David Brooks: The Other Side of Daylight: New and Selected Poems

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press: 2024, 206pp.

I usually think that David Brooks’s third book, Urban Elegies, provides readers with the first sight of what he is – a great contemporary poet. It replaced a tendency towards a kind of gestural lyricism in his earlier work with an aggressive, free-wheeling personal style that has formed the basis of subsequent developments. This selected poems provides a good opportunity for an overview of the shape of his career. Like most modern selecteds, it begins with a new, book-length work and then selects from earlier volumes beginning with the most recent and concluding with the first. It probably suits readers who are interested in new work and it certainly suits the poets for whom, understandably, what they have done most recently is what occupies their minds. Early work gets relegated to the back of the book. But for critics – who want, among other things, to map changes in theme, mood and mode – it’s a frustrating arrangement: we have to read books like this in reverse order. Doing so, reveals that many of the characteristics of Urban Elegies and the later poems can be found in a single poem in Brooks’s second book, “Depot Elegy”.

What “Depot Elegy” and the third book share is the word “elegy” and elegy refers here not to its later embodiment as a lament for the dead, a solemn piece set perhaps in a country churchyard, but the classical sense of an intensely emotional rehearsal of passion, despair and fury mixed with wit and, as I’ll discuss later, a degree of surprising off-handedness about the poetic side of matters. We associate the classical elegy with “love poets” such as Tibullus and Propertius but Catullus is probably the best point of entry into the features of this mode, not least because Brooks has three poems in The Balcony which are imagined to be later productions of Catullus. At the risk of momentarily moving too far away from the subject of Brooks’s poetry which is, after all, what this review is about, I’ll quote one of my favourite Catullus poems as an example of what we might expect from a classical elegy. It’s Catullus VI in Guy Lee’s translation:

Were she not unsmart and unwitty,
Flavius, you’d want to tell Catullus
About your pet and couldn’t keep quiet.
In fact you love some fever-ridden
Tart and you’re ashamed to own it.
That you’re not spending deprived nights
Silent in vain the bedroom shouts
Perfumed with flowers and Syrian oils,
The pillow equally this side and that
Dented, and the rickety bed’s
Yackety perambulation.
It's no good keeping quiet about it.
You’d not present such fucked-out flanks
If you weren’t up to something foolish.
So tell us what you’ve got, for good
Or ill. I wish to emparadise
You and your love in witty verse.

The reader can feel in this translation the stress caused by Catullus’s intricate Latin syntax which has to be wrestled into English – “That you’re not spending deprived nights / Silent in vain the bedroom shouts / Perfumed with flowers . . .”- but the sense and tone of the poem is preserved. It’s obviously a long way from the statelier poetry aiming at high art: think of something like Yeats’s “Among School Children”. In fact this kind of poem is a sort of assault on that kind of poetry, perhaps a counter-current that runs alongside the pretensions of major works. The language is far cruder than poetry is used to and, as such, it perhaps puts poetry closer to an area where linguistic development and its associated excitements can occur. Brooks’s “Depot Elegy”, though in many ways it is quite unlike Catullus VI, is in the same mode. It begins with a deliberate vulgarity:

The retired sawmiller, great arsehole,
has ploughed a road through the cycads
and that is the beginning of an end to it.
His three-storey brick-and-tile monstrosity
cranes out of the hillside
and the whine of his chainsaw or grind
of his four-wheel-drive as he hauls
his fourteen-footer from the boat ramp
can be heard any day of the year . . .

It’s a long way from the language and tone of the poems of The Cold Front – “I come to the river / down the precipitous bank / and I kneel / and drink deeply, lifting / the dark water from its foil of stars . . .” – and may well be built around the idea that fury best expresses itself by demonstrating how it breaks the bonds of polite speech. But the vulgarity is part of the elegiac style.

Another feature of the classical elegy which gives it an important role in poetic history is its casualness. There is a throwaway quality that contrasts with the intensity of the driving emotion in interesting ways. Catullus’ poem looks like a quickly scribbled note that may well have been left on Flavius’s refrigerator door – if he had had one – in the same way as Williams’ note about the plums. This impression is, of course, an illusion: Catullus may have spent just as long getting this one exactly right as he did on a formal “high-art” piece like LXI – it’s something we will never know. But the sense is always that intensity of passion is likely to overwhelm existing formal modes with their inbuilt stateliness: this kind of poetry is, in English at least, marked by lists tumbling through enjambments as in the end of “Depot Elegy”:

. . . . . 
the lyre-birds on Mount Agony,
the great monitor,
wallabies, kangaroos, quolls,
all of us
wrapped in this lasting, this
absolute night,
and everyone of them expecting morning.

Walking to Point Clear contains poems from nearly a twenty year period so it is hard to know exactly where a poem like “Depot Elegy” fits into Brooks’s development but it certainly provides a springboard for the poems of Urban Elegies and after.

Before I leave this subject of the classical elegy something needs to be said about its shape. One of its features of this sort of poem, as Brooks himself notes in a poem from Open House, is that it’s “a place where you can bring things together” and part of the power in bringing things together is the way it threatens a more trivial kind of unity in a poem, the unity that derives from a consistency of tone and subject – prose virtues, some might say. “Depot Elegy”, for example, shifts abruptly from excoriating the retired sawmiller to memories of fishing “from the wharf at Huskisson”. The structural tensions here are part of the sense of headlong excitement that the elegy mode creates. And, one feels, each poem must seek out a defensible shape. Catullus’s poem, for example, resolves itself by switching from a tone of intimate mock-castigation to one of gracious acceptance and offering – “I wish to emparadise / you and your love in witty verse” – neatly referring to the poem we have just read. Each poem requires a different solution to the problem of shape and this is one of the reasons why Brooks’s poems, with their comparatively restricted themes, never seem repetitive or predictable.

I need to point out that the lyric mode isn’t abandoned altogether. Poems like “Winter Longing Poem”, “Night Rain” and “Swallows” from Open House, are brief, gestural lyrics using recognised lyric techniques: the first feels like a tanka and the second has a repeated final line, for example. But Brooks’s elegiac style is a considerable achievement, not least because there aren’t (or weren’t) really models in Australian poetry for this kind of thing. One could point to the poems of Bruce Beaver but the differences between his poetry of celebration and lament and Brooks’s are great.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Brooks’s poems abound with references to poems, especially the act of making poems. It’s their nature as visitations which is focussed on in a poem like “Postmodernism and the Prime Minister” from The Balcony:

After making love
we sit on the balcony in the dark,
start talking and pretty soon
an idea for a poem has come, and then another.
It’s embarrassing.
It's not often like this and I’m loathe
to pass a poem by, but that’s
six in the last two days, the flow
seems too good to trust, too
facile . . .

It would be interesting to know what form this “idea” took. It seems unlikely to be a theme as we sense that the themes of Brooks’s poetry – love and a despairing rage at the sheer casual brutality of the way in which we live our lives – are everpresent. So it is more likely that the idea is a shape in the form of a bringing of different things together or of providing a conclusion to a meditation which will make it poetically satisfactory.

Another poem on the subject of poetry and Brooks’s decisions about where his poems are going to go, is “Barnyard Revelation Poem” from Urban Elegies:

An academic poetician friend
while discussing my
barbarous adventures
tells me that he hopes I won’t fall victim
to the endemic poematosis of the region, by which, he explains,
he means the writing
of “barnyard revelation poems”.
I haven’t laughed so much in years. . .

What follows is an imagined description of the sort of poetry produced by someone up to date with the kind of theories then doing the rounds of contemporary literature departments:

I suppose, instead, I should be producing
postmodern supermarket odes, or linguo-spatiological
poematographs of the 
secret life of words – the kinds of things
a close analysis of “intimate” might intimate, or the way
“impact” can become “impacted”, as if
the postmodern supermarket were anything much other
than sawn-up, mashed, sliced, bottled or deep-
frozen barnyard
or the forms and paraforms, traces and
fathomless abysses of words were any more
than the cum- and pain- and joy-cries
of farmers and their
wives and children, buried under
layer upon layer of the tangled Western Mind.

The choice is made for life in all its messiness as the true subject of poetry and, again, it is in the elegiac mode inclining to an anger which expresses itself in lists. In the hands of Catullus it would be in the form of a direct address to the “poetician friend” who would also be named, but the spirit is essentially the same. Given how major the theme of our treatment of farm animals is in Brooks’s poetry, the setting of “Barnyard Revelation Poem” is a little more than it might appear on the surface: it isn’t a poem simply about the relative merits of living on a smallholding over living an academic life but rather about what kind of poetry is needed in the contemporary world. Passionate celebrations and denunciations win out over postmodern assemblages and mimickings.

To move now from mode to material it could be said that poetry itself is one of Brooks’s major themes. Interestingly it turns up in poems far earlier than “Depot Elegy” and Urban Elegies where the crucial decisions about the nature of his poetry seem to be taken. The last poem of the first book, Cold Front, is “The Swineflower” which I read, not entirely confidently, as being about poetry’s remorseless absorption of all experience, often to the harm of nearest and dearest – “I am eating life, / my life and the life of others, / births and marriages, separations, / the ecstasies of copulation, death”. Interestingly in this selected, the order of the poems is changed so that a poem from the middle of Cold Front, “The Darkness”, now occupies the final position. It’s a rather melodramatic piece but is built around the metaphor of a poet, in distress, roaming the “backcountry” of his own mind, haunted by experiences that “will not alchemise to song”. The loved one acts as an “unaware interpreter” of this journey among images of the self and reminds us, that at this early stage, love and passion are intimately connected to poetry. A long poem from Open House, “Spiders About the House”, after an extensive survey of the various varieties of spider, dangerous and not, which share the poet’s house, moves finally to the image of poet as spider, and poems as analogous to the spider’s wrapped up prey:

. . . . .
this last one, stranger still,
whose web’s his life itself: damaged
and torn, repaired a hundred times, ob-
ssessive beyond imagining, he’ll
lumber out at almost any trouble or
excitement in his neighbourhood,
wrap it clumsily in a
cocoon of words, as if he thought it could
be kept or understood.

Love and passion might seem, to anyone coming across a book like The Balcony for the first time, the obviously dominant themes of Brooks’s work although the selection in The Other Side of Daylight mutes this impression slightly. The love is passionate and intense. At one extreme, as in “The Ibex”, the poet is a willing victim:

My panther is active tonight,
hungry, intent,
nobody’s business but her own

not content
to leave me
gutted by moonlight,
I must be
her lair-thing,
her skin-to-lie-on,
her gnawed bone.

The Balcony describes itself in its dedication as “for Teja / 77 love poems / (and then some)” and the “Catullus 123” poem imagines a colleague ridiculing the book’s initial plan:

“One hundred love poems? Don’t be ridiculous.
Your colleagues will give you shit,
and all those others, for whom love is
an expression of failure, lack of nerve,
something not really to be talked about
in gritty Sydney or those smug and urbane
capitals to the south of it. . .

Matched with erotic love is the theme of the cruelty and insensitivity of the human race, especially towards the animals it shares the planet with. Again, this is a theme that can be found in Brooks’s earlier work. “Depot Elegy”, for example, starting with the insensitive retired sawmiller and memories of fishing as a child, is really about the extinctions of plants and animals by the thoughtless dominant species:

. . . . . 
All night I have lain here
listening to the owls
and the plash of wallabies in the undergrowth
watching the stars through the window-screens,
feeling a different cold
rising from the pole,
the whole Earth
rolling towards a new extinction
devoured by such sudden parasites
(and I am one),
another, deeper night beginning
even here
and going out over the forest . . .

That parenthesis is a crucial one, shifting the focus from condemnation to guilt, something perhaps more amenable to poetry. It’s an issue that has always puzzled me and I don’t want to pursue it here since it will deflect from the book at hand, but I have always wondered whether my irritation with poets condemning some social issue is a result of an Australian sensibility that won’t tolerate the incipiently superior stance of the one doing the blaming, or whether it’s not just a personal touchiness. At any rate, worrying as the implications are, I feel much more comfortable with Brooks’s poetry, knowing that he includes himself among the guilty. And it isn’t only done once. “Pater Noster” which takes it’s title and opening from Jaques Prévert’s celebration of the wonders of life “down below” on earth, has an intense passage of condemnation and guilt:

. . . . . 
here where twenty-two humans killed in an ambush is
international news but the slaughter of one hundred
million animals each day to feed their slaughterers goes unmentioned
like the guilty secret it is that the whole
civilisation rides upon
(you a slaughterer, I a slaughterer, she, he, all of us, yet the very mention is blasphemy) . . .

It’s the position behind “Silent Night” which, like “Pater Noster”, mocks conventional pieties. Here, the sentimental images of mangers and watching animals at Christmas ends with a reminder of the fate of those animals:

. . . . 
“Unto us
a child is born,
unto us a Son is given”,
and from the squalor of the feedlots,
the horror of the holding yards,
the abject terror of the abattoirs,
under mute, indifferent stars,
unthought, unvoiced, ungiven,
the cows, the sheep, the geese look on.

Not all thoughts about the issue of the human race and its relationships to those other species it shares the planet with, result in poems of rage, frustration and guilt. “The Thick of It”, the second poem of Open House, begins with thinking about Baudelaire and “how one might / give one’s soul / to be able to write so well” before a radical change of perspective:

. . . . .
and on some obscure
impulse I went out
into the night air, for the
thick of it, the
hum of life everywhere – looked
at the stars, the
insects
swarming about the back-door lamp, and
coming in, stepped over first a
cockroach then a
slug, leading its
small family somewhere.

How can we
be so arrogant, to think that our
souls are worth so much?

And so, briefly, to the collection of new poems, “The Peanut Vendor”, at the opening of this book. Dated 2016 – 2023 these are poems written in a bleak period of fire and plague and reflect that fact. The themes I have discussed re-emerge, the second section especially being full of poems of rage and grief about the fate of animals. “One Too Many Mornings” gets down to dealing with the commensurability between animal suffering and human suffering:

. . . . . 
but in exasperation, writing to a friend

I’d mentioned the Auschwitz of the Animals
only to receive a leaden reprimand.
“How can you compare,” she asked, “the suffering
of animals with the suffering of humans?”

