts and have comparatively few imaginative expansions. Those that are there, as in the case of the Picasso life, stress the demonic. Woolf’s madnesses will, presumably, occupy a later section of her biography, but there is a lot of concentration in this section on the sad life of Woolf’s half-sister, Laura, the daughter of her father, Leslie Stephen, and his first wife, Thackeray’s daughter, Minnie. A damaged child, she is portrayed here as a creature of demonic violence. One of the Stephen/Duckworth children’s hobbies at their holiday home of Talland (in St Ives, Cornwall), was smearing treacle in tree branches and then catching the moths that were drawn to it. The section, “Mothing”, describes this and continues:

. . . . . 
                   The following morning,
Laura is out to lick the branches. Her large
          head bent forward, face

          wallowing in the
treacle and moth-dust. Her eyes raise at their
first approach: “br-br-br -“ she essays, but can
get no further down the narrow passage
of its letters. “Branches,” Ginny offers back.
“Sweet, hard branches like Brighton Rock.” She and
Nessa, scheme – imaginatively girl-to-
girl – upon their stuttering (honey-tongued)
half-sister fixed upon the bark. Breathlessly,
they catch her tongue within the jar, and take it
(‘br-br-br’ it thrums) inside the house to pin.
Meanwhile, back in Laura’s slowly working
mouth, the treacle seeps into the cavities;
and sets within the gums.

The introduction of a demonic element into this well-known familial environment might explain why a section is devoted to James Stephen – “Jem, A Brief Digression” – a completely mad relative and suitor of Stella Duckworth, rather than Stella’s later husband, the reliable and profoundly sane Jack Hills.

In the life of Mina Loy there is a brief passage in which her husband, Arthur Cravan, draws a pen quill from her back and gets ink by soaking her hair. This has a very “Preface”-like quality. And later, in another Scott-like moment, Loy actually enters a painting: Richard Oelze’s famous Die Erwartung. As I have said, the Virginia Woolf life takes us only as far as 1904 by which time she is still Virginia Stephen, not yet Virginia Woolf. The Mina Loy life begins at almost exactly that point, leaving out the first part of her life – her marriages to Stephen Haweis and Arthur Cravan. Loy is not as significant a creative figure as the subjects of the other lives but she does have connections to a wide range of important people including Marinetti, Duchamp, Picabia, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. She is also intriguing because her various attempts to write down her own life focus on the figure of Arthur Cravan, her second husband and nephew of Oscar Wilde. He only appears in this life as a figure of the past being brought into words. He is, in fact, what he was in life: a disappearance, an absence – in this he resonates weirdly with Rimbaud. Most likely he chose his name (one of many – his baptismal name was Fabien Lloyd) so that his Christian name recalled Rimbaud’s. His baptismal surname Lloyd also, as the poem points out, contains in itself Mina Loy’s surname (itself a conscious blurring of the original “Lowy” which her mother thought to be too Jewish – the patterns and repetitions in these lives can begin to get vertiginously complex). His disappearance – taking a repaired sailing boat for a test run in the Gulf of Tehuantepac – is one of those which spawned, Rimbaud-like, its own set of myths: later sightings, found remains and so on. Scott, focussing on Loy’s later life, has a lot to say about her relationship with Joseph Cornell, the reclusive fellow-maker of box art. There is also a brilliant set of poems about her life after the war in the Bowery slums of New York where people sleeping on the streets simply die of cold: a kind of prefiguring of the current pandemic.

Why there is this comparative restraint on imaginative expansion in the lives of Woolf and Loy is a difficult question. It isn’t a case of available detail since, although the biographical facts about Loy are fairly sparse, Woolf must be the most over-exposed individual in twentieth century art with her extensive letters and diaries completely available. Perhaps it is because neither Loy nor Woolf move so fully in the world of the demonic as Rimbaud and Picasso do. Breton, on the other hand, simply inhabits the land of the irrational whose principle is: Whatever can be imagined can be real.

This quick look at the degrees of poetic/imaginative expansion in these lives also points up another element that one would want to call “poetic” though, again, writers in other genres might object. And that is the high degree of formal organisation of the entire book. It is structured in seven parts which are organised symmetrically. At the centre is Breton’s visit to Australia. Outside of it are the lives of Woolf and Loy, each fragmentary but structured so that the latter takes off where the former concluded. Either side of these are the two suites – the sonnets of Charles Cros and “The Vollard Suite” in both of which a good deal of imaginative expansion takes place (Vollard finds among his paintings works by “someone Pollock, someone Warhol, someone Bacon”). And then at the beginning and end are the lives of Rimbaud and Picasso.

This patterning is reflected in the styles of the sections. While Breton’s life is, as I have said, told in Scott’s elegant narrative prose, the opening and closing lives are really prose poems. In fact there is a good reason to feel that the method of the twenty-four images we get of Picasso is designed to make us recall Rimbaud’s Illuminations. In contrast, the lives of Loy and Woolf, though they contain prose sections, are predominantly done as sonnets, poems which have a distinctive visual shape (rather than a simple line count) in that both the first and last lines are indented. It’s a poem shape that dates back to Scott’s earliest work in The Barbarous Sideshow but here its complexity is multiplied by a set of conventions which are, so to speak, bolted on to the text. There are passages set in Courier font to indicate quotation from the author, there are marginal glosses and also footnotes. Virginia’s half-sister, Laura, has her effacement (she was eventually “institutionalised”) represented by having appearances of her name screened. James Stephen has his speech done in an old-style wedding-invitation font. The visual effect is spectacular and the poetic effect is intriguing because it is yet another attempt – more successful than the usual double columns etc – to move poetry away from linearity into multi-level meanings and perspectives. Of course, the downside is that it’s a nightmare to quote and I expect that in this book’s many reviews there will be few actual quotations from the lives of Virginia and Mina – the textual challenges would make it too difficult.

Finally, on this issue of what the word, “poetic” in the phrase, “poetic biographies” might entail, there is the question of the sensitivity to patterns and repetitions. I’ll take one example only from the dozens one might list. Mina Loy’s life includes detail about her son-in-law, Julien Levy. He was the son of a wealthy American real estate dealer who, though to some extent besotted with Mina (“inappropriate” sexual bonds are also a feature of Woolf’s life) married her daughter, Joella. He set up a very important art gallery in New York and introduced many of the artists of the modernist period to America with Loy acting as his Paris agent. One of these was Arshile Gorky. In mid-1948 Levy was driving in rain with Gorky as passenger. The car overturned, Gorky was left paralysed and unable to paint and shortly thereafter suicided, having “gone through the empty house, seeking out his favourite spots and preparing an individually-made noose for each of them”. The third of the three poems of “The Vollard Suite” – the next section of the book – describes Vollard’s death in 1939. While he is returning to his house, his chauffeur-driven car loses control on the wet road, somersaults, and Vollard is killed when material from the back of the car flies forward and breaks his neck. A note tells us that one of Vollard’s clients, Maillol, also died (in 1944) when the car in which he was a passenger skidded and rolled during a thunderstorm.

This is a fairly obvious example of the sort of chimings that attract a poet’s attention though they might be blurred within a straightforward, individual-based biography where they can only be interesting contingencies that would be relegated to a footnote (assuming they survived an editor’s pen). Another example might be the complex issue of movement, especially between countries. But there are other patterns within individual lives which are picked out in the poems. Rimbaud’s constant “drive to the east”, his continuous efforts to get away from Roche, his home, to the warm lands of Africa, are frustrated continually and, when eventually they are successful, turn out to be no more than a preparation for his final return home to die. Mina Loy’s constant movement seems a symbol of the idea of transforming the self and, possibly, making a “modernist” self. We see her passing through doors and a quote from the New York paper, Evening Sun, speaks of her as “already half-way through the door into / Tomorrow.”

Continuous rereading prompts all sorts of other examples and perhaps the most convincing connotation of the word “poetic” is that the method encourages (perhaps demands) an imaginative expansion on the part of the reader. I find myself beginning to plot my own course through this landscape, wondering, for example, what Woolf and Loy, as little girls, were doing on the day Rimbaud died. There are the birthdates also. Virginia Woolf was born on the 25th January, 1881 and Mina Loy on the 27th December of the same year. There are suggestive but entirely fortuitous harmonisings here: one opening the natal year, the other arriving at its close. And then there is Picasso, born on the same day as Woolf but three months earlier. Nothing in Shorter Lives explicitly connects this pair but one could meditate at length about one being a mirror image of the other: one whose madness expresses itself in creativity and a violent assertion of sexuality, the other in some way internalising the madness into psychotic, self-destructive spells. One working through a succession of partners, the other clinging to one, etc etc. And then there is the fact that Picasso is born exactly ten days after P.G. Wodehouse a figure who, in a way, represents exactly the opposite of modernism (though he lived in France for a time and migrated to America, like Mina Loy, and wrote for American musicals which might be seen as part of the reaction against nineteenth century, Germanic musicals). He also, unlike Loy and Picasso, had a direct experience of the demonic, not so much in being imprisoned by the Germans but in being tormented by English newspapers as a Nazi-sympathiser, a victim of the demonic powers of the popular press. I’ll stop here. Once one includes someone like Wodehouse in the landscape, the possibilities become vertiginous and that way madness lies!

The fundamental issue that its nature as a succession of “poetic biographies” raises is whether Shorter Lives is a contribution to the historical reconstruction of modernism (done by looking at the sorts of things conventional biography omits) or whether it is another, parallel universe to the actual historical period, one in which a poet can allow himself imaginative entries and expansions and one in which the creative powers of the individual artists are allowed to create a reality. I’m not entirely sure – an embarrassing admission for a reviewer. As evidence that it is the former is the fact that there are no wholesale changes to known history: Virginia Woolf doesn’t conduct an adolescent relationship with her half-brother (and first publisher) Gerald Duckworth, and Mina Loy doesn’t shoot Cravan in the wrist. The imaginative scenes are grafts rather than “alternate universe” changes to the historical timeline. I would like to sit on the fence and say that it partakes of both with perhaps a slight leaning toward the latter. Presumably the later instalments will help to clarify this problem. But, despite ones uncertainties about exactly what kind of book one is reading, it’s impossible to overstress just how extraordinarily fertile and imaginatively dense Shorter Lives is: there is more complexity and achieved ambition in half a dozen of its pages than in most books of contemporary Australian poetry.

Martin Langford: Eardrum: Poems and Prose about Music

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019, 153pp.

Music is the most emotionally engaging of the arts/entertainments, the one we hold most closely to. You can lose friends after arguing about music whereas you are unlikely to lose friends claiming that Thackeray is a better novelist than Dickens or that Antonioni’s films are overrated. Martin Langford’s Eardrum is entirely about music. It is immediately engaging (at least to me) but unusually difficult to write about because one is continuously breaking off one’s own composition to argue with some specific point or to follow another one further. This usually doesn’t happen with books of poetry where a critic is able to retain a certain personal distance from what a poem wants to say about society or a tree, or wants to do in some experiment with form or language.

Eardrum is made up of three parts: a nearly booklength collection of poems; an extended set of short poems, some of which could be called squibs, some more like epigrams (the section is called “Minims”); and a final set of prose pieces, meditations on music. There are a lot of structural issues at play here. When you first pick up the book, you think immediately of a kind of symphonic structure (though of only three movements) with “Minims” – which reminds me both in tone and form of Peter Porter’s “Scordatura” from his Afterburner – as a sort of scherzo. But for the conclusion to be prose seems odd. Is it analogous to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth which tries to negotiate a move into an entirely different form? Could the three parts have been reversed? Not really because then the prose ideas would predate the poems (structurally) and make the poems seem like statements of a predetermined set of understandings. It’s a complex business and I’ll have more to say about it later when I try to analyse the relation of prose and poetry in this and Langford’s other work.

The next thing to recognise is how dauntingly wide, deep and, most importantly, ecumenical Langford’s grasp of music is – far wider than mine and far more ecumenical. Punk and Rock get treated in the same dispassionate analytical way as does Classical. (At this point let me – as thousands have before me – remind readers of the inadequacy of this term which simultaneously denotes all “art-music” and art music in the brief but crucial period between the mid 1750s and, perhaps the death of Mozart in 1791. To keep calling art-music Classical Music privileges the sonata form of a movement away from the home key to which the music ultimately returns. It’s a bit like defining lyric poetry since Sappho in terms of Renaissance works and calling it not “lyric” but “Petrarchan”.) At any rate, the ecumenicalism is built into the structure of Eardrum. The opening poem, “The Finales” – whose title and subject is a nicely timed irony – is about art music. Its subject is one to which many of the poems and prose pieces in the book return: the notion that nineteenth century music is cursed by its striving towards an unattainable transcendence:

A Beethoven ending is not a true ending.

It can’t be. There are no such things.

He raises the volume.

He tensions the strings and attacks . . .

Eases silk across skin.

Still God refuses to happen.

He pounds with that great club, his talent;
empurples the air
with the claim that a world has been won –

leaving his heirs
to the doubts after Ludwig – . . . 

I think, as I have thought throughout my rereadings of this book, that this is a little unfair. And here, as with the term “Classical Music”, I’m dragged away from Eardrum and into my own thoughts on the subject. What matters in an art form is not the restrictedness of the possibilities in which it operates but how it accommodates to these. I think Beethoven – a genius rather than a talent and one who had experienced more than most of us of the vicissitudes of both History and personal disaster – knew that the structures of his great public works, pieces like the odd numbered symphonies, Fidelio and the Missa Solemnis were failing gestures, perhaps glimpses of God and human unity that were never possible, but made the gestures nevertheless and changed the inheritance of Haydn so the these gestures arose from the music. He knew, in other words, that he was banging his head against an unbreakable ceiling and it is significant that his endings (the Ninth Symphony, the Opus 130’s original Grand Fugue) are problematic – though perhaps more for us than for him. If I have concerns about the music it is that the great Beethovenian climaxes (notoriously that of the fifth symphony) sound military to my untrained ear.

Again, this is something of a distraction – the kind of distraction that Eardrum constantly leads me into. My initial point was that the book’s structure declares its ecumenicalism. The first poem is about art music, the second, “The Stone Song”, about music seen as the expression of the long human drive towards violence and cruelty. It’s not exactly the same as the military sound that worries me in Beethoven’s “grand” works but military marches are part of it: demanding that all march in the same time towards a goal established by others. It’s a music which, the poem says, can be found in the nastier banter of the lounge room during peace time

. . . . . 
but which will – if the hunting comes back -
soon flower again
to a stale room, a barge smeared with blood.

The third poem is about Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” a mid-twentieth century avantgarde piece known to people because of its appearance in Kubrick’s 2001. We have left the problems of the nineteenth century behind only to encounter another set of difficulties:

The inversion of scale is complete.

This is not music
where selves loom as monsters of doubt -
driving the action-plan, searching for home -
flailing around as theatre and actors and script.

Here there are only
immense folds of darkness.

At one point: some wingbeats.

Then: miniature dialogues, off.

Based on the kinds of things that other poems have to say, this should be read as approval, I think. The word “dialogues” always has positive connotations here and Langford is usually interested in contemporary music which turns its attentions otherwhere to form a counter arc to the development of harmonically based music. After this poem comes a poem about the Rolling Stones’ early signature piece, “Satisfaction”; then one about the shakuhachi flute being played at Government House under the watchful eye of a painting of one of the English kings so that a music which explores “prairies with no known co-ordinates” is contrasted with what postcolonial critics would call a measuring imperial gaze; then a poem about dance hall music.

This survey-like shape recurs in the order of the next section, “Minims”. It begins with a poem about Punk – “Punk: when ‘wanna screw, / wanna screw, right fucking “now,” / was a moment of cultural significance”, follows this with a poem about jazz, then a poem juxtaposing Furtwängler’s wartime conducting of Wagner with the bland big-band music of victorious American soldiers. Next is a poem about Sinatra. One of the “Minims” catches this width of reach nicely, exploiting the surprises that can derive from considering “serious” and “popular” music as parts of a whole:

James Brown,
live at the Apollo -

or Mitsuko Uchida,
calming a trill -
both are the music of bodies.

So the range is very wide. But the position is distinctive. The music critics we usually read, ranging from Rosen and Ross down to humble liner notes, are often content to see a work in the context of developments in music history, occasionally making gestures towards broader cultural phenomena such as Romanticism or Modernism. Langford comes at music as a phenomenon of creativity enmeshed in a particular social setting. The driving forces – as we will see later, often the conflict between the mind and the body, or understanding and dance – are at quite a different level of abstraction and in quite a different location. As the first of the prose pieces says:

A recurring theme of Western music has been the way that, whenever the iterations of the subject have started to pall, music has turned to the dance: to lighten things up, to make things more bearable – or because we have a sense, anyway, of the necessity of interplay. If the eighteenth century’s celebrations of kings and their victories became pompous, then it was time to revisit the bourrees and scottisches where one could forget power for a while. Once those elegant suites began to sound thin, however, then it was time to explore something meatier: a journey towards ecstasy, perhaps. And when the claims of the symphony became unsustainable, then Prokofiev and Stravinsky could provide us with ballet scores. This is true not just of classical, but of popular music too, which also seems to exist in a tension between dance and the demands of story: for the word-heavy music of the sixties to disco, Madonna and Michael Jackson – and then back again, as the impulse to “say something” re-emerged with Jeff Buckley or Radiohead.

The last three poems of the first section make the most detailed and extensive statements. The first of these, “The Symphonists”, revisits the material of the book’s first poem: the massive achievements and limitations of the nineteenth century symphonic tradition. The hero of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is used as a metaphor for the moment of arrival at the sacred, challenging and unyielding place:

. . . . . 
Till – sooner or later -
as Rolande had done, long ago -
the claimants arrived
at the cliff-face of Ultimate Things:
a trumpet, perhaps – more sforzando -
then storm-winds of urgent repeats -
banging away – for a sign – for a path up the rock . . .

A great, dominating form reaches the point where the moves it wants to make or the questions it wants to answer are unachievable. It’s not a dissimilar situation to the nineteenth century European novel whose achievements are dauntingly vast but which ultimately becomes an impossible form needing, at the beginning of the next century, to be taken apart and rebuilt. Langford leaves the symphonists with a judgement that sympathetically acknowledges their greatness – “Mighty approaches. But failures as vast as invention. // As wrong as a gesture can be. // And as kind. And as true.” And his portrait of Brahms as someone who knew the end had come, that “harmonies stretched / in pursuit of more power all led neatly / to fractures and vacuums” but nevertheless “insisted you walk / in his rose-scented garden” is kinder to its subject than I have ever been able to be. One of the “Minims”, “The First Viennese School”, also pays tribute to the symphonic tradition inaugurated by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven:

who’d stare as far down
into chasms
as those who came later –

but who’d so much more home
to return to.

And the second-last of these final poems of the first part of the book, “Arcs”, looks at elements which derive from other than the great celebrations and searches of previous musics and are seen as counter-arcs:

. . . . . 
until, bit by bit,
there were tunes free from status -
Poulenc, with crackers at carnies;
Britten, on Midsummer’s Eve –

a music released
from its comic-book triumphs:

a bedrock without a home-key.

Not much to build on, but all we had left
once the claims of the tribe had been shredded . . .

This is all a crude summary of a complex and consistent attitude to music in all its forms. I think its best understandings are expressed in its shortest forms, as momentary illuminations, witty asides and compressed truths: as epigrams, that is. And it should come as no surprise that Langford’s previous book, Neat Snakes is a collection of epigrams, a form one wouldn’t expect to find alive in the first decades of the twenty-first century. In fact, Neat Snakes and Eardrum form a kind of pair – even though music barely appears in the former – and there is much to be said for reading them in tandem.

To return to the issue of the structure of Eardrum, it seems on first viewing to register a kind of defeat of poetry, an admission that ultimately poems must make way for prose. But the reality is more complex and revolves around the nature of the epigrammatic and how it can appear in both poetry and prose. Just because something appears as expository prose doesn’t mean it is locked into a rigid structure of assertion and logical support: there are more open kinds of prose that get called (admittedly, fairly carelessly) “poetic”. The final section of Eardrum is in this mode, especially the extended pieces, “Stave Dreams” and “Electric Dreams” which work by juxtaposition and suggestion and thus might be slid across the genre map towards that imprecise phenomenon called the “prose poem”.

Are the epigrams of Neat Snakes a kind of prose poem or is the epigram the opposite: a distillation of prose thought? Langford’s description of his interest in the epigram accords it a lot of features that we would want to call genuinely poetic:

. . . . . I became intrigued by the possibility of combining the defamiliarization of the poets and scientists with the lucidity that the aphorism had traditionally employed. Sometimes, writing can feel like an attempt to articulate an aesthetic, and although one may only approximate it occasionally in practice, its presence as an ideal – the search for a tension between lucidity and strangeness, so that the phrase can never quite settle – provided a kind of stiffening for the project, a background pressure or test which nevertheless helped to keep it afloat.

“The search for a tension between lucidity and strangeness” sounds like a good description of one of the features of lyric poetry whose attributes always seem to be made up of a whole raft of these sorts of tensions: abstract/specific, personal/communal, the natural environment/the inner life, and so on. And one of these tensions would be that between open and closed meanings – what one might think of as “poetic” versus ”prose” meanings. Are Langford’s epigrams “open” in meaning, or “closed”? It isn’t an easy question and reminds us just how crude our notion of the way prose communicates ideas is. Sometimes, as in “Every culture has its own way of averting its eyes”, the openness lies only in the fact that we nod wisely in response while trying to think of some examples from other cultures we know something of. The same could be said for, “No specific difference is fundamental: racism, sexism, class. We will nominate any difference we can build an advantage on” and “Our tolerance of reason varies with the threat that reason represents”. These are, in a way, polemical epigrams that ask for assent. Others are “poetic” in that they seem to encourage exploration without imposing a final meaning: “The right combination of mirrors should keep you from falling”, for example. It is significant that the shortest of the poems in the first section of Eardrum, “Bach”:

Just as the war
between knowing
and dancing
would lurch,
like a fate,
towards knowledge:

made it sound
as if nothing
need keep them apart.

could well have appeared in the second section or, straightened out into a single prose line, could have appeared in Neat Snakes.

Fundamentally, I think it is an issue of control over meaning (not the same as control over response which Langford analyses in a critique of Ravel). Langford’s poems seem to come out of an extended and coherent meditation on core subjects: in the case of Eardrum, music. So, although the poems are open to a certain extent, we are always aware that the author is, finally, in control of the meanings. He isn’t the sort of poet who will say, “I’ve no idea what it means and I didn’t when I wrote it. But it might be fun to try to work it out together”. Which of these two approaches makes for the better poetry ultimately, I don’t know. Control of meaning may oscillate with openness of meaning through literary history in the same way that the tension between music of the body and music of the understanding oscillates, in Langford’s view, through the history of music.

Michael Farrell (ed.): Ashbery Mode; David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (eds.): Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word

Ashbery Mode (Hawai’i: Tinfish, 2019, 130pp.)
Solid Air (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2019, 249pp.)

Anthologies tend to raise more interesting issues than individual books of poetry. It may be that they just raise different issues but that those they do raise are more obvious and pressing. They also have more structural issues than a book of poems by a single author. And then there is the question of what they assume their purpose is: to present the best, put some texts together for students, to establish a new literary-historical blueprint for the future of poetry, etc. Michael Farrell’s immensely enjoyable Ashbery Mode doesn’t try for any of these conventional aims. It is, essentially, a collection of poems celebrating the influence of John Ashbery in Australian poetry. I don’t think I have ever seen an anthology with such a rationale but that might just be an accident of my reading. At any rate, as a largely celebratory anthology – is it the poet’s equivalent of an academic Festschrift? – it makes no pretensions to creating new interpretations of the history of Australian poetry although, of course, it will select only poets seeing Ashbery as a valuable influence in their own work. And, as with a Festschrift, you have a sense of poets choosing which works to contribute. The book doesn’t anywhere say that this is the case but I’m sure, as a reader, that it is: in other words, the book’s structure isn’t entirely the work of a lone, godlike anthologist. One of its most charming features is its principle of organisation – always something of a bugbear for anthologists. It does this geographically, starting with Nicholas Powell and David Prater, Australian poets living in the reasonably remote Finland and Sweden, before working its way across the Atlantic to the West Coast of Australia, then up the East Coast, into East Asia and finally across the Pacific to the East Coast of the US.

As well as being a good introduction to some of the things that are happening in Australian poetry (or have been happening, as the assembling of this book seems to have taken quite a while and some of the poems included date back to late last century), Ashbery Mode is also a very interesting way of looking at the influence of a single poet, and the question of influence in general. Ashbery was a remarkable poet but even more remarkable is the extent of his influence, the consistently high regard in which he was held by younger writers pretty much throughout his life, but certainly from the publication of his third book, Rivers and Mountains, in 1966. I suspect that the earliest significant date for Ashbery’s reception in Australia is John Forbes’s Honours dissertation at Sydney University: it dealt with Ashbery’s first books when he was a very outré, avant-garde figure indeed. I’m not sure of its date (a copy is held in the Forbes collection at the Fryer Library of the University of Queensland) but it must be close to half a century old. And half a century is a very long time for a single poet to hold any kind of sway in English language poetry where fashions change quickly in response to the imperative that poetry should be new, individual and different.

Michael Farrell gives a long and convincing list of reasons for Ashbery’s continuing popularity as an influence in the brief introduction to Ashbery Mode. He begins with his own response which is that Ashbery’s tone enables him to convert language into extended poetic discourse. Again, this seems convincing enough. The length of Ashbery’s “long” poems and their modulations through images, disjunctions (the source of the famous “huh” interjections) and pseudo-logic seems to derive from some mechanism of almost endless fertility and the tone is a good candidate for the wellsprings of this. Farrell secondly isolates Ashbery’s interest in resurrecting old and (then) exotic forms like the sestina and the pantoum. Poems like “The Painter” and “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” might well be the first place a young poet in the last fifty years met the sestina form. I think this issue needs to be nuanced a little though. You would expect, for example, that Pound’s “Sestina Altaforte” or “Sestina for Ysolt” would be the most likely place for a first encounter with the sestina, but Pound’s poems come with a freight of medievalism that, if not positively irritating to someone in the last part of the twentieth century, would be, at least, not conducive to imitation. Ashbery’s sestinas feel “postmodern” in that they simultaneously show a mastery of a difficult form while at the same time giving the impression that it’s all a matter of poetic highjinks and not to be taken entirely seriously. So it becomes dependent, again, on tone: the slightly bland, “affable” bond between Ashbery and his readers.

I think the third of Farrell’s explanations for Ashbery’s extended influence is one of the most vital. Ashbery had no poetic creed to force upon the future of poetry. He did what he did, was interested in what interested him. The influence of Roussel, who produced large stretches of text spinning out from descriptions of items which were not justified by any thematic imperatives, can’t be underestimated here as the principal influence on Ashbery himself. As he says in the chapter on Roussel in Other Traditions (a work remarkable for searching out interesting and obscure moments in relatively little known poets but offering very little actual critical analysis):

No one denies that Roussel’s work is brimming with secrets; what is less certain is whether the secrets have any importance. In other words, is there some hidden, alchemical key for decoding the work, as André Breton and others have thought, or is the hidden meaning merely the answer to a childish riddle or puzzle, no more or less meaningful that the context in which it is buried?

This could well be a description of the reader’s experience of the work of Ashbery himself, especially long pieces like Three Poems, Girls on the Run and Flow Chart. But Ashbery doesn’t demand that poets reading him should go down this path of producing long texts whose internal dynamics and ultimate “meaning” are indeterminate. And so there’s a generosity and encouraging openness about Ashbery that one might not find if one looked at the poets who, before him, would be listed as the major influences on their contemporaries: Eliot, Auden and, in a narrower sense, Pound and perhaps Williams.

In Ashbery Mode then, fittingly, almost every possible response to the work of another poet is included. Some of the poems – those of Joanne Burns, Michelle Cahill, Tom Lee and Aden Rolfe, for example, sound a bit like Ashbery in their sudden meditative modulations:

. . . . 
& is there a dental clinic called the tooth
fairy; tootle’s wheels always seemed 
like lozenges of irish moss what is the relationship
between lungs and locomotives a question for poets engineers
or the medical fraternity, this word “fraternity”
think of a fence of weathered lattice that’s about to snap . . . (Burns)
. . . . . 
He knows the prices of things and tells me the same.
Blankets assist us in sleeping on the lawn, and stars
Break out as if they were jealous after having done so. I
Speculate on canvas lining and pull nuts
Out of my teeth. There exists no trick to honesty
People assure you, just do things and tell people about them
This much is clear to me. Promoted giggles
Spread about the room. Bread is the answer. Single
Lines shatter like a newly bombed lagoon
And dusk paints itself across the sky . . . (Lee)

Sometimes the connection is simply a reference in the poem or in an epigraph or, as in Hazel Smith’s case, a title which immediately suggests one of Ashbery’s books. Julie Chevalier’s two poems are from her book, Darger: His Girls, connected to Ashbery by the fact that Girls on the Run is a kind of Ashberian response to Darger’s text.

Many of the poems are, as one would expect, text-derived. The texts are usually Ashbery’s but not necessarily – Mark Mahemoff’s “Dear Superman” is made up from extracts of letters to Christopher Reeve after his accident. Stuart Cooke converts Ashbery’s name into “ash-brie”, Chris Edwards’ “Rat Chow” is “reconstituted from selected chunks” of Flow Chart, A.J. Carruthers and Cory Wakeling’s pieces are derived from specific Ashbery poems as is Toby Fitch’s “All the Skies Above Girls on the Run”. Whereas one might have expected John Tranter (an early admirer and friend of Ashbery) to be represented by “Anaglyph” – a poem made by retaining the opening and closing words of each line of “Clepsydra” and replacing everything else – he is represented by “Electrical Disturbance: A Dramatic Interlude” a longish, almost theatrical, piece imagined to be a debate between a “literary scholar” and “a company director taking on the guise of a naïve young man”.

This issue of text-generation is an important one in Australian poetry over the last thirty or forty years. Interestingly it is not part of Ashbery’s practice or, at least, I don’t think it is, based on my reading of his work. But since the reading of Ashbery’s work by even the most devoted admirer is likely to be fairly patchy there is no reason why I shouldn’t be wrong here. The only obvious example I can think of is the double-sestina late in Flow Chart which uses the same line endings as Swinburne’s “The Complaint of Lisa”. I’m ambivalent about text-generated poems which are clearly important in contemporary poetry (and probably enjoyable and rewarding to write). They also have impeccable postmodern credentials though the practice may be showing its age – it’s hardly new and I think of it as something more in keeping with the eighties and nineties. At any rate, they are a problem for critics: how can you write about a poem whose textual genesis you might have been told about but whose processes remain covered up? (John Tranter is probably an exception here because, as he has often stated, the various ways of computer-processing the originals provide only raw material which is then made into a poem. To put it bluntly, Tranter’s text-generated poems always seem like Tranter poems.) I think the results might be undesirable for the future of Australian literary criticism since it might lead to a kind of hermeticism whereby only those “in the know” – the friends and disciples – will be able to write sensibly about them. It could be said that something like this occurred in the case of Mallarme and of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – in the latter instance a group of clued-up disciples were encouraged to seed short explanatory essays in available journals. But one can be fairly confident that there aren’t many Mallarmes or Joyces lying around in Australia’s literary landscape.

But in what is essentially a celebration of an individual writer’s work and influence, text-generated poems seem an ideal mode. Imagine what a dreary collection Ashbery Mode would have been if it had been made up of solemn elegies commissioned from poets when the great man died! There have been anthologies like that in the past and they have, blessedly, sunk without trace.

One of the things that makes Solid Air, an anthology of a revived form of performance poetry, interesting is that its contributors include both Australian and New Zealand poets, thus forming a South Pacific bloc that should probably be encouraged given developments in global politics. Interesting also because when the poems deal with indigenous issues, we get the conjunction of both aboriginal and Maori culture – two entirely different perspectives. It has an interesting Foreword by Alison Whittaker which, in its focus on breath, seems like a modern incarnation of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain school. And it has a good Introduction by its editors, David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu, giving some kind of background to the Poetry Slam movement. This, inevitably, has a slight air of contest about it since it is keen to stress the importance of the material it is introducing. Like all such introductions, it has to balance the tension of claiming great successes and massive numbers while at the same time portraying itself as fighting a battle against an establishment (or Establishment) made up of publishers and print poets responsible for “poetry’s flagging popularity and book sales”. This inevitably is a cover version of a very familiar song: you can hear it as far back as the Beat poets and probably long before. It’s not a fiercely held position, either in the Introduction or in the poems included, but it does establish that there is an opponent. And all movements benefit from having an extendable, preferrably abstract opponent to keep their momentum going, even if one has to be invented.

The second slightly awkward situation in which the editors find themselves is that this is a print book. It belongs, in other words, to the museum culture of the printed word. Ideally, one expects in an anthology of performance to have a CD of readings inside the back cover (as Grand Parade Poets did with Benjamin Frater’s book) or, perhaps, a set of website links. The Introduction gives an elegant but sketchy justification for the lack of these when it says, “On these pages sit words that have often first been performed in a live context to an audience. The pulse of those moments still hangs between the lines.”

My response to Solid Air is to be interested in it and as responsive as I can be. I think it comes from a perspective and practice which is completely alien to me since I avoid even conventional poetry readings. But that is just me – I have a resistance to performance of almost any sort but I wouldn’t want to try to raise that to the level of an intelligently held position rather than a personal failing. It’s intriguing to find some poets whose work I know (“normal” poets, “conventional” poets, “establishment poets”? – the terminology is going to be a problem) turning up here: Jennifer Compton, Nathan Curnow, Ian McBryde and Π.Ο. for example. As the biography of the first of these says, “When it comes to the poetry side of things she likes to have it every which way possible . . . And she also very much likes the hurly burly of the open mic”. It makes perfect sense that a poet might see his or her own poetic practice as lying in a zone where full-on performance offers valuable experience and feedback. There are also other “conventional” modes which lie in a space just next to performance: found poems for example. Here Pascalle Burton’s textually-modified “found” poem, “What is Your Ceiling”, derived from the US Army’s wartime Japanese Phrase Book, could work well both in performance and on the page.

Putting Solid Air next to Ashbery Mode makes for interesting and revealing comparisons. They do not share a single contributor and it’s hard not to see both of them as outliers in the vast world of poetry. I have a suspicion that the contributors to either of them might be more hostile to the other than I am: as an outsider my task is to observe what happens in Australian poetry not to set myself up as someone to legislate or pass judgement about it. Being invested in the course of literary history is a dangerous game to play, anyway. When a definition of what is desirable in poetry gets floated, poetry seems to take this as an opportunity to do exactly the opposite. My sense of Performance poetry is that it is a phenomenon which flowers quite intensely and but doesn’t have long-term staying power. In the past, the existence of established venues could keep an outburst alive for a while, even decades, but they are often dependent on the energy of individuals and individuals have a habit of passing on (or away). Poetry Slam has introduced a new structure in its large list of prizes and they may well help to formalise the movement and prolong it. I have a wicked image of a future in which performance poetry becomes the only acceptable mode of poetry in Australia. If it ever happened it would be typical of poetic history for angry groups of young poets, all with published tankas and minimalist love poems spilling out of their pockets, to be picketing the performance halls.

Does a renaissance in performance poetry mean that souls will be saved for poetry? Will people who had avoided poetry on the grounds of an unpleasant school experience with an odd piece of text whose meaning wasn’t clear, be gathered into the fold and even, eventually, venture on some more of that difficult stuff that lies between the covers of a book? I’ve heard this argument made though, admittedly, not in the case of the kind of poetry collected in Solid Air. But I can’t see it happening: there is just too great a divide between the experience of a verbal performance and that of engaging with a poem on the page. Nothing experienced by a member of the audience for these performances is going to prepare an innocent new reader for Yeats’s “Byzantium”, say, let alone Dante or Homer. I think this derives from the fundamental difference between what goes on in a performance and what goes on in a reading. It’s the reason that, though we are fascinated when poets read their own (printed) works because it gets us closer to the creating experience, it’s always rather irritating when they are “performed” by someone else. The more skilled and intelligent the actor, the more irritating the reading. Coming to terms with a “conventional” poem is a powerful experience of connection with a personality which, in good poetry, immediately appears as distinctive. Often that poet is dead (and yes, probably white, male, right-handed, from an imperial centre, etc etc) and when that happens we have the especially potent experience of meeting a poet whose values are likely to be entirely different from our own – it’s what Auden called “breaking bread with the dead” a cornerstone of a “civilised life”. I realise that this looks like a distinction not between printed poetry and performance poetry but between contemporary poetry and the poetry of the past but it does help to introduce what for me is the overwhelming experience of the poems of Solid Air and that is how completely conventional their content is, how unconfronting. This must derive from the performer/audience nexus where the former must be speak the latter’s language, but for someone like me who values distinctiveness and difference, Solid Air is a bit of a wasteland: Indigenous people have suffered, and still suffer, discrimination; women must continue the struggle against the Male and, pace Emily Zooey Baker’s “Hey, Mary Shelley”, Mary Shelley was a great writer who invented science fiction.

David Musgrave: Numb & Number

Waratah NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019, 81pp.

On its back cover, Numb & Number describes itself as “a kind of clearing” containing poems which “open up, sometimes painfully, sometimes joyfully, what it is to be in the world”. The poems will, in other words, clear away many of the obstacles to a more open, expressive poetry. But there is also a sense that this book is, perhaps, itself a “clearing house”, a collection of disparate pieces which need to be published to clear the decks for other projects. And Musgrave seems attracted to projects which are more complicated than a simple collection of individual poems. His 2016 book, Anatomy of Voice, is a remarkably ornate, almost baroque, construction “dealing with” the death of a beloved mentor but using among its structural props, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and the emblem books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (As well as this, there is the fascinating experience of “auditory hallucinations” in which the mentor’s voice revisits from the past.) I mention this to make the point that there is a strong drive in Musgrave’s poetic imagination towards more complex structures than are implied in a conventional collection such as Numb & Number. It’s a book, which, for whatever reason, has a slightly rawer quality – in construction as well as in the individual poems – than both the highly structured ones and also previous works such as Phantom Limb and Concrete Tuesday.

Phantom Limb contained “Young Montaigne Goes Riding” a brilliant poem focussing on the processes and structures of thought. Numb & Number begins with “Coastline”, built around a walk along the endless curvatures of a coast. It’s a “walking poem”, not a riding poem, but it encourages the same kind of discursive processes of the mind. But there is a major difference between the poems which might be emblematic of the difference between a book such as Phantom Limb and Numb & Number in that here, an overwhelming experience – a broken-up relationship – presses on the consciousness and prevents it meditating freely or, at least, ensures that all meditation will ultimately gravitate towards an absence. And so what begins as an observation about the pattern of the pathway slides into a brief passage about jigsaws and on to the inevitable:

. . . . . 
fitting patiently on wet Sundays piece to piece,
sifting through the pile for the opposite

of a promontory of cloud: portable swastikas,
running men, whimsies, wheat sacks,
Swedens, Sulawesis, bits
of continent or a cauliflowered florescence, Mandelbrots
ferning into shapes running through my bloodstream.

And then the bigger pieces: the absent shape of you
to which no piece will fit, like emptied rooms
in a house no longer habitable.
Loss ineluctable: there is no cure, no magic zebra
crossing to a lossless world. . . .

It’s not just that the loved-one’s leaving is presented as a kind of super-massive black hole whose gravitational effect will ultimately ensure that all thought circles it more frantically before plunging in. The extended description of the jigsaw pieces – a metaphor that has a lot of pregnant possibilities in a poem set on a coastline since it is the “coasts” of the pieces that make them fit and produce a meaningful whole (or at least a meaningful representation of something) – could also be a way of avoiding the pain of the central topic by a desperate free expansion of an image. It could also be an example of the idea that a nothingness (a doorway, for example) is surrounded by complex decorative features which do nothing but heighten its emptiness.

Once love and loss force themselves into the poem, they pretty much dominate it although in a way that is in keeping with Musgrave’s imagination. The continents themselves, seen from the perspective of someone perched on the eastern coast of one, are seen as the earliest divorcees – “next to them we’ve barely tiffed”. The poem attempts a positive conclusion, reminding the poet that the pronoun “you” can have other referents and finally recalling the fact that a coastline is technically infinite – as the units of measurement decrease to approach zero so the outline of the coast, now considered to have followed the edge of the molecules that make up each individual rock, approaches infinity.

Interestingly, “Coastline” begins by exploring the optical illusion whereby to the viewer, the horizon line of the sea appears to be higher than the observer himself. Although this leads quickly, in the poem, to whimsical thoughts about being a dwarf standing on the shoulders of other dwarfs – a reverse Newton – its real significance is, I think, to establish a vertical axis to intersect with the very horizontal axis of a walk or a ride. I won’t follow this out in any length because I commented on it in my review of Phantom Limb on this site, but there is something fitting in the way in which this first poem, while registering the distorting power of grief, still wants to set up this opposition.

And there is, in the poems of Numb & Number, plenty of interest in the vertical component. It expresses itself, as before, in Musgrave’s fascination with his ancestors, especially those deep in the mid-nineteenth century. Much closer to the surface, to continue the metaphor, is Musgrave’s mother whose narcolepsy and cataplexy he describes in “The Narcolept”. This is a complex poem but its subject seems to me to be not so much sleep disorders as an interest in a genetic fault that can be traced back to the dinosaurs. The dreaming patterns of narcolepts are distinctive in being more lucid – that is, they can be recognised by the dreamer and even re-entered and modified – but there are also plenty of hallucinations. Musgrave imagines his mother entering the dream of tracing origins back to the Mesozoic:

The dinosaurs live on in chickens
and the dreams of an old woman
beached by an ocean of palsied sleep.

She’s following their footprints back
to a time before sleep
. . . . . 
those prehistoric footprints arrowing back
toward the start of the dream. Beyond extinction.

In the poem Musgrave says of himself “For as long as I can remember, I lacked / confidence in consciousness” and while the context suggests that this refers to a lack of confidence in his mother’s state of mind, it can also be read as applying to the author himself since narcolepsy is a genetic disorder that can be passed on.

In fact many of the poems of Numb & Number are concerned with how the figures of the past speak to us. In the way things are constructed in Musgrave’s work, this could be restated as asking how the ghosts of the past rise up to the surface of the present. One way is in dreams and another is in hallucinations (auditory and otherwise). But “The Transportations of George Bruce”, an extended piece, is interesting in this regard. It is a narrative based on the memoirs of a convict who escaped in the early nineteenth century, survived thanks to the help of some very altruistic settlers, and was eventually pardoned by the newly-arrived Governor King. As always with good poems there is a lot going on at the level of authorial connection that a reader can guess at. Firstly “The Transportations of George Bruce” is written in hexameters and reads like a pastiche of the Odyssey. Bruce himself seems on the surface to be a religion-crazed figure, likely to be in contact with angels. I think the interest for Musgrave is that Bruce can be seen as operating in a sordid version of the Homeric world, one in which the membrane between gods and men is quite thin. We are given a hint towards this by the earlier poem, “Waratah”, which quotes, as an epigraph, the moment in the Odyssey when Odysseus, on his way to deal with Circe, is met by a handsome youth – Hermes in disguise – who gives him the plant which will prevent the goddess enchanting him. The wanderer, Bruce/Odysseus, may not be communicating with his ancestors but he is communicating with representatives of another world. As such, he can be said to be “transported” in its metaphorical sense of being carried away by an experience, as well as in the conventional sense. He is also given to intense dreaming states:

. . . . . 
and the Goddess told me it was the canopy of heaven
and I must eat my belly full. And as I was eating
a beautiful man passed by the table, and the Goddess said
it was the Grand Arch Angel that brought the canopy
for me to eat. I watched him ascend through the window
at the top of the house and the Angels and Goddesses followed . . .

The sordid reality that Bruce struggles through is only one of a series of such realities. Poems like “Chyort” and, perhaps, “From a Train in Connecticut”, which follow “The Transportations of George Bruce”, though they are entirely different, reflect a bleak external world and it leads one to think that perhaps one of the aims of the poems of this book is to create a kind of anatomy of sordidness. “Chyort”, for example, whose title comes from the Russian for “devil”, recounts what must be a dream or hallucination of a moonlight trudge through what seems like a rubbish site:

. . . . . 
                    stepped through a rust harvest

of doorless cars and a ripple of tattered barns,
through fields of scattered cardboard, bound
newspapers, slashed and slithery vinyl
chairs and a chipped glossy dog, tailless . . .

Though the narrator climbs, there is no suggestion at the end of the poem that he gets out of this morass. “From a Train in Connecticut” is, on the surface, exactly the opposite, calmly detailing the life of a secondhand auto-parts dealer. But the presence of cars “wrecked, rusting, with tyreless wheels / and cataracted windscreens” establishes that we are not so far from “Chyort” and the proprietor, Joe, though he is preoccupied by the prospects of his baseball team, is someone who has had a dream that he has killed his oldest friend “and had been getting away with it all this time”. Another case of another world announcing itself through dreams, though this dreamworld, unlike George Bruce’s, is a much bleaker one.

There’s a lot more in this book that has this bleak outlook and, as I said at the beginning, both the poems and the book as a whole feel rawer than earlier ones. But bleakness is balanced with hope and the end of “Coastline” suggests that hope may triumph. The most overtly “hopeful” poem in the book is “Waratah”, an extended piece that has a rhapsodic tone created by repetition – “I’m clearing a space in Waratah” – and the use of present participles. In fact the poem feels as though it is a pastiche though what the original is I can’t quite place. Importantly the making of a new start by clearing the ground is accompanied by an acknowledgement of ancestors:

George Thomas Ferris, I’m back here in Waratah.
John Blake Quealy, I’m here in my clearing.
. . . . . 
Dorothy Downs Pawsey, I’m back here in Newcastle.
Eliza Augusta Prentice, I’m just down the road.

The land itself is not entirely salubrious, being dominated by the Moly-Cop factory but, by a nice coincidence, Moly is the name of the plant that Hermes gives to Odysseus. It is proof against bewitchment.

The issue of the overall tone – its balance between bitterness and the hope of renewal – and the motif of horizontal and vertical axes, comes together in the final, prose section of the last poem, “The Lake”. This lake’s shallowness means that the pasts which it symbolically holds will always be not far from the surface and so, in a search for forgetfulness (which also has a Homeric ring to it) the past will not entirely disappear. But happiness is still possible for the traveller in the boat, “the entire world had become nothing more than the membrane upon which you drifted for what seemed like forever”.

Rereadings IV: Richard Packer: Being Out of Order

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1972, 73pp

This “Rereading”, like that of Norman Talbot’s Son of a Female Universe, takes its impetus not from the desire to investigate an entire book so much as to celebrate a much loved poem. In this case it is Richard Packer’s “The American Age” which I first saw in Tom Shapcott’s 1970 anthology Australian Poetry Now and then again, in its more natural habitat as part of a poet’s consistent output, in Being Out of Order, published two years later. I’ve known it, in other words, for just about half a century and I could still, if pressed, quote most of it from memory. Here it is:

In smoky weather Mal and I strolled the south sector,
past the crumbling husks of yesterday’s children,
and the gardeners watering the wasted bulletins
from eyes like squashed bullets.
                           “Mal,” I said. “Mal, old battler,
I’ve noticed a petrol flavour in the fountain,
and only this morning, only this morning, Mal,
a flaming prophet bent like a croquet hoop across
my coffee, while thrushes mourned;
and I emptied a stranger’s blood from my gloves.
I think it’s our time, brother pilgrim,
to summon our creatures, and take an ecstatic trip
somewhere beyond this cruelled horizon.”

Sadness crimped his mouth like a slip of string,
and we paused in a grove of broken flagpoles.
One more monument melted in screams,
and the gardeners shook. “Listen,”
said Mal. “On Mars the trivial sun creeps up
faint as my fingernail. Nothing sings unless
the lonely grains of ice -
their tinny dribble in those bankrupt pockets.
No harvest ripples there, and nothing sings.
                               Louden your transistor. And
pluck away that evergreen ear of yours for angelic trumpets.
Too late, too late for such election.
We have all fallen to living in our feet
and the American age. We must picnic here
on the plastic grass forever, and admire the many skulls.[“]

Face after face died of no rice, as we sat quite broken,
watching Christ shave his armpits for movie dollars,
and munching our TV dinner.
the steely locusts foamed and whined: the gardeners
begged an early shower of paper-clips.
It was true!
                    It was true!
We were parked for good in the American age.

It’s not difficult to sketch in some of its virtues. Not the least is the fact that American domination of Australian popular culture – usually dated as beginning in the postwar period and thus only in its infancy in the early seventies – has grown to be all-dominating in the way the poem suggests to the point where it is unravellable. We really are stuck though the locus of power has changed from Hollywood and Washington to Silicon Valley. More important in the poetic dimension is the way in which the surreal imaginative leaps match the fact that American culture has always been a home for the wilder reaches of the apocalyptic world view. This view, invented by Jewish writers more than two millennia ago to explain what their god was doing in allowing a series of other empires to trample over his covenanted people, has a well-established place in the “religions of the book” (intriguingly “The American Age” was translated and included in Dimitris Tsaloumas’ anthology of Australian poetry in Greek. You feel that it may have made a lot of sense in the poetic culture of that country). “The American Age” is, to summarise, a poem of contemporary comment that creates a style which embodies the situation – odd happenings in the pre-apocalyptic phase matched with personal impasse – that it wants to talk about.

Reading the rest of Packer’s work, one wants to say, initially, that this is an unusual poem for him. There is certainly nothing else stylistically like it in his three books of poems and his condemnations of contemporary life never, as far as I can recall, specifically blame it on the impositions of an alien culture; the villains are much closer to home. But it does fit neatly into the arc of his obsessions.

Packer’s output is hardly voluminous. There are three books of poetry and a stand-alone verse radio play, The Powerhouse, over a period of twenty-two years. But two of the books of poetry themselves include radio plays (assuming the twenty-two part “The Great Food Animal” from Serpentine Futures is a radio play rather than an extended suite of poems designed for radio performance) and this, by my counting, leaves a total of eighty-seven poems. And “The American Age”, coincidentally no doubt, appears exactly in the middle and so, though other poems don’t mimic its surreal flights, it does have a thematic centrality. And this isn’t in blaming imported American culture for the woes of the world but in describing a state in which there is no escape. In fact the arc of Packer’s three books of poetry – Prince of the Plague Country, Being Out of Order and Serpentine Futures – could be said to move from struggles to escape a bad world to explorations of possibilities of flight. It’s no accident that the first poem of Serpentine Futures – a complex piece with something of the grotesque imaginative intensity of “The American Age” – is called “The History of Flight”, the final word appearing, of course, in its two meanings of, first, taking off into a higher plane and, second, shamefully attempting to escape.

In general, in Packer’s poetry, there is a fury with the world – mercantile, military and soulless – which is matched by a fury with himself and his inability to escape or transcend or rectify that world. He is a being out of order in a plague country. There is a dynamic balance here which serves the poetry well. As I’ve said before on this site, Australian readers are likely to be wary of traditional satire – the ridiculing of contemporary vices and foibles – because it implies a stance of superiority on the part of the poet, something that infringes our sense of egalitarianism. Packer’s gaze is just as hostile when directed towards himself as it is when directed at the world – though for different reasons. He rarely castigates himself for being complicit with the mercantile world that he writes so much about, but castigates himself for being unable to move beyond it. As with Rimbaud, the alchemical, transformational power of art fails and leaves nothing more than an experience of a season in hell.

At lot of this can be seen in the first poem of the first book, “Prelude”, where a saxophone is heard playing in what can be recognised as a fairly standard allegorical depiction of the world as being made up of a prison – for all those implicated as victims or oppressors – and a set of equally imprisoning, loveless relationships for those who are, ostensibly, free:

. . . . . 
     It called against the windows
to husbands fuddled by their spawning debts,
     to odourless, lacquered wives,
urging them dance beneath the bruised sky
     with the jailbirds, their fellows,
for dead Orpheus, whose gay flesh they’d ripped
     for sandwiches on desks,
     and whose sweet blood they’d thieved
to guzzle from thermos flasks inside
     air-conditioned crypts.

     No-one became Eurydice
for that pain serenading from the slum
     built even in the tallest mind.
The tough wall stood. The townfolk drowsed
     on their pillows of nonentity.
I cried in my turn for a millennium
     beyond the sleep of flesh,
     for a faithful torch to lead
my soul’s long exile to its bride
     and faultless home.

Yes, it’s all a bit overwrought but it should be remembered that it’s an early poem from a long time ago. But it is, interestingly, about the way art stands apart from contemporary life and also about the way in which it fails. The melody (the song of the dismembered Orpheus) wants to transform the world by summoning it to a millennium in which lions lie down with lambs or, as the second stanza says, “warders would tear off their uniforms / and their bought importance / as prisoners clasped each other / each forgiving his brothers’ fall / and the long arm”. And at the end there is a return to the fantasy of the apocalypse which will introduce a millennium in which the soul is reunited with its bride – Orpheus, through his creativity, is reunited with Eurydice. Significantly for an essay involving “The American Age”, the book’s second poem is called “No Way Out”. This poem is an extended attack on the self, though there is an element of blaming external matters in it. Wanting to “ditch / the carcass of my life”, the speaker goes over the features of that life. Religions (and Packer has a developed interest in a broad variety of religions) fail him: “I’ve found no creed to be / the needed trainer for / the squabbling, lusting snouts / in my menagerie” as do the attractions of a socialised state which has “a master plan / to make all brothers” yet “can only fill your guts”. Ultimately the three possible releases that the poem deals with – “girls, states or prophets” – fail the task of finding “a cure / for being my disease”. Another poem, “Warning to the Rider”, provides a new perspective on this characteristic impasse by suggesting the image of a remorseless Hindu cycle of rebirth: “Rider of the poisoned wheel, / remember when your breath retreats / you must accept each cell again” and this odd conjunction of a Jewish apocalyptic sense with the Law of Karma seems to be the seed behind “Reborn Babylon” where the modern urban world, so much a source of loathing to Packer, is a modern version of ancient Babylon – not the real Babylon of course, but the symbolic Babylon of apocalyptic texts:

. . . . . 
For Babylon fallen as the seed
of yet another Babylon,
with only darkness in between,
is something you have always known.

And finally, added to this odd mix is a dash of Kabbalah. “The Night After Wormwood” is an extended dialogue between Everyman, the last survivor of mankind after a comet strike (the star, Wormwood, of the “Book of Revelation”), and the idealised figure of Adam Kadmon. Everyman takes on himself the guilt of allowing the world to become a soulless place:

. . . . . 
I now confess that I
unleashed the judgement hail
by sitting deaf and small,
and was the criminal
cursed by those dying lips. . .

And the poem finishes with Adam Kadmon invoking cycles of rebirth: “Sleep now, and wait the wheel’s next spin. / It is my peace in which you drown”.

Prince of the Plague Country has a couple of features then that save it from being nothing more than a grumpy poet’s assault on the obvious faults of his community. There is the odd synthesis of religious/philosophical interests for a start but, above all, you get a sense of poems motivated by a profound irritation directed both outwardly and inwardly. Irritation seems to be the trigger that wakes up Packer’s muse and, if the poems are angry and condemnatory, they still seem to derive from internal irritations. Packer began as a New Zealand poet – this first book was published there – and by the time of Being Out of Order had moved to Australia (interestingly his third book was published while he was living in England, thus making a nicely patterned triptych). Being Out of Order is a far superior book though it is based on the same irritations and frustrations. Whereas Prince of the Plague Country began with a poem about the inadequacy of poetry in a blighted environment, Being Out of Order begins with “Madam” a piece from White Goddess-land in which women – or Woman – has the double role of seducer/lover and destroyer. It’s a fitting introduction since the poems of this book do tend to focus on the infinite complexities of the relations between the sexes. And the dominant mode is dramatic monologue from a carefully chosen, oblique perspective. And so, for example, the Pygmalion/Galatea story is seen from the perspective of Pygmalion’s vulgar (ans invented) agent. And the story is given a deliberately bleak twist – the intensity of Galatea’s love kills Pygmalion and she ends up being shipped off as makeweight in a deal with a Cretan trader. Like all good oblique dramatic monologues we look into a complex and important situation – here about the idea that men fall in love with an idealised image rather than a real woman with bad results for both – through a not especially insightful or sympathetic narrator. One of the best, and funniest, of them is “The Wrong Beach” in which a naked, Venus Anadyomene kind of character, complete with shell, appears off the coast of some bleak northern beach:

. . . . . 
Our king was there before us. His iron toes awash,
he leaned that lonely, willed asperity of his
upon the pommel of his sword. The constant mountain wind
changed spray to diamonds in his steely beard.
“Get back,” he shouted, while we set our useless mutters
at him, moths at armour. “Get back, you warming slut.
This is no beach for you. Go south at once, Go south.”

She turned her peachy breasts away, and south she went
without complaint . . .

The poem finishes with the narrator – a minor figure in the king’s comitatus – being sensitive to what this rejection costs:

Not that I blame him too hard, since he is our leader
who brought us here for saving by rough elements,
and dines himself off granite as his law requires.
There’s time enough, he says, for chasing nymphs in heaven,
when we’ve proven heat can’t steam away our wills.
This rings fair enough: and if he stared too sadly on
that dimpled backside, well – it helps to know he too is human.

Though it might at one level be about men’s devotion to various causes and the way these require a controlling of normal sensual instincts (in other words the kind of processes required by, say, monasticism) it is also about the comic cultural differences between North and South. The thought of a Botticelli goddess being stared at by people used to, say, the abstracted interlaced art of medieval Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians paints a very funny picture.

The last poems of Being Out of Order contain what are for Packer comparatively positive impulses if we interpret positive to mean seeing glimpses of how the frustrating impasse of the situation focussed on in the early work can be escaped – how we can release the parking brake of “The American Age”. “Where One Goes From Here” returns in its setting to the poems of Prince of the Plague Country: life is imagined to be a prison in which one is at the mercy of the warders. The speaker provides a list of pieces of advice to those wanting to plan their escape and these suggestions have as their common theme deceit and subterfuge. One should, for example, always speak loudly “of your intent / to seek a nectared atoll in some warmer sea” because the guards will be working on the assumption “that talkers never try the wall”. One should “endure the fists of discipline, insisting only that / your punishment’s by regulations not by whim” and you should “avoid heroics. No successful saboteur / leaped openly at throats”. Eventually when the guards have been “mirrored . . . / into the sleep of trust”, you can make your escape:

                                 Good luck, then.
Exercise the muscles of your faith
by studying the messages of those who’ve fled
before you, and now drink from individual springs.
They are brothers by consent
                                                    and more than kin to you.
Strangling one’s own hope’s the deepest danger;
the hope of fruitful islands where the heart is free.

“Rocks” is a celebration of those ordinary stones that can be said to be in order rather than out of it – “They are being what they ought / and where. // Which is more than can be said for humans, / who seem always to be nipping / each other’s rumps” – and they serve as symbols not of a desired transcendence but rather as seeds of what just possibly might produce some future blossoming:

. . . . .
What I see most to be envied in rocks is
the cool with which they make walls for us,
keeping us from the chirpy neighbour
and other beasts
                             while knowing all the time
they enclose the green shoot of a future  
that will dismiss us
                                   like the pterodactyl.
Rocks are truly the eggs of our impossible,
this being why we are driven to employ them
as bodies for cathedrals
                                           and gods.
They hold the voices of the sweeter unborn
we sense
                 and work to elevate them so
they may plead for us
                                        at altars we’re denied.

This of course looks to a long term future but the next poem, “Good Mornings”, is about the immediate present and its very occasional felicities that reside inside us “warming like your seed”. And the final poem, “Homecoming”, is a kind of elegy in what is, for Packer, a decidedly rhapsodic mode. It’s core concept is to identify the freed state, the “fruitful islands” dreamed of in “Where One Goes From Here” (which precedes it in the book), not as an imaginary place to be discovered but as a home always carried within:

There will be a homecoming. There will.
       Our cavern is not forever.
Roar of sunlight on the naked eye,
the snapped chain, the dance,
the unexpected bride and the absolute honey
in the restored garden,
these will be yours, will be mine, and together.

. . . . . 
The green 
shoot will break the rock. It will flower;
our tombs of loss will shatter,
and there will be a homecoming.
There will.
               There will.
                                  There will.

It’s not a positive vision that Packer invokes very often. It balances the sense of being mired in social and personal failure that dominates the poems of the first book but, as always with poems of assertion, a reader is never sure how much it is a triumphant achievement and how much it is the putting on of a brave and hopeful face, a result of an “evergreen ear . . . for angelic trumpets”. While Packer’s final book, Serpentine Futures (published with his Christian name altered to Lewis) is a bit beyond the ambit of this review it might be worth pointing out that if we treat the long sequence “The Great Food Animal” as a radio piece, like “The Uncommercial Traveller” which concludes Being Out of Order, then the last poems in Packer’s last book concern a visit to Auschwitz. Packer’s own comment on the book’s cover says:

. . . concentration camp facts always downwardly transcend creative values. It is probably impossible to write a successful poem about the holocaust, or any other apocalypse for that matter. One tries to fail as honourably as one can.

Packer died in 1989, three years after the publication of Serpentine Futures, at the age of fifty-four. His intense, irritated poetry which seemed to be derived from a dissatisfaction with himself as much as with the wider world was matched by his personality: he was notoriously quarrelsome. Bruce Beaver, who shared New Zealand origins with Packer, and was a good long-term friend, wrote a poem about him after his death:

Dear man, like me you were quite awful while you lived.
But then, we were half-dead for most of the time
and in these times of semi-thanatopsis we came closer
to life than most of those we knew; the partly-living
who did not acknowledge death in any of its varied
manifestations, a friend to some, a friendly enemy
to all, my alter-ego, your conscious shadow self,
certainly no stranger.

. . . . .
the big white bird took you away beyond all day-
and night-life once upon a last time of an apocalyptic
hyper-tensive seizure when your heart couldn’t cope
any longer with your already out-dated
attempt at a new self, half a new name, skinhead hairdo
or the like, leather gear and an improbable
turnover of new words minted too late in your last days. . .

Peter Boyle: Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2019, 80pp.

This remarkable book is a kind of livre composé covering the twenty months which begin with the author’s discovery that his partner is suffering from an incurable disease. One’s initial response is that this will provide a difficult test not only for the author himself, but also for the Romance-influenced, surreal (to use a loose term loosely) poetic mode that Peter Boyle has pioneered throughout his career and which I have written about at some length on this site in reviews of his other work. Sometimes the background landscapes of his poems, though fictional, anchor them in at least the illusion of a solid reality: Apocrypha was, for example, an anthology of different kinds of poetry produced by different cultures in an imagined alternative world; Ghostpeaking was an anthology of poems produced by imaginary Romance language speakers whose biographies were provided – also anchoring the poems in some way. Here, the pain that anchors the poems is oppressively realistic and one feels, initially, that it might be difficult for readers to respond to conceptually elegant poems of dreams and dream images which are tied to a painful experience which they have either experienced themselves or can relate empathically to.

Actually, an alternative way of framing this question might be to point out that the most conventional, personal-documentary poetry, far from being at home in the middle of personal trauma, is actually rather challenged by it. It occurs most recently in David McCooey’s heart attack poems where such an immense disruption to a poet’s life at all levels demands to be “dealt with” in some way since it would be a deliberate lie to omit it and while the truest poetry may be the most feigning it can hardly be the most deliberately suppressing. In that case, as in others, various techniques can be deployed to prevent the poems being a mere hospital diary: a set of oblique lyrics, for example, or a single “confessional” piece that gets the issue out of the way. My point is that an extreme personal experience poses problems no matter what the poetic theory, methods and beliefs of the poet may be.

Only one of the poems in this book approaches the documentary:

we are people gathering in waiting rooms
our gentle patter
                                     builds a smooth
human feel to mortality
through words
                                     our joined breaths
renew their task:
to push helplessness a little further
off our shoulders

There are a couple of other poems – “And me, if I’m your keeper, / in this strange zoo” and “suddenly / it comes to us” – which also deal with the everyday realities of hospital visits though in a fairly oblique way. The latter, for example, speaks of a mysterious text from “the last emperor” – either Chinese or Roman – in which “death’s slowly / at first imperceptibly / widening thumbprint” is delivered in a kind of code. One could imagine an entire book constructed like this with a suitably sophisticated, European-surreal cast which would obviate any tendency towards simple confessionalism. But what Boyle has chosen to do (at least as far as I can intuit it) is to measure the alterations to his psychic state by observing changes in the messages that are sent to him as though the poems were made up of the traces we see on the monitors in an intensive care unit. This is a technique that involves being receptive and looking carefully at what comes in. And what comes in comes in from a variety of sources. Dreams, hypnagogic daydreams and fantasies are obvious ways in which the stressed body and mind sends messages but in Boyle’s distinctive creative set up, poetry itself sends messages when some words suggest themselves as the correct way to proceed with a piece of writing which has already been begun. And language – which Boyle, as a professional translator, has a particularly intimate relationship with – can also send its messages: there are some poems in Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness which are founded on bilingual puns and homonyms, so that, for example, the fact that in some Romance languages the word for “conscience” and “consciousness” are the same seems to suggest a message from the depths of linguistic reality that needs exploring.

It is not to be expected, of course, that these messages should be couched in simple, interpretable language though there are occasions when they are. One such is the “Revelation on the forest path” an extended piece whose style seems to invoke Eliot’s confrontation with the familiar compound ghost in “Little Gidding”. Here the ghost is female – “like one returned from great distances / speaking” – and she has a lot of fairly straightforward advice that doesn’t require interpretation. And a lot of this advice seems to be about the function of poetry in contexts of crisis:

“All the truly matters is not there
or so so little
All the gestures and curling twists,
the filigree around the borders of lines,
bleach out
You build elaborate porticoes where no one will enter,
where nothing has entered”
. . . . . 
“It is not safe now
We do not live where you thought we lived
And perhaps there is no time now for
the building of monuments, even monuments of words
Too late now for those speakers of the lines
only you could invent
Just because you have breathed many mornings
does not mean you will always breathe
Just because the sun has risen over and over
many days in your life
does not mean it will always rise” . . .

But usually these messages have to be read carefully since their significance is not always immediately apparent. As one of the poems says:

As I unfold
the pages of
the dreambook
more and more
diagrams open out.

What was I assembling? . . .

Before going on to look at the possibilities:

Is it 
the elaboration

of a space 
soon to be evolved
for whatever remains
after us
. . . . . 
or perhaps these
chaotic diagrams are
the history of the abandoned . . .

In other words – or at least as I read it – messages from the world of dreams are not necessarily limited to the concerns of the individual dreamer. They have a component in which they are the dreams of much larger contexts that the individual partakes in. But despite this caveat, I think the idea of someone’s looking at hospital monitors without any other means of direct contact with the patient and deriving from that some kind of image of the sufferer’s altered state, to see the various messages from the differing sources as riddles “whose answer is yourself”, is a viable one. Or to use another image, “wading through / the fine-grained silt / that was the world”, the interpreter can make some sense of the river-of-life’s “moment-by-moment turbulence”.

What kind of observations is a reader to make? It isn’t the sort of book that one dips into; one needs to read it whole several times in order to find the motifs and repeated images. One of the most obvious is the idea of being dragged remorselessly into nothingness. In a sense the first three of the one hundred and fourteen poems play variations on this. The first interprets what may well be a simple observable image of the author’s surrounding suburbia as an example of how they all (in Eliot’s words again) go into the dark:

. . . . .
Beyond is the steady tug
of a long line of houses, of houses
crammed with people
going under

The words “tug” and “long line” ensure that we are predisposed to the image of a sinking ship here before the words “going under” appear but the second poem repeats the downward movement as a result of desk-bound weariness – “When your eyes are so heavy / you fall into space” – and the third introduces the repeated image of the self, rather like a meteor, undergoing a momentary illumination as it disappears:

so far a thing
he goes
into the zero


These poems set up a recurring pattern of movement, often a fall, into complex corridors and tunnels. Sometimes the image is not of a fall but of a voyage (in a boat or spaceship) through a surreal landscape often, again, of corridors. Repeated images are, of course, part of the apparatus which unifies what really are fragmented poems coming from different aspects of the psyche. There are, in fact, many continuities in this book. An author’s note tells us that the series was written between January, 2017 and September, 2018 and we are often reminded of the season as the poems progress. There is also a regularly recurring description of the setting of a desk at night with a world outside. I have quoted the second part of the opening poem but the first lines describe how words pile up “on one side of the desk”. It’s quite refreshing to be reminded that poems are written not on the site of the experience which is being explored, but on a desk in front of a blank page or a computer screen. Oddly these references might be said to make these poems, despite their interest in dreams, metaphysical paradoxes and language, rather more solidly realistic than most.

I won’t go on describing the repeated images; they form the fabric of the entire book and tend to be spaced so that the book rarely seems to be tied down to exploring one particular approach. But, standing back a little, it’s hard not to get the idea that traumatic experience has sharpened the sense of dichotomy that runs through the poems. There is, spatially, the “here” as opposed to the “there”, the homely desk as opposed to the fall into nothingness, the forest as opposed to the burnt out landscape. But the fundamental dichotomy is that of light and dark. Presumably this has its origins in night-time composition (night being the best time to hear the messages of the dream-world) set against an experience of the dawn. A poem called “Stepping from a dark bedroom onto the wide verandah, daybreak” is entirely built on this dichotomy:

all the light of the trees
speaks for me
this presence

that makes the leaves 
more than leaves
.  . . . .
if you can feel beyond
these dark markings, blue
scratches where

the death lord has held me

within us
as far over us

this light returns

Light and dark are so dominant that one begins to think of gnostic presuppositions possibly underlying the work. And a slightly Jewish cast to some of the later poems – one is described by the author as being based on a poem from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse – supports this to the extent that early common-era Judaism, like early Christianity, was very hospitable to the influences of gnosticism (and other beliefs coloured by Neo-Platonism). It’s also a reminder that the figure of Jabes – an Egyptian Jew writing in Paris and a master of paradox – has appeared before in Boyle’s poetry. I have always been puzzled by apparently ineradicable assumptions such as that light is good and darkness is bad (one could include the strange geometry whereby depth is good – profound – and surfaces are trivial – superficial) and I’m attracted by works which invert this. In Tristan and Isolde, light is bad (der öde Tag) and dark good; in Antony and Cleopatra the Egyptians are people of the night and the decidedly unpleasant Romans are people of the day. What prevents it being a cliché in Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness are a number of paradoxes whereby the dichotomy generates its own undoing. We have met a brief version of this in the third poem where the self as it plunges to extinction gives off light – a phenomenon which is an example of the wider paradox whereby words and poetry emerge from silence.

One of the poems which engages with this begins as a celebration of light – “its bright dependable / presence among us / moving into our rooms / brushing our bodies as we wake” – but then goes on to see light as being

   the closest 
we will ever have
to a metaphor
for being dead

from so far off
we will glow

among our objects
and our traces

unspoken irreplaceable

the underworld’s
almost indetectable

Admittedly this is not about light in the abstract so much as about the effects of light on human beings but it does complicate the presentation of light in the book. An earlier poem begins by speaking of the “end of the twisted valley” and our expectations, based on the general images the book supplies, is that some sort of descent into darkness will wait at the end of this painful experience. But, to our (or, at least, my) surprise, it is light that is waiting:

at the end of the twisted valley
in all the battering winds

at the foot of the door
a light

and the small step before the light
sheer     beckoning     bridgeless

In other words, in popular culture terms we are in the universe of Close Encounters of the Third Kind rather than of Pitch Black. What is a reader to make of the light/darkness dichotomy as it is revealed in this book? Perhaps the opposition holds and these counter-examples are no more than the psychic world providing – as it probably always does – mixed messages. Perhaps we should read it keeping in mind that much of the fabric of the poetry is generated by paradoxes.

And one of the most telling of the paradoxes is the fact that a book of one hundred and fourteen poems, written regularly during a period of inner anguish, should conclude by naming its own title in the final line. It reminds one of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” though I’m yet to be convinced by readings of that poem which focus on a largely imagined metaphysical structure. In Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness what might, in lesser hands, be the record of a time of pain, inevitably in the past tense, becomes a registering of messages from the self which are preparatory: the body of the poem precedes its title rather follows from it. Oddly enough, the title can be read, on its own, as presenting a benevolent, caring image of the dark rather than a symbol of all that terrifies us about impending mortality. But, even if we accept that there is ambiguity about the presentation of light and dark, it’s hard to imagine that that was what was intended.

Barry Hill: Eagerly We Burn: Selected Poems 1980 – 2018

Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2019, 193pp.

At fewer than two hundred pages, Eagerly We Burn – the title is taken from one of the poems in a collaborative book with the artist, John Wolseley, devoted to birds – is a restrained and tight selected given the size of Barry Hill’s poetic output. The poems are organised by book but retrospectively (ie beginning with new work and ending with Hill’s first book, Raft) and there’s quite a bit of revision, especially of the earlier work, though it’s not rewriting, more a matter of adjusting and polishing. Raft was published when its author was forty-seven and the earliest poems in it were written when he was forty. That’s a late start for a poet but it does provide some clues that might help frame a description of what Hill has done and is doing. One gets a strong sense that the poems arise from what one is tempted to call “projects” though this can convey an inaccurate impression of a preconceived and planned intellectual quest. Hill’s projects might better be described as long term engagements with certain cultural, spiritual, intellectual, emotional and artistic experiences. Not necessarily an unusual source of poems but seldom done so exhaustively. Engagements like that are part of the powerful drive to extend the borders of the self, to, in Auden’s words, “twig from what we are not what we might be next”, and they tend to begin in maturity.

A good – and reasonably self-contained – example might be Naked Clay, a series of poems engaged with Lucian Freud’s paintings. At a hundred and fifty pages, it was twice the length of the average book of poems and nothing like the mere sequences that tend turn up in other poets’ ekphrastic work. I mention this vulgar matter of size just to stress how exhaustive Hill’s engagements can be. These poems work through the whole span of Freud’s career but one’s sense of them is that they want to come at the paintings from every possible angle; to probe not only the paintings but the capacities of poetry itself especially as it relates to the visual arts. Most of the poems acknowledge the painting to which they refer in their titles. Some of them describe the painting – “A smear of snotty cream / marks the forehead / for the squall” – rejoicing in words’ capacity to “capture” or at least analogously recreate the thick impasto of Freud’s technique. We might think of such poems as belonging to the historical origins of ekphrasis, involving a recreation and transmission of an original. But there are poems which enter into the imagined consciousness of the sitter sometimes as a simple statement of what might be in the model’s mind – “The girl with the white dog / as still as the door closed behind her / is daydreaming of mice / in a drawer of socks” – and sometimes as monologue – “In the palm of one hand / I can feel the soft weight of the bird . . .”, “Because I keep the company of lions / he’s given me a Jack Dempsey nose”. Sometimes he’ll make a stab at entering the consciousness of the painter himself: “Wasteground with Houses, Paddington, 1970-72” does this at length beginning with the death of Freud’s father – “As his father lay dying / and after the death of his father / he turned to look / out of his window . . .” and finishing:

Even now the eye can run along them like a hand
                   takes hold of a warm cock
                   more than half a dozen of them
to be frank to be crude to fuck this painting up, almost.

It’s what happens to views in miserable London light.
You can come back from somewhere else
                    from the Low Countries, for instance
feeling you have put so many things behind you
                    and looking out the window
                            as if for the first time
the most ordinary thing has an extraordinary glow
                            to it, has caught fire.

At other times the poems spin into Hill’s own autobiography. “Hotel Bedroom, 1954” begins “This painting hurls me back again / into where my first wife slept – / my dreading the day she’d turn to see / all my clinical tendencies” and Freud’s mother paintings lead to Hill’s own parents, the book finishing with a long poem, “Magnanimity”, which revisits life with these parents. Another extended poem, “In Sight of Death”, might be seen to be a version of the book in miniature but it also deals with the question of poetry itself and how it is influenced by the fact that it is enmeshed in a “project”.

The mother paintings and Hill’s “Magnanimity” also front up to the issue of the human body and the disconcerting experience of seeing it as exposed as it is in Freud’s paintings. In other words, the autobiographical drift that a number of the poems have is balanced by a generalised intellectual interest in the body and the way it is represented in the paintings. And that isn’t all that these poems attempt but it’s enough to establish the idea that Hill’s poems often are embedded in a multipronged assault on a particular issue. And sometimes the poems are only part of the process. Hill has a collection of essays and reviews, Reason & Lovelessness, which shows that many of the subjects appearing in the poems can be accompanied by some extended expository prose dealing with the same issue: in this case there are two essay/reviews relevant to Naked Clay – “Brushes with the Body” and “Getting to Grips with Naked”.

I’ve looked at Naked Clay at some length – and it is a tour de force – but in truth I could have done the same for any of the projects that Hill’s life and intellectual work embrace. “Exhaustive multipronged engagement” would be the best condensed description I could give of this poetry. I have written about Lines for Birds (another tour de force) elsewhere on this site but, revisiting it – and there is a good and generous selection in Eagerly We Burn – you can see that it shares a similar pattern though its interests are as far from the human body as is possible since it is concerned with birds, inhabitants of the natural world which we interact with but which are, ultimately, beyond our understanding. As in Naked Clay, there are poems of “capture”, poems of exploration and poems of scientific engagement: multipronged but different. At one extreme there is something like “On the Brilliant Engagement of Two Paradise Riflebirds” which deliciously evokes those amazing birds but is done as a monologue from the male bird’s point of view – “What we did was preen and groom / our feathers. We opened the orange / depths of our beaks / pleased at the split husks // the crimson fruit, its surrender”. This unusual perspective, coupled with the highly “literary” title and a set of possible double entendres means that a reader is always going to be aware of the possibility that the relationship spoken about is a human, sexual one. As a result what seems to be the most daring inter-species extension of the self might be, at the same time, a single-species love poem. The poem which begins the selection from Lines for Birds is “Thrush Summer (1959)”, a more straightforward piece of personal poetry:

That bird, in the heat
bursting out of itself.
. . . . . 
O summer thrush of youth
a rush of beaky songs
the streaming of bass notes
as if culture is new!
The corn under starry skies.
When we were young and ablaze -
spirit arrivals.