I’ve considered this carefully and, ironically,
have come to think she may be right: there’s
the Auschwitz of humans, one
of the lowest episodes in the long

and foetid history of our race,
and there are these other, ordinary things
with no particular name or place,
these “natural”, daily things we do, the wrenching

of children from their mothers, the stealing
of milk to feed the children of others,
the maceration of infants or severing
of body-parts alive, the trucking

of countless creatures to their deaths – over
no stock-race, no paddock gate, no sty
that indefensible lie,
Arbeit Macht Frei.

“The Peanut Vendor” has the same mix of lyric and elegiac modes I have written of when dealing with the earlier books. “Requiem” is a complex piece that begins and ends with the call of an unknown bird and in the body of the poem moves from the death of a pet dog to the fires and Covid epidemic which follow hard upon. “The Magpie” is an equally brilliant compendium piece combining news of the death of an ex-partner with the disturbing appearance of an unknown young man at the bottom of a paddock. At the poem’s end the titular magpie – another strange visitor – walks through the house like a priest waving a censer. There are also more examples of lyrics. A poem like “Wrens at Nightfall” is based on a brilliant and surprising observation about the way the birds move in flight:

I don’t know where they come from
those fluttering wrens at nightfall
visiting the dying peach tree; half
bird, half
leaf or butterfly, rising high against the white
sky then falling back as if
there’s something, after all, they can’t
ever quite let go of.

Shared by these poems, and many others, is the sense of a visitant, usually an animal but sometimes a human. They can be visitants whose arrivals are described – a number of the poems record sheep entering the poet’s study, for example – but they can also be poetic visitants, arrivals in a poem where one hadn’t expected them, examples of poetry’s ability to yoke surprisingly different things together. In a sense, “The Peanut Vendor” begins and ends with a poem of visitation. The first, “Wild Duck Sutra” describes feeding eight wild ducks while going about farm chores and concludes positively with the idea that “we might share refuge, rescue / each other”. The final poem, “Black Cockatoos”, describes the arrival in the trees of birds who seem to have a reason for turning up:

. . . . . 
I feel
they follow me – how could that be? – from
year to year, as if they’ve got
some message for me
though they seem
in no great hurry to deliver it . . .

I read this as a fairly bleak poem. Its last line – “and suddenly it was evening” – taken from Quasimodo, is a reminder of the fact that some of us are in reasonably advanced old age. If animal visitors can be moments of calm and revelation, barnyard or open country, as night falls their ministrations become less frequent and more cryptic.

Peter Boyle: Companions, Ancestors, Inscriptions

Np: Vagabond Press, 2024, 128pp.

Peter Boyle now has such an established place in contemporary Australian poetry that it isn’t really necessary, once again, to go over the features of his distinctive poetic sensibility and the kinds of poems it produces, beyond repeating that his approach to poetry has its roots not in English language poetry but in the poetry of the Romance languages two of which, French and Spanish, he speaks fluently. He is also a translator and the task of translating brings a poet into a greater intimacy with the work of another poet than simply reading does: in a sense it requires a very special kind of reading. Unlike the comparatively unified earlier books Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness and Ideas of Travel, Companions, Ancestors, Inscriptions is something of a compendium. It is made up of five sections, each with varying degrees of coherence, usually distinguished from the others thematically.

It begins with a section which, as its title, “Companions”, suggests is about what accompanies us in life. But there is another feature of Boyle’s method on display here: the tendency to interpret single issues in an often surprising way. This is an example, perhaps, at the conceptual, level of resisting any kind of reduction, even in the meaning of a word. Ideas of Travel, his previous book, interpreted the notion of travel in such a broad way that one was tempted to think of it as deliberately anatomising all the possibilities of a topic. Boyle’s poetry isn’t really of the anatomising sort – it prefers to follow imaginative threads – but readers can often be surprised at what gets included under a single rubric. “Companions” begins with a five part poem that encapsulates this. The first is a little poem welcoming a small spider, “intent on exploring the world”, and, fitting for something acknowledged to be a companion, it is granted room since “the first day of summer / is carving a space large enough / for both of us”. But the other four companions – raindrops, ice, light and dreams – are surprising enough to show readers that Boyle’s view of the world is very distinctive.

Of course, a major companion is Boyle’s deceased partner and a number of poems, not only some in this section, are haunted by that loss and by attempts to communicate. “The Sadness of the King”, for example, is about how meaningless the precisely observed accompaniments to a privileged life are in the face of the loss of the beloved queen. Dead parents appear in “The End of Childhood” and in “In a Waiting Room” and “Farewell”. The former of these is a prose poem – usually a clue that it is dream-based. In it the poet dreams of accompanying his late father on a walk through the ocean:

. . . . . In the wider scheme of things a short walk through the ocean while conversing with my father is no great matter. Even though it has lasted more than fifty years now, even though the sea and my father will continue well beyond my lifetime.

The other two poems relate to his mother who suffered dementia (brilliantly described as a “sensation of being always on a plane / circling the earth, incapable of landing”) and who, before death, had travelled in a dream to visit the poet, stuck in a hospital in Berlin.

But most of the companions of this section are not absent ones. Sometimes they are those elements which enable us to contact a wider world. They can be the blue horses of Marc’s “The Dream” which bring this wider world to someone with glazed eyes, “swallowed by elsewheres”. And this is also the subject of a fine, rather Rilkean poem, “For a Young Poet”:

Magical things are close at hand -
the icon shimmers in the wall niche
at the bending of the house’s
twin corridors, a bearded archangel nestles
quietly in the alcove where the washing is drying,
two tablets of the law are concealed in the rafters.

If you come from the land of the sleepless
or have ventured here
from the wide plains of disquiet
you will find water in the fridge
harvested from juniper leaves . . .

This is the water which, as the poem says at its end, will enable you, “in the long dreams that follow” to slowly make yourself into yourself. And “At the River” might well describe the same process from a different angle. Standing waist deep in the bend of a river, a boy has a Rilkean pre-poetic sensation:

. . . . . 
as if one Sunday morning, aged seven,
you’d gone fishing
only to haul in the world
which you couldn’t know or see
but somehow sensed echoing back . . .

Though light may well be the companion here, as well, perhaps, as water, the focus is on the self expanding into the possibilities of receiving a greater world.

There are two poems, “A Stone Turns Over a Stone” and “Under the Trees of a Suburban Side Street” which also stretch the notion of companionship very wide. The second is a picture of a girl riding on her father’s back. From this safe perspective it seems to her that she is the centre of the universe and that “all the earth’s roads” stretch out beneath her. One could read it as a portrait of a cosy, soon to be displaced, sense of solipsism, made possible by the companion – her father – as well as her own innocence. But that is hardly in keeping with Boyle’s view of things and so we probably have to read the poem as describing a sense of the world which is present in childhood, lost in adolescence, and which needs to be recaptured if you are to have a fuller life – as the “young poet”, for example, must. The same issue of an implied solipsism is present in “A Stone Turns Over a Stone”. In the first stanza there is a manifest disapproval of the stone’s contempt for the life it finds beneath it, “the disfigurement / it sees all around” but by the end of the poem there seems to be at least a tacit approval of the stone’s sense of itself as being, like the girl on her father’s shoulders, “at the centre of the cosmos”. It’s possible that these two poems are enacting a kind of contraction/expansion scenario (a little like Wonderland’s Alice) where you grow small and inward-turned in order to pass through the portal that enables you to expand into a fuller world.

The final section of Companions, Ancestors, Inscriptions usees its key word “inscriptions” with the same freedom that the first section had treated “Companions”. We may initially think of words engraved on tombstones – and there are poems of loss in this section – but another meaning seems to be of a short meditation about the poet’s current state, an “inscription” in the sense that it is capturing, formalising and getting into words. This is certainly true of the suite of twelve numbered poems called “Inscriptions” which are spread through this final section. They are all short and relate to immediate sensations. They share a similar topography: an interior leading to an outside world of an avenue of trees and the sound of birds. The overall impression is of a visitation from a wider world and an often frustrated desire to join that wider world, perhaps because it will facilitate communication with the lost ones. As the third poem in the sequence, looking at a noisy miner in “a green corridor of air,” says, “we are the grounded ones: / our speech, our self / never programmed // to go that far”. Among the poems of the section which are not part of the “Inscription” sequence is the very anthologisable “October Morning”. It shares the topography of the sequence and is, among other things, a lament for the individual’s inability to be part of the larger world outside:

. . . . .
Today, this morning
everything impregnated with messages
          I can’t read
. . . . . 
sounds dwindling into silence
like the long arches of colonnades
condemned always to head off
for the horizon

               as the racket of rain
folds everything into the background
of time passing again.

This last line is a sign that time (or Time) is a major theme in this book and that the most difficult section, the third, is called “Time’s Errata”. This is a single, twenty-four part sequence (possibly reflecting the number of hours in a day) called “Ode to Time and Time’s Errata”. It begins by establishing that Time is different for us and for mountains and rivers, each in their “no-time now-time”. But the dead are also included in this category and it is tempting for a reader, struggling with the sequence, to see it as being essentially about Time as it relates to lost loved ones. The survivors live in a world in which time progresses slowly and conventionally but it is a compromised time because, devoid of the loved-one, it is hardly real. They also have within themselves memories fixed in time which are part of their ongoing experience. Attempting to form some sort of communication with the dead, “each in our own / void” means imagining time passing for the dead. It’s a complex metaphysics involving Time, self and death. At the end of the sequence though, it reverts to the issue of “October Morning”: the outside world resists understanding though one might, momentarily, come close to understanding things like the water in an upland lake, “their consciousness / of themselves, of the games they play / out of loneliness, desire or boredom // with whatever they touch . . .”

“The Dark Hours”, the fourth section of the book, is based in a way on the double meaning of that title. These are often poems about bad times but there is also a high proportion of prose poems, signifying their origins in dreams, dreams which are products of the dark hours of sleep. And it is true that most of the dreams recall scenarios of frustration: a card invites the dreamer to a piano recital in a meadow but the piano and pianist don’t appear; an attempted rendezvous with a lover involves a bewilderingly complex route to her apartment; an attempt to enter a piano competition involves not only a complicated set of forms but the realisation that the dreamer can’t even read music; a school excursion involves losing his students – and so on. But the poems aren’t simple anxiety dreams and have positive elements. The first one in my list, the poem about the invitation to attend a recital, doesn’t end in simple frustration. As the dreamer waits in the field for the piano and pianist which are never going to appear, something of the positive value of the dark hours emerges:

. . . . . It is dark now – the stars are out. I am still waiting patiently. And slowly a great peace has settled over me, steadily shaping a curve to the silence, almost a melody. Did I truly need another’s fingers to interpret this?
          And meanwhile, across the keyboard of darkness, a river was flowing by with my life on it.

This positivity is at the heart of the title poem of the sequence which is worth quoting from at length because it seems something of a manifesto poem:

. . . . . 
Day creatures will write their own books
of fixed streets, of reliable births
and well-nourished alliances, firm in their
surety of measured distances. For such
life starts at dawn forever fine-tuning
the network linking human to human.

The crowded web of actions is soaked in the sun’s
feverish energy. In the dark
day creatures huddle close beside fires
or tiny flickering lights, uneasy
before the ghost of emptiness.

Those who navigate with no need for sight
feel the air expand around them, safe
in the corridors of inner space, flying
from abundance to abundance.

And so to “Ancestors”, the second section of the book. We are in a quite different mode here, one which recalls Boyle’s forays into more expansive narrative structures, such as are found in Apocrypha and Ghostspeaking. Here the imagined background, the land of the ancestors, is a territory that floats like Swift’s Laputa just above the actual world. Thirty-five prose pieces of various length record aspects of the history of the land and the poet’s experiences and meetings on the land. These meetings are with ancestors but not in the conventional Ancestry.com sense. Like “companion” and “inscription”, “ancestor” is interpreted broadly and imaginatively. I’m not at all confident in my reading of the section but my default allegorisation is that the ancestors are different parts of the self, different versions of one’s past self which one carries with one. The small poem introducing the sequence is both helpful and paradoxical:

Between the moon’s ghost sister and the vanished sun
          the land of the landless floats in mid-air.
          Here a lifetime’s follies and mistakes 
          transform to patches of light and colour splashed
          against a barren sky. Sometimes
          a lifetime of mistakes is needed
          to gain a glimpse of this land.

. . . . . You can recognise the Athenabashi from a distance by the peculiarly rigid black and white clothes they wear, their habit of flying kites woven from exquisite silk even on windless days and a tendency of sunlight to follow them around. . .
Here we seem to be in the world of Apocrypha where a tendency in human nature is plotted out as the behaviour of a whole country. The name of the group suggests something geometrical and they have a self-confident reductiveness about them which is so unlike the experiences of the ancestors that it supports the idea that the latter represent not versions of the self but inherited wisdom.

Much of the intriguing difficulty of the sequence lies in the fact that it is not conceived in an “anatomising” way. The prose pieces are disconnected descriptions of places, rituals, meetings etc, approaching the nature of the ancestors and their land in fragmentary and oblique ways. It adds to the disorientation of the reader but prevents it from being a species of science-fiction.

I described Companions, Ancestors, Inscriptions as something of a compendium book implying a degree of separation between the five sections and their distinctive themes. Of course the same poetic sensibility underlies all of them and “Ancestors” has a particularly interesting cross-reference. One of the sections – the only poem in the whole sequence – throws a lot of light on the idea of “inscriptions”, the core of the final section:

                    (What gets inscribed)
The man who came to measure the inside wall
                          above the chimney
and the woman who boiled and wrung the clothes
                         in the backyard copper,
they will continue, their hands still working away,
                         frozen in their duties,
visible on certain days in a certain play of light,

as if what gets inscribed
is the dailiness of our being
and the heavy scuffing of the floor
bears the imprint of our feet
making their hobbled way into eternity.

Apart from the fact that these images of dailiness occur only on certain days in certain plays of light, there isn’t really much to connect this with the “Ancestors” version in which it is lodges. But it does help define the idea of “inscription” and thus prepares us for the book’s final section.