At first there seems no doubt that the bird must be subordinated to the human here since it’s a poem about the ecstatic sexual love of sixteen year olds. But Hill’s poetic personality is such that the bird is more than mere symbol. The young man moves out of himself into the bird – “Young man bird / woman at his call” – and in the last line the thrush is configured as the spirit which arrives to turn dreary adolescents into burning lovers. There is also an ambiguity in that last line – the plural “arrivals” nags one into thinking about it – so that perhaps it is the couple who are spirit arrivals. If that is the case then the superimposition of the bird and the couple becomes attractively complex: bird metamorphosing into the spirit of summer, Shaw Neilson style, and humans metamorphosing into spirit as well so that birds and humans are interspecially interwoven.

In Lines for Birds the first poem is not “Thrush Summer (1959)” but “Eagerly We Burn” which goes on to be the title of this selected. Whereas the former aspires to be nothing more than a complex lyric, hiding surprises under what seems to be a conventional genre piece, “Eagerly We Burn” is difficult at every level. Set in the aftermath of a fire in the scrub lands of north west Victoria and south west NSW it is partly a poem about the collaboration of artist and poet in the book. The drawings on paper are made with charcoal, the material that the fires have left behind but, just as the bush recovers quickly from fire – “there’s amber growth from tubers / frisky ginger everywhere” – so art and poetry are involved in recreation: “If it [the Honey Eater] perished it would live / in the lines you make”. This seems unremarkable enough but there are a couple of complexifying features. The poem’s first line, “From the war-zone of burnt goodbyes”, suggests that the bushfire itself might be symbolic of destroyed human relationships. And the very mention of fire recalls Buddhism – a subject appearing throughout Hill’s work and which I’ll speak about later – and the notion in the Fire Sermon that fire symbolizes the human world of sensory attachments. And this reading makes the tone of the title (and last line) tricky to establish, at least for someone approaching Hill’s poetry from the outside. It’s a matter of how Hill’s poetry engages with a different culture with a different attitude to the natural world, that is, an intercultural issue of the sort that others of Hill’s “projects” are involved with. Here it might be designed to reveal a double perspective on the same landscape.

If the poems devoted to the Freud paintings take us into questions of the body, the mother (introducing an analytical perspective established by Lucian Freud’s grandfather) and the multiple meanings of nakedness, and Lines For Birds takes us into questions of our relationship to other species, other “projects” of Hill’s bring us into the equally complex world of extending the self by encountering different cultures. He has moved west (and into the interior of Australia) in poems relating to experiences of aboriginal culture and east in poems engaging with Mahayana Buddhism. Interestingly not into the north – the equally disorienting regions explored in the past by people like Rasmussen and more recently by Barry Lopez.

The poems about Aboriginal culture have two loci. There are poems in The Inland Sea which are responses to life in Central Australia, what one might call lyrics with an analytical touch. These are counterparts to Hill’s work on the biography of TGH Strehlow (which, I’m ashamed to say I am yet to read) and they also mesh in with a series of essays on Central Australia collected in the second part of Reason & Lovelessness. In other words, there is the same sense of powerful intellectual engagement producing both prose and poems as part of the equipment with which it can be tackled. The central issues of any desire to expand the self by meeting the different are laid out in the opening paragraph of an essay called “Crossing Cultures”:

If crossing means overcoming difference, arriving at some point of identity, making a whole new home in another culture, this, with regard to Aboriginal culture, is next to impossible. . . . . . We may enter the other, yes, but only via the dream, the unconscious, night-time enactments of exotic signs. You might reach the other side, yes, but how do you safely get back?

Orientalism generation who see all such things as results of patriarchal imperialism (the Oedipal lambasting of ancestors is surely the dreariest of contemporary genres). I won’t go into this at any greater depth since Hill’s own poems about Central Australia are only a small part of his thoughts about the issue. But it does occur to me that the real “crossings”, the real points of contact and sympathy may need to be made not with other ethnicities but with our own predecessors whom contemporary intellectual positions tend to distort and cartoonise. Hill’s essay “Through Larapinta Land” isn’t free of this judgementalism when it looks at the work of Baldwin Spencer but operates by contrasting him to Darwin, a more acceptable nineteenth century intellectual.

The other component of Hill’s engagement with black Australia is in his booklength account of the life of William Buckley, the convict who, escaping from the first attempted settlement at Port Phillip Bay in 1803, lived among Aboriginal people before surrendering to the merchants who arrived thirty-two years later. Buckley’s case is fascinating and, seemingly, designed for a late twentieth-century treatment because of the complicated way it is locked in text. We only have extended access to Buckley though a ghost-written autobiography of twenty years later. And the author is a not entirely trustworthy journalist with an agenda (it rather recalls Rusticello‘s ghosting of Marco Polo’s travels). There are other textual fragments scattered among other people of the period who came into contact with Buckley. And so far from being a sudden trustworthy anthropological insight into the alien world (as, for example, Ibn Fadhlan’s meeting with the Vikings on the Volga) we have an enigma amongst enigmas wrapped in text. And given the local Aboriginal’s tendency to see a giant white man as a ghost, a whole new range of meanings is added to the contemporary phrase “ghost-writer” (Hill’s book is significantly called Ghosting William Buckley). What strikes one about the poems of this book – I’ll spare my readers a long analysis – is their variety and their varied angles of attack. The book isn’t, in other words, a smooth narrative (epic style) from a considered authorial position so much as an examination of what different kinds of poem can say about a particular moment, and which moments can be dealt with in which ways by poetry. The early poems, for example, look a little like eighteenth century ballads. Later on there are poems about birds and fish that recall the later poems of Lines for Birds. But, most interestingly, we can see Buckley as an example of that earlier question: “You might reach the other side, yes, but how do you get safely back?” In my reading, entirely provisional, Buckley loses his language (at least for a while) and his self, permanently. His later career is as odd as Alexander Selkirk’s or Swift’s Gulliver returned from the land of the Houyhnhnms. His isn’t so much an expansion of the self as an annihilation.

And it has a kind of relevance for those poems of Hill’s that deal with his journeys East since an evacuated, non-self seems something more in keeping with Buddhist and Taoist traditions than Western ones. The East is present in Hill’s poems from the very beginning. The first book, Raft, is structured around the idea of the Dharma raft, derived from a parable imagined to be by the Buddha. I’m not confident about the religions east of the Indus River which form a vast ocean in which I have only ever paddled but, as far as I can tell, the raft can be interpreted as the moral and sensory experiences which get the pilgrim to the farther shore and which are designed to be jettisoned once that shore is reached. The alternative reading (which leads one down a never-ending alleyway of paradox) is that the raft is the Buddha’s teachings themselves, designed somehow to be abandoned after success. I think Hill’s poems are based around the former interpretation: the early poems in the section, ”Floating”, are about the conventional subjects of lyric poetry – the self and its attachments.

But Raft is a first book. The East appears most importantly in two of the other books, Four Lines East and Grass Hut Work, published in 2009 and 2016 respectively. The former is a kind of superior visitor’s book with brief vignettes of India, China and Japan whereas the latter is close to a pilgrim’s book, a book of immersions. “Under the Sign of Necessity” from Four Lines East is a good example of the issues which, I’ve been arguing, Hill is interested in. It recounts a visit in Kolkata to the Bengali poet, Nabaneeta Dev Sen:

In the comfortable room, our bellies full
we had been talking ideas, of language,
and you had read a poem
the one about your young men hardened
by killing in the name
not of their mother, but justice.
And I had read a poem in return
one about the bomber with the pretty smile . . .

This is a vision of the best of East-West ecumenical bonding, poetry as a place in which shared and different experiences can be aired as parties come together in the best spirit – what the poem describes as “the loving silence”. But looking out of the bathroom window Hill sees two rickshaw men

     in the smouldering street light below
a near-naked man washed at the pump
the gutter startlingly clean all around him
his body as fresh as the speech
he directed like water to a man nearby.

The listener had a small towel over his shoulder.
He seemed to have all the time in the world. . .
A song must have linked the rickshaw men.
But then I had to turn away - 
Neither knowing their poem
Nor the wars they might be in.

The point of this scene (there are a few differences between its appearance in Four Lines East and Eagerly We Burn) is that there are limits to empathic relations between cultures just as, I suppose, there are limits to empathic relations between any individuals within a culture. Another fine, though entirely conventional, poem recalls the experience of the traveller – slightly fuddled by the “street fumes, prejudice, difference” of India and trying, by writing his diary, to “put / more definition into these daily labours” – coming across a leaf from the bodhi tree pressed between the pages of the diary. It’s a kind of call to meditation to free the mind from the endless detail of life:

. . . . . 
Coming upon the leaf might have put a halt
to the attempts at shape, at true memory.
After all, if a man is serious about that tree
he might abandon the thickets of words . . .

There is a justified sense that the freed meditative mind of Buddhism might be inimical to the kinds of poetry that appeal to us, a genuine and dangerous (for a poet) clash of cultures. The poem resolves it by allowing the leaf to have, on its underside, a “half dozen petrified eggs, like seeds” which enables Hill to, at least momentarily and provisionally, dissipate the tensions: “You continue to transport words across paper. / Tissues of flight, and eggs, find their place”.

It all comes down to the crucial question of how profound the cultural differences, especially between East and West are. If all humans partake of the same experiences merely inflected by the cultures in which they are embedded then a westerner can respond to those elements that help expand his or her personality or which offer expansive possibilities for poetry. And the same for an easterner experiencing the West. But if the cultures are fundamentally irreconcilable then, deep down, the result can only be a kind of cherry-picking. It’s good to appreciate the calm compassion of Buddhism, for example, but is it predicated on a view of the universe which is quite intolerable to a westerner?

My impulse is to belong to this school of irreconcilability and I need to speak personally here for a moment to explain why since it profoundly influences how I read these poems, why I like them and why I think the best of Hill comes out of poems camped in the difficult areas of the meeting of the two cultures. As I said earlier, my knowledge of the religions from east of the Indus is very sketchy and I’ve never had the sense of excitement and expansion that so many others, betters, have. My text for whatever understanding I have of the major religions of Asia and Europe is Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God series, especially the second volume, Oriental Mythology. This book is now nearly sixty years old and I’ve had my copy for fifty of those years. Even at its date of publication it must have produced groans from experts in the field of comparative religion and ethnology because of its synthesising sweep and confident (now, we would probably say, imperial/intellectual) analyses. Today it is probably in even less repute, consigned to the box of remaindered conspectuses alongside Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Spengler’s The Decline of the West among many, many others. But for all this, there is, at the opening of Oriental Mythology, a magical overview called “The Signatures of the Four Great Domains”. In Campbell’s view the fundamental split (the Indus River of religions) is between the West whose god is an independent creator, producing a world and human beings separate from itself, and the East whose god creates the world and its inhabitants by dividing itself so that all creation is part of the god. Each of these two irreconcilable religious cultures is then divided into two. The West contains the Greek-influenced response to being one of the creatures of the gods, stressing opposition and an argumentative stance towards the higher powers, not as a childish dummy-spit but as part of a mature development of an adult ego, able to face the difficulties that engagement with life will produce. It’s exactly the kind of culture that looks towards the possibility of expanding the horizons of the self by travel (at the benevolent level) but contains also the seeds of imperial conquest. The second component of the religion of the West is made up of the levantine religions of submission: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The East also has its double face. It is a culture of meditation (the divine is contained in the self) and expresses the importance of the yogic/meditative discipline in the famous metaphor of the lake. Blown by the winds of self and unfocussed thought, the lake produces only fragmented images but when the mind is cleared and the lake still, it produces a perfect image of reality. As Campbell says,

We should then see that all the broken images, formerly only fleetingly perceived, were actually but fragments of these true and steady forms, now clearly and steadily beheld. And we should have at our command thereafter both the possibility of stilling the pond, to enjoy the fundamental form, and that of letting the winds blow and the waters ripple, for the enjoyment of the play (līlā) of the transformations . . . . . But whereas the usual point of view and goal of the Indian has always been typically that of the yogi striving for an experience of the water stilled, the Chinese and Japanese have tended, rather, to rock with the ripple of the waves. Compared with any of the basic theological or scientific systems of the West, the two views are clearly of a kind; however, compared with each other in their own terms they show a diametric contrast: the Indian bursting the shell of being, dwells in rapture in the void of eternity, which is at once within and beyond, whereas the Chinese or Japanese, satisfied that the Great Emptiness indeed is the Mover of all things, allows things to move and, neither fearing nor desiring, allowing his own life to move with them, participates in the rhythm of the Tao.

The whole section finishes with a displaying of the four iconic figures of these religious sub-groups:

The four representatives, respectively, of human reason and the responsible individual, supernatural revelation and the one true community under God, yogic arrest in the immanent great void, and spontaneous accord with the way of earth and heaven [are] Prometheus, Job, the seated Buddha, eyes closed, and the wandering Sage, eyes open . . .

I’ve always found this profoundly useful as a rough map for negotiating the two Buddhisms (Theravada and Mahayana), Taoism etc and for plotting where the sites of conflict are likely to be. It helps explain why western poets have been more comfortable with Oriental (ie Chinese and Japanese) religions and poetry since West and East here share a fascination with the natural world and each has tried to pioneer ways of expressing landscape in words (or to pioneer ways of expressing the impossibility of expressing the world in words). It’s a moment of common interests, like the meeting in Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s room, where the differences are helpful and serve to expand perspectives and possibilities. But the poetic temperaments are so different: the western poet has to make a massive assertion of ego to write and publish or speak a poem, and egotism is an important driver in the western tradition, valuable as long as it is finely enough balanced: underdeveloped it produces the immature sense of the self that leads to victimhood, overdeveloped – well, everyone knows where that leads. The great poems of the Japanese and Chinese traditions don’t treat the self in any way at all resembling this. There’s an unbridgeable gap, in other words, between Wordsworth’s Prelude and Basho’s travels in the far north.

Western poets have learned from oriental poets how to move poetry closer to life-as-lived by exploiting diary form. It’s a form that reconfigures the poetic ego slightly by adding immediacy of response, provisionality, sketchiness and even disposableness to lyric poetry. I don’t want to imply that Four Winds East and Grass Hut Work incline towards a sort of devotional diary because the latter, for example, contains a major and extended poem like “On Getting to Grips with the Heart Sutra”. One of the poems of Grass Hut Work, “Basho’s Sin”, refers to the famous poem and uses it as a marker for the irreconcilability of the traditions that I’ve been speaking of:

Basho’s Sin

was leaving that child
by the side
of the road.

Only a larger Taoism
will do
to explain it . . .

It is part of a series in the book devoted to a pilgrimage not to a standard religious site but to the Peace Park in Hiroshima. It’s another point of painful interaction between West and East requiring attempts at reconciliation, of “facing the music” as one of the poems says. It also expresses the fundamental paradox of the Promethean ward of the City of Religion. As inhabitants of these suburbs, we can spare ourselves the mind-numbing niceness of the Dalai Lama and the mind-numbing abstractions of seemingly endless Buddhist “discourses”. In exchange we give the world the genuine miracle of the Hubble telescope but we also give it the atom bomb.

To be fair to Campbell, as early as 1962 he reminds us that his map of the great European and Asian religions is really a description of a past state. Interactions between them – poets and intellectuals travelling in both directions and spending extended periods of time in these locations of cultural otherness – mean that the boundaries are changing. I still think that the differences are irreconcilable and that most of the good things that emerge – as in Hill’s poetry – are likely to come from an open-eyed and open-minded engagement with these differences. But some sort of syncretism is possible and two thousand years from now the interactions may be shown to have produced whole new structures of religious and philosophical thought quite unfamiliar to the world of Prometheus, Job and the two very different sages.

John Jenkins: Poems Far & Wide

Waratah NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019, 163pp.

The book’s title says it all in a way. Few recent books have shown such a variety of styles and poetic modes The styles range from sharp, Duggan-like, found poems – “Overheard on bus // It was like . . . / grasping at fogwebs” – to extended meditations, parodies and (in “The Annual Eros Motor Joyride”) exhaustive explorations of a single comic idea. The modes range from lyric to narrative and all the varieties within them. It takes a little while and a few rereadings to work out that this is not a grab-bag of recent work (“compendium” might be a politer word) but a coherent book, attempting, with some deliberateness, to push the boundaries of the possible in poetry, to reject conventional consistency which is, as one of the poems says, “a bloodless abstract, a lesser good”.

Jenkins’ previous book, Growing up with Mr Menzies, was, on the surface, an examination of life in the fifties and sixties in Australia, something of a celebration while at the same time something of a meditation on memory and the nature of history. At its core, it was a series of poems about the childhood doings of one Felix Hayes, born (like Jenkins) in 1949 in Elwood but soon moving to Box Hill, one of the outer suburbs of Melbourne which became a commuter base in the postwar age of prosperity supervised by successive Liberal party governments of Robert Menzies. The opening poem imagines Menzies kissing the new born Felix as part of a politician’s duties in that period and thus passing on a kind of blessing to a child who will grow up in the Australia he creates, one in which an improving standard of living and the opening of possibilities (especially in education) are counterbalanced by an apocalyptic background – the sense of living, as one poem says, “under ‘the shadow of the bomb’”. Many of the poems are in the familiar mode of a poet’s revisiting his or her childhood days but there are meditations on the processes involved – “Grain” and “Positives”, for example – as well as both external and (imagined) internal portraits of Menzies himself.

I dwell on Growing up with Mr Menzies at this length to point out that, essentially, it’s a hybrid work mating monologues with childhood memory-poems and meditations about the self, about history and the relation between the two. The core of the book is the imagined relationship between Felix and Menzies, the former representing youthful experiences revisited and the latter the dominating representative of capital H History – no accident that the book’s first line has Menzies bending over Felix in his cot. I think that this sense of hybridity is crucial to Jenkins’ work: he writes in many modes (including material co-written with Ken Bolton, and material involved in musical and theatre performance) not as someone unsure of their metier or as a professional writer turning their hands to whatever is required and pays, but rather as someone genuinely interested in mixing modes and exploring the interactions between them.

Hybridity involves the meeting of disparate things and as such it is perhaps no accident that one of the best poems of this new book, “Under the Shaded Blossom”, is a narrative about an imagined meeting between two utterly unalike individuals, Mafia fixer, Meyer Lansky, and magisterial poet, Wallace Stevens. Since Stevens travelled south (to Florida as well as Cuba) regularly for his holidays and Lansky was based in Cuba, such an accidental meeting is not impossible. And since, for most of us, the central paradox of Steven’s biography is his simultaneous addiction to poetry and finance, especially the finances of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (resolved perhaps in the famous dictum “Money is a kind of poetry”) there is an additional frisson in the meeting of two men in their own way continuously involved in financial transactions. You get a sense here of why this fantasy meeting attracts a poetic mind like Jenkins. There is much to be explored in the meeting of speech (or sensibility) registers. Lansky’s indirect dialogue is done in the ineradicable style of Lower East Side: “A surprise visit maybe . . . that barber shop, where / the New York capos hang out Sundays. Short back and insides / all round! Schmucks is right! . . .” whereas Stevens is in full Stevensish tropical baroque mode:

. . . . . 
                                                           Mr Stevens,
elaborating a palette both abstract and precise, recalled at once the rail
journey down Florida. How Havana always welcomed his
appraisal, how real things revealed themselves to him,
they changed to music, passing an old casino in the park, where the bills
of swans had lowered slowly as he had neared. “For him?” In this way, life gave
its assurance to always change, that something new and shining would appear,
arising anew from its patina. (“Husks, wherein time was cradled.”)
The stone (he noted now) became rose, and clouds like lightest rose
at evening. And here, too, a single quiet dwelt, within poems made of things;
or orchestras played, balloons lifted into tropical nights at festivals . . .

(The allusion here to The Tempest, read religiously by Stevens every morning, is a reminder of the way in which that play formed the pattern in which he experienced the tropic south.) Lansky and Stevens meet, an offer is made (Lansky is looking for a respectable American- based company that can launder deals) and politely rejected and the two men part. This has a lot of allegorical possibilities: that the low is always an important part of the high (Caliban inhabits the island as legitimately as Ariel; and the shipwrecked include Stefano and Trinculo) but that, for their own, intrinsic reasons, they can’t deal with each other, is certainly one possibility, one supported by Jenkins’ note on the poem. Perhaps Stevens’s transformative rhetorical style can only operate after a refusal to deal with the world represented by Lansky and is thus an incomplete representation of the universe. My own tendency is to follow the path of looking at the poems of this book as being built on the notion of hybridity and thus reading this poem as saying that two styles or modes can inhabit the same space (here the dining room of the Hotel Nacional) and strike illuminating sparks from each other but ultimately remain separate. That is, for example, lyric poems can exist inside plays as songs but the traditions of the lyric poem and of the drama remain essentially unaltered. I’m not sure how defensible this is – but it’s a possible reading.

“Under the Shaded Blossom” is one of a number of short narrative poems in Poems Far & Wide. “The Man Who Lost Himself” and ”The Man Who Found Himself” have an abstract quality and are semi-comic expansions of the cliched use of those two verbs. “The Tent at Evening” following the amorous adventures of a circus knife-thrower who finishes up in Australia using a quintessential Australian – Bruce – as her whirling target perhaps recalls the meeting of Lansky and Stevens in that two opposites are brought together. Instead of the quick separation that happens in Havana, here one of the pair throws knives at the other, shaving off parts of his beard. It’s a more fruitful interaction but a very fraught one. And then there is “Charles Dodgson in Cheshire” recounting Lewis Carroll’s search for his stray cat, Minette, a cat as imaginary as the Cheshire cat since she has been created for the fiction. Like anything involving Carroll it thus enters complex realms in which imaginary and real interact. There is also “Slow Dissolve for Mr. D.” in which death takes a holiday in Hawaii (which makes one think of Wallace Stevens taking holidays in the tropics) and a dream poem involving a piano-playing lobster and his friend, a brick who turns out to be really a building tile. In all of these poems the core seems to be not so much any form of hybridity (though I suppose that having them as representatives of a kind of poetry rather different to the other poems of the book could be seen this way) so much as an interest of worlds within worlds. What might be called encapsulation is one of the themes of Poems Far & Wide, introduced in an ekphrastic piece about a Matisse drawing in which the artist includes himself as a reflection in the studio’s mirror and continued in “Burnt Wood, Birch Bark and the Village of Creation” in which seven tales are briefly told, each nested, babushka-like, inside the other. Nested tales – as in Borges and Calvino – always induce the theme of reality vs irreality, partly because a fiction is a non-reality produced by a real author in a solid, physical book. So imaginary stories about real people – Dodgson, Lansky and Stevens – rub shoulders with conventionally fictitious people like the Bruce of “The Tent at Evening”.

One of the most significant poems – it should probably be grouped with poems like “The Man Who Found Himself” as an “abstract” narrative – is “The Traveller (Man with a Suitcase)” charting the imagined travels of a figure derived from a painting: Jeffrey Smart’s “The Traveller 1973” which shows an anonymous, middle-aged man alighting from a bus (interestingly his reflection shows on the side of the next bus in line). Is it a narrative or a symbolic meditation? Perhaps both. It’s clearly allegorical although the presence of other poems in the book which detail journeys (especially journeys of revisiting) to actual places, helps anchor “The Traveller” in the real world. But most importantly it is a poem about poetry and process. The traveller lives in the world as we do in that he does all the ordinary and cliched things others do, here symbolised by the clichés of the tourist:

. . . . . 
Like us, he also smiles with friends in front of local landmarks.
Like we must do, he conspires with clichés, rehearsing nods and winks,
fake feelings, given templates, those de rigueur merely most
received . . .

But is distinguished from the rest of us by a heightened sensitivity to his own internal drives and processes:

. . . . . 
He feels something move him now, as he moves on: something oblique
yet tangible fills the world, as its true dimension: the quality 
of experience itself; the “poetic” inhering everywhere . . .

In this aesthetic, where the “poetic” is everywhere, there are not sacred sites (in the allegory of the poem these would be tourist destinations) since everything is a sacred site. The poet works through experiences which are “endless artefacts of miracle” and since he is on the edge of a kind of continuous becoming which is simultaneously travelling towards and immediately leaving behind, he is alert to, as the final line says, “their promise, being, erasure”.
Something of this idea of multiplicity and endless change is made into a poetic method in three poems which serve as a prelude for the book. The first of these, “Minifesto”, is quite clear about the kind of book a poetics such as this will produce:

Dear Reader, be warned . . . 
I think poetry is everywhere the poem goes,
the idea of a chosen plenitude: found in
hard-nosed science; in fantasy and dreams;
in satire, song, in wit and humour; drama high
and low. The list goes on: the simple and sublime,
serious or subtle, emotions fine and raw; in tradition
and the new; or words that seem to write themselves.
Equally in wonder, work and wishes; in reverie
while washing dishes, any human thing!

And Poems Far and Wide is the kind of collection that principles like this would produce: varied in every conceivable way. Thematically, though, there are a lot of consistent elements. I have spoken of the interest in encapsulation and mirroring. There’s quite a bit of “hard-nosed science” too, especially in the longish narrative celebrating James Clerk Maxwell’s field equations which, as Jenkins says, shapes the modern world’s view of what reality is. In “Maxwell’s Field” autobiographical elements of the man’s life are mixed with the idea of his being present in the poet’s world, a conceit deriving from the idea that the notion of the field begins wireless transmission which in turn begets digital transmission which brings the past into our own lives. Perhaps a good single example of the book’s idea of poetry and book-structure might be “Coathanger: The Opera” an extended piece which imagines a play/musical/opera celebrating the Sydney Harbour Bridge and describes not only a multi-media artform but also the process of its creation or evolution. An extended and exhausting attempt to celebrate a fleeting moment in a wildly hybridised art form.

It’s hard to think of another contemporary Australian poet who sets out deliberately to produce quite such a mixture of styles and modes. “Minifesto” justifies it by finding poetry – “a chosen plenitude” – everywhere. “Go with your strength” is advice given in a world which rather fears the dangers of over-reaching when one has multiple talents. But Jenkins’ talent seems to be exactly for this variedness (as opposed to mere variety) and the new things that can be made out of conventional materials.

Judith Rodriguez: The Feather Boy & Other Poems

Glebe NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 136pp.

It’s a sad fact that The Feather Boy is Judith Rodriguez’ final book of poems. She died late last year. It comes after a long publishing lull. Once having gotten underway as one of the four Brisbane poets of Four Poets in 1961 (where she published as Judith Green) she published books at a fairly conventional rate up to her New and Selected Poems of 1988, but after that her publications became rather sparser. The Feather Boy is really a retrospective collection of poems written after that date – as she says on the book’s cover “These are poems of nearly thirty years”. The cover also apologises for the resulting lack of “a tightly-themed book” before going on to say that the times demand a book of varied concerns and interests as do the variety of “people encountered”. There is a clue here to the book’s genre. It seems to me to be a “final book”, a certain kind of “late work” in which the author allows him or herself a good degree of latitude. I was struck by the similarities with Gwen Harwood’s final book, The Present Tense with its “Six Odes for Public Occasions”. In Rodriguez’ case this means including poems which lash out at the outrages of the period and those that celebrate friendships – usually those in which the friend has already died. Comic doggerel poems get to be included (the annual ASAL parody nights have a lot to answer for here) whereas they would have never made it into earlier, “straighter” books. All in all, there is a certain unbuttoning in poetic matters and a focussing on the humane values of friendship as the dark comes ever closer and everything is pared down to essentials. In fact, friends – in this genre – perhaps replace children as the centre of intimate interaction, presumably because, in advanced age, one’s children have long since metamorphosed into separate and probably reasonably distant human beings.

The first “unbuttoning” involves Rodriguez allowing herself to be furious, in verse, with the public issues of the last thirty years. This is a case of the poet joining the broader community and sharing their outrage. The period from the late eighties to the present is, in Tacitus’ words, “rich in disasters . . . horrible even in peace”, although compared with periods of equivalent length – 1914–1945, for example – relatively light-on for horrors. There are poems about suicide bombings, pre-Fitzgerald corruption in Queensland, Abu Ghraib, and the imprisonment of the Uighur writer Ilham Tohti. The most important and desperate of these for Australians was the boat-people “crisis” initiated by the arrival of the Tampa with its rescued refugees. In retrospect it is a central event in Australia’s history, reminding those who blandly assumed that Australia was a country of decencies (albeit, fairly dopey decencies) that it could show another face. Though John Howard will obviously bear most of the opprobrium of history – for encouraging and cashing-in politically on this sudden revelation of a hidden dark side of Australian culture – both political parties, at different times, followed the ugly trail of demonization.

Everyone knows the poetic problems that these issues present. A poet, wishing to, at least, express their personal anger is required to find an angle that will result in something better than mere journalism or demonstration slogans. But this raises the paradox that a sophisticated, nuanced and angled approach to some public event – the kind of thing that poets and readers of poetry expect – aestheticises the event itself, replacing the rawer emotions of horror or outrage by the altogether more comfortable one of aesthetic pleasure. Rodriguez’s poems in the first section of The Feather Boy work most of the familiar techniques ranging from eloquent repetitive syntactic patterns to angled, symbolic approaches. “Boat Voices” is the largest attempt here, mixing recorded speech (sourced from newspapers) with comment but I don’t think it can be said to be a successful sequence. “To Sleep, 1986” is a lot more successful because just as the title is ambiguous – a poem addressed to sleep or a poem about the experience of going to sleep – so the entire piece is built on ambiguities. The horrors the poems touches on – “necklacing” in South Africa and the abandoned citizens of Chernobyl (another problem for poems of outrage is the way in which events are reduced to a single verbal tag, a use of language that a good poet would be very resistant to) – are nightmares but they also, in Australia, tend to take place while the southern hemisphere is settled down in sleep. Horrors in the northern hemisphere are, in other words, nightmares that Australians wake up to.

The most intriguing of the poems in this section seems the most oblique. “The Feather Boy” is the first poem of the book and gives it its title. That’s being foregrounded with a vengeance. And yet it is so acutely angled that it leaves me, at least, not at all sure of its drift: in this it recalls Murray’s “Dog Fox Field”. There is a footnote to the poem which adds a little context: a “feather boy” was a child used by partisans to follow up an assassination and the material of the poem comes from Paul Valent’s Child Survivors of the Holocaust. The child’s task was to hold a feather under the noses of the dead, dying and unconscious and count to a hundred. If the feather stirred the victim was either unconscious or trying to fake death and the boy’s task was to call out to one of the men who would then cut the victim’s throat – “If I call, / a knife makes sure”. The poem itself doesn’t declare its sympathies – Polish partisan murder detachments and German occupiers seem alike ethically unattractive to innocent outsiders – but it does allow the boy to speak of himself as acting for the oppressed – “And I call, for us crushed in hiding, // for all of us scattered, parents, cousins, our fates / feathers in war’s updraft”. The poem is built, metaphorically, around the notions of calling and breath, and, as a result, one wants to approach it interpretively as a poem about the role of poetry itself in these ethically fraught situations. That would accord with its being placed first in the section. But it remains rather elusive: it could be saying that situations of horror (the Nazi occupation of Poland) produce such a distorted world that a situation in which a child become the arbiter of life and death is not to be judged simply. It might also be saying that a poetry attempting to deal with contemporary outrage shouldn’t be expected to behave like a polite lyric in an anthology.

The other three sections of the book – “Weather, Times, Places”, “Celebrations” and “Near and Dear” – have exactly the occasional quality that I have spoken about. The dominant impulse here is memory, a lot more interesting, at least superficially, that outrage. And Rodriguez has always been interested in the mechanisms of memory. Often, in this mode, a shortish poem acts as a kind of box in which a small cluster of memories relating to a friend is kept. The book’s final poems are about long-term memories – of father and mother. Again, in this mode, our interest in the remembered detail often has the task of keeping the poem afloat – something critical purists would deplore and “final book” authors happily embrace. But there are two poems which stand out as being better than this. Like “The Feather Boy”, they choose complexity and suggestion. The first of these is the book’s final poem, “Cordelia’s Music for Lear”. It’s position – balancing “The Feather Boy” from the beginning – should be a warning that their modes might be similar. “Cordelia’s Music for Lear” follows two conventional poems about Rodriguez’ father: moving acts of love and contrition. A passage from “Dad” will give an idea of what they are doing and how they work:

. . . . . 
At 99, frail, frustrated -
me off teaching in India -
you told my kids how clever
I’d been, a “natural”. Like Grannie,
your school-results framed and hung.
Dad, I weep at your pride.
How dear a tale. But me away, you died.

Died understood. I took
all you gave, the faith in family,
the English cousins, brothers
you hardly saw in the staggered
boarding at school . . . 

But when we arrive at “Cordelia’s Music for Lear”, two poems on, everything is entirely different:

If I tell you your liegemen wait
and your monster horse
you peer through the crazed hedge
show off bird-tufts
and paste them with licky
to a horse-skull melting like candy.
You have to laugh.

Come from the twigs, summon
the lineage of straw
colouring-in our blood
to daub your scratches.
Father, I gather
your warrior-hand all bone
in my hand’s bowl,

in my shawl, in my hair’s shade.
My young esquires
paint birds upon their shields,
each golden eye
each rainy bird-voice
a washed soul beginning.
Lie soft, be called.

The fact that we are likely to be initially confused about what is clearly a very coherent poem is an indicator of being in the same room as a real poem. Again, the poem provides some context though in this case it takes place not in a footnote but in its title since Cordelia is the loving daughter whose love is not expressed and the non-expression precipitates the tragedy. Equally, since Cordelia narrowly predeceases her father, this can’t be imagined to be a poem like “Dad” to be sung over the parent’s body at the funeral. And the setting seems to be a childhood one of rocking horses and tin soldiers rather than the adult one. It’s not a deliberately surreal work, challenging the very notion of interpretation and there may be a key to it buried somewhere in Rodriguez’ letters or interviews or comments to friends, but for a reader it poses a lot of problems, not the least the meaning of the first four lines of the second stanza. All one can say, reading as an outsider, is that the poem’s tone suggests forgiveness, reconciliation and a final peace.

“Cordelia’s Music for Lear” and “The Feather Boy”, bookending this collection, opt for ambiguity and suggestion in dealing with, respectively, relations with parents (viewed from the perspective of age) and historical outrage. The other outstanding poem is “The Reading” which opts for complexity in dealing with friendship, the third of the The Feather Boy‘s concerns. It is dedicated to Shanti Devadasan an Indian friend with whom Rodriguez read Twelfth Night in a shop in a Chennai mall. And it’s the Shakespeare which continually interacts with their friendship to produce the complexities, Twelfth Night being the play of re-unitings (while Lear is a play of sunderings) made both significant and poignant by the playwright’s loss of his son, Hamnet, a twin whose surviving sister was called Judith. Rodriguez imagines herself playing the part of Olivia and Devadasan the part of the separated twin, Viola. She begins by thinking of the unlikelihoods of this reading in regions “Shakespeare never knew” but then immediately thinks of the reach of the great creative imaginations (especially one whose first name contracts to “Will”): a poet who set plays in Venice and Egypt is already at the border of the great unknown subcontinent:

. . . . . 
                                but given
a century, only a century, who knows?
Headed east by the Serenissima -
Philippi – Actium – the Nile, our Will
was ripening toward the Mahabharata,
the gallant tales, the gold-skinned delicate-
fingered dancing god and cow-eyed girls
and partnership in a Bollywood studio. . . 

But this is a friendship/sisterhood doomed to fracture since Devadasan dies before the age of fifty and no number of sacrifices or visits can stop this final sundering. The fact that she is buried on a place called Quibble Island provides another verbal complexity – this time a nasty irony in that all literature teachers might well be buried on a place with a name like that. As Rodriguez says, it is “somehow a comment on the mess of it all, / somehow laughter from beyond”.

It has been said that complexity (as opposed to complicatedness) is one of the features of “late style”. These three poems stand out for exactly that quality among a group of poems which is marked, if anything, by a loosening of poetic stays. Rodriguez’ great poems have always been those in which a very distinctive personality manages to find the right form in which to express itself so that, far from being lyrically universal, you have a strong feeling that no-one else on earth could have written them. “Nu-Plastik Fanfare Red” is one of these (interestingly the father makes an appearance there but only as a cliché, concerned about the effect his daughter’s painting her room womb-red will have on the house’s resale value) as are the magnificent “Eskimo Occasion”, “Writing a Biography” and “An Odd Voyage”. Though I’m not sure whether many of the poems of this book would be included in any retrospective selected poems planned for Judith Rodriguez, I think “The Feather Boy”, “Cordelia’s Music for Lear” and “The Reading” would undoubtedly be included.

Robert Harris: The Gang of One: Selected Poems

Flinders Lane: Grand Parade Poets, 2019, 224pp.

The Gang of One is one of those literary rescue efforts that need to be both encouraged and supported. Robert Harris, who died at the young age of forty-two, was never a dominant figure in Australian poetry, a fact demonstrated by his spotty inclusions in the various anthologies of the time. Had it not been for this book, a selection from his five books, together with some journal-published poems and some unpublished ones, selected by Judith Beveridge and with a good introduction by Philip Mead, he might have disappeared forever, like so many others. Instead readers can now get a far better perspective on a decidedly odd, and in many ways impressive, career.

The first thing that occurs to me, reading through all his books, is how hard he had to work to make himself into a good poet. Some people find their mode and their voice almost immediately, others publish a first book of what are, really, successful experiments before mining a particular vein in later books. Harris seemed to take until his fourth book, The Cloud Passes Over (1986), to produce consistently good poems. The first three books show someone not only not sure of the kind of poetry he wants to write but somebody without much of an ear for what makes a good line or a good sentence: he was, in other words, far from being dangerously fluent. The last two books, which are quite special, redeem all this, of course, and it makes one admire the dogged determination with which Harris pursued the idea of making himself into a poet over a period of perhaps a dozen years.

In both Localities (1973) and Translations from the Albatross (1976), one can see what Harris wants his poetry to do. These poems demonstrate an interest in the social world, both its individuals and its hidden mechanisms, while at the same time allowing for moments of uplift, usually involving elements of the natural world, especially light and clouds (though sometimes music). In other words, he wants to look horizontally at the social while retaining some space for a tentative upward look towards the transcendent. It seems likely that the interest in the social derived from an extended period (a later poem speaks of “seven years servitude”) doing odd jobs and meeting odd people (rather like Bruce Dawe before him). Some individual portraits work well enough – “Retirement of the Railway Ganger”, “Another One For the Road” and “The Enthusiast”, for example – but often the social appears in the form of extended, hectoring denunciations as in “From a Seat in Joe’s Seafoods” and “Concerning Shearers Playing for the Bride”. A few lines from the former will make the point:

. . . .
the blanket, affectionate
heart of night
is violently robbed of all serenity with
the coming of the hateful shrieks
of vampire sirens possessed of the calm,
of the always justified cops gone out
to beat up some shivering kids. . . . .

As I copy this, I’m yet again amazed by the gap in quality between this and the poems of The Cloud Passes Over and JANE Interlinear. It’s an extraordinary act of self-education; a very steep grade to Parnassus.

One of the dominant influences behind the poems of this first book is the work of Eliot, not someone one would necessarily recommend as an influence although Harris might have found himself sympathetic to the alienated portraits of Eliot’s early verse and to the religious component of his middle and later work. It’s Eliot’s “Four Quartets” which are used as a model for “Shift Workers” (not included in The Gang of One) which is clearly an attempt to find a meaningful framework for large statements about the alienation of low-paid workers arriving by train, those fleeing and dispossessed during wars and those who survived the Depression. The last two of the five sections attempt to balance the misery of these lives with intimations of a richer inner life symbolised by, in Eliot-fashion, a rose. It doesn’t work but you can see what it is attempting – balancing the social with the transcendent – and that it responds to the need for a new form in which this can be done, rather than single portraits or single lyrical moments of love and enlightenment.

Something similar happens in Translations from the Albatross. Although it finishes with a section devoted to Edith Piaf, almost all of the rest is about suburban Melbourne but these poems are inclined to flirt with more “open” form. They are also introduced by a quote from Olson and bracketed by two self-referential poems the latter of which, “Traditional for the Manuscript”, suggests that the fifty pages so far are mere “preparation for a voyage”. I’m not sure whether the form adopted by these poems is any better at dealing with suburban life than the more conventional forms of the poems of Localities. Indeed one of the more memorable poems, “A Reader of Poetry Comes on a Tea Warehouse”, is written in the earlier mode and is a fairly successful portrait of an factory and its workers:

. . . . . 
They claimed it was for the good teas I loaded my back
“good teas on a million tables”. The Boss
believed his fables? He could have done, he was young
and winsome enough in his thirty-eight year old folly.
The kind of person who’d like to make everyone pray.
Only once in seven years servitude
did I ever work for a stupider one.

At last they’ve gone broke and closed the place up.
I came on the building the other day.
Great red brick beast with nowhere to go
a great dead beast with sky shooting out through the windows.
Finding it empty
the asset locked tighter than capital
and being reminded of someone you once used to know
Frank / Bill / Victor / Nina / Rose
while thinking of nobody’s poetry.

But again you can see the attraction of larger, conglomerate forms and the “Homage to Edith Piaf” is an early attempt at a form which will, eventually, lead to the long sequence about Jane Grey. I won’t say much about it here since it is hardly a success – the open form which enables a move away from free verse narrative and dramatic monologues is just too open to have a focus and becomes, instead, arbitrarily allusive – and it doesn’t appear in The Gang of One but it is worth noting that its subject was one of the class of dispossessed drifters that “Shift Workers” dealt with and that she made a popular music out of the details of her life. The sequence is, thus, an introduction to a continuing concern in Harris’s poetry with popular music as an expression of the tone of its time. It’s also worth pointing out the Piaf poems are a homage which involves a pilgrimage for the poet.

The Cloud Passes Over marks the beginning of Harris’s real, sustained poetry. The varieties in subject and method seem genuinely informed experiments rather than desperate searches for a poetry that will work. And all of this is marked by a new and clear Christian commitment – the first three poems, “Ray”, “The Call” and “The Convert” are overtly about the experience of “conversion” and the titles of the latter two are a clear nod to the poetry of George Herbert. I’m rather morbidly interested in this because I might have imagined that settling into a fixed ideology such as Christianity (though admittedly one with host of intriguing loose ends) would have been bad for a poet who was already struggling with the search for his real voice. A teacher of Creative Writing at a university today, faced with a talented and very committed student who hadn’t as yet written anything profoundly satisfying, would surely be uneasy if the student one morning announced that he or she had become a convert to Islam, say, or Buddhism. But whatever the complex interactions between faith, ideology, conviction and creativity are, in Harris’s case the effects seem immediate and are certainly beneficial. The poems deal with two aspects of Christianity. The first is the sense of an individual response to the “call” of Christ and the second is an interest in the God of the Old Testament, especially as invoked by the prophets.

The first component of this is reflected in the first three poems whose titles I have already given and they quickly sketch out the area where conversion is relevant to the poems. In the first, for example, intellectual scepticism is faced head-on:

. . . . .
Soon He was calling, not He without His Friend.
In from behind the winter wind.

The loudest rain could not drown
that soft knock. If then I heard words
they were, Why not come from hiding?

You’re an archetype, I flung back. So
go away. Or said, Nah. Listen, says Christ,
listen be deaf you are deaf now you aren’t,
listen. I will be back. . .

Admittedly, the notion that living and resurrected gods are pretty common, especially in the Levant, is an objection of its period – a time of pop-anthropology – and thus hardly constitutes the full panoply of intellectual difficulties that Christianity faces, but it is refreshing to see that it immediately forms a part of the experience. It recalls one of the unpublished poems at the end of The Gang of One, “Christians”, which begins, “A lifetime of explanations? Pah. / Explanations only summon evasions, / the stupidest religious disputes, / or unbelief’s weary shibboleths . . .” before going on to list those same shibboleths, presumably bowled up by friends and acquaintances:

. . . . . 
Did you know that Jesus, alone,
or, you know, whatever you conceive him -
Allah, Buddha, the Force -
is solely responsible for war?
That everything’s just a metaphor?
And the Resurrection, you tell us,
is just another fertility cult
(gee whiz, I never thought that before) . . .

This helps to give a sense of the way Harris accommodated intellectual objections by using the not uncommon technique of imagining an order of experience above the “intellectual”. And this can only be done if the fragmentary experiences of that order are powerful enough to override the intellect (or even common sense). So a powerful part of the poetic experience relates, for Harris, to a personal encounter with the benevolent side of the godhead.

But the other side is present as well – the Yahweh of the Jewish bible who grows in the first half of the first millennium BCE from a cranky local god to an overwhelming master of the universe (or, at least, master of the world and the nearest stars – the then-known part of the universe). Many of the poems of The Cloud Passes Over were written in the mountains behind Bega and the violent onset of winds which sweep clouds over the landscape that one finds there, becomes a congenial place in which to read and think about the God of Hosts. There are a series of fine poems, obviously written at the time of this virtual retreat whose titles alone will give some sense of this: “The Cloud Passes Over”, “Poem on a Hilltop”, “The Snowy Mountains Highway”, “Isaiah By Kerosene Lantern Light”. I don’t know much of Harris’s biography (a good article by Toby Davidson in a recent Sydney Review of Books is helpful here both with its own knowledge and with a set of references) but to an outsider this time in the mountains, either with some specific labouring work or with the calm of a retreat, seems to fulfil all the requirements of the monastic. It certainly involves a lot of reconsideration of his thus-far unsatisfactory development. Take “The Snowy Mountains Highway”, for example:

In the former post office/general store
there were four rooms and two fireplaces
and my lanterns. At a desk I had made
from sundowns often past moon-set
I read Scripture.

There too I wrote about twenty
belligerent sonnets; shedding, I hope,
a lax, Frenchified English
derived from reading the Symbolists
in translation.
. . . . . 
I have placed myself here in the poem,
at work, check-shirted, to help myself remember
black branches I snapped at dusk, snow
at the wind’s edge, a wombat. Also

to dismantle any aesthetic
ideal, keep, or Magian use
from which I might write. . .

Of course, to move from what was then called “The New Romanticism”, with its obeisance to Rimbaud and Mallarme, to a hearty Thoreau- or Snyder-like experience of a bracing mountain slope, might be to move from one cliché to another. But even though that might be a danger, the proof is in the poems and this group celebrating the winds and clouds of the Australian Alps is terrific. And one reason for this is that the poems don’t rely on the conventional Romantic connotations of the windy upland to produce the poem. They are fascinating because they are cross-pollinated by the sense of the Lord of Hosts expressing himself in various of the books of the prophets, as a cleansing gale.

. . . . . 
But these nights
                   there aren’t any fishermen out
from caravan and tent enclaves,
                    their hair on end,
their lines frightened in;
                   no little white cloud
with damaged oars
                    passing over so carefully
that nothing below
                    may hear it think.
The Lord of all
                    is at large throughout His Creation. . .

Another reason for the fact that these poems impress so much may be that they concretise what in the earlier poems is no more than a glance upward towards the transcendent. Not only is the transcendent made more actual in the winds, it no longer looks – as it does in so much other poetry, including Harris’s earlier work – like a mere gesture to finish a poem and perhaps balance its bleakness. “Poem on a Hilltop”, which gets into the crucial question of how this spiritual experience of solitude and meditation interacts with (and dares to judge) the social world that Harris originally outlined as part of his poetic remit, concludes

Down the hills people still die for lack
                    not of what is to be
somehow found in poems
                    alone, but for promise
made at the rain’s origin,
                    your sons and daughters
shall prophesy, your old men dream dreams
                    your young men
shall see visions . . .
                    dying for years
by steady lights
                    mimetic of the candid stars,
gleaming on farm porches
                   blazing on solitary outbuildings.
Things become clearer
                    as conversation gets scarcer
until the day comes
                    when you must hear somebody
talking again, be all assent,
                    all nod and prompt to drink the life
that doesn’t examine itself,
                    the numerate life
with no use for wider meanings,
                    especially His.
But this man has repaired a fence,
                    another has drilled and drilled
for a well.

Even as you left the shadows of the clouds
                    went gliding over the parched, bright hills,
and rainbow coloured parrots
                    flew alongside you.

Poetically, the issue is whether the poem is weakened by its finish (as it certainly is by a virtual quotation from Eliot, earlier on). The parrots are rainbow coloured to reflect God’s covenant after the Flood and might be a mere invention, but the poem is so carefully concrete in its details (the specific activities of the working men, for example) that it convinces me, at least, that the arrival of the parrots is an event in the real world (like the swans Sibelius’s saw before his death) and that an accidental incident becomes illuminated into a genuinely potent symbol.

JANE, Interlinear and Other Poems is built around two large-scale pieces, an approach that, as I’ve tried to show, Harris’s work continually gropes towards. The first of them, “Seven Songs for Sydney” is about the HMAS Sydney, sunk by a German raider with the loss of all hands in 1941. It’s conceived as a performance piece and shows, as Toby Davidson says, the strong influence of Francis Webb’s “A Drum for Ben Boyd”. In fact Webb is a clearly detectable influence in much of Harris’s later work, resulting not only in straightforward allusions like the title of “Six Years Old” recalling Webb’s “Five Days Old” but also more generally in the knotty yet dramatic meditative style of many of the poems. Presumably Harris was drawn to Webb partly through the enthusiasm of Robert Adamson, an admirer of Webb and friend of Harris, but also as someone sharing a similar uncomfortable position – that of a poet-believer in secular times. At any rate, the conception of “Seven Songs for Sydney” is one of those which diminishes the central event and concentrates on the surrounding, social “waves”. It is interested in the effects of the disappearance of the boat on the communities that were nearby, especially those of Carnavon. But it isn’t simply a case of dramatizing a disappearance by focussing not on the disappeared but on those connected to them who have to wait – a time-honoured tactic for canny dramatists. Since the exact events of the sinking were not known and what was known by the military was not made public, we are in the Lord Lucan world of rumour, self-deception and paranoia. The entire sequence is, in other words, also about truth (with or without its capital letter), reality, community and poetry. As such it adds a layer of complexity to the sequence. And Harris’s own connection to the navy – where he spent a short time as an on-shore seaman in his early years – adds something as well. It still seems a slightly artificial piece – a performance on the poet’s part, deriving from the radio-plays of the fifties – but it has enough complexity to be engaging.

“JANE, Interlinear” it is at every level more ambitious. It is extensive enough to have formed a book in its own right, especially if it is connected with the final section of the book, “Recorder Music”, which looks at other participants in this historical event. It’s “about” the brief life and execution in 1554 of Lady Jane Grey, the cousin of Edward the Sixth and, as granddaughter of Henry VII, someone with a claim to the throne on her cousin’s early death. Again, Harris’s approach is to avoid all things which would reduce his narrative to a predictable set of dramatic monologues (probably by his heroine herself and her handlers) for that is a path to a drearily predictable and inert poem. Instead he focusses on issues and invents a form – the “interlinear” of the title – in which the layout of some of the poems looks rather like an interlinear edition of the bible which he had seen where, in a common format, the original text contains an interlinear translation into another language (the bible he refers to has Hebrew with a Greek gloss and also the same passage from the King James translation). He clearly wants the effect of this to be something approximating a very controlled open form, encouraging the reader to read both horizontally and vertically (syntagmatically and paradigmatically perhaps). I’m not sure that a reader is really going to exploit this much but it certainly solves the problem of avoiding producing predictable monologues or slabs of narrative. Much, in fact, is in a decidedly lyrical vein.

As always, it’s the poet’s stake in this sordid story that is intriguing. As an outsider I can only guess but I can imagine Harris responding very strongly to this figure of a well-educated intelligent girl going perfectly bravely to her death. She is, in effect, a candidate for Protestant sainthood. The second poem, “Speed Reading”, deals with the interpretation of Jane’s life as well as Harris’s own involvement:

. . . . .
                                                                                      finds her still
                                                one party                     the queen of

schism, the other             perfection. Or else          a heroine, one
tedious virtue in              lone readers keep           Katharine Parr, another,

Anne Boleyn . . .

And later (I’ll disengage the text from its matrix here), “They’ll say of / me, too, I wrote // a costume drama, took her for symbol, / as abstract, as / as eidetic; unborn / daughter, missing / wife, lost sister” using here the same technique as he has used in his “call to believe” poems of raising the objections first (though not exactly answering them). He is also concerned, throughout, to investigate the stake others have in visiting not only the texts but the sites of her life and death:

. . . . . 
           And she, divided,
attracts those who are divided,
the fissiparous seek their bridge
over sex, seas, time, phenomena,
and always, always, narrative defeats them.
The 19 year old exports from
Kansas and Osaka
are troubled to learn . . .

But Harris, too, is affected by the desire to step in his idol’s footsteps when in the twenty-seventh poem he speaks of revisiting the site of an apocryphal rescue attempt: “And I, eagerly, under trees / finding her path to a gap in a hedge. / To say for some metres / her path was mine . . .”

Although the poems circle around Jane’s life, her scholar-friends, and the relevant politicians, Jane Grey herself is rather an absence. This may result from the little detail there is about her – a lack that spurs on speculation – but it also has an effect rather like the poems for the Sydney: that there is a gap surrounded by complex designs, in fact a gap which favours complex designs. And the surrounding material spills over into the section cleverly called “Recorder Music” which has poems about Sir John Challoner who knew Jane and wrote a Latin elegy to her (culta fuit, formosa fuit – she was cultured, she was beautiful), her husband Guilford, her father-in-law, and her recent biographer, Hester Chapman (“Four years I’ve probed her book”). The last poem is about the man who is at the centre of the events, the Duke of Northumberland and recounts how Harris finds, investigating him, that, far from being the archetypal Tudor politician, sacrificing all to ambition, he actually did many benevolent things including, significantly, providing funding for the stage while he was the senior advisor to Edward the Sixth. If you have seeded the theatre that will eventually produce Shakespeare you can expect that poets from the unimaginably distant antipodes will be forced to think of you as “Enigma more than Beast”. But the end of the last poem in Harris’s last book celebrates him as someone who showed just how vicious and cruelly destructive the political world can be. It’s true that, horrific as Jane’s death is, in Tudor times beheading was generally a very quick and painless end (compared to the horrors that others had to endure) and Jane’s intelligent-schoolgirl faith would have ensured that, in her own mind at least, she would simply be making a rapid transition to paradise before the world could corrupt her. Certainly her fate is nothing in terms of horror compared with the fates of Sejanus’s children, say. But for Harris it’s a revelation of the dark:

. . . . . 
So rest in peace, duke of Northumberland,
there’s no man here will fight you in your shirt;
your best bid did help several understand
how black the actual blackness blackly gets.

Sarah Day: Towards Light and Other Poems

Glebe, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 108pp.

Sarah Day’s previous book, Tempo, was loosely concerned, as its title suggests, with time not as an overarching or structuring theme but rather as topic or perspective that recurred in what might have, otherwise, looked like quite different poems. There are plenty of poems about time in this new book, Towards Light, but the most important theme seems to be the issue of wholeness and its counterpart, dissolution, especially expressed in the opposition of light and dark. The last section is devoted to a particularly painful and personal experience of dissolution in her mother’s experience of Parkinsonism and her eventual death. The poems here are never a mere list of horrors but are always clear-eyed and analytical: the entire section reflects this in its title, “The Grammar of Undoing”. It’s tempting to see it as a theme subtly announced in the first two poems of the first section of the book: “Fe” (whose title is the chemical symbol for iron) is about the movement of Magnetic North, and “Fog” is about the way a visual image of a ferryman on a lake is obliterated by fog.

“Fe” is a fully rhymed sonnet – traditional forms pop up every so often in Day’s work – and so makes its point rather tightly. One would expect the continuous movement of Magnetic North – it now moves at a rate of forty kilometres a year in a circle – to disorient those animals which rely on it for navigation, to induce, in other words, a kind of dementia. But, the poem concludes, “Blood hears more than its own euphony / as the sliding behemoth in fits and starts / quietly adjust our compasses, our hearts”. The second poem asks us to imagine a lake in which a ferryman disappears into the fog of its title:

. . . . . 
your last glimpse of him
in profile, his dark cap
pulled low over his ears,

an upright silhouette at the wheel,
the little prow nose-up, optimistic,
Man, ferry, empty seats,
vanishing into the vacuum.
Gone, before you can draw breath . . .

Ferrymen are obviously burdened with being carriers of the dead across the waters of oblivion and this poem, in some ways quite a straightforward realistic descriptive piece (it is “set” in Tasmania’s Lake St Clair), is simultaneously a symbolic piece about dissolution. The fact that a sonnet is followed by an extended free verse meditation may in itself be a little symbol, deliberate or accidental, of the different ways meaning can occur in a poem: the latter running the risk of wordy dissolution and the former the risk of an over-tight structure that cuts off possible readings in the interests of the one true reading the author intended – a Magnetic North, in other words, which stays still. Intended or not, these two poems make quite an introduction to the book’s themes.

Although I have tended to present them as rather negative poems, preparing for the book’s final section, even these first two have their upbeat elements. The first concludes positively – those who are blood relations can adjust to one member of the family’s disorientation – and the second doesn’t exploit the negative possibilities of its image of a ferryman and his boat’s journey into the fog. This suggests that the first section of the book may be imagined as a counterpart to the last and it is true that other poems of this section – surely the strongest part of the book – are also quietly positive. One tells the story of St Anthony preaching to the fishes – evoking the tiled art of Lisbon – and finds a kind of positiveness in the grotesquely comical saint’s tale:

. . . . . 
I see now how the arced frame of the blue
and white tiled tableau repeats the arches
of the bridge, so that the whole metaphor
of foolishness becomes a tunnel into light.

Those last words encapsulate the form that the positive elements in Towards Light tend to take. It’s a difficult issue because poetically the positive only “works” when it is paired with the negative (in Bruce Beaver’s terms, lauds have to work together with plaints). Without this the positive can be nothing more than, psychologically, an expression of an upbeat personality (Christopher Smart, say) or, philosophically, a gesture towards transcendence. And “transcendentalist” appears in one of the poems, “Jetty”, which seems a kind of adjunct to “Fog”, since that earlier poem spends a stanza on the “high definition / concrete jetty with its rusting pillars / and yellow parallel lines like a highway’s / bolting towards the blank unknown”. The subject of “Jetty” is presented not as a gesture but as a delicate balance. It is as reality-bound as it is possible to be – “bolted to fact and need / with post and bollard // and plank” – but it also exists as something capable of taking us “toward a cool horizon, / the line of thought // poised above the plane . . .”.

Sometimes, in Towards Light, the symbolic light appears in a setting of trees forming what “Knocklofty” calls “a tree light atrium” and the title poem calls a “tea-tree corridor”. One of the features of a forest setting is, of course, that it is organic: rich processes of decay and dissolution are occurring underfoot balancing out the movement towards light. In “Overcoat”, the final poem of the first section of the book, we get to see this fascination with unity and dissolution in a social rather than a landscape setting. An elderly couple, looking as though they had “walked off an extras scene / in a Second World War film”, turn up in a doctor’s waiting room in which the other patients, as to be expected in that situation, are each locked in an inward turned near-solipsism:

. . . . . 
They had entered
from the dark corridor behind,
nodding a greeting to each and every person
waiting, even the girl on her mobile phone
talking angrily to the window glass
as if her mother, to whom she remonstrated,
was on the other side out there on the street . . .

At first it seems like a poem about the different customs of past times, better in some ways, perhaps, but barely relevant – even comic – today. But the other poems of the book enable us to refine this slightly. The old couple, for whatever reason, are engaged in their community and with the individuals who make up that community and it is interesting, and fitting, that they emerge not out of the light but out of the “dark corridor behind”. They represent the optimistic view that, in this book, is balanced against the bleak. By the time we get to the Parkinsonism poems at the end we realise that that disease not only fragments the individual mind but also cuts the sufferer off from the community of loved ones and friends.

By establishing a sense of unity as something that can also exist beyond a single person – in community, for example – “Overcoat” prepares for the second section of the book which looks at these issues in the broadest possible perspective. “Europe”, set in a plane trip at the time the result of the Brexit vote was announced in 2016, is a poem about Europe’s community and the forces which are at work to dissolve it. It’s a bleak poem about a disturbing event, sensing that community is always very frail and easily dissolved, that the miraculous vision of a peaceful Europe “after centuries of bloodshed”, an “idea, not a market”, has just had a part of its foundations removed. “Empire”, by way of contrast, is a poem meditating on the ethical issues of a certain kind of social unity. Someone of Day’s age is likely to find themselves, as a child, torn between the comforting sight of the spread of red areas on a map detailing the expanse of the great British empire to which they belong and the more disturbing idea – a shift which occurred in the sixties – that empire is an imposition, a bad thing. “At school”, she says, “we practised / doublethink, the art of knowing contradictory / principles to be true” whereas now “I’m more wary of / the shifting palimpsest of truths, the fanatic tides, / the celluloid transparencies, the overlaying slides”.

“Middens, Tasmania” continues these issues of imperial community and the survival of the past by speaking of the midden shells which turn up in the mortar used for the Georgian houses. “Dunes” comes at community by looking at the issue of urban development and what kind of role psychological and communal belonging have when seen in the perspective of the natural environment:

The suburban bus route
elicits in its rider
a mood of compliance
while it finds the longest distance
possible between two points,
allowing that time is expendable,
that mangrove swamps, ti-tree forests
and wild coasts become sub-divisions
with names like Anna Bay, Corlette. . .

But the land puts up its own fight. A boggy farm is described as a place “that wants to be marsh land” and the bus goes past a “derelict mess” of “concrete holiday apartments that / the inexorable dunes are repossessing”. I’m not sure of the author’s intentions as to the way a poem like this and “Middens, Tasmania” interrelates with the poems in the book which lament a drive towards dissolution but, as a reader, it is tempting to see them as a kind of ethical counter-image, saying something like: “Community is good, the forces that seek to dissolve it are bad; but in some cases – empire, urban sprawl – the issue is reversed and right is on the side of the forces which are doing the dissolving”. Of course, in the case of the natural world reclaiming shopping centres and holiday flats, it may be that a superior unity (superior because earlier) is defeating a mass-movement which is not a true unity at all.

The third section of the book, the longest, seems on the surface a more homely collection of pieces about birds, cows (in Galicia) and the natural world at large but here the same themes of community (as well as time) mark the poems out. When the birds of “Eastern Curlew” are about to migrate the flock undergoes that strange preliminary flutteriness – Zugunruhe – which, far from an expression of individual dis-ease, is actually a group phenomenon, as is the migration itself. The death of a hen is a long way from a meditation about Brexit but the connections are there when, in “The Last Days”, a bantam stays loyally with a much larger hen which is gradually succumbing to old age. Both “Pastoral” and “Camp Ground. Early Morning” are strongly denotative descriptive pieces whose raison d’etre might initially puzzle readers, especially if they were encountered free from the context of the themes of this book; both, though, in their own way – one devoted to human organisation, the other to animal – are portraits of a miniature society that clearly works.

This matter of scale – the way the macro can be expressed in the miniature – is an important general issue in Day’s work. It could be reasonably said to be important in any imaginative use of language, of course, because any sort of substitution, as in metaphor or metonymy, involves a larger being replaced by a smaller or (more rarely) vice versa, but many of these poems enjoy the disjunction between the wide perspective and the tight focus. In “Visitation” the poet, kneeling among weeds, finds herself passed by a flock of turkeys. Her position helps to reduce the difference in dimension between the human- and bird-worlds and she and the turkeys share some kind of brief moment together:

. . . . . 
Then one bird called to another in the queue to come and look,
at something new, their strange intelligence appraising
in those tiny heads while straining, it seemed, to supervise

their enormous bulk. The wire fences through which
they passed like water, were immaterial. The blue gum
the paddock, the clover and rye – we were all involved.

The poem, though, also makes an unusual act of imaginative expansion by casually commenting that the name of the bird, “turkey”, is that of the “gateway between East and West” a reference to the movement of peoples, historically, in both directions which has caused so much concern in recent history.

The same sort of gesture occurs in two poems, “Bede” and “The Music of the Spheres” – about the burning of Giordano Bruno – in the fourth section of the book. Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People might seem to be a monument of national identity and hence isolation, is celebrated for exactly the opposite since he is represented as someone who saw how the “migration tides from continental homelands” – the Germanic influx of the fifth century – were perfectly capable of forming a single people. He is also portrayed as someone with a great capacity for moving out beyond his conventional limits – from brain work towards handiwork “a man who loved good carpentry”, and from insular England to intellectual activities that were both of another place and another time:

. . . . . 
               In a world of ox and awl
and plough, Bede studied Plato, 
Aristotle, music, poetry,
calculated movement of the stars. . .

While Giordano Bruno is a byword for the kind of intellectual imaginativeness about creation which always wanted to break the bounds of the restrictive beliefs of his contemporary world.

Towards Light shows these themes consistently in the varied poems that make it up. But it also continues Day’s earlier work – it is the same poet after all. A little poem about fast-motion footage of the way two bean shoots compete recalls “Natural Selection” from her first book, for example. It raises the question of whether the process of natural selection is an example of unity or dissolution, or whether it shows unity as a dynamic process rather than a static one. And there are many poems which follow the previous book, Tempo, in being concerned with the effect of time. One of these, “Anachronisms II”, actually begins “I forgot to mention” and thus refers to the original “Anachronisms” in Tempo with, surely, the little joke that it is anachronistic to think that it is possible to add to a list of anachronisms in a separate book. In a sense then, reading Day’s work, is a little like an exercise in the kind of themes that Towards Light focusses on. Though it is highly structured it contains quite an assortment of kinds of poems – is the book a unity in itself? If it is part of a changing set of interests and obsessions across a poet’s career, is that change an example of dissolution? The answer, surely, is that it’s a widening out into new and larger unities.

Emma Lew: Crow College: New and Selected Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2019, 122pp.

Reading Emma Lew’s first book, The Wild Reply, in 1997 I was tempted to guess that the generative method of its powerful poems was based on something like putting the characters of one novel into a quite different novel (usually Central European or Russian) – say like transferring the characters of Great Expectations into Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – isolating a scene and then writing it as a fragmented monologue or third person narration removing all clues as to what either of the original novels might have been. Spending some time with Lew’s poetry while looking at this new and selected poems makes me realise how inadequate this guess was (though it has retained its attraction, to me at least, as an interesting way of generating a certain kind of poem).

For a start, not all of Lew’s poems are in the fragmentary, highly atmospheric narrative mode that we think of as being typical of her work – the kind of poem where, as Ivor Indyk says, it’s like entering a cinema after the movie has started. Take two poems whose position in the books in which they appear alerts readers as to their significance. The first is the title poem of The Wild Reply

I must not touch fire
Myth fire, adder’s fire
Sensual and deaf
The deep, swift fire

Why do I dream?
Flame speaks and sings
The great barn burns
Mirage creeps in

I need proofs, not flame
The false weight of flame
I mean by this fire
King, give me fire

The smelting and the forging
I have flame and lack nothing
Beast in my footsteps
Light up, burn

The seed and the spark
The first flame of love
There is no fire
But the poems are beautiful

This could, by a stretch, follow the model I have outlined, based on a beauty and the beast story, something like Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Esmeralda as the speaker. But it could also be read, more conventionally, as a lyric poem about the act of writing poetry, using inspiration – the fire – as a tool in the “smelting and forging” rather than something that needs to be transmitted itself. Of course, a reader always needs to guard against the tendency to interpret what may be designed to be something surrealistically resistant to interpretation as being an allegory about poetry itself, but the reading possibilities are certainly there. It might, conceivably, be a poem about love rather than poetry, whereby the “poems” of the final line are metaphors rather than actual results. In either case, what are we to make of the distinction, which the poem emphasises, between fire and flame? And there are other issues: who or what is the King and what has a burning barn to do with anything – unless something like Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” is one of the generative narratives. (Incidentally, the last poem of Crow College, “Lesson”, which recounts a woman joining in the spirit of revolutionary denunciations at the village level, speaks of a fire which “burned down the barn containing felt boots and galoshes” so there may, just conceivably, be a single narrative behind both poems.)

If “The Wild Reply” might be built on another model than the one I initially suggested, the final poem of Lew’s second book, Anything the Landlord Touches, certainly is. Significantly titled, “Poem” it is short and to the point:

Decaying thunder,
all the ordinary rain.
A raft of tiny fools,
a poem of nails.

There aren’t many clues as to how we should orient ourselves with this poem but we can say that it is a poem that expects us to interpret it in some sensible way: it clearly isn’t a piece designed to frustrate our instinctive interpretive attitude. And, the last poem in the book, it finishes with a line containing the word, “poem” – a word which, together with “poetry” and “poet”, is, I think, otherwise unknown in The Wild Reply and Anything the Landlord Touches. My “Poetry 101” reading of it would stress the difference between its two sentences. In a landscape of misty vagueness (a setting that appears in a number of Lew’s poems, including the opening poem of Anything the Landlord Touches and which thus suggests a deliberate bracketing) we meet a raft of tiny fools and a poem of nails. I’m not sure about the raft – it could be an image of the book itself with its freight of poems – but a poem of nails suggests an image for a successful poem as being something which is precise, powerful and prickly – not a bad description of Lew’s best poems. Or it could be that the raft of tiny fools is the readership of poetry (or of Lew’s poetry) and the poems contain the nails with which it is held together and with which it could be repaired.

These two poems, together with others such as “Nettle Song”, a question-answer poem interestingly involving fire, “The Recidivist” and “New Born” (from the “new” poems included in the book), should be enough to establish that there is more than one mode of Lew’s poetry. In fact The Wild Reply has a group of ten poems beginning with “Remnant of Sunset” which are perhaps earlier work and are not included in this selection but which might well be described as surreal lyrics. But the fact remains that highly atmospheric, fragmented narratives often with an Eastern European setting and suggesting a background of revolution, war and massacre bulk large in Crow College. The key word, as Bella Li notes in her introduction, is “atmosphere” and since part of what makes the atmosphere so sinister is what is omitted it seems likely that the reader’s experience of puzzlement in the face of the poem subtly adds to the sense of confusion. Some poems are less puzzling than others. “Red”, with its epigraph “Find some truly hard people” from Lenin, is a portrait of pre-revolutionary activism:

. . . . .
                        We were the hired
and the depraved, thin and dark and unjust,
prepared to burst in that ray of light when it came,
hearing nothing and scribbling until the stupid lamp
began to smoke . . .

And “The True Dark Town” is a disturbing picture of what must be one of the most troubling human experiences – that of arriving at a massacre site, seeing only the results. It’s a brilliant poem, worth quoting in full:

The snows were melting but I wanted to speak.
Swollen and undressed, filling the roads.
The mountains, so beautiful. We were afraid.
     Death buttoned my coat.

I smelled their odour when they came
down the incoherent paths of the mountain.
The petals of the flower were hushed.
     It’s the blood from that night.

A child has sheltered her books with her body.
A man was seen hoarding. Who can be sure?
This is the only thing I have rescued.
     It’s pitiful.

When the rain came, when they opened fire.
Such trifles as the noise of stars.
I had no idea the dead were so heavy.
     It’s autumn now.

The past will be a bitter land.
I do not trust the face of my father.
The wind, they say, is going to blow till the end.
     The fleas are hungry.

“The True Dark Town” is a good starting point from which to raise the next question about Lew’s poetry. At some point all serious readers try to move beyond individual poems and to make some generalisations about wider issues in an particular poet’s work. When the poems are successful, powerful entities they rather resist this and a reader has to widen his or her focus. But a wider focus often produces a vague and shifting image that is a bit of an insult to the finishedness of individual poems. In the case of lyric poets, writing out of a sense of the self that is more or less complex depending on their abilities, it’s not so difficult a task to look at shared and related themes. But in the case of these fragmented narratives it is extremely difficult and even as dedicated an admirer of Lew’s poetry as I am is likely to feel that her work is much farther beyond the grasp of my understanding than most. But “The True Dark Town” is a place for essaying a few, tentative attempts at old-fashioned thematic analysis.

To begin with the first line with its powerful non-sequitur, “The snows were melting but I wanted to speak”. Speech, silence and aphasia are issues that recur. The very first poem of The Wild Reply is “Of Quite Another Order”. I have always liked it but I suspect that may be because I can recognise its origins – it tells the story of Victor the “wild child” of Aveyron and is spoken by Jean Itard a post-revolutionary French physician who looked after and experimented with trying to educate Victor when he had been taken from the forest. My generation will know of these events from Truffaut’s 1970 film, L’Enfant Sauvage. Lew’s poem focusses on the contrast between absolute uncivilisedness (the sort of thing that is often represented by an experience of “the barbarians”) and the methodical operations of enlightenment science. As the poem says, “He was already the least curable, most diminished of people. / Civilisation increased his moments of sadness”). The tension is coded in each stanza where a description of the boy’s behaviour is concluded by the line, “Let them be collected. Let them be classed with method”. And, of course, there is the powerful sense of Itard’s endless speech being contrasted with Victor’s virtual silence. When he does speak it is with a fracturing of lexical conventions – “He used the word berg (mountain) to describe all things that are tall”. Again, with some structural bracketing, the subject of the “wild child” is revisited in “Pali” the second-last poem (before, that is, “Poem”) of Anything the Landlord Touches. This is a pantoum, a form which rather suits Lew’s style because it involves single statements and repetition and conveys meaning in a way quite different to conventional linear discourse. Why it is called “Pali” I’m not sure unless it is to suggest a language not understood but full of meaningful and important texts. It’s perhaps significant that the word “wild”, important to both these poems, is present in the title, “The Wild Reply”, suggesting answers from somewhere rather than logic.

Secondly, the bodies of the massacred in “The True Dark Town” come “down the incoherent paths of the mountain”. In other words they are described as though they were active visitants, and visitations of the dead seems to be another issue that the poems engage with. These can occur in dreams or, as in “Procedure”, in seances. This poem, placed first in Crow College, is a string of pieces of advice to a woman – “Always turn to the usurer. / Start out and remain a villainess / In the season of fake blossoms keep cool like the Minotaur . . .” – and it’s tempting to read it as a poem-poem since it’s final advice on how to run a séance – “Keep the situation dark, let the tinsel linger – / that’s how you’ll create a universe” – seems a perfect description of how Lew’s poems work: by ellipses and expansions. But, as before, that might be no more than a reflection of the fact that, faced with material resistant to simple paraphrase, it’s always tempting to feel that its hidden subject is poetry itself. At any rate, the dead, in dreams, seances or surreal narrations are a common feature of the Lew universe and nowhere more apparent than in “Jasmine”:

Breaking off a thread newly woven,
she falls silent. Her fear: that the dead
will jump up to settle accounts.
Little showers? Hail? She understands
this completely. So many thieves
wandering in the house. “The black wind.
Do you hear?” ask the ghosts . . .

“Multiple Kronstadts” is another poem (like “Red”) about historical revolutionary activity framed as a description of the possible arrival of the destructive, liberating figure:

. . . . .
I don’t mind your being a somnambulist,
bumping your head on all the hard walls
in the new shoes of the flat-footed
like the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted.

I’m interested in the footprints you leave
in the mud Russians call “roadlessness”;
or are you coming by curtained car,
or by steamboat when the rivers are ice-free?

The more you shout about your strong nerves,
the more I want to fly in your air,
watching and not having to learn
the method of your wrecking hand.

Not a ghost, perhaps, but possibly appearing like one of the hanged, gassed and electrocuted, and certainly a maker of ghosts.

These recurring themes, are no more than a brief comfort to someone trying to read these poems as a body of work rather than as a collection of self-contained pieces. Identifying some of them is certainly reassuring for a reader because they act like little flashes of familiarity. Of course, there are more significant generalisations to search for – ethical and aesthetic ones, for example, but these poems are very resistant to simple statements about issues like these. I think someone has said, somewhere, that Lew must be the Australian poet that we know least about from her poems. Does this mean that occluding is one of the functions of these poems? I don’t know but whatever a reader’s frustrations these are, almost without exception, potent and disturbing poems. One’s major regret, perhaps, is that there aren’t more.

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.

Clive James: The River in the Sky

London: Picador, 2018, 122pp.

It’s probably fair to say that Clive James’s conventional poetry isn’t widely admired by practising poets in Australia and one can see what the problem is. Most of the poems (there are exceptions) are beautifully wrought objects whereby what is essentially a prose idea – an understanding of an experience, a representation of an emotion – forms the structure of the poem. You can hear people arguing that this isn’t what poetry is at all. It’s not that the poems of his various selecteds and the most recent individual volumes, especially those written since the onset of his serious illness, are not often brilliantly achieved it’s that they rarely take the author and reader into surprising and unpredictable areas: into new meanings that can’t be encapsulated in elegant sentences. The River in the Sky (we met the title – a translation of the Japanese words for the Milky Way – at the end of his last book of memoirs where it was floated as a title for a novel about the Pacific War) might be a book which bypasses all these problems. There is a quality of undeterminedness about it which is very attractive. It might be described loosely as a collection of memorable experiences (some of which are familiar from the autobiographical volumes and earlier poems). But the interesting part is the structure whereby these experiences are organised. I’m not sure that James is himself entirely sure about the nature of this structure though, being far cleverer than most of his readers or critics, he can suggest a lot of possibilities – there’s never anything dumb about James’s uncertainties. And that uncertainty makes reading The River in the Sky all the richer an experience.

One of the possible structures that the book suggests for itself is of the epic: except, of course, at just over three and a half thousand lines, this can only be a mini-epic. And the genre of mini-epic allows for plenty of self-deprecating bathos that, in his prose, James is a master of. You can see all this in the opening four words: “All is not lost”. This quotes the opening of Satan’s magnificent rallying speech in the first book of Paradise Lost which is, of course, followed by a list of what hasn’t been lost: the unconquerable will, immortal hate and the courage never to submit or yield. In James’s poem what hasn’t been lost isn’t quite so grand or vicious. Instead it is composed of those memories which are still powerful enough to make a weakened and limited existence meaningful. The memories intensify as the capacities of the body to explore are reduced.

One of the generic features of the epic is the journey into the underworld, present in both the Homeric epics but also in something even earlier like Gilgamesh. In The River in the Sky, this takes place when James, remembering the ever-present Luna Park of his Sydney childhood, imagines seeing it from a restaurant across the harbour, supernaturally lit up:

Always the candy bulbs shone through the night,
But now they shone by day. I could see beams
Of colour in the sunlight. Were there prisms
Piled up like fruit, a rack of fresnal lenses?
A Technicolor Lichtdom stained the streaks
Of cirrus. Had they turned the place into
Some kind of laser farm? . . .

(The fact that this is done in serviceable pentameters suggests that it is an especially written piece for the poem. Other sections, clearly made up from notes, drafts and even sketches for other poems are likely to have a quite different deployment of lines and beats.) Taking a ferry to the fun park James finds his first primary school teacher, Miss Coleman, acting as gatekeeper (ie ticket collector). From that point on the visit becomes a journey through the dream world which is the modern equivalent of Hades in that it isn’t premised on a specific religious notion of life after death and is populated (as we grow older) largely by the dead. The musical accompaniment of the dream world matches James’s own musical education and another teacher recommends the ride through the River Caves. To get to the ride the poet has to pass through a series of crowds all, apparently, drawn from his Postcards television documentaries, a comment, perhaps, that certain parts of ones outward career have to be shed before the inner career can be understood. The journey turns out to take him from a crude exterior to an inner baroque architecture – the Amalienburg – in which the first ghost who speaks to him is that of Mies van der Rohe who sets out on a long discussion of the relationship between baroque extravagance and the severities of De Stijl. It seems a bit like one of the lectures from Paradiso at first but it also raises the issue of how this book is constructed, using here an architectural analogy. At any rate the journey into the River Caves continues by boat – film stars are seen in other boats rather as Dante notices shades of the famous in the different levels of Inferno – and finishes not where the poet expects that it might – “images . . .to do with love, desire, / Even salacity” – but instead with his father’s body, confirming that the experience of losing his father (killed at the end of the war, returning home from a Japanese prison camp) is the central, generating experience of his creative life. And finally, epic-style, there is a companion occasionally invoked. She seems rather like Odysseus’s Athene of Aeneas’s Venus but is called Adrastus. I’m nor sure why she gets the name of the king of Argos but she’s a constant presence in the wings.

But if epic is one possible structural model for what is going on here, there are plenty of others. There is the idea, for example, of the continuous journey – either sailing or flying or riding – in which individual memories are imagined to be ports visited or corners explored, on what is otherwise a coherent movement:

This is the way my memories connect
Now that they have no pattern.
All I can do is make the pictures click
As I go sailing on the stream of thought . . .

There are also plenty of images of circles and webs (including the internet of course which, in YouTube, makes memories of performances revisitable and thus eternally present) and one early passage brings the two together:

An aeon reassigned
To form the towpath now
Of the river of my memory

This is a river song,
Linking the vivid foci
Where once my mind was formed
That now must fall apart:
A global network blasted
To ruins by the pressure
Of its lust to grow, which proves now
At long last, after all this time,
To be its urge to die . . .

Images of circles begin early in the poem. The first description of bodily decrepitude describes seeing money spiders in their webs before going on to transform into discs – “each frail web / The intermittent image of a disc / that glittered like the Facel Vega’s wheel / Still spinning when Camus gave up his life”. (This early description raises the general issue of detail in James’s mind and in his poetry. Everyone knows that Camus died in a car crash but who knew the make of car? James has a sharp eye for precise detail, especially technical detail. It might be no more that the ability of an autodidact arriving from the far end of the civilised world. But the issue here is whether this is a prose virtue or a poetic one. I’m not entirely sure myself though I know that nothing would have been gained if Burns had told us the specific variety of Tea Rose that his love resembled.) At any rate the image of the circling wheel extends to cosmic proportions when the poem gets to focus, as it does a number of times, on the gorgeous disc of the Andromeda Galaxy towards which the Milky Way is slowly travelling. The River in the Sky finishes with a quickly modulated return from the cosmic perspective to the local one:

I had thought this ship was sailing
Across the river in the sky towards
Andromeda, but in the night it stopped
Quite close to home, and on the quay
Boxes were slung ashore that indicated
Another destination altogether,
Somewhere nearby and just across the river.
Don’t quiz me now on how I figured out
This was my destination, just a mile
Away, where my dear elder daughter
Had been building her new studio . . .

Another possible structure for the poem is that of the collection. One of James’s most affecting experiences of beauty involves being taken by his future wife to see the Breviario Grimani, a codex made up of illustrations of medieval life (rather like the better known Très Riches Heures). When The River in the Sky speaks of this as “a rich collection / Of pictures that redeem / The illusion of randomness / One piece at a time”, you know that this is being offered as a possible structural model: a collection of individual illustrations but bound together inside a larger, articulating form. And you get yet another image for the poem when the Grimani’s breviary re-enters towards the end (significantly just after the idea of sailing in the River Caves has been revisited) and James comments how:

Within the decorated borders
Of the magic book
The enchanted houses and the great
Ladies and their daughters
Flocks a mumuration of starlings
The congregations at the poles
Of the bar magnet
Echo within perceptions
Like the Almagest of Ptolemy . . .

This is the prelude to a tricky set of passages about the evolution of birds but the basic point is, I think, the idea that the poet’s mind, in this last (or, perhaps, nearly last) work operates not as linearly as it once did but more like the unpredictable reshapings of the vast flocks of starlings. You don’t see them in Australia but they appear in Europe especially in Rome: “The set of interweaving murmurations / My mind is now becoming / That once was clear for being simple”. It’s a nice symbol both of the complexifying of one’s intellectual reponses and of the way this long poem suddenly changes shape and direction.

One of the things that made James’s television reviews so memorable was its happy mixing of high and low culture, the belief that popular culture could not only be analysed in a sophisticated way (the origin of Cultural Studies) but that it should be accorded respect in its own right when it was capable of producing both beauty and energy. And beauty and energy are the hallmarks of the memories – “my fragile treasures” – out of which the “narrative” of The River in the Sky is made. If it comes as no great shock to find Ljuba Welitsch, famous for her Salome, next to Bill Haley and the Comets, James is largely responsible for that fact.

Ultimately, The River in the Sky prepares for a journey which is no journey. There is an explicit rejection of the ancient Egyptian model of a celestial after-life that one voyages towards so that one can go on enjoying ones vast and expensive collection of material goods. But for those blessed with fantastically rich inner lives, there will always be the question of what will become of these memories. The answer is, unfortunately, that they melt away or, as the poem puts it rather more memorably, they disappear in “the gradual tornado” of destruction. But, in the moments before dissolution they shine most brightly. As I said at the beginning, an aggressively declining physical state seems matched by a growth in clarity and brightness of memories. My first response to The River in the Sky was to compare it to Tony Judt’s wonderful The Memory Chalet. His fate was an even harsher one than James’s. Struck down by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) which takes the use of all one’s limbs from one before taking everything else, he worked in the long sleepless nights on memories and his method of dictating the results involved using the geography of a Swiss chalet visited as a child as a set of mnemonics. The idea was taken from Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci and the downsizing from a memory palace to a memory chalet is a piece of humorous modesty worthy of James. It’s not quite the same situation as in The River in the Sky since the mnemonic system was used as a way of remembering the order of the memories and of Judt’s thoughts about them. And, as an historian, Judt saw his memories as having a value as historical data. But the memories have the same enhanced luminosity that they have in James’s work. Judt’s method of organisation follows strict logical procedures. He doesn’t have the issues of structure that a creative piece like The River in the Sky has, but it’s the struggling with structure that makes James’s poem so interesting as it sets out to be something more than collage but at no stage a thesis. How to make a long poem work and cohere has been one of poetry’s unresolved technical issues in the last hundred years. Pound’s Cantos, the first to raise the issue, might make an interesting comparison, but James would be unlikely to be impressed. In his Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 he calls it a “panscopic grab bag” and “a nut-job blog before the fact”.

Liam Ferney: Hot Take

Santa[sic] Lucia: Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2018, 76pp.

Reviewing Liam Ferney’s previous book, Content, I said that it seemed made up of poems which spoke of immersion in popular culture tensioned by a Savonarola-like loathing of the trivialities of public life. There was also a third element, a kind of autobiographical thread which allowed readers glimpses of a professional life spent as a public affairs consultant. Hot Take points in the same three directions although there are significant developments.

Those for whom Hot Take is their first experience of Ferney’s poetry may find aspects of it initially alarming. For all that it is so impressively au fait with contemporary life and its idioms it never, poetically, acts as mere comment. The poems’ structures are much more sophisticated and though John Forbes is often cited as a precursor, there are vast differences of tone and manner between the two (despite a group of references to Forbes and to the poetry of his greatly admired Frank O’Hara). And the distinctive style can’t be swept under the carpet of a loosely woven idea of surrealism. It’s the balance of (and tension between) the three elements that prevents the poetry being mere hipsterism, mere sneering at contemporary mores or mere autobiography.

One of Ferney’s most common ploys is to begin with a grand simile which ropes an item from popular culture into a context where you might not expect to find it. Thus “Requiem” begins, “a sock falls from the line / like the market / responding to rumours of Grexit . . .” The aim I think isn’t entirely to be “shocking” or even surprising, more to begin the poem by widening the possibilities for imaginative co-options. “Herrera” begins with the experience of driving through a traffic jam along Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway and begins, in both title and first lines, with football references:

We unpick the world’s catenaccio,
a Pirlo in an actual traffic jam . . .

You have to know of midfielders Ander Herrera and (the recently retired) Andrea Pirlo of course to make much sense of this initial gambit and this relates to an important issue in the “cultural immersion” dimension of Ferney’s poetry. Although contemporary popular culture is a medium in which are all, willy nilly, immersed, it is also a very spotty set of competencies. True, we have the sense that a certain generation in a certain geographical setting will share a lot of likes and interests but being an amateur expert in, say, underground Brisbane bands isn’t going to imply a similar competency with the bands of Sydney, Montreal or Berlin. I have no trouble at all with Ferney’s football references – Pirlo, catenaccio and Herrera; the Red and Black Bloc, the Blades and Addicks, and Berisha, or with the references to cricket’s Jack Iverson – but I’m lost with Peaches Geldof and the innumerable financial acronyms. I even had to look up the meaning of the book’s title. Popular culture is also transient with a vengeance, moving out of focus as quickly as it is grasped: one shudders to think of the amount of research and the volume of the footnotes that any number of breezy invocations of items of contemporary culture are going to need in anthologies a few years from now. This rapidity of change may be what “Threesome” is getting at when it says, “At the time it seemed like our time / had come but it was past before / anyone had tweeted about it”.

None of this grumbling is in any way an indictment of Ferney’s poetry which isn’t a celebration of popular culture or a polemical attack on lyric poetry’s attempt to rise above it while aiming at the “universal”. I read it as an attempt to broaden imaginative possibilities by co-opting references to make surprising conjunctions. And “Herrera”, for example, turns into quite a complex meditation which has, at its heart, the defence-splitting pass as a symbol of an elegant solution to barriers rather than a violent crashing through:

. . . . .
The pass weighted like a gull rising
on a sea breeze liberates us or
bars us from the skin of our soundtrack.
This is the threat of our days
in the middle of the beginning of the end.

He refuses fate;
our trucks make the night’s last delivery
in the deserted streets of the industrial estate.

It’s a complex and fascinating poem which begins by contrasting the traffic jam close to the centre of the city with the less “real” more “virtual” world of outer suburbs dependent (as I read it) on credit, the most virtual form of wealth. At the centre the poem asks, “Does anything actually prove our bona fides / in streets we have walked forever?” – a reference to the odd feeling of unreality that the contemporary world of identity and credit checks involves.

That these issues arrive “in the middle of the beginning of the end” chimes with an apocalyptic element that is more pronounced in Hot Take than in the earlier books. And throughout the book there is an interest in beginnings, endings and renewals applied to public and private life. They can be read both ways: the individual’s life reflects the wider crises, but an individual suffering personal pains can also, in the style of the “sympathetic fallacy” upload these into cosmic significances.

The very first poem, “(Happy) Endings”, announces the theme of endings and seems to follow it through at a personal rather than macro level:

what god gives on the day after the end
we mistook for a beginning

. . . . .

this time things will be different
a sportswriter’s breastplate for the world’s keen spears

                          & if we lose our friends
                          we’ll find them before we leave . . .

This adopts the tactic of squaring one’s shoulders and pushing on – and there is a good deal of the desire to tough things out in the book as a whole. “Aspirin: Take 12” is a bit of an assault on the role of pop music as a bland raiser of enthusiasm – “Take the Last Train to Parksville / all the way to poptimism, / everything will be all right / just sing this little song”. “Baguettes at the End of Days” has a title which evokes the apocalyptic and a content which raises the mysteries of contemporary existence – Peaches Geldof died twenty years to the day after Habyarimana and high tech searches can’t find the black boxes of lost airliners – but it finishes with the poet himself:

So I write poems about it
waiting for the butter to soften
& eat my breakfast at the end
of the world we built for ourselves.

The fatalistic but not necessarily entirely negative position of the individual is given at the end of “Greenslopes in March” where he is described as someone who has discovered “that if you dial up the moon and stare down the barrels / any great adventure can be tapped”.

But seen only from a non-personal perspective, history, especially the history of the future, doesn’t look too promising. “Notice to Remedy Breach” finishes with the human race as doubtfully legitimate occupiers of the planet  – “Too smart by half / we’re just squatters / Gaia waits patiently to evict” – and “I Like You But the John Locke Fan Club Can Get Fucked”, thinking about the behaviour of some football fans, says, “We’re all dickheads: it’s relative”. Another image for contemporary history is the crash. “Hungry Wolves” begins with a reference to the Dreamworld tragedy and “#sotheresthat” – admittedly a more personal poem – argues that although crashes seem sudden, there is usually a period before them in which they could have been predicted if we weren’t so keen on turning our eyes away from reality:

        And like a car accident it
doesn’t quite come out of the blue.
There are the long seconds before impact,
learning for the first time the wonder
of spring dawn malicking your new hair;
a tender moment wrapped around a grey gum.

“You Used to Laugh About” is also a poem finishing with a crash. The fact that the speedo is “jerry rigged to blow” suggests that it is referencing Speed but the rest of the poem seems to be more about a personal “crash” than an apocalypse:

. . . . .
        Nothing is a simple as
an aeroplane appears;
but if we get out in front of the story
         we’ll be better prepared when
we’re steamrolled by the heart’s highjacked bus . . .

I’m not entirely sure how we can get out in front of the story although undoubtedly “in front of” refers to placement rather than time.

I said earlier that this is a book interested in beginnings and ends – as well as the middles in the middle. It’s just possible that Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” acts as a kind of Jacobsonian generative text at the core of the book. It is quoted in “Modern Love” – “Tomorrow, & tomorrow, & tomorrow / are as faraway / as yesterday, & yesterday, & the Friday before” – and alluded to in “Leave” – “All our Armageddons”. It makes a good key text because in Macbeth the despair it expresses is both a response to objective reality and an expression of an individual’s depression which renders the entire world blank and meaningless.

All of this description really only supports the proposition that the same axes of popular culture, angry satire and autobiography, found in the earlier books are at work here. And they work really well: Ferney seems to me to be a poet steadily growing in sophistication and potency. The hip, throwaway tone of these pieces may alienate some first-time readers but the core of the poems, together with the complex ways they work, is neither cheap nor trivial. You aren’t going to get a conventional lyrical experience from them, tapping into the universal (and ultimately incomprehensible) experiences of life but they are turned towards life itself and not just the complex surfaces of contemporary life. The underlying image of the self – as lover, city-dweller – animates the poems and interacts in complex ways with the description of the state of the human race nearly twenty years into a new millennium. The ambivalent response to life – found in the already quoted finish to “Greenslopes in March” – is also beautifully expressed in “After the Rain”, another poem about a crash: “My city blossoms like an orchid or a cancer”.

Rereadings III: John A. Scott: N

Blackheath, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2014, 599pp.

John A. Scott’s N belongs, at least on a superficial reading, to the genre of alternative histories. The death of an independent, Norman Cole, in 1942 leads to the replacement of the Curtin government by one lead by Warren Mahony. The Japanese invade, the American forces, only newly arrived, depart and the Australian government retreats southward, making Melbourne the centre of “free” Australia and forming a new base for government at Mt Macedon. But readers expecting a conventional, realistic exploration of this new “reality-possibility”, will quickly register surprise since N is also a compendium of different styles and, more importantly, a compendium of imaginative, non-realistic scenarios.

Despite this multiplicity, the narrative is, however, dominated by the histories of two frustrated relationships. The first is Missy Cunningham’s love for the painter, Vic Turner, a relationship compromised by her loveless marriage to Roy and her desperate protectiveness of her son, Ross. The second is Robin Telford’s doomed love for Esther Cole, the widow of the politician whose death made the accession of the Mahony government possible. And the trajectories of these two relationships have, as one expects in Scott’s work, very beautiful and shapely structures. Each has a moment when a decision, quickly taken, leads on to a disaster which is, in its own bleak way, a kind of fulfillment. When Vic – as semi-official war artist – is camped with Australian forces entrenched opposite the lines of the Japanese forces in a stalemate that recalls – as much else in this genuinely “phoney” war does – the experiences of the First World War, and the signal to surrender comes through, he is given a chance to leave. Menadue, Missy’s brother and his immediate superior, planning to desert and operate as a guerrilla behind Japanese lines, offers Vic the chance to join him. He refuses on the grounds that the his work as a painter is only half finished and, since it’s given his life meaning, needs to be completed. It’s a quick decision and sets in train the events that will eventually lead to his brutal death in the mining camp at Yampi Sound in the Kimberly region of north-western West Australia. Menadue, whose decision is also quickly taken, will die spreading bubonic plague among the Japanese scientists experimenting on human victims in Camp 732 in Tallon “a town in the middle of nowhere”. In the other relationship, Telford, while involved in setting up the new governmental centre of Mt Macedon, comes across an old University friend, Wood-Conroy, while on a trip to Melbourne. (Wood-Conroy, a remorseless behind-the-scenes operator, is clearly based on Alf Conlon who, coincidentally, for readers of Australian poetry, was the employer of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, the authors of the Ern Malley hoax which, more and more, looks like a plot derived from a book by Scott). Wood-Conroy is about to return to America and, on a whim, offers Telford a job as “like-minded assistant”. Telford refuses on the very Telfordian grounds that “a good rank in the Public Service, assisting the secretary to Emergency Cabinet, was not something to let go of on a whim”. Shortly after, Esther Cole comes to find him and present him with the task of working out what had happened to her husband and Telford’s fate is sealed. Significantly, when all the explanations of the events are made at the end, it is Wood-Conroy who takes a leading role. He seems as close to omniscience (and thus perhaps to the novelist, though he is implicated in the horrors) as anyone in the work and his long debriefing of Telford at the end has about it a tone of “If you had come with me you would have known this all along and thus avoided all this suffering.”

Clustered around these two narratives (though “interwoven with” might be a more accurate critical cliché) are the stories of Albie Henningsen (whose character recalls “Inky” Stephensen), Menadue, Leon Mischka and Reginald Thomas. Henningsen is an Australia First proto-fascist who is arrested and interned at the beginning of the war and his complex and painfully comic story – conveyed as monthly “letters” written on official notepaper with its recurrent reminder “Do Not Write Between The Lines” – involves the Scott themes of “ghost-writing”, plagiarism and identity-theft as he attempts to write the “true history” of the Burke and Wills expedition before being made the official biographer of the Prime Minister whose government has interred him. Menadue and Mischka are involved in different campaigns, the former demonstrating, perhaps, how a soldier should behave in impossible times and the latter how an artist might. Reginald Thomas is an extraordinary creation, an innocent novelist and radio dramatist who suddenly finds that he experiences visions that turn out to be accurate, word perfect predictions of the future. Since this material is worked into radio plays, he is immediately imprisoned by security forces who find him – since he is completely aware of his future fate – calmly waiting for them.

The figure of Thomas is a reminder that although N can be seen, nominally, as an example of “alternative history”, a better description of it might be “alternative reality”. While having a Tiresias-figure like Thomas – breasts and all – could be seen as a stretching of realistic norms in the interests of myth, there are other parts of the novel’s world that are more weirdly surreal. Australia is given an alternative geography, for example, where the vast “inland sea”, imagined and sought for in the nineteenth century, actually exists: Burke and Wills have a boat waiting for them disguised as a cart when they reach Wentworth at the junction of the Murray and the Darling. A bunyip, escaped from the pages of Ola Cohn, roams the country. One’s sense of these distortions is that the world of the imagination – usually corralled within literature and the visual arts – interpenetrates conventionally perceived reality. Scott’s own work might be included here since early poems like “Flooded City” and “Six Sonnets: Even Their Stories” chime with the Melbourne’s freak tides during the war In N. It is during one of these floods that, when others are asleep at flooded stations, Missy voyages with “the boatman” in a barge full of pennies and hears mysterious voices of “other times, other stories . . .places you might try to reach at your own peril”. In fact, these waters are a specific manifestation of the most important element of this alternative reality: tunnels (as well as passages of water) connect different places and even different times. Telford’s    assigned accommodation is built over a network of tunnels – a labyrinth whose stations are marked by letters and thus, symbolically, the labyrinth of writing – that will draw him farther into his search. A short trip along a tunnel that one of his fellow deserters has fallen into takes Menadue, for example, far away from the line of the opposing armies into Tallon, deep in the interior. It is no accident that Roy Cunningham goes into the mines to draw the workers there, nor is it an accident that he should become disoriented and hear Japanese voices if not from another reality then from another place and a future time. 

Whereas the bunyip enters the narrative as a nightmare from literature, actual literary characters appear also. A brilliant narrative of an imaginary visit to Australia by the surrealist Andre Breton didn’t survive the editorial process, as Scott reveals in his notes at the end of N. But Gertrude Stein (together with Alice B. Toklas) appear when Missy’s son, Ross, is sent for his own protection to his great-aunt in Trentham. It’s a short, very comical episode (Ross overhears them in bed) but it is thematically connected in that Stein and Toklas spent the war in occupied territory and Stein is the author whose Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas plays with issues of ghost-writing and biographer/subject interactions. This episode also makes a contribution to the idea of N as a kind of anatomy of distortions since its first person voice is impossibly high-flown for a small boy, even one who has read widely.

And then there are the comic distortions of a recognisable, historical reality. The arrival of General MacArthur after his evacuation from the Philippines together with the American forces is a tour-de-force of fantastic, hyperbolic comedy just tenuously tethered to reality:

And then the General was with us. You would see him everywhere, MacArthur – on street corners, striding down Collins Street, his trousers (from the knees down to the cuffs) soaked, as though he had just stepped from a landing craft into the shallows of a beach-head ready to lead his men to victory.
            His posters were plastered outside dance halls, Schools of Arts buildings and mechanics’ institutes, in shop windows and on railway walls alike. In the evenings he would hold communion in St Paul’s Cathedral, or sing 30s favourites in the Melbourne Town Hall. On occasion he would drive to the suburbs to call numbers in the bingo parlours. He was well-loved. People flocked to get his signature in their autograph books; he would turn the pages to the back inside cover and in a tiny hand print:

                        By hook or by crook
                       I’m the last in this book.

And if it were a woman he would kiss her; and if a man, he would arm-wrestle with him on the pavement. There was, we found, nothing extraordinary about this – in America, we were told, all heroes did such things.
            MacArthur. And in his wake the American servicemen, battalion after battalion marching down Swanston Street with their baseball caps and their catcher’s mittens, decked out in padded uniforms with huge shoulders and wearing large helmets. Americans. Raising their gleaming trombones, their gleaming trumpets, clutching their banjos, whole divisions of them, picking in perfect unison . . .

Nothing, as I’ve said elsewhere, is more irritating than having the mechanism of a joke teased out but, since I have been looking at the sorts of surrealism present in N it is worth pointing out that this passage (soon to be balanced by the scene in which the Americans depart, done as a lyrical lament) is a kind of development of the kernel idea – MacArthur was popular – spinning out into hyperbole influenced by the film traditions of the pre-war American musical.

All of this means that N’s stance towards “reality” – its modes of mimesis – is immensely and fascinatingly complex and trying to describe some of them may downplay the sheer pleasure of reading the thing. Simple items from what might be thought of as the aesthetic dimension of the book would include the distinctive voice given to each of the narrators. Telford’s is especially well-done so that he sounds, in genre, rather like an Edwardian civil servant, telling “my own story” but sensitive to imposing on his audience and careful to signpost for their benefit: passages like, “By way of putting a close to these preliminary observations, I should say . . .” and “I need to say something of Wood-Conroy, conscious, as I put pen to paper, that by the time my story is read there will be many such memoirs and evaluations of the man and his work” capture his tone perfectly. More generally, the evocative power of the recreations of Australian life – most especially Melburnian and bohemian life – at the end of the thirties is overwhelmingly detailed and accurate without ever being oppressive in the leaden, fact-laden way of well-researched historical fictions. Missy’s early description of the town:

Ask, and the temptation would be to dismiss Melbourne as a dreary, sober, almost sanctimonious place. A city of steel-grey buildings to and from which workers, suited, dressed, in appropriately sober clothing, made their charges every day.
            But that is not as I remember it. To me, Melbourne was the time of after-hours drinks in the back bar at the Swanston; of a celebratory dinner, with carafe of wine, at the Balalaika (a Three Course Meal inc. Borscht 1/9d. Tea 6d a glass tumbler). Of endless arguments – with the Italian at the Leonardo, at Bill Dolphin’s violin shop or in one of the low-rent studios which flourished in the abandoned offices and condemned warehouses of the North-East, the artists’ quarter . . .

gives at least a taste of the kind of precision of the prose, here filtered through Missy’s distinctive voice. A later passage is a brilliant evocation of the radio drama of the day (I’m old enough to remember the late fifties as the end of that tradition), describing an evening with Lux Radio Theatre, 3KZ. And, of course, this isn’t mere period window-dressing since what is radio drama but voices from elsewhere, inhabiting characters from elsewhere and speaking to a receptive listener?

At least as important as this ability to evoke is the way that Scott’s narrative method involves the shaping of scenes. It’s a feature that can be found in his earliest poetry, especially when it moves towards narrative. One might think of it as being a dramatic imagination because it isolates specific encounters and focusses intensely on them. But I prefer to think of it as deriving from an aesthetic pleasure in shapeliness. Missy’s memories, the beginning of which I have just quoted and which veer from idyllic memories to the memories of the nightmare harbingers – the freak tides, the violent storms, the screams in the night – are concluded by a passage which balances the opening: “The city was not like this, I hear you say. This was not Melbourne. Melbourne was a dreary city. A sober, almost sanctimonious place . . .” It’s a very minor example but not untypical.

One could find hundreds of examples of this as evidence that it is at the heart of Scott’s conception of what a narrative is, but I’ll confine myself to one I have already introduced. During the artificial stand-off between Australian and Japanese forces, Menadue decides to desert in a passage whose title – “Another Front” – recalls Slessor:

A running Corporal Davidson appeared, shirt fluttering.
            “Call’s come through on the blower from HQ,” he gasped, half in breathlessness, half in astonishment, “They’re telling McIlwaine to surrender.”
            “You’re bloody joking!” Menadue exclaimed. And he stood there a good half-minute trying to make some sense of it. “I mean, what’s changed? We’ve been camped here staring at each other for what, nine, ten months? And all of a sudden we’re to give in?”
            “Something’s obviously changed down South.”
            “Is that what they said?”
            “No sir. Sorry. Just guessing. Just passing on the news.”
            “Who knows about this?”
            “At the moment only you sir.”
            “Nothing’s got through to McIlwaine?”
            “I’m the messenger, Captain. Just on my way to inform him when I saw you.”
            “That might be seen as disloyalty, Donaldson.”
            “Yes sir, it well might.”
            Menadue paused a moment, considering.
            “No-one’s going to be busting a boiler getting the news through, I’d imagine – what with us being here for so long already.”
            Donaldson gave a wry grin: “I wouldn’t think so, sir. Besides, the colonel’s not always the easiest person to find.”
            “It might take, say, another half-hour or more to get the news through?”
“Three-quarters at least, I’d think, sir.”
            “Very good, Donaldson. Carry on.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            Menadue checked his watch and made hurriedly for no-man’s land, for Turner – a lunatic figure amidst the greying plain and its far distant shimmer of an enemy, or what was now, absurdly, a conquering army.

The pleasure of this scene lies in the understanding of what the other is thinking which quickly develops between the two characters without any authorial explanation. It is very close to theatre. It also contrasts with a passage in which Telford is trying to extract information from the Reference Librarian of the State Library in that neither character has any understanding at all of what the other wants or knows and the result, as Telford says, is a “lunatic exchange” of verbal “nods and winks” – there is no authorial interventions because the scene is beyond understanding.

It is Menadue whose story provides an example of this shapeliness moved beyond the short, tight scenes into something much larger. After his “escape” with three others, the stolen jeep runs out of petrol and is jettisoned. At that moment

. . . he knows from the depths of it that to turn back, if it has ever been a possibility, is now unthinkable. There is a speech, a passage, he half-remembers from school, from Shakespeare, half-learnt. About wading in so deep one might just as well go on as return. He would like the authority of Shakespeare to make something of this journey (Enter Menadue, a Captain in the Australian Army, with Fisher, a Sergeant, and Cooke and Young, common soldiers), something more than how he knows it seems – a selfish rush for survival . . .

One hundred and twenty pages later we see Menadue for the last time when, together with Fisher, they work out a plan for infecting as many of the Japanese scientists as possible with the plague whose symptoms they are already suffering from:

            “Disguising the symptoms won’t be easy.” The ever-increasing pain. The disorientation. “Still, I always fancied myself as a bit of an actor,” Fisher continues. “I was in a couple of school plays. Shakespeare.”
            “Me too,” says Menadue. “Me too.” Suddenly as excited by this as anything he could remember. “In fact, you might be able to help me,” he adds. “At the beginning, back when we dumped the jeep . . .”
            Fisher nods.
            “Back then, I was trying to think of a line from Shakespeare . . . something about going so far, one might as well go on as turn back?”
            “Macbeth,” says Fisher, and he gathers himself for the delivery, the exhaustion that will come with it:
            “’For mine own good, all causes shall give way: I am in blood stept in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er . . .’.”
            “That’s the one,” says Menadue, smiling. Fischer continues it, then, to the end of Macbeth’s speech, as though it is something they should keep in mind.

. . . . .

“Ready to break in on our Oriental friends?” he asks, breaking the silence.
“Ready, Captain.”
Exeunt marching, then,” says Menadue.

The length of this quotation will give readers some idea of the extent to which this is a favourite example out of many. And it isn’t merely a stylistic coup: the entire nightmare world of Tallon – the rural town taken over for plague experiments – has a seventeenth century theatrical horror about it, especially when the town doctor wears one of the grotesque bird masks used by doctors during plague years in the hope of fighting off the infection.

N, in all its different modes, is united by this method of shaping narrative into scenes but it is also united by its shared symbols and significances. I have already mentioned the tunnels in which one can hear voices from “other times, other places” and through which one can move into different realities. And the entire work draws on many of the themes of Scott’s earlier work (and for which his first novel, Blair, is a kind of comic repository) from flooded cities to the fascination with the act of writing, especially the act of biographical writing in which – as happens to Henningsen and Mahony, Henningsen and Frank Clune – the character of the writer merges with that of the subject: a world of plagiarism, palimpsests, overwriting and identity theft. In a sense the entire media presentation of the war in N is a fabrication derived from copied reports about the earlier war, hence the stalled battlelines before the surrender. There are two motifs that are worth looking at briefly. The first of these involves the novel’s setting in the light of the debate about asylum-seekers in Australia. N begins with the government’s rejection of asylum for children on board the ship, Ville de Nancy, berthed at Fremantle (the “nancy boys” as Mahony, then a minister, cruelly says). The Nancy is the name Burke gives to the boat that he launches into the vast inland sea, named, we are told, after his sister. Henningsen’s new and revisionary version of the expedition is to be called “The Voyage of the Nancy”. It is a kind of nightmare combination of both ships which greets the prisoners of war as they encounter the inland sea on their march to work in the mines. The second is the play made with the word “Dig”. It is the word carved in the tree in Longstaff’s Burke and Wills painting; it is what cryptic crossword solvers call a “hidden word” in the inscription over Telford’s mirror – haud ignota loquor – and in the message left scratched on the railway platform for the surrendering soldiers – “Run Digger” as well as the initials of Telford’s loathsome superior, David Ivor Gelder. It is also the refrain of all Esther Cole’s urgings of Telford – “You might need to dig deeper, Mr Telford. Dig deeper” as well as being the way into the underworlds of tunnels. And, of course, it is the imperative for all followers of the clues in the labyrinth of fiction.

N is a wonderful work, perhaps a great one. Immensely complex yet amazingly clear. Multifaceted but single-minded. Dealing with great tragedies – at national and personal level – but often with a wry humour. Embodying many of its author’s obsessive themes but always an absolutely distinct work. Its re-creation of wartime Melbourne is superlative and rich with possibilities. In a world where streaming networks have made a practice of eviscerating fictions of their plots (or attenuating these plots as much as possible) and capitalising on the distinctive worlds they have created (the world of The Handmaid’s Tale The Man in the High Castle or Westworld, for example) by spinning them out into seasons’ worth of series, it’s a bit surprising that nothing similar has been done with N. An alternative-history, alternative reality Melbourne of the forties seems rich in possibilities.

Kit Kelen, Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems; Kevin Brophy, Look at the Lake

Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems Crawley, WA, UWA Publishing, 2018,197pp.
Look at the Lake Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 161pp.

These two books, different in so many ways, share something that makes a comparison between them almost irresistible. Each is written in response to a period the poets have spent in an environment far different from that which has produced most of their previous poems. Kevin Brophy’s book responds to a year (2016) in the north of Western Australia as a volunteer at a local school in the town of Mulan, next to Lake Gregory not far from the border with the Northern Territory. Kit Kelen’s Poor Man’s Coat is a response to time spent in the little Norwegian town of Ålvik situated on the upper reaches of the Hardanger fjord about 60km east of Bergen as the crow flies (though it would be a tiring mountainous flight). These are both spectacular venues of an almost completely different character – flat, red, dry as opposed to vertical, green, wet – but there is also a touch of the abject about each of them, even in the case of Ålvik which looks, for all the splendours of its setting on the fjord, to be a rather grotty little town, a “company town” dominated by a large factory, the subject of a poem significantly titled, “I Don’t Know What They Make in There”.

Of the two books, Kelen’s is likely to be the one which causes a reader more initial puzzlement. If it is true that books of poetry teach us how to read the poems within, then this learning experience takes quite a bit longer in Kelen’s case – not necessarily a bad thing of course. It’s a very unusual style not specifically designed for this book because you can find it in the earlier Scavenger’s Season, a book devoted to life in the Myall Lakes area and which shares not only a style with this book but themes also. “Time With the Sky” is especially reminiscent (or predictive) of the obsession with sky in Poor Man’s Coat and “Sydney and the Bush” begins “a patch of blue demands inattention”. Lyric poetry is, customarily, strung on a scale which at one end produces shapely, completed but resonating objects and at the other, fragmentary poems which reflect life lived as a process: Kelen’s poems seem all about process. The style mixes assertion with fragmentariness and incompleteness. Take, as an example of the style of Poor Man’s Coat, a poem like “On Blue Disc”, the opening poem of the section called “The Other Worlds” and, like the poems from the earlier book which I have mentioned, a poem about the sky:

time is weather

each syllable spoken
still goes round
it’s like the book’s afloat

on that world
after an all-nighter
it could be any dawn

never the same sun rises there
but every god gets a turn

we are our own pyjamas
day’s naked
dream it
waking wonder
how things will ever again lie flat

we dance around for a sparrow-fart hour
just to see what’s up

True, there is a sense of completion here that gives the poem a final shape but its deliberate bathos makes it almost a denial of lyric roundedness. Undoubtedly this is a deliberate tactic and it is a rejection of the shift to high style which is a cliché of conventional lyric conclusions. In fact the poetic method involves rejecting all conventional lyric graces and this contrasts with material (and location) that might seem to cry out for some lyric elegance. There is a strong sense of fragmented assertion and a reader quickly learns to respect the stanza divisions and build a whole out of very separate components.

The poems focus on the poet’s self and its interactions with a very distinctive environment. It’s not just that the emphasis is on sky, clouds, rain, mountain, trees, fjord, what is more important is the way the locations make the interaction (and arrangement) of these elements absolutely specific. The blue sky usually appears between trees and its appearances are determined by the season; similarly, the sun is always seen in different positions dependent on its season – “and over the cliff it comes / through treetops far and near / already at its winter angle”. Since seasonality becomes more important the closer one gets to the poles it’s no surprise that two of the book’s divisions include poems of summer and poems of autumn. The poems of the former celebrate the dominance of sun and warmth: the fjord (“a little whale’s way”) looks like a glass mirroring the sky, ivy “strikes up / as if just thought of” and the sun is “reluctant to set”. But it’s also marked by the behaviour of the locals – painting sheds, raking leaves and fishing – “the book hasn’t been written / to hold all one could do / on just such a day”. The autumn poems, likewise, include the activities of the human population – the summer campervans come back and people make the most of the remaining light to finish domestic tasks of sawing and painting – but it’s also the time when the “last blue” is “most meaning” and the time of omnipresent rain. And it is rain that is such a shaping force that it gets its own section, “The Rain Is Its Own Room”, though many of the poems here touch on an important move for the poems of this book in that they allow the self and the world of mountain, trees, sky and rain to interact and become synbols of one another. Not least in importance is the way that the flow of water in the rain can symbolise the act of writing and in “A Record of First Falls” many of these elements come together when a description of the light appearing after a day of “not going out / steady precipitation” is connected to the writing of the poem:

. . . . . 
the sun comes into it
now and then
nothing to depend on

rain sets the pace
but upstairs there’s another idea
you can see a light dusting
these signs the screen collects
won’t amount to much . . .

perhaps not but they do make a final, comparatively conventionally-structured poem, working with the syntactic possibilities of the phrase “light dusting” as noun-verb and adjective-verbal noun.

Rain as rain is celebrated in “Parables of Rain” from the Autumn section:

even before it comes
rain creeps into the joints

“an ache of rain” must be the measure
you want to light a fire . . .

but even in such an externally-oriented poem as this, there’s a movement at the end towards the symbolic identification of the environment and writing – water as writing, trees as books:

. . . . . 
rain is like a road here  
grey then it falls

this would be the gospel
but the book’s too wet to read

And the rain seems to affect all the other items in the landscape so that “Parables of Rain” is followed by “Every Day the Mountain Needs Naming” which has, as its modus operandi and poetic shape, a list of names for the mountain that looms behind the town, covering it in a kind of linguistic mesh:

September I call it Blueberry Hill
some days its name is Mud
or From-Which-The-Stream Mountain
. . . . . 
out of the corner of your eye
something moves
on the Mountain of High Suspense 
for instance it could be called
Slippery Track
Trip on a Loose Rock
Left Days to Crawl Back
(or more likely starve)
One Cold Night Would Put You in the Deep Freeze For Good
(Merciful Mountain)

Mountain of the Tumbledown Signpost
Mountain of the Tiniest Moth
After Work Brisk Hike Mountain . . .

There’s perhaps a touch of the naming parts of Murray’s “Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” here but it doesn’t seem derivative at all and a poem undertaking the ritual act of naming something according to its appearance and uses results in an attractive and not overcommon mode.

Just as rain, the mountain and the sky (with its clouds that want to symbolise thought) bulk large in this environment so do trees which, like the rain, get their own special section, “Minded of Trees”, though they make appearances throughout. These poems are often marked by an imaginative identification but one, “Fairytale”, a faux-naif treatment of the cutting down of trees – “one tree wandered off” – finishes in a way that registers three of the uses of timber as paper, building material and something that can be burned to provide necessary warmth:

God knows where they were heading, those trees
no one’s ever seen them again

it’s a cosy book
this story’s in
under the polished beams
feet up by an open fire.

Since all of these items are needed by poets in this environment, there is nothing ecologically unaware about Poor Man’s Coat.

Kevin Brophy’s Look at the Lake is a complex and affecting, not to say, profound book. It is, from the outside, something of a compendium with portraits, documentation of place and documentation of odd, outsiders’ experiences and perspectives. But that doesn’t quite capture it and risks seeing it as the poetic equivalent of high-quality reportage of the “My Year Among the X” type. Perversely, perhaps, I’m inclined to read it as being made up of poetic challenges rather than the psychological and social ones that an experience of a new and alien community provides. Its challenges, then, would include the attempt never to sound like the sort of attractive project to accompany a grant or enrolment application and the attempt to avoid the tonal and stylistic sameness of a diary-based suite of poems. The challenge posed by odd experiences – like the ones in “After School” where some boys bring witchetty grubs to eat or “Canning Stock Route II” where “The map was more or less misleading / about everything but latitude and longitude” – is how to make a poem from them that doesn’t rely on the extra-poetic phenomenon of the experience to keep it afloat. And the same could be said of the descriptive pieces which are of everything from camels, christmas beetles and wild bulls to the town’s adults and its children.

And since Brophy is a fine and resourceful poet the success rate is high and the individual poems rather then the book’s conception, are where this success lies. There is a lot of variety in the structure of individual pieces and the way the experiences are approached. There are quite a few list poems, for example, a structure which avoids tonal variations and the usual way of creating the basis for a satisfying conclusion and provides, in exchange, a situation in which each item has to sustain itself. “A Day in Education” is one of these:

They tried to listen to their hearts.
They tried to reason with their souls.
They tried to tie the laces of new boots. 
They tried to line up like a nest of ants. . . .

There are many ways in which one could, in a poem, speak about students’ experiences, and others of the book’s poems exploit some of these ways, but this one works as a list. Although there is a lot of play with the tensions between items of the list – I read listening to one’s heart as a physical activity for children to show them something about physiology but it has a conventional metaphorical meaning which is taken up in the next line where they try to “reason with their souls” – a list reads like an anti-poem, structurally, which poetry, in its all-absorbing, poetics-rejecting way, has simply made part of itself and which it can then explore. The preceding poem, “Spirit”, is also a list but because it is a list of if-clauses it is dynamically structured to prepare the way for the clinching clause (technically called the “apodosis”) so that the poem can end:

if this is all there is for now and ever,
if brumbies’ nightmares are of being culled,
if the desert hears dying voices in our voices,
if there’s a spirit then we must be hearing it.

A poem like “Morning” has a quite different though not unfamiliar structure:

At seven o’clock they come in by the gate
sleepy headed, uncombed, bare footed,
walking as if they had walked all night
to get here.

They are preparing themselves
for a day in Standard English
at tables where the future might open
one eye and look at them
with something like a promise that says,
yes, is it possible to live
several lives at once and to walk around inside
each one of them like some Adam.

It’s built out of two parts, the second twice as long as the first. Each part has a climax but the climax of the first is only a preparation for the climax of the second part. The first produces that beautiful imaginative description that the children look as though they have walked all night to get to school and indeed a fine tanka-like poem might have been made out of this on its own. But the second part has a rather profounder climax since it involves not a visual felicity but a conceptual one: each child is given the possibility of living simultaneously different lives and each child will be as unique as Adam within that specifically framed life. (There is also a trick enjambment so that at first we think that the poem is going to say that the future opens itself for these children but then find that all it does is lazily open a single eye, cat-like, which holds nothing more than “something like a promise”.)

One could on at length like this about the poems in this book and never really rise above the sort of critical observations made in writing classes, but I want to stress that the structural keynote is variety and lack of an easy predictableness. True, there are some fixed forms – there are a couple of villanelles and some sonnets – but most of the poems have only their internal frameworks to support them. And the same could be said of the structure of the book as a whole. It very carefully doesn’t begin with an arrival (though it does conclude with the cleverly conceived and titled “Before We Leave”) but rather with a map:

. . . . . 
A finger like a bird of prey
casts its shadow on the open road,
lake, town.
The map never folds away
as neatly as it arrived, for its
soul, swollen a little with longing
to be known
wants to stay open on our laps.

It might be a fanciful reading but to me this recalls the more abstract meditative poetry of an earlier book like This Is What Gives Us Time and thus establishes a link at the same time as preparing a departure. When the arrival is narrated/described, it’s already the eleventh poem and has been preceded by another “Where is the Beginning of the Story” which, in narrating a child’s attempt to grasp western narrative styles (“She knows that every story / starts with a thin, proud / letter ‘I’”) asks the same question Brophy must have asked planning the structure of this book.

Given that Look at the Lake is poetry that arises from a temporary immersion in a culture that is at once part of ourselves and also alien (a point made nicely in the second poem, “Rice Puffs, Pringles, Lindt”) it is tempting to reduce the poet to the role of passive, transparent observer. But it is worth reminding ourselves that this is Brophy’s book as well as a book of life in Mulan. It is dedicated to his parents who both died (in deep old age, it should be said) while he was in Mulan, though he points out that they “urged us to go and they both had a strong interest in all we were doing there”. That’s quite a burden for someone to experience, to carry with them, and then to omit from the poems. So, fighting against the grain, I read this powerful book as one which explores poem shapes and developments in the poet’s inmost personal life. One poem, “Naming”, begins with an anecdote about Auden, and this brings to mind – to the mind of this reader at least – Auden’s comments about middle-aged travellers from the north who arrive in the Mediterranean (as alien and familiar a culture as that of the town of Mulan) “hoping to twig from / what we are not, what we might be next”.

David Malouf: An Open Book

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2018, 89pp.

An Open Book is the third of a series of “late” books of poetry whose first, Typewriter Music, published in 2007 had been Malouf’s first book of poetry for 27 years. Malouf’s poetry has been a complex, evolving and experimental thing since his contribution to Four Poets in 1962, but has always involved an examination of the self, its history and growth, its connections to the outer world through the complementary modes of exploration and receptivity, its connections to the body, and the nature of creativity itself. These themes are present in the variegated landscape of Malouf’s creativity (it includes prose fiction, lectures, essays and libretti) but within the work as a whole these three books have a special place. The poems are less “experimental” than the poems of the middle period, such as those of First Things Last, they are smaller and, on the surface, often less ambitious. But they are easily underestimated and are, at heart, immensely compressed and complex, inviting and coaxing the reader into a poetic world that looks encouragingly straightforward, even anecdotal, on the surface but which proves to be fascinatingly complex and challenging. And the invitations are part of the style, part of Malouf’s canny invocation of shared experience marked by his use of that potent pronoun, “we”.

To say that An Open Book is part of a continuing group of collections with Typewriter Music and Earth Hour isn’t, however, to say that these books are entirely of a kind. Typewriter Music has remnants of an earlier poetry in an experimental exploration like “Mozart to Da Ponte”, a meditation on the relationship between music and language cast in what seems to be the style of a baroque passion with poems between passages of prose. It looks, in retrospect, like a holdover from the earlier style (and subject matter) of First Things Last and there isn’t anything as formally distinctive as that in this new book. But the connections are apparent when poems such as “Aquarius I” and “Aquarius II” in Earth Hour are extended into a third poem in An Open Book whose “At Pennyroyal II” seems a continuation of the earlier “Australia Day at Pennyroyal”. And, in An Open Book, there are a small set of translations as there are in the other two books, though one should point out that Malouf’s versions of Horace go back to his earliest poetry.

Much of this interest in continuity and change in Malouf’s work derives from his own assertions that all of the multiple creative activities he has been involved in form part of a coherent whole. This is true to the extent that it is difficult to know where to begin describing any of Malouf’s works since all the threads seem interconnected. An Open Book begins with a poem which, in Malouf fashion, is a “double” because “Partings”, while looking back nostalgically at separation from loved things and people, also looks forward to new worlds of experience: they are the two faces of a single coin. But I’ll begin with the poems that follow whose subject is memory, significant because, in the words of one of the poems, “nothing is ever / done with / or over”. The opening sequence, “Kinderszenen”, takes its title from Schumann’s set of piano pieces – not exactly “five easy pieces” but decidedly light and whimsical in tone. And Malouf, as so often, wants to suggest that these poems are not to be considered major statements and explorations but smaller, lyrical addenda. And, as so often, this can lull readers into the illusion that they are going to be confronted with something slight, perhaps a little gestural in its poetics and, above all, easy to digest. They may seem that way initially but they are also challenging poems. Like most of the poems of this and the previous two books they deal with a lot in few words – they are small but never slight. Take the first: a memory of a childhood’s family of two parents (one of each sex) and two siblings (one of each sex) and with the title, “Binomial”:

Privacies. Tongue-and-groove
whispers at a knothole,
bare bathroom
plumbing, bare bodies,
shock-white minus their clothes.
We put two and two
together and make more
or less a family.

The house, half a dozen
rooms in spin around
asides not to be sounded.
Later we take
its silences
off into a silence
space-deep beyond breath.

Empty suits
in a wardrobe.
Under the warm subtropic rain
empty faces
turned upwards underground,
forever dazed by
the distance between terms:
to a tittle, rule of thumb.

It’s a poem worth quoting in full because it has so many of the strengths of Malouf’s poetry, not the least that the decision to write a series of poems about memories of childhood doesn’t produce anything that is in any way conventional or predictable. These are not, for example, memories whose content is some sort of guarantee of significance – “My childhood was in a country unknown to Australians”, “I was traumatised by my parents’ behaviour” etc. Instead, the memories form the basis of components of the poet’s self and they have to form the basis of a working poem: something which, in Malouf’s poetics, usually holds together a number of disparate elements which open the material out and complexify it but in doing so, of course, run the risk of making it fly apart. The binding together is done by the movement of the verse itself and its metaphors and puns. In “Binomial”, as the title warns, there are a set of mathematical “terms”, a word with interesting punning possibilities – technical names, blocks of school attendance, conditions of agreement, etc – which remain potent even if they recall the title of a Hollywood film that is invoked in the title of a later poem in this book devoted to the private language of lovers. The title here, I think, plays with the fact that, within the household, things such as sex and age-group are conceived in pairs which, put together, take a binomial form. I won’t agonise about the difficult final stanza here (one of the things it does is warn readers early on that these poems require real engagement) but point out that the idea of pairing is part of a thread which includes the theme of a doubled personality (about which, more later) and leads, within “Kinderszenen”, to “Odd Man Out” where, now the poet has become a schoolboy, the issue of singles and doubles perplexes:

. . . . . 
This boy goes
awkward, on one leg hopping,
never lonely
enough. He deals
in singles, finds it odd,
since even
he has a shadow,

two hands, two eyes, two
sides to every question,
and paper.
He develops an ear
for echoes from the further
shore of a silence
too wide to spit across. . .

Memories of a Brisbane childhood also include, in this sequence, the sense of History and (to quote Wodehouse) “its little brother”, Change. The former doesn’t appear in propria persona as the war and the fear of a Japanese invasion that were the reality of the time in which these memories were made but instead disguised as folk tale in “The Wolf at the Door” and as a weather metaphor in “The Brisbane Line”. The latter is the subject of “Fifth Column” which is interested in the fact that the major changes that this period heralded came from within – hence the title – rather than as a result of a Japanese threat. Two later poems in An Open Book are also memory pieces: “Old Pop” is a fairly straightforward portrait which is tied together in its final sentence – “My own story, if / I had one, still in the offing” – by punning on that wonderful final word, a nautical term which now has a more general application, and “Kite”, a memory of being coached by his father in how to fly a kite, an activity full of metaphorical richnesses.

Perhaps the last word on the significance of memory is to be found in another of the “Kinderszenen” poems, “Deception Bay”, a title Malouf has used before, apparently unable to resist the implications of this simple place-name which, like “offing”, begins in a harmless and practical nautical sense and then develops wider metaphorical possibilities. Here, the bay is the setting for a complex symbolic set piece which concludes by speaking of “the Ever / Now of recollection”. But this poem is, like “Binomial”, a poem of doubles: a boy, standing in the bay at noon (interestingly standing on one leg, like the boy of “Odd Man Out”) holds back from throwing a pebble which would break up the reflected image provided by the water and destroy the image of “a self, then another / lighter, more enlightened // self in reflection”.

It goes without saying that, in Malouf’s universe, the self, whose formation, development and interactions are explored in these poems, is a doubled phenomenon and that anything singular about it, as in “Odd Man Out”, is unusual. This doubling permeates many of the themes beginning with the most obvious paradox that, in order to write about a society, a writer has to cut him- or herself off from it for extended periods: he or she must, in other words, be simultaneously two people, an insider and an outsider, “a part” and “apart” – to use a pun exploited in the book’s title poem. Every writer, though rarely with Malouf’s depth of insight, has a “real” self which is counterbalanced by a dream self, or a “day” self and a “night” self. And all readers experience both a literary world and a real world, something explored in “Empty Page” where a Brisbane child’s experience of snow can only come through the reading of a literature dealing with another world. But instead of making a predictable point about the way a colonial culture imposes on the young an image of a world which is that of the imperial centre, Malouf’s poem rejoices in the disjunction between the white of snow and the green of a subtropical Brisbane and allows snow to be an introduction not only to the otherworld of literature but also to the world of writing with its existentially challenging white pages:

A world leaf-green in all
seasons. Snow
fell only in bedtime stories, without

sound or scent or colour, and so
lightly in every tense as to belong
permanently to a sky,

since it was never
in view, that could only be imagined,
with its own arrivals and successions

of breath. After the inklings
and enticements of now and here, I thought
of snow and where it lay,

the nil on nil of its eternal
silence, as vacancy, its white the printless
white of

a page not yet arrived at. If not nowhere,
then where? And if not never,

And doubling extends to the self’s perception of the world. “The Double Gift” is probably an important poem here, difficult as it is, in that it describes the doubling of our experience of “plain household objects” which make a gift of themselves but also the gift of the experience of understanding ourselves. “Asleep at the Wheel” describes how part of the mind takes in the vast rush of impressions but another part, simultaneously asleep and alert, takes in “the leaf long dead mid-fall / suspended // in a web the fox’s / eye as it glances up from / the kill”. And it is just such another part of the mind which, in Malouf’s poems, has to be trained to perceive the usually imperceptible, especially the visitations that are made into the world. This is a theme that stretches as far back as “Bicycle” the title poem of Malouf’s first full collection (and which is, in poetic mode, very different to these more recent poems), where a bicycle left in a flat becomes a messenger from another world. “House and Hearth” and “A Tavola” are poems about these homely visitors. In the former the gods are the ordinary domestic appliances (I think) which accompany us through life as guides:

. . . . . 
Mute reminders of what it is that we are part of

they prefer, like kindred stars, to light
our steps and keep their distance.

The hearth is imaginary, they are not. Only
too close to the hard facts

of inner and outer weather, the discordancies of heart
and hand, the mess and muddle we mischief into,

to be more than the necessary 
agents of resort and replenishment. . . 

In “A Tavola” the contrast between the two modes of perception is made when the relaxed appearance of an angel who “drifts in, idles a moment / then passes” during the meal is juxtaposed with the arrival of news from the outside world which disturbs like an ambush or a gunshot.

Perhaps the best place to look at this kind of doubling is “Understood” whose title punningly suggests both comprehension and invisibility. The central metaphor is the migratory bird which has a double existence, “their bodies / teasingly in two / minds as in two places”. These birds, then, mimic what the properly perceiving human (of “Asleep at the Wheel”, say,) does but they also act as messengers of the otherworld themselves;

. . . . . 
       The trick, to tune
our ear, beyond what passes
for silence, to what is new

-born or newly arrived out of the air, and sits
polishing its colours, the angel-sheen of
its wings, out of sight within.

Welcome, we say, time for you
to speak, dear pilgrim
self and not quite stranger. You have news. . .

An Open Book is, of course, a “late” work and the coming twilight inevitably casts its shadows before in a few of these poems. Interestingly, these future prospects evoke literary references. “Windows II” begins by describing windows as things that place limits on the raw worldliness of the world which our “edgy / ungrounded second nature” has trouble dealing with, but finishes with a room at sunset in which, echoing Goethe’s “mehr licht”, there is the comfort of “light, light, more / light as night comes on”. In “Late Poem” the morning cup of coffee is also a taking into oneself of a dark liquid which symbolises the greater dark and so the act is “a practice / run for the big sleep”. And “A Knee Bent to Longevity” begins

A knee bent
to longevity. Remnant
days haunted by footsteps
in a house of empty doorways.

The rest is never
silent, or never quite. Some
tag-end of the stubbornly

resistant to tense
or closure, hangs on
and quickens into
a new generation . . .

and makes the very Maloufian point that the self isn’t an isolated phenomenon but one which is everywhere connected to both past and future and the inhabitants of those realms. Late in life the poet’s gaze moves away from “constellations, far-off / hilltop villages / folded in travel-maps” and focusses on the final day that “the calendar at last / finds time for”. But the self is joined by the unfinished and unresolved elements of existence which, I think, are here imagined to be a younger group, perhaps two or three generations down the track, “demanding / their jot of the blessèd dole”.

I’ve spoken about An Open Book in rather thematic terms, possibly because that is what first suggests itself when one re-enters the Maloufian universe. I should point out that these are poems with a very distinctive style. As I have said they are compressed without being gestural and small without being slight. They are highly responsive not so much to the tactility of words as to the multiple accidents that seem to accompany them and their use, and which always invite into the poem unexpected meanings. Hence the engagement with punning and the continuing pleasure in the way that an unexpected enjambment can alter meaning completely: in “Understood”, which I have already quoted, what we first read as an address to a pilgrim turns out to be, at the beginning of the next line, an address to the “pilgrim self”, a noun having been transformed into an adjective. In “Odd Man Out” the description of the solitary child as “never lonely” is radically altered in the next line by the word “enough”. (It’s such a common mechanism in these three books that one worries that it may become nothing more than an authorial habit.) And there is also the movement of the poems. In contrast to the remorseless discourse (of, admittedly, widely different origins) that makes up so much of Australian poetry, Malouf’s poems move by very carefully placed phrases and breaths. It’s tone of humility, inclusiveness, sensitivity and respect has led to its being called “European” but that can only ever be an imprecise term. Whatever its allegiances, it’s a wonderful poetry by a great poet at the height of his powers: one wants it to continue in this vein for as long as possible.

A. Frances Johnson: Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov

Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2017, 86pp.

This new book by A. Frances Johnson has the same neat three-part structure as her second. But whereas The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street was divided into past, present and future (with the future significantly coming first), Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov is built around three homophonic puns: Soar, Sore and Saw. And although the new book has some significant differences of emphasis, it clearly comes from the same stable. It begins as did The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street, for example, with poems about the kind of grotesque interpenetration of what should be different orders of existence, focussing on the present development and future possibilities of drone technology, especially that part of the technology which eschews crude flying- and guided-bombs in favour of a birdlike mechanism with only minimal effect on the environment it’s exploring. Understandably these poems don’t pass up the opportunity to criticise the murderous American use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the last of the poems about mechanical birds, “Soar II: String That Holds the Sky”, focusses on the moving testimony of the son and grandchildren of a woman killed by a drone strike in Pakistan – but poetry, being what it is, responds better to free-ranging imaginative possibilities than it does to moral outrage. As a result the best of these drone poems seem to me to be those which focus on the ambivalent status of these UAVs themselves. “Microaviary” from The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street, for example, concluded with a poem, “Hummingbird versus Raven”, in which both “birds” abandoned their military destinies and pursued their own lives, the Raven heading for Africa and the Hummingbird, in Bavaria, “attempting to build a nest out of nails in the forest of Odin”.

“Hummingbird versus Raven” is thus a poem that wants to explore surreal possibilities rather than dwell on technological and ethical issues. The same could be said of “Love Song” from this new book:

. . . . . 
This technological pianissimo is a subtle achievement.
But for scientists, flawed “hear and avoid” mechanisms are dead giveaways.
There can be no stealth without concealment of song.
Some days a vagueness of pitch confuses the young corporal on headsets.
When his birds do not return, he can still hear them over the wire,
over the shush of white noise, mimicking the harmonics
of ancient Urdu love songs.

The drone of “Birds”, in contrast, goes about its murderous task “never fooled / by sugared Persian love songs”. Many of these poems are interested in song in the same way as these two. The former begins, “Bastard variations in form and song”, referring not only to the mechanical construction of an imitation bird but also to the principle of variation in music. And the book’s second poem, “Hummingbird”, overtly draws poetry into its imaginative ambit:

Target accuracy of poems
as with fixed-wing UAVs
varies wildly.
Only the remote operator
reads intention like a book.
This is his bastard ghazal.
Unlike the poet,
he won’t discuss payload,
precise and imprecise hovering,
the true arc
of his birds avian stunts.
That’s how the poem began
and ended, looking for trajectory,
for onscreen radiance,
explosions in quiet rooms.

It’s very much part of what makes Johnson an interesting poet that what looks like an opportunity for a fairly straightforward moral condemnation of the way technology, admittedly impressively, takes the natural world and recreates it as a destructive force should turn out to be interlaced with so many metaphors about the writing of poetry that it may well be a statement of ars poetica. It’s especially interested in the nature of authorial intention and control, questions which are always interesting in the consideration of any art but especially poetry. Poems go out into the world where whatever it is that they are trying to do – their “payload” – can be missed, misunderstood or distorted by readers. In the end, though, like the drones’ handlers, poets are hoping to make occasional “hits”, “explosions in quiet rooms”. It’s a theme – or perhaps one should say, “a conjunction with interesting imaginative possibilities” – that is taken up overtly in “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle versus Poem” and, again, it’s the question of authorial control over interpretation that interests Johnson: “the poem is less reliable / in open space, but more flexible / than fixed wing models // favouring the single reading”.

The rest of these “Soar” poems are devoted to either oppression or elevation in one form or another. The prose-poem, “The Problem of Russian Novels in the Desert”, is a portrait of Bashar al-Assad, working by bringing the very un-Syrian world of Russian fiction into conjunction with the portrait of a tyrant. It’s not a surreal conjunction since Russia supports the Syrian regime and part of the poem’s point is probably that this support is as inexplicable as the importation of Russian novels into the middle-east. At another, more surreal, level Syria is imagined to be undergoing the kind of climate-change that other poems interest themselves in. But here it is a matter of unseasonal, smothering snow. Conceivably this is designed to be a symbol of the importation of things Russian – if you want the arms, you’ll also have to take the weather and the literature – but that might make the poem more logically explicable than it wants to be. But, at any rate, it is a “soaring” poem because in it Assad dreams of flying:

. . . . . Forget about reading, I implore you! Oblomov, Karamazov, Raskolnikov are no use any more. I now regard time with a gull’s cold eye, cosying up to avian metaphors, though I can barely tell the difference between kites and drones. My blood seems poikilothermic now, much like that of the ibis, last survivor at the edge of the lake. But still I cannot fly. Expectation of transfiguration, flight, you see, remains strong . . .

It ties the poem in with the opening bird poems as well as making a nice pun on “flight”.

The ecological catastrophe imagined in “The Problem of Russian Novels in the Desert”, takes the form of a rise in sea levels as a result of human-induced climate-change. The sea levels hardly “soar” but they rise sinisterly enough. “Ultima Thule: Swimming Lessons” is a kind of semi-comic version of the incipient Noah’s flood and, in contrast, “Sea Level” is a more straightforward though complex meditation on “the salt order that threatens” (for someone who lives on a sand island in a fishing village a couple of metres above sea level, this is especially wince-inducing). But the poem isn’t a simple tract about climate change: its “you” wants to learn something about the alternative way of ordering reality that the oceanic represents, to get beyond the world of containment and domestication of the liquid:

. . . . . 
You’ve learnt the lessons of containment: skyscrapers and houses, banks and zoos.
In the city, people press their hands against glass and feel the pulsing tremor of curtain walls.

You are like them; this is part and parcel of your day job, listening to life moving through
encryption. Knowing that, in the end, all your resolutions will melt.

On the way back from the coast you notice cavernous shops selling light fittings,
acres and acres of lights, a confusion of Bethlehems. 

In the distance the city skyline glows with penthoused unbelief.
You shift in closer now, you have come back – strong, certain as tides.

As I read it, we are back, here, in the world of the mechanical birds and their metaphoric possibilities about the nature of poetry: a salt, liquid order requires, after all, a different sort of poetry, one less about the containment of experience in a neat work with a single meaning and more about fluid poetic possibilities. (The poems which follow are about soaring in the sense of mountain climbing and the last of them, “Australian Awe”, concludes with a wonderful imagined piece of outrage – “What’s wrong with you? / What did art ever do to you?” – which gets its effect by joining the conventional reading of a cliché with another, more significant one.)

The middle section of Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov is, as its title, “Sore”, suggests, about pain, specifically the grief of loss. The initial poems take up the loss of the poet’s father, an obsessive and unassuagably painful theme that can be traced back to Johnson’s first book, significantly titled The Pallbearer’s Garden. The later poems deal with the loss of a sister-in-law to cancer. Like all good elegies these poems have at least half an eye on what they are doing in the same way that, when we cry in grief, we can also stand outside of ourselves and see ourselves weeping. This, I think, is why the first poems are grouped together as ”anti-elegies” and the first of these says quite overtly,

. . . . . 
Poetry always cherry-picks memory
for its own ends; yet that’s a
medicated narcissism for some.
Earnest elegies are often rejected
by dogs and children. Listen to them howl.
Voting for life outside of ritual.
I’m on your side; I’m with the hounds 
and the kids. I won’t let elegy
make you over into a bad oil painting,
don grief’s cloth pantomime . . .

The later poems of both groups are kept animated by their surprising perspectives and tactics so although there are a lot of repetitive elements – the sister-in-law’s chemotherapy wig, for example – these still look like occasional poems rather than a set cold-bloodedly exploiting a rich thematic stream.

The title of the third section, “Saw” suggests that the poems it contains will focus of reality as seen by a poet rather than on the quirky and imaginative conjunctions that the future technologies have to offer. Again, the approach is not quite what one might expect, it is more experimental than unashamedly chosiste. The first poem, “Laverton: First Star”, recapitulates the idea of transfigured soaring. Asleep by the side of the road, the poet imagines taking out a ladder from her purse and climbing up to “rest my cheek / against a globe of star”. But the project doesn’t work: you can climb Yeats’s ladder but you can’t get rid of it and so you are stuck with the world and its griefs, making poetry from it:

. . . . . 
I wasn’t blessed with that kind of luck.
She’s astronomically challenged, the dry gods
whispered as I fell. They’d have me work
a different genre, jobbing live words 
instead of dead stars . . .

The poem that gives its title to the section is not about the act of seeing at all but rather is a comic poem about the absurdities of the theory wars as experienced in the disciplines of history. With no central authority surveying past realities, there is nobody to write a history of history: “all our dreamscapes, our facts / and gyres of feeling / shrank into a strange Babel”. And the last poem, “Pilgrims” is something of an oddity as well. It details a trip to Rome – surely the embodiment of a central authority trying to stand outside of the unyielding late twentieth-century calls for the displacement of all such authorities – and makes a lot of play with this so that the driver’s grip on the wheel is “canonical” while the passenger controls, with “looser faith”, the digital maps. But at the end of the poem (and book)

. . . . . 
She exits the car before he can pull up.
The Ascension Giftshop’s
a good place to park, she says,
not looking back,
running towards love.

One wants to read it as a tart comment on the vulgarity of Rome’s pilgrim route – a vulgarity that must have existed since the city was set up as the senior city of the faith – but, ultimately, it is a joke about ascending, the image in this book for what the mechanical birds do, what the mountain-climbing anthropologist does in “High-Altitude Archeologist”, and what the poet wants to do by the side of the road at Laverton.

Michael Aiken: Satan Repentant

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2018, 140pp.

This is a really unusual and fascinating book, a kind of micro Paradise Lost but with a brilliant twist that deepens the poetry and our response to it. More of that later but initially it is worth noting that Michael Aiken’s first book, A Vicious Example, which has a high degree of focus on observing parts of Sydney, seems so different to this cosmic narrative that no easily observable continuities exist, although they must be there since both books, after all, have their origins in the same poet and the same sensibility. Continuities might, in fact, be obvious to the poet though hidden from readers. Satan Repentant is a re-imagining of the events immediately after Satan’s expulsion from heaven after his unsuccessful rebellion. Instead of “rolling in the fiery gulf, / confounded though immortal”, in this version he undergoes a rehabilitation, negotiating with God and contenting himself with being reborn, re-incarnated as a human being. His position as leader in Hell is taken by Beelzebub (Lord of the Flies) who transforms into a creature not entirely unlike some medieval versions of Satan himself: a kind of pig-god (reading this book, I can’t help thinking that this is a little unfair to pigs) multi-legged, inclined to spewing out all kinds of corrupt liquids. Re-enacting the opening of Job, Beelzebub persuades God to allow him free access to the human version of Satan. Satan’s uncomfortable prospects are multiplied when two of the archangels, on their own initiative, contrive to attack him as well on the principle that if God relents and allows Satan back into heaven then their own futures, as his erstwhile enemies, won’t be too promising either.

It’s a delight for once to be in the position of reviewers of prose fiction who have to suggest the direction of a book’s plot without giving away crucial details about how it progresses. It isn’t something that poetry critics are usually faced with but I won’t say more of the development of the plot beyond the fact that it has a suitably apocalyptic ending – reminding us that the Earth on which these contests take place is really only a provisional trialling ground for human-beings. At the end it’s become an eviscerated battlefield with small groups of humans eking out an existence, hiding from the monsters, both heavenly and infernal, who roam the place. God has been replaced by Jesus who is himself a kind of ethical monster (since his perfectionism is essentially unhuman) and who, in the final pages, unmakes all of creation.

Satan Repentant, in thinking about alternative representations of the cosmic goings on suggested in the Old Testament, is a new version of what is really an old tradition. The books of the Jewish bible themselves continuously modify the conception of their god so that he can be a local, ill-tempered Canaanite deity, a guardian of – and refuge for – his special group, a player in regional conflicts, and, eventually, a cosmic figure. And since the Old Testament is produced by continuous editings, re-assemblings and rewritings, these opposed representations don’t develop consistently through the chronological panorama of the history but are likely to be found in bewildering conjunctions. And the process continues beyond the end of the canonical texts into, for example, the pseudepigraphical writings of the inter-testament and early Christian period. The revaluations of the nature of the divine beings continue on through the gnostics for whom the creator of the world (Blake’s Nobodaddy) is an unattractive minor deity. And, speaking of Blake, there is Emmanuel Swedenborg who seems to have been a visionary pioneer establishing that the borders between the divine, infernal and human worlds are much more easily crossed than conventional theology suggested. As a more recent incarnation of this fluid thought about religious material there is Jung’s Answer to Job with its memorable portrait of the God of Job as an “unreflective” phenomenon, “not human but in certain respects, less than human”.

Michael Aiken I’m sure knows more of this “history of God” than I do, but the central text from which Satan Repentant springs is Milton’s poem. It is announced even in the title which shares the same solemn inversion as Paradise Lost (I’ve always been disappointed that Milton rejected the title of his earlier drafting, Adam Unparadised, though that shares the same structure). Conceived as a kind of compressed mini-epic, Satan Repentant has five books, half the number of the first edition of Milton’s poem, and all the books are prefaced by a prose “argument”, as they are in Paradise Lost. Of course, to choose Paradise Lost as a starting point is to choose a text which has, running through both poem and its reception, a fundamental instability in the portrayal of Satan: not only is he the most charismatic character, he is also the most sympathetic and the one who clearly stirs Milton’s poetic juices in defiance of his protestant theology. Many readers take refuge in the vague generalisation that bad is easier to portray than good but that simply displaces the issue without solving it. In the eyes of those who see Milton (as Blake did) as being “of the devil’s party without knowing it”, Satan Repentant will be a development of Milton’s poem rather than a modern, humanist answer to it. At any rate, Satan’s repentance, request for forgiveness and decision to live out a human life, and the celestial shenanigans that result from this, forms a perfectly respectable plot line (in the sense of being logically sustainable) and the complex twists and turns of the plot – as for example, the disappearance of God, replaced by his son masquerading as him in the final book – ring true in their fictional universe.

Plot is one thing, poetry is another. The very idea of Satan Repentant poses more problems of technique and language than it ever would of narrative. Should it be written as a pastiche of Miltonic style? Can it perhaps distort that style to produce something contemporary, as Blake does? Aiken seems to have made two choices here. The first is to avoid the steady, even, narrative style of the conventional epic and replace it by shorter sections of narrative built around crucial moments. Poetic narrative always falls somewhere between epic evenness and dramatic compression – a distinction made in the great opening chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis where a section of Genesis is contrasted to a section of The Odyssey – and Satan Repentant opts for the dramatic end of the spectrum.

The language is a bigger problem. Aiken’s solution is a clever one because Satan Repentant is written in a kind of distorted English with slight Miltonic overtones. I think it is designed to sound like the dialect of a forgotten tribe of speakers of English, an unknown regional variant. Or perhaps of someone who has never spoken English but knows Paradise Lost by heart (unlikely as that would be). Take the opening of the Argument of Book III as an example:

Perpetually distressed by half-seen visions of empyreans and devils, Satan-youth seeks to clear his mind by investigation to religious knowledge. Beelzebub frustrated by failure to torment Satan releases unseemly, uncollegiate things from the abyss to roam and hunt him. . .

It may not be a solution which pleases everyone but I like it, as far as it goes. It is possible to analyse features of it: prepositions, for example, are sometimes simply omitted, especially in infinitive constructions – “You seek / destroy an immortal . . .”, “thirteen year old Satan / convinced himself / not be afraid . . .”, “Satan gave attention a gnat . . .”, – and words are often used with new, though related meanings, which would normatively be inappropriate. The word, “empyrean”, for example, which in standard English means the heavens or the habitation of the deity, is used regularly throughout Satan Repentant to refer to one of the residents of heaven, a synonym, in other words, for angel. “Cognate” is used in one passage when “cognisant” would normally be used. It’s an odd, distancing effect which I like. At its most extreme, though, it can be more grotesque than distancing as here in a section in which Beelzebub speaks to God:

. . . . .
Beelzebub sent spearing
little rodent skulls, motile
with gristle, beheaded on the face
of great serpent snakes
of bone and mud,
stinking pestilent things,
one word each to speak to God
knowing any creature of Hell likely expire
the moment they reach the creator.
God too declined encounter
such children of ablated Beelzebub
and his corporation, despatching words
alone encoiled in energising light
to bolt and meet and melt those same
verbal vermin
as each word out mouthed came.

This takes the idiom to an extreme but I suppose it can always be supported by the argument that here grotesque content is matched by a maximum distortion of language.

Of course, like almost all invented languages, the idiom of Satan Repentant is going to be a nonce-solution. It will work for this poem because it solves the language problems that the poem’s conception generates. But it isn’t going to work for any other poem by Aiken or anybody else – unless, like Milton, he decides to produce a sequel. Even the really successful created idioms, like those (choosing at random) of Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (where events of the mid-eleventh century in England are narrated in an idiom with substantial amounts of Old English vocabulary) have use-by dates and though, in the case of Hoban’s novel, for example, one might desperately want its wonderful idiom to continue, it isn’t going to happen. The weird language of Satan Repentant works in its way but there is always the reservation that it won’t leave any sort of imprint on future Australian or English-language poetry.

As I’ve described it so far, Satan Repentant will seem no more than a successful exercise in an odd but interesting mode. In fact it is much more than that and exerts a much stronger hold on the reader than any such exercise would do. This is because of its second book which describes Satan’s experiences as a human child growing up to be aware of the heavenly and demonic presences around him, and learning how to cope with them. It contains a wonderful twist which enables us to read the whole work “inside-out” as it were. Instead of being a work about cosmic battles and powerplays in which, for a brief period, we follow the life of a human being, we can momentarily read Satan Repentant as a portrait of a delusional or schizoid child, a potential poet, whose monsters under the bed are real monsters. We meet this child in the first poem of this second book which begins, “He tore the caul to an alien world, seeing / unseen things”. One of these unseen things is a demon-possessed tree:

. . . . . 
“I know you” the roaming nine year old stares
at the face of a tree, eyes and human mouth impressed in
bark and knots, watching if he should pass.
“Don’t make pretence of innocence on my account,
monster. You are an informer of some awful world
come to watch and whisper in my ear.” The timber
creature scowled out pitted hollow eyes, mouth atrophied
in dessicate sea air, moving still; slowly, crawling skin
a year in turning, but always those eyes watching, overlooking
the play-place of the child Satan-no-longer-Satan.
In later years he scoured the tree with the blade
of a boot knife
and made the demon bleed.

A brilliant portrait of a terrifying psychosis. And it isn’t only trees, beds, mirrors and windows which harbour monsters. Later, a close friend is revealed to be a demon in disguise and, when met several years later, is killed at the instigation of Beelzebub who is present to slip a knife into Satan’s hand at the crucial moment. It reads very like the explanations of people who have committed crimes under the influence of “voices”. What should have been merely a pub altercation becomes a murder caused by others:

 . . . . . 
In that fit of rage
Lucifer left ajar the door
Beelzebub stept through, handed
the knife his grasp; the combatant,
abusive braggart postured by invisible infernals
opposite along the bar,
pushed back and both are stuck
but only one now rises . . .

A simple spat weakens the ability to hold the evil voices at bay and the result is murder.

The demons of the cosmically-scaled Miltonic world, like those of contemporary science-fiction comic-films, are never really frightening but those that come from within (like the demons of Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf) are genuinely terrifying. The most magical thing about Satan Repentant is that it provides both perspectives and if, as readers, we can hold both in our minds at the same time we finish up with a really powerful, disturbing and brilliant work.