Simon West: Prickly Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rides roughshod down below . . .

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

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

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

That was the lot
you dealt yourself . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the next stanza moves to Italy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Edgar: Ghosts of Paradise

World Square, NSW: Pitt Street Poetry, 2023, 87pp.

Stephen Edgar’s new book relates to the new poems in his Selected – significantly called The Strangest Place – by a process of extension. If those slightly earlier poems seemed obsessed by the weirdness of the world of appearances, the poems of Ghosts of Paradise could be said to be preoccupied by the nature of the organism that perceives that strangeness. Perhaps it’s true that our minds are weirder than the world they spend their limited life interacting with but at any rate it is the mind, consciousness itself, that comes to the surface as the overriding theme of these poems. And it is the idea of ghosts – chimera produced by the mind – that is the main vehicle for this theme.

The first poem of the book (which provides its title) is marked by a fascinatingly oblique approach to the issue of mind and consciousness. It begins by meditating on what happens as the past fades increasingly into memory then story and then fable (this process can be seen in reverse in the work of ancient historians like Herodotus where what is fable suddenly clicks into a sharp and reasonable historical narrative a few generations before the author so that the miraculous birth and improbable early life of Cyrus, for example, get replaced by genuine exploratory history by the time of his death.) At this point you realise that the standpoint of the poem is not the present but the far future and that we, in our present, are the far and fabulous past that our evolved organism is thinking about. And this evolved version of ourselves probably has replaced a lot of flesh with digital and mechanical developments that would make flesh and bone creatures such as ourselves us seem faintly silly or at least embarrassing:

. . . . . 
Such ancestors. Who would acknowledge them?
A rattlebag of bones that staggered upright,
Wrapped in a flimsy envelope of skin,

Seething with unknown reasons, wanting more,
Looking through the world they were looking at -
Those swimmers rising through the wave, the dash

Of parrots frisking in a rain-washed tree,
The bedside vigil shocked in the window light -
And seeing things, until the picture ceased.

Who would acknowledge forebears that would die,
Tainting the future like a damaged gene? . . .

In conception, this rather recalls John Boorman’s 1974 film, Zardoz. It’s also, in a sense, a corrective to the error that evolutionary scientists complain about: that we are inclined to see ourselves as the pinnacle of creation because we only ever look backwards. But in a subtler away it is an introduction to the book’s main obsession: the nature of consciousness. And this comes through the title. Our descendants will have ghosts of us – their humble rattlebags of bones – appearing at times in their conscious minds. They may even call them “ghosts of paradise” since the world of immersion, perception of nature, grieving, etc, could be seen as a kind of golden age – a primitive paradise. But the phrase recalls Ryle’s “Ghost in the Machine” that he used in his critique of the approach to consciousness which sees a non-physical mind inhabiting a corporeal body: a ghost inside a machine. And so, even in this first marvellous poem, we can see the introduction of the issue of an individual’s meditations about what mind is: we finish up as ghosts in a machine version of ourselves.

The subject of consciousness is made overt in the second poem, “Identity Parade”, which begins by outlining the “old enigma” – “is my body me, / Or simply where I live”. In a sense this is the obverse of “The Ghosts of Paradise” since it is sensitive to the intuition that, just as the body develops by shedding and replacing cells regularly so the thinking self may be equally susceptible to change. Of course the idea of an unstable ego is a truism of post-war literary, psychological and sociological theory but the subject is approached differently here through the idea, established in the first poem, of older versions of the self, leaving behind ghosts which can flicker on the edges of consciousness:

. . . . . 
Sometimes, performing in this film of light,
Midway through some mundane
And daily purpose, pausing as I write
A shopping list, or tie
A shoe, I’ll sense and fleetingly detain,
Out of the corner of my eye,

Like a faint watermark, or warp of air,
Some presence sliding free
From the mind still tethered to this frame we share - 
A neural glitch, I’d dare
To guess – hinting that who I am may be
Beyond me, and not my affair.

The evolutionary approach to consciousness is explored in poems like the sequence, “Ape or Angel” which is prefaced by Disraeli’s question, “Is man an ape or an angel?”. The three poems explore magical interactions between apes and humans: in the first a group of female orangutans watch, with evident empathy, a woman breastfeeding,; in the second a gorilla gives birth and in the third a chimpanzee is released into the wild. Done badly, these might be nothing more than examples of a new poetic genre, “Terrific Things I Saw on YouTube”, but Edgar’s approach is both more rigorously forensic and more alert than that. He is interested in the moments of connection which are, after all, a kind of ghost-sighting:

. . . . . 
Females they must all be, through a glass sheet
So many aeons thick, their eyes intent,
Anxious to meet
Her eyes, and offer their acknowledgement,

The light of recognition in their faces
For such a blood-deep bond and the tiny shape
That she embraces,
A wonder unforeseen from the Naked Ape. . .

That last line has an intriguing turn of phrase since The Naked Ape is the title of a book by Desmond Morris that was very popular in the seventies. There humans are looked at from a zoologist’s point of view: we are the naked apes for the purposes of the book whereas in Edgar’s poem the naked apes are the orangutans. To connect it with the book’s first poem, it is as if some few humans – the “rattlebags of bones that staggered upright” – had survived somewhere and were now on display in a museum/zoo being stared at by semi-automatons who are perhaps barely recognisable as “human” but with whom there might be a flicker of “the light of recognition”.

Two poems of Ghosts of Paradise announce the connection of ghosts and machines in their titles. “The Ghost and the Machine”, the third-last poem of the book’s first section, deals with experimentation on human cadavers, designed, presumably, to assist forensic examinations of violent deaths. But as a poem, it is about an aging poet’s relationship with his own body – Yeats’s “tattered coat upon a stick”:

. . . . . 
                  Lying in darkness, though,
I stray, a sort of mental parasite,
Impatient to let go
The sightless body that has been my host,

All ghost and no machine, or dreaming so.

And then there is “The Ghost in the Machine”, the title slightly different but still appearing in third-last position, here at the end of the book’s third and final, section. Here the ghost is a perceived self, built of our memories of ourself, which seems to co-inhabit our bodies as a “constant companion boasting to be you”.

The science of the nature of consciousness was developed when dealing with people whose consciousnesses were deeply flawed, an example of the way in which sciences like anatomy, psychology and linguistics made strides by studying the non-perfect rather than the perfect. In “Mind out of Matter”, inmates of what one assumes is an asylum, spend a “rationed hour” in a garden built on the roof of the building in which they spend their lives. The poem worries about the way an “accident // Of tissue in / The skull”, a purely physical phenomenon, can damage an entire self. The inmates themselves, however, don’t worry about this: their response is to the strange and beautiful p[lace they have suddenly found themselves in:

. . . . . 
While all of this
Unfolds behind their eyes, emergent from
These rooftop elements,
Light, shadow, leaf, the fluent idiom
Of water, and their metamorphosis,
Alive to sense.

It’s hard not to think at this point about the relationship between analysis of issues like the mind and body on the one hand, and on the other a response to and description of, the magical mysteries of the natural world which are available to most of us almost continuously. It’s no accident that the first half of “Mind out of Matter” which might have described the way the inmates are led to the roof, actually describes the splendours of the garden itself – “clouds wandering beyond / The edge, and trailing foliage, a stream / Of unfolding matter”. It’s something Edgar is especially sensitive to and there are plenty of examples of it in the book. Sometimes the natural world is serene – as it is in “World Within” or “The Creek Flows Out”. The latter enacts a kind of transaction with the stream where it moves from being an external phenomenon to one that actually generates us:

. . . . . 
This flickering of shade and gleam
Takes in the mind the day is flowing through,
As though you’re lying in the stream
As it flows over you,

Till you become the gleam and shade,
And all but the flux of nothing is undone,
This current out of which you’re made,
Painless in the sun.

But the natural world isn’t always serene. In “Second Circle”, poet and partner tramp through a howling gale on Diamond Beach. The wind is allegorised as the blown scraps of memories and events but the ghost in this poem is Francesca from the fifth canto of the Inferno, blown on the allegorical winds of lust.
To return, for a moment, to the idea of pyschic damage as a site in which to learn about mind and matter, “Haunted Dwelling” is a poem about dementia – another contemporary poetic genre. It has a particularly potent structure, moving from what seems like a rhapsodic description of light-filled space, sustained by a “ghostly presence” to a cold and bathetic ending:

. . . . . 
Filling my study where, on the windowsill,
Is propped the sun-drained face of one now dead,
Who long before she died
Was stricken from her living will,
To linger and subside,
Ghost of herself, self-disinherited.

This poem is, I suppose, a comparison between two kinds of ghosts but I’m most taken by that shape that spirals downwards in tone to its bleak conclusion. I’m reminded of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” – Yeats, a great believer in ghosts, figures often and in various ways in this book and many of his poems are famous for their high-powered rhetorical conclusions rather than the down-beat one of “Leda and the Swan”. But there are also poems in the Western corpus like Catullus’s farewell to Lesbia in the wonderful poem XI, and even Dransfield’s “Epiderm” which, like the Catullus, moves from ecstatic expansiveness to a bleak conclusion.

Finally, in this catalogue of kinds of ghosts, there is “Spectre at the Feast” a relaxed piece describing attending an open-air party. The analytical part of the poet’s mind is fascinated by the complexity of human interactions – “this incessant chatter and good cheer, / So effortlessly practiced with an art / that seems so artless and sincere” – and this fascination makes him an outsider/observer rather like, as he says, “a spectre at a feast”:

. . . . . 
Some element
Of mind looks back on the unfolding show
As though it’s past, or like that pageant called
From the thin air by Prospero.
But that is me, it’s evident,
The spectre at the feast, slightly appalled
To undergo

This weird abstraction . . .

The final poem of Ghosts of Paradise returns to the world of “the strangest place”. It describes that strange experience of driving between Hay and Balranald where you feel that you are moving over a huge upturned saucer. In this poem, the entire natural world looks like a full-scale museum representation of the place. It’s not so much a description of a strange place as a place where a certain weirdness is apparent and which might lead one to suspect that this weirdness lies behind (or alongside) other places, perhaps all other places. And then we would be nothing, as the last words of the book say, but “late / Additions to its catalogue raisonné”.

Starting this review, I’d set myself the task of, for once, not commenting on Edgar’s weirdly old-fashioned poetics where complex meditation is worked out through strict rhyme schemes that would have pleased a medieval troubadour. But the success of the poems in this fine book is so dependent on the distinctive movement of the ideas in the verse – the tension between syntax and the imposed discipline of rhyming end words and enjambments, often across stanza breaks – that it’s simply not possible to avoid the issue. We often (as editors, perhaps, rather than critics) speak of poets’ finding their own voice and the brilliance of Edgar’s work establishes that this poetic method is absolutely right for him – the poems we have would be pale shadows of themselves if they were done as free-flowing “poetic” meditations in a more contemporary manner.

Rereadings VIII: Les A. Murray, Poems Against Economics

Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972, 70pp.

Half a century, as I’ve noted elsewhere, can be a very long time in poetic history: it’s the time between the death of Dr Johnson, for example, and the publication of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”. It’s now fifty years (more and less) since the publication of Les Murray’s Poems Against Economics. It’s his third book if one counts his contribution to The Ilex Tree (made up of sections by himself and Geoffrey Lehmann) as a single book but perhaps it would be more realistic to describe it, ala Fellini, as Murray’s second and a half. Poems Against Economics was the first complete book of Murray’s poems which I read and I remember, even today, how impressed I was by the long sequence “Walking to the Cattle-Place” which makes up almost half the book. Fifty years on seems a good time to revisit it to see how much it has changed.

The first response is to feel that it does not seem at all dated. It’s true that there are features in our culture which have changed radically in that half-century and that these would have affected someone with Murray’s view of the world and its history. The rise of the digital era, for example, has meant that notions of community have changed considerably, even in the rural world. It would also have been interesting to see how Murray – a card-carrying non-joiner – positioned himself in the now pointed conflict between left and right over the possession of Australia’s history and culture. But, if Poems Against Economics appeared this year, I think most readers would hail a brilliant individual voice with its own achieved self-mythology and an often narky relationship with the sub-culture to which most of his readers belong – something unusual in poetic history. I try not to make too many speculative comments about literary history in these posts, but one does feel that poetic history in the last forty-odd years lacks a clear outline. There are no revolutions that a new poet simply must take into consideration – adopting or rejecting – as there were at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries as well as in the immediate post-war period. Largely because the internet makes almost all texts available, poetic models, modes and fashions are a smorgasbord of possibilities for anyone setting out on a poetic career and have been for quite a while. Murray’s beginnings as a poet occurred during the last years when Australian poetic history had a clear shape and clear faultlines: the “conflict” between the poets collected in The New Australian Poetry and an imaginary coalition made up of Murray, Lehmann, Robert Gray and followers. Time and rational consideration show this to be a fairly crude categorising of poets, certainly in terms of their poetic modes, even though it might have been an accurate description of their social groupings.

My aim in this particular rereading is to look at Murray’s early work from a poetic perspective. This was difficult at the time because the ideas in the poetry – it’s content – tended to overwhelm initial responses: there was a lot to engage with, and probably be outraged by, at that level. Fifty years on, Murray’s early self-myth is completely familiar and it’s good to be able to put it aside for a moment and think about those early poems as poems. And my conclusion is that they are a lot more unsure of themselves at this level than seemed to be the case at the time. The special locus of this uncertainty, it sems to me, is how Murray deploys himself as a poet: how he enters his own poems. I now see Poems Against Economics as a book experimenting with a possible solution.