Jennifer Harrison: Anywhy

North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2018, 78pp.

Jennifer Harrison’s excellent new book continues the evolution of her complex and challenging vision, challenging because an unusual set of perspectives is brought to bear on conventional subjects such as personal illness, grief and the planet’s prospects for the future. And it isn’t just a matter of her scientific background: throughout the earlier books there were poems documenting and exploring a continuing fascination with something as abstruse as commedia dell’arte. Here there are batches of poems exploring aspects of photography and a set of animal poems which read almost as a catalogue of the different ways in which a subject can appear in a poem.

Interestingly, Anywhy begins with two poems which are, in their own different ways, about creativity. “Provence” finds her attending a protest march by artists in the French city complaining about actor’s wages – “I wave the flag I’m given”. The second stanza introduces an Australian two-cent coin with its iconic frill-necked lizard and its defensively erect quills. In a sense, the significance of the juxtaposition is clear: an Australian, in a foreign environment, still reacts to a sense of threat in a distinctively Australian way – “What trepidation / catches inside me somewhere primitive / and old . . .” But it’s a feature of Harrison’s poetry that the contexts in which poems are embedded – the interests and obsessions – spin the meanings out far beyond their obvious surfaces. The march of the French protestors – the theatrical who protest over the comparatively minor issue of more equitable wages theatrically as well as good-naturedly (“the grand square laughing now, bright with pique”) – is a reminder of Harrison’s extensive interest in the theatre of the commedia dell’arte. And just as there is a counterbalance here with things Australian, so there is in her earlier poetry which, as well as celebrating the complexities of the Mediterranean tradition, also celebrates contemporary street theatre, strolling musicians and even a figure from her past, the gypsy Moss Wickum, capable of sleight-of-hand tricks and of throwing “shadows / on a fibro wall: a rabbit, a parakeet, a giraffe”. And then, in “Provence”, there is the sinister night:

. . . . . 
                           here the scent
of the night-to-be hovers over art
guile, music-work and theatre poverty . . .

In other words – as I read it – the dark future reveals itself even in such a comparatively benevolent setting. The devil can smile.

“Fungi”, which follows, is quite a different kind of poem. Instead of working by seizing on the revealing symbolic connections between events – being at a protest and accidentally finding a two-cent coin in one’s pocket – it works by turning over the symbolic possibilities of mushrooms and the way they can act as symbols of poetry itself, digesting experience but producing something strong if vulnerable. It’s a symbol that’s been worked over many times and Harrison can only make the poem interesting by bringing fresh complexities, fresh issues to the table. She does this in a number of ways (the use of the word “fugue”, which can be traced as both a theme and a structuring principle in her earlier poetry, is immediately interesting) but the conclusion seems to me especially notable. Though “Fungi” is very different to “Provence”, it shares the same interest in art in the face of the bleak possibilities of the future:

. . . . . 
Night pins my species

to essence, to tasks
of the sleeping word

and like a rough leaf
released by autum

I settle into 
presence, the desk now

a diminution . . .

There is no ending
to shadow, to the

nature that explains
us to the deep earth

and earth to our past - 
our present poison.

I think the sense of these last lines is that our shadows in the present symbolise what we are to the earth (a black stain) and that the shadows that the Industrial Revolution has cast, two centuries ahead, have become “our present poison”.

I’ve said that these first two poems are about creativity, even if creativity in a threatened environment. We can extend that to three if we include the epigraph to the entire book, a passage from Peter Porter’s difficult poem (almost all Porter poems are “difficult”), “Meanwhile”:

. . . Meanwhile we lie down with words,
shaped into silence or thronging
to accuse. Our only health
is to be moved by movers, hearing
in stark quiet the order to conduct
the once-living through our lives.

This at least strikes a more positive note about the significance of poetry and its demand – if read properly – that we should change our lives or, at least, offer a sort of inventory of them to the creative geniuses of the past. But it’s shadowed by the bleak world that Porter’s poetry usually inhabits.

The unending shadow is an important issue in “Nine Doors: A Curriculum of Rune Work”, an extended piece which, perhaps humorously, is organised as a course of nine doors opening onto issues of the present. (Why this should be “Rune Work” I’m not sure, but as an amateur scholar of Old Norse, I’m always intrigued by the uses and misuses of the word “runes” in contemporary discourse). It certainly has the sense of – to adapt Les Murray – nine points for an imperilled planet. At any rate, the first poem of the sequence, dedicated to Jil Meagher, is about the conventional dangers of “the night” in any city – as the fifth poem says, “where the town begins night begins”. Other poems focus not on human violence but on ecological catastrophe. There is entirely personal grief in many of the poems of Anywhy and the third of this series is about how the dead call to us:

from safe suburbs they are calling	from seas where heroes
oar in parallel	from boats that sail safely past the wailing danger
the Sirens are calling

from the darkness said to brood within an epic’s reedy falter
from the lore of lies	and rocky sighs of legend
the Sirens are calling . . .

(this makes a nice pun on the German water sprite and counterpart to the Greek Sirens, the Lorelei). But there is also here a positive note I think since the poem speaks of a song “that calls me back to myself”, an internal equivalent of the song of the Sirens. Whether this “song” is creativity in general or some specific mantra, I’m not sure, but I still read it as a positive comment and thus connect it to the last of these nine poems which is about “my son”. Here, at least, is a male presence in a world in which, other poems tell us, father and brother have died. He is also someone who will experience whatever the future brings more intensely than the poet since the future will belong to him and anyone else of his age group:

. . . . . 
and when we pass each other		a small mysterious smile
don’t come too close	it says	I am Orion	the hunter	the king
the first iron of art

Such umbered voice	such trouble-free deep
human		I hear him calling sometimes
but not for me in his sleep

It’s difficult to be confident about the tone here. It could be read negatively as a portrait of someone who may become a hard man for a hard age. But I think, rather, that there is a sense of satisfaction in having brought up someone who is now, inevitably, living his own life and who seems capable, if anybody is, of surviving the future. And this sense of optimism, balancing the messages of the dark, seems to be the burden of the book’s final poem, “The Tent” (again, an image which suggests, if only remotely, a tradition of circus performance). The poem recounts sleeping under a tent and – recalling the words of “Fungi”, “the desk now // impractically / a diminution” – speaks of an ability from childhood to make oneself smaller so that “when the noise of the world // overruns the camp / I am safely camouflaged”. But at night – that ubiquitous time/metaphor/metonym –

. . . . . 
when clothes

lie fallow
and audiences drift away

I see the soaring dirty lid
of canvas open

and the stars arranged
in a show unparalleled

This balance between dark and light is one of the recurring themes of Anywhy and is reflected in the structures of the poems themselves. On the surface, one of the cosmically bleakest poems, “Grand Final”, does have intimations of hope and it is followed by “Naos of the Decades” of which the same could be said. The former makes its point by radical shifts of perspective: it begins with the couple passing time in an airport while a television in the background is showing what must be a Rugby Union grand final. But “grand final” in this poem also means the end of things from an apocalyptic point of view and the poem quickly shifts into a wider perspective by a modulation dependent on the birds at the airport which have been replaced by aeroplanes – mechanical birds:

. . . . . 
Long before birds knew their own names
anywhen	asterisk	skyscar

there existed black space, dark matter
the first stars flaming into being . . .

When the poem revisits the couple at the airport they are now fully allegorised so that the departure lounge is a “Grand Final waiting room” where the human race awaits its fate, “sipping cold beers // flipping iPhones to silent”. The poem seems to suggest that the final destination is not necessarily the dark, just somewhere completely unknown, “somewhere we didn’t realise we wanted to go”. “We trust the wind will carry us”, it says – perhaps an allusion to Kiarostami’s film – but wherever, it will carry us forward. “Naos of the Decades” is a poem about personal grief – the loss of father and brother – built around one of the finds from the Nile Delta, a block of granite recording the division of the year into ten-day periods, each begun by a cleansing from evil:

. . . . . 
Each rising was thought to eliminate evil: an antidotal
astrology drowned beside the Royal Decree of Sais

the Black Queen, the Hapi Colossus, ibis mummies . . . 
No single epitaph here, all loss is silence, antiquity

and inside memory a shard of granite remains . . .
Grief does not belong to my century, my mouth . . .

It does not float to the sea’s surface, or rise unbidden
from sea or silt . . . But today it is mine: my relic, my find

Not a conclusion where one feels entirely comfortable about the tone. In my tentative reading, this is a poem about searching for “an epitaph”, something solid and lasting which either “contains” the loved one or provokes memories in the reader. The Naos Calendar contains no such individual epitaphs but stands for something solid (and benevolent) in the memory, a personal relic.

Personal suffering, rather than personal grief, is the subject of “The Exchange, Blackwood Village”, a complex poem about the author’s experience of cancer (documented in the 1999 volume, Dear B). As in “Grand Final” the scene is set with birds, a group of species which in this book, especially in “The Inner Life of Birds”, represents a more immediate response to reality than humans can manage as well as being symbolic harbingers. The brush with Death leaves something inside that can’t be completely got rid of – as cancer can never be entirely defeated:

. . . . . 
Death found my measure in its pill of greed
and I carry the taste inside like a baby, never to birth

more a memory to protect, a shape almost precious . . .

The poem’s real interest – and what makes it more interesting than a conventional recording of illness and trauma – is in the nature of the exchange made between poet and death. The “taste inside” is a kind of gift of nothingness and the central question is: what is required in exchange? It’s not a simple poem and the conclusion is complex at several levels:

For nothing, more than nothing . . . For birds, sky . . .
For a clock, more than time . . . For anywhere, anywhy.

In each case the offered gift in exchange must outweigh the original gift, as the sky is greater than the sum total of birds and all the possible explanations (the “anywhy’s”) must outweigh all the possible places. Since the poem says, at an earlier point, “I’ve given back to nothing // less than I’ve borrowed”, this might well suggest that, in the future, some larger price may have to be paid to keep the correct balance: in that case this becomes a bleaker poem than it initially seems.

Meaning in these poems is extremely sophisticated, as one might expect, and the questions they ask and the possibilities they explore are unusual and challenging. Anywhy is in no way a simple book but its complexities are tonal too. Many of my readings of these fine poems revolve around trying to get an accurate sense of tone and that is often a more problematic activity than devoting oneself to meaning. I might have misread the tone of many pieces but there is little doubt that overall one of the dynamic drivers of these poems is the interaction between dark and light. Not quite in the Bruce Beaver sense of simultaneously celebrating and mourning, more in a Jennifer Harrison sense of viewing the future with optimism and despair.

Kristen Lang: SkinNotes; The Weight of Light

SkinNotes, North Hobart, Walleah Press, 2017, 116pp.
The Weight of Light, Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2017, 90pp.

Kristen Lang is an unusual poet in that her first two full-length books have appeared in the same year. For an outsider it’s difficult to know what the relationship between them is: it could be that SkinNotes contains poems that are earlier than those of The Weight of Light or it might be that a large group of existing poems of varying ages was simply subdivided into two manuscripts, perhaps along generally thematic lines. Whatever the case there are powerful continuities between the books just as there are significant differences.

The poems of SkinNotes are organised into clear thematic groups. “Blood Harmonies”, the first section, is made up of poems which all devote themselves to the issue of genetic connections within the family, a specific site for looking at the body/mind distinction that is so much a part of both books and which I’ll have something to say about later on. It’s opening poem, “The Knit”, is as clear as can be but is worth quoting because it introduces ideas, approaches and even words which will reappear throughout these two books:

How to unpack the fibres so entangled
in each small knot of thought that falls between us
that they belong, in the end, to none of us, webbed
under words, across rooms, between years.
You do not arrive in me. As I arrived.
You have been here from the beginning, your hands
in the measure of my own, your inflections
in the muscle of my tongue. And much
has changed. Time
shifting the play as well as our bodies. But still,
you can never be all the others. We are older now,
and the days, stacked and skewed,
merging with each other, carry us
in their hold of what we know – stepping away
we are still inside each other. Meaning only
this. The knit and fray in the honeycomb
of our cells. The touch
we cannot choose to extinguish.

I think this is a fine poem though it is nowhere as ambitious as many of those in The Weight of Light. The material (our genetic debt to our parents) is quite conventional and a topos of contemporary poetry, and the language consistently at an elevated imaginative level (a kind of “upper-middle-style”). But we can detect beneath it a poetic mind which is rather different to the ones that usually produce this sort of poem in that it seems to operate under the pressure of thought – to be more “philosophical” to put it crudely. The emphasis is rather on the mind and its thoughts than on the body: there are no references to eye-colour or nose-shape here, no cosy affirmations of continuity. And in focussing on thought it is able to speak of something that belongs, in the end, “to none of us”, a kind of genetic version of cyberspace. This raises the issue – to be explored in other poems – of absence and leaving, and the way these might need to be redefined.

The second section of SkinNotes, transparently titled “The Fragile Mind”, deals with the mind by focussing on it at moments of vulnerability and extremis. Although some of the poems are clearly personal, enough of them seem to refer to the experiences of others to prevent this being a confessional zone. In fact the other unnamed men and women who form the cast make this more of an anatomy of disfunction rather than a harping on personal dis-ease. And not only are the characters varied, the metaphors are as well. The first poem, “Glass” uses drought as the correlative of a woman’s inner state but the poem’s end concentrates on the frustration of her friends at their inability to break this drought:

. . . . .
We tell her none of us 
are angels, all of us moving stones
to quench the need for water.
. . . . 
And we wait. And we forget. In the vines
of our own weather.

At other points the mind is a small house, the land of black dogs, a cliff face, and, in “Mild Amnesia” a set of cogwheels into which a spanner has been dropped. The failure of mind to connect “properly” to the outside world is put most schematically in the two towns of “Seasonal”:

The bridge between the blue,
thrown-together, flood-prone city of the mind
and the red city, somewhere outside the mind,
is down . . .

This section is also noteworthy for “Fish”, a poem that introduces both a recurring symbol – the fish – and recurring themes – that of the interpenetration of different existences and the issue of visitations. The fish, swimming inside its element, appears twelve times out of the underwater shadows to the poet but has nothing to say despite her pleading. This poem, unlike others about fish, emphasises the pain of both the silence and the impossibility of any kind of interpenetration between mind and outer world – “And with this he has gone. / Filled with the river, and cold, / I am suddenly weeping” – accounting for its placement in the second rather than third section of SkinNotes.

The title of the third section, “Being Here” suggests that this might be a compendium of pieces about social, even political, life – commentaries on the everyday world. And, in the last few poems (which include “Five Justifications for Environmentalism”) there is some evidence for this; though even they are as far from commentary pieces as one could imagine. “Being Here” is taken in its rather richer, philosophical sense and it is no accident that the first poem is about whether or not angelic presences are “here”. Just as there were encounters with non-communicating but visiting fish, so here, in “Horse”, the yearning for intimations of the transcendent is butted up against the solid physicality of a horse in a field:

. . . . . 
                                                                    The presence
or absence of angels – how their songs
dissipate in the slanting gaze of our search and we cannot
guess what we would know of them.
The horse pushes the softness of her nose
into our hips and hands
for the carrot we cannot offer and did not
think to bring to her, then moves away . . .

This can be read in two rather different ways. Firstly, that those searching for visitations fail to communicate with the beings of the world (fish, cows, horses) who would, themselves, prove to be visitors if some kind of interpenetration of the species were possible. And secondly, that the horse represents the humans, dumbly seeking a gift (a carrot) that the visitors haven’t thought to provide.

Another poem, “On Being in the Ocean” – with a nicely ambiguous title whereby “being”, first read as a participle, can also be a noun – reminds us that being here is going, inevitably, to depend on the relationship between body and mind:

The sea’s blue rolls its rough-tongued abrasion
through your hair, into your skin, floating you in its torn
fringe of sky. Stay, says the mind, until the waves
enter every cell and the body is wide, wide in the salt swell,
drifting into the weather.

But the eyes – reaching into the air – catch again on the shoreline.
And the limbs say they remember, striding
through the waves for their rope-heavy vision of the land – their
chance: small paths uncurling in the gaps left
between the dunes, the roadworks, and the houses.

Irrelevant as it probably is, this seems to me another poem deriving however tangentially from Slessor, affirming his place as a kind of progenitor of Australian poetry in the last hundred years. The number of poems recalling “The Night-ride” is enormous and this is one of many which, consciously or not, allude to “Out of Time” though I suspect that Tasmanian waters are a lot less conducive to underwater meditation than those of the Pacific near Sydney. It’s also important to register that the summons of the sea here isn’t towards an experience in a bubble out of time but a call to a kind of dissolution and expansion that will come from an element penetrating the body completely: perhaps, in the long run, it’s more Paul Dombey than Kenneth Slessor.

The final section, “The Heart” seems reserved for more personal poems and perhaps even traces the path of the end of one relationship and the beginning of another, more permanent one. But one wouldn’t want to imply that there is anything simply confessional about these. “Clowning the Trust” imagines a clown balancing “a small book on the art of living” on top of a pole while riding around the circus on a unicycle. On top of the book is a glass sphere holding the remote possibility that the relationship between two lovers might be successful. In other words it’s a fully developed, surreal scenario, as is the first poem of this group, “To Say I Believe in You”, and “Dylan and Picasso” where the music of Bob Dylan accompanies the discovery of three Picassos each of which describes a progressively deeper exploration of sex: a sea to sink into; a nude, simultaneously man and woman; and finally a set of cubist views of a landscape – “a dozen / ways through and the ways / revealing gaps, places / on the rumpled page / no-one has been to”. One poem, “Nathan and the Sparkle of Chains” stands out as being about people other than the poet but it is possible that the situation – lovers sharing a drug-induced high – may be nothing more than a symbol for sex generally.

I’ve worked through the four sections of SkinNotes descriptively and in the order in which they are arranged because it’s the kind of book whose organisation suggests to you that it wants to be read that way. The Weight of Light is a quite different sort of book and it’s possible to approach it rather more freely. There are stylistic developments that need to be registered and, since so much of the book is an exploration and extension of images that appear in SkinNotes, there is a lot that needs to be said about stones, paths, in- and ex-halation, ascents, fish, fibres and a whole lot else.

To begin with stylistic matters, The Weight of Light has poems which make the generally discursive manner of most of the poems in SkinNotes more pronounced so that they have a developed essayistic quality or a very formal narrative quality. “Twister” is an example of the former, imagining that Descartes’ ideas of vortices in ether-filled space is a more accurate rendition of the state of someone’s psychic state. It’s a poem about dissolution and expansion, the desire to have “star birth / at his fingers, quasars at his tongue, intergalactic tide marks / on his arms” while being harnessed to such quotidian items as the city and his dog. But I want to emphasise the essayistic tone which makes the poem as much a tour through the history of the science of cosmology as about the problem of an individual reconciling the expansion of the self with the ordinary. The first stanza will show what I mean:

The French after Newton found themselves
still in the swirling sway of the night sky’s
ether, where dear Descartes had placed them. This thing
called gravity – an invisible tug – too absurd. Their giant,
outer-space tornado sweeping the known planets
through the constellations – this, they could feel. . .

We meet the narrative counterpart of this in “Snow After Fire (Parsons Track)”, a poem worth looking at in some detail as it contains many of the images that recur in both these books. It begins:

We arrive on the plateau, climbing from the walls of rock, the coloured
          gums, the mountain shrubs,
      to where the only thing not blackened by the long summer’s fires,
          perched in the Rorschach

of receding snow, is the sign, the naming that compels us surviving
          through the heat’s choke and crackle. So we learn
     we have entered what our hearts have read since the beginning -
          the forest we have scaled, the hazy

sky, the chill, the day itself – yet here it is, this boundary, the sign
          telling us all we have crossed
     into the Heritage of the World, the old planks looking new
          in this ransacked terrain.

Every leaf has gone, each blackened branch windswept
          free of dust, smooth, almost polished – ink-drawn,
     weighing nothing. Stone after stone . . .

and so on in this stately way for two and a half pages. Ultimately the climb – one of many in these two books – has an allegorical point signalled by the phrase, deliberately surprising in its context, “the falling in love”. To put it crudely, the desolated landscape preceding an emergence out into unburned heights, is a symbol of life before love. It a bit obvious but it’s a subtler poem than that makes it sound. The burned landscape is an abstracted, black and white one which shows the shape of the underlying stone better. The descent finds the couple meeting the descendants of those who first cut the track, suggesting generations and the sense of life “spilling us forward” which in turn reminds us of the repeated image in these two books of the path which is erased behind (“the stillness of the path / once we have gone” as an earlier poem says) – there is only one way and that is forward.

These long-breathed, discursive poems are in complete contrast to a set of a dozen or so, spread throughout the book, which try to operate more allusively. At their most extreme they look like a series of haiku, loosely connected to a central subject. You can see that what is happening is an attempt to loosen the power of (prose) logical, discursive movement and allow some suggestion in. Perhaps it comes about from a dissatisfaction with the surreal scenarios of some of the poems of the first book. These stretch the imaginative possibilities but Lang may have felt that she had exhausted what they had to offer. At any rate, “Between Arrivals” will serve as an example:

in the forest
over stones and roots – the way
emerging behind us

until it lands – each
at the fence -
breaking out / breaking

the light
reaching us where we stand – we keep
standing . . . the new light

at the beach
trace-lines – beetle, crab, petrel – the wind
lifting the sand

we run – by chance a dragonfly
older than all of us drops
into the sky beside us – the same air

we are using
we keep pace – not
where we are going

mid-step -

It’s a tricky form to carry off because it can look precious in contrast to the discursive poems which, at worst, always look important. But these poems in The Weight of Light are buttressed by the way in which their themes are present in other poems. “Arrivals”, for example, is clearly about life as a forward-moving process, as it is in “Snow After Fire (Parsons Track)” and those poems like “The Cloud Years” and “The Conductor Leaves Behind” which are about the progressive shaping of the self. “The way / emerging behind us” is the path that only becomes a path once the bodies have moved on and each step is one which is taken into the unknown. In a sense this aligns with the first poem of the book, “The Letter”, which is a poem about poetry in which the poem travels to an address that can’t be specified – it is posted “To Whom It May Concern” to “her neighbours – /across the road, across the country, // on the other side of the world” and is responded to in a similar way.

As I said initially, it isn’t possible for an outsider to be confident of the relationship between these two books which have appeared so unusually closely together. (By way of contrast the two books which I have reviewed previously on this site were each separated from their predecessors by ten years!) Each of Lang’s two books mentions in its biography a self-published chapbook of 2008 called Let Me Show You a Ripple but I haven’t had a chance to see it. It’s possible it might hold the key to understanding whether the poems of SkinNotes and The Weight of Light were written contemporaneously and then divided into two manuscripts or whether The Weight of Light contains poems written after the other. Based on the explorative quality of The Weight of Light when it comes to manner as well as the way its imagery is based on the poems of SkinNotes, my guess would be the latter. At any rate Kristen Lang is a terrific addition to the cast of Australian poets, someone in whose poems we can feel the pressure of complex thought and who is craft-sophisticated enough to explore the best ways of making poems out of embodying these ideas.

Philip Neilsen: Wildlife of Berlin

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2018, 107pp.

Many of the themes of Neilsen’s excellent Without an Alibi get revisited in this new book, some ten years on. Above all there is the repeated invocation of the natural world as simultaneously a place of danger and a place of imaginative freedom. It is also a world in danger as it is vulnerable to the various processes of reduction: these include obvious things like poisoning and clearing but also the subtler processes of being turned into museum and media subjects. You get some sense of this in the first poem of Wildlife of Berlin, “Marienplatz – Munich” which makes a nice link with the poems of the previous book as well as introducing the sort of material which will figure in this present one. It belongs to a Neilsenian genre that might be called “Recollections of experiences with ex-lovers overseas”. The poet recalls a Munich visit and being lectured to by his partner who tells him that both possessions and regrets are ridiculous. The environment is packed with possessions that humans have taken from the natural world:

. . . . . 
At the Museum of Hunting the stairwells
are studded with antlers and heads, the floors
patrolled by brown bears, wolves and a lynx,
their Waldgeist stolen by some taxidermist . . .

And that last line, invoking the Germanic world of dark forests and the spirits of dark forests (and also, in a gentler vein, the “wild woods” of The Wind in the Willows), shifts the poem into the intense world of “fairy tale”, which derives from the same culture:

That night we rock the lacy bed
with ferocious intent and Frau Mettler,
morning in her hair, shakes a fat finger at
our blue eyed impertinence
but gives us gingerbread when we leave . . .

Though the poem goes on to meditate on the issue of love and leaving – “when lovers leave it seems unnatural” – it finishes with an image of the natural world at its most unnatural when council cranes remove tubs of flowers at night to prevent them being stolen by others who don’t believe in the notion of theft. It’s a complex, hard-working poem bridging the world of Without an Alibi and Wildlife in Berlin and it is followed by the book’s title poem. (By this time we have had enough exposure to the word “wild” in Neilsen to appreciate that “wildlife” is not only a connotation-free synonym for “animals” but a phrase made up of “wild” and “life”.) The poem contrasts the fate of women in Berlin during the Russian advance of 1945 with a contemporary television documentary on wild animals in the city. The result is that the documentary is made to look smug though the exact reason for this isn’t entirely clear. The poem seems to want to be read as saying that contemporary German culture is interested only in the minor arcana of urban life and ignores the horrors which seventy years ago reduced its population to the status of wild animals, and there is good reason for doing so since the turning point of the poem is in the quoted line, “the authorities turn a blind eye to Berliners feeding bread to the swans”.

This first section has another three poems “about” animals where, as in the second section, largely devoted to birds, there is such a variety of treatment that the poems avoid becoming stereotyped. The first of them, “Hotel Paris”, for example, is about Parisian experiences which ensure that you can never entirely “enjoy home comforts again” but uses the idea of fabulously dressed women pickpockets as giraffes. These three poems are followed by four which are re-imaginings of the experiences of literary characters. It isn’t my favourite genre and since the first three deal with women – Anna Karenina, Lady Chatterley and Sleeping Beauty – there is a yet further temptation to slide into cliché, seeing them as victims or plucky fighters for equality. The best of them I think is the last, “Literary Walking”, in which Dickens, Wordsworth and Woolf are imagined to meet up on their walks and share a picnic. The cynic in me thinks that this meeting between the remorselessly theatrical, the remorselessly self-obsessed and the remorselessly snobbish wouldn’t end at all well, but in Neilsen’s poem it does because writers have one thing in common – critics

. . . . .
They discuss pickpockets, bellowing cattle
and critics, a pebble like a fox’s eye,
downhill swoop and slow ascension,
the complicated dignity of supple boots,
the necessary hardening of the feet, the skin.

With the last five of this first section we enter on more interesting and less predictable poems since they are all, more or less about death, a subject less likely to attract simplistic, predictable contemporary responses. One doesn’t have to read poems like “Thanatophobia” as overtly personal, even confessional, to know that the issue of fear of death is a feature of Neilsen’s poetry. It’s beginning

There’s nothing wrong with you the psychiatrist
reassures me: no synapses in a train wreck,
no morbid angels of rumination.
The CBT approach would be to visit a morgue,
but you’re not afraid of dead bodies, just being one . . .

makes it seem like a gloss on Woody Allen’s famous comment, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. This group is marked, as is often the case in Neilsen’s poetry, by variety: they seem like distinct poems that have fallen together in the ordering of the selection rather than been a consistent mining of a theme. And they benefit from that. “Thanatophobia” is the only one of them that is presented in the first person, others are about a “hole-in-the-heart” operation suffered by his wife as a child, about a symbolic life-cycle, about a suicide and about those who want to fight fatal diseases with various kinds of non-medical approaches.

As I’ve said, it’s the variety which is interesting here, rather than the consistent themes. The variety makes it difficult to see the nature of the poet’s involvement in these themes, to get a simple, viable sense of his poetic personality. That’s not a bad thing of course and one thing it does is prevent Neilsen ever being reducible to a simple thematic core since that would omit too much of what makes these good poems. And this notion of a group which isn’t a group applies to the second, or “bird” section of Wildlife in Berlin. “Crow”, the first poem, is tricky to read because, for all its sharpness, we don’t know whether to identify the “you” as the poet, the reader or the poet’s favourite enemy,

Crows are clever.
They use sticks as tools,
speak non-idiomatic French,
start but do not finish cryptic crosswords.
Crows were the first to wear black to book launches,
to peck at wine while avoiding a rival.
. . . . . 
Nothing will ever be black and white again.
Here comes the pain, so bite on it,
the crow in your veins.
You’re not going anywhere alone.

“Snowy Owl”, “Auspices” and “Pied Currawong” are, though very different, built on the theme of humanity’s poor chances of future survival whereas “Tawny Frogmouth” is an exploration of the way in which fitting in, aligning oneself to one’s social reality, results in transformation rather than merely a conscious disguise and reduces the powers to hunt and attract a mate – “So intent on blending in, / camouflage too perfect, or too rough, / a heart and lung of twigs”. In “Noisy Miner” we are back in the world of “Death and how to deal with it”. The eponymous bird is good at dying, responding to the death of its fellows and at killing. It imagines that its best approach to death (symbolised here in the cat watching the birds from under the grevillea bush) is aggression:

. . . . . 
                   Colonisation is its pulse.

It looks into a rain puddle,
pecks at the yellow eyes and beak,
trusts in belligerence to bully death,
the hunched fur, over there under grevillea.

“The New England Honeyeater” is a comic poem describing the fantasies of the early botanist who first encountered it and the final of these bird poems, “Red-Capped Robin – Long Pocket, Indooroopilly” is really a failed love-affair poem that uses the bird as a symbol.

The third section begins with a group of poems that are about professional people being in places where they shouldn’t be: “A University Bureaucrat Plans a Garden” – a parody of managerialist cant – “A Philosopher in the Brothel” – a chance to bring thought and non-thought (in the form of sex) together – “The Scientist at his Mother’s Grave” – a chance for son and dead mother to continue their spirited arguments, and “A Lawyer at the Funeral” – a chance to explore the opposition between a calm analysis and the “insincerity and mixed motives” of the relatives. By the time we get to “Unity Valkyrie Mitford at the Osteria” we have an historical portrait of a person who seems to be in a very odd situation: an Englishwoman infatuated with Hitler and determined to prevent war between Germany and England. How personally driven is this exploration of people out of their place? It’s hard to tell but it’s reflected in one of the book’s epigraphs, Elizabeth Bishop’s “I was made at right angles to the world and I see it so” and is perhaps the underlying theme behind the final poem of the group, “The Erl-King Reconsiders his Purpose”, where Goethe’s Erlking, damaged himself, decides that rather than abducting children’s souls, he will make a career move “from psychopath to psychopomp” devoting his attentions to “those who gossip and muck-rake”. Perhaps it’s all a baroquely varied expression of a core situation: of being a poet in a university. And “The University Makes a Poem” is about that very subject though it turns out to be a more complex poem than its title suggests. It begins with the issue of academics complaining, as they always do in all faculties, that their administrative and teaching requirements (the former especially since they involve responding to coded demands of mere administrators) prevent them from doing their real work:

We creative writing academics keep saying
I must find time. Submit an ARC application
and a short story is snuffed out,
supervise enough PhDs and a novel bites the dust.

The university gives us core business,
performance indicators. There is no arguing with this.
The efficient campus echoes with crow calls,
a student seen reading Proust on the quadrangle lawn
is hailed as a guru. . .

This is, of course, a little Proust joke though, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t see it in the first few readings. Proust’s great work is On the Search For Lost Time and so the student reading Proust could be said to be somebody who has found time, unlike his or her teachers who keep saying that they must find more of it. It’s the young who teach the old, or perhaps, the memories that the old have of being young that can still provide a guiding light:

And yet it is the young who leave us clues.
Rooms still imagine themselves as thinking spaces,
classes still have epiphanies which come
and pass, well-lit, like a night train.
A tutorial becomes a bird of paradise.

The great writers worked in banks, toiled as labourers,
fought fascism. Even the privileged were worn down
by river stones of despair.
The world won’t miss our foregone scribbles.
The academy stutters, and produces a poem.

I’m assuming that the way to read the last line is as saying that the poem we have just read is the one that the stuttering academy has produced. As such it’s a version of what might be called the “Dejection: An Ode”-syndrome where a complaint that depression inhibits poetry is expressed as a poem.

The fourth section begins with two poems about death but I think that the dominant motif of this section is one of perspective on times past – something that begins to take over one’s approach to reality as one approaches seventy. So the significance of the location of “Guitar” and “Noosa Beach” is, perhaps, that they are about the experiences of the past. “Sunset at Brisbane Airport”, “Chrissy Amphlett and You” and “The Intervention of Wolves”, each of which marks its times carefully and brings the past and present (or, at least, the near-present) together might be more typical of this section. As would “Where Were You When” whose title tells us that it’s going to be about moments in time in the past and whose conclusion – “pointless as a thousand year sleep” – suggests that these moments need to be see in a larger time-perspective.
The final section intersperses some very interesting, personal-relationship poems – especially “Men of a Certain Age”, which answers Bronwyn Lea’s “Women of a Certain Age” and may have a lot of interesting guilts in the dream that the men awake from – with straight-out satires on such eminently satirisable subjects as texting, Hollywood genre films, daytime television and Nordic noir. I’ve never thought that this satirical mode, well-done as it is, is Neilsen’s strength. Perhaps this is because the author’s stake is unclear. When something is as silly as texting or a generic thriller we tend not to ask how and why the author is embroiled in this. And yet the complexity of Neilsen’s position behind or within his poems, the indeterminate nature of his poetic personality, is one of the things that makes his poems both challenging an rewarding. I said in my review of Without an Alibi on this site that Neilsen was an under-appreciated figure in Australian poetry and that his work deserves to be better known. I think that Wildlife of Berlin confirms this judgement. Of the two most recent VLAs (Very Large Anthologies), Australian Poetry Since 1788 allots him two poems, one of which I have always thought of as very ordinary and the second of which is exactly the satirical sort that I think is the weakest of the many arrows in his quiver. Contemporary Australian Poetry omits him altogether. These are things that should be rectified in the future.

Judith Bishop: Interval

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2018, 76pp.

Judith Bishop’s second book is as brilliant and daunting as her first, Event, now more than ten years old. The voice of Interval is familiar from that first book, as are the general structures and assumptions of the poems but there are a number of developments, the most important of which, at the thematic level, are probably contained in the first section of the book which is devoted to poems about the experience of motherhood and parenting. At any rate, Interval, like Event, makes a lot of demands of the reader. Complex ideas are explored in complex poems and the range of interests very deliberately covers the spectrum from the atomic to the cosmos with humans and their distinctive experiences placed between. An additional difficulty lies in the way that the themes are interwoven. Although individual poems have the requisite stand-alone quality, thematically they are likely to tie in with any number of others. As a result, a critic isn’t going to be sure which is the best thread to tug first. Yielding to the structure of the book itself, I’ll start at the beginning with the poems about children.

Since these poems are just as challenging as any of the others, I don’t want to give the impression that in some way Bishop is abandoning complicated material (such as the story of Cortes and his mistress/interpreter Marina which ran throughout Event) in favour of simple, homespun material. But there is a kind of groundedness about the poems of the first section of Interval which affects how we go on to read the later parts – it may, in other words, be more important for the reader than the poet. And there is still a strong sense of thematic consistency since many of the themes of Event are present in these opening poems. One of the dominant images of that book was of birds, appearing as various forms of visitation in various situations. And one of the ways we think about children is as a special kind of visitation. Two of these first poems deal with the death of children and one of them, “Poem for a Little Girl”, ends with a bird image:

She has woken, your love, in the house of your heart.
Oh, now she is laughing, saying Look! Ma! Pa!
I’m a bird – I’m sunlight – I am everywhere you are.

The second, “Snow”, is based on the famous (in poets’ terms) death of Mallarme’s son, Anatole, and the interest here is in the image of colour and its opposite, whiteness, embodied in snow. At first one thinks back to the poem, “Interval”, from Event, in which snow is an expression of the silence of death. But in that poem snow does have a kind of transmutative power – “you alone / shiver / sun / into diamonds” – and the same is present in this poem where lights, when reflected in snow, develop different colorations, the snow crystals, presumably, acting as individual prisms. Unexpectedly it is the living who are without colour, “restored / to black and white, / our shadows stamp our exile from the dead”. And it’s possible that this not-untypically complex poem might be further complicated by an allusion to Joyce (perhaps prepared by the word “exile”) and the conclusion of his best-known story.

These poems of pregnancy, birth and parenting seem to move in many directions. One is an interest in mind, in matter and their embryonic beginnings. “14 Weeks” speaks of the foetus, beginning to move in its own universe within the mother as a “small philosopher, / materialist of mine” and the following poem, “Arrival” (conceivably alluding to the science fiction short story and its recent film both of which look at the arrival of aliens from an essentially linguistic point of view), has as a refrain the lines “Where the mind comes from, / where it goes”.
If childbirth is an arrival – and it’s worth bearing in mind how much of Event was concerned with visitation – it is also an opening out. Many of the poems from the second section of this book are associated with the idea of opening and it’s something of a surprise to find, in the middle of a first section generally concerned with children, a poem called “Openings” though, as it turns out, the child as a beginner in the complex world of conceptualisation and interaction is an important part of the way these poems want to approach the issue.

“Openings” opens with an image of the field as a place where an incoming signal alerts a response in the mind:

. . . . . 
Something alights
in the meadow of vision.
each datum’s serene
in its dance of arrival from the world - 
each met by the sprightly
pas de deux of the brain,
holiest union,
whose coda unfolds
in the body’s
archipelagos of darkening
where the nerve
bulb flashes
and winks out.

It’s a cognitive psychologist’s view of the interaction between mind and world and, despite the overtones of materialism, it seems happy to see the process in the light of an image-dense poetry. The other four parts of “Openings” investigate different issues: the second part – “Loveliness and horror pass through / the open gate” – focusses on exactly that: our inability to determine what enters us when we are open. It is perhaps relevant to the way in which those earlier poems in celebration of childbirth were counterbalanced by two poems recording deaths. The third part – “Does the tree return her greeting / when the child says hello?” – is about the way in which categories exist in the mind even when the object they refer to is imaginary:

. . . . . 
Then call the tree
by its name:
like the unicorn,
it steps into your mind
and will remain.

The fourth and fifth parts recapitulate the second and third. The former tells the story of a woman knocking at a door looking for her brother who hasn’t been returning phone calls. When the door is opened, the news is bad. And the latter is interested in a child’s perception of reflection whereby the mirror image (of a duck taking off or a willow trailing leaves in water) has as much “realness” as the objects themselves.

The word “openings” has here a primary sense of “doorways” and “the making of doorways” but it has, of course, a secondary meaning of “beginnings” and it would be surprising if the themes of this poem were not present in poems later in the book so that it acts as an initial broaching of some of the subjects. “Thinking Things into Existence” from the third section of Interval, takes up – as its title suggests – the issue dealt with in the second part of “Openings”. Here the imagined which is threatening to become real is that of the human race finding some superior home elsewhere in the galaxy. And if “Thinking Things into Existence” takes up this plan to leave as a conceptual issue, an interesting poem, “Unearthed”, from the second section, looks at the idea of home and humanness as themes in themselves. The macro-issue of the evolution of humans, “and they may be / a different kind of us; // half-clockwork, / far evolved” – is imaged in terms of a child’s development whereby its longing for the maternal “home” is something that will, eventually, pass:

One day, the baby
will be free of such a need.

One day, they will wonder at
the lawn and all we made of it –

recalling, touched or puzzled, how it
framed our early lives, this minor

passage in the history of play.

Much of the material I have covered so far gets explored in the four-part poem that concludes the third section. “Testament”, its title, suggests that this is going to have a base at least in a thought-out position rather than being built around exploring possibilities. (To be frank, given its tone, “Testament” might better have been called “Essay”, which would imply in its original meaning the notion of an attempt to make a coherent statement about a phenomenon.) The first section, “Conquest”, discusses (and given the poem’s tone, this is not an inappropriate word) the issue of the future – “a / howling of the not- / yet in the is” – for an organism with conquest in its genes. It recalls poems like “Thinking Things into Existence”, “Openings”, “Control” and “In the Somme”, but it also deals with issues of perspective: including mapping, abstraction, stylisation and reductionism, especially when it moves from the macro-outer world of human life on this planet in this galaxy in this universe to the inner world:

. . . . . 
Dragons, no less, in the interior
reductions to the
more and more refined cartographies
of cells and nanograms -
                                            and home

is where the body is at home,
no less the mind . . .

It reminds us that there are a number of poems in this book whose focus is the map (“The New Maps Keep a Weather Eye” and “Rising Tides”, for example) or the stylised, diagrammatised portrayal of physical realities such as one finds in graphs (“Control”). The second part of “Testament” is about perspective in that it wants to understand the human scale in terms of the surrounding scales which range from the near infinite of the universe, cosmologically described, to the atomic:

. . . . . 
– I look out across the new:
it is possible to film
a set of molecules that dance;
it is possible to hear
the awkward chirp of waves emerging
from the hatcheries of space . . .

The third part of the poem deals with the idea of limiting one’s perspective to the human scale, though this is compromised by the fact that the borders of the body – the skin – are not absolute and that the elements of the responding body and mind continually cross this border. And the final part speculates about the possibilities that might occur in an evolutionary future (though these developments might be technologically derived). “Testament” has so many of the issues of Interval in it that it is tempting to see it as a central poem. But its mode – assertion, speculation and generalisation – is too essayistic, too early eighteenth century to be satisfying, at least to me. I have more faith in the lyric mode, operating more openly, more intuitively and more likely to make connections outside of the parameters of strict logic. And I think the best of Bishop’s poems work this way too.

The notion of “home” for example, dealt with in “Testament”, is explored differently in “Home” the first poem of the final section of Interval:

Be our heart’s north,
daybreak in our daughters’
breath, be the radiance
that listens
as we gather for the singing
of the wood . . .

Admittedly, this is a poem that deals with the issue at an emotional level – as a centring phenomenon in the girls’ lives – rather than at an intellectual one but, in an odd way, “Home” is a more complex poem than “Testament”.

And all the complicated material about openings, explored in the poems I have spoken about so far, is expressed beautifully in one of the four stanzas of a potent, associative and disjunctive poem called “Miniatures”:

. . . . . 
Laid are the eggs, and the traps, and the plans.
One is closed, until broken by urgency and life.
One is open – and then -
One is closure, with haunted dreams of opening . . .

This brief look at Bishop’s use of different “modes of discourse” – a not entirely accurate description of the difference between lyric and more discursive poetry – leads me to look at another unusual aspect of the poems in this book. This is a technical matter and involves the use of a kind of verbal repetition with variation. I can quote an example from the marvellous opening poem, “Aubade”, (memorable for its wonderful materialist view of erotic love – “Love, the shape-shifter, / is on the move / again: starry, her neural / and her chemical mess . . .” – which in seven words speaks of the double perspective of the cosmic and the microscopic) – which goes on to describe the ache of love as “a lovely quarry / to be quarried in the body”. I suppose, technically, it’s just a pun on the two meanings of “quarry” but other examples (and there are many) involve a distortion of the first word so that it seems to suggest the second. When “14 Weeks” describes the climate of the womb it speaks of a place “where the skeins of inner sun / are a sunset through the skin” so that “skeins” and “skin” are connected. The opening of “Testament” works the “weather”/”whether” homonym and also allows “how” to suggest “howling”:

A queer excitement fills the throat – call it
imminence, or a season’s
                                   change, but
weather’s not what rises and 
                            balloons this day, not
whether – rather how, and what a 
howling of the not-
yet in the is . . .

and later in the same poem “mind” suggests “mining”.

The most extreme and complicated of these moves occurs in “In the Somme” a meditation on the relationship of mind and body. The third stanza runs:

Flesh, unknown to body, is the shibboleth
by which the mind discriminates its own;
self, in body’s mouth, is only flesh in anagram.
Mind abhors the power of the dumb.

Perhaps its fitting that, with such a subject, the poem should sound so like something out of the Metaphysical poets, but even contemporary minds get some sort of pleasure in teasing it out. “Flesh” is only an anagram of “self” if you replace the “sh” with a “s” and this is what the traditional test of the “shibboleth” (the word is introduced in the first line) involved. Those who know their Old Testaments will know the story of the quarrel between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites in the twelfth chapter of Judges. Each man looking for passage across the Jordan after a defeat was made to say the word for an ear of corn, “shibboleth”. Since Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the “sh” – presumably for dialectal reasons – they could be weeded out and butchered.

All of the examples of this odd technique come to a sort of climax in the last lines of the last poem of Interval, “As If”:

. . . . .
so staggered by the light
we stagger brightened through the sun

to try toward, to ward, to world –
to word this muteness, so

It’s not a technique that occurs, as far as I can see, in the poems of Event though the poem “Interval” there does allow the word “mantle” to follow a couple of lines after “diamantes”. The issue is whether it’s a kind of “grace-note” technique, like a sophisticated version of end-rhyme or whether it’s a generative technique of the sort one is likely to find in a more surreal poetry than Bishop’s. The answer – as all of those who want to support the use of rhyme on the grounds that, irrational as this chiming is, it does generate new imaginative possibilities – might be that it is both.

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.

Jane Williams: Parts of the Main

Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2017, 106pp.

Jane Williams is one of those poets whose work becomes progressively more engaging and interesting as years, and books, pass. There isn’t much in her first book, Outside Temple Boundaries, that prepares you for how good Parts of the Main is, but then twenty years is a reasonably long time in a writing career. As poetry, these poems are not especially ambitious or experimental – by which I mean that, a few lines in, you know, at least generally, where you are, even if you hope that the direction the poem travels will not be predictable. In poetry’s house of many mansions these belong in the wing kept aside for calm, free verse meditations usually hung on some item of personal experience. But they do have threads of obsession that animate and unify them. And the most important of these is an interest in other parts of our lives, other directions our lives might have taken, those times we can be creatively lost, and how we can gain any sort of perspective on this thing called “our lives”. One could choose poems almost at random to explore this but “Elsewhere” from late in the book’s first section might do for a start:

there’s an emptiness to evenings like this
a loneliness that can stare down buildings

reshape everything even bitumen even intent
until leaving becomes the next natural step

in the evolution of a life couched in waiting
for the rules for the impetus for the lights to change

for the mottled blue longing of the sky to shift
and the road out of town fixed as it is to turn left

to turn right and lead somewhere else.

This is a fairly abstract poem and one might contrast it with something like “First Morning in Venice” where the poet listens to the story of a fellow tourist who, having been lost in Venice’s labyrinthine alleyways is rescued by an old man who returns her through “a succession of frescoes, / across a fifteenth-century plaza, / somehow threading three floors / of hospital corridors”. Thinking about the mesmerizingly complex city around her, the poet describes it as designed “to waylay us from whatever task, / whatever path it is we think we’re on”. You could place those poems of Parts of the Main which deal with alternative lives (or alternatives within our lives) on a spectrum between these two poems, between generalised meditation and specific anecdote.

Take a poem like “Doppelgangers”, for example, the first poem of the second part of Parts of the Main. It begins:

They’re out there somewhere
making the moves we dream for them;
shining second-chance moves.

One, with an eye for detail
shifts boundaries incrementally.
Another, prescient, chooses to lean
this way not that into a changing climate.

A propagandist becomes a poet
becomes a man and everyone gets it -
really, everyone understands . . .

Here the alternatives in our lives are imagined as inhabitants of a parallel (and perhaps contiguous) universe. But the poem is conceived ethically in that the alternatives are morally superior second chances which mean that the characters will not to be funnelled down a bad pathway. So the first of them (in the first two lines of the second stanza) doesn’t tie him- or herself to an inflexible set of principles; the second makes different decisions in that crucial moment when the values of a culture can be felt to change. The third is the most interesting because it contrasts choices made between being a poet and being an activist. As a result (in my reading anyway) poetry is positioned as a way in which issues are raised without the inevitable one-eyedness of the activist: it’s one of the roles for poetry (and the creative arts generally) that I’ve always wanted to endorse.

As the Venice poem reminds us, travel is a good, practical way to have our preconceptions altered, our planned journeys turned aside. The book’s second poem, “Everything About Us”, has a title whose ambiguity nicely expresses the centrifugal and centripetal approaches to the self. It details the experience of living in a Muslim country during Ramadhan where everything seems to define the visitor as foreign but the visitor experiences, almost by osmosis, some kind of redefinition:

. . . . .  But labels are blankets we hide under, revealing selective truths by torchlight. Empty beer bottles replicate like drones on the laminate bench top, then stop. We moderate. Abstain. Our bodies thank us. A new ethos sidles up to the old one, we let parts of it in – no more or less than we need . . . . .

This poem finishes with an affirmation of those experiences which transcend their cultural inflection, in this case, a mother kisses her boy goodbye at the gates to his school. In the next poem a woman has a “slight stroke” in a restaurant and her husband, after organising the ambulance, turns “to the comfort of a single sauce-drenched / spring roll”. This might have been easy to criticise in terms of basic human self-centred greed but the poem sees the gesture as a grasping of the familiar in a moment of crisis: the “simple affirmation, / the vivifying sweet and sour of its call”. Two poems embody the intense experience that these abrupt meetings with otherness can provide. In “Pembantu Rumah (Maid)”, the poet worries (in a way that is nicely conveyed by verbal repetitions in the text) that she doesn’t engage with her housemaid – who seems a self-effacing domestic fitting. When she eventually asks her name, the weather abruptly changes, bringing the relief of rain. And “The Newlywed” (another nicely ambiguous title) sees the heady experience of being alien from the perspective of another character, as both poet and a recently married Asian woman stand alongside each other waiting to visit the Eiffel Tower.

The poems of the final section of the book detail a period spent in the Slovak city of Sturovo, on the Danube and connected to neighbouring Hungary by a bridge – always a potent source of symbolism. The final long poem, “Days of Leaving – Notes to Self”, acts as a kind of summary of these poems about unpredictable changes of direction when it says, as one of the notes to self, “be open to getting lost – / it could be part of the story / that sustains you / when nothing else will”.

Unpredictable changes to the pattern of one’s life make, as I’ve said, for a lot of thematic consistency in the book but any reader would want to know how this applies at the level of the poems themselves. The theme almost demands that the poems which express it should not be poems running along familiar tracks with familiar conclusions but poems which work by taking unexpected turns. There are plenty of these and I’ll look at them in detail in a moment but first one would want to look at some of those poems whose shape is familiar. “Dog Beach”, for example, is superficially a semi-comic piece about a beach where all breeds of dog can be found:

not its official name
but for the sake of preserving
certain dignities
(which my dog loving friend
assures me they have, along with
neuroses, borrowed hopes . . .)

it seems to me this day
they’re all here on Dog Beach:
the black, the white, the brindle,
the ghosts of packs past,
of untenable future breeds,

expressions not so alien
from our own –

sidekick Labs
clumsy with love, 
fretful Dachshunds,
lap leaping Shih Tzus
Pick me! Pick me!
Dalmatians shifting stance
between goofy and gallant . . .

The fact that I’ve had to quote a minor, if successful, poem at such length is a clue to its structure: it keeps its head above water by being a long imaginative list conveyed in long syntactic structures. This sounds very like the method we associate with Bruce Dawe and the fact that poem is about dogs is likely to recall something like Dawe’s “Dogs in the Morning Light”. Interestingly this is a poem whose conclusion is about familiar comforts – “who among us hasn’t desired / when at a loss for words, / the simple salience / of a tail to wag . . .” – rather than challenging escapades on unfamiliar paths. “The Day the Earth Moved” is another Daweish piece, a long single sentence describing an experience of the unfamiliar (or defamiliarising) in which a woman’s laugh (on a busy intersection on a Monday morning) suddenly makes her seem something more than human – “not woman, but merwoman / gone AWOL, caught out / slipping partially back into form”. It’s a poem that works by framing something uncanny in solid, assertive, straightforward poetic utterance. As does “Show and Tell” where the appearance of an eagle makes a cast of tourists put down their cameras in recognition that this particular incarnation of the real is “unshowable, untellable” and is only insulted by the cameras and their owners’ “compulsion to frame / the endless, abridged versions of us . . .”

But, as I’ve said, a poetry interested in unexpected turns in our lives really has to be capable of unexpected turns itself and a number of the poems of Parts of the Main rise to this. “Swallowing the Sky”, for example, is about how a poem forms itself at the same moment (and with the same randomness) that a cloud forms itself into the shape of a dog: it begins to dissolve at the moment of formation:

. . . . . 
Such fine points of ears,
legs built for speed, for the hunt,
tail set to thump nothing into being,
open jawed, tasting life on the hop.
Yet even as the poem takes shape,
its inevitable dissolve has begun:
a quiver in the back legs then the front . . .

The structure has that pleasing paradox of being an assertive poem about the failure of a poem. Something similar lies behind “This Complicated Inner Life” which sets out to be a poem celebrating an ambitious creative conception – “you’re thinking novel; big picture work of substance you have outlines whole drafts the scaffolding for the building . . . “ – until the pathway laid out turns into doubt-ridden quicksand. But whereas “Swallowing the Sky” ended in dissolution, this poem ends in some sort of surprising affirmation, perhaps that major works operate by accretion rather than by grand conception. The symbol used at the end is the group of ants found on the breakfast bench at the end of the night’s creative highs and lows: “you notice as if for the first time the ants on the bench mandibles raised in unison the way they cooperate to navigate that single crumb homeward more than slaves to the hive mind more than marks on the page”. “My Mother Asks Me to Write a Butterfly Poem” is, perhaps, the counterpart to “Swallowing the Sky” and “This Complicated Inner Life” in that it begins with the poet feeling she should remind her mother that you can’t write poems on commission but then, unexpectedly, she finds that the poem comes, replete with the inevitable metaphors of cocoons and transformation:

. . . . . 
So I start as we all must
alone and not alone
cocooned in the dark,
blank stare, blank slate
and wait and wait
until finally I get it
(how did she know I would?);
this is why we’re here,
all of us artists,
our singular job
to emerge, take flight,
disconnect the dots,
recolour the world.

I like “all of us artists” with its ambiguity of “all of us who are artists” or “all of us are artists” just as I like the way “disconnect the dots” expresses the sense of defamiliarizing that this book emphasises. But perhaps the most extreme case of a poem’s structure matching its theme of unusual pathways is “Proof of Existence”, one of the prose poems, which begins with the poet a bit depressed, wanting to be alone, going on a walk:

. . . . . I want all the possibilities, all the privileges of this spring day to myself – whatever hidden truths a walk in the park might reveal, loosed from the obligations, the diversions of technology and time. I take the delirious risk of leaving my phone at home, and soon my mind is drifting then spinning past identity . . .

A few lines later she is in the Amazon rain forest, where natives are looking up at a research plane which is taking photos of them. In the next sentence she has become one of these natives, “we tilt our masked faces to the cloudless sky as the giant metal bird passes overhead . . . “ – a fine example of a poem stepping out in unpredictable but ultimately satisfying directions.

Surprise, unpredictability and the uncanny that results from defamiliarizing tend to be a fraction cerebral – perhaps it’s no accident that so many of them appear in prose poems, a form suited to conveying the twists that the mind enjoys. One of the best poems in Parts of the Main shows that they can have a powerful emotional charge. “Days of Blue and Banter” begins with “a routine walk” in Ireland which is interrupted by a chance encounter with a neighbour. Unpredictably and embarrassingly a set of social clichés prompts a rush of words “rising unbidden / from the untold depth of you”:

. . . . . 
When you worry that you’ve said to much,
it’s the old man who gently closes the divide;
six sisters who never knew how to speak
to each other or anyone
about anything that mattered.
No blue bright enough to keep them buoyed.
How they’re all, each one dead now,
from the cancer. No more to say. So you talk,
he implores, you talk away . . .

The old man’s final words are imperative rather than indicative (“Go ahead and talk . . .” rather than “So we talk . . .) and his assumption is the old (perhaps to-be-expected) one that silence is a self-repression that grows cancerous, but this doesn’t lessen the emotional impact that the unexpected – the sudden upwelling of confessions made to a chance acquaintance – has here.

Rereadings II: Norman Talbot: Son of a Female Universe

Fivedock, NSW: South Head Press, 1971, 73pp.

(This review is the second in a annual series of rereadings of works which have been important to me but which, for one reason or another, I have never written about.)

Son of a Female Universe is the central panel of the triptych that makes up the first phase of Norman Talbot’s poetic career. The others are Poems for a Female Universe (1968) and Find the Lady: a Female Universe Rides Again (1977) – the titles containing a kind of whimsical humour that few poets would allow into something as significant as the titles of their books. The acknowledgements pages of each of these three books refers to the E.C. Gregory Memorial Poetry Award given to Talbot in 1965. This award, sponsored by the English Society of Authors has some decidedly impressive alumni. In 1965 (the award’s fifth year) Talbot shared it with John Fuller, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, and in the following year Seamus Heaney was one of the recipients. The acknowledgements of this award are significant because they claim that the three books were planned together and that many of the poems date from the same period.

Each of the three books has a detached prefatory poem. The first begins with an extended villanelle whose title, “Self-Justifying Apostrophe”, gives a fair sense of its content (it is dedicated to “the Reader”) and the last begins with “A Year & a Day in her Landscape”, dedicated to Australia and being very much a poem about the country and the exiles who make up her population. It might be a gloss on Lawson’s “Middleton’s Rouseabout” except that the success is not marked materially but poetically:

. . . . . 
Some lucky hick or greenhorn
will beat peers and pierglasses,
hit Her town in his riddling frame,
waltz Her waste of There in thentime.
We’re as near eternity as usual

& Hers no more tangled a now couch.

It’s a cryptic conclusion (fitting for someone with a “riddling frame”) and gives some sort of insight into some of the features of Talbot’s distinctive poetry, but it’s not too difficult if read carefully.

I can’t say that about the opening poem of Son of a Female Universe which I have known, admired and puzzled over since the book first appeared forty-six years ago. I’ll quote it in full:

Ring of Red Gold Away:
                                                  to the language

The other lovers were lost in Mirkwood - 
          not that the trees cared,
          ravens, leafstrown marshes there -
the swangirls, ringmaids were away . . .

The black brow glimmered in Wolfdale,
          glowered. Salt rimed his cheek
          & loveshot eye still looked
for the goldring girl he used to lay.

                    The shortswords crept down Mirkwood - 
                              fortytwo – each of them
                              had strode autumn to autumn
                    to take one ring away.

                    The free man hunted in Mirkwood
                              when the two dark brothers came.
                              He was out, the halls were dumb
                    & they took one red ring away.

                    Their fortytwo hid in Wolfdale -
                              he counted his hallrings right
                              through the peopled night.
                    One ring of red gold was away.

                    Hatred took them down Mirkwood -
                              tortured him by this strange thing - 
                              out of ten thousand rings
                    took that red ring away.

                    Her ring, who had flown over Mirkwood.
                              He dreamt of her all his sleep
                              woke with shackles on his feet -
                    his wits with one red ring away.

                                        Winter is icelocked in Wolfdale.
                                                  Hamstrung, he limps into his fate -
                                                  smithgod, avenger, absolute,
                                         with one red gold ring to pay:

                                         a hundred miles from Mirkwood
                                                  & years beyond, he wheels the sky
                                                  man no more, but only
                                         one ring of red gold away.

A reader isn’t going to make much sense of this – which is elliptical in the ballad tradition – unless he or she knows the poem that lies behind it: what the theories of intertextuality call the hypotext. It is Völundarkviða, the “Lay of Volund” (I’ll spare readers Old Norse spellings from here on and normalise everything), the story of a “god” better known in English as Weyland the Smith. The “Lay of Volund” is one of the greatest of the poems of the Elder or Poetic Edda, a collection – the only collection – of Old Norse poems most of which were written before the turn of the first millennium of the common era. Part of the magic of this poem is that, unlike those built around the Volsung or Baldur legends, it is the only one of its kind. It’s a small window that looks into a complex landscape where we are never confident that we would be able to walk surefootedly.

To summarise the story: three brothers living in the forest called Mirkwood come across three swan maidens who have temporarily put aside their plumage and are acting as mortal women. Each of the three brothers takes one as a bride but after seven years the women get restless – either their animal nature or a divine nature (they are often thought to be Valkyries) asserts itself. In the ninth year they leave. Two of the brothers go off to search for them but the third, Volund, remains behind trusting that his wife, Hervor, will return. The eddic style is just as elliptical as the ballad style and, like all Old Norse literature, demands that the reader think about the situation and “read between the lines”. Why should Volund be so trusting? The answer, probably, is that, unlike his brothers he is a smith (an occupation which, in the Iron Age is always surrounded with intimations of magic) and has made a ring which will, in some way, bind Hervor to him. While waiting for Hervor he makes another seven hundred rings and stores them by threading them on rope. Nidud, the king of a nearby country, hearing that Volund is alone in Wolfdale and that he is out hunting sends warriors who enter his hall and take the one, crucial ring away. Volund returns, counts his rings and, seeing that one is missing, thinks that Hervor must have returned and claimed her ring. He falls into a daze and wakes to find himself fettered by the warriors and a prisoner of Nidud who, at the prompting of his wife, has him hamstrung (an operation performed by cutting the tendons behind the knees) and taken to an island where he is forced to work at a forge making swords and precious metalwork for the king. Again, reading between the lines, it seems that the ring, now owned by Nidud, is what causes Volund’s strange, otherwise unexplained trancelike state and is also what gives Nidud a binding power over him as his smith. Nidud gives the ring to his daughter Bodvild and himself wears one of Volund’s swords. The crippled Volund works at his forge meditating a revenge which, in true Germanic heroic tradition, is going to be very bloody.

His opportunity occurs when Nidud’s two sons, driven by greed, arrive secretly on the island to see Volund’s wealth for themselves. He shows them one of his caskets of gems and offers it to them on the condition that they come back the next day having told no-one where they were going. When they return he cuts off their heads, makes goblets out of their skulls (which he presents to Nidud), gems out of their eyes (which he gives to Nidud’s wife – who is always, interestingly, unnamed) and a brooch out of their teeth (which he gives to Bodvild). He buries their bodies under his forge, an act which seems symbolically significant but whose meaning is only conjectural. No-one at the court knows what is behind these gifts: Nidud knows only that his sons are missing. Next, Bodvild comes to Volund in secret because her ring has been damaged and only he can repair it. He gets Bodvild drunk and rapes her making her pregnant. She flees. (It is hard not to make a connection between Bodvild being in a kind of helpless stupor and Volund’s being in a daze before his capture in Wolfdale – the ring has a role of some sort to play and now, of course, has been transferred to Volund.) In one of those miraculous disjunctions that you can get in this elliptical style, Volund suddenly launches himself into the air and flies to Nidud’s court. How he can fly is never explained and since for most readers the connections with Daedalus, another imprisoned artificer, are so strong, it’s hard not to imagine some sort of winged apparatus. This, in miniature, is perhaps a case of another text wrongly influencing our reading. It’s most likely that listeners to this poem in the ninth century (or whenever) would have connected the ability to fly with the swan shapes of the women at the beginning and assumed that Volund has learned something of the secret of shapeshifting from his wife and sisters-in-law.

The end of the poem is spectacular in the literal sense. Nidud asks Volund, who is hovering just out of arrow range, what has happened to his sons. Volund makes Nidud swear an oath – “By ship’s-keel, by shield’s rim / By stallion’s shoulder, by steel’s edge” – that no-one will harm Volund’s wife bringing up her child in the hall. Nidud agrees and is told the fate of his sons. Volund flies off and the poem finishes with Nidud asking his daughter if the story of her rape is true. She confirms it: “Against his wiles I had no wit to struggle / Against his will I did not want to struggle”. In Patricia Terry’s Poems of the Vikings, an otherwise excellent set of translations of the poems of the Poetic Edda, she comments in a note, “Volund’s courtesy to Bodvild is remarkable; he hardly seemed to think of her as his ‘wife’. One is also surprised to find, at the end of the poem, that Nidud apparently honours this oath.” This seems to me an excellent example of a critic not reading carefully enough between the lines. In my reading, the impregnation of Bodvild, not the rape itself, is the climax of Volund’s revenge. He is called an elf (in fact “king of the elves”) probably since elves were associated with magic creations. So Bodvild’s child will be part elf, part conventional human. Elves and humans aren’t exactly different species but they are certainly to be seen as strongly opposed variants. I think Volund is putting into Nidud’s court a creature who will eventually grow up to destroy his grandfather and thus avenge his father. This is not an uncommon trope in medieval heroic literature and examples can be found as far afield as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (interestingly, written not much later than the “Lay of Volund”) where it is, for example, the basis of the Sohrab and Rostam story. Of course Volund has to ensure that Nidud doesn’t foresee this and kill Bodvild while she is pregnant. Hence the carefully phrased but strictly binding oath. It’s a trick of the sort that occurs in other eddic poems. Nidud thinks that Volund’s reference to “my wife” refers to Hervor whom he has no interest in at all. But, of course, it refers to Bodvild and so Nidud is forced to protect the very child that will grow up to kill him – a fitting climax to a great narrative poem.

As is often the case with a hypotext, uncovering its identity solves a lot of the problems of the work under consideration but it also creates a lot of new ones. At the most general level there is the issue of whether the power of the original is somehow tapped into by the later text. Can this happen? If the answer is yes then it’s an admission that at least some of the strength of a poem lies in its core content rather than any of its specific, poetic incarnations. Even more crudely, does the reader use the later text as merely a nostalgic way of remembering the power of the original: so an early twentieth century classical scholar, coming across Joyce’s Ulysses, might barely see that text and look straight through it to The Odyssey.

At the textual level there is a lot that needs saying about “Ring of Red Gold Away”. Firstly there is the issue of the dedication – “to the language” – which I have never been able to understand. In an interview with Alan Lawson in a 1975 issue of Makar, Talbot says of it, “The one [ie the introductory poem] in the second book is dedicated to the language: there’s no mention of me in it at all. It’s a narrative but it’s the verbal textures, the sounds, that are intriguing”: an explanation that doesn’t really explain anything. Secondly, “Ring of Red Gold Away” is not a pastiche of eddic style but is closer to the border ballads. Having said that, it needs to be pointed out that there are a lot of narrative similarities between the eddic poems and the ballads, especially in the way they configure the narrative, focussing on the moments of high drama and leaving out much of what comes between. But the ballads are formally done in simple rhyming patterns, a long way from the alliterative metres of the heroic poems. “Ring of Red Gold Away” isn’t exactly a copy of the ballad style (Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” is a much closer imitation of that style) but it is in quatrains (the middle lines are half-rhymes) with some added structural complexities: the first line of each stanza includes one of two place names arranged in an interesting pattern, all the last lines are either a variation of “one ring away” or rhyme with “away”, and so on. Weirdly enough, the result recalls, if anything, the villanelle which is the first poem of the first book, “Self-Justifying Apostrophe” – the counterpart to “Ring of Red Gold Away” – because both share the need to alter syntax so that repeated lines can be sustained. It’s a standard skill of villanelle writers and in Talbot’s earlier poem the line “I am your business & (like truth) I must / be told” is continually modified so that “like”, for example, can go from being a preposition to a verb: “you must be shown / I am your business & like truth. I must . . .” The climax of “Ring of Red Gold Away” involves moving “away” from meaning “gone” to measuring a distance so that Volund is one ring of red gold “away” from being human.

Another issue raised by comparing this poem to its original is the matter of numbers. Why do the seven hundred rings become the even more unlikely ten thousand and why are the unspecified number of warriors sent out by Nidud made specifically “fortytwo”, a number used twice? There can’t be a practical writerly reason for this since the second appearance in the line “Their fortytwo hid in Wolfdale” could perfectly easily be replaced by “The warriors hid in Wolfdale”. What is the meaning of the lines “The free man hunted in Mirkwood / when the two dark brothers came”? Nidud’s sons are not, as far as I can tell, part of the initial attack on Volund, although they could be imagined to be, a tactic which would introduce them into the narrative at an early stage. Of course any reference to two brothers early in the narrative makes one think of Volund’s two brothers off searching for their lost wives. It’s possible that some sort of Freudian, dream-like reading might be intended whereby Nidud’s two sons become conflated with Volund’s brothers and the act of killing them is part of some family psychodrama, the real issue being between the two who actively search for their wives and the one who trusts to magic to summon her. Actually this kind of reading, which I introduced in mockery, has a certain appeal. Why not see Bodvild in terms of Hervor: both wives of Volund? Why not see “fortytwo” as six times the magical number, seven? But at this point we begin to lose touch with what the author’s intentions might have been.

And, as usual, the best guide to authorial intentions when it comes to meaning are the author’s other poems. Each of the first three books contains a section of “Tristan” poems exploring the great, perhaps the central, myth of the later middle ages. These poems look at parts of the story from different points of view and are a kind of free-flowing inhabiting of a legend. I suspect that “Ring of Red Gold Away” might best be interpreted in a similar way. This would make the poem out essentially to be about love and loss, just as the Tristan narrative is. The ring is a kind of equivalent to the love-potion of Tristan and Isolde, giving love but also controlling by determining the lovers’ fates. Volund, without his beloved Hervor, is prey to the viciousnesses of the world (the family and court of Nidud) and his only escape is to rise above the human by transforming himself not into a swan but into a god. What in the “Lay of Volund” is a triumphal achievement of revenge – the great heroic desire – is, in “Ring of Red Gold Away”, a sad failure. Hence the word, “hamstrung”, is used not to describe Volund’s situation at his lowest ebb before his revenge, but his situation at the end: “Hamstrung, he limps into his fate – / smithgod, avenger, absolute, / with one red gold ring to pay”.

This lengthy attempt at analysis makes a convenient segue to the central section of Son of a Female Universe, “Tristan in the Distance”, a group of seven poems deriving from the legend of Tristan and Isolde. Generally these poems see the love from the male perspective not, as Talbot noted a number of times, in any sort of assertion of male pre-eminence, but as a matter of perspective. Since he is male, his conception of love will involve the potential expansion of the female into a cosmic principle. For a female poet, the position might be reversed. At any rate, Isolde can be expanded into the conventional threefold incarnation of mother, lover and hag, she can be the principle of the sea and, at its most extreme, the universe itself: hence here in these three books, it is a female universe. In the first of the Tristan poems, “He Drinks to Isolde on the Liner”, from Poems for a Female Universe, these multiple levels of the female are all compressed. At its most basic it might refer to the drinking of the potion on the boat ferrying the couple from Ireland to Cornwall; at another level it might well refer to the poet and his wife being ferried from England to Australia and having a celebratory scotch; but at all points the wider expansion of Isolde into the sea itself is present:

“Your eyes drink darkly in the ebb of stars
(the compliant scotch & I are not immune). 
This harmony - & then the tune untunes,
your voice clouds over – oh, you go too far
when you spread out your black hair like a storm
& wind puts down the lights along the bar! . . .”

That first line cleverly exploits a syntactic ambiguity: depending on whether the verb is “drink” or “drink in” it can be read as saying that Isolde (ie her eyes) drink the potion on the deck of the ship, under the ebbing stars, or that she imbibes the stars themselves, thus nicely embodying her dual existence as earthly woman and as cosmic principle.

Intriguingly Four Zoas of Australia, published in 1992 and really representing a later stage of Talbot’s poetic output, has a valedictory Tristan section called, fittingly, “Tristan’s Last Voyage”. Here only the expanded Isolde is present. Each of the ten poems is set on a different beach in Newcastle, “this castled City”, and the prologue finds Tristan, in age, on the wrong side of the world “this Mundane Egg”, begging for a message from his lover/muse/goddess. She responds in the following poems, but only in her incarnation as the sea: “I love her sway, her sweep of tide, / her foamwhite laugh, her breaker-ride”.

In general, the relation between Son of a Female Universe and its predecessor is that the later book should be a little less ego-centred than the earlier. Many of the Poems for a Female Universe present a theatrical, intense, male self, balanced by various degrees of irony and throwaway humour. Son of A Female Universe, aiming to be a little less male-lover-focussed, has in its Tristan section (significantly called “Tristan in the Distance”) poems that are, essentially, about the three Isoldes that the legend, remarkably, contains for, apart from the Isolde who is Tristan’s true love and fellow-drinker of the potion, there is her mother, also called Isolde and an Isolde of the White Hands whom Tristan marries (though the marriage is not consummated) while estranged from his real Isolde. There are two poems about Isolde’s mother, presiding at the moment when Tristan is cured and unmasked as the killer of Morold, her brother, when the sliver of steel embedded in his thigh is matched against the corresponding broken edge of Morold’s sword. Both poems are written in an individual, highly complex, ballad-like form that has something in common with “Ring of Red Gold Away”, especially in its repetitions:

. . . . . 
                    Isolde’s mother, old for her brother,
                    healed through her magic her daughter’s lover.
                    Hating with one mind, ached with another –

The steel chip clanked into the basin. She
fitted the little delta to the edge
of the marred sword. The aching gap

          in her spoke steeply to these ironies.
          The whole sword lifted in her hollow hand:
          His pale cock sleeping on his sleeping thigh.

                    Isolde’s mother, lacking her brother,
                    healed with magic her daughter’s future lover.
                    Past tears at one mind, future at the other.

“A Poem About 3 True Lovers” works away at the complicated issue of the relationship between Tristan and his two Isolde-lovers (Isolde of Ireland and Isolde of Brittany). It is the central poem of this little group and the only one which is not a dramatic monologue. As such it raises the issues of this complicated narrative and discusses them from what is almost a philologist’s perspective:

. . . . . 
They explain it variously,
blaming her famous hands,
politics, more love potions - 
nobody understands –

but he gave Isolde the love
already given
(the only lover in the history of earth
to be so riven!)
. . . . . 
They knew he would go back
to his true orient,
that love would not hold
that lived on love’s impediment –

yes, leaving out the wilder rumours
& transposing a few vows
we can see what must have happened
as well as such an old version allows –

but why were they both Isoldes?
What ironies rule over
the many deaths & many reputations
of the ambidextrous lover . . .? 

Finally there are three poems about the jealousy felt by Isolde (of Ireland) towards her rival. And, true to form of an Irish princess, no holds are barred. The second poem is in the form of a spell which will drive Isolde of Brittany to the far north where she will be withered and abraded to almost nothing, “pale as your nailclip / small a jerking inchmite’s hip / cold & dry & nothing left”. The most relevant to the approach I have been taking to Talbot’s Tristan poems is perhaps the first of these where Isolde’s hectic fantasies about Tristan’s life with the second Isolde produce an image of the woman spreading white wings over the man (an extension of her name, “Isolde of the White Hands”:

. . . . . 
Her white strokes fluttering over
gloating steeply on

his coast . . . my old printing . . .

Here Isolde herself uses the image of sea and land for woman and man.

The other poems of Son of a Female Universe are separated into two groups. The first of them contains some of Talbot’s most appealing poems, partly, perhaps, because they are free of the hectic love-myth of Tristan and Isolde and partly because they tend to focus on poetry itself. The first of them, “Reading My Poetry” deliberately presents a new, de-centred conception of the self in that it has three parts in which the section about the self – the middle part – is the shortest and presents the poet as no more than a neutral figure – “I pour & feel no lighter / pour & pour & get no warmer” – between the more extended sections devoted to the audience and to the words of the poems. Many of these poems invoke silence as the ground of poetry itself and a number – “Quaker Meeting”, “Silence” – specifically refer to Talbot’s Quaker origins. A particularly complex one is “Retreat with Ghosts” which (I think) records a decision to abandon the silent world, probably of a dream, inhabited by loving creatures and objects and return to the daylight world as a writer (or “righter” – the poem is full of puns). It probably has its conception in any of the myths in which a man visits the underworld (in search of mermaids, fairy queens, the dead, elixirs of immortality) and finds that readjusting to the overworld is very difficult:

What mind of love
will I need for this slideways
journey back from silence?
. . . . . 
Out in the sunlight a small country
lies between the ground & the top of the grass,
between the sun’s clangour & the damp reach.

In the lucid water fish have learned
how to design themselves. As in a sleep
my face wavers downwards. I return.

& return righting. I was a lie
to myself to founder in their worlds
though they loved me & were glad. . .

The last poem of this first section, “Steppingstones, Linton-in-Craven”, is a complex but essentially traditional piece (what might be called a set-piece, symbolic landscape poem). But it’s also an explicit poem-poem – the stepping-stones over the river symbolise Talbot’s poems, their upper side dry and turned to the sun but the underside bearing the damp of the underworld of dreams and of the home of the ghosts of “Retreat with Ghosts”. The stepping-stones are made to parallel the inscribed gravestones of the nearby church and the river is both the flow of reality and the process of thoughts through the brain:

. . . . . 
The rainstones will whiten in the sun
to a dry heart with a wet heart under.
Always the streams halfcircle
in their currents & break
round the tongueslidden side.

Between stones & grass I write
buried in flow & resisting.
A stone is two stones
a clingweed darkness & a leaping light.
From poem to poem there is nothing to hold.

The subtitle of the third section, “One of My Changes of Garments”, is taken from Whitman and alerts us to the fact that these poems will neither be about the self, or the self refracted through the Tristan myth but will be explorations of quite different personalities. Of course the quote from Whitman – “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, / I myself become the wounded person” – tells us that these will not be poems of simple, external observation: empathy will be involved. Mind you there is not much empathy – more a sort of repelled analysis – in poems like “American Fragments” – an anthology of portraits in itself – “’Those Little, Nameless, Unremembered Acts’” – a portrait of the commandant of Auschwitz and his hobby of making wooden models, and “The Anarchist’s Villanelle” – “’You just don’t think that can break the bars / having once used your prosperous idioms – / you don’t know I can step upon the stars . . .” Many of the poems are clouded by the backdrop of the violence of the war in Vietnam and there are those, like “Alabama by Radio” and “To Muhammed Ali” which engage the American trauma of black-white relations but my favourite among them, “A Poem for Guy-Fawkes’-Night”, is entirely English in its setting (the tower of Durham Cathedral) and its concerns. Again, in a symbolic scene, the children look upwards to follow the fireworks while their fathers mine below ground:

. . . . . 
Over the village fires the light
of rockets bursting dazzles the smooth sky
& tilts kids’ faces – just for a moment – high.
Their downshift fathers bend beneath the night

& patiently hew eighty feet below the path.
Lungs like pavements lift, check, slide,
& the sons watch flares & bright rockets ride
the alien air like strokes of faith,

drive for a moment up at the old night.
The boys sign up like this each Guy-Fawkes’-Day
until they go down, grown-up, the only way
out of the reach of light.