Murray’s thirty pages in The Ilex Tree are particularly interesting from the point of view of searching for a way the poet responsible for the analysis and ideas that drive the poems can present himself. Its final poem, “Driving Through Sawmill Towns”, is still a brilliant poem, a mature work perfect of its kind. And “Noonday Axeman” is also a poem that would be kept in any brief selection of Murray’s work though it wears its ideology more openly and is full of problems when it comes to how Murray is using himself in the work. But many of the other poems don’t seem like Murray poems at all. There are dramatic monologues like “The Widower in the Country” where Murray’s father’s experience can be displaced into a third-person monologue, and “Manoeuvres” and “Deck-Chair Story” take the Murray theme of young country men who joined to serve in the First World War and deal with it in terms of monologue. “The Burning Truck” uses a technique which has more promise in the long run, using an allegorical scenario to conceal (or convey) a fragment of Murray’s worldview. A truck, set alight in a wartime strafing, trundles remorselessly through a country town. It attracts some of the young men and they follow it to the end of the poem where the allegory is sealed by the last word which describes them as “disciples”. Murray’s idea, expressed elsewhere in various forms, is that causes, ideologies, attract those young who are not firmly anchored, and become false religions. There’s nothing new in this reading of the poem but it’s interesting to ask the question of where Murray is in this scenario. He can be found, not in propria persona but as a character, in the lines, “And all of us who knew our place and prayers / Clutched our verandah rails and window-sills . . .”. In other words, conventional faith and belief in a structured community will prevent an exodus following the false gods of fashionable ideologies.

Another interesting early venture is to use a faux-ballad mode. “A New England Farm, August 1914” imagines news of the outbreak of war arriving among rural communities. This happens in the refrain, “But who is this rider on the road / With urgent spurs of burning silver?” The poem itself, a little like “The Fire Autumn” from The Weatherboard Cathedral, comes dangerously close to saying that the First World War is old Europe burning the trash of its own civilisation in the same way that Australian farmers burn cornstalks: when the farmers watch “birds come dodging through the smoke / To feast on beetles” the poem makes at least a visual connection between burning off rubbish and a wartime battle scene. It is not so much a morally outrageous thing to say as an embarrassing one: the kind of thing an adolescent boy might believe before he discovers that human beings are not symbols or ciphers. But poetically the ballad mode is interesting because it suppresses the poet’s individual point of view in favour of a sense of an entire community speaking. This is a specific kind of inflation which I’ll have something to say about later. Another ballad, this time from The Weatherboard Cathedral, is the brilliant “The Princes’ Land”. Instead of being in the Border Ballad mode, this is imagined as being heraldic, high-culture medieval though its quatrain form is very much in ballad style.

Leaves from the ancient forest gleam
in the meadow brook, and dip, and pass.
Six maidens dance on the level green,
a seventh toys with an hourglass,

letting fine hours sink away,
turning to sift them back again.
An idle prince, with a cembalo,
sings to the golden afternoon.

Two silver knights, met in a wood,
tilt at each other, clash and bow.
Upon a field semé of birds
Tom Bread-and-Cheese sleeps by his plough. . .

The poem goes on to imagine the revolutions which destroyed this aristocratic medieval world. Tom Bread-and-Cheese becomes a murderous activist who “walks in his sleep in pools of blood” and, in a final revisiting of the scene, the knights jousting have become gentlemen fencing and the prince and Tom have become princes of the plough and bread (something the royal families of Scandinavia could be said to have adopted but not the royal family of Great Britain). It’s a complex poem and its content isn’t really relevant in this brief overview, but it’s interesting to see how Murray appears in it. He begins by distancing himself from others and their way of reading the book of history – “Some will not hear, some run away, / some go to write books of their own, / some few, as the tale grows cruel, sing Hey”. In contrast, “we who have no other book / spell out the gloomy, blazing text, / page by slow page, wild year by year, / our hope refined to what comes next.” My reading of this, though I could be wrong, is that it is designed to speak for ordinary citizens who don’t have ideologies to make sense of what is happening or the power to create an interpretation of their own. They have to simply suffer, like the people who watch the burning truck run through their town but don’t follow it, or the mothers of the end of “A New England Farm” who grieve at the announcement of war because it is their sons who will run to enlist. There is a definite sleight of hand in locating oneself, poetically, with the non-poetic and I don’t think it’s a sustainable position. If you keep locating yourself as spokesman, eventually there are going to be tensions with the community you claim to be espousing and you may turn out, in its eyes, to be no more than one of the truck’s disciples.

“Driving Through Sawmill Towns”, the last poem of Murray’s section of The Ilex Tree, describes the experience of encountering these townships on the border between forest and cleared rural land. The speaker has driven his car down from the uplands – “having come from the clouds” – and gives a description of a place where people pay due deferences:

. . . . . 
when you stop your car and ask them for directions,
tall youths look away - 
it is the older men who
come out in blue singlets and talk to you . . . 

It’s an entry into the Murray sacred and all the details seem surrounded by haloes – demotic haloes, admittedly. It works, at least this once, because it is ambiguous about the positioning of the “I”, the driver of the car. If Murray had positioned himself as one of the townsfolk, this would have been nothing more than an assertion that the life I live is better than yours. But the driver has an ambiguous position as part the poet himself and part an innocent outsider stumbling on this sacred site. It touches on a crucial issue in these early poems where Murray clearly worries about the fact that he spends a good deal of time in the city despite the moral superiority of a simple rural life. “Noonday Axeman” is very much about this issue,

. . . . . 
Though I go to the cities, turning my back on these hills,
for the talk and the dazzle of cities, for the sake of belonging
for months and years at a time to the twentieth century,

the city will never quite hold me . . .

But it isn’t an issue I want to pursue here since I’m mainly concerned with the poetic issue of how Murray experiments with placing himself within his poems. The fact that it’s a poet who oscillates between city and bush though, isn’t entirely irrelevant.

In The Weatherboard Cathedral, “Recourse to the Wilderness” and “A Walk with O’Connor” are fairly straight pieces of autobiography, generally free of the burden of dealing with Murray’s attitude to the conflict between city and bush. This gives them a measure of success as poems but means that they aren’t a vehicle in Murray’s development with any great future as models. “Evening Alone at Bunyah” is also autobiographical but reduces any potential charge of egotism by bracketing the poem with stories of Murray’s widowed father. “The Abomination” is an interesting poem from the point of view of the poet’s stake. I read it as a dramatic monologue – with the “I” figure distanced from the poet himself – and as a kind of extension of “The Burning Truck”. Killing trapped rabbits, the narrator is attracted by a fire deep in the roots of trees, an example of the fires which will “suck your breath away / if you kneel before them too long”. In a sense, the fire demands to be worshipped and that is why it is an abomination. Whether it represents a specific ideology or something chthonic and primitive, or is just a temptation to the young, doesn’t really matter. Finally, there is “The Fire Autumn” where, I think, Murray hopes that his analysis of the relationship of the northern hemisphere to the south will be complex enough to sustain the poem. Unlike “A New England Farm”, which deals with the same material in a ballad-like structure, “The Fire Autumn” speaks in Murray’s own voice but nothing really protects it from the charge of a sententious tone and a pompous set of propositions – “The cesspools of maturity are heaving with those who leap short. / Some are citing as Europe’s last knowledge (Oh burning Israel) / that nothing not founded upon the irrational can stand . . .”. It’s always seemed to me to be a failure of a poem, a problem that Murray is going to try to solve in his next book.

And so, after this overlong introduction, to Poems Against Economics. It’s made up of three parts: two long sequences – “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star” and “Walking to the Cattle-Place” – with a brief set of squibs – “Juggernaut’s Little Scrapbook” – in between them. This central group, easily passed over, does have some relevance here because it contains statement poems which almost omit the author all together, and the result is a problem that lasts throughout Murray’s career: the tighter and more epigrammatic the poem, the less comprehensible it is, even for readers really well acquainted with Murray’s ideas. “Sunday, Having Read My Sheets” has puzzled me since I first read it and I’m no closer to making sense of it now:

Face-brick in please and thank you streets,
Tower blocks squinted at bottom to top
Like immensely steep accounts, impend
More. And a strange soil haloes them.

To think how many died for a wheel
That was to stay on till Moscow but
Not make Kazan. Then somehow it did.
A sad and complex win for steel.

Now the Aryans rub at caste again,
O stateless state of the brahmin lords!
O gnostic heaven, with just my peers!

The New World must have frightened some
Badly, to fight three ducks on a wall.
Hide in the open and last it out.

It’s part, of course, of the book’s attempted assault on the mechanisms of capital which is foreshadowed in the title (the idea of “poems against economics” has a grim humour that most readers of poetry probably miss: it is a very unequal battle, a little like a sparrow solemnly taking on an elephant which barely registers its existence). The second stanza refers to the Wehrmacht’s assault on Russia in the Second World War and I think the third stanza makes fun of Eurocentric intellectuals who think that their analyses entitle them to be redeemed from history and to live in a heaven which will only include their own kind. The final stanza obviously refers to refugees from Europe who have arrived in Australia and recalls parts of “The Fire Autumn” as well as poems about Murray’s father-in-law in later books. But the mode is a kind of compression of authorial ideas, satisfying to the author but frustrating to the reader. The author only exists in them as a generator of ideas which are then shaken kaleidoscopically to produce a dense and resistant text which might make its creator smile but are unlikely to have that effect on readers.

The first of the sequences, “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star”, is Murray’s first attempt at a large sequence where a tight imposed structure fights interestingly against the fact that individual poems are often in quite different modes. It’s a manner which will be repeated in “Walking to the Cattle-Place” and “The Police: Seven Voices” from the next book, Lunch & Counterlunch, where the title of the sequence, probably taken from Dickens’s “He do the police in different voices”, suggests the possibility of approaching a subject in a variety of modes. I think the attempt behind these sequences is to solve the problem I’ve been describing. It isn’t only a matter of a unified variety of modes, it’s also a way of dealing with a variety of ways the poet can position himself in his poems.

The structure of “Seven Points” is built around the idea of the number seven – there are seven poems and the first is made up of seven parts – the number of points on the stars of the Australian Flag, something that may suggest that Murray sees these sequences as confederations or commonwealths: different but united. Seven-pointed stars have also a wider heraldic significance which often exploits the fact that it is a star which can be drawn without the pen or pencil leaving the page: that is, it has a kind of unity despite its seven apices. “Points” is also, of course, a pun so that the title could be read as “Seven comments for a country in danger”. In the first poem – or sequence – “Towards the Imminent Days”, we meet Murray in a domestic mode, celebrating the marriage of Geoffrey and Sally Lehmann. But the image of the poet in the poem is one of incipient inflation which is balanced by some self-mocking. The inflation either derives from, or is a mimicking of, a Celtic mode. Murray’s love of Gaelic culture is well known and “Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil”, a later poem in the sequence which has no apparent relation to any dangers Australia may be suffering, is a comic piece that deliberately echoes Dylan Thomas – “I sang for my pains like the free”. Welsh rather than Irish, of course, but still Celtic. At any rate, we meet the inflated self:

. . . . . 
Singing All living are wild in the imminent days
I walk into furrows end-on and they rise through my flesh
Burying worlds of me.
. . . . . 
But now I am deep in butter-thick native broom
Wading, sky-happy, a cotton-bright drover of bees. . . 

The context here is hieratic: marriages are, when inflated mythologically at least, sacred rites and the poem is conceived as happening during Advent, the “imminent days”. But this first poem is also a congeries of modes and poet-positions: the sixth section is a comic story of the problems father and son, father especially, have with a rampant bull anxious to find other cows where he can make “herd-improvements”. And so, in a sense, “Towards the Imminent Days” re-enacts the structure of the sequence which contains it. Other poems use the self differently. “Lament for the Country Soldiers” is a fine poem perhaps because of the fact that the poet removes himself to a large degree and simply offers a lamentation for the fates of the boys from the country who enlisted because of an appeal to loyalty even though that loyalty was to the “king of honour” rather than the king of England. “The Conquest” does something similar though there may be something ironically satisfying about treating a man of the age of reason – “Phillip was a kindly, rational man” – in a fairly reasonable way. At the end, Murray positions himself as a representative, guilty voice of the present thinking about the fate of the indigenous populations:

. . . . . 
A few still hunt way out beyond philosophy
Where nothing is sacred till it is your flesh
And the leaves, the creeks shine through their poverty

Or so we hope. We make our conquests, too.
The ruins at our feet are hard to see,
For all the generous Governor tried to do

The planet he had touched began to melt
Though he used much Reason, and foreshadowed more
Before he recoiled into his century.

“Walking to the Cattle-Place” has a similar conception behind it to “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star” in that a unifying subject – the way a farmer in the present day partakes of a cattle world that goes back millenia – allows for a variety of modes and a variety of ways a poet can be in the text. Rereading it, I’m not sure that the force of disunity is overcome by this thematic unity though I had no such problems fifty years ago when the excitement of the content was enough to dispel doubts. At the time it was thought to be a dazzling display of erudition, amongst other things, and thus a defensive bulwark against hostile critics who saw only rural quackery in Murray’s analysis of things. Again, nowadays this erudition doesn’t seem quite as striking, again, perhaps, because with the internet anybody with a few hours to spare can get up subjects like the role of the bull in Vedic and later Hindu beliefs, or in the Irish Tain.

“The Boeotian Count” is a comical list of cow’s names – “Maudie Maisie, Shit-in-the-bail . . .” – whose name derives from Murray’s essay distinguishing between the cultures of Athens (city-based, abstract, producer of dramas, modernising etc) with Boeotia (rural, producing poets, non-abstract etc). A ‘boeotian count’ is, in other words, a list. When the poet does enter this poem, it is a self-mockingly bathetic way though it retains enough abstruse knowledge to balance this:

. . . . .
          I give you thanks
Moocher
                and Dopey                              old Cornucopie
        and Honeycomb                                        rainbeaded
                                                                               and warm
                                               I  pray  that  Hughie
                                                    will send you
                                                        safe home
                                        where ploughing is playing
                                where Karma is Lilā.

The conception of the entire sequence has an element of inflation about it because the farmer is imagined to be the inheritor of this long tradition of animal husbandry so that when the first poem ends “I will follow cattle” and the last poem ends “I have travelled one day”, the deliberately humble tone doesn’t disguise the degree of inflation: this is a poetic self moving through a single day but also through an immensely complex heritage that he is able to articulate thank to his erudition. This is established at the very beginning where we are introduced to the Sanskrit for various stages in a cow’s life something that is likely to be both impressive and daunting for a reader but which may have the justification that in the Rigveda, at least, cows are associated poetically (for difficult-to-grasp reasons) with dawn and Murray’s sequence wants to trace a single day which has to begin at dawn.