In a sense it’s more conventional than most of Talbot’s poetry but the context of the other poems of the book prevents it being seen as no more than a comment on the fate of the industrial workers in an English mining town because a poem like the earlier “Retreat with Ghosts” focussed on the way poems must have a dry upper surface and a moist, earth-impregnated lower one. Crossing this with “A Poem for Guy-Fawkes’-Night” complicates the issue of the over- and under-world a little and there may well be a touch of regret and even guilt in Talbot’s comment early in the poem that the poet’s point of view (from the Cathedral tower) is “high up and safe”.

Norman Talbot died in 2004 aged sixty-seven. He has never been well-served by Australian literary history and appears in very few anthologies. You can find him in Shapcott’s Australian Poetry Now, Les Murray’s The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (where he is represented by a single shrewdly chosen but atypical poem), and John Kinsella’s Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. But you won’t find him in anthologies like the Mead and Tranter The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry or the Lehmann and Gray Australian Poetry Since 1788. I think that is a shame: his poetic output already looks more worth the keeping than those of many poets who are widely anthologised. It may have something to do with his origins as an English poet though mixed origins don’t usually damage reputations in Australia. He is a vivid and frequent presence in Gwen Harwood’s letters (collected in Greg Kratzmann’s A Steady Storm Of Correspondence) which shows that at least one slightly older contemporary had a lot of respect for him both as man and poet.

Kate Middleton: Passage

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 117pp.

Kate Middleton’s first book, Fire Season, contained, spread throughout the book, a group of poems built out of the biographies of Hollywood actresses interwoven with other, often personal, material. As a group these poems tend to progress towards more self-conscious “essays” so that Doris Day becomes part of an essay on purity, Judy Garland an essay on absence, and Clara Bow an essay on erasure. I begin with these not to tease out their meanings but to show that the model of poems in a particular mode spread throughout a book – which is how this new book, Passage, is constructed – is something that is present from the beginning. A writer should always avoid contemporary critical cant but this does seem a case where the word, “braiding”, is unavoidable. You can apply it to the methods of the construction of individual poems like the actress ones, or even, in the case of Middleton’s second book, Ephemeral Waters, to a single, hundred page poem which follows the course of the Colorado River and thus mimics the interlaced flow of the water.

Passage twines together both modal and thematic threads. There are, for example, a series of centos spaced throughout the book and also a series of “erasures” – a mode which, technically, can be said to make a poem by erasing slabs of an existing text but which more accurately makes a poem by selecting words and phrases always in the order in which they appear in the original. Centos always seem to me to be more work than the results are worth and erasures rarely produce anything compelling though they have the advantage over centos that, whereas centos really almost always endorse their original, erasures can have a complex relationship to their parent text, summarising and compressing but also critiquing and distorting. Although the centos of Passage derive from a number of texts (works by Mark Strand, Eliot Weinberger, Roland Barthes and James Schuyler but also non-fictional, “scientific” texts) the erasures are an extended engagement with a single book, S.P.B. Mais’s This Unknown Island, a 1933 collection of avuncular travel pieces devoted to various sites in England, Wales and Scotland.

I’m very taken with the poems that result from this. The titles allow themselves to operate at the level of syllables so that Mais’s “North Wales: Anglesey and the Mountains” becomes “Nor Angle In”, for example, and “Lancashire: Pendle and the Trough of Bowland” becomes “Ash and Rough”. But this degree of freedom doesn’t extend to the body of the poems: there only words and phrases are selected. And the selecting is very sparse: it takes a hundred and seventy words at the opening of “Haworth: The Bronte Country” to produce the first sentence of the erasure, “Haw Count”: “Have you ever played a hillsman away from bleak, brooding freedom?” Although it’s difficult to generalise entirely confidently, the poems usually convey the atmospherics of place that the essays focus on but do so in compressed and sometimes distorting ways. “Peat Lea” is derived from “The Peak District: Grouse-Moors and Lead Mines” an interesting essay on Derbyshire which first situates that county metonymically (and horizontally) as “a sort of Lilliput England, enshrined in the very heart of England, with all England’s most characteristic beauties reproduced in miniature . . .” and then gets to work with the image of descent (here into ancient and still operating lead mines) as a journey back into the past. Much of this is preserved in Middleton’s poem:

Think of home. The home of your ancestors. Of sun
and a child’s alphabet. A Lilliput of words and meadows.
          Blast it with dynamite.

Quarry the veneer of candour, misleading not in size
but symmetry. Say “starving”. Mean “cold”. Our ancestors
                     - blue, vast – have been lost.

But underfoot the telegraph wires can be revived
if they keep to the open moor.

.  . . . .
                   Put on a cap. Bend down. Descend
through solid, wet rock; distant light. A black hole above.
               An odd smell everywhere. Surface.

          ( - This business of separation is
a lantern guaranteed not to fail.)

It’s hard to determine Middleton’s exact stake in this entire process. At one extreme you can imagine her setting out to retrace Mais’s book by visiting all its carefully mapped sites and for all I know she might have done so. At any rate it must be significant that this chapter on Derbyshire – its delights and its mines – includes a reference to a gorge called Middleton Dale. It’s also worth noting that, unlike the series of poems which derive from the TV Science Fiction series, Fringe, this series of erasures appears in Passage in exactly the same order as they appear in Mais’s book. This begins to make the idea of interlacing vertiginously complicated. The erasures look not so much like a coloured thread that emerges into the surface of the material at intervals so much as a set of pieces spliced into a film. There is a big difference between splicing and weaving but “spliced” is a word which occurs in one of the more conventionally produced poems, “Lighthouse, Cape Otway”, where the lighthouse on the Great Ocean Road is imagined to be a scar sealing the “gash made by human / loss” and its light “spliced a safe path / through the shipwreck coast, a line through // slur of water, jag of rock . . .”

It’s hard to know whether the six poems based on the series, Fringe, should be categorised modally or thematically. Perhaps the correct answer is both since, modally, they operate as glosses on their television originals, momentarily inhabiting that world. They are often intense compressions of telling images of a sort that is not uncommon in poems that have their origins in films (David McCooey’s Kubrick sequence comes to mind as do Carmen Leigh Keates’s poems deriving from Tarkovsky and Bergman). But they also exploit the series’ premise about alternate realities and the perspective this gives on both personality and place. This presumably accounts for the fact that the ordering of these poems doesn’t match that of the series. They begin with a poem based on a late episode in which the central character doesn’t know whether she is in her own reality or “over there”:

Before memory takes the graft, the stasis of the past

the real past – if there is real anymore – plays like the engine

of a fear whose source is lost . . .

a reminder that the overall pattern of the interweavings of this book is one not simply concerned with passage as a movement between places (a poem in Middleton’s first book began with the dangerously quotable line, “I want to find a poetry of place and object”) or passages of text that give rise to the centos and erasures but also with the passage of time. And one of the interests in time is the way in which speculative fictions, located in the past, create alternative realities (alternative, at least when judged by the way history has turned out). So a cento, “Dispatches from Earth”, based on the imaginary Sir John Mandeville’s book of equally imaginary travels (widely accepted as accurate in the late middle ages) presents it as a kind of work of science fiction. There are also a series of charms spread throughout Passage which probably should be categorised modally since that have that instructional, imperative quality of actions with magical properties, and there are also a number of poems based on paintings which might form their own group or might be associated with the science-fiction poems.

Then, finally, there are the lyric poems which occupy something like a third of the book and which sound like poems written by the author of the poems of Fire Season. There are personal poems, a number of which are about separation which is, after all, a kind of dislocation in space. One of these, “Intercontinental”, is quite positive in tone:

. . . . . 

     we walk a common metre
     weigh a common kilogram

make of day and night (my
day, your night)
an Esperanto

but reveals in its opening how Middleton’s voice in this lyric mode, along with that of many English language poets, has problems with the complications of the way English uses articles to mark degrees of specificity:

Now sunlight gores the day
autopsy of shadows
makes unlikely myth
of night . . .

“Day” is preceded by a definite article but not “night”. Although this choice makes for better rhythms you feel that the sense demands indefinite articles before “autopsy” and “myth” and a parallel definite article before “night”. It’s a difficult problem for poets to negotiate and English often demands a precision of specificity that a writer doesn’t want or need. It isn’t a problem in other poetries, and you can imagine an English-language poet wishing he or she had been born in China or Japan.

Others of these poems in the lyric mode engage with the themes of the book as a whole. “The Queen’s Ocean” is about Marie Antoinette’s interest in the voyages of Cook and focusses on the way the texts allow her imaginatively to enter a world far from her prison – by creating an ocean she had never seen. And the title poem derives from a news report of the opening of the Northwest Passage for the first time in a century now warming has melted the ice. It contrasts Franklin’s frozen expedition (the north as a site of heroic discovery and failure) with the phenomenon of bowhead whales from the Atlantic and the Pacific meeting up for the first time. There is also a strong interest in two sorts of text: Franklin’s final document is contrasted with the documents the whales bring with them, “the jade, the slate, the ivory / sharps / lodged in blubber . . . / that could not ply through // a full half-metre of chub”, messages of a kind from the whalers of the nineteenth century.

The most important (and most difficult) of these poems in the lyric mode is the first, which stands outside the book’s divisions (Past, Present, Future and again Future). Significantly it is called “Lyric” and, in beginning with a line from Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary – itself a book very much concerned with words and worlds – perhaps forms some sort of bridge to the book’s text-derived centos and erasures.

The whale by the whale’s own light
                    The song by song’s own mesh of I
of we: the zoomorph of lion, man
                    and gentle coo of lullaby

Voice – I, we – dissects this sea
                    and whale carves history from the bone
lions pace the den of sleep
                    and explorer’s ship moors upon

the whaler’s coast          Voices torn,
                    pieced, re-sewn           In lion light,
in whale song, in sleep that follows
                    lullaby, in wakening of lyric night

song stages history’s long speech
                    reads whaler’s voyage, lion’s maw
Opens field of ancient voice
                                        Folds its origami:          Form

That’s quite a formidable portal to a complex book and it gives the impression of having been written last to touch on some of the book’s images (one of the painting poems is based on Ruben’s drawing of a lion). Though unintended, it prepares us for the awkwardness with articles – “in wakening of lyric night”, “opens field of ancient voice” – but it also makes a strong statement about the way in which voice animates an ocean of meaning providing focus, form, and map to what is otherwise an incomprehensible field. In other words, I read this as a powerful assertion of a humanist position whereby it is the human element, discovered in texts and released from them by a process of tearing, piecing and resewing that is paramount. A poetry obsessed by place will also be a poetry obsessed by inhabitants. Most interesting is that, apart from the notion of patchwork resewing, “Lyric” doesn’t speak in terms of weaving or interlacing. Its two terms for the relationships that make up form are “mesh” and “origami”. The former might be an image suggesting woven cloth (though it more likely connects to a net, perhaps even a conceptual net) but the latter is one in which complex folds make up a work of art. In Beachy-Quick’s book, the line “The whale by the whale’s own light” refers to the irony that a book about whales is read under the illumination provided by the oil of whales but in “Lyric” the emphasis seems to be that each creature provides the conceptual net through which it must be seen. “Lyric”, with its intriguing difficulties, is a reminder that Passage is a sophisticated and challenging book looking at the act of being in a place and also the act of writing from a kaleidoscope of interwoven points of view – if kaleidoscopes can be interwoven, that is.

Fay Zwicky: The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, Edited and Introduced by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 388pp.

There is a minor but delicate problem with this book that arises right at the beginning and is reflected in the heading of this review: how should it be titled. Released, according to its publisher’s website, days before Zwicky’s death, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, has a distinctly posthumous sound to it, rather like a scholarly edition of a classic author – The Collected Poems of Kenneth Slessor, for example. Marvellous as Zwicky’s poetry can be – and I have always felt that her intense ethical engagement with the world coupled with a very tough, intelligent and humorous scepticism about virtually everything including herself, has made her one of the Australian poets who speaks most sympathetically to me – it isn’t yet that of an established classic and the title might be criticised as an attempt to smuggle her in immediately after her death. It is, in the long run, a minor issue but one feels for the publisher and editors who must have pondered long and hard over the title.

Poetic careers are made up of a combination of stable, unchanging elements and developments over time. Your view of poetry (and, probably, life generally) will influence which of these mean more to you. Zwicky is a good case in point. The two most important of the ever-presents that I find in her work are an ethical concern with “care” and a bracing, sceptical intelligence directed equally towards the outer world and her own, inner life. The first of these is a complex phenomenon. I have written about it briefly in a review of Zwicky’s Picnic on this site (where I endorsed Ivor Indyk’s excellent article on the ethical dimensions of Zwicky’s poetry, an endorsement I would like to take the opportunity to repeat). My interest was in the extent to which this derived from cultural perspectives: in Zwicky’s case an underlying Jewishness. As for many people in the twentieth century who were born into a secular middle-class environment, discovering Jewish roots among forebears was not an exciting adventure into origins but an enquiry into certain aspects of one’s intellectual set-up and, simultaneously, an attempt to define how one related to one of the great persecuted ethnicities of that century. Zwicky herself in the essay “Border Crossings” – included by the editors in this book – acknowledges Job as the central image of this tradition in contrast to Prometheus who stands for the opposed, Greek, tradition. In an essay in The Lyre in the Pawnshop she describes this inherited worldview as:

a whole way of being at home in the world that is best described by the word “reverence” which accords life meaning in terms of debt to something. One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as rightful obligation, what one feels about the taking of responsibility for oneself and for others.

This is a stance which underlies almost all the poems of her collected work. It seems as close as we can come to Zwicky’s essential poetic character though it isn’t without complexities and paradoxes especially when put in a volatile proximity to the second of these stable elements, an intellectual scepticism.

“Rightful obligation” takes the form of the imperative of care and it’s a theme that produces some of Zwicky’s best poetry. Mrs Noah, from the sequence “Ark Voices”, is a figure whose outlines have become steadily more solid and imposing as the years have passed since the sequence was first collected in Kaddish in 1982 – and that is not something that one could say has happened to many of the mouthpiece characters of Australian poetry in the last half-century. As in the other poems in this sequence, Mrs Noah speaks directly to God (“sir”) and her tone is one of complaint. Her burden, unlike that of her husband – “a large sweet soul and incorruptible” – whose actions are marked by an unquestioning dedication to the commands of God, is exactly that of “care”. Her task is to keep the entire animal world safe while the little ark floats above the results of the greatest holocaust in legendary history, afloat on God’s “watery negative”. Care is more than a matter of keeping bodies together like a good nurse – “Yes, / I’m just about to lance the horse’s leg” – because it leads to an involvement in whatever it was that caused the need for care. Mrs Noah, unlike her husband, is engaged in an ethical argument with God (as Job was, if only fleetingly) and, more important, is the one who hears the call of those beyond her care:

                  The speckled pigeon
and the tawny owl have drawn me to the edge.
The drowned folk call to me:
Deliver us from harm!

Deliver, sir, deliver them
and all of us . . .

I’d never thought about these last lines too much on earlier readings of this poem, being distracted by the importance of the idea of the drowned calling the living. I think that the prayer for deliverance is supposed to be seen, on the surface(!), as applying to the inhabitants of the ark, but its proximity to the drowned makes it a prayer for them as well, impossible as “deliverance” is in a religion without a transformative afterlife.

Mrs Noah’s voice and concerns ripple throughout Zwicky’s work. Interestingly they can be heard in an earlier poem from her first book, Isaac Babel’s Fiddle, a poem in which the poet and her husband arrive at Urbana in the US mid-west in the middle of a dark December and in the middle of a fungus plague which has destroyed the town’s elms:

. . . . . 
People keep saying how normal it all is. They have seen
Disease, the day all the elms in Urbana died overnight:
Stretched beside my husband I have been found unfit
For saying what kind of place is this to bring
Children to when what I really mean is I am frightened
By the smell, the corruption of death, the shouting
Tides of my death specifically, an old woman fallen
Out of space, unready.
                                          Flooded, I shake in the dark. My hands,
Encrusted with apple-scab, lame the stride of his dream . . .

Just as Mrs Noah’s cosmic cares don’t stop her from including her husband among those who must be at least reckoned with, so here the speaker worries that she hampers the “stride” of her husband’s professional ambitions. And then there is “The Gatekeeper’s Wife”, the title sequence of Zwicky’s 1997 volume. This is a series of brief poems, framed in a kind of Roethkian invented myth of the self whose details we never fully learn. But the speaker herself, mourning her lost husband, lays out a version of this ethics of care:

When a man died
My ancestors lit a candle.
It guaranteed eternal memory.

Severed from my ancestors
I light a candle for you
Every night inside a clay house.
Memory is only half the story.

And, late in the sequence, she speaks of herself as “Maimed by compassion”.

Care also produces a sequence of poems about caring for the dying. They make up a substantial component of the third section of Ask Me, beginning with “Hospice Training”, an intellectual’s protest against the demeaning necessity to master the cliched language of health administrators, keeping its dignity by a lightly buried Shakespearian allusion – “I’m feeling murderous, / listening to the air explode / before their words put out the light”. It concludes with a story about a father, the iconic figure of all of these elegies:

. . . . .
When Lucia, Joyce’s agonised daughter
heard about her father’s death, she said:
“What is he doing under the ground, that idiot?
When will he decide to come out?
He’s watching us all the time.”

That doesn’t sound insane to me.
If you were ever a writer’s child
you’d know the terror of the word
from the mouth of a primary carer.

They put her in,
these masters of language,
breakers of the whys and hows of a tale,
deciders of your fitness for the road,
who tell you how to mourn
and how to die . . .

“Hospice Training” is followed by a number of examples of caring for the dying, all recounted unsentimentally, often humorously and with a sharp-eyed observation of both patient and self as though interacting with the dying were a crucial way of obtaining information about what it is like to be a human being.

And all such interactions of course produce what one might think of as proto-elegies with the subjects in death’s waiting room. Zwicky’s elegies – seen in the light of a collected poems to be not just an occasional genre but something fundamental to her whole poetry deriving from the idea of care, care for the memory and the name – are probably something that should be looked into with more critical devotion than I can afford here. The starting point is, inevitably, her poem, “Kaddish”, an elegy in memory of her father (though it isn’t the first: there is a conventional elegy for the painter Ries Mulder in Isaac Babel’s Fiddle and a number of the other poems in that book hover around the genre of memorial). Later elegies are often memorials to fellow poets including those for Vincent Buckley, Hart-Smith and James Legasse. (Other memorials are not necessarily elegies, of course, and there are a couple of them which venture into the comic: one, for the English poet, Charles Causley, is imagined as an ocker phone call from the bush, another, for Ted Hughes, mimics that poet’s Crow poems and “Finding Focus” is dedicated to Vivian Smith, a coeval and fellow wartime Argonaut.) Of all the elegies, the one that has stayed with me most is, paradoxically, the least specific. “The Young Men” is an elegy for all those who died before any kind of fulfilling achievement, most likely “in their country’s wars”. They come “with shattered skulls, intestines trailing / in the sand . . .” and they are examples of the “drowned folk” who call to the living. Their message is that the life which the living poet lives – of “book and candle, / night light burning infantile, shoes tucked / beneath” – has long since lost the power to repel the call of the dead:

“. . . . . 
silence lasts forever. Listen, while you can,
to unseen saplings somewhere falling.”
Young men, you dear young men, I’m listening.

“Kaddish” is a large scale, almost operatic piece and, I think, shouldn’t be seen as representing the core of Zwicky’s elegiac mode. It’s subject – the father – does, of course, belong to the elegiac core since the relationship between poet and good man is here strongest. It’s operatic not only in its slightly baroque ambitions towards grandeur but also in the way it accommodates other voices than the poet/daughter’s. It also accommodates other modes apart from the solemn especially when it moves into nursery rhyme. There is also a colouring of folk-tale when Zwicky sees herself as the eldest of three daughters, the wicked one accompanied by the wise one and the simple one. I suspect that musical analogies lie behind its structure and not the model of the Jewish prayer for the dead and, if I could pursue this line of enquiry, I’d look first at the late Beethoven quartets, invoked in a later poem, “Pie in the Sky”, which is a humorous experiment, responding to the imperative, “Only connect”.

(It is worth noting that one of the later, uncollected poems that Dougan and Dolin have included marks a painful closing of the circle of the issues of caring. In “In Rehab” the poet gets the fatal diagnosis, at dusk, from a black man, Dr Kiberu, “geriatric oncologist supremo” who wishes he had better news. At the very end, the endless ethical complexities of caring get dissolved when one is in the position where one can only be the recipient of care. Zwicky’s recorded response is interesting: “Being well brought up I thanked him warmly, / My mother would have been so proud”.)

Revisiting “Kaddish” I’m struck by its epigraph – “Lord of the divided, heal!” – which has stayed oddly memorable. This may be because it looks like a slight modification of something completely and uninterestingly conventional – “Lord of divided Israel, hail!” – but more likely because the idea of dividedness is so important in Zwicky’s poetry. Again, in the conventional sense, there are those in exile (productive or paralysed) divided from their homelands but there is also the sense of division within the family (accorded a central status here), division between husband and wife and, especially, division between a daughter and her father who dies, away from her, on a sea voyage, thus preventing the daughter from making final apologies and accommodations. In a sense a later poem from the hospice series, “Afloat”, is a kind of addendum to “Kaddish”, celebrating love of father from the adutlt perspective of parenthood:

. . . . . 
Each day I waited for the toy-box
called an Austin
to rumble down the street
between the elms towards a
grey-green Melbourne sea,
jumping the running board
to ride that little strip of freedom
called “our drive” before our mother
collared us to silence:
“Be quiet. Don’t disturb your father.”

Would it disturb you now
to know I know what duty let you in for?
Or to tell you how, each day,
I wait that day’s-end glimpse
of the whispering sea?

In “Kaddish” – as well as in many of the poems from Isaac Babel’s Fiddle – we meet the frustrations of guilt which is a kind of dark counterpart to the imperative of caring. Zwicky’s father, an admired and sympathetic doctor, is a carer and his daughter, rebellious in an entirely conventional teen-aged way, can only feel later (and perhaps at the time) that she is ungrateful, a “wicked”, child. “Isaac Babel’s Fiddle Reaches the Indian Ocean” describes how Babel, destined for life in a performing troupe, and given violin and money by his impoverished father, suddenly decides on a different career and throws the violin onto Odessa’s sandbar. Zwicky responds to this as a parallel to her own decision to abandon life as Julia Rosefield with a possible career as a concert pianist and become, instead, Mrs Fay Zwicky. As the poem says, “whose voice / Did you obey that day you / Sounded out the waterfront?” and though it’s imperative to obey this call, it doesn’t lessen the guilt produced by a decision that puts the maker at odds with, even in exile from, the family.

Guilt is often comically connected with the values of Jewish culture, probably internalised from a history of prophets and writers finding that the only possible explanation for the god of the universe’s inability to protect his people from a range of real-world threats beginning with the Canaanites and progressing on through the Assyrians must lie in the faults of those people themselves. But whatever its status, it’s a wonderful antidote to any poet’s tendency to inflate themselves into a lyrical ego. Zwicky’s sense of self, though it is one of the themes that adds nuances as this book progresses, is always wry and simultaneously sharp and humble. The first poem of her first book is a two-part piece which puts together a poem written as an undergraduate celebrating, in the mildly hieratic tone of that time, a youthful love affair – “made / One and still divided in burning clarity of / Self . . .” – with a sharp critique of the same poem written twenty years later: an example of re-evaluation in visible action. And in the book’s second poem she is happy to characterise herself (among much else that is equally self-critical) as “fraught with quibble and / Linguistic tic, pernickety ironic nit-picking / Academic.”

This defining and understanding of the self, especially its intellectual dimension, is another of the continuous themes in Zwicky’s work. It’s intimately related to the experience of other cultures and again, now we have all of the poems together, it’s extraordinary how what had always seemed to be incidental in the individual books, now seems so coherent and important. Zwicky has always said that it was the literature of the United States which made poetry possible for her in what is really a wasteland: “The concerns of Australian literature have always appeared essentially solitary, inward-turning, never outer-directed, the babble of speech masking a dumb void . . .” and her first poems of visiting are, significantly, about America. (A poem like “Memorial Day & Tornado” from Isaac Babel’s Fiddle, which seemed fairly incidental when first read, now looks like an early essay at dealing with the theme of memorialising. It concludes with a list of – to an Australian – bizarre American names – “Bagby Bobowski Clabaugh Coonz . . .” – arranged cruciform fashion.) Other books include poems of visits to other cultures including Indonesia, India and China, cultures infinitely removed from the Levantine culture of reverence that is the basis of Zwicky’s sense of herself. Zwicky acknowledges as much in the first of the poems about the Somnapura temple which is devoted to the elephant-headed god, Ganesh:

. . . . . 
A light shaft strikes the stone,
mints spry slumped corpulent Ganesh,
elephant-crowned runt
of jealous Siva,
the enormous first parent –

Grant, O Lord, we beseech Thee
won’t do here –

It’s not an environment in which the intimate, pleading arguments of “Ark Voices” or the ambitious anthology of voices and modes in “Kaddish” make any sense at all. The Indian poems are balanced in Ask Me by a suite of poems based on a visit to China – in 1988 this was perhaps more of voyage into the unknown than it would be thirty years later. The opening poem revolves about defining the poet’s self in terms of the Chinese system of animal totems:

. . . . . 
I am a Rooster.
Honest, frank, obliging, difficult
to live with.
Spot on, so far. What’s this?
Vain? Despotic? Prickly about criticism?
Perhaps there’s nothing in it
after all . . .

It’s impressive how un-European these visits are (one thinks of Zwicky’s familiarity with Indonesia) and how, at the same time, they avoid the obvious pitfalls of “travel-writing” and, just as this Collected lets us see these “poems of foreignness” as a recurring mode, so it also suggests how close to the core of Zwicky’s poetry her narrative sequences are. “A Tale of the Great Smokies” from Ask Me, a long set of narratives that I have never felt entirely comfortable with, uses the trick of overlaying The Odyssey on a contemporary rural story and “The Terracotta Army at Xi’an” from Picnic is, like “Ark Voices”, one of those sequences which explores individuals whose personalities refract a core situation. That core is the presence of the first emperor, Quinshihuang, the builder of the wall and the burner of books. The last of the portraits is of the Potter and in its portrayal of the meeting of warlord and artist it not only visits a well-worn theme but probably also provides a disguised portrait of Zwicky the poet at the same time as recalling the voice of Mrs Noah:

. . . . .
                    Remember to stay calm.
Or, as our saying goes,
“Hide your broken arms in your sleeves.”
Who am I to pit the hollow of my skull
against tyrannic arsenals, soft body parts
afloat with sewer rats, heaped skulls,
atrocities of conquest? . . .

The particular branch of a concern with the self which might be called a concern with the poetic self is the issue that one can trace developing across Zwicky’s career as it’s captured in this book. Whereas the culture of reverence and memory, with its inevitable outcomes of caring and guilt, is a kind of ground base, inflected by different events at different times but remaining essentially essential, Zwicky’s interest in what is involved in the act of making poetry is one that develops throughout her career, beginning with the satirical portraits of a performing poet at the end of Kaddish and including the calmly introspective meditation at the end of “Makassar, 1956” where a detailed account of her “flight” from family and career is concluded by a section detailing her interest in the way in which an image, encountered at what is really one of life’s crisis-points, can wait for a half-century to become a poem. She sees, on her first morning, a wedding procession and later, three heavily-veiled women:

. . . . . 
My heart stood open like a door – the bride looked
very nervous sitting, eyes downcast, beside her thin
proud groom in a little cart bringing up the rear.
As it jolted past us in the warm rain, I felt a poem
Starting to take shape under the reedy rhythms of the band.
It settled on my heart for nearly fifty years . . .

The move from initial comments about poetry and its engagement with an empty landscape to an interest in the mysterious inner workings of creativity can be traced across the entire book in poems like “Orpheus”, “Poems and Things”, “What Fills”, “Groundswell for Ginsberg”, “Close-Up”, “Hokusai on the Shore” and “The Ivy Visitant”, a symbolic set-piece in which a praying mantis, shaken out of the ivy onto the poet’s arm, becomes a vehicle for the poem itself, “something planted speechless / in the dark, waiting out its season”. In the late poems, there is no interest in large generalisations – something at odds with Zwicky’s habitual cast of intellect – but a kind of forensic fascination. About half way we come across a poem like “The Caller”, a brilliant set-piece devoted to the statue at the Art Gallery of Western Australia which, in its stance of “wordless patience”, expresses for Zwicky something of her own fate:

. . . . . 
Prompt me, brother. What is required of me,
long failed, who once craved silence
stillness timelessness? Obedient and rebellious
to what end? . . .

It seems just a fraction over-intense for this poet and one might explain this by saying that it deliberately mimics (or takes the opportunity to mimic) the statue’s over-the-top, expressionist conception. But it too is concerned with creative origins – “It can’t be / forced but, like the sparrow’s fall, will come” – and thus asks to be measured against “Genesis” the second-last poem of her last book. “Genesis” includes a bathetic rehearsal of all the possible sources for her own poetry, asking “what’s it going to be” this time:

. . . . .
Will it be one more bulletin from the zone
of dread? Another bleat of unbelonging?
Or some grim soot-faced riff on the long-dead,
the incantatory singsong of nostalgia - 
serial murders, violated wombs, decay
the foot-in-mouth neuralgia of our days? . . .

It may be that this list is no more than a list of the sources of bad poems by others but it’s hard not to see a phrase like “riff on the long-dead” as referring to the poems of the responsibility for the memory of the dead that have been part of Zwicky’s remit. And if the bathetic tone of “Genesis” wasn’t enough to convince us that Zwicky’s view of the mystery of poetic creativity is not going to be surrounded by clouds of elevated but obfuscating glory, there is the poem that follows it in Picnic, and, in a sense, the one that says goodbye. It’s a comic treatment of an invitation to read her poems “in a garden / somewhere in the city of / light” and the way in which a poet’s inevitable fantasies of “lovers lounging, children rapt / drowsy grandmothers, a hermit / or two, an emperor awake to / prophetic nightingales and / clusters of attentive courtiers / hanging on your every word” are punctuated by the dismissive comments of “a flat-vowelled crow”. No room for wish-fulfillment here, either in the stony wastes of Western Australia or in the bracing climate of Zwicky’s intellectual temperament.

Shastra Deo: The Agonist; Charlotte Guest: Soap

The Agonist, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2017, 87pp.
Soap, Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017, 46pp.

Shastra Deo’s poems seem to inhabit the same symbolic space. This makes The Agonist recall something like Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares (though there may be much more recent and current examples outside the scope of my reading) despite the fact that the tone of the poems is much different. But you feel that there is a continuous symbolic landscape that the poems inhabit even though different poems occupy different parts of that landscape. Generally, the poems, as the title suggests, are about conflicts but these conflicts are never the clash of immovable objects or positions. An even more important principle in the mini-mythology Deo has created is that conflicts involve interpenetrations: these are poems where the border lines between one individual and another, or between an individual and the world are, if clearly defined, important sites of definition, mapping and change. Though many of the poems explore relationships between individuals, these are often people who have some sort of stake with each other, as lovers, brothers, parents and children.

In “The Bering Sea”, which is probably as good an introduction to the poems of this book as any, two siblings – the speaker and the speaker’s brother – make a kind of imaginary angled journey across America from the coast off Alaska, through Minnesota and Tennessee to Florida – from cold to warmth – one stanza per location:

Brother, do you remember the Bering Sea,
where we promised to go home again?
You caught rock greenling and I slid the knife
into their bellies – bird-egg blue, like your eyes at noon.
Brother, what a match we were: you,
the stolid fisherman’s son, and me,
a fisher of men.
. . . . . 

I will confess, brother, that
that night I dreamed of taking a knife
to your belly, the hidden machinations
of your body spilling past your palms,
the smell of it hot and rich like venison.

Brother, this is how I remember the end of the Bering Sea:
melted ice in overturned glasses, blood on my hands.
Far down the beach there was soft breath and silence
and the sound of your leaving.

That final reference to leaving touches on a recurring theme in this book but the dream of gutting also stands out as one form of the obsession these poems have with the insides of the body. One of the strengths of this poetry, it seems to me, is that the physical, inner world is taken as literally as the outer, even to the extent of including anatomical drawings in the pages of the book itself. Whereas poetry is happy to invoke the insides of the body it usually does this at a fairly generalised level as the world of hearts, kidneys, livers and lungs. Deo’s voyages under the skin are replete with all the precise technical language one could imagine. This turns the body’s interior into the known, precisely mapped world which holds its own in the conflict with the outer body of shape and skin and with the mistier realms of the inner – emotional and intellectual – life which poetry so often wants to make more specific.

In “Anatomy of Being”, a clever alphabet poem, each of the precisely delineated sections of the body is mapped as the home of a more abstract sensation – “. . . the worry forcibly exhaled by the / pyramidalis muscle; the panic placed, / quietly, in the quadrangular membrane. / Rumination held, always, in the / stomach, in its roils and rugae . . .”. And something similar happens in the book’s final poem, “Salt, Sugar” – whose title derives from the joke involved in saying “Pass me the salt, sugar”:

. . .  . .
          They didn’t stop searching until they found the sorrow,
tucked away in your thoracic viscera, the longing
distilled in the pedicle of your liver, hunger
hidden in the mitral valve of your heart . . .

And since the insides match the outsides in terms of precision it is no surprise that insides should be harnessed in the search for meaning. This is the reason for the numerous references to the various kinds of augury. What is, to most readers, a bizarre offshoot of humankind’s endless search for an ability to understand the processes of events is, in this book, something to be treated seriously, not for its lurid evocations of a magical world but as part of the way the interior is as compelling as the exterior. “Anatomy of Being” concludes “Each / zygapophysis interlocked, the process of prophecy in reverse”. That is: what holds the components of the body together fights against the processes of dismemberment which can lead to divination. “Concerning Divination” devotes itself to the issue of prediction through the flight and song of birds before concluding with the figure of Prometheus and describing his personal vulture as a haruspex

who grew weary of sectioning his liver
day after day, only to uncover
the same omen, regrown
and promptly forgotten.

I’ve focussed on this recurring image of ways of uncovering meaning from an investigation of the inside of a body but it is worth pointing out that Deo’s poems are also interested in the skin – the barrier between inner and outer. The skin too has its system of meaning most obviously in the still-surviving myths of palmistry. “Little Fists” begins by saying “The map – /made of tendons and bone shards / -written in your little fists / unfurled and vanished / when you took my hand” and “Knife Edge”, which is a good example of the principle of interpenetration (“I think I was thinking / skin should not separate us”) finishes with the blood welling up from a partner’s cut wrist “drowning / the fate lines / etched in my palm”. Finally, “Haven”, which I think is to be imagined as describing a couple faced with a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter (although that might, conceivably, be no more than an over-the-top metaphor for the decline of a perfectly conventional domestic relationship) ends with the woman describing the man’s back – “And his back, freckled / with oracular precision, the site / of more soothsaying than the stars above”.

The central section of The Agonist is highly organised and made up of a number of units – the life of a soldier, a boxer’s son, some found poems from the first line index of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry and three three-part dream poems defining words which turn out to be important in various places in the book. These “units” (a clumsy word) are allowed to interpenetrate in a way the recalls, deliberately or not, the wider theme of interpenetration. Again the emphasis is on insides and borders. The poems of the boxer’s son revolve around mangled hands and split skin. When he attacks a friend “the skin / stretched over my knuckles / split” and, thinking that his hands are split to the bone, he goes to a hospital where a nurse attends to his hands:

. . . . . 
That night I unclenched my fists
and held my hands up to the light.
I looked for the fortune in my upturned palm
but it could not tell me
how I would die.

The whole of this second section is prefaced by another, free-standing poem about boxing, “Cutman”, where the attentions of the assistant responsible for looking after cuts in the ring slide into a sexual embrace and then into dismemberment, interpenetration and finally into a kind of transposition of personality. Just as “Cutman”, related to the poems about the boxer’s son, prefaces this section, so “Tenebrae”, related to the story of the soldier, concludes it. At first the soldier’s tale seems like one of psychological rather than physical wounds but there is a good deal of the former as well when one of the poems describes a wartime attack that results in a dislocated shoulder and then goes on to describe – in the sort of precise detail I’ve been commenting on – the operation that will repair it:

You were awake when they sawed
through your humerus, popped the bone
out of the glenoid cavity, but
you could not speak. They shaved away
the coracoid process, coated the clavicle and scapula
with precious metals . . .

The final section of The Agonist includes two sequences: one a set of responses to an old text of the scouting movement, Scout Tests and How to Pass Them, and the other responses to a number of cards from the Major Arcana of the Tarot pack. In each case a set of themes seems to be reworked, almost like musical variations and the fact that they are highly organised and, at the same time, fragmentary, might point to some features in Deo’s imaginative personality. There is a high degree of fluency here together with what renaissance rhetoricians called copiousness of invention..

Charlotte Guest’s Soap contains poems, she tells us in an Afterword, written between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five and are thus a kind of document of achieving maturity. It goes on to say “While this is a book about selfhood, I hope it is not overly self-involved” and this tentativeness might be highlighted in the title with its suggestion of soap-opera. What makes it a striking first book is the way individual poems are stand-alone pieces with their own dynamic and their own stance towards the world so that feeling comfortable with one poem doesn’t mean that the next will immediately make sense. It’s also a very slim book, suggesting that it has resisted the impulse to mine late adolescence and early adulthood for material which can be transmuted into a series of poems all of which work in a similar way. This kind of book always appeals to me: its slimness isn’t a product of a constipated poetic imagination but one that produces poems not shaped by the same discursive pattern.

The diffidence about recounting personal change can be seen in “Hush, Memory” (an approachably conventional poem but possibly the best in the book) whose title is a nice variation on the title of Nabokov’s great autobiographical work. It’s about expectations and inevitable disappointments:

The lodgings at the end of girlhood
are not as advertised. I had not expected
these island features, or the grass
to whip. I wasn’t told hard rubbish
would run all month. Our doors are
red; our mirrors done over with breath.

It seems I have forgotten all I learnt
at Revolution School, and instead glide
past Neptune Pools in a car I do not own . . .

as well as recollections of a friend who “disappeared” – “Some of us didn’t make it to the lodgings / at the end of girlhood”. Modally it is entirely different from the next poem, “Baskets”, which is a comic dream poem set in a supermarket and it is certainly very different to pieces like “Picnic at the Rock” and “Hey Preacher” which are surreal prose pieces. “Hush, Memory” is balanced by a later poem, “Autobiographical Fragment” (whose title might allude to any number of texts) in which memories of celebrating a friend’s eighteenth birthday – with a ceremony involving burying a symbolic doll – are set against watching a birthday party in an opposite apartment: seeing in the “nearly-women and nearly-men” the next generation going through the same processes. The epitaph to Soap, Fay Zwicky’s “Is anyone ever ready for who exactly they are?” perfectly catches the sense of the unpredictable developments into selfhood that these poems deal with.

The virtues of both these books are, in a way, equivocal. If one wanted to be hostile to The Agonist, one could say that the effortless mining of an idea to produce series that could be almost infinitely extendable is nothing more than facility and facility ultimately is a marker of a certain superficiality. If one wanted to be hostile to Soap, one could say that the slimness of the book – the product of many years’ activity – is a sign of a sluggish creativity. I don’t think either of these objections are valid but it is difficult to judge on the basis of a single book by each author and we will have to wait until each writer has produced three or four books before being at all confident that the more positive judgement – that The Agonist is marked by a powerful poetic imagination and Soap by a system of high standards which result in poems quite unlike each other – is the correct one. In any case it is interesting to find two first books which operate in roughly the same area of subject matter and which show such opposed ways as to how the poetic faculty operates.

Alan Wearne: These Things Are Real and as editor: With the Youngsters

These Things Are Real, Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 126pp.
With the Youngsters: Group Sestinas and Group Villanelles, Flinders Lane, Vic.: Grand Parade Poets, 2017, 90pp.

Here are two books which, put together, show Wearne in three of his most important poetic roles: as maker of the best verse narratives Australia has produced, and as satirist and as teacher. Perhaps this final role should be modified slightly since With the Youngsters is not a book about how to go about teaching the writing of poetry at university level but rather an anthology of what students and their teacher have, over the years, produced when faced with the task of writing something collectively in two of the most demanding fixed forms. If anything, then, it might be more accurate to speak of Wearne in his little-commented-on role of explorer of fixed poetic forms. The big verse-narratives – The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – never seem happy to operate entirely in Wearne’s distinctive blank verse and are always ready to rise to the challenge of one of the available forms.

At any rate, of the three roles the one I value most is the verse narrative. Wearne’s two earlier extended narratives are made up of monologues and third person narratives but in the case of The Nightmarkets these are extended pieces. The Lovemakers is rather more complex narratively speaking and interweaves an immense number of shorter narratives into an enormously complex whole documenting postwar Melbourne and Sydney and exploring the relationship between sex and politics, the media and drug cultures: a kind of postwar Australian Comédie Humaine. The shorter narratives in Wearne’s previous book, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, and the five that make up the first section of this book can be seen as either distillations of the longer ones or as examples of the kind of stories which could, imaginably, be woven into something ambitious and thematically wide-ranging, like The Lovemakers.

In These Things Are Real, the five narratives make up a section the size of a conventional book and though the satires, grouped together as “The Sarsaparilla Writer’s Centre”, run to fifty pages, it’s hard not to see them as little more than a light addendum to the book’s narrative core. I’ll have more to say about “The Sarsaparilla Writer’s Centre” later, but, for the moment, I want to focus on the first part of the book which is where Wearne’s genius is to be found. Though they are in no way interlinked, they do have thematic and structural resonances. Two, for example, could be said to be about varieties of violence – domestic and drug-culture – while another two explore the way individuals born in one cultural environment are forced, as they age, to accommodate newer times and the judgements those times pass on the culture of the past: a pregnant theme which Wearne deals with brilliantly.

And then there is “They Came to Moorabbin”, which is placed first. I think it is the subtlest of them and contains a relationship (between Keith and Nance) which is very complex and quite challenging. The characters are born in the twenties (and thus presumably belong to Wearne’s parents’ generation) and inherit the postwar boom years. It’s a period we have met in The Nightmarkets when the narrative steps back from the immediate issue of politics and prostitution and looks at the parents of the politician, Jack McTaggart, in a long monologue in which his mother, Elise, recalls her life with his father, John, one of Menzies’ postwar, ex-military ministers. One way of looking at “They Came to Moorabbin” might be in the light of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier which is built on the relationships between two couples who form a friendship after bumping into each other at a spa: it’s just that in “They Came to Moorabbin”, one of the four is already dead. Iris, an AWAS cypher clerk, marries Keith, a soldier opinionated enough to have extensive, but ultimately limited plans for their postwar future. At Half-Moon Bay, a decade or so after the end of the war, she runs into Nance, whom she had known in the war, who married a major later to become a diplomat after the war (serving in Wellington, Edinburgh and then Cape Town). When he discovered he was dying, he bought a house for his future widow and four children in Moorabbin – Mars as Nance calls it. The core of the poem explores the relationships between Nance and Iris and Keith (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, between Nance and her dead husband). Keith constantly breezes in to Nance’s place doing her tax for her. He seems an embodiment of Australian littleness and the poem suggests that he perfectly represents one aspect of his period while Tony (the diplomat) represents a more ambitious, disciplined, outwardly focussed component of fifties Australia. At any rate it’s a non-love affair and when Nance breaks with Keith it is over his treatment of Iris who bears the brunt of his opinionated whining. Ultimately she isn’t prepared to sacrifice her friendship and stands by Iris in a kind of unspoken woman-to-woman loyalty. Intriguingly, the poem doesn’t stop at the moment that the relationship breaks down (though it is more a slow drifting apart than a melodramatic “scene”) but continues into the future. I don’t think that Wearne often does this: usually the future is suggested at the conclusion of his narratives, a vista, good or bad, predicated on the characters he has been dealing with. The end of “They Came to Moorabbin” is especially bleak: Iris dies, Keith absconds with “some ageing bowling club girlfriend / nobody guessed he had” and we last see Nance, a chain-smoker and drinker “tubed-up for emphysema, a granny in a granny flat, / out the back of her daughter’s”.

Since Keith’s treatment of Iris is a kind of low-level sniping that can conceivably be put under the umbrella of domestic violence, there is a thematic connection between “They Came to Moorabbin” and “Anger Management: A South Coast Tale” which chronicles the relationship between a single mother and an itinerant busker, a “burly, stubbly muso in his thirties”. Whereas the anticipated affair between Nance and Keith never happens, here the anticipated violent outbursts do and, as a result, this is a less subtle poem but still a ruthlessly forensic one:

This could’ve worked except he’s sick 
and stupid. Once is a shock,
twice you’re a failure, but three times
that’s a pattern and three times mate,
matey, sport and Sonny Jim you’re out . . .

“Mixed Business” where violence might be seen as a context seems like an addendum to the world of drug dealing which forms such an important part of The Lovemakers. Its central character is an ex-teacher with a habit and a divorce, living alone on a pension. His dealer, together with his pack, all of whom might be described in terms from Wearne’s earlier “The Vanity of Australian Wishes” as “lulus”, murders a thirteen-year old junior pusher and the central character, together with Bob, a friend from his teaching days, goes to witness the sentencing. The structure of the piece is designed to place the protagonist in between the two visions of the future that his world seems to offer him: a solid, trustworthy sobriety (the kind of person who “never let his parents down”) that part of him wants to access and the incipiently insane world of the user become pusher. Interestingly, whereas the other four narratives cover an extended period of time, so that we can watch the character’s developments or the developing relationship between their character and the rapidly changing one of their society, “Mixed Business” is compressed into three years. It could be because the drug user’s world simply operates at a more frenetic pace or it could be because this is a poem that wants to portray a pendulum-like stasis.

The other two narratives, “Memoirs of a Ceb” and “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” are portraits of two characters, a man and a woman, both of whom are gay. The first focusses on the character’s love life while the second focusses on the character’s activist history, shaken apart by an affair with a French girl, begun at school age and leading to her rejection when, rather like the central character of Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, she makes a pilgrimage to Europe to renew the relationship only to be snubbed by someone who has changed with the times:

. . . . . 
                            Shy, arrogant girls,
hadn’t we kept each other’s photographs
“Moi sur Les Barricades”, “Me and my Collective”?
Maybe. But what hers had hardly shown
was all the ground she’d filled, she’d travelled,
which wasn’t I knew mere breasts and a boyfriend.
Much worse she couldn’t, wouldn’t announce
Don’t you understand, we’re hardly like that now!
. . . . . 
     Then catching this right-through-me look of hers
I knew what she was seeing Here’s that Australiene again
(some place like that) a pest from my past . . .

Eventually she is rescued from pneumonia by the very forces of middle-class parental conservatism and care that her activism is opposed to. Wearne has a history of being fairly gentle with the activists he portrays and there is something more than merely contemptible about this character who finds that, though she feels free to reject whom she wants, she still has to suffer rejection herself. Times and activist targets change (she moves from a leftist anti-imperialist position to a feminist one as she ages) but so does love: it isn’t the central out-of-time experience that she took it for.

“Memoirs of a Ceb” follows the life of conventional character, Peter, from his adolescence – where he has his “Brokeback Mountain” moment – to a stable adult career (as engineer) and a stable adult relationship with Cameron. Interestingly the meaning of the acronym (a member of the Church of England Boy’s Association) is only explained late in the poem and thus acts as a kind of nagging reminder to the reader that we are dealing with different tempores and different mores. Also interestingly, Wearne chooses to take his narrative, which is structured as a row of decade spaced glimpses, into the near present (2006) when Cameron is waiting to die in a hospice. I think the reason for this is that Peter’s broad perspective on his own life is that it isn’t the discovery of his homosexuality which is the core event of his life but the framing, accepting and accommodating of this. And this is done when, as an adolescent, he meets another member of the congregation, a doctor, who recommends him to a counsellor he knows:

     “I’m Bev,” she announced. “I gather Bob Dalzeil
said how you would never change
and why should you?” Bob told correct . . .

The initial meeting with Dalzeil is brilliantly done – Peter finds him dancing in a conga-line of little kids on his daughter’s eighth birthday – and reminds us how good a conventional story-teller Wearne is, but the point of the entire poem, I think, is that the meeting with Dalziel is more important than the meeting with the first lover (a bodgie met on an “Outreach” mission). When, at the end, a friend asks what would have happened if he hadn’t gone, he says, “I’d have got married, had children, cruised / and spent a life sensing there was something . . . incorrect”.

One feature which “Memoirs of a Ceb” and “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” share is the incorporation of some verse in Wearne’s comic mode. In the former it is the acerbic Cameron who at a holiday house with mutual friends disappears to produce a set of couplets about lesbian Catholic schoolgirls. More importantly, “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” concludes with a comic piece –

. . . . . 
Some played Dylan, some played Ochs,
     And others Cheech and Chong.
Whilst some just played at (said their folks)
     Waitin’ for the Viet Cong . . . 

It’s a very odd thing to do but is probably a healthy antidote to my tendency to see these narratives as luminous, extremely subtle portraits of people defined by time and place. It’s a kind of sophisticated doggerel – if that’s a tenable oxymoron – and it may be an important feature of Wearne’s style, telling us that there are other ways of looking at this material. It’s worth remembering that something similar happens near the end of The Lovemakers where the otherwise very serious relationship between Neil and Barb finishes up as a set of quatrains full of excruciating rhymes on “Tullamarine”.

This makes a serendipitous segues to the second part of the These Things Are Real, “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre”, because the satirical pieces there are full of “sophisticated doggerel”. As its title suggests the targets are mainly fellow poets though there are political (and religious) attacks later on. There are also some very genial ballades: one addressed to Alan Gould and celebrating the Christian name they share and another celebrating Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s reaching his eightieth year. And there are also some wonderful, gently satirical prose dreams: I especially like the one in which Alvaro de Campos (speaking with a Scots accent) claims that Pessoa is one of his heteronyms rather than the reverse: “Since he has spent time in Glasgow I ask him his opinion of Robbie Burns. I am told that Burns too is one of his heteronyms”.

Someday someone will write about the satirical element in Wearne’s poetry, beginning, perhaps, with especially important ones like “The Vanity of Australian Wishes”. It’s a complicated issue. The conventional definition – that satire is the ridiculing of human vices and follies – is fine as far as it goes but it forces us to ask: who decides whether something is a vice or a failing to be pitied? What right does a poet have to set him- or herself up as a judge of such matters and whom does the poet represent? This is a twenty-first century Australian question, perhaps, rather than second century Roman or eighteenth century English or French one. Under this spotlight, the least equivocal vices and follies are those which contain some inherent contradiction – such as hypocrisy – since there the failing is independent of any viewer’s judgement: it’s a mathematical issue rather than a morally determined one. But even hypocrisy could, conceivably, be judged more sympathetically as a frightened, willed blindness.

There is a very interesting essay by David Foster on satire which, though I’m not sure I agree with it, has stayed in the back of my mind since I first read it in his collection Studs and Nogs more than a dozen years ago. He divides satirists up into two classes: the “toothless” – those “willing to wound yet afraid to strike” – and the “biting” who, in Foster’s terms, are the true satirists, the desperate wounded fighters. Fair enough, but the intriguing element is the recognition that the latter are damaged and that the satire arises out of a personal wound. It’s an interesting position because, in a single step, it renders the question, “What gives anyone the right to set themselves up as an arbiter of acceptable behaviour?” irrelevant. It establishes, for the writer, a stake in the issue.

Wearne, in the light of this essay, wouldn’t appear to be a satirist at all. Partly because there’s often a kind of loving intimacy, born of curiosity, between him and his more extreme characters taken from the media, sporting and drug worlds (there’s not much room for curiosity in Foster’s sense of an extreme satirist) and partly because many of the poems in “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre” come into the category of sharp epigrams (Martial gets excluded from being a satirist in Foster’s classification). But one couplet might well come out of the kind of wounded outrage that Foster requires. A couplet about the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize for poetry says: “What you see is what you get: / Runner-up to Lily Brett”.

Whatever distress may or may not be hidden behind Wearne’s satires, With the Youngsters is a celebration, a celebration of collective verse-making. It collects twenty-three sestinas and twenty-two villanelles made by writing students mainly at the University of Wollongong as part of Wearne’s poetry classes. Wearne’s “Afterword” describes how the sestina exercise was set up. Each student provides three words, the words are collected and then an outsider is roped in to draw six of them from a bag. This six, in the order drawn, will form the last words of the first stanza. The remaining stanzas can have their last words laid out in the correct sestina pattern and then each sub-group within the class is given the task of writing one stanza. It sounds a lot of fun, especially as the emphasis is on playing with and bending the rules: none of the resulting poems are at all solemn accomplishments.

One’s immediate impression is that Wearne’s method of eliciting the final words – “From you I’ll have a colour, a piece of fruit and something associated with your home . . . from you a verb ending in ing, a movie star and an adverb . . .” – isn’t designed to make a difficult form any easier. Pound, speaking as a war-hungry Bertran de Born in “Sestina: Altaforte”, could choose “peace”, “music”, “clash”, “opposing”, “crimson” and “rejoicing” which doesn’t pose any insuperable problems, but you feel sorry for the class that were stuck with “taa”, “inoculate”, “seventeen”, “wallowing”, “reckon” and “Nazism or for those who got “Bryan Cranston”, “eating”, “bracelet”, “android”, “starry night” and “blimp”. Still, presumably the difficulty is part of the fun. You get an interesting result in a poem like “Marilyn Sestina” where five of the words chosen are reasonably easy to accommodate into what might have been a perfectly conventional poem (“Monroe”, “jumper”, “blues”, “net” and “Rio Bravo”) but one, “water polo”, is extremely resistant and brings a necessary surreal touch to the finished poem.

The villanelle exercise is a little different but allows students to choose lines from other student poems which they think might survive the constant repetitions of that form. I think the results are not quite as satisfying as the sestina exercises. It may be that I’m prejudiced against the villanelle with its oh-so-obvious syntactic variations to accommodate its repetitions but I think it’s a little more significant than this. The villanelle has always seemed a closed form. Its repeated lines are separated by a single line at the beginning but appear together at the end. This gives a sense of it spiralling inwards towards its conclusion. It’s good in that it always provides a sense of an ending but limiting in that it always feels the same. The sestina, despite its rigid rules, seems much more open: it spins out into meanings but always touches base with the form at the beginning of each stanza which has to repeat the word at the end of the previous stanza (surely the most difficult issue of both these forms is to bring that off without drawing attention to it). To lapse into metaphor for a moment: if a villanelle is like a (usually blunt) arrowhead, the sestina is like an unpredictable balloon, ready to set off in unusual directions and only held back by its six repeated words which come together to make a kind of provisional knot in the final three line stanza.

At any rate, With the Youngsters is the kind of book that will be important when criticism finally begins to come to grips with the issues involved in the professional teaching of the act of writing poetry at tertiary level. It is a tribute (or a slightly quirky monument) to Wearne’s impressive achievements in the field. But it also has a profounder connection with Wearne’s own poetry because he has always been an explorer of fixed forms. There are Meredithian sonnets and syllabic count poems in The Nightmarkets and both sestinas and villanelles in The Lovemakers. The villanelles are brilliant in that book because they are spoken by a defence counsel and thus the dramatic situation supports the repetitive nature of the form. The sestinas in the “Making the World Revolve” section of The Lovemakers are brilliant and brilliantly daring in the way they play with the form: dividing it in half, assigning the final three lines to be the opening of a new poem, and so on.

With the Youngsters and both sections of These Things Are Real are prefaced by a large number of quotations. The result isn’t pompous since many of these are whimsical but my favourite is the comment made by Shostakovich to his (then) student, the serialist Sofia Gubaidulina, at his retirement party: “I wish you to continue on your mistaken path”. It would be a good motto to have inscribed on buildings where Creative Writing is taught.

John Kinsella: On the Outskirts

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2017, 123pp.

For readers daunted by the sheer size of John Kinsella’s poetic output (not to mention the at-least-superficially unappetising “experimental” books, beginning with Syzygy and finishing up with the recent publication of a three volume collected Graphology series) this new volume probably provides a welcoming introduction. If you want to get exposed to the hyperactive Kinsella poetic world, On the Outskirts (together with the earlier Jam Tree Gully) can be recommended as a good place to start. Most of the distinctive Kinsella obsessions are there but the poems themselves work in ways that will be familiar to most readers of contemporary poetry.

The title itself is suggestive given the degree to which Kinsella’s attention has been devoted to a block of land in Western Australia, at first five acres below Mt Bakewell (Walwalinj) and later a plot at Jam Tree Gully. The poems of this new book derive from a period spent in Tübingen and some are set in the south west of Ireland. It’s tempting to think of the title as a humorous inversion of the Australian cultural cringe whereby what was once one of the centres of Western intellectual culture, the home of Hölderlin among many others, is reduced to being an outpost of Western Australia. Actually the situation is considerably more complex than that and readers of Kinsella’s other books will remember that the interaction between being ”at home” and being “away” is a complex one. Being in Europe, as he says in one of the prose pieces that make up Auto, “will only make me look closer at what’s here. The further you move away, the closer you get.” And many of the early poems of Firebreaks, which is something of a lengthy addendum to Jam Tree Gully, explore a sense of exile in England. The third poem of On the Outskirts, which begins “I can only be here – there’s nowhere else / I can be at present”, is an extended meditation on what belonging and inhabiting mean, especially in the case of imaginative inhabiting:

I am not of here and a few months (un)mapping
won’t make it so. But I am building a mental
picture, a lyrical self winding out into histories

I can’t grasp, don’t want to mark me. They have.
It’s not contained. I was here when a child
playing medieval knights with the boy

from primary school with “gigantism”.
And at other times. I am temporary
in the wheatbelt . . .

That “(un)mapping” recurs in a later poem in which, walking through rural Ireland and being met by vaguely suspicious locals, he comments, “Been in the village on & off // for three years now . . . . . I am back to fit it all together, this bits ‘n’ pieces (un)belonging”.

One feature will prove unusual for beginners. Kinsella has a tendency to involve (in complex ways that I’ll speak about a little later) other texts at a conceptual level. Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography (a 2008 book also published by the University of Queensland Press) worked its way through Dante, re-arranging the order of the three books as it dealt with life in the West Australian wheatbelt. The New Arcadia “took off” from Sidney’s text and Jam Tree Gully from Thoreau. On the Outskirts begins each poem with a reference not to the Commedia itself but to Blake’s set of illustrations made in preparation for a series of engravings and uncompleted at his death. As you get to know the poems better, it’s natural to explore the interaction between poem and its illustration.

I’ll begin by looking at a poem that appears about a third of the way through the book. It is set, like most of the poems here, in Germany, and deals with the Swabian Fasnet processions. Its illustration is of Blake’s sketch of Dante and Virgil, in Canto XX of Inferno, looking down at the pit of the false prophets and soothsayers whose bodies are twisted at the neck so that they can only look backwards. This is one of Dante’s ironic punishments where the mechanism of retribution says to these sinners: “As you spent your lives thinking you could look ahead, so in Hell you’ll always look backwards”:

Witches with heads on their backs
fixating on those marching behind,
luring them on up into the Old Town.

Old Wehrmacht helmets with horns,
skin-greaves and hooves, the fools
march without giving way. The guilds

ply their trades. When the Duke
banned “pagan mischief” he held back
an outburst that has students festooned

with fox furs, heads lolling, to band
together and shout-sing, “Sieg Heil”.
That’s what’s frightening. Not the witches.
. . . . .
I saw Manto with green hair. She was gasping
for air, her Geiger counter in the red. Those clustered
around her hooted and shouted, driven to a frenzy

by her example of a good time. The fate of a war prize.
Sealed in a room I can hear their ranting. For the fools,
those outside the club are aliens, even enemies.

Malevolence always knows this future. But the sheer
pleasure of letting loose, of indulging fat beneath skins,
brings a smile to children’s faces. Who begrudges?

Many cigar-ends smoulder on the snow-melt streets.
Visitors feel they are having an authentic Swabian experience.
This is culture. The bells can be deafening on Sunday.
              Look forward, not back?

The Fasnet processions are one of those Carnival/Lords of Misrule events that occur in many cultures. It’s an immensely complex subject (about which I’m fairly ignorant) because what seems like a basic impulse – that an underclass is best controlled by giving it a brief time as the dominant culture – is inflected by the almost infinite complexities of difference in cultures. Thus the Mardi Gras processions clearly derive from a period in which slaves mount their own parody of their masters, electing their own temporary rulers or kings. In Hawaii the year was divided into periods ruled by the God of War and then the God of Peace – no mere week of inversion here but several months. In Europe it is often a period devoted not to slaves but to fools. The Fasnet seems to be a mix of fools and other, slightly sinister social outcasts like witches and demons.

Whereas Kinsella’s ethical stance is usually very clear, not to say insistent, it is possible to read the tone of this poem in a number of different ways. The most obvious is as one of criticism: in these celebrations everything ugly and destructive is brought shamelessly to the surface where an outsider, someone “sealed in a room”, can see it for what it is. In a German city there is the additional issue that the horror of Nazism was exactly such an emergence of dark forces writ large on a political level. So chanting “Sieg Heil” is far more frightening than anything witches can do and the procession is a kind of wish-fulfilment of malevolence itself – “Malevolence always knows this future”. The poem says “Who begrudges?” when speaking of visitors seeing an echt Swabian cultural event and locals letting their hair down, and you can feel that the poet is one of those who do begrudge, seeing the tolerant response – kids big and small having fun – as lazy and inherently dangerous. And what are we to make of the question in the final line? It could be saying that such a procession looks back to the dark past when they should be looking forward to a world hopefully dominated by the sort of intelligent resistance that Kinsella approves of. It could be asking Germans to embrace the environmental issues of the future.

Some of my sense that the tone is a little more complex than simple disapprobation might arise because, as a reader, I’m inclined to view things like this a bit more benevolently. If humanity’s dark side is always present in every individual – and Kinsella’s poetry often frankly acknowledges this, seeing in the brainless animal-shooting hoons of rural Western Australia contemporary incarnations of himself as a young man – taking this dark side for a walk and giving it an airing is one way of controlling it to some extent. This is the “pressure-valve” theory and is surely justified when one looks at the origins and functions of these ceremonies on a global scale and thinks of the fate of the Spartans, for example, who never granted their helots such a festival, choosing periodic increases of repression instead. In this view there is almost something comforting in the cries of “Sieg Heil” because the pressure valve theory means that individuals are encouraged to shout obscenities and shouting out a Nazi salute rather than a sexual obscenity means that you register it as the ultimate transgression – and that must be a good of some kind, even if a very limited one.

Perhaps I’m being too optimistic about the subject of this poem but the issue of past, present and future is a crucial one in On the Outskirts and one shouldn’t pass over lightly the references to Manto in this particular poem. In Inferno, Virgil expatiates at some length about the prophetess, Manto, because she is the founder of the town in which he was born – Mantua having been built over her bones. But there is something odd and interesting about Dante’s guide, master and inspiration deriving his origins from a town built on the bones of a liar and, significantly, the account Virgil gives of the origins of Mantua in The Aeneid is not the same as the account he gives in Inferno. It may be drawing a long bow to see this theme of deceitful origins as being part of this Fasnet poem but the theme of the link between past and present as one of conversion is present. And, at the very least, the inclusion of Manto raises the issue of one’s home, something perpetually in Kinsella’s sights.

Before leaving this poem it is worthwhile looking at some of its structural features since they are typical of many of the poems in this book. It begins and ends with the idea of looking back: the “witches with heads on their backs” are, presumably, people done up in costumes which have either two heads – one pointing forward and one back – or only one, backward facing one. In a sense “looking back” becomes the generative core of the poem. In another poem which begins with the fact that bats refused to return to the attic of a castle once it had been “renovated” and introduces the issue of asylum seekers, the key term is “welcome” (the last line is “All Gods welcome!”). In the poem based on the illustration to Canto XXIX which deals with both a nuclear plant but also with Kinsella’s own work – “I cannot write what I was going to write / without this leaking in” – these last two words are the core; and a very complex poem late in the book begins with the Tübingen town clock and ends with an elderly homeless woman bedding down for the night near the church and looking at her watch. This poem is notable for a particularly striking transition. In speaking of horologues and clocks, Kinsella recalls time spent in the clock section of the British museum – Rooms 38 and 39 – and then shifts to lines 38 and 39 in the relevant canto of Paradiso which describe how Peter, by faith, was able to walk over water. The poem deals with this sudden (and, to a reader, illogical shift) by saying “I can hear the sea in a clock. The stroke of small / waves on sharp rocks”.

The point of these examples is that there is a lot of unifying of complex material going on. These poems are shapely and elegant, not adjectives that you would expect to use in discussing Kinsella’s poetry. And on the subject of Kinsella’s poems as poetic objects, it is worthwhile noting that almost all of them work at the same speed, at a steady allegro. Surprisingly this occurs even in those reasonably rare poems which are in set forms. Whereas we might expect these forms (sestinas, villanelles, triolets and, more recently, penillions – an improvised form deriving from Welsh) to impose their own pace, they too are swept up in the same intense assertive briskness.

For first time readers of Kinsella’s work, this method of basing the poems on Blake’s illustrations to Dante will seem odd and illogical. Since the poems of Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography took their cue from Dante’s actual text, using Blake’s illustrations seems like a kind of addendum or incremental modulation. You could imagine them asking: What next? Poems based on critics’ comments about Blake’s work? Or poems based on the work of artists influenced by Blake? The fact is that the process is a little more logical than this. In the first place, Kinsella’s books, going back to Night Parrots of 1989, have always been interested in using art as a jumping-off point (though that crude adjective obscures a lot of very complex imaginative activity). Initially it is the paintings of Arthur Boyd but by the time of his third book, Full Fathom Five, there is a sequence of poems related to photographs by Muybridge and Max Dupain and to paintings by Jackson Pollock. Art and text get to be connected in Kinsella’s imagination in powerful ways: you feel that the boundary between the visual and the verbal is much more porous than it is in the brains of those of us who are less “creative”. In a similar way, Blake’s art and poems have always been present. There is an interesting poem in Night Parrots called “Dissertation on a Flea” which is bookended by quotations from The Book of Urizen. Blake, I think, stands for the idea of the infinite powers of the imagination: as an influence he encourages poets not to think of careful deployments of imagery prompted by intuition or logic, but to begin with the idea that all images are possible, in fact anything the mind can create is a usable poetic possibility. Kinsella’s imagination – as his poetry demonstrates – is enormous, even hyperactive, and the process of linking intense personal experience with texts that are, to most readers, entirely unrelated, makes perfect sense given the set-up of his way of thinking. I would be inclined to think of these links as metaphoric and distinguish them from the metonymic links to Thoreau in Jam Tree Gully. There the connections are logical since Thoreau is also writing a diary-like documentation of his life on the land. But it may be that a more sophisticated approach to tropes is needed. In Kinsella’s Divine Comedy individual poems are often called “distractions” of Dante’s work (presumably in the earlier sense of “drawn awry”) and once in On the Outskirts, the word “template” is used. Here the poem titles speak of being “on”, “in” or “and” a particular illustration, though one is “through” and the final poem is “with a glimmer of Blake’s illustration to Dante’s Paradise, Canto 31”.

On the Outskirts is able to progress through its Blake-inflected Dante in the correct order of canticles. Divine Comedy was forced to alter the order and begin with Purgatorio, not only because the plot of land focussed on was under a mountain and Purgatory is a mountain in Dante but also – presumably – because an ecstatic, paradisal conclusion would have been quite out of keeping with the book’s generally pessimistic account of Mt Bakewell and its inhabitants and visitors. The serendipitous connection in Germany derives from the war-time resistance movement of Hans and Sophie Scholl, a perfectly aryan brother and sister who refused to turn their gaze away from the persecution of Jews and yet practiced non-violent resistance. These, true icons for the present, are commemorated in Tübingen’s Scholl-Sibling-Square where – the epigraph to the poem tells us – two fountains which had been removed by the Nazis to facilitate their mass rallies were remade and re-installed in 1999. The name of the Scholl’s resistance movement was “The White Rose”, perfect for the conclusion of Dante, and the poem begins with the dry fountains, covered in snow, recalling white roses:

The fountains are dry. But then late snow falls on them
and they briefly turn into white roses. Brother and sister fountains.
Resurrected. Students buzz around, checking their phones,

comparing marks, joking about Ordnung society
they will graduate into . . .

This isn’t the last poem in the book. There are three “epilogues” and, lest we be too upbeat about the future, the final poem is a translation of Jakob van Hoddis’s marvellously mad envisioning of apocalypse, “Weltende” (“The World’s End”). Hoddis himself (whose real name was Hans Davidsohn) was a Jew who developed serious psychiatric problems and so had no chance in Nazi Germany: he died in Sobibor.

It’s conventional to distinguish, as Kinsella himself has done, between, on the one hand, the bulk of his work, and on the other his “experimental” poetry, included in books like Syzygy, Erratum / Frame(d) and Graphology. I have to say that I find this second group, with its language orientation, unengaging and I will leave any comment about them for another time when I can revisit them (all critics know that you learn as much by looking carefully at what you dislike as you do by investigating your likes). There is a case to be made that Kinsella’s truest experiments are in the area of how to get his specific land and his specific responses to it into poetry. The early books, while still bearing the imprint of Kinsella’s potent imaginative leaps, tend to mine it for its extremity as though this was a guarantor of authenticity. But successfully getting place, whether it is the Wheatbelt, a German city or an Irish coastal town, into poetry as well as it is done in On the Outskirts is the fruit of a long career of increasingly successful experiments.

Shevaun Cooley: Homing

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 108pp.

At an initial glance, almost everything about Shevaun Cooley’s first book, Homing, suggests the programmatic. It’s so highly organised, from its division into two locations (each introduced by its co-ordinates) to its poem titles (all derived from the poems of R.S Thomas) that it is hard not to expect it to be rationalised as something like “a series of studies in the phenomenon of being at, and getting, home”. The problem with a “series of studies” is that it suggests poems being written to fill out a frame rather than being written because they have to be. It also suggests a project that can be justified in an application for a grant or admission into a Creative Writing degree. And usually the core of the program, the area of interest, is quite specific and thus slightly simplified, perhaps even conceived extra-poetically. It’s a relief to find that Homing is actually a much more difficult book than it looks on the surface. My sense, though it is no more than a reader’s guess, is that the programmatic element arrived at a fairly late stage as a way of giving the book a sense of unity. The poems, taken in themselves, are, in other words, a little more open and resistant to simplification than one might initially think.

But, to explore the programmatic elements a little further. The book comprises two main sections with a group of three ghazals with nicely alliterative titles (“Grain”, “Ground”, “Grasp”) dividing them. Each of the two main sections is introduced by the geographical co-ordinates of a location which turns out – after a little, not-too-difficult detective work on Google Earth – to be an islands. Each of these is off a fairly remote coast, one in the southern and the other in the northern hemisphere. The first is the island of St Alouarn off the south-western coast of Western Australia and the second the island of Bardsey (probably early English or Old Norse for “the island of Bard” rather than anything to do with poets, Welsh or English) known in Welsh as Ynys Elli (The Island of the Tidal-Race). I think we are supposed to imagine these islands as sites for an imaginary lighthouse or homing beacon because they don’t figure very strongly in the poems themselves although the areas which are jumping-off points for the islands (the area inland from Cape Leeuwin in south-west Western Australia, and Snowdonia and the Llyn Peninsula in Wales) are the places in which many of the poems are set.

Having said this, it’s worth pointing out that there is one poem in each section which deals with travelling to that section’s emblematic island. In “There is an island there is no going to”, the sun has set behind hills in the west but out to sea, St Alouarn’s Island (its name, as exotic as that of its northern hemisphere counterpart, derives from its eighteenth century French discoverer) remains brightly sunlit. Any temptation to see this as some kind of epiphanic moment of illumination, though, is stoutly resisted:

. . . . . 
I mean – a wingspan of darkness has come in
over this corner of land. But the island stays alight, out
to the south-east. A deep-buried ember that never gutters entirely,
it flares up like the bronchial longing I can’t shift
from my chest.

It means – it’s maybe a curse. Island’s full
of rabbits and snakes, old Sam Griffith said, when I asked
what he’d found there. It’s too hard to make landfall.
You have to go to the side you’ve never seen. It’s best in a flat-
bottomed scow, but no-one can make the crossing
in one of those . . .

So the desire to arrive here is as much a curse as anything and the island’s grotty ecology reflects its unbenevolent nature. Of course it could be that the homing instinct is itself a curse, something capable of turning an innocent island into somewhere maleficent. It’s also, interestingly, unreachable – if you can cross you can’t land: if you can land you can’t cross. In the northern hemisphere (in the later poem, “Ran with a dark current”), things are a little more promising. There is still a preoccupation with how you approach sacred ground:

. . . . .
                Monks who came here first ghosted
the currents in boats of ox-hide. They knew a deep keel is
more quickly grasped, and dragged . . .

but there is a strong suggestion that something sacred in the island (the graves of the monks, for example, which provide the island’s alternative name “Island of 20,000 Saints”) makes it a place that promises something intangible but powerful:

. . . . .
                             You think you could stay here
and lose the names of everything, even yourself – and the price

would be to find the deepest intimacy with something
you couldn’t speak. Just lichens under hand. The mumbled
bee, the hushed sea, the seal’s melancholic howl coursing

the channel . . .

Although the visit is a short one (“But you won’t stay”), it’s still a poem with some degree of optimism: “We’ll / likely have a good summer, says the skipper. You can tell, / when the kittiwake dares to nest so low in the cliffs.”

Another programmatic element is the way in which each of the poems’ titles is derived from a different poem by R.S. Thomas. As I’ve said, my suspicion is that this was something done “after the fact” – that is, the book isn’t a rather over-planned exercise in writing poems with provided titles as take-off points but is a collection of poems whose original titles have been discarded and replaced by something that has, at least, some sort of unifying effect. Thomas may be the iconic modern anglophone poet of Wales but his poetry is a long way distant from Shevaun Cooley’s. An unnervingly eccentric man, even by the more relaxed standards applied to poets and other creative types, he was an Anglican minister for the whole of his working life, servicing minor parishes in rural Wales. His poetry moves from celebrating (in a very bleak register) the glum members of his flock to bleak poems of meditation on his absent god. Later in life a degree of Welsh nationalism emerged and he attacked both “the machine” of modern life and the hordes of post-war English visitors who ruined the Welsh economy by outbidding the locals and buying up incredibly cheap (by English financial; standards) houses as holiday homes. (As someone who spent his childhood holidays in Snowdonia in the 1950s, I always get a twinge of guilt when I read these poems, but I console myself with the fact that my parents were nearly as poor as Thomas’s Welsh and that our holidays were spent in tents on camping grounds rather than in comfortable second homes.)

My initial sense is that Cooley’s poems don’t have a profoundly important engagement with Thomas’s: he is, in other words, a fellow-traveller or iconic mentor rather than a generative principle. The first of the poems I’ve looked at, “There is an island there is no going to” takes its title from “Pilgrimages” the first poem of Thomas’s 1981 collection, Between Here and Now. Thomas’s poem recounts a trip to Bardsey (he was briefly chairman of the island’s council in 1978-9) and contrasts the modern, metaphorical pilgrims with those of the medieval past (for whom three pilgrimages to Bardsey was the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Rome). It’s opening lines focus, like Cooley’s two poems, on the kinds of boats one might use to land on the island –

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned –

but taking her title as the entire first line and ignoring the enjambed “to but in a small boat” gives her a perfect title for the paradox of the attempt to land on St Alouarn’s Island. Another poem, “About mountains it is useless to argue” derives its title from Thomas’s poem, “Alpine”, but rather as in the case of the previous poem, it plays with the title’s meaning so that “about” is taken to mean “in the presence of” as well as “on the subject of” (the same play is made with the same word, “about” in “Trees are about you”). At any rate, while “Alpine” is a fairly frosty short poem about doing things half-heartedly, Cooley’s poem is about the tension between the arguing of a bickering couple and the geological perspectives of the Welsh mountains:

. . . . . 
                  As we too could rest,
and no longer bicker – but the clefts

and corries were sluiced by glaciers
in a thousand-centuries hurry, and we

can’t bear to think it, can’t even watch
the clock hand ratchet through another minute.

Finally in this random sampling of titles, one might look at “I was no tree walking” which takes its title from the first line of Thomas’s “A Thicket in LLeyn”. Thomas’s poem is a meditation that occurs while pursuing his hobby of bird watching. It concludes with the injunction to himself that, since the mind in meditation always migrates (like the birds it has been observing) it should take as its navigational markers the “spray from the fountain / of the imagination”. Cooley’s poem puts together Hölderlin (and his woodworking host during his madness) with David Nash’s sculpted wooden boulder which – in a more than relevant art experiment – was released over a waterfall and allowed to “home” in its own way, having its progress documented: when it disappears it is, as its creator says, not lost but “just / somewhere else”. True, it also includes material about the poet’s own seeking for a right way which will produce poetry when “your body becomes a tuning fork” and this does accord with the last part of Thomas’s poem. But, all in all, I have the sense, as I have said, that these poems (at least the ones I have looked at) don’t engage really intimately with Thomas’s work. I might well be wrong though, and it would be an interesting critical task (for someone with patience and time) to put each of Cooley’s poems next to the Thomas poem from which it draws its title and to try to describe what the exact relationship is.