Amongst the variety of positions and modes in the sequence there are strangely conceived pieces like “Stockman Songs” and “Poley Bullock Couplets”, the latter imagined as being short statements by a bullock in a way that foreshadows Translations from the Natural World where the poet removes himself to allow an animal to speak in its own way. “Hall’s Cattle”, though not written as a ballad, is a narrative about Ben Hall and allows the poet to be no more than a sophisticated narrative voice and “Novilladas Democráticas” is also a narrative of a kind, though imbued with a distinct narratorial personality, which describes bull-riding, conceived as an Australian equivalent of the classic aristocratic bull-fight: the bull wins.

“Walking to the Cattle-Place” also contains one of the best-loved of Murray’s early poems, “Birds in Their Title Work Freeholds of Straw”, the second poem and thus one set in the early morning. Its subject is children, a subject where Murray has a deft and sympathetic touch. Because of this, although it contains the predictable attack on city-based capitalism – “as the dairy universe / Reels from a Wall Street tremor, a London red-shift / On the flesh-eating graphs . . .” – it concludes with the image of the small children, up since dawn herding cows, now “dead beat at their desks” in school instinctively translating the Latin for something like “Caesar arose and summoned his soldiers” as “Caesar got up and Milked then he Got his soldiers”. It’s a poem that also softens the usual opposition of town and country by including a side of country life which, if not bad, is at least highly eccentric:

. . . . . 
I can tell you sparetime childhoods force-fed this
Make solid cheese, but often strangely veined.
I’m thinking of aunts who had telescopes to spot
Pregnancies, inside wedlock or out
(There is no life more global than a village)
And my father’s uncles, monsters of hospitality . . .

That image of the strangely veined cheese that is produced by the milk recalls an image from “Evening Alone at Bunyah” where Murray contemplates a picked up stone looking at the veins in the quartz and reflecting that an individual stone like this – like the poet himself – “reflects the grain / and tendency of the mother-lode”.

Ultimately, this idea of a non-sequential sequence is not one that Murray continues or needs to continue. By the time of Lunch & Counterlunch we already have poems in the modes which Murray will use throughout the rest of his career. These include ultra-compressed riddling pieces like those in “Juggernaut’s Little Scrapbook” but also the more relaxed, complex expository and celebratory pieces like “The Broad Bean Sermon” and “First Essay on Interest”. When he does return to longer sequences, as in “Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato”, “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”, “Machine Portraits With Pendant Spaceman” and “The Idyll Wheel”, there is a clear unity in tone and mode.

Andrew Taylor: Shore Lines

World Square, NSW: Pitt Street Poetry, 2023, 97pp.

Although it might not be a word that one would want to use too much in serious criticism, Andrew Taylor’s Shore Lines seems a more secure book that the previous Impossible Preludes. And part of that sense of secureness might derive from the opening two poems that are something of a coup. The first, “The Grave by the Sea Called ‘Granny’s Grave’” could be described as a retrieved poem about a retrieved history. Written in 1981, it is about a grave on the Warrnambool coast dating to 1848 and said to be that of the first white woman to die in the area. It was subsequently either misplaced or deliberately omitted from Taylor’s later books. As a stand-alone poem it would certainly have been worth including in its natural position in the “New Poems” section of his UQP Selected Poems and was only “rediscovered” by local historians researching the matter of this early grave. It’s a very “Taylorish” poem, stylishly literary – it is supported at either end by allusions to Valery’s great poem about the cemetery by the sea – and meshing in with Taylor’s poetic obsessions in that this is a grave on the coast, on the meeting place of sea and land. If you live in South Australia, the sea is the Great Southern Ocean and many of Taylor’s poems celebrate its erosive effect on the soft rocks of that coast. Mrs Raddleston, the name given on the basalt headstone, died in the same year as the great uprisings of Europe, a rather different sort of erosion. “Mrs Raddleston”, leaving Europe either forcibly or by free will, “came finally aground on this great wave of sand” which is itself unstable since the wind and the sea are always threatening to move or overwhelm the grave. Again, metaphors from the sea are used for the wind and the unstable land:

. . . . . 
Her freedom here was to live a life of the sea
where the land’s edge rises in great waves
in the punishing wind. I can hear it tonight
the wind in the trees crashing down like surf
. . . . . 
                          The black headstone
poised like a solitary surfer rides the wave
of approaching winter. A fine drift of sand
is blowing and the marram inscribes inane
circles of grief and panic about her grave
where the wind is rising, and she tried to live.

“Revisiting, after Forty Years” is not so much about revisiting the grave as about revisiting the poem. Revisiting is a natural impulse associated with age and since large numbers of poets now live and write into their eighties and beyond, it’s inevitably going to be a growth genre of modern poetry: like all poetic genres capable of being done well – as here – or badly. Mrs Raddleston’s true name turns out to be Ruttelton and she died impoverished and her husband was a convict. The researches of the present correct the ignorances of the past although the present has its own set of unanswered questions which the second poem is built around. And the perspective of the contemporary poem is strikingly different from that of the old one. “Why is she buried here?” it asks, so far from the township. Was it fear of plague?

. . . . . 
                    Or was it some
hope that her grave could be memorial
to an effort they had made
leaving their stony crofts or grimy slums
crossing disastrous seas to conquer and subdue
another people’s land? Where passing boats
could dip their flag at such a sacrifice
of lonely death? Or where the whales
migrating as they pass here every year
might raise their ghostly transient salutes?

Someone pointed out that Heracleitus’ statement that you can’t enter the same river twice not only implied that this was because the river had changed but because the individual entering the river has changed also. One of the features of “revisiting” is that it marks not only the changes in the place revisited – the processes ranging from the gentrification to the abandonment of childhood haunts – but in the individual doing the revisiting. How much an individual changes is always a matter of debate: people have for a long time been speaking of the self as an assortment of features that we cobble together under the impression that it has always been a coherent phenomenon. But there is no doubt about the changes that take place in society itself. Australia is a very different place in 2023 from the Australia of Taylor’s boyhood in the fifties. The last lines of the second poem remind us that the “whaling industry”, which we would now consider both cruel and environmentally destructive, was a major feature of the economy of South Australia into the sixties. The passing whales’ “salutes” are not only ghostly because the spray of their soundings is insubstantial but also because they might well represent the ghosts of their ancestors.

In the grander scheme of things where attitudes to homosexuality, the environment, Australia’s geopolitical situation, women’s rights, indigenous people’s rights, among many others, have altered in ways that somebody living in the fifties and sixties of last century would barely have believed possible, whaling could only represent a minor example. But the last poem of this first section, “Where are They?”, deals with the more major issue (at least, more major to most of us: balancing ethical positions is always fraught) of the indigenous inhabitants of the area, concluding, after a series of stanzas each of which asks “where are they?”.

. . . . . 
Where are they
whom we hear in the plover’s lament
in the wind’s whisper and the distant
insistent rumour of surf
on the empty beach?

There are difficulties here, of course. The issues facing a country at any moment in its history seem absolutely the right ones to most people at that time. But, as any revisiting shows, they can change alarmingly quickly and one of the dreary, predictable comments of the aged is something like: “How do you know this is what is important? I’m old enough to know that these things change rapidly.” At my most idealistic about poetry, I want it to be an art of either direct or indirect critique of all generally accepted notions at any given time. But it would be asking a lot of a poet to stand outside the current collection of “issues” that dominate Australians’ thinking about their world. Taylor has enough poetic dexterity to make a good poem like “Where are They?” to the point where we never feel that he is a mere spokesman for contemporary pieties. And the perspective of age and its ability to revisit means that he is able to accept the fact that the past has its own integrity even if that involves slaughtering whales, ignoring the fates of indigenous peoples, and so on.

The second section of the book opens with a poem that reminds us of one of the strongest features of Taylor’s poetry: his extreme sensitivity to what is ambient. His first book was, for example, called The Cool Change, and its title poem registered a sensitivity to weather, something most unusual at the time when on the social plane, issues like the war in Vietnam dominated, and when, on the poetic plane, there was a kind of multi-pronged attack on whatever looked like a kind of sensitive Georgian quality. As his poetry progressed to cope with its own Sturm und Drang – the death of his father while Taylor was in the northern hemisphere, marriage break-up – it retained this sensitivity. Swimming – immersing oneself in the waters of the ocean – is a continuous theme, as is the exact tonality of the weather, the current temperature and humidity and the likelihood of changes. “Weather”, the first poem of the second section of Shore Lines, is actually a complex meditation about the phenomenon itself, rather than a simple registering of the immediate surrounding air. It works by investigating the relationship of external to internal weather. Or, perhaps, it uses the notion of weather as an indicator of the sorts of interior states that affect how a poet lives and how he writes:

. . . . . 
But weather is inside us
like sunrise it recalls us from our dreams
of Japanese temples or the grief
of what is perpetually lost
or the absence of what was never really present
to meals and conversations and waiting.
So weather is a shape of waiting
that’s forever on the move . . .

As I’ve said, it’s a complex meditation and it’s hard not to think of it as touching on crucial areas of Taylor’s long writing career. It certainly yokes the mundane – the ambient environment, social life, travels to places like Japan – with the more conventionally poetically stimulating – dreams, the griefs of loss, and a certain kind of unrealisable desire, “the absence of what was never really present”.

The rest of the poems grouped in this second section seem to be about events in the immediate environment. It’s tempting to say that the revisiting of the first section is balanced here by the experience of visitations. The most common of these visitants are the birds, the “morning visitors” who “alight on my balcony” but they can be a woman in a blue dress playing a violin in a time of bushfires that is soon to morph into a time of pandemic. One of them, Spanish Moss – which brings with it overtones of its exotic place of origin – lands “gangly and languid / on the back of a chair”, almost a definition of insubstantiality. Another poem, “Dead Trees”, is hardly about visitations but is definitely a little allegory made out of the immediate environment where dead trees in a park, unnoticed by “families on bikes, / women in raffia hats, one / or two very hot joggers”, wait to be visited by council arborists:

. . . . . 
One day a truck with chainsaws
and maybe a loader tagged on behind
will pay these trees the attention
they deserve. After all
they’re the park’s elders, the tallest
and greyest, their fingers
reach for the sky they’ll one day
ascend to, as the fierce red crackle
of their wisdom blackens
into ash and a new beginning.

Whether the trees represent ordinary elderly people here, or whether they represent the fate of elder poets is a moot point and arguments could be made for either case.

At the end of the book’s penultimate section, we revisit meditations about the distant personal past with three poems about family history. Family albums, lost aunts who died so young that the nephew in childhood barely knew of their existence, and grandfathers, are all fairly conventional subjects and it says something of Taylor’s genius that these poems are not at all clichéd. The photos in the album, for example, are ancestors from a distant past who have a lot to say to the present but who cannot speak. And the present would dearly like to speak to them as well: they are as likely to be able to answer questions we pose as we would be to answer their questions. Again, it is a reminder that, in a culture which seems for odd reasons anxious to pass judgement on the past, the past is, after all, a foreign country where they do things differently:

. . . . . 
                   Can we reach them
after so much neglect from a world
that would have them utterly confused
should they enter it today? They are
stranded in time, yet their silence
has an old-fashioned eloquence
that demands a reply. They’ll hear 
nothing of what I say, and I know
little of their untold stories, heartbreaks,
triumphs and bereavements . . .

The third section of Shore Lines has some poems with a rather more abstract meditative cast, a reminder, I suppose, that a poet who is so sensitive to ambience can at the same time be a distinguished intellectual. Both “The Book in the Fountain” and “Peregrine Falcon” want to explore the nature of a poet’s raw materials: words. In the former – a kind of stylised allegorical scene – the printed words of a book lying underwater are leached away and become part of the world of the goldfish and the pigeon, inhabitants of the elements of water and air:

. . . . . 
               One day
someone will fetch the book out
and lay it on the fountain’s wall
to dry. Ruined by the water
it will be unreadable – unless
you listen to the fountain’s 
quiet syllables and watch the pigeon’s
thoughtful nodding in agreement.

This notion of words as being part of the natural world rather than expressions of a human consciousness is continued in “Peregrine Falcon” whose central metaphor imagines words as being like flotsam subject to the violent activity of the interface between water and rocky coast, one of Taylor’s distinctive topoi. Everything here derives from the metaphor of the opening lines – “Words don’t stand a chance against the surf / that picks them up like feathers in a storm” – suggesting that this is a poem about poetry in a time of relentless social upheaval. The feathers/words finish up as part of a nest which the falcon builds in the crevices produced in the rockface by the relentless action of the water. All this forces us to read the falcon as a rather noble image for the poet although in the poem, the bird is a small object indeed, operating at the point where a raging sea meets a rocky coast. Added to this is the fact that it is a peregrine falcon, a bird whose name means “traveller” so there might be an intended connection with Taylor himself who is an indefatigable traveller. Words retain their metaphorical status as independent, living things in “Visiting Peter” which describes a visit to Peter Porter imagined as happening while Porter is surrounded by words, “so many jostling verbs / outstretched adjectives / nervy adverbs all / rubbing shoulders with those little / ands and buts and ors etc”. Only when the social activity of hosting a guest is over can these words organise themselves so that they can “converse with him / and later, on the page / with us.”

Seeing Taylor in terms of his relationship to the immediate environment – immediate in time as well as physical proximity – counterbalanced by the perspectives that a long creative life gives to the relationship between present and past, makes a good background against which to read the fourth section of Shore Lines, a group of ten poems titled “At Coogee”. The first temporal perspective comes out of the difference between this current home and the earlier one of Warrnambool. This isn’t, as the first poem says, a “surf beach”. This is not

. . . . . 
my childhood beach – all Southern Ocean
storms, blistering wind, adolescent
sex and memories of my father’s
persistent fishing. Yet at times
as spent waves gnaw at my feet his voice
reaches me in the night, as far and weak
as the green ripple on the screen beside
his bed, so many years away.

But, as the poem says, some guilts and traumas don’t change when the environment changes: as the Latin motto says, the stars may change but the mind remains the same. There is also an apocalyptic perspective in the way these poems deal with bushfires and the pandemic: together these provide a sense of time as linear and moving towards catastrophe. The message of the sea is, however, rather different and it is imagined as speaking of vast stretches of time and holding out hope of human survival:

. . . . . 
Be patient. I have been here
millennia and am not going
anywhere. I weather 
whatever Time throws at me. You too
will endure, and defeat that tiny
antagonist. Then you’ll come down 
to me again, where I’m waiting
with open arms to embrace you.

It’s hard not to register that use of “weather” as significant, covering as it does both the immediate environment and the action of water on rock. It seems a satisfying bonding of the two issues.

Shore Lines, as though wanting to avoid any incipient pompousness, finishes with a semi-comic rehearsal of creation in three poems. God, having invented time and history wants to liven up the contrasts in his creation by adding a little depth and drama. There is no doubt about how this will be done and who will do it: into the Garden of Eden “He placed a man and a woman / and let them get on with the job”.

Rosanna E. Licari: Earlier; Amy Crutchfield: The Cyprian

Rosanna E. Licari, Earlier (Port Adelaide: Ginninderra, 2023), 128pp.
Amy Crutchfield, The Cyprian (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2023), 72pp.

Books of poetry are usually more than a random dump of poems. They, like the poems they contain, tend to have a structure, sometimes loose and sometimes very tight. Its function might be positive: to show the poems up in the best light by putting the strongest ones first, for example. And it might be defensive: to resist a charge of randomness or to place poems near each other so that they give each other some support and deepen the context of any single work. Both these books – Rosanna E. Licari’s Earlier and Amy Crutchfield’s The Cyprian – raise the issue of book structure: it’s likely to be one of the things that a reader notices early on.

Despite this, in the case of Licari’s Earlier, one’s first impression isn’t of its structure so much as its size. It’s a big book, made up an amazing variety of poems ranging from rehearsals of cosmic history and the processes of evolution, to historical portraits covering a spectrum from Giordano Bruno to Mary Anning and Rilke, to snapshots of family history (where it touches the genre of migrant experience), to laments for lost loves, to lyrics (at the beach or in the garden) of life now. One’s initial reading suggests that there are at least two books’ worth of material here, one perhaps dealing with the processes of historic deep time and the other with personal poems. In fact, it turns out to be a remarkably unified book, it’s just that the unifying features aren’t those of theme and style that readers are used to.

The first of these features is a consistent cast of mind spread across this widely varied subject matter. It’s hard to find an exact adjective for it, though “hard-nosed”, “wryly sceptical” and “unillusioned” came to mind. The first poem – it’s also the title poem – is a straight down the line exposition of the development of the current world – a modern, scientific origins story. But, of course, the original point of creation is, scientifically, unknown and the opening of Licari’s poem, “Perhaps, the loneliness wanted / to share its darkness”, carefully avoids the certainties of the Priestly writer’s first chapter of Genesis choosing instead, as its text, the so-called “Hymn of Creation” from the tenth book of the Rig Veda. This is unusual among the various religious texts of creation for its uncertainty and downright scepticism. Wendy Doniger, putting it first in her selections from the Veda, speaks of it as desiring to “puzzle and challenge, to raise unanswerable questions”. As the hymn says, “Who then knows whence it [creation] has arisen?” The sceptical, questioning spirit is in keeping with Licari’s poetic sense. It’s perhaps no accident that the title of her first book proclaims the same opposition to religious explanations: An Absence of Saints.

Coupled with this is what might be called the direction of the gaze: it is unremittingly backwards except for some of the conclusions which gesture towards the future. As the book’s title suggests, its interests are in the past and the way the present has developed out of the past: that is, in the “earlier”. It doesn’t feel, in the poems themselves, that there is anything oppressively deterministic about this but it is everpresent. I’ve mentioned the first poem where the poetic tension lies in the opposition between the vastness of historic time and the inevitable compression that all poetry imposes on its subjects. In this case nearly fourteen billion years are covered in eighty short lines. There’s also a tension in that, although the view is backwards the material is pushing and developing forwards: humans are allotted only the last four lines of “Earlier” but they are seen walking “naked / through wind and savannah, / their dark eyes fixed on the horizon”. “Evolutionary Lap” is another poem in this territory. It is about swimming laps and looks, on the surface (I apologise for the bad pun), to be a lyric poem about the experience of living physically in the rhythms of water. But its conclusion – “your head and elbows / moving in and out of the splash // as if preparing to fly” – inverts the poem into one about evolutionary developments. “Evolutionary Lap” is followed by one of the many ekphrastic poems in the book, a piece based on Willian Robinson’s “Bright Sea at Cape Byron”, where one arrives at sea and sky after struggling through lush undergrowth but “this delicate blue has no concern / for the distant headland / or your curious desire to plunge forward”.

The family history poems detail the poet’s first few years in Rijeka and Trieste before emigration to Australia and you feel that the interest in the detail is very much about what the past contributes and what it withholds. How much of such a migration, for example, is determined and how much simply part of the vagaries of life. A long poem, “Oliver”, is about a cousin, dead at nine months, whose photograph the author has known from childhood. The history of his death exists only in partial comments over the years and, in the poem, this is worked into the domestic image of a gecko flitting in and out of the kitchen looking for odd scraps. Some losses last, almost unimaginably, a whole lifetime:

. . . . . 
                        Her loss had a relentless hunger. And
in her solitude, thoughts fed on themselves. When my aunt
was very ill in hospital and the breast cancer had
metastasised, we didn’t know how long she would last. It had
been eating her up slowly. Sitting by the bed,

my mother said, She’ll go soon. I asked Why? Mother looked 
up and said, I dreamed of her with the child. 

Here, known history is a thing of shreds and patches but the underlying process of grief is as remorseless as the processes of evolution. And the nature of personal history is the subject of another poem in this fourth section titled significantly, “New Histories”. Here, the mother, in a state of dementia, creates new versions of her life so that she is convinced that she visited Africa and “gave lectures to the scholars of / Europe and Russia”. Sometimes the backward view shows only a simulacrum of the real history.

The book’s fifth section begins with a poem, “Paradeisos”, which establishes the garden as the central location of some poems which are personal though not in the migrant-family-history genre. Licari’s garden is a pretty contested place, where there is an aggressive neighbour (introduced in an earlier poem, “The Spaniard”), and the “yells of neighbour’s children slam against the high wooden fence”. But wild as the garden is, the great regular processes go on underneath – the centipedes, burrowing beetles and worms – and above – the bees and spiders. “Shimmer” is a poem where all these other perspectives enter:

There’s no one here as the soft rain presses
the day into eucalypt leaves and bark.
In drops of water, glimmers of red, yellow and blue
and again red. Move through its shades to crimson,
two syllables crushed from Kermes insects
which dyed ancient cloth and shrouds:
a colour privileged in both life and death.
The sky bears down, draws me out to the distant haze
into the dome of the world. Its fickle blue
does not comfort – sun, rain and sun - 
the humidity thick as ritual smoke.
It seeps into vines and ferns as does yellow and
blue to utter viridity. But I contemplate indigo
and how I will step out from another night,
its nebulas forging new stars.

Tonally this is done in high lyric style and there isn’t so much of the wry, clear-eyed tone that I have said is common to Licari’s poetic position. But its interesting complexities sustain it, I think. Firstly, it brings into a poem set in a garden on a rainy day, the ancient origins of the word “crimson” – “two syllables crushed from Kermes insects” – and thereby continues the concern with the operation of the past which is contained, often unnoticed, in the present. Secondly, by concluding the survey of colours with indigo, the colour of the night, it enables one of those juxtapositions of perspective that run through this book: domestic garden and pale blue sky opposed to one of the largest events we know in the universe – star creation.

Earlier is a rather surprising book and my emphasis on its tonal unity among a wide variety of forms may be only one way of uncovering unities in its widely varied poems. But it is that tone which informs a late poem, “Causality”, whose title warns us that mechanisms which operate across time to produce outcomes are always present even if not perceived. It’s one of a series of beach poems and is a compressed picture of the present from an ecological point of view:

The tideline, a scar of fishing hooks, cigarette butts and broken plastic. My toe bleeds when it moves across the sharp break of a bottle that once held water. Flask parts now mingle with the greater blue. An offering to the deep. Minute shards find a home everywhere. Microplastics float into the mouths of zooplankton, into fish, into us. All flesh infused with it. Wading into the shallows, I drop to my knees in the soft sand. I cup my palms to show gratitude. A brisk wave slaps my face.

It’s a world and a poetry where rhapsodic celebration of the joy of living in the world is given short shrift by reality.

Amy Crutchfield’s The Cyprian is a much slighter book than Earlier and, perhaps as a result, is even more intensely organised. One might even say over-organised. It is arranged in five sections, each with a title for Aphrodite translated from the Greek: “Who Turns to Love”, “Armed”, “Common to All”, “Delayer of Old Age”, “Protectress of Births”. Most of these were new to me (Anadyomene and Callipygos being the only titles I knew!) but they all appear to be attested. In fact, Aphrodite seems to carry dozens of epithets around with her, although they are comparatively late. I know it isn’t strictly relevant to Crutchfield’s book, but I share her interest in Aphrodite who has always seemed an odd figure to me. She comes from Cyprus (hence the title “Cyprian”) perhaps as a figure initially associated with copper mining – why else would she be married to an ugly, lame smith? She is part of that westward movement where figures from Mesopotamia and the Levant wind up in Greece. But where you expect an avatar of the great, stately Middle-Eastern goddess of birth, sex, death and rebirth, you find instead a figure who seems early on to have sunk into a sort of sexy, fun-loving girl. In Homer (mid to late eighth century BCE) she is already trivialised, fainting on the battlefield from a cut to her hand in the Iliad and getting trapped by her husband when she gets into bed with the god of war in the Odyssey. The fact that this latter sexy/farcical episode is not narrated by Odysseus but by the Phaiakian rhapsode Demodokos seems to add to the sense of its being a little infra dig.

There is no doubt though that Crutchfield takes Aphrodite seriously as a guiding figure over poems that are, mainly, about love and death. There is also a strong tendency towards the ekphrastic: the first poems are sequences which explore a statue of Pothos and Picasso’s “Dora and the Minotaur”. The first of these deals with desire in its incarnation as an actual god. Pothos is variously thought of as a son of Aphrodite and a son of the god of the west wind: either of which seems a good origin for desire. Crutchfield’s poems are interested in what motivated the sculptor Skopas (the existing statue is a second century AD Roman copy) and in what he knew of his subject:

. . . . . 
Did he catch it in a calm pool of water
or watch it pass as the shadow of a cloud across the plain
face of an apprentice
in the workshops at the growing temple?
What had he learned of longing and its
fierce metamorphosis?
Because the categories are not fixed,
needs jostle on the ladder and we
do not sleep, we do not eat.

She is also interested in the fact that the statue was originally misnamed as an Apollo – the god of, among other things, art – and the fact that pothos now gives its name to Devil’s Ivy: a plant so indestructible that it can survive without light. Like desire itself. The Picasso poems also explore the perversities of desire, Picasso and his lover/muses being an excellent site for such investigations. The final poem of the four focusses on the moment when Picasso switches his attentions to Francoise Gilot and asks

. . . . . 
What is a goddess when she’s forgotten?
First the plinth and then the doormat.
There are not enough museums
for all we once believed in.

Each day she starts 
a life after, but not without . . .

Which recalls the odd question that begins the book’s prefatory poem, “Egg”, a fine lyric about loss rather than desire: “What shall the mother of the dead be called? / As widow is to wife, / what of the woman left behind?”. The last poem of this opening section, “Camera Obscura”, is about the solar eclipse in North America in 2017. It seems a long way from the poems of desire that accompany it but there may be a clue in the last of the Pothos poems: Desire survives and flourishes even in camerae obscurae – darkened rooms.

The second section has some more personal poems of desire but also an interesting meditation on Helen of Troy, especially the way in which Lattimore translates “kunopidos“ – “dog-eyed” – as “slut”. The complex (and uncertain?) characterisation of Helen in both the Homeric epics enables Crutchfield to arrive at a “multiplex” figure, including an embodiment of all the fears that ultimately derive from desire.

The poems of the other parts of the book, as their Aphroditic surnames suggest, tend to deal with death and loss more than desire. And the death and loss is complexified by being seen in a narrow domestic sense, always related to being a child or having children. I think the best of them is “Beautiful Corpse” which, presumably, takes its title from the Surrealist game of “Exquisite Corpse”. The poet brings four children to the dead body (we aren’t told who the dead person is but children’s grandmother is an outsider’s guess) not to pay standard respects but “to hear the corpse speak”. It’s a powerful and very convincing idea that the dead can communicate to us, not by “sables and visitations” but with a kind of eloquent deadness:

. . . . 
I could explain it, the amalgam
that makes a person, but the corpse insists.
Lips, almost resting, glimpse of teeth,
say leave this with me.

Both Earlier and The Cyprian have poems about poetry itself: bordering on what I usually call “poem-poems”. “Some poems birth easily. Others don’t” says Licari at the opening of her poem about how her mother’s dementia creates a new history and “Degrees of Flight”, begins with a portrait of what Hollywood America loves to call “writer’s block”:

Call me tonight
because I’ve been scribbling
the same poem for days. 
Lately, I have stopped 
not just mid-sentence but
at the beginning,
after the first letter,
or even between the space
where my hand moves
from air to paper. . . 

It turns out to be a poem about the dark – in all its meanings – but does have one of those spreading-of-the-wings moments that often occur in Licari’s work. In The Cyprian there is “True in the Senses” which connects poetry with truth:

I have always been a liar.
Some years I lied on the page as well – but
the poem won’t stand plumb.
Truth is ballast – without these stones
a poem is a pleasure craft, heeling in the wind. . .

For someone who sees one of lyric poetry’s great achievements to be its refusal to accept existing and fashionable ideologies and fantasies, the idea that a poem has to be “true” for it to work is more than a comforting thought even if the alternative – that the truest poetry might be the most feigning – could also be true.