Despite all my concerns about whether this is a planned book or one whose poems have arisen and then been subjected to varied attempts to unify it, this remains a complex book about the subject of its title: “homing”. It is a book whose poems concentrate on currents and flow – in water and in the sky. And between these two is the surface of the world: the key word in the poems may well be “grain” which is the current of matter inside timber as well as a word used, in its adjectival form, to describe light. It’s also important to go “with the grain” rather than against it – a direction that produces nothing but profitless exhaustion.

Also inhabiting the surface of the world are the animals, and there is a strong interest in animal life and the way animals – blackbirds, petrel, deer, foxes, weasels, false killer whales (but blessedly not pigeons) – navigate their way through their own lives according to patterns that other species like humans find difficult to sense. Two poems deal with the famous beaching of a large number of false killer whales on Flinders Beach in 1986. Cooley begins with an attempt to see the beaching from the lead whale’s point of view:

To be the first of them:
coming up from the twilit plain,
upswelling to the shallows – the draft
of your keel growing less; to rise

though you don’t yet
know why, hauling in on the bitter
end until you hit air hard as granite,
the concrete winter light;

to be beneaped then, and bent;
for the first time to feel the utter weight
of yourself . . .

For the whales, the elements are inverted so that air and light are hard as concrete and granite. The poem’s last stanza repeats the interest in being “the first of them” but switches species to consider the first of the humans who came across the whales. The concern of one species for another is celebrated in the second poem about the beachings, “I have let her ashes down in me like an anchor”. Here, one of the rescuers is reaching the end their life and the act of saving the whales is remembered, but the poem is really about the history of using whales as a source of oil:

. . . . . 
Your father used to light
lamps on the bridges over the Swan River,
whistling quietly as he set the wicks
to burning. Even then, they used
natural gas.

We had forgotten
almost entirely how the bodies
we soothed to stillness on the shore
held a secret of
combustibility –

And they didn’t burn, or light up
our tired faces, but were ushered
back out to sea.

Although, superficially the switch from animal derived oils to natural gas can be celebrated as an improvement, I think the real point here is made metaphorically: we shouldn’t expect animals to be the source of our spiritual illumination, providers of epiphanies when we cross the path of a fox or deer. In fact the poems which mention foxes and a weasel, tend to focus on the fiery redness of the animals (the deer in “I have no name for today but itself” may well be a red deer too). The weasel of a fine poem, “In the hushed meadows the weasel” is nothing more than a brief flaring of the world, “less / than a reddish passing, some deadly surprise / that sinuates sometimes through each of us”. The fox, encountered on the road in the first of the five sections that make up “Meadows empty of him, animal eyes, impersonal as glass” detects (as I read it) the “predatory” desire of the poet to make it part of herself, to reduce it to a powerful personal experience, and intuiting that “my knowing of it will be the worst / of all deaths” it “skips / sideways / from the path”.

The poems of this book seem to be saying that a simple model of epiphanic illumination, inspired by the animals of the natural world or by momentary configurations of light and current is inadequate. What the poems propose, I think, is that we should go through life as purposefully as possible, looking for markers that might help us in our ad hoc navigation. This is certainly the tone of the first poem of the book. Its title – “Without catching a thing I was not far from the truth” – is particularly revealing after a few readings. The poem is an extended description of an Easter road trip (Easter being another marker of the conventional transcendent and something that raises the suspicion that this might have been conceived as a mini-Commedia) and allows plenty of the poet’s affective life in – there is a lot of bickering to counter the implicitly symbolic movements through landscape (both across plains but also climbing up into mountains). It’s also a poem haunted by death and the realisation that “I write poems for dead / friends. This seems now to be some kind / of terrible error”. I take this, together with the later realisation that in the abundant roadkill “death / rides the edges” of the road to be a fear that the navigational markers the poet is trying to read might be either wrong ones or ones which will have some impact on the lives of her friends. At any rate, the idea of being sensitive to intimations not of immortality but of the knowledge that a chosen path is a correct one, is clearly spelled out in the description of the road at the end of the poem:

Back to driving this road. It is dead
straight, but undulating. Ahead

the bitumen is interrupted
by patches of uncorrupted light.

Brief moments when we’re caught
in the light, then as quickly, we’re out

of it . . .

It may be a “dead” straight road but it’s not without signals.

Luke Fischer: A Personal History of Vision

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 100pp.

The first section of this, Luke Fischer’s second book, is called “Retrospect” and begins, significantly, with a poem in which the author looks backwards.

The setting is a gallery and the object seen is a head of Zeus:
Turning to see
if you’ve missed anything
in a quiet room in the gallery,
you’re startled by a marble head . . .

But what follows is not so much a description of the head (although it is that) as an unusual move in which the head seems to expand to suitably cosmic dimensions:

His locks are swirling cumulus; the curls
of his beard, entangled waves
whisked by winds. The dome of his skull,
the perfect ceiling above the clouds
from where he looks down at this tumult.
His wide cheeks hold the atmosphere.
Slightly unsealed, his lips are pregnant
with the pre-storm stillness, electrified air;
while his eyes sharpen on a toy ship
rocking unawares – in an instant

Disoriented, as ever, at the beginning of a new book of poetry, the reader (well, this reader) isn’t entirely sure what kind of shift has happened here. Either the head has expanded to fulfil the requirements of the god which it portrays or the poet’s imagination has expanded – liberated or prompted by the statue – into a more cosmic perspective. It’s ultimately a matter of whether the power driving the expansion is divine or human. At any rate, this idea of retrospect as a physical turning backwards is complemented by poems which exploit the word in its more usual, temporal aspect. In “Rain and Memories”, for example, the rain prompts a series of memories of childhood including one in which, interestingly, learning about the various Norse gods enables those gods momentarily to enter the contemporary world and wreak havoc in a schoolground,

. . . . . 
and one recess, as though a stormcloud had migrated

from the legend into our minds, we all turned
on each other, wrestled, threw stones -
girls and boys were injured, in tears.

Not spirits whom one wants to invoke casually, any more than one does Zeus. And later in the book, memories recur which are not of childhood experiences like this but of lost friends and mentors – elegies in other words, another kind of retrospection.

A Personal History of Vision could be read as something of an anatomy of seeing, a mode perhaps fitting for a Rilke scholar. There is a fascination, for example, with what is sensed at the edge of vision. A poem about the “Annunciation” of Fra Angelico focusses on the odd sight lines of angel and Madonna commenting that “Her vision reaches beyond the normal boundary / of the human mind”. And though this seems merely one of the portals towards transcendence, other poems in the book worry about the balances involved here. Much is contained in the idea of “double vision” which can be taken to mean the simultaneous apprehension of both the mundane and non-mundane (ranging from metaphoric and symbolic to divine) aspects of any phenomenon but which comes out as a little more complex in a poem with that title. Here various different experiences of double vision are recorded: the poet’s wife and a friend, met in a local café, are suddenly Isis and Osiris, weighers of the soul; a new environment has an odd familiarity; an unreligious self finds intimations of the divine; tiny petals twirl like dervishes and seem to mimic galaxies; and a poetry reading merges with an initiation into one of the ancient Greek mystery cults. Whatever the exact pathology of this kind of seeing – it seems related to synaesthesia where normally separated paths of interpretation get connected somehow – these are experienced as welcome “openings-out”: “Though you’re unable to explain / these double visions, in the long interims / the world feels confined”.

“Double Vision” in followed in the book by “The Novice” which emphasises the fragmentary nature of these moments of double seeing, calling them “Luminous fragments, crumbs / from the gods” a description which seems to accede to the idea that revelation from above is what makes it all work rather than the active achievement of a kind of seeing on the part of the observer. And later on there is a poem, “In Wait”, which is a kind of wry gloss on Rilke’s first “Duino Elegy”:

We know that if the great poem comes
it will come like an eagle riding a gale
while the gulls, sparrows, finches
hide in whatever shelter they can find . . .

finishing with the author’s failed attempts to get much more than fragments of the great moment of revelation:

            For days, perhaps years,
we’ll return to the manuscript
held in a desk’s top drawer.
This thought comes to light -
it’s been lingering in my shadow
for some time – as I sit at the end 
of a jetty on a quiet lake, put
down a book, and a few ducks
approach, expecting crumbs.

That is, the ducks expect crumbs from the poet as the poet expects crumbs from the angels of inspiration.

The issue of seeing, in the poems of A Personal History of Vision, isn’t completely exhausted by topics like retrospectivity, seeing beyond boundaries, and experiencing moments of double insight. Many of the poems, for example, are about “seeing” landscape, and the landscapes seen range from the mountains of the European Alps – home of the German sublime – to the homelier vistas of Australian beaches. The former group are interesting because they seem to require a different sort of focus to that even gaze into the middle distance that Australians are supposed to have bred into them. And in the spectacular scenery of the mountains above Lac Leman (in “Translation” and “Horizon of the Alps (K)”) where there is a kind of double vision in that the mountains are reflected in the lake, a quite different sort of vision is required. In the former, there is a drive towards interpretation which imagines the skyline to be a seismograph – “I follow the grooves / like the needle of a phonograph, / attempting to translate / feeling’s contours”. In the second, which begins with the remark that the mountains are “Always at the boundary of vision, of thought / even when we look the other way”, a series of metaphors are thrown at them in an attempt to define their unyielding solidity, almost by accretion:

. . . . . 
Frozen tsunamis, primeval modernists
their abstraction rises above the lake and
its scattered sails – white chips in blue paint - 
above the foothills’ sprawl of villages, the tangle
of forests and human lives, above emotion.

Resembling a heterodox order of monks
great mathematicians . . . 
. . . . .
Still epics, skeletons of mythic creatures, crystal skulls
pure forms, the moral law, metalogic, consonants
isolated from vowels . . .

The metaphors here move in a number of directions. One – the idea that the mountains are figurations of the stones that make them up, leads towards a poem like “Stones” from later in the book which derives a lot of its ideas (as the notes explain) from Heidegger’s meditation on stones – objects which when broken open reveal nothing. Thus the mountains are stones writ large. The second – that the mountains are like pure abstractions – leads towards a poem like “Power Tower” where the power lines are held up by a kind of abstract human being: “A man of steel, / with its head and arms / it holds up thirteen power lines”. This particular abstraction has, unlike the non-communicating mountains of the Alps, a sinister quality though, recalling a stormy Sumerian mythology:

. . . . . 
Perfect copies, bodybuilders posing for a mirror,
their iron fists suspend the weight of wires,
whose arcs, inverted rainbows, have harnessed
lightning. Up close, the clenched hands resemble
bulls’ testicles – hunting trophies
won from Adad.

And then there are the birds, an irresistible subject in a poetry that tends to focus upwards towards the sky and the mountains, rather than parallel to the ground (in a focus on the social activity of humans). Birds were a major subject in Fischer’s first book and they appear here, inhabitants of the middle heights: the crowd at the beach in “Sunday” simply never sees the goshawk which hovers high above them. And birds have intimations of the divine, not least because they seem, if looked at with “double vision”, to be prefigurings, or metaphors, of angels – the beings which mediate between the upper, divine world and the lower depths of the ordinary. So it’s probably no coincidence that in “Annunciation” the archangel tasked with delivering the good news has “parrot-feathered wings” or that the Christ child in “Madonna of the Goldfinch”, looking as he does not at John the Baptist but “past his appearance / into another space”, should have this interaction take place over a goldfinch.

All of this description thus far probably makes Fischer look like a poet obsessed by a group of essentially philosophical issues, especially those relating to how we apprehend the world (seeing) and what the relationship is between the divine and the mundane: is the former, as in a materialist perspective, simply an illusion of the latter or is there really a realm of the numinous, experienced by human beings. But there are other issues, perhaps homelier ones, in these varied poems. There is a mild confessional element, for example. A poem like “Deadwood” focusses on the subject of depression or those depressive episodes in which whatever in the past sparked the much sought-for sense of an expansion of the world, no longer works. Remembered moments of excitement – ie magical moments in which it seems a god or angel has “pressed its deep blue seed / into my mind” – when seen in retrospect, “fail to convince”, leading to the obvious question “How is it possible / in this infinitely varied world, / this multi-dimensional universe / to accrue deposits of apathy?” The poem, “I”, focusses on the upright figure which becomes no longer a figure of the self-confident self guided by its own star but rather “a charred post / in a vast waste.”

Other poems deal with early experiences of loss which mean that “Darkness / found a home / in me” an experience which, if we accept the existence of a divine plane, might be accommodated in the mystics’ idea of a dark night of the soul. “In the Mouth of the Shark”, which takes its title from a geographical metaphor (the shark’s mouth in question is the “jaw of sandstone between Bondi and Tamarama”) lists a succession of dead friends and mentors. And “Matthew and the Angel”, a response to Rembrandt’s painting, which looks as though it will be a celebration of the inspiring spirit that hovers just outside of the corner of our vision, turns out, in its conclusion, to be a poem about lack of inspiration – “All this I felt I knew. // Now I write / to address the absence.” There is an intriguing poem, “Breakdown”, ostensibly about a train becoming “detached from the grid” and coming to a halt inside a conifer forest. I read this as a poem about not being able to move – in one’s writing or one’s life – but there is a hint of promise in the way the sun manages to illuminate small patches on the floor of the forest.

But under this personal bleakness, there is also a strong current of interest in macro-suffering. Those poems that address mistreatment of refugees, victims (“the ravaged / whose screams are punctured by bullets”) and so on (as far as Mother Earth herself) don’t seem really satisfactory to me but this may be simply because the task is so much more difficult – for complex reasons. By far the best of them – because it adopts a mode which is satisfactorily oblique – is, I think, “After the Storm”. It has a quite complex scena in which the poet investigates the fringes of a recent storm. Metaphorically we read this storm as the Second World War and a reference to Anselm Kiefer famous, together with Ingeborg Bachmann, for insisting that the memory of that war be continuously brought before modern Germans only too happy to consign it to the past, leads readers to think that the opening clause “Sheltered, we glimpsed / a fringe of the storm” is about Australia’s status as a lucky peripheral player in the vast event. A poem in Paths of Flight and “Banksia Spikes” in this book, both invoke the poet’s grandfather, a holocaust survivor, who “knew darkness / far better than me”.

Finally, there is “Why I Write”, appearing late in the book and, as a “poem-poem”, occupying much the same position as “Poem” does in Paths of Flight. It’s always tempting to read a poem like this as the centre of the book since it seems to address almost all of the issues that the other poems of the book raise. Structurally it’s a set of negations – “I don’t write to modulate my griefs . . . Nor do I write for recognition . . . Nor is it bibliophilia . . .” – and it goes on to address the issues I’ve raised here specifically:

I don’t write for revelation,
though poetry has opened rooms
in the mansion of world-mind
and led me closer to the hearth
than philosophy has.
. . . . . 
I don’t write to foster the art
of double vision – to sense
the divinity in the morning gleam
on granite cliffs, whispers of the dead
in the fall of snow, the epiphany
in a stranger’s friendly glance,
the way a gull floating on a thermal
becomes the singular word for grace.

I don’t write to ease my conscience,
redress the past, though in moments
of recollection, the broken soil of pain
(as if time were a hidden gardener)
is transfigured into a bed of snowdrops,
roses of sublimation . . .

There are two things (at least) one needs to say about this poem. The first is that poems such as this, in which a poet analyses what he or she is doing, might well come out of the analytical/critical part of their minds rather than the poetic/creative. They may represent no more than a writers’ day-time brooding over the issues that their night-time work seems to raise – in their own practice and in the context of poetry generally. Secondly, this is a skilfully constructed piece simultaneously denying and then qualifying, built on the pattern of “I do not . . . though”. In other words, the function is to raise the very issues that it goes on to reject as the purpose behind the poems. At any rate, the final stanza, as one would expect, is outright assertion: “I write for the expansion of the present . . .” and, as far as a writer and reader are in control of these things, this seems an eminently admirable ambition.

Amanda Joy: Snake Like Charms

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 117pp.

It’s probably significant that this review is appearing the day after a Victorian mother’s photograph of her two-year-old daughter which accidentally captured a very large and nasty looking brown snake sliding past the girl’s feet appeared in substantial numbers of digitised news media at home and abroad. There are snakes everywhere in Amanda Joy’s excellent Snake Like Charms – a first book full of poems celebrating or recording such accidental meetings – and I won’t be the first critic to warn those readers who are sent into fits of the heebie-jeebies by the very idea of snakes that this may be a book they need to leave on the shelf. The poems work through all the possible significances they might have: they are there as nasty surprises, venomous threats to children, fellow-parents, Medusa’s famous locks and benevolent incarnations of the great Rainbow Serpent. Almost all the poems are intriguing and they range in complexity from fairly simple accounts of meetings (“Brown Snake, North Lake”) to challenging poems like the book’s first, “Almost Pause / Pareidolia”.

In fact, it’s the variety of approaches and kinds of poems that are an important part of the success of this book. There is an archetypical first book of poems in which a range of styles is a result of an author’s not being entirely sure what his or her true voice is though being, at the same time, quite sure that all the poems are, in their own way, “successful”. If this sounds more like a literary critic’s imagination than a practical reality, I can think of several first books which match this description. In a world where many first books come out of Creative Writing degree dissertations and thus have the unity of an argued-for project, variety might not be sign of weakness but rather of a realisation that one’s central material can be approached in a number of ways. And, on this subject, I might as well voice a fear about this kind of book, good as Snake Like Charms is: which is that one isn’t at all sure how its author can progress from here. Are there more snake poems? – probably not. Is there a unified experience as important as the snake meetings and which can be explored in all its ramifications? – probably not.

Generic doubts aside, the snakes of Snake Like Charms are usually recorded in interactions with the author in some way: they are not abstract principles (though a long and difficult sequence, “Medusa and the Taxonomic Vandal”, might be an exception here). “Gwardar Means Go the Long Way Round” has a title which derives from the literal meaning of the native name for the Western Brown snake – described chillingly in Wikipedia as “a species of very fast, highly venomous elapid snake“ – and it describes on of these accidental, usually abrupt, meetings:

. . . . . 
             I lost my footing and slid
with a barrage of rocks

in a confusion of vision and pain
kaleidoscopic flashes of what may have been
a gwardar, in panic knotting itself as
though attacked from all sides

Somehow I stopped
No sign left of any creature but myself
all torn clothes and shredded knees

In a conspiracy of senses, fragments
of snake have swallowed every other
memory of that day.

The last stanza thickens the mix a little in the same way in which the end of Judith Wright’s “The Killer” (quoted as one of the epigraphs to Snake Like Charms) suddenly opens up new complexities in what otherwise seems no more than the description of a snake-killing. A lot is happening in those last three lines in Joy’s poem. The shocking meeting obliterates all other memories (though the poem does begin with memories of a group of boys and a kookaburra, these are ancillary to the meeting with the snake) but because the perception was so fragmentary and confused, the memory is equally fragmented. But the fragmentation of snakes (their bodies, not the memories of them) is a recurring image of this book. “Quetzalcoatl” is a complex meditation on the relationship between birds and snakes but it begins with the observation, “Fossils of snakes almost never retain the skull / Bones grown for expansion stretch apart one last / time and go to ground, evade being bagged / numbered and lost again.” And “The Tiger Snake Talisman” is about a single vertebra used as a talisman:

. . . . . 
Gateway of dark tunnel waiting
to call out a dormant echo
not banished but still

an uncertain distance
from my silence

as though the snake in Judith Wright’s poem had an afterlife inside the poet in which it could speak back as part of the poet’s self. Snakes are, I suppose, because of their bodies’ construction and shape, eminently segmentable, fragmentable animals. But it isn’t only the snake which is fragmented at the end of “Gwardar” it’s memories themselves and this is a book interested in memory, language and the visual and the way in which these categories can inter-relate.

The complex first poem, “Almost Pause / Pareidolia”, is, as the last word tells us, about our tendency to misread things visually, to see patterns, shapes and resemblances which aren’t there: a man’s face on Mars or Jesus of Nazareth in the clouds, or, for that matter, his mother in a slice of pizza. So the sea slug is no more a hare than the dugong is a mermaid. But, of course, poetic language exploits technically inappropriate resemblances (between girlfriends and roses, for example) to widen its expressive power. The last part of the poem moves into the world of language and also, almost inevitably, into that of snakes:

                                    Language hesitates
to enter the concealed strand of vertebrae beneath
a dark lick of scales, uncoiling across blackened remains

of balga, racing as snake into our shared vision. Our
hands extensors and abductors gripping themselves
riven in resistance, the words “beyond regeneration”

heard again in a stand of sheoaks. We can follow
the blood red trail of uneaten zamia nuts out
of scalded wetlands. Mining mountains no longer

unmoved, even this verse cannibalises itself
remembering the feast to come. Like, when I
use the word “eternity”, when what I mean to say, is “water”.

It’s not a conclusion that I feel comfortable in providing a reading for but I can recognise many of the things it seems to be saying about language and the way they mirror what the first part of the poem says about our visual apprehension of the world. And then, of course, there is the inevitable snake. It cannot speak or be spoken for but it can be metaphorically described (as a “concealed strand of vertebrae beneath / a dark lick of scales”) and the snake, as so often in this book, is, of all animals, the one that may seem at first to be a visual misreading of reality: “Could what we just saw have been a snake?”

This concern with the information of the senses and the pre-existing templates for rapid interpretation (“Married to what / we intuit as signatures . . .”) persists. In “On Warmth” the rigid interpretive frame of syntax is removed by sitting far enough away from a speaker so that the words themselves are only vaguely apprehended in the total experience of the act of communication. The metaphor for this alternative kind of interpretation is the bee swarm which contains a map in a “hive’s song of wings”:

. . . . . 
The sun throbs behind my lobes. I am too far for
your words, just outside their reach, I imagine
skeins, some transparent consonants, stretching
towards me,

divest of their meaning, I could touch them, just
the sensation of an S whistled through the abacus
of your teeth, resting on my fingertips. I spread
my hands upwards

on my knees to catch them, the mathematics of
your sound. Later in bed, when you ask me what
I thought, I touch your lips, lean forward to push
my tongue into your mouth.
Into the swarm.

Alongside the world of the snake (and bees too, I suppose) is the affective life of the author. It’s rarely the central issue of poems and I think this is another of the book’s successes: the author’s complex relationship to both the natural world and the social world of human interaction – intimate or otherwise – is always present colouring each of the poems but never being dominant. There is something about the current situation of the world and its arts that means that poetry as bildungsroman or even livre compose seems inappropriately self-obsessed. The external world suddenly seems to need as much exploring as the inner world, especially when that external world is the snake-filled landscape of north-western Australia. But behind the personal elements of the poems in this book is a shadowy suggestion that alchemical imagery may be being used as a framing device. Poems called “Nigredo”, “Rubedo” and “Albedo” are warning enough that we are entering the territory of the Magnum Opus, but I don’t think that, in the poems as they are, they are used as an extended structural device. In the first of these three poems, the emphasis is on black as the colour of the snake’s “base matter”, its “blood-black” scats “jewelled / with tiny bones”, and in the last of them – a strong poem to my mind – the focus is on the white object which recalls to the observer the bleached debris of an earlier life:

. . . . .
To me it exhaled pale silt
and swamp rushes, unearthed chert
a calenture, also

in lingering base
note as I brushed
it to my cheek, the bleached thread
my grandfather repaired
his last nets with.

This is from the fourth part of Snake Like Charms which begins with a number of poems about paintings. Although this might be dismissed as merely fashionable, their interest is legitimate in the context of this book because almost all the artworks contain snakes in one form or another and, perhaps more importantly, because they are, in a way, extensions of that first poem which explored how we process visual clues or, to put it more memorably, as Amanda Joy does, “how often we graze / our hulls on rocks of clear vision”. The two drawings by Cornelia Parker are Rorschach (ie freely interpretable) shapes, the first made from snake venom the second from antivenene. “The Gigantomachy Pediment of the Old Temple of Athena Polias” – a celebration of the fragments of statuary from the original temple on the Acropolis destroyed in the Persian invasion – is not a mere gloss on the magnificent (and terrifying) image of Athena holding out her aegis towards an enemy with snakes looped through circles in the hem but a complex response in its own right:

Another dead language, revived tongue first
into battle, head bowed, snake drooped
through each loop of aegis, the latent
flare of muscled effigy

(Exhume the awe, the lifting chorus
of breathlessness and dig the words in)

Eyes, empty as stone, lidded by stone
Unswayable, what’s left of a foot stepped
warily in her path, leaving a world of giants
unguarded, black air towering above

I read this as emphasising that the “dead language” of this art and its conception of the gods and their war with the giants reproduces the situation in which visual clues can play us false, but I suspect that it’s a more complex piece than that suggests and seems also to want to speak of the act of uncovering old foundations. This section also contains “Atlas Moth”, not an artwork as such but an animal that looks suspiciously like one when its wings are opened, and “Caduceus” in which the twinned snake symbol of Hermes in his function as messenger and leader of traders is, by a misprision of the medical profession in which they grazed their hulls on the rocks of clear vision, converted into a symbol for Aesculapius the Healer.

Towards the end of the book is “Your Ground”, another snake confrontation poem in which an upreared snake matches the pose of the shocked observer. The poem talks about the experience (“The luminous trance stays / for more than months / (you still can’t remember / standing”) and the way different people – a psychologist, an elder from Broome – interpret it for the author. But the author stumbles on a different reading:

Then one morning you get it - 
                That paired wisdom
                   your bodies made

                              Snake says
                                     Be still
                 Stand your ground
           It’s the only protection
                                    we have

It’s an attractive and simple message and one fears that it’s a passage which readers (and reviewers) will highlight and remember. But it is, at bottom, just a piece of advice about living one’s life. I think it’s a long way from the kind of knowledge that the interactions with the other snakes of the book provide. Individuals of a species nearly as alien to us as William James’s octopus, they have profounder messages in those poems where the poet is tempted to try to move across the uncrossable boundary that separates species.

Kevin Brophy: This Is What Gives Us Time

np: GloriaSMH Press, 2016, 80pp.

Kevin Brophy’s This Is What Gives Us Time together with David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice are the first two productions of a new press, GloriaSMH – a name which derives from the wartime Parisian resistance group and thus, like Puncher & Wattmann, conceals a Beckett allusion (and the morse code for GSMH makes a very satisfying logo). This Is What Gives Us Time is, to me, the most satisfying of Brophy’s books since Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion. His contribution to Radar, a book shared with Nathan Curnow, was a set of prose poems which had a decidedly abstract ring (as prose poems often do) and Walking, from 2013, has always seemed to me to have a slightly unfocussed quality. The overall shape of Brophy’s poetry, despite its unchanging interests and values, seems to be a move away from documenting life in a Melbourne suburb towards elegant abstraction. A few poems are no sort of evidence, of course, but a comparison of the first lines of Brophy’s first book, Replies to the Questionnaire on Love, with the first lines of this new book will give some idea of what I mean:

In my street
there are fig trees and grape vines in back yards
and stone lions guarding front gates . . .


Fountains work hard to be joyous for us. Look how they 
                                                                   keep their mouths open.

Of course all of this oversimplifies badly. There are poems of great local precision in This Is What Gives Us Time just as there are lines like “Now in its fifth year, / my plant learns to take / on the details, all the business / of being a tree” in Replies to the Questionnaire on Love but the feeling that this is a poetry moving from the specific towards exploring the more abstract remains.

What anchors This Is What Gives Us Time and is one of the reasons for the favourable impact it makes is, I think, the fact that all its speculative, imaginative flights are anchored firmly in a place. It was written, the book itself tells us, during a six month residency at the Whiting studio in Rome. To be entirely accurate, the book doesn’t say how many of the poems were written there but almost all of them have a Roman background. As a result, familiar themes from Brophy’s other books are given both a twist and an extension by their Mediterranean setting. There is something imaginatively satisfying, for example, in considering the general issue of the all-round potential for sheer destruction that humans possess in the context of a city which for nearly two millennia has pillaged its own ruins for new building material so that people actually stand metres above the past and in kaleidoscopic creations from the material of the past. This appears in the book’s fine second poem, “Elena!”, for example, whose refrain – “We are building the ruins” – is both a statement of this fact and a perverse image of destruction. It is

. . . . . 
left for latecomers to imagine

what might have been said
from a second-storey window
on a Sunday morning late in April

when a woman called from the street
Elena! Elena! -
to her friend above.
. . . . .
Elena, leaning over her red geranium
on her window sill calls back down to her friend
in a voice that carries all that will be ruined.

And, of course, as Italy is geologically far more active place than Australia, the possibilities of a purely natural destruction are also everpresent: as “A Name For It” says, “I read of volcanoes and earthquakes coming”. The poem, “Rabbit” is devoted to this more general view of the mechanisms of history:

. . . . . 
The fat black rabbit knows each crack and hole
a poet or hermit might creep in.
It knows who pilfered the bronze and the marble,
what the earthquake said when it shoved its shoulder
under the deepest rocks it could uncover . . .

Another reason why This Is What Gives Us Time seems so satisfying is, I think, that Brophy has moved towards responding to the challenge that each poem should satisfy as a unique conception rather than, as with so much contemporary poetry, being cut and pasted from an endless conversation between the poet and his experiences of the world. One of my favourites among the earlier poems, “Up There” (from the 2002 volume, Portrait in Skin) describes fixing a leak on a fellow poet’s roof. The strength of the poem comes from the symbolic possibilities of its narrative situation – two poets dealing with a flaw in the universe perched between the earth and the sky, etc etc – in verse which is kicked along by a lively metaphoric language:

On top of your house I could see the universe
still needs a carpenter for your tin roof 
where the nails pop like toast
and tin buckles worse than wet carpet.
My shoes were scuffed red with the roof’s patient rust
and we were leaning to the east. . .

But, fine as this poem is, it doesn’t attempt anything unusual at the level of discourse. If it’s compared to a poem like “A Visit to the Convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary” in the current volume, you can see the effort to do something distinctive at this level:

If the chapel is white, and the nuns have their founder
Put away in a side room, in her own sarcophagus,
If their seven martyrs are on the wall prepared to die,
And the chapel door is open to people from the street . . .

And so on through a total of twenty-five conditional clauses that have us yearning for a simple consequence clause.

The book’s first poem, “The Drowned World”, is about one of the most important recurring images in the book, that of water. It appears, at first, to be a set of discontinuous propositions:

. . . . . There is something unstable in water, a life under
                         ground then this spilling of light.
The surface of the mind is permeable under the swirling
                      suggestion of water.
If fountains are only truly happy in summer, why do we
                      leave them out in winter?
There is something ridiculous about water, its mindless
                   falling and welling . . .

and there is even an uncomfortable narrative thread that emerges every so often – “She was drowning, her face was upturned. Someone / lifted her clear of the water . . .” – as well as a personal element – “My first thought is to swim across it. The water invites / me in to its liquid mind”. At first it seems like a mix of these elements – imaginative proposition, narrative, lyric – that strains any conventional notion of unity. But the poem’s structure is, at heart, mimetic: what looks like a mix is really a braiding, taking its shape from the way water flows like (to use another image from the poem) a rope. And the formal quality is emphasised by the poem’s visual layout in which turnovers regularly decrease and then increase.

A number of other poems are built on the model of a list, something that, though common, still has a certain frisson because the mechanical nature of a list is so far from people’s conventional expectations of an imaginative mode like poetry. “Numbering”, “What We Know”, “A Life In Fifty Moves”, “Negatives Not to Live By” and “Sightings” are all built around this principle though each retains a distinctive character. What they share, though, is a sense of accounting – accounting for one’s values about life, one’s experiences of life, even for the fact that one’s life is being spent in Rome. At a profound level this is probably prompted by the unfamiliar setting but at a more trivial level it relates to the fact that anyone having been provided with a grant to spend half-a-year in Rome is going to have to, in the end, provide a written account, justifying the investment of the money. I think this lies behind both the structure and humour of “A Brief Report”:

I failed to sleep last night. I failed to find the dreams
that would take me safe from one day into the next.

I failed to be brave, afraid of the train, its snout of steel
pushing out of the dark into the station at San Pietro,

its sides towering over me blue and white and dark with night.
It hissed, cracked open, impatient, warm as a belly inside.

I was shaken as it took me; it was like some fallen angel breaking
its teeth on a language too new and too earthly to speak.

I have opened the door to the day without faith in its miracle,
I will cough up the night from my lungs, the city will breathe

and I will see across on the opposite hillside a man on a balcony
move among his plants, touching them, sprinkling them, nodding.

This parodies a formal accounting, moving straight to the world of dreams rather than that of mundane realities, but its linear structure is retained. Thematically, the threatening, apocalyptic world of dreams is contrasted with the homely world in which a neighbour can be seem watering his plants. It’s a kind of restatement of “Elena!” (which has a circular, repetitive structure) in which the warm world of the human (in co-operation, perhaps, with the world of geraniums and other domestic plants) stands out against ever-present and ever-irrupting forces of destruction.

“Sightings” and “How We Made It Through a Whole Day (Again)” are also linear, list poems with a ghazal-like disjunctiveness. The former is a list of two-line experiences:

. . . . . 
A man with a red string around his bare ankle and masses of hennaed hair under a
Straw hat sits next to me on the train, trimming his nails and talking of sunglasses.

The new cordless phone has instructions in Italian on how to set it to another
Language. It rings in English now but still speaks to me in Italian . . .

and the latter, closer to a diary, accounts for the events of a single day from early morning to night when

. . . . . 
         electric haloes on the heads of saints
burn prayers into the sizzling air, dissolving all complaints.

Their holy marble gestures are more eloquent than words:
we could never say what they have not already heard.

Finally, there are two poems of protest which, unlike the rest of the book are “set” outside of Italy. The first concerns the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran at the end of April, 2015 (ie within this book’s time-frame) in Indonesia and the second, “From The Book of Examples”, about Australia’s notorious treatment of asylum-seekers. In a sense it is public poems like this that demand most of a poet since they must be conceptualised in an imaginative way that prevents them being only one step up from an outraged rant. It’s something that the poems of Bruce Dawe did brilliantly (configuring the execution of Ronald Ryan as a marriage, for example) and I’m not sure Australian poets have done it quite as well since. If neither of these achieves that level of conceptual daring, they are, nonetheless, successful public poems. The former, “Somewhere They Are Executing Young Men”, circles back to the Indonesian president himself, imagining that the crime, “like all crime in his country, / Will be paid for in time” and it’s a reminder that by concentrating on the way the poems of this book are conceived I have bypassed a more traditional look at thematic obsessions.

Time (as the book’s title indicates) is certainly one of them and most of the poems in the first part of the book allude to it in one way or another. In “Hours” it is both a gift and something that can be escaped:

. . . . . 
Minutes fill the hour and go, gone as snowflakes.
A micro-second in a photograph could stand for years
of these hours.

I time my walking by them, then lie down with an hour
by lake, mountain, window, ruin.
Two dozen at a time they’re thrown our way. . .

And this strange fluidity applies to water, introduced so expansively in the first poem. In the book we meet water in the guise of underground, confined black fluidity, lakes, oceans, rivers (or, rather, the river, carrying its cargo of rubbish and dirt through the city) and fountains. In some forms it can represent the world of phenomena, the world of the dream-generating unconscious, the oblivion of death, and time itself. As the book’s second last poem says, “What is the ocean if it is not a god?”

Antigone Kefala: Fragments

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2016, 82pp.

One of the things about Antigone Kefala’s fifth book of poetry (her first, The Alien, was published all of forty-three years ago) that stays in the corner of your mind as you read it, is the title. Nothing could seem less fragmentary than these elegantly shaped lyric poems which are marked out by their self-contained unity. The fact that four of the poems carry a “II” after their titles and that there is no equivalent “I” in the book leaves the reader with the impression that the poems of this volume might have been chosen from a much larger corpus of work and so, in a sense, the entire book might be said to be no more than fragments of that larger work. And then, of course, there is the possibility that with increasing age – one of the themes of the poems – one might well want to find some fragments to shore against your ruins. But I think the issue is a bit more complex than that and that perhaps the answer lies in one of Kefala’s most important (and compulsively readable) works, her Sydney Journals, where excerpted journals record daily life in Sydney and on travels.

These prose pieces, like the poems of Fragments, have their own lovely shapes but they are clearly fragmentary. They are month by month selections grouped into ten journals. They tend to omit names so that we don’t have the usual voyeuristic pleasure of diaries: seeing what the writer says about people we know – or know of. A group travelling or, more likely, going out to dinner is usually just “we” and visiting artists are ”the Canadian writer” or just “she” as in the entry for February in Journal X: “She was back in Australia for the ceremony. She still looked at Australian society with affection and contempt, like the young . . . . . When she spoke about someone she disliked, her entire face collapsed, but her eyes dark and very warm, thinking from inside, trying to come to some balance.” It’s not so much that these pieces are fragmentary because they are selected from fuller accounts; they are fragmentary because they reject any attempt to totalise the experience, instead paring away everything, like identifying names, that seems inessential. Perhaps – and it may be the same with the poems of Fragments – they convey what can be conveyed.

They share with the poems a sensitivity to weather and, especially, to light so that you feel that Kefala’s first look must always be upward, towards the sky. Countless journal entries begin with something like “Raining and a slight wind. The trees moving as if shaking themselves under water” or “Stormy night. Brisk walk to the Opera House. Sydney wet and beautiful in the night, full of golden lights, the sea”. Even dreams, an important part of these journals, are described in terms of the light:

I was falling in and out of sleep, dreaming of Mother in the backyard putting clothes on the line, talking. I helping, making myself useful. The light on the clothes, brilliant white, peaceful, full of a live element, like the light for the last few days – luminous.

So when we get to a poem like the second poem of Fragments, “Letter II”:

The light today
clean as if made of bones
dried by a desert wind
fell in the distance on the roofs
and I remembered you.
Nothing will bring you back
only this light
falling so innocently
yet so self-contained
in an unbearable indifference.

it’s hard not to be reminded of the Journals and to begin to speculate how many of the poems had their origins in notes made in the Journals and omitted in the final, edited version.

There is also the fact that Kefala’s poetry has gradually become sparer as time has gone on – perhaps more Greek, if that isn’t too crude a cultural generalisation – and there seems less an attempt to build something larger out of dreams. It’s tempting to compare these poems with the first poem of The Alien, “Holidays in the Country”, a complex and extended piece with a touch of narrative. It could be read as a reasonably realistic account of a child overhearing her parents at a country retreat speaking enigmatically of a neighbour or servant, Katke. This latter gives an account of the well which, if you jump into it, will bring you into a kind of otherworld “where hills and trees / are of the purest gold, where glass birds sing”. It’s possible the child misunderstands Katka’s speaking of an imaginary journey to the antipodes – New Zealand or Australia. Thanks to Kefala’s many illuminating autobiographical accounts we now know the basic facts of her early life well enough and we might think that the whole poem was a dream perhaps provoked by talk of emigrating. I used to find this readerly uncertainty about the very core of the poem to be unsettling, and thought it was the result of the fact that this was a different writer writing out of a different tradition where the border line between reality, dream and myth might not be as razor sharp as it is likely to be under the fierce Australian sun. Now, I’m a bit more comfortable with the experience and am inclined to appeal to a reader’s modification of Keats: we should be able to live in a poem and let it breathe without the irritable search for certainties. At any rate, compared with the poems of Fragments and, to a lesser extent, European Notebook (a significant title) “Holidays in the Country” is comparatively expansive.

There is another, more overt, way in which the Journals prepare the reader for Fragments: in the occasional comments made about the poetic process itself – or, at least, in Kefala’s practice. There is an early passage which, brief as it is, opens up a large debate about literary expansiveness versus literary spareness (at its extreme: minimalism):

Discussing with I. the idea of size in literature. I felt that it has something to do with the physical space of the country, as in America too, people trying to cover it by inflating all things – oversized cars, buildings, novels, instead of concentrating them as in populated countries . . .

And there is a shrewd description of a fortunately unnamed poet at a reading:

The young man reading before me had a rough voice, a de rigueur voice developed in pubs, which they are giving us in literature too and think that this makes them Australian. A sort of inner brutality now that masks pretentiousness, an energy that never questions itself, a battering of language with no sense of its fragility, the beautiful energy, the dynamics that can be released when well used.

When Kefala speaks of her own writing it is in terms of paradoxical wrestlings with language:

Writing – constantly trying to recapture the living element at the beginning of the experience, an elusive element that has to be re-created constantly by discovered means that will bring it out. A process which seems far removed from the experience itself, grounded in the medium.

Finally, one can recognize in the Journals, situations that will re-appear in the poems of Fragments. It’s not possible to tell whether the situations are the same since, understandably, the poems omit all markers of identity and the Journals themselves, as I have said, are often deliberately vague. So the pungent little poem about the death of a neighbour –

On Monday, she said
they took her away
on Tuesday
the dog was put down
on Wednesday
the furniture went . . .

might or might not be about the Mrs Crawford of the Journals: “the small utility carrying away Mrs Crawford’s meagre furniture . . . It seemed such an impoverished ending, sad and vulnerable”. And the dying figure of another poem, “Anniversaries”

Faster and faster you were sinking
pushed gently by those unseen hands
the disinheriting
who took away relentlessly the gifts . . .

might or might not be the figure on the second page of the Journals: “Little is visible on his face, yet they say he is dying”. On the other hand there is not much doubt that “Metro Cellist” –

The faint sound travelled
from the centre
through the tiled tombs
the pores of the concrete
rode boldly through the doors,
we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
of youth.

is based on an experience in the Paris Metro documented in the Journals:

He was young, almost an adolescent, with black eyes and hair, the score was open in front of him, and he was drawing these long, full tones. Bach was reverberating in the closed space. And as I came up on the platform, the sound was coming through the pores of the concrete, through the openings, as if the earth was singing.

Of course, all of this searching for a book’s origins, methods, and resonances rather takes one’s attention away from the matter at hand, Fragments itself. The poems are collected into five parts on what seems, generally, to be thematic principles. One wouldn’t want to be too definite about this since the first section, which one might want to think of as poems about the way the past (and figures from the past) imposes itself on the present in memories, dreams and sudden irruptions (“This return / the past attacking / unexpectedly / in the familiar streets”) also contains what looks to be a straightforward character portrait where the second stanza provides an expressionist comment on the first:

She was smoking
stirring her coffee
giving me her news.
A detached observer
presenting a life
unconnected to her
that left her
Through the glass
the sea green with the wind
and the seagulls
icy white with red eyes
shrieking above the beach.

“Variation on a Theme II” in which, in reality or dream, someone plays an ancient instrument, touches on a less personal conception of the past – though one that you meet in Kefala’s comments about writing – that art and language come out of the far past of an individual culture. It’s a chthonic approach where the sounds made by the instrument are

close to the truth of bodies
a truth that went beyond
the skin, the bones, the nerves
to some dark soil
that he found by touch
to feel the beat
release it of all bonds.

The poems of the second section are, generally, poems about meetings with places and, in pieces like “The Bay” and “Summer at Derveni” we get a chance to see Kefala’s impressive ability to “capture” the atmosphere – the “weather” – of a place, as well giving a precise visual rendition. Take the former of these, for example:

Green sea
fermenting into waves
laced with white foam.
Along the empty quay
abandoned houses.

Three divers
near the boat house
strange amphibious creatures
with black rubber skins
wrestling the waves
climbing the rocks
in the apocalyptic sunset
that left
gold orange strands
on the dark waters.

I think this is rather wonderful. It’s an example of one of the things that poetry can do. And although one wouldn’t want to live in a culture which thought that this is all that poetry can or should do, there is something exhilarating about a poem that does it as well as this.

The central section of Fragments is unremittingly about loss and is, interestingly, made up of poems that are a little unlike the style of the other sections. They might be said to be more like Kefala’s poems in her earlier books, tending to expand an experience (by taking it into a compressed sequence) rather than paring it down in the manner of the Journal entries. Again one wouldn’t want to be too schematic about this: the section contains, after all, only a three poem sequence, a two poem sequence, and two small poems.

The fourth section is intriguing because it seems to want to expand the imaginative resources of the poetry by moving into almost surreal territories of idols and rituals. Though the poems share the same spare quality of the poems of the first two sections, they have precious little connection to the world of the Journals. There seems a distinctly European quality about some of them: “Sacred Idols”, for example,

They watch us from inside
in silence
anxious too
trying to sustain
their brittle images
worn thin by our hands
constantly greedy
for some tangible proof.

or “The Furniture of Generations” where the objects of the title rest

at ease and self-sufficient
as if since the beginning
they had dreamt themselves
exactly as they were . . .

There is also, in this section, a poem, “Diviner II”, which recalls one of the poems of European Notebook. Both concern a totemic creative figure in touch with the wellsprings that lie under the ground and both refer to a fire-ravaged above-ground:

Traveller from a rocky country
scorched by a great fire
the shredded trees
black veils moving in the wind
full of distant echoes
that only you could hear.

Obsessed with the great depths
could not find other measures
watching the waters in the evening
you traced the way
a great forgetfulness.

It’s possible of course that this may be another portrait of a contemporary or even of a figure from the past but the imaginative approach – surreal, suggestive, totemic – is a lot different to the capturing method of poems like the ones of earlier sections.

Or, for that matter, those of the last section which is largely composed of portraits. Sometimes these are portraits of friends – “Patricia” – and sometimes, as in “Public Figure” or “Committee Member”, of figures seen only from a distance. Often they are spare, compressed portraits of people reduced in some way – by age or incapacity. The final portrait is the cellist in the Metro which I have already spoken about: it seems fitting that a book which is concerned so much about loss and ageing should conclude with an unnamed creative (or expressive) figure, perhaps an avatar of the diviner, capable of harmonising the body and the instrument with the depths of the earth so that the earth itself “was singing, / singing in an exuberance / of youth”.

Rereadings I: Rodney Hall: Terra Incognita

Sydney: Macmillan, 1996, 211pp.

(This review is the first of what I hope to make an annual event: a rereading of a text which is important to me but which, for one reason or another, I have never written about.)

Terra Incognita is the first of three novels grouped under the general title of The Island in the Mind and published twenty years ago. More importantly it is the first of a series of seven novels devoted, at least on the surface, to tracing the history of a small part of the south coast of New South Wales called Yandilli in the books but recognisable as the area around Bermagui and Tilba. But, as with Marquez’s Macondo in his Hundred Years of Solitude, the single small location stands as a symbol for the nation it is part of and so the heptalogy presents a view of Australia’s history up to the Second World War. And it is a view which begins more than a century before the arrival of the “first fleet”: like the Americas, Australia is a country that could be said to have been invented before it was discovered. The novels themselves, as one would expect, have complex interrelationships. They also have a complex order of composition (not entirely unlike the Star Wars saga), beginning with Captivity Captive, the sixth, so that the order of writing (and publishing) is: 6, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 7. Terra Incognita concerns itself with the earliest phase of Australian history beginning with the writing of an opera in a small and unidentifiable European country in the middle of the seventeenth century.

For all its historical and cultural obsessions, Hall’s imagination has always seemed to me to be essentially a dramatic one. And at the heart of all drama is not understanding but conflict. It would be an understatement to say that the seven novels are rife with conflict: at every point conflict between individuals is the core of what is happening (at least on the plot level). You would have to look hard in these novels to find examples of contented marriages, placid childhoods or bland mentorships – there is almost always, even if suppressed, a crackle of conflict. And the key conflict is not between historical or cultural enemies (representatives of nations or religions or classes) but between closely bonded individuals. As such, the central conflict might be called rivalry. At its best rivalry is not a destructive relationship but an opportunity to raise the bar. You can see this in a poem from the mid-sixties, “The Two of Them Are Rivals”:

The two of them are rivals
both attempt the chute of wind,
forcing their climb with flattened hair
toward some exploration of success.
And yet they stay together:
not quarrelling (as most outsiders would expect
as hydra-headed third men definitely hope)
but edging upward with each other’s help
already dangerously above the city . . .

But, of course, it isn’t always so mutually supportive and one is likely to find Hall’s characters locked in a psychic struggle for supremacy.

The closer the characters are together (think of the large family in Captivity Captive, or the de facto family of the female followers of Muley Moloch in The Grisly Wife) the more intense the friction. A crucial moment in the relationship of father and son (both, interestingly, sharing the same name: Richard Godolphin) in the third novel, Lord Hermaphrodite, occurs when, imprisoned in Kishangarh, each tries to prise open a shuttered window. Needless to say, the younger succeeds where the elder fails. In Hall’s universe this isn’t a simple, mildly oedipal triumph to be acknowledged wryly, but rather a rearrangement of the entire relationship:

The shutter gradually screeched open. Daylight flooded in through a barred window. We faced one another.

Our whole lives were before us at that moment: justices and injustices through the years, protections and beatings, playfulness and puzzlement, trust, treachery, disobedience, love, buried contentments and raw fears. Dear uncle, whatever your plans for the future, never again send a son with his father. Together, neither of them can be relied on. Indeed families are a microcosm of the world’s horrors – loving families no less than families forever embroiled in jealous quarrels. After nineteen years of affection Richard and I had reached a difficult moment, never mind that it may have seemed so slight a thing. And we both knew it.

And closeness reaches its highest point in the case of identical twins. One of Hall’s best poem-sequences is “Romulus and Remus” from the late sixties. It explores a relationship so close that it could be called schizophrenic: one twin almost thinks for the other and the rivalry is almost between two halves of the same self. At any rate, it is Romulus who triumphs, killing his brother who has jumped across the wall he is building: “Death to anyone / who dares to clear my battlements; / we murder those who try / to make our vision small”. All of the novels in the heptalogy, despite their focus on the complex history of Australia as a nation, have this underlying value: a hatred of those “who try to make our vision small” and a commitment to “imagining the unimaginable and searching for something new”.

There is a final issue to be thought about when it comes to the question of rivalry. The Second Bridegroom (the fourth novel) contains a passage in which the narrator explains the myth of the two bridegrooms, supposedly derived from an Irish translation of a commentary on the Thebaid of Statius:

Going back to the most ancient times before history there was a Goddess who took two bridegrooms each year – have you heard of her? – one for the winter and one for the summer. Each had the task of killing the husband who had lain with her for the six months before him. This idea could still be found, so the commentary said, under the skin of the Thebaid of Statius, enemies in pairs and friends in pairs. A warrior having a lion’s mane, with a warrior whose bushy boar bristles rise like a horror of white-shrike wings when with wild angry terror he seizes his enemy.

In the Celtic tradition, lacking lions and boars, these totemic animals have been transferred to a horse’s mane for the summer bridegroom and goat’s thighs for the winter bridegroom and the legend is imagined to have survived in the horse-mating feast in spring and the goat-mating feast in autumn. As we will see, rival bridegrooms (metaphorically and literally) are common in the seven novels and it raises an important issue that I’m not really able to resolve: is this myth the generative foundation of all of the novels (and other parts of Hall’s work as well) or is it simply a mythic version of the central theme of rivalry? I can think of arguments in both directions.

The dramatic cast of Hall’s imagination makes itself felt in the narrative method as well. All of these books are monologues and the narrating character usually has a very distinctive (ie dramatically “rounded”) voice. The central books of each group of three are narrated by women, as is the last book. Hearing them read, or reading them aloud, is likely to transform how readers relate to them, opening up vistas unseen to those for whom reading fiction is a matter of quickly processing words in order to follow plot. Some of the voices are easier to grasp than others and Terra Incognita is narrated by an excitable young man whose voice is easy to recognise. In contrast, the narrator of the third volume, a middle-aged man who, almost without his knowing, is engaged in a process which will expand his vision, is far less vocally distinct. And I’ve always had problems with the breathless (post-tuberculosis) disjointed narration of Catherine Byrne, the narrator of The Grisly Wife. But the consistency of the speaking voice is what makes all of the seven novels unified wholes.

The second issue is the relationship of the narrators to the action. I think Hall is always excited by the dramatic irony whereby what is really significant is not necessarily what is being conveyed by the narrator, and in fact it sometimes must be seen through the obfuscating screen of the narrator’s excited tale. There are dangers in this method because many readers will feel a constriction of their readerly freedom: there is a response to the events that they must see and one where the author has been there before them laying down a trail of clues. It can feel like a bit of an examination of one’s credentials as a reader where the author has a sheet with the correct answers. But seeing the central events obliquely, as it were, can be justified on other grounds than its success in producing a theatrical coup. When Isabella Manin, now guardian of Aurangzeb’s treasures, meets the Goldophins, she tells the story of the planned execution of a Christian by the Moghul emperor so that he can make a point to some visiting ambassadors of the East India Company:

“Have you ever thought how the sacrificial beast might feel, facing the grandeur of death, sir? The rarest privilege is to find death’s meaning. Most do not, I suspect. Most are probably more muddled than elated and cannot make much sense of the ceremony. Perhaps being too close to the centre to see any coherence, even. For anyone who wishes to understand, it is important not to be right at the centre.”

Obviously this can be read in terms of the relationship between the centre of an empire and it’s outlying provinces, but I’m content to read it also as a justification of Hall’s oblique narrative methods.

There is an important exception to this technique of having a narrator who looks towards the crucial events but can only see part of them. That is Captivity Captive where the narrator, Pat, is intimately connected with the three murders that the novel centres around (it is a solution to the “Gatton Mystery” and it stays very close to the known events but shifts the location to southern New South Wales). I think it’s fair to say that, unlike the other narrators in the series, Pat knows everything and has witnessed almost all the important things. Given that the solution to the mystery is not presented until the climax of the novel, this makes for a lot of challenges for the author. As a result, readers will be inclined to think either that the narrative has a lot of uneasinesses in it (to whom could Pat be imagined to tell the events in the order and with the elisions and emphases he does?) or that it is a narrative tour de force (a bit like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but in a very superior mode). I’m inclined to lean towards the latter but the characterisation of Pat and the way he moves towards revealing the events of the night of the murders is a complex issue well beyond the ambit of this review.

The narrator of Terra Incognita is, as I have said, an excitable young man in a permanent state of excitement. I’m not sure exactly how Hall wants us to feel about him and it may be that his creator is a lot more critical than I am. He is marked out by his self-confidence and his tendency to misinterpret things. But given the complexity of the court world of which he is a part, this doesn’t seem a terrible failing. Although there is a lot of humour at his expense, especially in the business of his seduction of his sister-in-law, Adelaide, he is no Emma Woodhouse. True he fathers an illegitimate child but then he has the decency to visit the mother and offer her his protection, and he is also granted an extraordinary vision – a single sentence two-pages long – of the world spinning out from a single baby to the farthest reaches of the known and the unknown. True, he remains a mere observer when a blind old woman drowns when the ice covering the river breaks up, but he does help her would-be rescuer. True he allows himself to be drawn, Waverly-style, into dangerous court factions, but he loves his king and his older brother and tries to put nation and family first. One could go on multiplying examples like this where readers would probably want to feel free enough to make their own ethical judgements about him.

In the conflicts and rivalries in which he is involved and which we know best because he is the narrator, he is typical of all the characters in the book – with the possible exception of the Venetian theatre architect, Tranquilli (whose name might be a clue). Everyone is involved in serial conflicts and rivalries, usually resolving themselves into threesomes as two strive to win a third. The most important (though readers have to see this – I’m not sure the narrator does) is between Scarron, the king and the queen. If there is a central figure – though it distorts the novel to try to shoehorn it into the kind of fiction that has a central character – it is Orlande Scarron. He is the only one of all the cast of this court who we will meet again in the later novels. We learn that he is a prodigy of very humble origins who (as an extra during a hunt) befriended the king while he was a mere prince visiting a French court. A request to be given the boy is refused (how scandalous such a request might be and what its implications might be is never followed up, either because the narrator is not interested enough to find out or because it falls outside his remit). The boy turns up a couple of years later as a flute player in a visiting orchestra, is recognised by the king and made into his court composer. The two are very close, discussing all issues privately and hunting together as a lone pair. At almost the same time as his befriending of Scarron, an English queen is found for the king. The fact that she remains barren and that her husband prefers to spend his time intimately with his concert-master leads to the obvious implication that the king is homosexual. Some readers have seen the fact that the narrator never seems aware of this to be part of the comedy of the ignorant narrator but I think the real issue is that the sexual side of this threesome is very secondary to the power-relationships: at courts sexuality is very fluid and essentially a tool to be shaped and manipulated.

It doesn’t take any great readerly skill to realise that the relationship between king, queen and Scarron is a weird distortion of the two bridegrooms myth. Instead of the two men competing for the hand of the queen (at least for six months), here the queen and Scarron compete for the love of the king. And just as one of the rivals must always lose and be occluded, so here the queen loses. Throughout the book she is a sick, fretful, mildly delusional and pallid creature (the last of these probably a reflection of the fact that she is at the mercy of doctors keen to order enemas and bleedings). As she weakens, so Scarron thrives to the point where he becomes a kind of übermensch, Hall’s visionary artist-hero.

There are other variations of the two bridegrooms theme. The narrator decides that he must seduce his sister-in-law, a representative of the faction centred around the Lord Treasurer to whom the narrator is opposed. As such the younger brother supplants his rival, the older brother. But there is, as I have said, a good deal of comedy about this deriving from the fact that the narrator seems quite unaware that his sister-in-law has, off-stage so to speak, come to the same conclusion: the seduction turns out to be remarkably easy because the seducer is really the seduced. In another triangle, the king has an odd sexual quirk whereby he wants to visit the narrator’s lover, Marie, immediately after their love-making with everything left as it was when the narrator finished. This could be read a number of ways, but I see it as the king usurping his younger “rival” by sliding into his position. At the level of court mechanisms it is a bizarre but intriguing way for messages to be sent to the king since the narrator knows that anything he says in confidence to Marie will be immediately passed on to the king.

The most spectacular example of the two bridegrooms theme in Terra Incognita, though, involves the arrival of Louis XIV of France on a visit made early in his reign (the events of this book are set in 1661 – 2). The fate of the kingdom is in the balance as court factions argue between a future role as a small, expanding, imperial power or as a financial supplier and guarantor of greater powers, a “neutral exchequer” as Adelaide calls it. The novel goes into these issues at some depth, reminding the reader that the conflicts at the macro level are not just a setting for those at a more intimate one. The narrator, indeed, has a long passage in which he positions his country as one of the third rank, parallel to states such as Belgium or Switzerland. The narrator’s state hopes to make an alliance with the French by being one of the first to invite him on an official visit and Scarron’s opera, by being in a mode much loved by the French but outdoing them at every level, is to be one of the most winning of gestures. Initially it is only part of the celebration (together with a military tattoo and fireworks) but because Louis’ arrival takes place in driving rain, all hopes of a treaty depend on the opera alone. Between Louis and the king, under the guise of the surface requirements of a courtly visit, there are immediate tensions:

The monarchs greeted each other gravely but, I thought, with a touch of unlooked-for strain. They were much the same height, wearing full wigs and the ermine robes appropriate for such an occasion. Their likeness was remarkable but scarcely surprising given the Habsburg connection. Louis carried himself well, showing notable assurance for a man of twenty-three. Yet there was something, in their exchange of civilities, which gave me the firm sense that they took an instantaneous, perhaps faint, but nonetheless ineradicable, dislike to each other.

During the performance of the opera, the queen appears and is made a great fuss of by Louis who offers her his seat and spends a good deal of time raising her spirits, “He conversed exclusively with the queen, showing her the handsomest gallantry, even bringing colour to her cheeks so that one glimpsed, now and again, kindlings of her former beauty”. In fact, of course, at a metaphorical level he is wooing her. And not just as an individual, because he is also making the point that a connection with England is more important to him than a connection with the little country he is visiting. All of this is done with tremendous brio on the novelist’s part. The arrival of Louis and his accompanying troops is a brilliant climax, though I will have more to say about the book’s structural dynamics later. Louis’ soldiers displace the local army and there is some fear amongst the locals that they have been invaded. It is a terrible blow to hopes and pretensions: as the narrator says later,

Bitterly I saw the truth of it, there in the blue salon. Our political future is to fight for room at the trough among a swarm of piggy little kingdoms and principalities, each insatiably engrossed in a scramble for scraps and favours, each tyrannized by the dictatorship of feverish ambitions. The great powers are above all that . . . . . So, no doubt, when France received our invitation she accepted it – not for the sake of raising us to the rank of ally, but for the opportunity of putting us in our place.

The political humiliation is part of the occlusion of one king by another – again the rivalry exists at both political and psychic levels. After the meeting, the narrator and his brother attend the king in his disrobing where he is, again both literally and symbolically, stripped naked. But he is, also, rerobed:

Clean underwear was brought and the king’s nakedness covered. . . . . For no reason he smiled. Was it the emergency inspiring him with fresh courage? He struck me as tragically radiant. His mouth had changed – a subtle unevenness, the slightest shadow, who knows? – whatever it was, his curving lips confirmed my suspicion. A new man emerged. No longer the monarch whom these same valets had dressed that morning. How this might affect me or Marie I could not guess. But I caught a glimpse of his grief.

Finally in this extended discussion of the most important of the triangles, there is the fact, never mentioned in the novel, that Louis is the Sun King, arriving as a visitor in autumn to symbolically depose its king. He is, in the language of the opening of “Romulus and Remus”, the “sunbrother”. And both the kings at the end the opera, when art has the power of engaging its audience by letting them join in the final dances, appear as rustic goatherds. The question arises as to whether the intense power of these episodes arises because the author has tapped into an energy-providing universal myth. But it’s a question I’ve never been able to even begin to answer and I suspect that it requires too many disputable assumptions even to be begun.

One of the pleasures of Hall’s oblique narrative method is that we never hear the final words spoken between Scarron and the king, though we are told that the composer was never seen in court again. We do, however, get to see a final scene between Scarron and his erstwhile rival, the queen. It forms the last chapter of the book and is full of pithy but extremely enigmatic dialogue. We have to wait until halfway through the third novel for Scarron’s judgement on the king, conveyed (thoroughly obliquely) by an old poet accompanying a Danish embassy who recounts his meeting with Scarron:

He drew me aside. “I once loved a prince,” he confessed privately, “who, when he became king, no longer quite deserved that love. He was not evil, nor even bad. He lost his radiance. For political reasons he chose to play the doubter. Then he grew to be a doubter. Doubt was the fashion at the time. But he had no need of fashion. He could have remained aloof and chosen to go on earning his crown . . .”

Though it may be drawing a long bow (a thirty-five years’ long bow in fact) and prove nothing more than consistency, this recalls a poem in Hall’s first book, Penniless Till Doomsday, which compares two Velasquez portraits of Philip IV:

. . . . . 
Unshaken, untried,
you once stood in your finery
hardly a king.
Now discreet in your clothing
you sit king entire -
and yet man incomplete.

Terra Incognita is keen to separate the processes of creativity from the processes of the court – ie politics. And one of the ways in which this is done is by the comparison between the hectic rivalries that dominate the latter and the relationship between Scarron and his theatre architect, Tranquilli, where there is no question of rivalry. Two professionals, both geniuses in their own fields, co-operate to get the work done. Scarron is in fact rather prickly in these scenes, impatiently working through the architect’s plans to see what solutions he has proposed. No doubt it is all idealised but these scenes have great power, taking us as close as possible to the processes of creation since each of the creators has to work in co-operation and thus feel their way into the ideas of the other. The fact that this relationship is the only one of its kind – and entirely unlike those of the court – gives it the right degree of highlighting.

The opera itself is dealt with at some length in the novel and there is no doubt that Hall is invested enough in it to imagine it in all its details. Importantly it changes as the events of the novel’s plot develop. In the beginning, for Scarron, its subject – The Enchanted Island – is an attempt to visualise what lies beyond the reaches of the known and the conventional but, as the events surrounding Louis’ visit develop, it becomes more and more an attack on imperial expansion. By the time of its first performance, it has begun to seem a dangerous attack on French policy and risks offending the visitor. But since the visitor has offended his hosts (by supplanting their king) it becomes interpretable to the viewers in the court as a warning against France’s imperial designs on them! Tranquilli’s part is not to be underestimated. Hall furnishes us with a lengthy description of his creation of clouds (by thin wooden lathes attached to spindles inside white cloth) enough to convince us that the opera satisfies all the requirements of a theatrical mind: it will shock and stun and then later reorient the minds and emotions of its viewers.

In fact the mechanisms of the opera seem to be contrasted to the theatrical spectacles of empire which are assemblages of the grotesque, ostensibly for scientific purposes. In the second novel, Isabella Manin finds the Australian aboriginal man, Yuramiru, in a collection of freaks for which her father acts as a dealer. In a sad irony – reminding us that Empires are all the same whether of east or west, she finds herself curating a similar collection in the court of Aurangzeb. In Terra Incognita, the initial, “feeling-out”, interview between the Lord Treasurer and the narrator, takes place in the court’s “Cabinet of Art” where, among the collection, are bottles of dead babies:

He reached among the clutter of wax pots, surgical instruments on trays and boxes of talc to pick up another of these fine large jars. He held it out towards me. This baby was tinier still, a newborn boy with washed hair, eyelashes and translucent ears. As the Lord Treasurer turned the glass in his hands the manikin drifted around like a compass in oil. “Little monkey,” he swore crossly, “won’t face me.” No matter how he rotated its death chamber that child – eyes wide open – confronted me instead. Confronted me with the unblinking perfection of an arrested moment not of death but life.

We can allegorise this out in many ways – the tug of the need to react to events as a human being rather than as a politician reaches the narrator through this child and later his own child – and it has a profoundly comical as well as grotesque element. But, at another level, it is a representative of the kinds of collections made by the scientific outreach of the imperial venture. In Australia (and North America) in the nineteenth century, this appeared as the bizarre need to measure the skulls of native people and the interest which the Ottoman sultan, the pope and the Venetian merchants have in Yuramiru in the second novel, The Lonely Traveller By Night, is exactly this kind of interest in its nascent form.

Finally, I want to say something about the dynamic structure of Terra Incognita, surely one of the main reasons for its success. It will come as no surprise that one wants to speak of this in musical terms because I am convinced that that was how it was conceived. The endless rivalries which I have described are cycled through in a way that makes one think of a fugue (though it could also, I suppose, be seen as a theme and variations). It is also quite possible that the entire novel is conceived as the first (allegro) movement of a seven part musical piece and I have always wondered whether there is any structural significance for the novels as a sequence in the fact that seven is the number of notes on the heptatonic scale. Significantly the first novel describes the writing of an opera and the last (The Day We Had Hitler Home) describes the central character’s being present at a performance of Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra in a hall in Munich in 1919, a piece which, she feels, has in it intimations of the future.

Seen as an entity in itself, Terra Incognita has a spectacular opening describing the complex procedures (which the narrator as a recently promoted Gentleman of the Bed Chamber is involved in) for bringing the food from kitchen to dining rooms to serve the king and lesser members of the court. The narrator is required to oversee the complex procedures for poison-tasting and is happy to tell us just how miserable the feasting process is for the rest of the court who, according to protocols, cannot begin any course until the king has finished it. This has the dynamic quality of an overture and it is no accident that, as the tension ramps up towards Louis’ visit, court protocols are introduced again as the equally complex procedures for people arriving to stay at court are described: as with the feasting, there are many uncomfortable and unhappy members of the court. The whole book is clearly allegro in tempo and the beginning of this process will give some idea of the energies of narration which have been building:

Although the daylight was only just fading, flares outside already sputtered and brightened. Boys ran helter-skelter with lanterns to guide the rain-shiny coaches rolling in. Tired horses snorted steam while grooms darted among them repeating the names they were to announce and shouting directions to the drivers. Pale powdered faces, blurred behind streaming window-glass peered out at the palace through distortions of rain. Rain swept down and swept on down out of a glowering sky to cascade across the vehicle hoods and splash carpets of crystal coronets among the horse hooves.

And so it continues, not just mere fine writing (of the kind that always seems pleased with its own sensitivity) but fine writing whose pace and material is determined by the structure of the book so that this set of arrivals is merely a dynamic preparation for the arrival of the Sun king himself. If the ordinary local visitors provoke prose as good as this, we might ask, what will the visiting king, replete with the mythical trappings of the usurping bridegroom, produce. In other words, Terra Incognita is a musical book. Or, perhaps, it is an operatic book. It is full of the intertwinings and sudden, theatrical (in the best sense) surprises – rather like Scarron’s opera.

Since my concern is Australian poetry, I don’t keep any sort of watching brief over Australian prose fiction but clearly twenty years is a long time in the publishing of literary fiction and readers’ tastes are easily influenced by exposure and publicity machines. But if there are many books half as good as Terra Incognita published in the last twenty years then Australian fiction must be in radiantly good health.

Carmen Leigh Keates: Meteorites

Geelong: Whitmore Press, 2016, 49pp.

I have to begin this review with a declaration of interest. Most of the poems in this book I have seen in earlier incarnations when I myself was in an earlier incarnation as an academic and Carmen Keates was a doctoral student for whom I shared responsibilities with Bronwyn Lea. I don’t think I have had an intimate, editorial relationship like that with any of the other poems which have turned up during the ten years of this site’s existence. I realise that I might be accused of having a sort of foster-parent’s fond regard for these poems but, as someone said, there are two kinds of hometown referees: those who shamelessly favour the home side and those who treat its players harshly out of fear that they might seem to be playing favourites. I like to think that I belong to the second group. At any rate, many of these poems are pared down and so much improved from the early versions that I saw as to be almost unrecognizable.

Having said that, I also want to say that this is a really striking first book announcing an important talent with the ability to engage with issues and perspectives far from the habitual ambits of most readers. It’s something we always look for in poetry: a sign of a unique voice which we hope is good enough to engage us and take us with it on a journey we might otherwise never have made. And the journey of the poems of Meteorites is a complex one touching base with the films of Tarkovsky, Bergman and Kurosawa, dreams, family history and travels in Scandinavia. And the mode of journeying is distinctive: these poems do not operate by smooth, lyrical graces but rather by sudden juxtapositions and detours.

Two examples will demonstrate this nicely. The book’s third poem, “Gålrum Gravfält”, is based on the author’s surprise discovery of one of the great Bronze Age sites on the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. We know from other poems that Keates is riding a bicycle on a longish journey from Ljugarn to Nãrsholmen in order to visit the site where Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice, was shot in 1986. (To the north of Gotland is Bergman’s island, Fårö, where, three years after Keates’s bicycle ride, the annual Bergman Week festival would celebrate the film’s thirtieth anniversary):

. . . . . 
                                     Today I bike for six hours
in an upright sickbed inside a fever-dream
where a Baltic Sea island creates a road to move me
in an unwitnessed procession past actual milestones.

I’m on my way to somewhere else but pull in
where I see a sign saying something here is historical . . . 

In other words we meet the “seven boat-shaped graves” – one of which has a “motherly juniper over it” – as a distraction on what is really a pilgrimage, usually the most end-focussed of journeys. And the pilgrimage itself is undertaken in a mildly bathetic way, riding a humble bicycle while “incredibly ill” from a long flight. All of this makes the sudden appearance of the graves of the site not so much a distraction, a turning at right angles to one’s road to explore another world, but rather a kind of ambush staged by another reality. And, as I’ve said, this is mirrored in the structure of the poem itself since what might have been a solemn meditation on the unreachable minds of the Bronze Age builders of these stone boats is interrupted by an account of a story told in Helsinki by an art historian about his deaf grandfather.

In the book’s title poem, a long meditation on the great scenes towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker where the three protagonists are in The Zone, there is a similarly shocking irruption derived from an anthology of Eskimo poems edited by Tom Lowenstein:

The Eskimo Uvavnuk
has a poem in which she tells
how she was hit by a meteorite
and as a result was made a shaman.

Uvavnuk waves her arms towards
the bad fortune and spirits, crying,
Away with it! Away with it!
We should all try this in our homes . . .

I don’t want to be seen as hammering a simple point but this is a poetry whose structure and methods of development and movement follow one of its central themes: the irruption of other worlds, other ways of perceiving, other “levels” of reality into a life. The journeys of this book are never likely to be merely the movement from one country to another or one culture to another.

As we might expect, gateways (“portals” in contemporary argot) are going to bear a lot of examination. In “On the Border Between the Parishes of Garda and Lau” (a poem, incidentally, which alternates between scenes set in an art gallery in Brisbane and scenes on Gotland at a site near Gålrum) we follow a pathway which is both into a forest and back in time into the Bronze Age. Although gateways can be crossable in both directions, in this one “Hoof prints go in- / to the forest, yet none come back out” and the forest has an absorptive quality, sucking even sound out of reality. This is a feature of the most potent “portal” in the book, the well that Writer sits on the lip of at the end of Stalker in “Meteorites”. As the poem describes it, the scene begins with Writer being resurrected, rising from “a death pose”, though the interest is really in the way he has been “elsewhere”:

. . . 
This place has killed him first
then released him and for a moment
he has been elsewhere –

like the owl that disappears
in that jump-cut
on those low, indoor horizons
over artificial dunes
of soft and dangerous dust . . .

Just as The Zone in Stalker is capable of making life (and owls) disappear, so it is also capable of rendering a well bottomless by making a stone thrown into it go “elsewhere” at a stage of its descent. The well is thus “a mouth that does not speak / but only swallows, / like outer space” – a more intense version of the forest that exists in the liminal space between the two Gotland parishes.

Although “Meteorites” finishes by pointing out that we always say that Earth was struck by meteorites, never the other way around, there are cases here of two-way portals. In the book’s first poem, “At the Bergman Museum”, the author rides away from a storm building up over the Baltic:

The lightning is concerned with a secret
affair far off in the unlit Baltic.
Only the rain comes home.

Tracking down the road, my bicycle, my eye,
past the Viking huts with their weird antennae,
I am riding a lightning conductor away
from a museum about a recluse . . .

The poem wants to explore the allegorical possibilities of a fraught situation: perhaps the pursuing cloud is Bergman himself, haunting his admirers like an avenging angel. But the poem finishes by considering the possibility of a two-way interaction between inspiration and masterwork:

                         For if Ingmar’s films broke

into his dreams and, as he said, sat at the base
of his soul, maturing comfortably like mighty cheeses,
perhaps now he haunts the work right back . . .

The final image of the final poem of the book, a poem about Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, is, perhaps fittingly, about a gateway, in this case the strange gateway of memory whereby we can move into the past (when we remember) but the past can, often in dreams, move into our present. “Memory”, the poem says “is a demon that walks / like a soldier from a tunnel”. I think this image probably derives from the dream in Kurosawa’s Dreams in which a soldier is confronted by all his comrades killed in the war emerging from a sinister tunnel. Interestingly, the first one to emerge from the tunnel is a suicide dog, complete with explosives, a reminder of the dog in Nostalghia who in the previous poem, “Domenico’s Dog”, “stalks / the perimeter of Gorchakov’s sleep / as though there were a fence there he / finds a hole in”.

The dominant issue of the poems I have looked at so far is the way the various levels of reality and “foreign-ness” that we live within and which live within us can be activated and explored and, when we have no control over them, accommodated. The poetic problem – which I think Keates handles with great success – is how to keep such poems unified and coherent. But the poems of Meteorites have other interests too. “Cloud on Mount Wellington”, a poem about a much homelier totemic site than those of far-off Gotland, has a decided interest in the interrelationship between perspective and creativity. It juxtaposes a tourist’s trip up the mountain (with the bus driver/guide’s comments inserted in a dry demotic) with a dream about the elements of a novel seen from above; that is, seen from the physical position of a mountain top:

. . . . . 
Last year I dreamed I saw the plan
for some wunderkind’s novel laid out
on the floor of a warehouse. Chalk outlines
of different continents and Scandinavian coasts
were drawn on the bitumen. Regions demarcated.
Artefacts grouped on blue tarps.
Everything was meant to be

viewed from above. . .

The result (as I read it) is a description of what happens when an artwork “works”, when the bell, the forging of which occupies a very long stretch of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, actually rings:

This writer was revealing
something he knew to be right
but its elements had to first be
arranged properly, tended,
for it to manifest at all.

What he was preparing to reveal
would as much be disclosed to himself
as it would be shown to others . . .

There are a lot of complex things happening in the poem (the obsession with cloud and condensation, for example, which appears in many of the poems relating to the Tarkovsky films) and it would be oversimplifying to see this as a “poem-poem”, one engaging with its own method and the principles that lie behind the other poems of the book, but that is undoubtedly part of what it is doing.

Although reality and dream interact in “Cloud on Mt Wellington” it’s tempting to group it, in this book, as one of a series of domestic poems, a series which would include “One Broken Knife”, “Burning Train”, “I Bought My Father an Axe”, “I Remember Two Lines Upon Waking” and “Leaking Through”. Though the basic situations are far from those of Andrei Rublev or Nostalghia, the way the poems work and what they want to explore are not dissimilar. In “One Broken Knife” and “I Bought My Father an Axe” we are in the world of totemic objects, no less dangerous for having been (or being in the process of becoming) domesticated. And the poems, though domesticated and having none of the glamour of Gorchakov’s Italy or Rublev’s Russia, have their own, rather wonderful weirdness. In the second of them, the poet, having got her gift home, puts it on the kitchen table:

. . . . . 
I put a bow on it. My axe. I tried to introduce myself more,
just until I handed it on. I had this feeling it wouldn’t come when called,
somehow, not just yet. No trust. I wondered, Is any axe new? . . .

It’s strange, distinctive and as far from cliché as it is possible to be.

“Burning Train” and “I Remember Two Lines Upon Waking” are dream poems, the former an especially powerful vision of passengers inside a passing train who barely register that it is on fire. But this dream is interspersed with memories from childhood and, especially, with the misunderstandings of childhood that create yet another reality:

. . . . . 
As a child I remember Dad calling
the electricity company to report
that on the pole outside our house
the transformer was humming.

To me at four, these words meant war
was coming, and I packed
my baby doll’s clothes in a suitcase
and waited in that living room
to hear the tanks come down the road,
cracking our bitumen . . .

And “Leaking Through” recounts hearing (perhaps at the edge of sleep) a woman’s shout and deciding that it belongs to another world which is “leaking through” – not all interactions between worlds need to involve wide open portals that can be crossed in either direction.