Philip Hammial: Dervishing

Woodford, NSW: Island Press, 2023, 96pp.

It’s always good to revisit the amazing world of Philip Hammial’s poetry, described with impressive accuracy by a quote on the cover as “a torrent of mischief, dark humour, idiosyncratic construction and invigorating chaos.” Dervishing is a two-part book made up of twenty-five pages of poems and nearly sixty pages of prose pieces. All but three of the poems are in one of Hammial’s familiar poetic modes, fairly extended pieces which are “surreal” in that their energy seems to derive from internal transformations as much as subject matter and which almost always create a shape by, in the last lines, returning to the opening statement or a variation thereof. And these openings are usually quite intense eruptions of a strong and slightly garbled speaking voice: “Only one Exit: climb the wolf ladder to the sheep sky & / jump”, “Work your Jesus: rob your hands of their money”, “Man must truss!”.

The prose pieces are in Hammial’s “realistic” mode whose magic derives from an interaction between the remarkably varied and often hair-raising events they narrate and the fairly denotative, off-hand prose style. The material comes in part from Hammial’s remorseless travelling but also from biographical material from his adolescent days and about his time as an orderly in the Athens State Hospital of Ohio. Twenty-odd out of the nearly fifty pieces are recycled, often with slight emendations, from the 1989 book, Travel / Writing, shared with Anna Couani, a book that deserves to be saved from “the teeth of time”. The emphasis of the prose poems in Dervishing is a little different, however: at least the aftertaste it leaves is slightly different. Travel left one with a strong autobiographical sense of Hammial’s harum-scarum youth in Detroit, shared with schoolfriends whom he references in poems written nearly three quarters of a century later (in fact one of the epigraphs to Dervishing is a statement by one of those friends, Ralph Peckham: “Fifty years from now nobody’s gonna believe that we did all this shit in the 50s and 60s”). The Dervishing selection does contains these sorts of poems. In “The Float”, set, I think, in college days, he and his friends build a ghastly wheeled float and smuggle it into an otherwise bland parade:

. . . We borrow a wagon from my landlady’s son. Search-out and bring-back missions are deployed. Inspiration is found in trash cans and in a pile of discarded timber. Soon the wagon is bristling with sticks, an eight-foot high porcupine on wheels; and on its quills we impale rotten oranges, apples, grapefruit, cucumbers, heads of lettuce and long slabs of rancid bacon . . . my art teacher, watching from a third floor window, gives me an A for the semester.

In the earlier context of Travel/Writing, one was interested, as a reader, in the outrageousness of the prank but now what seems interesting is the way it prefigures much of Hammial’s later sculptures, knocked together out of items found in trash cans, outsider-art style.

Another theme of the Travel poems, continued here, is the description of experiences as an orderly in the Athens State Hospital, Ohio. Working in psychiatric wards, a young man gets a close look at madness – a very Hammial theme, especially when the madness of the staff is investigated. Again, in Dervishing, the sense is not so much of a recounting of a young man’s extreme experiences but rather of experiences which will flower in Hammial’s art, always attuned to madness. The first poem of the Dervishing selection, “ECT”, occurs a third of the way through Travel. It is genuinely disturbing – I seem to have it stuck in my mind since its first appearance – and describes ECT treatment meted out by a “Cuban refugee with no psychiatric training” who insists on wearing “a black suit, black shirt and slim white tie”. As the piece says, in conclusion,

. . . To say nothing of a large adult male, it’s surprising how strong and ferocious a ninety pound little old lady can become when she’s confronted with this inquisitor and his machine. It takes four of us to get her up on the table.

Some of Dervishing’s prose pieces that don’t appear in Travel clearly link into Hammial’s creative life. “The Sahara”, for example, begins as an exotic travel piece in Agadez, Niger, but moves on to an attempt to find a charm against the “evil eye”:

. . . After the race I go to the outdoor market and with the help of two Nigerian merchants have a charm against the evil eye made for me by an old Tuareg medicine man. His stall is filled with bones, teeth, mummified birds, bits and pieces of wood and stone and herbs in plates and jars. I’d wanted a vulture’s skull but he doesn’t have any in stock, so I settle for a crow’s head. He cuts out a hood from a piece of leather, wets it and sews it around the skull, leaving the black beak sticking out.
Give me the evil eye at a poetry reading: bad luck, it’s back on you.

Again, it’s the world of assemblage from detritus and its magical potentialities. “Heidelberg” describes seeing some outsider art in a bookshop window, meeting the manager and her family including her partner – who survived capture by the Russians during the war and ten years working in coal mines in the Urals – and his two sons, one of whom is autistic and the other who “doesn’t spend much time in this world”. You feel that Hammial is at home here – there are hundreds of paintings of a naïve artist, Pellegrino Vignali, in the attic – as most of the rest of us probably wouldn’t be. A tip by the bookshop manager leads to another poem which recounts visiting the Prinzhorn Collection – a collection of Outsider Art made in the 1920s – and later the Wolfli Archives in Berne. Both of these visits are described as “one of my best days”. “Dr Chandra” describes three visits – one in 1964 and two in 1969 – to an amazing man who both translates and prints books with extraordinary energy:

. . . And then to the bookshelves containing all of the books that Dr Chandra has edited and in some cases translated, including a Sanskrit/Hindi/English Dictionary that runs to twenty thick volumes. How one man could find time in one lifetime (he’s now forty) to edit so many complex, thick volumes AND print them is beyond me. . . Now we’re taken into a large room where seven elderly Tibetan monks are reproducing from memory and with the help of magnifying glasses the 8000 gods in the Tibetan pantheon, a huge project which Dr Chandra hopes to finish in the near future . . . At my request, Dr Chandra explains in simple language what a mandala is and how it works. By the end of his explanation I’m in bliss . . .

I’ve dealt with these pieces at some length to try to see the reasons why this group has such a different aftertaste for the reader compared to the selection in Travel though, on the surface they are pretty much of a piece. Once one begins to think in terms of the processes of Hammial’s creativity, its tendency to draw inspiration from the productions of Outsider Art, its interest in assemblage and detritus, its interest in madness and confrontation, these are prose pieces that are a long way from the sense one might have had earlier of the documentation of an early delinquent life followed by a fiercely peripatetic one. They are a lot more than that, more central to reading Hammial’s poetry than an exotic adjunct.

Two final points might be made about this prose section. Firstly, I think that this is the only one of Hammial’s thirty-six books (the energy clearly doesn’t lie only in the poems!) to use a photograph of one of his sculptures on its cover. It’s an assemblage of a head mounted on a light-stand with an inverted bowl on top and is thus fittingly called, “The King”. Secondly, the book’s title comes from one of the later prose pieces describing a visit to the house of the “mad mahdi”, the slayer of General Gordon, and afterwards to a dervish “performance” at a local cemetery. Rumi’s whirling dervishes are usually seen as balancing ecstatic frenzy with some kind of control, but Hammial concludes by contrasting the dervishes of Omdurman with those of Konya in Turkey, the historical centre of the ritual:

. . . Around & around they go in a cloud of dust. It’s hot, it’s wild, the drums are hypnotic. Any resemblance between these dervishes and the carefully choreographed dancing of the dervishes in Konya, Turkey . . .

and leaves the piece on these ellipsis points. But it’s a comment not only about dervishes but about poetry too: there’s a difference between true ecstasy and controlled ecstasy and Hammial’s art, it says, reasonably politely, belongs to the former.

And so to the twenty-two poems that make up the first part of this book. As I said in the introduction to this review (and have probably said innumerable times in other reviews of Hammial’s work) my sense of these fairly extensive poems is that they belong to a distinct sub-group in Hammial’s poetry (probably the largest sub-group) and have certain ways of developing, referring and moving. There are dozens of different types of surrealism and it would be a useful, if exhausting, project to try to map out these kinds (the general mode is now a hundred years old – Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto was published in 1924) and then try to see where Hammial’s work, and Outsider Art, might be positioned. Would Breton have allowed either of these to claim the title of Surrealist, for example? At any rate, what stands out in Hammial’s poetry, apart from its energetic drive, is the way that drive shifts from one subject to another. It’s an art, that is, of transformations.

This reading, I’m interested in the material that undergoes the transformations. There is autobiographical material of different kinds. One is the issue of age. Though Hammial’s intense energy shows no signs of slackening, it’s significant that he was born in January, 1937, and the issue of age and its different perspectives on what one has done, does emerge every so often. In Dervishing, the first poem, “On a Warm Summer Night”, begins,

What have we here? – a ramble for
a somnambulist, yours truly through a life
some dreamer lived & now it’s time to say goodbye
to rock & wave & Pussycat & the goat on the hill.
So how about just one more thrill: Hannah
in a kitchen with tea to pour. Watch me
stumble & spill. . .

And the final poem of the group is significantly titled, “Last Words”. Again, there is a poke at the solemn niceties of conventional poems about death in that the poem is made up of the final words of prisoners (mainly Americans) before execution. And they are all pretty mad. The last of the last words, for example, is from Aileen Wuornos a prostitute who shot and robbed seven of her clients and was executed in Florida in 2002: “I’m sailing with rock, and I’ll be back like Independence / Day with Jesus on June 6”.

Another feature of the material that stands out in these poems is the breadth of Hammial’s cultural knowledge. While the shifts and transformations occur, it reminds me that the material being used is much more sophisticated than one might expect in more conventional surrealist poetry (if that isn’t an oxymoron). “Rauch” uses material about the German Painter, Neo Rauch, and his critics. “Silas Green”, beginning as a poem about Hammial’s early hometown, Detroit, (which, suffering worse than most from economic downturn is more full of junk and detritus than most) shifts to a description of a travelling circus of the first part of last century, listing significant names who all sound like something from an American comic strip:

. . . . .
            Her street is all avenue, mine 
is mostly alley. Though of course I’ll take you 
wherever you wish to go. So will an elephant if you ask
nicely. I might take this opportunity to pay homage
to a few of the principals of the Silas Green Show
(1904-57): Ford Wiggins, Hortense Collier, Prof.
Eph Williams, J. Homer Tutt, Salem Tutt Whitney,
Ada Brook, Nipsy Russell! Well done people!
So let’s pick one of these circus folk – Hortense
(my choice) - & put her on a trapeze that’s swinging
in slow motion towards us but, like Proust
in the Bay of Corinth in that poem 
by Baquero, almost here, almost close enough
to smell the rose in her hair – swings back, fades
into temps perdu. . .

but, as this shows, modulates comfortably into high culture with its reference to the poem “Marcel Proust Cruises the Bay of Corinth” by the Cuban poet, Gaston Baquero. If Hammial’s version of surrealism can be described as extreme experiences used in poems which push structure as well as syntax to distortion, then the material used is authentic and amazingly varied and often sophisticated in the breadth of its cultural reach.

But, as I said before, a lot of the material comes from a quite different area of scholarly speculation: the self. And a self in its mid-eighties has a lot to think about. The first poem introduced the life of an elderly self as “a ramble / for a somnambulist” and “In My Opinion” is a grotesque version of an overview of life and also a consideration of the role of material that is passed over as mere detritus, junk:

no funk has it all over defunct.
Who put the oranges in your 30s?
Who put the grapes in your 50s?
Who toys with who here?
I know where you hid the spoons.
You don’t know where I’ve hidden the forks.
. . . . . 
If what’s hidden wants to be found it will sing
in a dead language. What’s junk
for a shrink is bunkum for a ward nurse.
Who put lemons in your 80s?

Willo Drummond: Moon Wrasse

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2023, 84pp.

This is a complex, intriguing and quite exciting first book. The central two (of its four sections) are a kind of poetic search, not for the various certainties or states that poets yearn for, but for a single poet, Denise Levertov. As a long time admirer of Levertov – surely the most likable (and one of the most rewarding) of the post-war school of American “New Poets” – I’m immediately well-disposed and it’s a disposition carried through the other poems of Moon Wrasse. Of course, it raises the question of what one wants from “pursuing” another poet. A poet wants poems, perhaps, as an intellectual wants a better and fuller understanding. But another poet always remains, ultimately, out of reach: the quest valuable but the grail unobtainable. You can feel this in poems like “On Finding and Not Finding Levertov” and “Cedar Tree” in which Drummond visits Valentines Park in Ilford, a place looming large in Levertov’s childhood. In the first of these the issue is one of maturity: the difficulty is to try to see the world through the eyes of a child, even if the child is a nascent poet experiencing the “double vision” of places both in their ordinariness and in the more vibrant life within them, a vision which is the basis of Levertov’s first book, published in England before her emigration to America. “Cedar Tree” is a poem of frustration: touching the tree doesn’t produce the frisson of connection with the poet. In a sense it’s a pilgrim’s frustration but, thinking about the tree rather than the young Denise Levertov, there is a connection of a kind Levertov would have responded to:

. . . . . 
And though I felt
more than a thousand

years of life humming
there, in which you believed,
under which you cultivated

a life of Awe,
I could not
palpate the precise

pulse of your making. For
what matters
             is not
what is
    or how
            it was

but how you saw
it . . .

Since no smart-phone camera can catch any of this, the poet is left with “a reduction, / or nothing // resembling a path / to you . . . “.