Of course, separating the poems of this book into those about Gotland, those about family and those about film obscures the fact that their interests and methods are remarkably similar. There are two newer poems though, “The Bandit Without Mifune” and “Smoke Talk” (the former alluding to Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the latter to Bergman’s Persona) that seem more like poetic meditations in that they don’t have the startling juxtapositions and alterations to a different mode of reality that the other, earlier poems have. Whether this heralds a new method is something that only a second book will reveal, but for the moment it’s enough that we should content ourselves with the remarkable poems of this remarkable book.

Peter Boyle: Ghostspeaking

Newtown: Vagabond, 2016, 370pp.

The simplest way to describe this remarkable book would be to say that Peter Boyle has invented eleven, mainly Spanish-speaking, twentieth and twenty-first century poets and made a fictional anthology which is a selection of his English translations of their imagined work. Beyond that it’s rather difficult to describe it accurately. One could look to Boyle’s Apocrypha published in 2009, another work of great ambition and sophistication, for comparisons and contrasts. There we were given an anthology of imagined lost texts delineating a version of our own world but, whereas the focus of Ghostspeaking is fairly tight (the dominant language is Spanish, the oldest of the poets born just before the turn of the twentieth century and the youngest in 1965), Apocrypha ranges over a vast expanse of human history – nearly two thousand years – actual and fictive.

And Ghostspeaking isn’t entirely an anthology – there is a lot of novelistic activity going on inside it as well: the lives of the eleven imaginary poets are sketched in and their relationships and interactions with the author brought to light in a way that makes you think of an author’s professional journal/diary with translations appended. And at another level, Ghostspeaking could be described as an extension of the well-known genre of what might be called “the text-based uncanny”. It is full of the markers of this genre including mysterious manuscripts appearing in the post or being discovered hidden away in a barn. There is even a gramophone recording, found among business papers. In keeping with this genre, identity seems compromised at all points. Lazlo Thalassa an “eccentric Mexican poet of mixed Bulgarian and Turkish origins”, for example, who initially claims his work is itself a translation of a manuscript written in Persian on the shores of Lake Ohrid by a “heretic refugee from Urbino” turns out to be Miguel Todorov, a research scientist specialising in plate tectonics and significantly sharing a surname with the scholar known for his work on the fantastic (or uncanny) as a genre. This is an extreme case (the Argentinian Elena Navronskaya Blanco is, in contrast, biographically positively demure) but the overriding sense is of identity as a kind of vertiginous labyrinth among people who are at the behest of “forces larger” than themselves. It extends to the author himself who at one stage receives a letter addressed to Peter Doyle and, in another, is mistaken for the late actor of the same name: his response to this (in a footnote to a passage dealing with his translation of Lazlo Thalassa) is important for the ideas that lie behind Ghostspeaking:

I remember, several years back, a friend sent me a link to a blog where a young woman had just published one of my poems and one of her friends had posted: “I’ve always loved Peter Boyle. Everybody Loves Raymond is my favourite programme. I never knew he wrote poetry.” I wanted to write to say I am not Peter Boyle the American actor, but was I sure? By then he had been dead several years but he seemed much more alive than me. Perhaps in some way I was him, lingering on under his name, slowly acquiring his face now he was gone. Perhaps I had always been his amanuensis. How can anyone know that someone else isn’t writing them? And I thought: maybe all the dead have the same name.

Although the idea of ghost-speaking is a complex one in this book (involving, especially the idea of “ghosting”) this would be a case, literally, of a ghost speaking.

This generic element in Ghostspeaking (there is a similar though much less significant element in Apocrypha) seems to me the least interesting part of the book but this may derive only from my sense that it is a tired, creaky old genre. At any rate, during my first reading of the book I fought against it, dreaming of a purer (or perhaps merely more extreme) version of the book: a faux traditional anthology with only brief biographies of these poets introducing selections of their work and omitting the poets’ dealings with the anthologist altogether – as one would in a conventional anthology. But you can see why it was never possible: the editor would have had to create a rational for the inclusion of these, and only these, eleven poets and one can’t imagine how this could have been done. In Ghostspeaking they select themselves by their various involvements with Peter Boyle.

One could approach Ghostspeaking from quite a different angle and see it as, at heart, a collection of poems by Peter Boyle which, of course, in a sense it is. This would lead one to explore the relationship between the eleven poets and their creator. Are they genuine heteronyms in the Pessoan sense or simply masks that allow Boyle to extend his range? I’ll leave the answer to the first part of that question to experts but my sense is that are not true heteronyms. They are not speaking parts of the poet’s unconscious which simply emerge as fully fledged individual poets. I think Pessoa somewhere invokes the idea of a class of “semi-heteronyms” and that might turn out to be the best description of these eleven.

On the surface it is the poems of Ricardo Bousoño that most seem to resemble those of Peter Boyle from collections such as The Blue Cloud of Crying, What the Painter Saw in Our Faces and The Museum of Space. This might explain why he appears first in the book and also last – thanks to a collection of poems imagined to be written (and translated) later in a newer, simpler style. From an included interview we learn that Bousoño is Argentinian by birth, gay, and, fundamentally a non-political poet. He is also in a permanent state of exile – symbolic of artists generally. He fled from Argentina to Brazil after the military coup of the mid-seventies and lived in São Paulo before moving to Spain and thence to Mexico. Boyle, as all readers know, is a passionate verse-ethicist concerned with the cruelties and viciousnesses of the world. Bousoño is somebody who has lived in places where injustice and oppression are far more overt than they are in, say, Australia. But he has never taken the route of becoming a political poet, like Neruda. This is both an unconscious choice – the political poems to be written from exile in Brazil simply never occur, despite his efforts – and a conscious one: “I didn’t want those bastards to think they’d captured my psyche for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to give them that satisfaction”. Speaking of Juan Gelman (whose son and daughter-in-law were “disappeared” in Argentina’s dirty war) he says: “I respect Juan Gelman of course, there’s no need to say it, for all he does, though seventy percent of his poetry is I think pretty slight, one-dimensional or very thin . . . I could never sit down and write poems of witness”.

You can see the relevance of Bousoño to his creator here: how does one deal with the miseries of the world when one’s location and experience prevent one speaking as a witness. And what would being a witness do to the poetry anyway. Poetry of documentation has the problem that it puts the recording of injustice (and other acts of evil) before poetry itself. Ethically this is probably quite defensible. But poetry is a despotic force itself and is quite likely to ensure that such poetry remains “thin”.

The poems by Bousoño in his section begin with a breakthrough poem, “House Arrest in São Paulo” working the idea that the place of exile is a kind of house arrest. The mode is what I would call Latin American surrealism though my knowledge of this literature beyond the inevitable figures of Neruda, Vallejo and Borges is so lamentably weak that I only have the vaguest general impression. But, for me, it’s a poetry where the demands of “the real” are loosened to the point where revealing and valuable imaginative gestures are made and allowed to determine the direction of the poem. And so in “House Arrest in São Paulo” the image of living in a coffin runs through the poem and becomes a symbol of the inevitable destiny of the poet. In the ninth section we meet another trope of this kind of verse, the figure whom the poet moves towards who is, in reality, his future self:

He is waving to me
 from the farthest room
 at the end of innumerable corridors:
 the ghost I will become.

 in the history of the universe
 has so tenderly familiar
 a face.

But, as one might expect of a breakthrough poem, it contains its poet’s obsessions even if in embryonic form. It focusses on exile: “Once the nomads have entered you / there’s no way of going back, / no way to slow the chaos in the blood” and on the ubiquity of evil in a world where “We are all torturers now”: “Say this only: / what happened elsewhere / speaks now because / there is no elsewhere”. Flight from oppression and the ubiquity of evil turn up in later poems like “I Do Not Trust That Word ‘Oxygen’” and “Freiheit”: “Just by breathing and accidentally / opening your eyes you see them, / Prussian outposts” a reference to the fact that Argentina proved a happy home from home for Nazis fleeing Germany after the war.

Bousoño’s final poem, “Threads”, imagined to be written in a “late”, pared down style retains the themes of the earlier poems but is mainly obsessed by the desire to prevent the world being “disappeared”. To this end it uses the unusual device of long, thin lines (usually no more than a word or two to each), in a way reminiscent of Ken Taylor’s “At Valentines” which, coincidentally, dealt with rather the same issue. But the lines are imagined as threads, appearing in three columns per page, creating the impression of threads which might be plaited to hold on to what is likely to be lost. The poem is quite explicit about it:

. . . . .
 these small photos
 and swaying
 at the piano
 (another of
 my tribe who
 got away)
 my lover
 the pianist
 as on the
 raft of
 his life
 a plaited band of
 at his wrist
 . . . . .
 these sounds
 I utter
 threads we
 weave to lay
 hold of
 the past
 the sounds
 the last threads
 holding things
 after they have
 after the
 nameless ones
 smash the china cups
 shred the photos
 empty our apartments . . .

I dwell on this at some length not only because it is the book’s final poem but because the word “threads” forms a sort of motif running through works by other poets included and if we were to adopt the tactic of reading Ghostspeaking simply as a book of poems by Peter Boyle then it would be an image whose significance would need to be explored in detail.

Threads certainly figure in the selection of poems by Antonio Almeida. If Bousoño is a poet of translocation, Almeida is a poet of visitations. Though these two things can be related (one thinks of Rilke’s endless travels awaiting inspiration) Almeida and Bousoño are entirely different animals with, one suspects, an entirely different set of possibilities for Boyle. Almeida’s poems and fragment of autobiography are tightly enmeshed as part of a narrative conception built around complexly interlocked frames. The overall tone is overtly of the uncanny. Boyle, even before his career as a poet has begun, suffering his own inability to begin to write, stops off in Rome and is met at the airport by a woman who knows to look out for someone of his age, his inherited Irishness and his limp. She takes him to her father whose poems he will translate. Almeida himself, in his autobiographical sketch, describes his own inability to talk as a child and his meeting with Rilke in Ronda (where his father works in the hotel where Rilke will come to stay). Later in life Almeida meets up with Antonio Machado, who shares a railway carriage, at the point where the events described in Machado’s “Iris de la Noche” occur. Later in Uruguay, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, in a state of entire despair after the death of his wife (as well, you feel, as the accumulated miseries of the world described in “The Time of Weeping”) he meets up with a mysterious prophetic visitant (perhaps one of Rilke’s angels) who re-establishes his identity and warns him to leave the country when the violence begins and so Almeida is able to flee to Rome with his daughter and her two children. In Italy he publishes a small book of poems. In Ghostspeaking all of this takes place in reverse. We meet the poems before we meet the autobiographical material that makes sense of them (or better, provides a context for them). Boyle’s meeting with him and his daughter in Rome comes at the end. To complicate these matters in an interesting way, the ”translations” of Almeida’s poems are dated and they are translated in exactly the reverse order to their appearance (presumably in the order in which they appear in the Spanish-Italian edition published twenty years after his death).

As a compressed exercise in uncanny fiction this is brilliantly done and it may only be my lack of interest in that genre that makes me undervalue this component of Almeida’s story. But the poems themselves are rather marvellous and the way in which the autobiographical details illuminate the individual poems is exciting. Since Almeida is a quiet figure whose life is never going to be explored in detail by literary biographers, the only facts we have are those briefly recounted in the autobiographical sketch. So it’s a matter of putting a prose text next to a poetic one. The little twelve-poem selection has at its centre a café poem in which a long mirror doubles everything; the first poem is called “Waiting” and the last “Conversation While Waiting”.

Staying with the question of what these created poets have to offer Boyle, their creator, there is the case of Lazlo Thalassa (Miguel Todorov) whose poems are flamboyant, often grotesque and, stylistically far from the poems of, say, Almeida or Federico Silva which retain, despite their celebration of the possibilities of an unrestricted imagination, just a touch of distinctive orotund solemnity. Thalassa’s long poem Of Fate and Other Inconveniences shares the preoccupations of much of the poetry of Ghostspeaking but allows itself to be written as a kind of faux newspaper-headline summary of the parlous state of things (“Public opinion managers replace counsellors and statesmen. Meanwhile plague and war remake the earth”) followed by a more conventionally toned but equally grotesque poem. Number ten (of thirty) for example:

(Meetings by night on mountain passes. Cinqueterra’s journey to the Eastern Marches interrupted by rival film crews. Fortinbras and the Afterlife Investment Fund move west.)

Sent back from Parinirvana he sees:
 the golden pulse of the sun spinning
 wildly like a potter’s wheel, dry
 salt-crusted earth and a sagging
 banyan hung with voodoo dolls.

Later Thalassa translations include a tour-de-force describing the arrival of the god of love in seventeenth century Venice (coinciding with the invention of opera) and a monologue by Prince Myshkin, imagined to have been translated to Mexico City (“on the sidewalk the blare of a city / workmen demolishing whole blocks of humanity / gourd-carvers knife-grinders hat-hawkers taxi cabs fruit stalls”) accompanied by a letter from a guilt-ridden Dostoevsky to his own fictional creation apologising for having dragged him from Switzerland to enter his novel at that remarkable and justly celebrated opening of Idiot:

. . . . .
 Maybe every life is like mine.
 Maybe every life has so much guilt
 it outstrips us,
 a shame so large
 there can never be room for the saying.
 Maybe that is why we have ghosts,
 those detached portions of uncontainable guilt
 that go on trying to speak . . .

In other words, these are themes familiar from the book but in a very different mode. One suspects Boyle is exploiting the tonal possibilities opened up by what is called the Latin-American neo-baroque here: he is, after all, a translator of José Kozer.

In this respect, a final poet worth looking at briefly is Ernesto Ray because his poetry is of a deeply different kind to the others. Imagined as a popular Puerto-Rican singer-songwriter in New York in the 1980s he abandons popular music for a much harder road. When his partner begins to die of cancer he produces the poems of his only, posthumous book, which are designed to be spells: that is poetry of the most ancient, performative kind. Ghostspeaking includes parts of the preface to his book:

Magic is not easy. Spells are not made casually, don’t happen just because we want them to happen . . . . . What pleases people immediately, what can be understood immediately, is incapable of casting the deep resonances that make poetry happen. The language of a poem-spell needs to be more wrought than that. One-dimensional poetry, linear poetry that can be pounded out at a New York rap club, that thrills the youngsters or fits neatly into the thematic units of educators and academics, none of that can work any more. Not for me at least. Not for what I need now.

The resulting poems are not at all what one might expect from a poetics built on the idea of magic: they never name the sick woman, for a start and are oblique in other, surprising ways (most of them are about other women, for example). The final poem is, if not a spell, then at least a prayer built around a homely pair of coloured sandals:

. . . . .
 although this dark world grabs at you
 you have stepped
 onto the soles of an altered shining
 that these simple swirls of colour may
 spiral up your legs into your inmost
 core of being . . .

Although each of these eleven poets represents a figure Boyle can inhabit and exploit (perhaps Dostoevsky’s letter to Myshkin should be read as an apology made by Boyle to his poetic creations) I can’t help but feel that Roy’s comments about poetry (“I don’t want audiences drawing me back into well-worn stories of who we are, what we suffer. Identity isn’t magic. The poet magicians weren’t hung up about the dividing lines between their people and other people” and so on) are close to Boyle’s own. But that would be something that was very difficult to prove.

David McCooey: Star Struck

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2016, 90pp.

This new book of David McCooey’s is written in the aftermath of a heart attack – what is now called a “cardiac event”. Massive singular experiences like this must pose major issues for a poet. If you’re committed to charting the patterns of your life then this is going to make a dramatic centrepiece, comparable to divorce, birth of children and so on. But not many poets, nowadays, are committed to a poetry of open documentation. In the case of a recent book by Joel Deane, Year of the Wasp, written in the aftermath of a stroke which affects the speech centres and thus is, perhaps, more profoundly sinister for a poet, the option of a kind of symbolic self-myth is taken up. McCooey is never given to this degree of flamboyancy but, like all those wanting to chart the odd things that happen in our inner lives, he can hardly avoid the repercussions of such a major event. You would have to be a poet from the extreme end of the spectrum, clinging to Eliot’s theory of a necessary impersonality on the part of the poet, to ignore it altogether.

Most of the poems dealing with the physical event are corralled in an opening section called “Documents”, a title that can, just conceivably, be read as a verb rather than a noun so that this section “documents” the event. But all of these pieces are genuine poems, standing on their own two feet rather than appearing as wodges of information justified by the greater project of documenting-the-traumatic. The first of them, “Habit”, sets the tone by avoiding any overt reference to the illness. It is “about” the poet’s son reading a book on Ancient Egypt and its culture of death and rituals of burial. At the end, the boy makes his own playhouse equivalent of what is really a tomb:

. . . . .
In the morning, dressed in his gaudy pyjamas,
he builds with his mother a room-sized construction
out of chairs, cushions, and blankets,
filled with unblinking stuffed toys and plastic jewels.
They are playing tomb raiders. You are invited in.
In your sacerdotal dressing gown, you get on
your hands and knees to enter the labyrinth.
You are shown the bewitching everyday things
that have been set aside for the afterlife.

The stylistic markers of McCooey’s poetry are here, especially the quiet domestic tone and the preference for second person pronouns over first. But the issue touched on – what objects would you choose to accompany you into the afterlife if you were blessed (or cursed) by a religion that made that possible – is a fascinating one. On a comparative cultural level we know that at various periods and in various cultures people have taken slaves, horses, food, jewellery, weapons, pet dogs and a host of other items. It’s rather like the question of what one would save if one’s house suddenly erupted in flames: although it seems a simple issue it uncovers immense complexities of personal and cultural values. And, as the later poems documenting more of McCooey’s experience will make plain, this afterlife that the poem concludes with, will be life after recovery from the heart attack. It’s odd to think that an Egyptian pharaoh, met in the Egyptian equivalent of paradise, would have seen his decline and (probably painful) death as we might see a successfully recovered-from heart attack. “Habit”, like other poems in this book, is also marked by that sensitivity to harmonies and resonances that marks out this kind of poetry. I used to think of this as a method of accretion whereby a central theme attracts to itself images and, more significantly, entire events. It makes a poem unified and structurally strong while, at the same time, widening out its significances. An example here is the mention of the homely fact that the son’s bath towel is made out of Egyptian cotton. It’s a potent and oblique introduction to the poems of illness and threatened death, and has a decidedly sinister reference to the god Anubis, “presider of the weighing of the heart”.

As for the other “cardiac” poems, they are, as one would expect, habitually oblique. In fact you feel that the extreme experience, in McCooey’s case, heightens existing responses rather than wrenching him off track into a completely new dimension. McCooey’s poetry is always highly sensitive to ambient sound for example. One of the first poems of his first book, Blister Pack, is “Signal-to-Noise Ratio” which begins, “The refrigerator keeps in time with cool darkness. / A video records, though the screen is blank. / Even the stereo cannot be silent”, documenting the almost inaudible but nevertheless present sounds of the world expressing itself, perhaps even the background hum of the universe itself. In the cardiac ward poems of this new book, there seems a similar sensitivity to the background noises of the hospital. “Music for Hospitals” is a clear documentation of this:

Sunday morning.
The sound of church bells;
a patient answers her phone.

Nurses recalibrating equipment:
“Four, five, six become
seven, eight, nine . . . . .

only to conclude with the arrival of the specialist with his silent students looking like “graduates / from The Village of the Damned”: a shift to the visual (film) and silence. And when the final poems of this section want to document the weird sense of being given, by surgery, a new life which is, paradoxically, much the same as the old life, the conclusion goes back to the ambient noise of existence:

Delivered by green-clad
medical staff to this place,

you enter the realm
of the second-person singular,

a new you
to ghost the old,

the one on the other side
of a recalibrated life:

a body lying in
a bed, alive to

the homespun sounds of
each unprecedented sunrise.

It’s not a confronting world of blaring sirens and brightly lit theatres but a continuation of life with some earlier elements redefined and emphasised. As well as ambient sound, there is a continuing sensitivity to the metaphorical component of language use, especially the double meanings produced by the endless multiplication of dead metaphor. The first poem of Blister Pack was called “Occupations” not because it was about careers but because it was about where people chose to live. Something similar happens here in the title of the poem, “Callings”, which is not about vocations but about painful telephone calls. Similarly the phrase “one way or another” in the poem of that name begins as a promise of information about the date of the surgery – “’We’ll be in touch / each Wednesday / to let you know / one way or another’” – but the phrase itself begins to seem mysterious or even sinister. What meant, in context, “whether it’s a yes or no for surgery this week”, seems to move to meaning “by one path or another” and thus “in one direction or another”. And so the next stanza slides into a common McCooey binary of the inside as opposed to the outside:

And so your future
waits, somewhere
outside, while you
sit inside and re-read

Muriel Spark . . .

And the poem follows this through since after weeks of high-stress anticipation – “your nervous system / a shivering horse within you” – the poem says: “But everything can wait, / one way or another, / as you discovered in earlier / visits to the cardiology ward.” We expect this kind of linguistic sensitivity in poets, of course, but it’s worth noting that in McCooey’s poetry it isn’t connected to a high level of metaphoric intensity (we’re a long way from Hart Crane here) and actually, in an odd way, seems connected to the sensitivity to ambient noise. It’s as though each of these little alternative meanings (“way”, “callings”, “occupations” and so on) represented a sort of hum at the linguistic level, matching the hum of sunrises and refrigerators at night.

If the first section is dominated by noises, the second, “Available Light”, focusses on the visual, though that title, of course, also has sinister connotations for a person with a life-threatening illness. The first poem is a collection of titles of early photographs and taps into – at least for one reader – the disconcerting effects of these early images: they are simultaneously fascinating and, though visual documents, weirdly unreal: they make us seem voyeurs, looking into what should be an unrecorded past in the way that contemporary snapshots almost never do. But the emphasis of almost all of the poems of this section is visual representation shorn of emotive interpretation. Sometimes it is highly precise and imaginatively verbal “capturing”: the poem, “Available Light” includes, among other images, “a low-slung cat” which “crosses / the photographic dusk” and “the science-fiction lighting / of deserted 7-Elevens”. In other cases – “Scenes From a Marriage”, for instance – we get an absolutely denotative, verbally flat representation:

A man and a woman
walking on a beach.

Their small child runs
across the hard, wet sand
of the intertidal zone,
from one parent to the other.

A strange dog barks
at the waves, or the wind,
or at nothing.

Now the child – unrelenting - 
is wanting to be carried.

The car park in the distance;
a scattering of vehicles
in a cold, unsentimental light.

This is not entirely unlike “Three Hysterical Short Stories”, especially the brilliant second “story” where a car, parked across the road, becomes, for no real reason, progressively sinister. One has the sense in poems such as these that it is types of visual representation that are being explored rather than types of poem – rather as in the “The Art of Happiness” sequence in Blister Pack. Something the same happens, though by different mechanisms, in “The Doll’s House” (another poem whose title alludes to a Nordic masterpiece). Here both house and its occupants are described as though they were living people and the description of the dolls gives some access to the personalities of the inhabitants, so that the father, for example,

sits in front of the television,
     with his fixed smile.
If you look closely,
     you will see he does not view the screen.
Instead he is gazing off into the middle distance . . .

“Whaling Station Redux” is a rejection of an earlier poem, “Whaling Station” from Outside – “What trash, that poem of mine about the whaling station / we visited in Albany in the primitive 1970s . . .” The rejection is ethical not poetic (the earlier poem is, as far as I can judge, a perfectly good poem as poem, certainly as good as its counterpart) but the occasion is visual. It is built around the poet’s father’s slides of the visit (as perhaps the original poem was – it describes brother and father taking of photographs – though if it was, this is converted in the poem itself to the recording of a memory) and finishes with the difficult issue of how to explain what happens in whaling stations to a small child.

Interestingly, the second last poem, “Letter to Ken Bolton” – an accretive, interlaced poem like “Habit” – visual in that it is set in a power outage, documents, with fitting epistolary casualness, the experience of playing a recorded “performance” of “The Waste Land” and relishes the interpretive intensity: “Shaw made “The Waste Land” strangely sexy; the / Cockneys in ”˜A Game of Chess’ funny and tragic”. All this at the expense of Eliot’s own reading which is described as “adenoidal”. It’s unexpected that in this section of rather bleached visuals something baroquely verbal should be preferred – but perhaps for McCooey quiet obliqueness may only go so far.

Fittingly the last poem in this section dominated by the visual is devoted to darkness – the absence of “available light”. It’s a dramatic monologue finishing:

. . . . . 
                    Night after
night you dream of me. One day
you will wake up for good,

and there I will be, at last.
Your new and endless climate.

Don’t look at me; I don’t compose
any kindertotenlieder.

There is the same weighing of cliches that I commented on before in the phrase “for good” but the last lines are a little tricky. My tentative reading is that darkness is saying that the poet need not fear that his writing about death in the poems of this book will precipitate the death of his child (as Mahler’s setting of the “Kindertotenlieder” – “Songs on the Death of Children” – was supposed by his wife, Alma, to have, in some way, precipitated the death of their own older daughter, “Putzi”). But it’s a very tentative reading.

The last two sections of Star Struck don’t, to my mind, have quite the compelling qualities of the first two. The third section comprises eighteen dramatic monologues relating to the “music industry”: speakers include the secretary of the Beatles, the photographer Patrick Lichfield at the Jaggers’ wedding, an Elvis fan – “reaching back, / until I find that boy in a Tupelo shotgun shack”, a Stevie Nicks fan, and so on. Much of my difficulty in responding to this section probably derives from the fact that popular music has nothing like the powerful hold on my memories and emotions that it does for McCooey and so I can’t really intuit the significance of the poems for the poet empathically. The series is called “Pastorals” ensuring that we read it under the rubric of the pastoral and its contemporary incarnations and ironies. The last poem is a brilliant one, being spoken by a monkey waiting to be used (by “the tailless ones”) as an experimental subject. It’s a nightmare anti-pastoral, wonderfully controlled:

. . . . . 
My metal cage is hard, like
the light and noise of this birthplace.

The quiet sounds of night are our food;
our food is a trick, as if we didn’t know.

In the night of night that the big ones
call dream, I see green, endless.

But that sweet retreat does not last;
each sunrise delivers me to this world.

The day/night dichotomy invoked here continues into the two shortish narratives of the final section, both being nocturnal stories. Both are, in a way, about the interpenetration of reality and unreality: one accomplishes this by the juxtaposition of a hoax call at a school camp and the other by the uncanny movement of objects in a widower’s house. It’s as though the night world had a reality not quite the same as that of the day and when the two get mixed, strange things occur. All in all I prefer McCooey’s lyric poems to his monologues and narratives but you want good poets to explore and extend their range as much as possible.

Nathan Curnow: The Apocalypse Awards

Nth Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016, 63pp.

One thinks of Nathan Curnow – based on his previous books as far as the recent The Right Wrong Notes (which is really a kind of miniature selected poems) – as a fairly familiar kind of biographical poet expanding the inner life by exploring the social and family worlds: he writes touchingly though unsentimentally, for example, about his children and thus, by implication, about his own experiences of fatherhood, one of those inner-life expanding events available to many. There isn’t much there that would prepare us for this new book, The Apocalypse Awards, where the subject is the end of the world and the mode, fitting for such a grotesque imaginative scenario, is largely surrealist. On first reading it seems like a momentary aberration, perhaps an attempt to escape an image of himself as a poet which seems too limitedly cosy and has just a suggestion of being a pre-conceived project. Its nearest relation might be an earlier book, The Ghost Poetry Project, in which suites of poems were written about ten supposedly haunted places in Australia. But the grotesque, violent and imagined territory of the haunted is hardly as intense as the apocalyptic and, on top of that, was marked by absences: no ghosts appeared. Readers were left to guess at the poet’s stake in the experience and in the same way a reader has to guess at his stake in the fifty-two poems of The Apocalypse Awards. What makes the question worthwhile is the way the poems develop with successive rereadings: fake projects usually look inviting but rarely sustain interest. These poems, especially those in the first and middle sections, have a pleasing habit of staying in the consciousness and flowering there, grotesque images and all, and that rarely happens unless they derive from the deeper layers of authorial creativity.

A clue for readers might lie in the two epigraphs to The Apocalypse Awards. The first is attributed to Kafka (though I had never previously seen it) and points out that the so-called Last Judgement is actually “a court in permanent session”. The second is from the Neil Gaiman graphic novel, Signal to Noise (also something I’ve never read), in which a character says, “There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones”. This invites us to read the poems as extreme projections of what might be a more subtle internal state. If I suggest that a candidate for an internal state which expresses itself in apocalyptic imagery is clinical depression, this comes from the fact that the only parallel work I know is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Anyway, on – as they say – to the poems. The book is in three parts, made up of two lengthy collections with a single long poem, “The Lullaby Pregnancies”, separating them. The poems of the first section are rather narrative in cast, often dealing with imagined preparations for the end of the world, and are often faintly comical and quite grotesque. The poems of the final section are collections of nightmare images, much more surreal in method, and often dream-driven. The central poem, “The Lullaby Pregnancies”, connects with the end of the first section in which the causes of the apocalypse are put down to over-breeding on the part of humans – “no one blames a tree in its final season / for blossom that outdoes itself / the world remembering what it once did best / before giving up all together . . .” It’s a really nightmarish and violent scenario made palatable, oddly enough, by its surrealist cast which seems to put the entire poem in a bracket and marks it as an extreme byway of the creative imagination. The five poems of “The Lullaby Pregnancies” rather enact the movement of the book as a whole, beginning with a reasonably comic recreation of the way humans with their industries and their fads react to something and gradually becoming more disassociatedly surreal. We begin with “Team Love” who hand out pregnancy test kits for all:

Team Love will arrive with pregnancy tests
requiring compulsory participation
introducing the term “lullaby pregnancies” -
this implausible wave of conceptions
it came before locusts and deep image colour
world’s end – a cinematographer’s dream
when all I ever did was touch myself
to recorded whale music
PREGNOW - PREGWOW in a large envelope
10x Urine Collection Cups
a pregnancy pack with 25 strips . . .

We are in the middle of an apocalypse which is, in a sense, the inversion of those narratives (like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) where the end of the world occurs through sterility. But, as I have said, the faintly comical government agencies quickly become sinister and almost unimaginably violent (except, of course, that it is imaginable):

we’re blaming the midwives hunting them
they’re stripped and dunked to one hundred
we set traps – a woman full-term on a platform
every new-born baby another riot
they armed themselves so we spread more lies
we hang placentas in trees for the morning . . .

In the final poem we leave the expecting mother about to give birth and about to seal the hatch of a bunker where she and her new-born child – “I’ve a sharp boiled knife the cleanest towel / the gas lamp I’ll hiss along with“ – will die together when the food runs out.

This five-part poem is a hinge between the two longer sections. As I’ve said, the first section is made up of poems which investigate grotesque responses – on the part of governments and individuals – to the oncoming apocalypse. In the first poem, “The Last Day”, we are briefly introduced to jargonised responses from religions – it is called “The Great Migration”; the media – sedatives are provided free by a weekend newspaper; and individuals (always the more interesting and moving) – “there will be a club gluing model planes / quietly in the candlelight after curfew”. One of the things that makes this a poem which stays in the memory is its painful conclusion:

the voices of trembling children singing
louder children louder like rehearsed

I’m not sure where in Curnow’s experiences of fatherhood this image came from but it rings wonderfully true and reminds us that the earlier poems of parenthood such as “Bath Towel Wings”, the second poem of his first book, No Other Life But This, have a darker side that balances the cuteness:

Embracing herself in bath-towel wings,
corners clutched with tight, pink fists,
she waits for pyjamas in the centre of the room,
warmly dripping what is left of the bath.
I don’t want to die, she says, and if I could waive
death somehow, waive it like a day at school . . .

The other poems from the first part of The Apocalypse Awards go on to explore the sorts of imaginative possibilities that “The Last Day” introduces. There will have to be, as the book’s title confirms, a Hollywood-style Awards Night, for example, technically irrelevant but “some kind of ritual at least”:

. . . . . 
Should we celebrate? Yes! Now more than ever!
and that’s when the host pulls out
the winner is Tango Defeats Depression
thanking God becomes a bigger joke
the orchestra is ready to drown on cue . . .

In “Death Duty” – “we are all on it / getting promoted every day / constantly filling the vacancies” – we meet “the only industry in perfect health”; “Duel” records the pre-suicide moments of a couple who have spent their entire relationship fighting; “At Tender Touch” the closing down of a brothel; and “Christians” the altogether calmer, professionalised approach – they “break into small groups to share / Kingdom Rule – What It Means For Your Super.” But other poems record more insane scenarios which have more poetic promise perhaps. There is an outbreak of Houdini-like escapology – “the last global craze” – and “The Angel” describes a bizarre ritual in which people, often in organised groups, line up to kick the angel of destruction in the groin. Again it is the comic bizarrenesses of human group behaviour that stimulates Curnow as he imagines single mothers, boy scouts (hoping “for a last-minute badge”), and Cancan girls all lining up at the free-throw line of a basketball court, waiting for their turn.

Perhaps the best of these comic-horror scenarios is “Seances” which proposes not, as one might expect, a simple increase in spiritualist activity but a situation in which there are so many dead to send messages that the Ouija boards get out of control and go on banging out their messages despite the desperate attempts of the users to stop them:

. . . . . 
some wrap it in blankets and stash it in a drawer
some submerge it in a tropical fish tank
an anonymous narrator dictates War and Peace
and the back story of the Cheshire Cat
something is spelling quality mince matters
perhaps a butcher with undying remorse
this last parlour game this after-life rhythm
a constant tapping of fees and charges
Rosabelle-answer-tell-pray – believe believe believe
over and over from beneath the house
wedged in a locker at the Ever Fit gym
abandoned in a food court at an empty mall . . .

From “Back Paddock” on, the poems are not so much explorations of responses to the Apocalypse as descriptions of extreme activities which require a generalised apocalyptic atmosphere to occur. The message being, I assume, that this kind of behaviour is becoming more and more the norm as groups of Americans plan for life in a post atomic-war age. “Library” gives the best description of this imagined world as “a mix of The Road and World War Z / plus A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. In this poem a group barricade themselves inside a library and set off searching for How to Take Hostages for Dummies. In “Legoland” the world is taken over by lego simulacra of reality and in “Meteorite” someone who finds a landed, smoking meteor – surely the most harmless of visitors from outer space – finishes up taking it into the chicken coop where he reads it “Gilgamesh and Ozymandias”. And, finally, there is a description in “Botanicals” of people strapping flower bulbs to the backs of their heads so that, when they die, their bodies will nourish the plant. Grotesque but, in it’s odd way, rather moving.

The poems of the book’s final section are surrealist pieces organised so that they begin with poems that “make sense” in the apocalyptic environment of the rest of the book but which gradually become more extreme. How much they are based on dreams – that regular provider of meaningful but incomprehensible images – it’s hard to say though “Dreamliner” and “Bear Forest” both tempt the reader to interpret boat and forest as symbols of dream. The first poem, “Red Shawl Flapping”, seems entirely coherent:

there are not enough flowers and the wolves close in
a baby wakes in an empty house
a splash upon the doorstep and a red shawl flapping
but nobody heard the shot
strands upon the spade that remains unhidden
a plot of earth beneath the pines
the moon comes chanting at the broken gate
the rope puzzles remain unsolved
cicadas sizzling above a war of wheat
sparrows revel in the dirt-bath dust
a television turning the milk upon the bench
toward a slow bold hunter’s nose
and the baby the chanting a red shawl flapping
on the grim slack whip of the line
a racket of carriages passing in the distance
everything gets dragged outside.

Clearly we are here in an environment which is part crime-scene, part Brothers Grimm. The images are laid down bluntly (rather like the “racket of carriages” of the poem) but they get a kind of incantatory effect by their repetitive structures, an effect supported by the use of the slightly archaic and formal “upon” rather than the more demotic “on”. The repeated phrase, “red shawl flapping”, prepares for the later poems where there is a much more intense repetition of important statements.

By the time we get to poems like “Excluding Guns and Ammo”, “Confession” and “Ravine” we are a long way from coherence and in a nightmare surrealist world whose images are consistent in that they share the apocalyptic atmosphere of the rest of the book. But if there is no humane “cuteness” there is also no palpable emotional commitment. As such, there may be a therapeutic function in the sequence or there may be an adjusting of poetic reputation on the poet’s part but, either way, it’s hard to see the poems of this final section as representing a road one would want Curnow to travel too far down. A poem from the middle of the final section, “Ex”, seems to want to be read as symbolising the dream images as a circus (a symbol that goes at least as far back as Rimbaud and perhaps further). I read it (somewhat nervously) as a critique of the keeper by his ex-wife: both of them being components of the creating consciousness, one providing the material the other keeping some kind of control. But when she says, at the beginning, “the keeper is living in a fantasy / dream sequences are for losers these days / my job is to keep the talent tight / in the circumspect light of the compound” there’s a statement there about dream-images that might be true for the poems of this final section.

Peter Rose: The Subject of Feeling

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2015, 78pp.

One of the best descriptions of Peter Rose’s poetry is to be found on the blurb (not normally a site of good descriptions) of his third book, Donatello in Wangaratta, which, after mentioning intelligence and a delight in language, speaks of “a heightened awareness of life’s surprising gifts and irredeemable losses, a contemporary and cosmopolitan sensibility”. Of course there is no causal relationship between the two parts of this description but both are, in their own way, true and serve as a good way of describing this new book.

To begin with the second part: one of the things that marks out Rose’s poetry as so distinctive is that, while it explores a complex and intense inner life, it’s a life which is lived in the context of an urbane, cosmopolitan, professionally literary outer life. Everyone’s inner life has, of course, an outer life as a sort of vehicle or protective shell – we are all, after all, situated somewhere in our lives, in a job, an age group, a country – but Peter Rose’s outer life of the activities of a major literary editor, the inevitable visits to the opera or a gallery or a book launch, hours spent at mind-numbing proofreading etc, isn’t really like the outer life of any other Australian poet. It has been said that it feels rather English but this is only because such a professional life is more likely to occur in England where publishers and non-academic intellectuals are rather thicker on the ground. Rose’s national identity (or perhaps, Victorian identity) is, anyway, impeccable since he grew up in a rural town the son of one of Australian Rules Football’s greats.

My feeling about the slight strangeness of the milieu in which the experiences of these poems occur is that it tells us more about other Australian poets than it tells us about Rose. It’s surprisingly odd to read a poet with, apparently, absolutely no interest in landscape, for example, and it’s a reminder of how important landscape, and the various ways its significances can be configured, is to Australian poets. Even Slessor, whom one might look to as a similar literary intellectual, equally a man of the city, has poems about landscape and at least one about the cosmos even if those poems make the point that those things are alien and disconcerting. One might look to Peter Porter but Porter’s exterior life was spent in England and though he happily speaks of “the permanently upright city where / speech is nature and plants conceive in pots” there is a lot of confrontation with landscape and alien geographies in Porter’s poems. And then there is the fact that Porter’s and Rose’s poems seem so entirely different that you feel that the comparisons were made out of ambience rather than poetics.

Then there are “life’s surprising gifts and irredeemable losses”. In Rose’s poetry the former can derive from art but they are usually amatory. He writes brilliantly of the revelations of falling in love even though the experience probably contains the seeds of its failure. There is a poem, “Cheap Editions”, in his first book, The House of Vitriol, which describes those intense moments of literary discovery that happen in one’s late teens. First St John of the Cross encountered in “one of those nasty American editions, / putrid spores and tight-arsed spine” and then Camus’ outsider introduced at “one of those ill-lit parties” turns the world of the saintly doctor upsidedown. But the poem finishes: “Then I met someone, for the first time. / Contentment, voluptuousness, blasted forever”. In other words (as I read it) the early literary passions are essentially trivial and self-indulgent in the face of a real, if temporary passion. Rose has always done this really well: the title poem of Donatello in Wangaratta is about the revelation the child experiences when he sees a print of Donatello’s David.

The failures and losses the world imposes are always present of course. “Sentence” from Rattus Rattus, imagines the self as a kind of Roman victim waiting for the senate’s decree and, probably, the method of execution. As the poems progress, the failures of love become less about love and more about memory, a memory which fixes certain scenes, dates and anniversaries. Thus “Bait”, from The Catullan Rag, begins:

It was one of your last visits.
My memory is sharp, even clinical,
gives interviews like a criminal . . .

Much of this comes together emblematically in the first poem of The Subject of Feeling, “Impromptu”. (Actually, technically, it’s the second poem since the volume is prefixed by “Twenty Questions” an answer to Donald Justice’s poem of the same name. Interestingly the first poem of Rose’s first book, comprises twenty reasons for failure and “Notionalism” in The Catullan Rag is a list of twenty kinds of notion.)

Moments ago, back from the library
and the noisy, populous park
(that shrill of infantocracy),
I was entering our building when
a magpie swooped – taut dart of surprise.
. . . . . 
Well, I was beyond cavilling,
too full of the poem that Donald Justice
had absently enjoined me to pen,
the poem that might lead somewhere
or fail to ascend. Four flights up,
our terrace doors open to summer,
you were playing an Impromptu
by Schubert (very carefully),
arpeggios audible on the street,
if the street cared to attend.
I stood there listening,
mindful of the magpie
and his fierce, nesting, arrowy urge.

There’s stable love, intimacy and music in the upper floors here and they are approached by a poet with his head full of a poem that might or might not work (described in terms of leading somewhere and ascending). And yet the whole thing is framed by a dangerous magpie. I take this to symbolise the darker side of the world and its treasures. It’s tempting, momentarily, to try to be a bit more precise – the magpie is ferocious because it is protecting its nest but poet and partner have no young; or the magpie comes from the natural world into this urban world of flats and music that deliberately excludes it – but in the end, I’ll stay with the slightly more general interpretation.

The “irredeemable losses” that the world imposes are not only amatory ones, of course. There is a trauma at the heart of this inner life and it is one that is continually revisited not to probe a sore tooth but to explore memory: Rose’s brother, Rob, became a quadriplegic after a car accident and died comparatively young. Rose’s much admired memoir, The Rose Boys, details these events but they have always been part of his poetry going back as far as “I Recognise My Brother in a Dream” from The House of Vitriol. In The Subject of Feeling the second section is devoted to poems which are memories of family and the long poem, “Tiles”, which seems, at first, to be about his mother’s experience of eight months in hospital with rheumatic fever and no visitors quickly becomes a story about Robert, in hospital, staying sane by trying to count the tiles in the ceiling of the ward.

As I’ve said, you feel that, as Rose ages, memory itself becomes the subject of the poems rather than the event which is memorialised – something that occurs in Tony Judt’s brilliant memoir (equally devoted to trauma), The Memory Chalet. And movement is involved here in interesting ways. Sometimes you feel the poet move towards memory but, at other times, memory moves towards him. That’s the reason, I think, why “Late Autograph” stays in the mind: Rose is signing copies of The Rose Boys when he sees, in the queue approaching him, an old flame from his adolescent past. What to write? In the end, words fail to solve the problem and the friend gets “something fond and anodyne” but though words fail, memory doesn’t and we are left with a sharply focussed image from the past:

. . . . . 
                                       And then,
transcending those wraiths of reality,
you were standing in front of me again
brazen amid a horde of admirers -
naked, panting, grazed down one side,
towel over your shoulder, teasing me,
calling me nicknames, sweet, aromatic.

If we stand back from this poem a little we can see a situation in which the trigger of a memory moves towards the poet through the mechanism of a queue. Another, “Dux”, which involves meeting with an older woman poet, also is set in a queue though here the queue symbolises a procession of poets slowly getting older but always retaining the same relative positioning. It has a wonderfully oblique opening (a bit like the first sentence of A Passage to India) – “I always remembered her, / if I remembered her at all, / which was not very often, say once a year . . .” But it is really about another issue of memory: though our memories may be clinically clear and we may be confident as to what the actors of those memories mean to us, we cannot be equally clear about what we mean to them in their own memories. Memory, as an important early poem, “The Wound”, suggests unfortunately inclines towards solipsism and here the older poet says “cordial things about a past / more apparent to her, more vivid, tangible”.

The quote from the cover of Donatello in Wangaratta which I’ve used to structure these observations so far, also has a comment about Rose’s “delight in language”. It’s an interesting issue and one remembers another early poem about his brother which says:

You never understood my lexical craze
but I could spend eternity hunting for a
long beautiful word for addicts of anniversaries.
There must be a name for it, a need. . .

In Rose’s previous books I’d always felt that part of the structure of individual poems involved a certain linguistic tension. Many of them seemed to have one unusual or unusually-used word which, you felt, was a way of tightening the poem’s cross-braces or, perhaps, of suggesting the existence of a more complex lexicon that might produce a poetry that is more precise but less comprehensible. I haven’t spent any time on this issue here because I have a sense that it’s not as consistent a feature of the poems of this new book than it might have been in the past. But one poem demonstrates it nicely. “The Vendramin Family” is about Titian’s famous painting:

And why the shocked awe on the staircase
leading nowhere but infinity?
Tell us now, earnest youth
in the second row, mouth open
in something like mystification - 
the idiot as inspirado?
Listless we shelter in the gallery,
the gallery as reliquary -
wet from the London rain,
shaken by wonted sirens,
half-expecting catastrophe
in a handsome guise. Who knows
which way the wind blows,
why the candles lean fondly to the west.

The final section of The Subject of Feeling is a twenty-five poem addition to Rose’s “Catullan Rag” a series imagined to be in the style of Catullus. I think the function of these poems is to allow the poet to let his hair down a little and enter a reasonably scabrous version of literary life, its petty hatreds, viciousnesses and loves, without causing insult to anyone in particular. Thus:

Give up, Catullus. Bury your umbrage and head for the bush.
Warty Suffenus has just got an OAM,
Postumia a Pulitzer for her comic sequel to Moby-Dick.
Wither away, Catullus. Why don’t you just die?

The first thing to say about this enjoyable series is, I suppose, that they tap into only part of Catullus: the epigrams. I don’t want to appear like a picky pedant here, but I love the poetry of Catullus as much as Rose does and I can’t help but feel that someone who went from Rose’s poems to those of Catullus would get quite a shock at how much more they are than mere literary scabrousness – imagine coming up against any of the poems from numbers sixty-one to sixty-four. And even the epigrams almost always sustain themselves not by the shock of their coarseness but by their complex (though witty) structures. It’s also worth pointing out that these poems might now be seen as part of a genre: there are versions of Martial (who I think might be more like Rose’s Catullus than Catullus is) by Peter Porter and Laurie Duggan, David Malouf’s continuing series of modernisations of Horace, some imagined poems of Catullus by David Brooks and Geoffrey Lehmann’s rather wonderful imagined poems of Nero. Someone, one day, will write a long and involved essay about this and what it might mean in Australian poetry.

The second thing to say about the poetry of Catullus vis-a-vis that of Rose is that the former is marked by two traumatic experiences, represented by the two lines of Catullus which have passed into the language. The first (“vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus” – “Lesbia let us live and love”) introduces Catullus’ experience of the agonies and ecstasies of true love and the second (“atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale” – “and so, forever, brother, hello and goodbye”) the untimely loss of his brother whose grave, in the Troad, he is able to visit only in passing. None of Rose’s poems about his brother, Robert, have any connection with his “Catullus” poems, and chronology argues against it, but still it is hard to suppress the idea that a hidden link of loss between the two poets has somehow suggested the idea of inhabiting Catullus’ voice.

Rae Desmond Jones: A Caterpillar On a Leaf

Glebe: Puncher & Wattman, 2016, 57pp.

Published in 2013, Rae Desmond Jones’s selected poems, It Comes From All Directions revealled a poetic career of two halves with a twenty-seven year gap between. The first part was marked by poems of a gritty immersion in the world of the inner city streets often producing disturbing monologues. The poems of the latter part were committed to exploring a host of new directions. This new book develops out of this exploration. In form it focusses on one of those possibilities – it is made up of fifty ghazals – and seems to be aiming for a new and deeper kind of lyricism, lyricism always having been an element of Jones’s work despite the fact that many of the earlier poems wanted to extend the range of language in poetry by including the scabrous.

To look at the formal issue first, the ghazal – really a classical Persian form though with Arabic origins – has made fleeting appearances in Australian poetry, first (as far as I know) in the later work of Judith Wright. Essentially it is made up of a series of “couplets” whose second lines, in the classical form, all rhyme (often multisyllabically) or share the same final word. In the latter case the effect is very like the rhetorical scheme of epistrophe. Ghazals can be unified lyric meditations but they can also be a series of disjunctive end-stopped propositions, a serial set of brilliant detonations. In the poetry of Persia’s greatest poet, Hafez, this is taken to an extreme so that the act of reading the poem is to discover the hidden string on which propositions are threaded. I hope I won’t seem to be drawing attention too much away from Jones’s book if I give my beginner’s literal translation of one of Hafez’s most famous poems by way of example:

If that Turk of Shiraz would take my heart into her hand,
For her Indian mole I would give Bokhara and Samarqand.

Bring, O winebearer, the remains of the wine which is not found in heaven
But by the waters of the Rokhnabad and the flower gardens of the Mosalla.

Alas for these saucy gipsy girls who disturb towns with their 'skill',
They have taken peace from my heart as Turks steal booty from a table.

I know of that ability to daily grow in beauty which Joseph possessed,
How love drew Zuleikha out through the curtain of chastity.

The beauty of our lover does not need our incomplete love.
What does the beauty of her face need of make-up, or eye-liner! 

You spoke harshly to me and I rejoiced, thank God you spoke well,
A bitter answer is suited to sweet ruby lips.

Listen to my advice, my dear, the advice of a wise old man
Which the happy young hold dearer than life itself.

Tell fables of musicians and wine and seek less the secrets of Time
For none have solved or will solve these riddles by wisdom.

You have sung the song and threaded the pearl, come and sing sweetly, Hafez,
Over whose poem the heavens have poured the splendour of the Pleiades

(The name or, more precisely, the nickname, of the poet in the last couplet is a convention and the sex of the “Turk” in the opening is indeterminate and a male should, if anything, probably be preferred. For contemporary Australians that probably disorients the reading of the poem more than it would have for the fourteenth-century contemporaries of Hafez. The exquisitely beautiful fourth couplet refers to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife who, in the Islamic tradition, is called Zuleikha.)

It’s a poem worth reading in the utterly different place and time which we inhabit because it gives some sense of the lyric possibilities that the ghazal brings into Australian poetry with it. Above all, the sharp, self-contained utterances prevent that extended discursiveness which the conventional English language lyric is given to. Not that there is anything wrong with that per se – indeed one of the pleasures of the conventional lyric is the way the utterance falls into syntax through the length of the poem – but the ghazal offers new possibilities to poets. It also makes readers approach the poem differently, not so much translating as constructing the “meaning”.

Jones’s fifty ghazals vary in their adherence to this model. None of them try to copy Persian rhymes, which is probably a good thing, but some stay quite close to the spirit of the form. Of all of them, the first probably stays closest. It is dedicated to “the beloved on the last night” and thus immediately alludes to the idea of the absent beloved, a classic trope in the mystical tradition of Persian poetry where the desire for union with an absent God supplies the power of the verse; it also has the traditional symbols of roses and the moon.

in the dark a woman knits across the table,
          her needles click softly & tenderly.

the smell of roses are rich & sweet,
          the pulsing blood of moving air.

the old pepper tree shudders & whispers,
          the full moon spills silver into my hands.

shadow, what do you know?
          the sinistral mirror smiles along its crack.

the sparkling stars peck at the clouds,
          an angel breathes down my back.

there is no one else in all there is
          & our world is alone in its wick of light.

Despite its traditional appearance, I think this is best described as a poem of celebration and perspective. And as such it is well-positioned to introduce the other poems of the book. The small world “alone in its wick of light” might be the domestic universe of the poet and his beloved, looking out onto a backyard of rose bushes and single pepper tree, but it might also be the world of the whole human race seen in the perspective of the cosmos (the stars) and the divine (the angel).

The rapid alterations of perspective from the individual to the cosmic are one of the features of this book. In a fine poem – which produces the book’s title – each of the first three couplets oscillates between the intimate and minuscule act of writing and a larger perspective which in the first is introduced by juxtaposition, in the second by metaphor and in the third by a dead metaphor which is resuscitated by the first two:

my pen drips dark blue ink,
          hungry rivers break their banks.

deep clefts of my making
          are as distant as the Moon,

words which slide & fail
          the depth of my adoration . . .

In another poem a lamp, seen in a photograph, is “an iridescent expanding universe”, and almost the whole of a late poem imagines the connection between an individual’s desire and the “coupling, birthing, fire” of the whole universe: the last couplet “now a dying body snatches / at the light” plays on the way the word “body” is used of planets and stars (heavenly bodies) and also of the solitary human being. It’s a moot point whether these plays with perspective are encouraged or in some way contained within the formal possibilities of the ghazal but it may be no coincidence that Judith Wright’s ghazals also dealt with cosmic themes (albeit slightly different ones) and the situation of the infinitesimally small but significant human individual.

That first poem also asks “shadow, what do you know?” an introduction to the repeated images of alter egos, inner twins and other selves that runs through this book. A brilliant poem (No VI) describes a girl seen in passing in a mirror’s reflection. It might have been a portrait in Jones’s earlier style but the real interest is in the way she belongs in the mirror world. But instead of being less substantial because of this, she actually has more presence. The poem finishes

         what causes her to hate me?

she is no body to me as i walk on,
          hand in hand with the dead.

Sometimes the other figure is death itself (not an unusual preoccupation for a poet born as long ago as 1941 and now living “in a time of winnowing”) either named as such – “death was such good fun – / booze, drugs & poetry. // how did i avoid you? / so Byronic, so good looking!” – or embodied in an unknown lover “although I have never seen your face / you are near me. // so close . . .” Another internal figure “that thing that is not me” is an embodiment of the individual’s less desirable traits and, in the fortieth poem, a sinister character standing at the entrance to the poet’s street is surely another internal self which has been objectified:

. . . . .
our street rolls out behind him,
          a long tongue of forever.

he hasn’t shaved for a week:
          what questions does he ask?

the whites of his eyes,
          no moon, the darkness.

Whatever the exact perspective, the end of the first ghazal seems to me to want to celebrate our world which is “alone in its wick of light”. It’s a reminder that at the heart of Jones’s poetry there has always been a great love of live as it is conventionally lived, a love for the “fun of life, the sheer / tragic bullshit of it”. The fourth poem, lacking any cosmic perspectives and focussing entirely on a suburban backyard, has an almost Maloufian finish:

leaves mulch my concrete pathway:
          somewhere in the roof there is a rat.

after this year’s winter storms
          the gutters & downpipes block & overflow.

a rough pyramid of sandstone could make a wall
          if i would dig a deep neat trench.

citrus trees produce sweet fruit,
          small oranges, fat grapefruit, oozing lemons.

as we sleep Eden grows around us,
          weeds & bright coloured singing birds.

Of course, celebration only makes sense to us if it is framed by the darker elements of life which stand against it and there is a good deal of poetry in this book which engages that darker element. There are those young who are always potential jihadists in one cause or another driven by lust and money:

what are the dreams of boys?
          a burning itch between the legs,

galleons loaded down with silver
          in a rising storm.

waves of dopamine – images
          of naked houris dancing . . .

In this poem (No XLIV), though, there is a sense of the author identifying with this analysis of the forces impacting on the young because the poem goes on to adulthood (the time of “babies & nappies, sleepless nights” before finishing with a personal plea:

          lord or demon of my brain,

if you exist here or beyond the stars,
          make me indifferent, brave & wise.

There is a poem (No XXIV) about the way our foreign policy and minerals exportation are connected, done as a set of almost comic historical metaphors:

air force 1 hits the tarmac
          as huns bang politely against the gates.

. . . . .

our Roman armies may march North through deserts
          where riches bleed beneath the earth.

bulldozers scrape empty the guts of time,
          they dig our fortune & our grave.

And another poem (No XXII) is, if I read it correctly, an attack on Australia’s media monopoly:

. . . . .
announcements are distributed
          on yellow paper from corners.

we are unused to speech since
          your tongue stopped our mouths.

through broken sewers under sunken roads
          our waste returns,

we have created you in our image:
          all of this belongs to us.

But, despite contemporary media and contemporary terrorism, despite the fact that we recognise inside ourselves alter egos that are often disturbing, and despite the fact that the human world inside its domestic garden or its little “wick of light” is rendered infinitesimal in the perspective of the cosmos, this seems, essentially, a positive and affirming book. For poets it is poetry itself which is usually invoked as one of the most valuable of humanity’s positive resources, an expression of the human drive towards creativity rather than self-aggrandisement. Interestingly it is a line rarely taken in A Caterpillar on a Leaf but the final poem is an exception here. Perhaps it marks a way of responding to the “the sheer / tragic bullshit” of life:

my seed pushes beneath the earth
          unable to break the crust.

still i do what i want to want,
          dipping into the stunted bag of “i can”.

an old eagle watches from the rock
          thinking “what is meaning? did i create it?”

always that girl with long red hair
          scrapes a drum with a furry stick.

there are lots of them have gone that way -
          i will follow them soon enough.

If creativity is one of the best ways in which human beings respond to a positive perception of life out of their stunted bags of “i can”, we can count the fifty experiments in ghazal form contained in this book as a development of new ways in which the lyrical-poetic branch of creativity can move forward.

Liam Ferney: Content

Santa[sic] Lucia: Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2016, 87pp.

This impressive and engaging collection continues in the vein of Liam Ferney’s previous book, Boom. We experience the same immersion in the complex allusions, codes and structures of contemporary popular culture while at the same time registering a kind of distance from it. For a temperamentally late-adopting, island-dwelling recluse like myself it all constitutes a bit of an education and I’m aware of the irony that it is the technology which usually disseminates this culture that also makes it possible, by reading Boom and Content with your Google page ready for action, to make sense of the references. I now know at least the basic information about subjects like John Hughes, Insane Wolf, The Gentleman’s Jolly; I even know what a fixie and a noseflip is.

Ferney is often seen as the kind of poet we go to for an experience of cultural immediacy, an immersion in the ever-changing world of fads, fashions and acronyms. Although his work is very different to that of, say, Pam Brown, Laurie Duggan and the ever-influential John Forbes, it can, clumsily, be pigeonholed as belonging to an approach to existence which won’t accept that poetry’s essential interest is in the deep, personal experiences (birth, love, death and things in between) which are inflected, but never radically altered, by whatever cultural milieu (or, for that matter, language) the poet happens to have been born into. The life experiences, in other words, which don’t have brand names. But pigeonholing like this always seems to finish up obscuring more than it reveals. Ferney’s poetry has its own issues, tensions and dynamics, and they need to be looked at.

It seems to me that it’s a poetry pulled in three directions and it’s the pull that tensions the best of the poems. The first is towards immersion. Contemporary and “popular” culture provides almost all of the references, habitually in Ferney’s poetry, in a web of similes: where else could familiarity be likened to “the Freo Doctor / pushing DK through the final overs of a WACA belter” or a poem’s shapely conclusion be likened to “Senna’s // deadly speed”? Take “National History”, for example:

The port haze wheezes on the harbour
& the oil tanker of regret
              Demtel demo’s dugongs
when the propellers fire up &
              someone’s fiance flees
for the fertile fjord of shittheyjustmadeup.

Fisheyed noseflips & manual pads
might’ve powered an early nineties
              skinny board tech sesh,
but post-millennial they smell fear.
              Time to resurrect your boombox;
go Jamie Thomas rawlarge / Iron Maiden style.

It’s in two balanced parts, the first is devoted to the present and the second to the past. The present is made up of related maritime images: typical of Ferney’s references he uses a neologism from commercial television – “Demtel demo’s” – for “slices-up”. The second stanza is built on decade-specific fads like skateboarding. The recommendation, surely ironic, is to retreat to the end of the last millennium, the time of skateboards, Iron Maiden and ghettoblasters.

And it’s no accident that this should be a poem which is, in a larger sense, about time (or Time), that great subject of Australian poetry in the immediate pre- and post-war periods, now long disappeared into the past. Here time is conceived as cultural time, its markers being changes in fashion. To be immersed in contemporary culture is, in other words, to experience a situation which is far from that of a kind of timeless continuous present. It is, on the contrary, to be obsessed by time because one is surrounded by rapidly changing markers of the passage of time. We can see something of this in a poem called “Date Night” where the protagonist (a bit like Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam) tries on – immerses himself in – the cool postures of post war cinema finding out that, for it to work, you have to be equipped with a scriptwriter completely in tune with the rapidly changing tastes of the audience:

. . . . . 
And these things don’t ever
come good. Not unless
you’ve got a scriptwriter
blessed with a golden Remington
and an almanac detailing
exactly what next month’s
popcorn guzzlers want
in the Friday night makeout slot.
And even if I was still there at the end
                                  the Forties were all over
and the Fifties were yet to begin.

This poem is preceded in Content by “. . . of the Dead” another poem which is, in its way, about immersion. The poem attaches itself to Shaun of the Dead a film which asks to be read as a funny, profoundly hostile and canny critique of aspects of contemporary popular culture while being made in one of that culture’s topical genres. Here the speaker is a member of the inevitable living dead, shuffling along, waiting

while the eye-patched holdouts broadcast

in some Krushchev-era bunker
it happened so quickly: no d-day all Dunkirk

This is a sort of immersion that introduces a second drive within Ferney’s poetry: that of a desire to find a position in the contemporary world from which to critique that world. In my reading of “ . . . of the Dead” the poem piggy-backs the film’s comment – dangerous to endorse too overtly – that the “public” are no more than living dead, mindless absorbers of the material foisted on them by the controllers of cultural life. In other words it belongs to that element of Ferney which is aggressively positioned against the stuff that bombards our existence. If that means turning him into a contemporary Savonarola there is the evidence of an earlier poem from the book, “Fal0 delle vanita ”, which suggests that it’s a comparison he may have pursued himself though, despite the fact that the poem has plenty of references to rapid changes of taste (“Our dictionary is out-of-date. / The word coined by last autumn’s meme / highlighting its redundancy”), it is also, I think, an attempt at a personal poem and there is never much use for the personal in the pronouncements of Savonarolas.

At any rate there is a great deal of the judgemental in Ferney’s poetry and this is an area where the poetry gets put under a lot of pressure. Immersion in the contemporary always has a kind of poetic life because of the sheer novelty of previously unheard brand names and inventive hipster argot. But judgment is pulled towards the familiar tones of parents and Old Testament prophets. And there are plenty of quotable examples in Content: “Lonesome Death” begins with “We have been unable / to master // the ethics of war”, “Mugabe” contains the lines “We have traded greatness for convenience, / our atrocities are those of acquiescence” and the book’s first poem says openly “Isn’t it enough that we have already / diminished ourselves?” Of course it’s possible that this tone is to be imagined as being in quote marks, a repetition and brief, theatrical inhabiting of a common tone. It’s even possible to defend it as being ironized: part of the contemporary “system” is a space given to cliched and impotent attacks on that system. But I think that would be drawing far too long a bow. Instead, it might be better to acknowledge that there is a Savonarola lurking inside Ferney and that the anger animates many of the poems while at the same time producing a lot of poetic challenges.

Evidence for this might include the fact that the first and last poems of Content – the frames or bookends – are overtly angry poems. “When God Dies” takes on Queensland’s appalling public media:

So let’s get this straight:

               we don’t do state funerals -

but what we do do
                is tabloid extravaganzas starring Valmae Beck? . . .

The poem imagines a film built out of filmland aliases (George Eastman, “Polanski, / an Alan Smithee stand in / for Joe D’Amato”) in which Godard’s Anna Karina “Goes under the axe blade in this / sub B-Grade faux-Bergman B&W shocker”. All of this is a complex take on the mechanisms of B-Grade culture but the poem finishes in the poet’s own voice (though the initial metaphor comes from the B-Grade examples of a different genre):

& I stick to my guns
because the newspapers in this town
                               only report reliably
on gossip, slander & opinion.

The final poem, “The Comments”, whose title must be derived from the usually bigoted and often delusional comments that readers add in the space under journalists’ accounts (as a devoted follower of the EPL and a reader online of English sports journalists’ analyses of its matches, haud inexpertus loquor) is an openly angry piece which does summarise much of the book’s material:

Forget everything you know.
Or don’t: haunt
your secularism,

& define yourself by
the memes you like.
Abandon all coherence

as long as you balance
that marble between
outrage & having

no skin in the game.
We have never
had so much data,

so many stages
to rehearse the sound &
the fury & that’s why

my poems let me say
what Insanity Wolf won’t.
Nice Guy Greg

tells you It’s all Brady
Bunch in the end - 
but it’s not

It’s Ted Bundy rampaging
through a Florida dormitory.
Marcia, Marcia, massacre.

Even a tree branch
mince’s meat.
Don’t look surprised -

you fucking deserved it.

That’s quite a tour de force and, like all such, takes a lot of risks. Again, although it could be surrounded by all sorts of protective shells (it’s ironized, it’s a dramatic monologue, etc), I think it is the purest expression in Content of the Savonarola side of Ferney and, significantly, that is the one he wants to leave readers with. It also reminds us that he wants the title of the book to be stressed on the first not the second syllable. And, poetically, it seems a success to me, not least because its mode is so difficult in poetic terms, far more difficult than to invent a poetry driven by immersion in the contemporary.

If immersion and anger are two components of Ferney’s poetry, the third is the autobiographical. They come together in those poems which see him in his role as a public affairs consultant irritated by the difference between real reporting and “press release journalism”. You get a sense of it in the second poem of the book, “Monsoon Season”:

. . . . . 
instead there are crickets & cigarette filters
even though I quit smoking before Christmas
& I never learnt to play the guitar

& if there’s no time for an obituary
stick to a hot issues brief
to cut through the Boss’s clutter

& make sure the hagiography is on message ready
to be spliced up for some news director’s jollies

so when the cycle rolls over in the morning
the frumpy bloggers know exactly where you stand

Although in conventional lyric poetry (built on the idea, as I have said, of “universal” experiences) autobiography is a normal mode, in poetry such as Ferney’s, it is something poetically difficult to do well. As anger is. Forbes is a model here though one is never sure whether the brief glimpses of feelings and personal experience which his poems contain are strong spots or weak ones. Connected to the autobiographical is poetry itself since the most significant part of a poet’s life is his or her poetry. There is a strong tendency in Forbes (and in Ferney) for poetry as an art to be one solid “universal” phenomenon that can act as an anchor point in a world-view which is usually anxious to show that such anchors are a mere chimera. Forbes’s “Sydney Harbour Considered as a Matisse”, listing the features of contemporary life, “girls reduced to tears just once, blokes in // sports cars fuming, their parasite careers . . .”, ends memorably

Can art be good enough to save all this,

plus perfume of frangipani blooms
crushed on sandstone piers? Maybe just.

And you feel the same drive in Ferney’s poetry. “Old Physics” begins with a description of the way quantum mechanics (“the chancers // played dice / at the deity’s funeral”) replaced the previous model, interestingly metaphorised as “carvery classics, // dim sims, Chiko rolls, // potato scallops and / chips gold as glory”. But the poem’s real interest is in how any physics can be used to describe poetry, though the metaphor used for poetry itself is one derived from mechanics:

How do you use
physics to explain

a poem?
A hardly measurable

deceleration into a corner
the slingshot setup

for a home straight
with all of Senna’s

deadly speed . . .

To me all of these issues: immersion, judgement and autobiography (with a poet’s art being one of its crucial components) are riddled with interesting problems. It’s fascinating to see Ferney navigating between them as well as making a high percentage of satisfying poems in the process of doing so. One of Ferney’s poems in Boom had a fine description of its author as “a sceptical astronaut”: “Two Zone Weekly” from Content finishes with a description of the poet and a fellow passenger on a city council bus (the latter reading a “phonebook-thick teen vampire love novel): “we are both of us shucking oysters / diving blindly for pearls”.

Anthony Lawrence: Headwaters

Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2016, 77pp.

“Murmuration”, the second poem of Anthony Lawrence’s new book, is a meditation on the way flights of birds form and unform shapes with what seems like practised ease. The collective noun for a flock of starlings, a “murmuration”, derives from the sound the flocks make. The word itself is Latin and much of the poem is devoted to examining the similarity of the birds in both Australian and Italian (Roman) contexts: the sound they make, the poem says, is the same as the sound of rain “falling over the Pantheon / or through miles of telegraph poles / on the Monaro Plain”. The poem moves towards conclusion as the birds settle down to roost in both locations: the separate worlds of “columns and skylines” and “remnant stands of box iron-bark”:

and where the sky pours down
               like madder lake
                              into the roosting dark
sturnis vulgaris preens feathers
scaled with metal highlights
buffed into song
               and who could not be moved
                              aside from themselves for this.

There is a lot about language here, about English’s dual heritage of Latin and Germanic (it’s no coincidence that the first word used for the birds is “starlings” and the second is “sturnis vulgaris”) but the poem is as equally interested in the sound of the words as it is in their history. It is even possible that the last two lines – bringing the poem home to the effect of its scene on a viewer – might invoke the Greek word “ekstasis” (our “ecstasy”) whose original meaning “out of place” describes the way we can be moved out of ourselves by something (it is the origin of our phrase “beside myself” used to describe the effects of anger).

So, I think, one of the many things that “Murmuration” wants to say is that words have both a history and a presence. It may even be that Lawrence wants to say that uncovering the etymology of words is a scientific activity whereas responding to the presence, their sound and appearance, is a poetic activity. Certainly the whole of twentieth century linguistics is built on the notion that the word’s relationship to what it refers to is arbitrary but, perhaps, the poetic imagination with its tendency towards porous boundaries (as in synaesthesia) is capable of fighting against such rigid separations.

But “Murmuration” is also about the shapes that the birds make and thus introduces an issue that emerges in other poems in the book. “Bogong Moths”, for example, includes a delphic proposition in the middle of a memorable description of other shapes produced by animals:

. . . . .
          as children on farms, we had learned
                      from migrations
and infestations, that form is a mirror for disorder
that the brown shag pile carpet
a drought had unrolled from silo to kitchen
                               had been made of mice
so numerous and fast they moved as one, a ground-
swell of need, that locusts in swarm make patterns
in the air if you lie under them
                               and let your eyes
lose focus to see congested flight break away
from the linear lines hunger draws tight
across the land . . .

I’ve been puzzling over the implications of “form is a mirror for disorder” since my first reading of this book. Perhaps it means that all apparent disorder can be shown to have shape if viewed from a different perspective. In this case location is important and Lawrence is very clear in “Murmuration” that the starlings are seen from below, here by an observer who (in another challenging proposition) is in a position that

could imply supplication
or simply the attitude of someone
at ease with how grace can be
         divisive or calming . . .

The animals themselves (the starlings, mice and locusts) are driven by straightforward needs but, like the formula whereby endless iteration produces an infinitely complex (and in the case of fractals, an incredibly beautiful) result, the patterns they make, when seen from a perspective far enough away to be able to embrace the whole, are examples of intricate unstable forms. And if form can be a mirror of disorder then, as another poem, “Connective Tissue”, says, “disorder // can be the tradesman’s entrance / to mindfulness”.

I emphasise this issue of form, chaos and perspective because it’s part of Lawrence’s complex poetics that I have never really thought about before. I’d always blandly assumed that the startling precision of his images derives from an intense focus on the thing described so that, in the wonderful first poem of his previous book, the oysters on the rocks of the harbour are described as being like “ceramic fuse plates // sparking and shorting-out in the wash” or, in “Paper Wasps” from this new book, the nest is described as being “like a graphite sketch of a shower rose”. Both of these are close to a Hopkins-like precision and, when meshed in a poetry marked by a strong onward syntactic push they have something like the same effect that they have in the poetry of Bruce Beaver (a poet who is both like and very unlike Lawrence) where they have a throwaway quality so that the verse seems to say, “I’ve more important things to do than wallow in precise ”˜capturing’ of parts of the natural world”.

So the poems of Headwaters make one want to look at formal aspects in Lawrence’s poetry, not in the predictable sense of metre, quantity and rhyme scheme but in the sense of the shape of a poem. Starlings may form beautiful and apparently spontaneous shapes but so do poems. The book’s third poem, “Ode to a Whistling Kite”, is worth looking at in detail from this point of view:

I heard you before you appeared. You were hunting
the margins of all things estuarine, tracking the wind-
abbreviated signature of your song.
Descriptions of flight and sound should begin

with how these tidal encampments are home
to three other raptors, and naming them summons
the vowel-driven variousness of your calls:
Osprey, Brahminy Kite, white-bellied sea eagle.

Now I’ll attest to having seen you circle and stall
over the shallows, where mullet were so many
when they turned, the water was lit as though
by bars of polished chrome, and you dropped

to settle in a mangrove, still as the bird below you
in rippling imitation. Often, spur-wing plovers
will fly out to intercept you, the word trespass
broken down into volleys of avian abuse.

Sometimes, if the sky has been reduced to rain
the colour of marsh grass, you will be elsewhere
on the nest you have been shaping and repairing
each year like a busted wicker basket

on a grand scale, or inland, attending a fire
to overrun whatever escapes the flames.
You work the flats for live fish, and turn to carrion
out of season. I turn to you when I need reminding

that wonder and amazement are only a glance away
and that gulls might seem common – that rowdy
beach crowd in white rags craning necks for food - 
yet their beaks and legs are beautiful.

One needs to be reminded of this in full to get some sense of its strange and exciting shape. To begin with, one might see how it seems marked by continuous indirection. Far from focussing obsessively on the thing itself – the highly concentrated, ”mindful” gaze that, allied to a poet’s hyper-expressive language, is supposed to fix the object under view – the poem moves to other matters at every opportunity. It is obviously ecologically correct to say, as the poem does, that you can’t describe an animal properly without describing the animal’s environment as well, but here the poem seems to want to bring in the kite’s fellow raptors just as it wants to bring in the plovers which try to drive it off. It seems entirely deliberate that the poem should conclude not with the bird which is its subject but, first, with an account of how the bird’s effect on the narrator is to remind him that “wonder and amazement are only a glance away” and, second, with seagulls, whose legs and beaks are also beautiful.

This poem so deliberately flaunts the conventions of description, turning away from its subject whenever it can and even refusing that subject a final appearance by letting in a scruffy competitor for attention, that it leads you to wonder what the idea behind it is. It certainly makes for a fascinating shape because the strong onward, enjambed drive of the verse, characteristic of Lawrence, is always deflected from its target. Conceivably the twists and turning asides of the poem reflect, in a mimetic way, the twists and turns of the bird in flight. Also the poem might, like the bird, be hunting on “the margins of all things estuarine”. It could be saying (as it does in passing in the beginning) that you define an animal not by a careful, bird-watcher’s checklist of size, colour, call, habits etc but by locating it in its environment and observing the parts of the natural world which impinge on it, but I think the idea is a little wider than this and is rather about observation, imagination and language in poetry in general. The idea, after all, almost reflects the methods of the French Symbolists whereby the inexpressible is “expressed” by the symbols that surround it; it is also the governing idea behind “negative theology”.
“Ode to a Whistling Kite” makes me think back to the last two poems of the animal section of Lawrence’s previous book, Signal Flare, “Cattle Egret” and “Sightings”, especially the former in which the egrets, “attending stock” become “central // and peripheral” much as the kite does in his own poem. “Cattle Egret” deliberately contrasts the practice of consulting “a text / on wetlands birds // or a guide / to animal husbandry” in favour of “observing // in diffuse, patient ways”. In both cases the result of such observation is an effect on the poet himself, either a reminder that “wonder and amazement are only a glance away” or the experience of having been where “things are companionable / and alive // with possibilities”. And, as in “Ode to a Whistling Kite”, there is a strong emphasis on sound, not in the sense of the bird’s call but in the sense of the consonants and vowels of the animal’s names.
The form of “Ode to a Whistling Kite” is related to that of another Headwaters poem, “Giant Dragonfly”. Here the drive towards finding one of these insects in the hinterland mountains is what gives the poem its relentless forward dimension, but even at the beginning the search is thrown aside by the appearance of other items in the landscape:

In the Nightcap Ranges, in needle-point installations
of light on the rainforest floor, a windfall
of quandong berries
                                 give blue shade a darker hue
and upside down on a palm fringe lit with red beads
a wompoo pigeon is dispersing seeds with a call 
like a mistake: whoops, whoops . . .

All the sounds heard are not the expected one of the dragonfly in flight (“something akin to a low, insistent drone / as when a model aeroplane comes in”) but that of Friar birds, and the quest gets temporarily transferred to the various mimicries of the lyre-bird. Eventually the poem moves away from searching for an insect to the poet himself searching for some kind of identity or peace. Interestingly this too has a language dimension when the word “endanger” is taken apart to make an imperative “end anger”: not something that can be done logically since there is no etymological connection between “danger” and “anger”, but something that works on a non-logical plane. The poem finishes with its searcher “either asleep, or mapping / the area for giant dragonflies” thus, formally, bringing it back to its opening subject while at the same time announcing that that subject has not been found. It also, conceivably, ties the end with the poem’s first line in that the sleep is occurring in the memorably named “Nightcap Ranges”.

Something of this kind of “form through negatives” occurs in a long and difficult poem, “Connective Tissue”, whose title suggests, as does that of a later poem, “Bloodlines”, that the interest is in connections rather than disjunctions. “Connective Tissue” is punctuated by concretised metaphors based on experiences which the poet claims not to have had: the opening lines are a good example:

I have not paused at the summit
of a building or leaned
from the rail of a bridge, waiting

for the wind to turn, and to then
base-jump into the whistling night
my chute thrown clear to open

like an ink bloom in the wake
of the lit canopy of a cuttlefish
but I have stood beside you

as good news came through
the radio-active test site
your body had been . . .

Although the poem is really about connections between the speaker and his past, between the speaker and his partner, one of the things that I think this opening (indeed the whole structure of the poem) wants to say is that an experience can be inhabited imaginatively even though its only function is as a metaphor. The vision is just as intense as in the contemplation of the “real situation” of a medical outcome: witness the memorable comparison of a parachute to the ink bloom behind the canopy of a cuttlefish. In “Giant Dragonfly” the plants and birds which the poem focusses on in the absence of the central insect are realised just as intensely.

These matters of poem-shape, vision, metaphor and language are very complicated and I have the feeling that I should reread all of Lawrence’s previous work to feel comfortable with any of the generalisations. But then, really major poets need to be reread constantly. Certainly many of the other poems of Headwaters can be tied to these issues. “In Extremis” is an unusual poem in that it is ostensibly about an historical figure, Douglas Mawson, but its real interest is in the way Mawson, in a near-fatal situation, finds that his mind creates apparitions or, to put it more relevantly, breaks down the barriers between reality and imagined reality:

. . . . . 
In the late night flare and burn of the Aurora Australis
he finds the arc of a distress signal. In displacements of ice
breaking bone and rifle shots . . .

And, in extremis, he thinks about the origins of his name (we aren’t told whether he thinks of himself as “the son of the gut” or “the son of the sea-mew”), another example of the issue of language hovering alongside perception and imagination. (I’m not sure how relevant it is but it’s difficult not to read this poem alongside Michael Dransfield’s “Bum’s Rush” where the cave in the ice also encourages hallucinations but where the extreme situation is a result of drugs.)

And then there are others. “Loss” is a little poem about forgetfulness and the guilt of forgetting where one’s father’s ashes are – not so much a poem with a perspective from the negative as a poem about something that breaks the connecting tissues. And in “Lies” the lies are imagined to take on a physical form which makes a metaphor concrete – “Saying I had to attend a meeting / when a friend was breaking down / turned my voice into a baling hook / in the wall of a disused wool store . . .” “Paper Wasps”, apparently simply about being stung by wasps might really be about how the fiercely accurate visual sense (the nest, as I’ve quoted before, looks like a drawing of a shower rose) is replaced for a moment in the face of intense pain before reasserting itself in a final image of the wasps’ nest as being like a snow dome with the wasps as snowflakes trailing “live wires”.

It’s a complex and magnificent poetry able to activate our own imaginations in response. The poems’ shapes, which I’ve concentrated on here, are always interesting and challenging, and as a result Lawrence’s poems are never a wodge of imaginative discourse dumped onto the page. At the same time, the strong drive of the verse always means that the aesthetic beauties are never merely effete or self-congratulatory. For those new to this poetry, Headwaters makes an excellent introduction to Lawrence and there is the additional benefit that it comes in such an attractive package. I know I have said this before but it is worth repeating that the poetry series from Pitt Street Poets sets very high standards in book design: these things have certainly improved since I was the publisher of a small press a quarter of a century ago.

Jennifer Maiden: The Fox Petition

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015, 64pp.

Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition is perhaps best seen as part of a rolling project to engage contemporary political and social issues, a project that has been developing since early in her career but especially since Friendly Fire published in 2005. It sets itself an ambitious goal since the disjunct between poetry and the greater public world is a wide one indeed and the latter will take a lot of convincing that the armaments that poetry and its distinctive poetic logic can bring to bear have anything of value to contribute. Significantly, all of the books since Friendly Fire have appeared under the Giramondo imprint, a sign of a publisher being in tune with the direction a particular poet has taken. The accompanying publicity suggests that this might become an annual event, a continuous engagement with the contemporary. I hope this is what occurs since Maiden’s work shows ways in which poetry and an individual analytical process can say something about public life and its dramatis personae. And the ways this showing is done are not fixed but subtly altering and developing.

The Fox Petition demonstrates this latter point even in its title. The essential metaphors of Maiden’s other books, revealed in their titles, are military (her first book was called Tactics) and the post Friendly Fire sequence of titles that I have been speaking of all have titles suggesting military matters: Pirate Rain, Liquid Nitrogen, Drones and Phantoms. The interaction of metaphors of conflict with human dramas both at the personal level and at the social is one of the fascinating features of Maiden’s earlier poetry. When she begins to develop the poetic methods that allow her to write so well about international affairs, those affairs are dominated, anyway, by issues of war beginning with the first invasion of Iraq. This latest volume, fitting for the time in which the poems were written, is rather more interested in issues of migration, of the crossing of various borders from the national down to the personal. The major focus of her hostility moves from things like US politics in the Bush and Obama periods to Australian governmental biosecurity units. As always Maiden shows that wonderful alertness to synchronicities and metaphors which we hope to find in poetries and so the fox of the title appears as an innocent, rather beautiful animal threatened by government operatives as a noxious pest, as a ghost in Asian folklore, as the name of Murdoch’s egregious US network, and as the name of the great eighteenth century Whig statesman, Charles Fox. Nor is this interesting concatenation dreamed up for this book alone: some of them appear in a group of poems from Friendly Fire called “Foxfall”.

You can reread Maiden’s entire output watching how this current mode has slowly evolved. “Mandela in New York” and “Janet Powell Poem” from the 1993 volume, Acoustic Shadow, are early examples of a clever reading of a public individual’s inner personality based on media-transmitted images. By the time of The Fox Petition we have, in “Orchards”, a very subtle analysis of two politically opposed figures, Melissa Parke and Julie Bishop based not on their opposed political positions but on their clothes and the way these reflect both origins and reactions. The poem’s epigraph points out that Parke’s parents owned an apple farm in Western Australia and Bishop’s a cherry farm in South Australia:

When she met the Christians Bishop had arrested
for protesting detention of refugees, Parke
wore a coat like apple blossom: pink,
white and green, translucently. Bishop
on the day the Bali two were transferred
to the death island wore a dress
the colour of cherry blossom, dark pink,
looked gaunt with anxiety. Politics
will pierce you with its empathy, if you
practise it successfully. Apple flowers
spread raggedly and openly, breeze
dapples through them. Cherry blossom
reblooms so densely, brilliantly, that we
plant temples to ensure its resurrection.

One could imagine using this wonderful poem as an introduction to some ideas about the way in which lyricality emerges (and is developed and transformed) in Maiden’s poetry. Here the colours of the women’s dresses are themselves staples of the lyrical tradition, and there is also the fortuitous chiming of the appearances, the odd – decidedly “poetic” – interest in such out-of-the-way facts as the women’s origins, and a poem in Liquid Nitrogen which moves from a description of the way in which a frozen magnet can float to statements such as “Lyricism / is about positioning”. But I’ll leave this complex issue for some future opportunity.

Friendly Fire introduced the idea of a character waking up in an exotic location in each of the first six poems devoted to the adventures of George Jeffreys and Clare Collins. This series is continued in all the succeeding books including this latest one. They are a couple we first meet in Maiden’s second published novel, Play with Knives, a disturbing genre work built on the relationship between these two characters at the point where George is a probation officer and Clare – who murdered three other children when a child herself – is coming up for parole after years of being institutionalised. Maiden tells us in the introduction to the first poems of the sequence in Friendly Fire that George and Clare were resurrected from both Play with Knives and an unpublished continuation, Complicity or The Blood Judge, as a way of entering the traumatic events of what we now call “September 11”: “The two could clearly do New York and in the process, with the freedom of fiction, the horror-inhibited portions of my mind might speak . . . . . I have always agreed with Freud that the imagination is bisexual. It seems to me that you achieve a clearer view if you let the two sides talk to each other. Hence George and Clare”.

The first poems (the ones in Friendly Fire) concentrate on the psychology and situations of players like George W Bush and Condoleeza Rice and the analysis is compelling. By the sixth poem we have what is, I think, the first of the imaginary encounters which grow to dominate later: George Jeffreys meets Saddam Hussein in the ashes of a bombed Baghdad restaurant and the pair discuss both Bush and Saddam’s activities from an ethical standpoint. There are two George Jeffreys poems in The Fox Petition. The first is devoted to a discussion (held while the couple and two friends are on holiday in Wollongong) about the Charlie Hebdo killings and the deaths of dozens of animals in a fire in a boarding kennel in Adelaide. But the surprising thread through this poem is the idea of holiday – the animals were being boarded while the owners were on vacation, as was one of the staff. This transmutes into a discussion of delegation and guilt. As Clare says:

                                            “Every time
some child dies on a school trip, some
of the other parents defend the school, even
sometimes it’s parents themselves. Any 
institution seems more powerful than
human love or loss.” George said, “But it’s just
what you said: the guilt of careless
delegation. And blurring of ego with
any perpetrator . . .”

If you’re coming to Maiden’s poetry for the first time you are quite likely to think of this as rather clunky and put it down to a generalised difficulty that poetry has when dealing with the exposition of abstract ideas especially in a duologue (“Ah, but you say to counter that . . .”) But the fact is that this rather arch but intellectually unrestrained dialogue goes back as far as George’s first interview with Clare at the beginning of Play with Knives and is really better seen as part of Maiden’s distinctive style. The second of the Jeffreys poems is an extended narrative (at over four hundred lines the most extended so far) in which George and Clare, on Kos, observe what is happening to Syrian refugees and become involved when one of these is recognised by their translator as a spy: some Mediterranean-mountainside, night-time shenanigans follow.

The Fox Petition also continues some of Maiden’s imaginary conversations where a contemporary figure speaks to what is usually an admired (and dead) mentor. Hillary Clinton continues her interactions with Eleanor Roosevelt (which began in Pirate Rain) and Tony Abbott continues talks with Queen Victoria which began in Drones and Phantoms. In Clinton’s case the issue revolves around her political “original sin” of voting for the invasion of Iraq and so there is a lot of opportunity for exploring how the “necessary violence” that any person of power with humane, liberal convictions will be involved in will affect their psychology and their morale. This is also explored in “The Possibility of Loss” where Obama speaks to a rather delphic Mahatma Gandhi. Obama is in the situation of having approved a raid in Yemen in which a hostage and a child were “collateral damage”. Maiden seems a lot less sympathetic to Obama (and, for that matter, to Hillary’s and Eleanor’s husbands who appear briefly in some of the poems devoted to this pair) than to some of the other figures she looks at – Bishop, for example – and the implication seems to be that these kind of figures are more deeply entwined in the system, using charm to paper over the various ethical compromises that they are continually forced to make.

The poems devoted to Tony Abbott’s conversations with Queen Victoria are a lot more fun. They meet first, in Drones and Phantoms, near the embers of a gum tree where Abbott has been doing a stint as a voluntary firefighter. His first reaction is one of relief “that she wasn’t Santamaria, Mannix / or Loyola, with all of whom he’d grown / deeply tired of conversation” and when she points out that the use of gunboats to drive back would-be migrants is something her husband would have seen as “extravagance of a similar nature / to that of real war” his reply is memorable: “But, Ma’am, inside me everything is war”. The two Victoria and Tony poems in The Fox Petition continue the issue of asylum seekers and thus harmonise with this book’s most pressing theme. The second of them, “The Famine Queen”, is as structurally complex as one of Maiden’s diary poems and plays with the importation of potatoes into Ireland, the resulting famine (which, really, occurred as a result of monoculture rather than importation since only one variety was brought in and thus there wasn’t enough of the immense genetic diversity present in the vegetable’s homeland) and then moving on to the issue of biosecurity:

. . . . . 
                    “The rumour 
that I gave them only five pounds is not
right: I gave a large amount: well over 
a hundred thousand in your currency from
my private fortune, but the toxic
and imported can be necessary, dear
Sir Anthony” – he loved the title so – “I
myself am fond of potatoes. Do you know,
they called me ”˜The Famine Queen’?” He jumped
to her defence, as usual: “Oh, Ma’am, no:
you are always the source of my nutrition.” She
added, “I see your Queensland Biosecurity has started
a 'military-style mission’ against South American
fire-ants, using remote sensors refined
from the US Military. Surely that would mean
rather a lot of money?” It was not just, he discerned,
of fire-ants she spoke: her words were often
dual citizens: knowing he was, knowing quite
painfully about his vanished home.

This might be a point at which one should ask how accurate and how valuable (not quite the same thing) Maiden’s analyses of contemporary macro-political events are. Can they apply poetic logic successfully? Or, to broaden the question slightly, can a poet’s analysis of the greater world ever again be penetrating and important. It’s a complex issue but it’s fair to say that it is hard to imagine this occurring at the moment or in the foreseeable future. It may well be that intellectual life has seen an irrevocable separation between the professional (political aide, speechwriter, journalist) and the amateur (the creative type). I’m not confident enough to pursue social generalisations like this, nor am I competent to pass judgement on the quality of Maiden’s comments about individual politicians and political events. But I am, at a general level, inclined to be sympathetic and the main reason for this is that her judgements rarely fit comfortably with the cliches of the day (what we would now, in an equally cliched way, call “narratives”). There is a refreshing awkwardness about her view of people that can only be valuably confronting. Julie Bishop, to a casual observer like myself, looks to be a hard-nosed professional politician and Hillary Clinton seems a deeply unattractive power-player despite the continual emphasis on her looks in the poems devoted to her conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. The less someone follows the existing grand narratives – propositions like “Islam is essentially a medieval religion” or “ISIL is a reverse crusade” – the more attractive they seem to me. At one level, of course, this is saying no more than that a poet is free to focus on the individual datum and can avoid making large, gestural statements about societies. But it can be said, if nothing else, that poetic thought is an antidote to the non-thought of ideological grand narratives and, intellectually, I’d be on the poets’ side even if I weren’t as interested in poetry as I am. You’d like to see Maiden’s poetry set compulsorily on school courses because her poems show that it is possible for people to see clearly and think imaginatively and critically, free of imposed and casually accepted media cliches.

So I’m inclined to give Maiden a high level of tacit belief: I love the surprising ways in which she thinks about the people in power and I’m equally interested in her beliefs about issues like responses to trauma, blame, guilt, the issue of incarnation and disincarnation, and so on. At the same time, The Fox Petition makes contributions to Maiden’s evolving sense of what her poetry is doing and how it might develop. We are used to her “cluster poems” and “diary poems” and “x-woke-up-in-y poems” but this book allows for some interesting developments in the latter when Julie Bishop’s mentor turns out not to be a dead human but the Harvard School of Business and, though an earlier poem doubts whether a university department can wake up alongside a contemporary politician, in “Animism” that’s exactly what happens. But “Diary Poem: Uses of the Female Duet” probes the possibility of using a new kind of interaction between public figures. Not imaginary conversations but operatic duets, the simplest example of the operatic ensemble, that wonderful, still immensely relevant, form in which characters sing of their own obsessions while harmonising with those whose obsessions are quite different. It seems the only art form which can do this and Maiden’s appropriation of it has Tanya Plibersek speaking of her personal griefs while Julie Bishop pleads for the lives of the two drug runners in Bali. The form enables readers (as it does for listeners to opera) to focus on the conflict and differences between the characters and, almost simultaneously, on what they share. It is thus another way of avoiding the polarisation which contemporary narratives prefer (and which, for that matter, the western systems of justice and politics require) and so strikes a poetic blow in the right place. “Uses of the Female Duet” is a diary poem whose title declares its subject but it may well be that “Orchards” is the first real “duet” poem.

Brendan Ryan: Small Town Soundtrack

Santa[sic] Lucia: Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2016, 91pp.

Brendan Ryan’s first book, the strikingly titled Why I Am Not a Farmer, mined the personal experiences of growing up in the West Victorian country north of Warrnambool on a dairy farm. In a sense, reasons for not being a farmer could be said to form the basis of most of the poems, an unlovely catalogue of hardness to humans and, more especially in this book, to animals: dehorning heifers, hauling calves out of cows, watching a bulldozer bury cows which have been burnt alive in a bushfire. It is what nowadays would be called anti-pastoral, a tradition in Australian writing which begins with the great Henry Lawson stories. But what is striking about this first book of Ryan’s, and the subsequent ones, is a lack of the polemical edge which is so much a part of this tradition: there is no sense, in other words, of a narky contempt of one writer for other writers and even for readers. In Lawson, this appears as a loathing of those writers peddling comfortable illusions about the rural life, in early Murray it is a contempt for cosy urban elites who see themselves as superior to those who work on the land with their “sparetime childhoods”. Calmer explorations of this world can be found in some of the poems of Geoff Page and in Gary Catalano’s first book, Remembering the Rural Life, as well as in the poetry of Philip Hodgins. In fact the last of these appears in an important poem in Ryan’s third book, Travelling Through the Family, important because Ryan here does his own positioning of himself within these rural poetic traditions.

“Philip Hodgins” is made out of two dreams about the late poet. In the first Hodgins is seen driving a tractor around the edges of a diminishing square. The process is like mowing but the tractor is harrowing instead, building up lines of dirt. Like a classic Freudian dream it is built on a verbal pun, here on the word “lines”:

. . . . . 
                                     The windrows of dirt
are stopping me from entering the paddock.
I want to ask him about his lines
yet sense that I will never get close to him.
He seems to be on a mission to work the paddock
to its own manic rhythm. I measure my distance,
windrows of dirt brush against me.

In the second dream Hodgins is pointing a shotgun at the poet demanding that he continue the former’s work, naming him, in other words, as an heir. It’s significant that one of the themes of Ryan’s work is the complicated ways in which farmers who have worked unremittingly all their lives have to take a wider view as they age and begin to make plans for some kind of transference of the property after their retirements (a hard step to take for most) or their deaths. Just as Ryan’s poems have, from that first book, tried to explain his reasons for leaving the farm, of not being a conventional heir, so this dream tries to explain the reasons for not taking up Hodgins’ metaphorical baton. It seems to be a matter of that polemical edge, of the directness and bluntness of statement. The second dream is worth quoting in full:

In another dream he is holding a shotgun at me
pointing it between my eyes. He is looking down the barrel.
He seems tired, resigned yet determined.
This is about the time I am writing my thesis
on his poetry. His rhythmic lines intersecting in my head,
His untimely death, direct nature of his address - 
There’s nothing in these dying days
consumes me and I live in two worlds,
grappling for an argument like a rock-climber
who has lost his footing, arms and legs flailing
for a ledge. He is looking down the barrel at me - 
Now it is up to you, to do this work
which confounds me. I am not up to
such direct statement. One of those moments
in a dream where I feel myself sweat,
wake soon after. A dream to burden the day - 
his words, that stare down the barrel.

Perhaps it’s a rejection of a kind of abruptness and directness that derives from certainties. Ryan, perhaps, feels much more equivocal about both farming and poetry. As a reader, one wants to go on speculatively and suggest that perhaps there is a kind of paralysed indecision at the heart of Ryan’s poetry. Though it poses the question of why he left, many times, and seems to continuously circle around issues of how we carry the past within us, how that influences how we act in the other lives we now lead as parents, as city-dwellers, the question never gets answered to the extent that it no longer needs to be asked. To return to the geometry of the first dream, the tractor doesn’t zero in on the last and central section of the paddock but instead circles continuously.

It’s true that the first book flirts with the possibility of mining his childhood experiences and producing a kind of rural version of confessionalism deriving from the weirdness of being one of a Catholic family of ten brothers and sisters working almost continuously on a dairy farm. As Murray says “I can tell you sparetime childhoods force-fed this / make solid cheese but often strangely veined”, and yet, as many critics have observed, you have to stand outside of yourself to get this sort of perspective: you have to have become somebody you weren’t before you realise that the earlier you has a marketable story. I think, again reading speculatively, that Ryan must have realised that there is a directness about the confessional/expose approach to writing about the rural life that didn’t answer to the way that the issues appeared in his own creative life where they act as a generative mechanism that rejects being reduced to certainties. I’m suggesting, in other words, that we might stop positioning Ryan within the complicated maps of poetic pastoralism and think of him, instead, as an obsessive poet, returning again and again to the issues that generate the poetry. The true binary for him might not be rural versus urban but childhood immersion in the immediate world versus adult disenfranchisement. If we take a single event that recurs a number of times in poems throughout the books – the time when his father worked in the knackery and brought the stink of dead animals back to the house in his car and on his clothes – we could say that what is important is not the specific nature of this trauma (fairly mild, on an international scale) but the very fact that it recurs, generates poems, and can’t be purged – a bit like Dickens’ very unrural experience of the blacking factory.

One way of looking at this new book, Small Town Soundtrack, is to see it as widening the way that this central obsession can be explored. It’s in four sections and though the first of these is called “Small Town Pastoral”, it is the title of the first poem, “Outsider Pastoral” which really establishes the key since the section is made up of poems about unease in different situations. That first poem, a little puzzling on first reading, turns out to be a strong piece in which the poet, an expert in the rules of community belonging, enters a pub and observes three regulars. Since the two men are described as possibly mountain men and the woman is expert enough as a hunter to make fun of city-based tourist hunters, the odds are that this is in upland territory. Readers of Ryan will know that his poems about the rural life take place in the “intimidating flatness” of Western Victoria with its occasional blisters of ex-volcanoes – “a moonscape of low-lying paddocks” as a later poem calls it. Although it’s never stated, you have a sense that the landscape in which this pub is set increases the sense of awkwardness that the poem wants to focus on:

. . . . .
One more pot and the glances will extend
into questions.
Where are you from? What are you doing?
Growing up in the country, I learned
there is a line running like a fuse
between here and away,
between the jokes accepted
and the contentions that hold sway.
Is it better to drink with the locals
or rest your foot on the rail bristling
with accusations?
. . . . .

It says something about the hypersensitivities of Ryan’s poetry that the atmosphere which in other, more clichéd poems (and hosts of genre novels), would be heavy with physical threat is marked only by an intense awkwardness. The poet is an expert on belonging and knows the general rules but even rural environments are self-contained. “Grounded Angels” tells the story (part of it repeated in another poem) of the man who buried his mother and then his wife two days later. When he buried his father, his ten year old son

stood in a lounge room
taking in the cousins, the silences
as if the person we had been thinking of

had quietly left the room.
Out of politeness, the boy grinned
as if it was a trick he could call upon.

Of all the images of unease, belonging and not belonging, this is one which stays with me: it’s an exquisitely awkward response on the part of the boy but it also makes sense. (This kind of poem goes back to a group in Why I Am Not a Farmer including the wonderful “Country Parents in Town”). In “Dairy Farmers at the Beach”, we meet father, mother and the children on a brief outing to the coast, another symbol of unease in an alien environment: “For they are an inland people / the beach is a type of joke not to be taken / as seriously as a basket of washing, / shifting the dry cows, or getting ready for Mass” and, in another poem, a man waiting while his wife buys underwear, “happy to be on the outside / as if entering between the bras / could instill a type of vertigo / a paddock he’s not used to”. But the setting is as likely to be urban as it is rural: we meet a single girl at school reading during recess and parents picking up kids. A spell of walking the dog (an activity where the sense of unease is mitigated by the fact that you are in the charge of an animal with its own, different sense of belonging) runs the poet up against an individual who is about as far from belonging as it is possible to be:

. . . . . 
I think of the old man who used to stop me:
I hate this area, I grew up in Geelong West.

The way he waited at the picket fence,
his discontent at 93.

Bare carport, blinds drawn
his liver brown brick veneer

caught in the creep of McMansions.
How did he wash up here?
. . . . .

If the first section is a set of variations on the theme of outsider unease, the second section, “Songs of the Clay Mound”, is built around the idea that, as people age, popular songs move from being something that sets the body dancing to nostalgic doorways into the past. “Where the Music Takes You” is made up of a list of destinations beyond such doorways and “The Music That’s In Us” says, “Songs from pubs and shops leave me ajar // the way snatches of Barry White in the supermarket / can hurl me sideways into a decade”. Songs are not only triggers of a return to an earlier personal world, they can also be portals to an alien world: “Across the Universe” is a fascinating meditation on the way in which John Lennon is part of the poet’s childhood life but he has no part in John Lennon’s life,

The local radio station hammered “Just Like Starting Over” while I squee-jeed the cow shit across the yard and into the drain hole. I often wondered if John Lennon could imagine this was happening. He was somebody I’d grown up with, taken for granted, like a cousin I once fought with . . . . . Central Park was in another universe.

The third section, “Towns of the Mount Noorat Football League”, looks initially like a clever way of organising a set of studies of the towns of the poet’s immediate childhood area. All told it’s a bleak picture of rural decline, “Pubs closed, churches sold, the store’s windows / exposing clumps of unopened mail, upturned / food display cabinets – the end of a town [Garvoc] / or the view of a former self”. But the notion of a Football League is more than just a structuring device because it points up the way in which Australian Rules football (and the same applies, presumably, for Rugby League in outback New South Wales) acts as a unifying agent. As someone devoted to “the round-ball code” I’ve probably been guilty, over the years, of looking down on these other, rather homely versions of football but it’s well to remember what a cohesive force they are, more cohesive than religion since religion has many divisive and combative sects but there is only one Aussie Rules. It’s celebrated in earlier poems like “Saturday Morning” and “Man on the Gate”, where it is “A small town’s investment in belief. / A community finding something to do” and where we meet the image of grounds where cars can park nose to the boundary.

Although the final section of Small Town Soundtrack is less tightly thematically organised than the preceding three, all of the poems chime with Ryan’s earlier poems. It’s true that “Cows in India” and “Shanti Shanti” are brief excursions into a sub-continental exotic but the observer brings, as ever, the paddocks of his own childhood with him: “The first time I saw cows in India / I wanted to round them up. // Yard them, milk them, close the gate / on a paddock, watch them nod along a cattle track. . .” There are poems like “At fifty” which attempt a slightly broader self-definition than those deriving from an obsession with locating the self: “I am still an old punk, / an Indian freak, a farmer’s son / besieged by superannuation, mortgages, infrastructure – / all the dead nouns lining up to be counted”. But perhaps the most intriguing is “Camellias” unusual in that is contains none of Ryan’s habitual tropes. Superficially it is about gardening but at heart, I think, it is a meditation about Ryan’s own poetry. He finds himself picking up some fallen camellias and placing them in a circle around a garden bed made up of salvias, Lamb’s Ears, Grevilleas and a single Manchurian Pear:

The contrast works and I realize it is one of the few
creative acts I have achieved this week -
placing fallen petals around the edge of a garden bed.
. . . 
I will come to notice the camellias in the coming week,
feel the kick as from a recently finished poem - 
something layered in doubt but flickering with surprise,
the way one snake story sheds its skin for another . . .

Not a straightforward allegory about what he thinks his poetry is made up of but it needs to be compared with a similar poem from Travelling Through the Family, “Self Portrait”. That poem speaks of walking ahead “into paddocks and more poems” of “half-succeeding in understanding / yet knowing my limits, self-doubt increasing with age / with rage”. Here the setting and metaphors are rural whereas in “Camellias” they are urban but, when speaking of poetry, they share a tentativeness as though Ryan’s central theme is something that can’t be dealt with definitively, can’t be exhausted.

π. ο.: Fitzroy: The Biography

Melbourne: Collective Effort Press, 2015, 740pp.

It is now nearly ten years since π. ο.’s remarkable 24 Hours appeared, seven hundred and forty pages of immersion in the physical environment of the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy and the grungy side of its café culture. But also seven hundred and forty pages of immersion in the weird language of the place, Balkan and Greek versions of English that could be as difficult to penetrate as a passage from Finnegans Wake:

Wai yoo look mai kaartz?!
Eye look yoo “fayc” n - o yoo kaartz!
Tin . . . . .aa’ft - o? Tin aa’ft - o . . . . vrr - e??!
Giv him! GIV HIM!
Aa’k oos ti ley . . . ???!: GIV HIM!
Tha naym iz Aapostoli!
Aapostoli Kaangaar - oo (ggh – aamot - o)!
F’err - e m - e t - o pistoli!
Ggggggaam - o. tin. paaaaanaaayia s - oo!
Hoo . . .? Hoo ey’m?! HOO . . . .?!
N - o look HIM!: Hoo?!

This (at a card game) isn’t an unrepresentative passage, at least of the more hectic stretches of dialogue. And so 24 Hours, remorselessly realistic, clear-eyed and unsentimental about multicultural traditions in a Melbourne suburb is as much about an experience of language as of place. The sly warning on the cover, “Contains Language”, admitted as much. And in the latter parts of Fitzroy: The Biography we are in the same linguistic world:

. . . . . 
Bobbie (the house painter) at the Costa Azzura (in
Brunswick St) said: Tha layf thet taym (Fitzroi) woz “lonli”.
Tha MAYGRaaN, dai gon to EKSPRESSO to e’KS-chaynj
tha filling. (Thai g-o to playc th’aat AAXCEP dem)!
Pipol wit ewt-pipol k)))aaaaan living! Iz a H’yoomen instink.
Tha gerlz (ne’chyoo-raali), dai pik da MENZ! (Shi
kum, to yoo). Whair, YOO g-o? / EKSPRESSO!
Wun g-el kum . . .

It’s a brilliant evocation of an Australian dialect that we have all heard and the achievement should rightly be considered poetic – it is far more than a phonetic rendering – since language is poetry’s obsession and it’s an obsession that can range from the vocabulary of the highest of high styles down to this, the lowest of low styles.

Fitzroy: The Biography is a kind of counterpart to 24 Hours. It signals this by being almost exactly the same length. But the focus is historical so that instead of getting a snapshot of a single day we are introduced to a single suburb for the nearly two hundred years of its existence. The governing principle appears in a portrait of a fellow-student, Nonda Katsalides (“But, Nonda was / the coolest bloke in Fitzroy; he had a girlfriend (at / school): Notta – the sexiest girl alive . . .”) which finishes “’The people are the city’ Shakespeare said, and / I guess I’d agree, with that”. I don’t want to play the dreary pedant here but, of course, it is a tribunus plebs who says this in Coriolanus, not at all Shakespeare and not remotely a trustworthy character in Shakespeare’s eyes. Perhaps a better quote for π. ο.’s project might be from Aristophanes’ The Frogs: “I came down here for a poet so that the city might be saved.” At any rate the “biography” of Fitzroy is a catalogue of portraits of its inhabitants organised chronologically and it seems to be a suburb that, from the very beginning of its existence as a civic community rather than a tract of land, does need some saving. This is especially true of a period beginning in the late nineteenth century: “Vags, Pros & Drunks” and “Police: ///// pencillings” are both examples of a kind of compendium poem that collects fragments of a group of lives:

. . . . . 
On Saturday morning, a Gardener found the dead body of
a woman of about 35, lying under some bushes.
There were no marks of violence, and nothing to indicate
who she was. She died of cold, and exposure. (The weather
Friday night was particularly bitter). Christine Gilligan (with
a record of over 40 priors) was charged with vagrancy.
She had made a raid on the front garden, of Dr Howitt’s
residence (in Victoria Pde) and prior to that had created a row
in a fish’n’chip shop. She is the laziest vagrant in Fitzroy!
Herbert Brooks, is a nasty piece of work also . . .

Slowly the world of poverty moves into larrikinism – describable as poverty with a certain kind of violent style – and then eventually into the full-scale gang wars which have bubbled up inside Melbourne’s underclass to the present day. “Fitzroy Vendetta 1918” is a forty page, twenty-two poem section following the dealings of Squizzy Taylor with women (Dolly and Ida) and with other gangs in the area before he was killed by “Snowy” Cutmore (“Fitzroy was about the only Place in the World, that / could tolerate Snowy”). Not all the portraits are entirely bleak however: Fitzroy footballers like Haydn Bunton and Chicken Smallhorn are positive figures as is Pastor Doug Nicholls an aboriginal man who began as a Fitzroy footballer before becoming a minister and eventually governor of South Australia:

. . . . .
When Doug Nicholls died, they took
him back, to Cummeragunja (on the Murray).
Fitzroy would like to, salute him here

Once postwar migration begins and the poet’s family arrive in Bonegilla from Greece on their way to an eventual life as café proprietors in Fitzroy, the book changes a little to become more autobiography than survey of a suburb’s history. But since the author and his family are so centrally positioned to document what is happening in the life of the suburb the change is more superficial than anything. There is a brilliant twenty-poem sequence, “The Flats” about the complex of events and processes that eventually lead to the demolition of the older, slum parts of the suburb:

. . . . . 
                        Some arsehole from
the Housing Commission, got into a light-blue Ford, armed
with a copy of Morgan’s Street Directory (and a blue-
pencil) and went out, looking for a slum to tear down.
He drove down Brunswick St, Gertrude St, Napier St, and
King William, and overnight (by virtue of Sec 56 of
the Local Government Act) our shop (and the 2 rooms we
lived in at the back, next to the toilet) were declared a Slum.
The dog, didn’t even have “the decency”, to get out of
his car, and have a look around. When the facts are few,
there are experts aplenty. He did the whole job, looking out
from the /// windscreen of his car, and everything
I knew thereafter, or could point to
          got demolished . . .

Fitzroy: The Biography has, as readers of the passages I have quoted will have noted, its own eccentric punctuation whereby every subject and its verb is separated from the rest of the clause by a comma and often subjects are even separated from their verbs by a comma. I’d thought initially that this may relate to the fact that this is very much a performance poem (or poems) as 24 Hours was and as most of the poems in Big Numbers: New and Selected Poems are. But it’s hard to see how these commas mark units of utterance in a performance: all that can be said is that it is a convention that is carried out completely consistently throughout the seven hundred and forty pages. As are some unusual spellings: “stomach” is always spelled “stomac” and “soccer” always “soccor” and so on.

The first four hundred and fifty pages of Fitzroy: The Biography might have been a slightly solemn collection brief lives, the sort of thing a local history group might produce if they were locked in a room with unlimited supplies of alcohol, were it not for the dominant and most interesting poetic technique of the book which is the continuous use of generalisations in between sections of narration. These generalisations usually seem random but they have a sly relevance and serve as a sort of sardonic groundbass underneath the lurid goings-on of the inhabitants of the suburb. Late in the book there are fascinating portraits of Bert Newton, E.W. Cole and, especially, Barry Jones who first became famous as a quiz contestant on a radio program called “Pick a Box” hosted by an American Bob Dwyer and his wife, Dolly. His poem, recounting a famous moment in the show’s history (from memory it was about Warren Hastings) where a contestant became more interesting than the compere, is a good example of these truisms at work:

          The human brain, weighs 5.4 kilos;
same as a bowling ball. The first public library
was opened in Warsaw, in 1747. I saw Barry Jones
on the steps of the City library; a beard, 
is a sign of wisdom. And in spite of bell, book, and candle
he seemed all too human. Hello Customers!
an owl’s eyes, make up 30% of its head.
Bob Dyer was born, in 1909 in Tennessee;
arrived in Australia ’37, played a Hillbilly (with
a ukulele) at the Tivoli, in Sydney. He was
a keen big-game fisherman. Began in radio, in 1948;
had his own quiz show, Pick A Box with Dolly (his
wife): The money, or the box? (an Australian-
wide *joke) – The box! / Come here Dolly! -
One day, Bob asked Barry Jones (one of
the Contestants) who the Governor-General of
India was?, and the answer came directed
in a language unexpected; the most common
letters of the English Alphabet, are R,S,T,L,N, and E.
France granted Laos sovereignty, in 1953.
There are 12, 634 butcher shops, in Great Britain.
An archipelago, is a long run in music.
Useless features, are just simply add-ons & whistles.
Potatoes go well, with almost everything. Prostrate means /
lying face down. – Bob Dyer, looked “fazed”.
The first victim of the electric chair, took 8 minutes to die.
The Adjudicator (George Black) was /// stumped!
Barry had muddied the waters, somewhat.
PS47 was a school for the “hard” of hearing.
The first pictures on Tv, were shots of “the heads
of dummies”. The sponsor was Colgate Palmolive.
All the contestants on the show had
to wear ( ) ( ) headphones (Trivia, is important).
Information Please, was the name of a Quiz show
in the United States, and as a kid, Barry Jones
would go by tram, to 3DB, and listen to
Professor Osborne, prattle on about . . . . everything.
Information needs, a context. In 985 AD, “25 ships” sailed
for Greenland. In 1924, John Poole underwent,
a total laryngectomy. – Customers!!!! I find myself in
a dilemma, Bob Dyer said. (Knowledge, is
a commodity). The contest, was “a No-brainer”!
Barry Jones, the schoolteacher (from
Dandenong), had come out “triumphant”.
China invaded Tibet, in 1950. The whole of
Australia, was clapping!

This technique seems to come from a group of poems, beginning with “9/11”, at the end of π. ο.’s New and Selected Poems and we can see it fully developed here, especially in this brilliant poem about popular cultural phenomena, the way quiz shows treat knowledge and the historical and global contexts of the period. There is also a dose of humour so that “arpeggio” is confused with “archipelago” (there are a lot of these truisms that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny) and the host’s “fazed” expression is connected to the first victim of the electric chair, and so on. The constant moving between narrative and generalisation also thickens the texture of the poetry itself and acts as a narrative-retarding device. You can imagine this working very well as a spoken text.

Fitzroy: The Biography, like its predecessor, is a tour de force even if its author, tongue in cheek, says it is. It is one of those works that extends an area in a national literature by replacing po-faced, realistic representations with over-the-top panache. The literature never looks quite the same afterwards. It will probably, in the future, get pigeonholed into discussions of migrant experience but really it belongs to the larger field of the documentation of specific urban areas and a specific way of life. This seems to be a Melburnian obsession. Bruce Dawe (significantly he is one of the portraits in this book) wrote brilliantly about the general experiences of the postwar period in the expanded outer suburbs of Melbourne in poems ranging in conception from “The Rock-Thrower” to “Homo Suburbiensis”, but Alan Wearne is usually considered to be the master of this field. In fact Wearne and π. ο. are very different poets: the former has an essentially dramatic imagination while the latter has a bent for accurate recording. At any rate Melbourne is a lucky city to have the culture of this single, bravura suburb recorded so intensely.

Philip Hammial: Asylum Nerves

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014, 207pp.

Philip Hammial’s amazing poetic output now runs to something like twenty-five books since his first, Foot Falls & Notes, of 1976. Let’s say about a thousand poems, probably more. As a result of this sheer volume, together with features of his method, it might be more appropriate to think of Asylum Nerves as a sampler rather than a Selected. It doesn’t, after all, confine itself to collecting acknowledged successes and making them available in one volume to impecunious readers. What it does do is give new readers some sense of what it is like to tap into the verve, intensity, profundity and humour of Hammial’s work and encourage them to seek out the individual books on online sites like Abebooks.

It also contains an excellent introductory essay by Martin Langford, indispensable for orienting people unfamiliar with the poetry that crackles away inside the rest of the book. Langford begins by locating Hammial among the European surrealists which he himself has cited: “Breton, Eluard, Aragon, Peret, Desnos, Jacob, Michaux, Lereis, Soupault, Char, Ponge; Lorca, Jiminez, Alberti; Rilke, Trakl, Benn, Celan; Seferis, Ritsos, Elytis”. These aren’t proposed as models – few of them sound like Hammial – but as authors that someone like Hammial is going to be sympathetic to. Myself, I would add early Beckett (though I don’t think he is cited anywhere) to these: reading works like Murphy and Watt and experiencing their insanely logical and remorseless worlds would not be a bad introduction to some features of Hammial’s work, especially of the “narrative” poems.

Langford’s introduction also reprints an invaluable description of Hammial’s compositional methods, taken from an interview in Cordite. I’ll reproduce it here: it, too, is an essential document for a reader approaching the poetry:

As a non-Tibetan I find many of the Tibetan visualisations too alien and complex, so I make up my own, spontaneously, as I go. I’ve been assured by people in the tradition that my home handyperson approach is acceptable. One day, several years ago, sitting down to write, I found myself playing with the drop . . . heating it up, moving it up and down the channel. Suddenly, on one of its runs down, it kept going, right down to the base of my spine which I visualised as a well, circular and lined with stones, that was miles deep. As the drop plunged into the ink-black water it turned into a bucket. In my mind’s eye I used a rope on a pulley to haul the full bucket up, rapidly, rocket fast. It went soaring up through the channel, out through the top of my skull, the Aperture of Brahma, and up into the noonday sky. When it was about a mile high I had an impulse to use the still attached rope to jerk it to a stop. Of course the black water just kept going. It spread across the sky, turning into white sky-writing-like words as it went – a sentence, a line of poetry that I was able to write down before it faded. That’s amazing, I thought, I wonder if I can do it again. Down went the empty bucket, up came the full bucket, another sentence splashed across the sky. In about five minutes I had a thirty line poem.

One’s tempted to say that they don’t teach that in Introductory Creative Writing – but then again, for all I know, perhaps they do. At heart, it isn’t an especially radical creative model: most writers, even those whose sense of their work is built on a notion of craft, know that a lot of the stuff comes, often unbidden, from “somewhere else”. Hammial’s method is just a culture-specific way of accessing it and it could be argued that various oriental traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism, tribal shamanism etc are much better at doing it than any methods of the West. After all the bases of oriental mythology encourage the practice and they have had a couple of thousand years to develop these techniques. What is probably, in the long run, more important than the notion that poetry comes from another part of the brain is the drive towards immediacy, the belief that any sort of imposition of craft in the form of revision is the triumph of the logical part of the brain, a matter of being, in Graves’s words “ruled by the god Apollo’s golden mean”.

The central critical issue for Hammial’s poetry is: Where exactly is this bucket going and what is the nature of this stuff that it brings up? Could it be the sub-conscious, the pan-cultural unconscious, the pan-animal reptilian unconscious, past lives, divine commandments or just odd bits of nonsense hanging around inside the neural system of an individual’s brain? Langford argues that it’s a more primal experience of the madnesses of reality: “An important aspect of his project is the desire to re-enact the crazy energies we work so hard to disarm with familiarity and inattention. In some ways, he is a romantic of such energies: as if he thought the world, for all its terrors, should not be denied”. The fact that this is such an attractive framework in which to read Hammial’s poems doesn’t mean that it is correct nor does it disguise the fact that it is a big step which casually bypasses any number of competing psychological ideologies. But I’m happy to run with it for its heuristic value. It also enables Langford to speak of the poems as works which future audiences will find increasingly relevant:

If the point of poetry is to produce as many ways-of-being-in-the-world-through-language as possible, then Hammial’s unsettling and confronting ways are nothing if not distinctive, and, on that ground alone, worthy of attention. But these days, I suspect, there are few who are not quietly bewildered by the incomprehensibility of the world’s energies, and the absurdity and inappropriateness of so many of our behaviours: as an expression of such bewilderment – such subterranean astonishment – it is hard to believe that these poems will not find the wider audience that they deserve.

It’s a discomforting proposition that, as our response to the world is to find it more and more irrational and incomprehensible, we will find Hammial’s poetry more and more central, more real! But then perhaps something similar occurred in the case of the poetries of Smart and Blake and even Pessoa: as the world seemed more mad and personality less stable, their work seemed less mad, less unstable. Some evidence for Langford’s approach might lie in the autobiographical fact that Hammial, since his youthful days in the US Navy has been an indefatigable traveller, and a genuine traveller, no mere tourist. My own sense is not that such travel broadens the mind by adding exotic experiences but that it makes one resistant to the conventional – and often outrageous – stylised simplifications of other cultures. That it is, or can be, in other words an accumulation of millions of gritty, personally experienced data, all of which are likely to be difficult to fit into simplistic programmes and thus represent the basis of an attack on them – or, at least, a lack of commitment to them.

This is a long introduction to another revisiting of Philip Hammial’s poetry. When I reviewed Sugar Hits on this site more than eight years ago I tried to describe the poetry overall, rather than concentrating on a single book. Though I’m not at all sure, in retrospect, how accurate or valuable my typologies were, I don’t intend to revisit that “seen-as-a-whole” approach, and, as readers will know, I’m not about to exhaust myself looking for new idioms of praise. What I want to do is think about some of the new issues that this latest opportunity to reread Hammial at length has provoked. There are two main ones: issues of content and (no prize for guessing) issues of form.

The world that one enters in Hammial’s poems, the world that Langford sees as a real or at least “realler” experience of reality than the one we edit to make it comprehensible or bearable, is a distinctive one. It is driven by meaningless rules and rituals (perhaps the essence of a ritual is that it is the application of meaningless rules) and its atmosphere might be described as cruel but comic. The act of living is often figured as a journey on some kind of wonderfully grotesque vehicle (dog-carts, bicycles and boats figure largely here) or as a pilgrimage hemmed about with odd rituals and equivocal destinations. “Bicycle” from In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children (2003) is a (for Hammial) very straightforward example:

It’s my fifth birthday & I’m sitting on the present that Uncle Stan has just given me, a green Schwinn bicycle. He gives me a push & down I go, down the gentle slope in his back yard in Chicago that becomes a hill, an interminably long hill that, sixty years later, I’m still going down, the bicycle having become rusty & dilapidated but still capable of moving as fast as the wind. Fortunately the doors, front and back, of the houses I’m passing through are open and the corridors unobstructed, the people, my friends & relatives, in the rooms on either side of the corridors going about their business as though I don’t exist: Aunt Mary & Uncle John sitting at opposite ends of a long table, John’s prayer of thanksgiving going on & on while the roast beef gets cold; Aunt Jane having one of her fits in the kitchen while Uncle Max looks on helplessly; cousin Dan & his new bride, Eleanor, banging away on a hideaway bed while the radio newscaster tells us that Normandy has just been invaded – D-Day. Over a hundred houses & I’m still going, Uncle Stan passing away at the age of ninety-two, the war in Vietnam grinding to a halt, the Berlin wall torn down brick by brick as I roll by on the Schwinn wondering how the hill has managed to descend through seventy-two countries on five continents – a mystery I’ll never have time to fathom because there, at what appears to be the bottom of the hill, is an open grave, half a dozen people standing around it as though waiting for a hearse to arrive.

It’s a very simple but rather wonderful poem conveying both the hunger for experience (the number of countries Hammial has travelled to is carefully documented) and the usual incomprehension as to the overall pattern and even the overall meaning of an individual’s life. If one wanted to look for hidden generative puns (Riffaterre’s hypograms) one could imagine the two meanings of the word “career”. “Lost in the Amazon” from the next book, Swan Song, replaces the image of bicycling with that of rowing, but has a similar view of life even if the tone is more sardonic and comic:

The canoe of this admiral (who by some miracle has remained unharmed) is so full of arrows (at least a thousand) that it’s bound to sink at any moment, & of course, the no-longer-paddling & now saluting admiral is honour-bound to go down with it, a fitting end to a glorious career.

The 1985 volume, Vehicles, is, in a way, a celebration of bizarre events and bizarre metaphors conceived as modes of transport – in the case of the latter the poems probably exploit the technical term, “vehicle” associated with analyses of metaphorical language. “The Vehicle of Demented Canonization”, for example,

is not, as you might expect, the cannon in the circus, nor is it the net that always catches the human ball. The Vehicle of Demented Canonization is the toothless old lion who, though he’s heard it a thousand times, is still frightened half to death by the cannon’s roar.

The generative structure of this poem lies, as I read it, with choosing “demented” for its implications while the rest of us were concentrating on the possibilities of “canonization”.

The number of Hammial poems involving movement, vehicles, rides, weird means of propulsion, pilgrimages and so on is enormous. Another good example might be “Steps” a poem from Voodoo Realities not included in this selection:

Already, at five in the morning, the beggars
are here, assembled, one on each of the one hundred
stone steps. Where have we been? Where
are we going? And, more importantly, what
do we have for their bowls? – their bowls
of ivory, of amethyst, of silver & gold, of
porcelain filled with steaming mu-mus to slurp
to the metonymic thunk of Chinese truncheons
out on the Barkor, a pilgrim from Kham caught
with a photo of the Dalai Lama – Free Tibet. Fat
chance, the warlords in Beijing testing their rhino-
horn potency on giggling concubines. Tibet’s
not a priority. Nor is the rhino rotting
on the veld, Hong Kong pharmacists rolling
in money, alchemists with gold. Know
thyself, & drink this hemlock, a perfect compliment
to the steaming mu-mus, all the rage in the 60s, worn
in defiance – up yours with your mini-skirts/thigh-
high boots made for walking all over us as hot
to trot we’re prodded like cattle, like pilgrims
up these steps on our hands and knees, beggars laughing
at our progress. Bloody-kneed oafs, at the top
there’s a cliff, eunuchs waiting to push us over.

Although this poem develops into a fairly overt attack on the mistreatment of developing cultures by the developed – the Chinese are responsible for the near extinction of the rhinoceros, the Hippie invasion of Asia responsible for untold corruptions – the framing structure is that of a bizarre pilgrimage ritual in which the beggars (“one on each of a hundred steps” in a typically numerically sensitive organisation) possessed of fabulously rich begging bowls, laugh as they watch Westerners plunge to their deaths.

And, finally, in this quick sketch, there is “A Pilgrim’s Progress” a complex two-part piece which might be about mercantile behaviour, even meditation, but which, in my reading, is about poetry which attempts to please a market, or, at least, to spruce itself up enough to be able to appear in public and, on the other hand, poetry like Hammial’s. I think this is a recurring theme in Hammial’s work (see “Bytes” and “Hit Parade” – “. . . this poem //a perfect example of my perennial inability / to articulate some universal truth, a sad fact / that’s guaranteed to keep me in the ranks // of the also-ran until the day I die . . .”). Whatever the case, my interest in it at the moment is as another example of the obsession with movement and vehicles:

Who on a path that only to the market leads is but
a frilly man who once upon he thought he heard
the tinkle of a lost drummer

is not my concern.
Am only on this cart for my health.
Am only going thus for a gourmet’s song.

For glass on this path, & in the wayside beds
a bleeding host of questing men who barefoot
in a breach had thought to run and win. But patience

is mine, as it must be – this heavy cart with its limb
from limb load of a once magnificent ox that on
spindly legs a golden calf is pulling.

The inverted syntax here is more common in Hammial’s poetry than the comparatively straightforward poems I have quoted so far. And there is obviously a lot here which is drawn from the Buddhist image of ox-herding used as a meditation model intriguingly combined with the biblical image of the golden calf, a symbol of both greed and apostacy.

If mad journeys on impossible machines is one central image in Hammial’s work, the other is that of the asylum. They are related, of course, because the inmates of an asylum are bound to the obscure medical procedures which they do not understand and thus are in the same situation as those on the mysterious vehicles or mysterious pilgrimages. What is interesting is that the asylum images have an autobiographical base. You don’t have to have read widely in Hammial’s work to know that he worked as an orderly in the Athens State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Ohio. His first book, Foot Falls & Notes, was, he tells us, prompted by the sudden desire to give each of the inmates he knew a voice and a poem:


are a few poems
in a few voices learned
while cooking in Athens
State Hospital, Athens, 
Ohio, built in
1868, with turrets
& gables &
doctors & 
nurses of that period.

And a number of the autobiographical (and very straightforward) prose poems of Travel describe experiences in this hospital, including one, “The Examination”, in which, temporarily in the violent ward, Hammial is examined by a man with all the outward appearances of a competent psychiatrist. Of course he is an inmate but one of his comments is that two of the actual doctors are “mad as March hares”. Hammial says, “And having dealt with these individuals, I agree wholeheartedly”. Although it is a cliche to speak of psychiatric inmates as doctors and vice versa, the pressure of an actual experience of an uncomfortable reality means that when such things appear in Hammial’s poetry they are intensely felt. “Marlene” from Wig Hat On (not included in Asylum Nerves) describes a willed erotic, communal fantasy:

. . . . . 
I’ve just described is Ward 12 (the dirty ward)
& its fire-escape in ASH, Athens State Hospital,
where I worked for a year as an orderly in charge
of forty men who weren’t overly concerned
about their personal hygiene, the wonder-working
cabaret dancer from Berlin a figment of our collective
hallucination. As punctual as a Swiss watch, she
would suddenly appear in our midst every afternoon
at three when the last soap ended and the first
children’s program was about to begin, blow us
a sultry kiss & slink away, disappearing behind
a gossamer curtain that covered the scar
of a bricked-over door.
Harold would try to follow her, managing
three or four awkward steps before his chemical
straitjacket checked his progress like a pendulum
at the end of its stroke . . .

The hospital appears, transformed into an image of existential existence in poems like the significantly named “Saint Philip’s Infirmary”, in which everyone is the victim of ungraspable – but generally cruel – procedures of exploitation:

Are we here to save our lives? Big
should we beg? If we pay enough
can we crawl under? Do our keepers know what it’s like
to burn bare naked? With our persons
should they have their fun free? Are they & they
our destiny . . .
 . . . . .
          On hands & knees
do Arch of Submission. Or suffer
spurs, some egg on
a face you thought was yours.
. . . . . 
                                    Told, again,
what we already know: In us is folly
fully engaged for which, if we’re smart
& know the rules, we’ll kneel & do the praise
we’ve been trained to do by betters. And told,
again, lest we forget, how among the dead
of all the dead we are, by a mile, the most dead.
Flung like stones, all of us.

And “Asylum Nerves” from Sugar Hits, which give this volume its title, exploits a double image of life as an asylum which is, more or less, a torture chamber run by casual psychopaths:

Pretend more than ever
that you’re being nursed 
by a motorcycle mama
with a six-day beard and plenty of time
for a bad case of asylum nerves . . .
. . . . .
                                             How long 
can you last? – these incursions into the stuff
that makes you you; it’s surely
women’s business this, & it’s done
by men to music while ex-Ranger
Daniel Devine demonstrates his ”˜Nam pig-sticker
to the girls next door.
exciting, already bored with you,
your tormentors wander off to have a play
with that giggling entourage.
                                                  Your you,
it seems you can keep it, a mother’s milk
to soothe your nerves.

Journeys and asylums are, of course, only part of the repertoire of motifs that these poems are built on. A number of others could be included: family members, especially the mother figure; selves which shift personality, age and gender in the way they do in dreams; engines; Chinese boxes, eating and so on. But the sense remains that these are autobiographically related even though they are distorted and twisted. Martin Langford’s introduction quotes Hammial’s comment that “all of his poems are derived from some actual event” but leaves its implications unexplored.

An important poem for any reader trying to explore this autobiographical base and the way it relates to the striking poems it eventually contributes towards is “The Ritual of the Stick” from Just Desserts. It contains a footnote, “On January 2, 1991, in Radigon, Bihar State, India, Philip Hammial & his wife were viciously assaulted by seventeen members of the CPM”. The poem is made up of fifty-one discrete sentences though this reduced to fifty in the Asylum Nerves version by combining two (“viciously assaulted” in the footnote is also emended – to “savagely beaten”) and in the central part of the poem each of these contains the word “stick”, which, crudely mimetic as this analysis might seem, suggests a state in the middle of a beating in which the mind dully repeats something. It’s too complex a poem to look at in detail here but much about it is suggestive. For example Father and Mother recur as invoked characters: the poem begins “Tell us, Mother, for how much longer must we continue to hold ourselves up standing” and a later section includes both Father and an imaginary institution:

Stripped down, Father, to a bare essential.

Your pound, gentlemen, of flesh.

But, gentlemen, our generosity does have a limit.

Too long, Father, in Your Church of the Interminable Flagellation.

Is there in this, somewhere, a hallelujah?

Obviously, a passage to something, but to what?

Whether, Mother, to come or go? In one direction only; there’s no turning back . . .

The second issue is, as I foreshadowed, a matter of form. Hammial’s poems are, whatever their relationship to reality, the unconscious, or whatever, invariably shapely utterances as poems. Sometimes this is no more than the sardonic twist given to a narrative by a good raconteur as in the case of the admiral who went down with the ship of himself. We can see this in two prose poems from With One Skin Less. In “Wheels”, surely an allegory of Hammial’s approach to poetry, a man on wheels performs dazzling manoeuvres that disturb onlookers – some positively, some negatively. He is returned to his asylum and scheduled to have his wheels surgically removed. When this is done the result is a “man who stands on his own two feet”. In “A Drive with Dr. Plotz” an internee is taken in the psychiatrist’s specially designed machine into the woods so that his demons can be released. But when they arrive the internee is reluctant to abandon his tamed demons to the wild demons of the woods and the pair return having accumulated some of these new, wild demons, much to the distress of Dr Plotz: “Hopelessly snarled with the paraphernalia of madness – bits of glass & bottle caps & silver spoons – what will her colleagues say when they see it?”

Among more specifically poetic structures, the most common is circularity. Innumerable examples could be given but a representative one is “Books”, from Sugar Hits. Essentially “about” a culture’s treatment of outsiders, its central term is pharmakos – scapegoat:

As the only naked white man in our village
who could cook a book with a single match
it’s up to me (my lot in life)
to get the word out where it can be seen
for what it is – pharmakoi . . .

The central section of the poem is, as often in Hammial, an extended, highly energetic diversion into another sphere:

if you took all of the men by the hand
who have taken you by the leg & led them
up George Street to the intersection where
Rachael’s grandmother has set up her treadle-
driven Singer sewing machine, the train
of Rachael’s wedding dress hopelessly snarled 
in rush-hour traffic . . .

then, the poem says, you would have enough men to invade “six or seven of those no-name places” from where the refugees arrive, the

                             scapegoats who,
dressed to kill in St. Vini hand-me-downs,
in addition to seducing our wives & daughters
have taken our jobs as well, such as they were,
in my case a cooker of books.

Obviously other things are happening in this poem, apart from its shape: it begins with a series of slightly distorted metaphors, for example and concludes by making fun of the clichéd rhetoric of those opposed to migration, and we might ask whether it’s poets or demagogues who cook the books. But the circular shape is entirely typical. Occasionally the circularity can be self-referential. “Of Tubs, Sailors & Inflation”, which begins, “Tub prices up. Rub / down. Which combination, up & down, makes it easy / for a body, any body, to get a proper break . . .”, concludes:

those sailors from the boat in your tub they can’t
be had for just a song such as this one that manages,
but just barely, to get back, the proverbial
tail-swallowing serpent, to its opening
statement – the rising price of tubs.

And “Invocation”, a poem from Drink From the Animal which is not included in this Selected, begins: “Invoke something, anything! – floating teacups / as at sea we take our tea . . .” and then goes on to recount an experience at the Iran/Afghanistan border and an imaginary stroll with Leon-Paul Fargue down a Parisian boulevard in 1928 before concluding:

                                Dressed to kill,
where are we going or, more to the point, where
is this poem going? Your guess 
as good as mine. Should we just give in,
call it a day? Or one last try – some transition
that will slip us back to the floating teacup image
& here we are (easy as pie), Leon-Paul & I at sea
as we take our tea, his new tome, Banalite,
the talk of the Dome.

And then there is what I call serial form. Here the poem is structured essentially as a list but its dynamic shape is likely to derive from the way the list is ordered. “Houses”, from Voodoo Realities is made up of seven imaginary alliterative houses – Gurdjieff’s Guthouse, Blavatsky’s Bughouse, Huxley’s Hexhouse etc – each of which has a colour, a rate per minute, an individual monk proprietor – “a monk / in combination”, “a monk / ticking”, “a monk / as string, thrummed” etc – what will be found there, and an exit to the next house. The poem’s dramatic shape is derived from the fact that the rent gets cheaper so that by the time we arrive at Reich’s Ribhouse its twenty-nine cents per minute:

                               Exit to:
Ribhouse. White. Twenty-
nine. The proprietor: a monk
cancelled. Paper & pen, ready
to have the last say, the pen ever
so gently removed from your fingers
by a smiling nurse. It’s time
for bed. Sweet dreams.

In “Bridal Suite” a series of different occupations – bakers, circus hands, butchers, astronauts – carry the groom to the bride’s bed in neat, separate two-line stanzas: in each case the occupation affects the way the bridegroom is presented. Finally he is carried by poets, “THE WORD MADE FLESH tattooed on my chest”.

There are other shaping devices used in these poems that could be analysed. Especially important would be the usual surrealist one whereby puns (hidden or overt) generate meanings which take the poem into new direction. But the issue that matters here is the very fact of the poetic shape of Hammial’s writing. His description of the way in which the poems are made out of material dredged up in a bucket during a trance, splayed across the sky and then transcribed, would suggest that the results would be fragments, bleeding chunks, rather than the very well-made things they actually are. The only conclusion is that these often autobiographically-based works are fabricated, complete, in the unconscious and brought up, section by section, in the bucket.

Ultimately, whatever they are, however they are made, they live or die by their ability to engage and fascinate. There are few poets in Australia whose work is so consistently energised, challenging and enjoyable. Clearly the autobiographical element is part of this and it is worth pointing out that the prose poems of Travel are examples of non-surreal poetic methods, clinging closely to facts perhaps because some of those facts, especially those detailing a delinquent childhood in Detroit are so weird that no additional strangeness is needed. The last part of Wig Hat On contains half a dozen poems that are similarly openly autobiographical without the surreal expressive techniques. Some of these have very interesting and valuable information about Hammial’s sense of himself and his poetry:

A black & white photograph from 1949: yours truly
stripped to the waist, shoveling coal
into the boiler of the Tennessee, a steam tug
working the Sandusky, Ohio harbour. It immediately
brings to mind Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape”
though any resemblance between the scrawny
twelve year old & a real stoker in the stokehole
of a tramp freighter is laughable, as is the one
between the twelve year old & the old man
writing this poem, licking his wounds
from yet another weekly brawl with his wife
of fifteen years . . .

It recalls Bruce Beaver’s As It Was a documenting, autobiographical volume that tries to get factual details down for the record without processing them through the usual channels of his poetry. There is a lot of information about Hammial in these poems but the self-description I like most is the one that comes at the end of “Mentors” from Wig Hat On:

I’ll have dinner with someone
who understands me, a no longer young man
who took to poetry
like a puppet to wood.

Simon West: The Ladder

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, 57pp.

The Ladder is Simon West’s third book (after First Names of 2006 and The Yellow Gum’s Conversion of 2011) and it gives readers an opportunity to see more of the complex world its lyrics inhabit and explore. West is a very sophisticated poet who can be seen – now that we have a hundred or so poems – as rather more resistant to schematic plotting than my review of his first book, published on this site, might have suggested. But while we always speak of the way poets develop through their first books perhaps we should also speak of the way that our own responses as readers of that poetry develop as well. In that first review I wrote of two elements: an obsession with the tactility of language and a fascination with the vertical axis which moves from the under-soil – the word “humus” kept appearing as a kind of talisman – to the surface of the earth and on to the celestial view, re-enacting Dante’s three zones.

The Ladder, as its title suggests, contains poems which do develop the second of these interests. In fact the book’s epigraph is taken from that moment at the end of Paradiso XXII when Dante and Beatrice are about to ascend to the eighth heaven, after Benedict’s discourse about Jacob’s ladder: “The little threshing-floor which makes us so fierce was all revealed to me from hills to river-mouths, as I circled with the eternal Twins. Then to the beauteous eyes I turned my eyes again”. (I’ve used the Singleton translation here and should point out that by rendering l’aiuola as “threshing-floor” rather than “little plot” it perpetuates what many feel to be an over-interpretive, liberty-taking translation. (If I sound knowledgeable about all of this it is entirely thanks to the resources of Google and Wikipedia!) This epigraph should be enough to alert us to the fact that vertical axes still operate at the basis of West’s poetic imagination. Of course the passage in Paradiso is about seeing our little world – the place of all merely human drives, including savagery – from the perspective of the cosmic and may be as much about perspectives as it is about those drives. It may, in other words, be a comparatively abstract view which reminds us that everything seen is seen from somewhere and thus fits in with a number of other poems (beginning with “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarara Tjapaltjarri” in First Names) which are about point of view – or its lack.

At any rate, this passage from Paradiso is the basis for one of the poems of The Ladder, “Speckled World”. The narrator, like an Astronaut in the space-station, finds himself sailing over “deserts and the lights / of towns clustered against the dark”:

. . . . . 
                                               But then
I was taken with fear at the thought of drifting so far
I might lose the smell of soil on a frosty morning
when the sun refracts through dew on grass blades
and the tops of hills float in a layer of fog.
With longing I looked down on the speckled world
and knew my betrayal of Gravity could not last.
She would tug me back once more from this mad flight,
and I would return to plot my Res Gestae thus -
in my thirty-fifth year, after a long struggle,
I conquered my mistrust of life. . . .

Although it’s difficult for a reader to orient him- or herself in this poem – is it a rewriting of Dante’s experience (which occurs in the fiction of the Commedia at the age of thirty-five), a dream of the poet’s who is, coincidentally of the same age, or is the narrator neither Dante or the poet but a separate, invented character? – the general point is the same. Ascending into the heavens is one thing but the loss of the feeling of earth and its tactility – the smell of its rich humus – is intolerable. The narrator, as I read the poem, is going to focus on the horizontal dimension of this world and, indeed, many of the poems of The Ladder, despite its title, develop into discussions of the possibilities and protocols of this “speckled world” as well as what occurs when we break free, or at least half-free, from it.

The first poem, for example, “Roman Bridges”, concentrates on one of the defining features of the horizontal world: the way we move into, through and across it. The bridges, whose arches make a kind of leap, show that there is

           grace in holding gravity at bay
and a certain poise in being in between.
My ideal landscape has room for bridges and hills,
spires, birds and echoes: halfway things.

A later poem, “The Go-Between”, tells of a bridge in northern Italy built across a gorge by a devil in exchange for the soul of its first user. As often in these folktales the devil is tricked when a dog rushes over in pursuit of a bone. But you can see the schema of the thing and the way it appeals to West. The context of the poem is one with a vertical axis – it is about a demon pulling, or trying to pull, a member of the human world down into hell. But what is left is a horizontal bridge which, as the poem says, is a “marvellous / go-between” that leads the rest of us “somewhere else”.

It’s also chastening to see that this interest in way a bridge makes a kind of horizontal step into space is present in First Names too. A poem there, “Flight”, was about a couple arriving in a new country (“a change both of money and language”) at an entirely new kind of house (“all narrow stairs, and doors of different sizes”). Nothing really happens except that, “with a cry of joy you jumped / forward and ran a few paces ahead”. Taken on its own, in a first book, it was difficult to see what sustained this poem, apart from its desire to represent a brief, important moment in a relationship. Read alongside “Roman Bridges” it can be seen as one of those moments of horizontal leap into a new world, like the arches of the bridges:

. . . . .
at last it seemed so easy to break
from that poise which had
borne the weight of times past.
And my heart jumped behind you, startled
at having to catch up, busy collecting
the slipstream of a new intent.

And there is a striking, autobiographical poem in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion, “Door-Sill” which is about a bare “slab of red gum” serving as a door step, a threshold between the inner world of the house and the outer world. Initially one read it – in a rather Maloufian way – as a poem about liminality, interested in the doorway between two worlds. Rereading it, one can see that it is the step forward, rather than the different worlds, which interests West:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes,
after a poise
that seemed about to come
when top-heavy we pitched,
and were too quickly seeking
peace with gravity . . .

In The Ladder, “Nothing Ventured” – the title exploits the many ways of reading that phrase, as part of a cliche and as complete in itself – is about, as a child, crossing the wire fence into an empty field for the first time. Again, the emphasis is a little unpredictable in that the poem is interested in the way the mind and the body are engaged in this crucial step – rather as they were in “Flight”:

. . . . . 
Something came of nothing, though, when first
I leapt that fence alone. Giddy with lag,
my head raced to catch where my feet now stood. And did,
and was pledged, like saying to a mirror, here I am.

And a poem about Tintoretto’s weird “Miracle of St Mark” in which the saint, seen from behind and rather below, floats through the air, about to save a slave due to have his legs broken for worshipping the Christian god, is interested in the way in which this odd pose is a matter of capturing the moment before the miracle, the step (if one can make a step in mid-air) from which “Everything / set in motion must occur”.

One of the features of this “halfway world” whose landscape is made up of bridges, spires, echoes, mountains and rivers – but also doorsills and birds – is that it is a place where boundaries are less clear than is usually assumed. There is a halfway state in which, say, under the effects of fog, shapes lose their precision. A longish poem late in the book, “Chimera”, is about the patron goddess of this state who sounds a little like Spenser’s Mutabilitie:

. . . . . 
Eagle-eyed when she surveys the land
each leaf is lucent as in Vermeer,
and all at once softens to take its place
in a patchwork of colours by Klee.
It is thought she is the patron saint of nay-sayers,
and easily consumed by spite, but when at twilight
the trees unmoor in winter fog
and, in a panic, you reach out as if they could be held,
don’t despise her clown hooting from the bank. . .

And “The Perfection of Apollo”, about Ribera’s painting of the flaying of Marsyas, contains a stanza which, quoting Pico della Mirandola, claims an ethical virtue, deeply humanist, for the race of humans who live in the halfway world of continuous change:

. . . . .
          our dignity resides in having
no fixed seat and no form of our own,
in being placed halfway; not wholly mortal,
rather free to mould and make ourselves. . .

Another poem, with the faux Chinese title “Outside on a Warm Evening I Consider My Confused Ideas about Poetry. For Now I Offer This Brief Account” (a title that ensures all critics will return to it to read it carefully) revisits the same idea. It begins with something of an assault on the idea that poetry (together with the other arts) is a way of expanding our inner lives:

The poets of my youth spoke of dwelling
in themselves, as if they meant a secret
cavern of emotions where an essence
might be found purring like a cat. . .

It’s the defined stability of this model of the inner life which is being criticised though West doesn’t invoke the usual philosophical and psychological arguments of the last half-century. For him it seems more an issue of poetic temperament:

Too restless to abide, I’ve mostly lingered
round the threshold which the senses keep.
Outside there is so much to contemplate.
Some talk of depth and things as they are. Others
see layered surfaces alive with light. 
. . . . . 
In the poetry of mountains and waters
a path meanders through vast landscapes. Sometimes
it is hard to distinguish a man from a cloud or a tree . . . 

And it’s important to have not only the correct perceptual perspective but also the correct ethical protocols in this halfway landscape: “Here too, I imagine, before crossing a stream / it is wise to wash one’s hands and offer a prayer / while gazing into the flood”.

It’s a distinctive poetic perspective and West is a distinctive and, already, powerful presence in Australian poetry. My own perspectives on poetry are not much interested in national or ethnic distinctivenesses but one could imagine readers of First Names thinking that much that was distinctive about this new poet came from an acquired Italian component of his creativity. If so, well and good. But the second and third books have enough of Australia in them – especially at an autobiographical level – to make readers feel that this issue of Australianness, however murky and unhelpful the debates about it might generally be, is one of the issues raised by West’s poetry. There is a poem in The Ladder, “The Mallee Singer”, which is a tribute to Shaw Neilson. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect from this poet but the poem contrasts Shaw Neilson’s sensitivity – “you sought quieter weightings in your line / for the balm of green and flight of water birds, / for children in the sunlight in the spring” – with the louder, cruder music of his contemporary world, “Salvation drums, and blokes’ ballads / thudding over the black flats”. This aligns Shaw Neilson not just with sensitivity but with a sensitivity to the fluid boundaries of West’s halfway world where outlines are not so rigidly maintained as they are in Salvation Army hymns and in bush ballads.

The gum trees that begin to turn up in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion play an important role here and perhaps they do add a precision and specificity to what in First Names was inclined to be a generic “dark wood”. They are celebrated, in a way, in the first of twelve poems about Rome in which the author sees a gum tree among the Roman ilexes. The eucalypt has a particular quality that the poem wants to celebrate. Because, when we look at one we also look through its slim, falcate, downturned leaves, it is obviously very much a halfway tree:

Unreal city, still. By default. And then
the jolt of recognition hitting home - 
a gum broke the shade of holm oaks.
Its exhortation – remember, make known.

It was how light sifted through those swinging leaves - 
you looked at it and beyond it all in one.
. . . . . 
Intimate, drab and tragic, the branches curved
like Christ’s limbs in a deposition scene. . .

I think it is this odd quality of the gum that appeals to West – the poem doesn’t want to celebrate nostalgia. And after all, it’s a moot point how “Australian” the gum trees are nowadays. They are grown throughout South East Asia, for example, as a source of quick-growing hardwood impervious to local diseases and predators, and are common in North America and around the Mediterranean. I myself once saw a stand of them on the road between Kashan and Qom in Iran.

John Tranter: Heart Starter

Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, 149pp.

The first fifty-six of the one hundred and one poems in John Tranter’s new book, Heart Starter, are “terminals”, poems which take another writer’s poem and, by retaining the words that end each of the lines, allow the poet to construct a new poem. It’s a form, as far as I know, developed by Tranter alone though it has its origins in a poem of John Ashbery’s which was based on the words ending the lines of Swinburne’s double sestina, “The Complaint of Lisa”. It is, as Brian Henry notes in an essay in The Salt Companion to John Tranter, a poetic form which is “vastly open to possibility”. Far from being a matter of proposing new patterns of rhyme or new stanza shapes or variations in syllabic requirements it can be as varied as the immense number of poems which it can take as a base. It is closest, if anything, to the sestina where an initial choice (which words will appear at the ends of the lines of the first stanza) generates a set of requirements for the final words of the rest of the poem. It thus oddly combines almost infinite freedom with what can be a mind-bendingly difficult formal requirement. Tranter’s Studio Moon had a number of examples but fifty-six poems is a more substantial sample when it comes to investigating the possibilities and implications.

Usually, in Tranter’s comments about his generative practices, there is a strong sense that the chosen method provides not a poem but a draft that might be made into a poem. You feel that the author here wants to take final responsibility – he must be satisfied that the poem “works” and the original poem for a terminal is thus merely a starting point. But the poems of Heart Starter re-establish the importance of the relationship between the original work – the source – and the terminally-derived new poem. You can see this foreshadowed in the two early terminals which were based on Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, a poem which seems to invite reworkings, perhaps because it is an almost canonical example of a certain kind of defeated response to the growing horrors of the modern world balanced by the precarious faith that to be true to one’s loved-one remains a value that an individual can espouse. As such, this poem remains as relevant and almost as often quoted as Yeats’s “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (who says that the poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries doesn’t speak to our present twenty-first century condition?) Arnold is certainly a figure with whom Tranter has a complex (and generally hostile) relationship: “The Great Artist Reconsiders the Homeric Simile” from the 1979 volume, Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, makes fun of Arnold’s pastiche mini-epic “Sohrab and Rustum”. And the two terminals based on “Dover Beach” – “See Rover Reach” and “Grover Leach” – gain much of their interest by the way in which they assault the homogenous, even-toned, despairingly calm, language of the original. “Grover Leach” seems like a mad, slightly disjointed version of a poem by Edward Arlington Robinson or Edgar Lee Masters, and the opening lines of “See Rover Reach” proclaim sudden shifts in subject and register:

Something’s bothering the dog tonight -
the neighbour’s pig, maybe – it’s not fair
the way they feed that thing. Your hair, under the porch light,
it reminds me of Jenny, my long-ago one-night stand -
at least we thought it was a one-night stand – at Baffin Bay,
drinking vodka and pissing on the ice in the night air!
And then there was the time on the “Ocean Spray” -
some affair! – stranded miles from land . . .

Poems like these seem to suggest one of the strengths of the terminal. You take a canonical poem, scoop out most of the content and rewrite it in such a way as to bring it screaming into the disjointed world of modern fragmented and multi-layered discourse.

But, we can now see, there is much more potential in the terminal than this. And much of this potential derives from which poems are chosen as sources. All the terminals in Heart Starter derive from two canonical anthologies of American poetry. The first is Robert Pinsky’s The Best of the Best American Poetry of 2013 – an anthology selected from the twenty-five annual editions of The Best American Poetry series (and not to be confused with Harold Bloom’s Best of the Best American Poetry of 1998 which selected from, and celebrated, the first ten years). The second is The Open Door which collects one hundred poems over the one hundred year existence of what began as Harriet Monroe’s little magazine. This anthology begins with the high modernists – Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Yeats – and works its way through most of the major developments in American poetry up to the contemporary. Both source anthologies are, in other words, convincing snapshots of the major national poetry in English: one covering the last century, the other the last quarter of a century. So the very act of choosing them as sources for a set of terminals alerts one to the prospect that Tranter may be wanting to say something about American poetry or wanting to do something to it. If terminals are inherently hostile then the poems of Heart Starter are an attack on the American poetic century; if they are, instead, essentially polite hommages then the book is a genuflection in the same direction. It’s also just possible that they are hubristic acts of competition: show me your poem and I’ll rewrite it in a way that shows I’m a better poet. If this seems unlikely (or undignified) it’s worth remembering that the improvisation competitions in which the early Beethoven took part in Vienna were not dissimilar and that the most famous of these (with Daniel Steibelt) involved Beethoven’s taking his competitor’s music, turning it upside down and setting off with what became, later, the theme of the variations that make up the final movement of the Eroica Symphony. That’s a process not so dissimilar to what happens in a terminal. And, dauntingly, attack, homage and competition are only three of a large spectrum of responses.

Heart Starter begins with a terminal based on the first poem of the Pinsky anthology, Sherman Alexie’s “Terminal Nostalgia” (this anthology, like all the “Best of American Poetry” anthologies, is organised not chronologically but alphabetically by the author’s surname). Alexie’s poem (he “grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation” and his name sounds remarkably like an anagram of the sort that Tranter sometimes uses for titles or authors of his terminals) is a very funny representation of what the competitive nostalgic spirit (“Brisbane was a much better place when I was a kid!”) might look like from the perspective of a Native American:

The music of my youth was much better
Than the music of yours. So was the weather.

Before Columbus came, eagle feathers
Detached themselves for us. So did the weather.

During war, the country fought together
Against all evil. So did the weather . . .

These opening three of the poem’s sixteen couplets will show how daunting Tranter’s task is with this particular poem. “Terminal Nostalgia” is structured like one of the more intricate varieties of ghazal: each of the couplets finishes with the word “weather” and all the first lines of each beit are either a perfect or half-rhyme with that word. Tranter’s poem is a single verse paragraph, avoiding the refrain-like repetitions of “weather”, and thus has the additional difficulty of needing to make the appearance of the same word at the end of half the lines seem natural. I don’t think he entirely succeeds and Heart Starter opens with what is perhaps its weakest poem but you have to admire the way such a difficult formal task is taken on. The material of “Algernon Limattsia” (the title is an anagram of “Terminal Nostalgia”) is, understandably, not at all about nostalgia and doesn’t seem to engage in any apparent way (as critique, homage or competitor) with the parent poem: it’s about “the weather” in both literal and metaphoric sense – a common theme in Tranter’s poetry (“Voodoo”, “Dark Harvest”, “Storm Over Sydney” among many others). The attraction which ensured that this would not be one of the poems that Heart Starter omits (the fifty-six poem