As an outsider, it’s hard to be confident about what the relationship between these three poets is. On one level it has a kind of archaeological drive whereby exploring the work of Levertov leads, at a lower level, to the work of Rilke and which might, conceivably, lead to his poetic antecedents. If not an archaeological impulse, it might be an exploration of the layerings of influence. I have always thought that Levertov’s response to Rilke was a response not so much to his poetry as to his pronouncements about the correct attitude on the part of the poet, of the correct attitude vis a vis reality. It’s no accident that, using the references in Moon Wrasse as a sample, Rilke’s prose (his letters, the Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge) figures more largely than his poetry. For Levertov it established the stance of the poet as a high and demanding calling and she carried that throughout her career. Her poetry, however, is entirely different to Rilke’s, being very much of its time and place in its sense of being “open” or “naked”. There is, for example, none of Rilke’s formalism in her work and one of her indisputable achievements is to retain the notion of a high calling but combine it with her own, less hieratic, American open-form poetry to the point where she might still be used in classes today to give readers an idea of what such open forms can achieve when exploited by a great poet. Just as Levertov’s poetry is quite unlike Rilke’s, so Drummond’s poetry is quite unlike either of these two mentors. It works much more by quotation and allusion and the resulting poems can often seem more like assemblages rather than expressions of a clear, personal lyric voice. A group of poems from the second section of Moon Wrasse take as their starting point Rilkean phrases which Levertov had used as part of an index to the poet (something that I wasn’t aware she had done). This results in a triple layering rather than a single allusion and produces poems of satisfying complexity. Again, this process of quoting and layering is one of the available styles of our times so perhaps there is a certain, pleasingly regular, initiatic chain that links a poet of the 1920s with one of the 1970s and one of the 2020s.

The first and fourth sections of Moon Wrasse are not at all about finding and not finding a precursor poet, though many of the themes are interconnected with the poems from the middle parts of the book. Here we seem in a world of liminality and transformation, of dispersal and accretion, but also one which poses questions about the nature and possibilities of lyric poetry. In the case of the former, the totemic animal is the fish of the title which (as usual, if I sound knowledgeable about this, it is courtesy of Wikipedia) is a “protogynous hermaphrodite”, that is it changes sex from female to male. This idea of gender transformation is, obviously, one very current today and various members of the animal and plant world have been pressed into service as symbols. The title poem itself, is, in contrast with the earlier poems of the book, where disappointment, depression and failure are often paramount, a near rhapsodic poem about personal experience: in other words, a lyric poem. It certainly isn’t a po-faced “capturing” of an odd, smallish fish:

. . . . . 
Here
        you are
        forming, transforming
twinkling your webbed toes
shaking your tail
crescent. Lyre-wrasse
we cycle
through the dappled light
of the casuarina -
holding hands
like younger lovers
in a film
in a dream

All is calm and comfort
here, moving in
our translucent
cocoon
“self-made” and safe
as houses -
Or as a fresh-made pair
of parrot fish
pyjamas. 

The precise personal relationship behind a poem like this is never really available to a reader, as it never is in lyric poetry. What, after all, do we know about the minutiae of Catullus’s love for his brother beyond what two poems tell us about the intensity of his love? But we know enough to appreciate the slightly comic elements and the domestic-rhapsodic tone. It also has a place to fill in the structure of the book whereby the bleaker poems of the first section are, symphonic-fashion, replaced by a more optimistic tone in the final part.

The first section, too, has a totemic being, the mangrove. It is introduced in a prefatory poem, “Seed”, which focusses on the fact that mangroves (like other animals such as humans) are viviparous: that is they produce a miniature version of themselves which they then allow to disperse. Another poem, “Propagules for Drift and Dispersal”, works on the symbolic meanings of this for the author: “When I was one such kid, I couldn’t wait to flee / this drowned river valley . . . . . Through sheer force of willpower / I’d build my own terra firma; show life was more than a sentence // -based rehearsal . . .”. But, of course, there is also the inevitable symbolic echo of the experiences of a lyric poet whereby the poems are produced and dispersed in publication, the “Go litel boke” kind of envoi that can preface (as in Catullus) or conclude a larger work.

The other poems of this first section are marked by expressions of grief and loss. Again, a reader isn’t privy to the exact details of this but “Unspoken” and “Ways of Seeing”, with their emphasis on the moon and the Egyptian way of calculating the beginning of a month by the state of the moon, suggest that the issue is pregnancy. The book’s first poem, “The Act of Making”, begins with the proposition that “There is always something to be made / of pain” and finishes by suggesting a kind of stoicism: “Parched // you shake barren dust / from boots, walk on”. And “Sail”, one of the poems that first attracted me to the book, is very much about the moment when someone collapses into depression imagined as the wind – which has previously bellied the sail and produced a flowing forward motion – suddenly dropping:

. . . . . 
Experience says, in time,
                         the canvas will snap

taut. Right now
this sheet is the shape of living.

The ladder’s blown
the world’s all wailing wind.

The final two poems of this first section both search for consolation, one in grief and the other in transformation. “Archaeology” uses the “diving into the wreck” kind of metaphor to see the grieving process as a journey through an underworld, as much like miners as archaeologists. I read the ending as bleak but optimistic, although I might have the tone wrong:

. . . . .
      so when we reach the water table
    on which our city floats
when we glimpse the rusted ladder that leads towards the light

      we know to stow our picks and grasp with two hands, the frame
   of each breaking, tenderskinned
ending, to the ink of night.

“Some Words for Migratory Birds” recalls the interest in dispersion perhaps used as a metaphor for transformation. In this poem, the personal elements – the poet’s stake in the metaphor – are not, again, entirely clear, but the transformation occurs within a couple imagined as travelling like migratory birds and the conclusion is challenging but ultimately optimistic, something rather different to the tone of the earlier poems of this first section:

. . . . . 
Thing is, the slightest shift in alkalinity
sets the whole thing in motion. We must
conserve our energy, for there’s just
so far to go. Here
                             listen to my voice:
                             the world is waiting for you
                             and you flight-notes. What
                             will you make of them?	Turn
                                                                               face northward                                                        
                                                                                                       embark –

“Archaeology” derives its metaphor of “an archaeology of grief” from Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk. I know this only because the note for this poem tells me so. There are nine pages of notes for the poems of Moon Wrasse and they are a kind of topic in themselves. Many people will find this a bit extreme and recall William Carlos William’s disgust with the way in which “The Waste Land” (another poem with extensive notes) had driven poetry back to the classroom when it should be focussing on the reality that surrounded the poet. The fact that many books of poetry have their origins in a project undertaken for a higher degree adds to this schoolroom/scholarly quality. But the growth of notes in recent books is obviously generated by the conjunction of two factors. The first is that it is increasingly common for poems to begin not in ambient reality but in other poems, either by generating a new text from the old or – as in Moon Wrasse – layering existing work, together with the author’s own contribution to make texts that are sometimes assemblages and sometimes just highly allusive. When coupled with the fact that there is a drive to out writers as plagiarists, you can see why poets want to make sure that they credit every use of another’s work. I’ll quote the note to “Archaeology” in its entirety though it is one of the shorter notes to the book:

“The archaeology of grief” is from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (2014: 199); “forgotten ways of sight” is an allusion to a phrase from the same passage; “silver moon not yet lost / at bottom of silted well” is an allusion to a line from Denise Levertov’s “Everything that Acts Is Actual,” Here and Now (1957); “weigh” and “by… carat… of heart” are from Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke Vol II 1910-1926, (Trans. Greene & Norton 1948: 297); “blood”, “glance and gesture” are from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Trans. Norton 1949: 27).

Readers might object to such material on the grounds (which have never been entirely, logically demonstrated) that a poem should “stand on its own two feet”, but a critic is likely to be thankful that that at least part of the inner workings of a poem should be laid bare.

Sarah Holland-Batt: The Jaguar

St Lucia: UQP, 2022, 127pp.

Sarah Holland-Batt’s brilliant new book is very much built around her father’s long illness and eventual passing. Not only is it the subject of the book’s first of four sections but the final section, which looks like being – like the third section of her previous book, The Hazards – about place and culture, is distorted, as it progresses, into poems about firstly her grandfather and his place – Gibraltar during the war – and finally her father in the long concluding sequence, “In My Father’s Country”. Not that readers of Holland-Batt’s work won’t have met the father before. He appears in “The Woodpile” an early poem of her first book, Aria, chopping wood in what seems to be a symbolically significant scene: the stacked wood encourages decay and various kinds of spider although “the heartwood burnt longest”. And in “Embouchure” and “The Flowers on His Bedside Speak of Eternity”, both from The Hazards, we re-encounter him, this time in a serious stage of the illness. The grandfather, especially his painting, also appears in two poems of Aria. In the light of the intense focus of The Jaguar, these seem like preliminary sketches, poems more interested in the poet’s unease than in forensically describing the father’s illness and seeing how something so extended and debilitating can be approached by poetry. We also find a reference to her father’s death in her excellent book of brief studies of individual Australian poems, Fishing for Lightning, when she looks at Brendan Ryan’s “A Father’s Silences” as an example of elegy. She has a response that reminds me of my own when my first child was born: astonishment at the fact that the world seemed to be going on in its ordinary way as though it were unaware that something earth-shattering had occurred. Of course, she met with “things dying, I with things newborn”.

If one compares “The Burr” – the first poem of “In My Father’s Country” – with the first poem of the final section of the book itself, “Driving Through Drystone Country”, you can see how one of her many talents – the ability to deal with landscape in a verbally tactile way – is given an allegorical twist that in no way reduces the verbal intensity. “Driving Through Drystone Country” contains what I think is a non-symbolic registration of environment:

. . . . . 
Bronze field barns
slope in local vernacular -
sandstone cubed with a level eye,

quoins of gritstone
bracketing each corner.
Slovenly roofs pitch

over hay store and cow stall -
industry of the particular -
and everywhere the regular metre

of drystone walls, 
arrowheads of shale
fitted with flagstone precision. . .

This is brilliant of its kind – I like the way “pitch” is converted from a noun to a verb – but its kind is registration, the proof for us readers of poetry that prose must attain a pretty high level before it can bring off anything like this when, in a novel, especially, it enters one of its descriptive passages.

The opening of the first of the eleven poems that make up “In My Father’s Country” has the same kind of precise evocative registration:

It is guesswork, this slatternly backcountry
I climb in darkness:

ice shirring gunmetal moors,
each hillock and rise

a cairn of tortoise stones,
slate in skid and trip steps . . .

but here it is overlaid by the way the poet is entering the landscape. Here it is not a matter of just registering but of deploying the idea of a trip through the landscape of her father’s origins in Yorkshire (I think) as being simultaneously a search for him. And “a search for him” is also allegorical since it is a search to understand the parent whom she has been watching unravel during his long decline. In fact, the second poem of this sequence says:

                    Your dying

has taken the better part
of two decades, as if,

handed this one last task,
you have resolved 

to do it exhaustively . . .

That word “better” might carry a little more weight than it usually does here, especially if we register that that is probably almost the entire length of Holland-Batt’s writing career, making her father’s decline and death more than a solitary traumatic event. In a very practical sense, understanding her father’s life is also understanding her own.

“In My Father’s Country” maps both external and internal landscapes and it has, at its heart, a kind of progression through time as well as landscape, beginning with his boyhood and ending with his death. The poems of the first section of The Jaguar, though they too are organised chronologically, don’t seem to be about the progression of the illness. I read them almost as a set of variations, responses to the question of how one can deal with these events poetically. The first one, as its title, “My Father as a Giant Koi”, suggests, looks to the power of metaphor. But the poem’s central metaphor, instead of being a simple comparison to convey something of the man’s state, is allowed to develop a life of its own, pulling the poem away from the hospital bed towards the world of the koi. It’s not an unusual technique in poetry but here it is strengthened by Holland-Batt’s ability to make the metaphoric world as densely registered as the world of the hospital. The first few lines will show what I mean:

My father is at the bottom of a pond
perfecting the art of the circle.
He is guiding the mottled zeppelin 
of his body in a single unceasing turn
like a monorail running on greased steel,
like an ice skater swerving on a blade.
His scales are lava and ember dappled with carbon.
His tail, a luxurious Japanese fan.
He is so far beneath the green skin of duckweed
he cannot make me out, or I him. . .

One shudders to think what Newton, who described poetry as “ingenious nonsense”, would have made of this, but creatively it is very compelling. The intense poetic language is reserved not for the father but for the metaphor of the fish – “his scales are lava and ember dappled with carbon” – even to the point of deploying metaphors – the ice skater, the zeppelin, the Japanese fan – which at one farther remove illuminate the central metaphor of the fish. And, of course, one doesn’t have to be a sharp hermeneuticist to see that there are multiple other ways of reading this poem. The following of the metaphor of the fish, for example, might be designed to deflect the poet from facing up to the reality of describing the symptoms of her father’s mental and physical decline openly. If deliberate, this could be read as an additional expressionist layer to the poem saying, “Look how bad it is that I take refuge in a spiralling of metaphors”. If it is unconscious, it might be that the tension between the situation and the baroque metaphors give a structure to the poem that the poet recognises as “working” and producing a satisfactory whole.

Something similar occurs in “The Kindest Thing”, another poem from this first group. It deals with a specialist’s advice to withhold antibiotics so that her father will die from pneumonia which he calls “the old man’s friend”. This, and the handsomeness of the doctor provokes a double metaphor: python and mantis:

                  he is almost shining 
with charisma and vitality, this man who coaxes
patients towards death like an emerald boa
stretching its pink jaw  by inches
until the glass frog is entirely inside the snake’s head,
subsumed into the hypnotic knot of its body,
its scales flexing electric green as new leaves,
its white lightning bolts rippling and contracting -
or like the sinister musk blossoming
of an orchid mantis – limbs variegated
like borlotti beans in a flecked rose and cream -
swaying like a silken flower to lure
the dreaming crickets in . . .

There is a lot that is provoking this more than extended metaphor. The poet finds herself attracted to the handsome doctor of death and the extended metaphor might be read as partly a kind of personal distraction from one’s own self-disgust. And in a way the poem enacts this because the imaginative language of the metaphors is as seductive as the operations of the boa and matis themselves: it’s hard not to think of this poem as “the one with the rose and cream borlotti beans”. At the same time, as the poem goes on to explore, this isn’t a matter of relinquishing oneself to death but of relinquishing someone else – “I am offering over my father, tenderly / unhinging death’s jaws”.

The second section of The Jaguar begins with a poem of place and leads readers to expect that having dealt with the father’s illness, this might be a group of poems about place, travels and cultures: like the third section of The Hazards. But this section, too, seems, like the last, to be dragged towards the subject of the father. The second poem, although seemingly, by its title, about Pikes Peak, a mountain in Rockies, is really about the onset of her father’s illness, a mild stroke experienced while hiking there. The next poem, “Substantia Nigra”, looks at an X-ray or MRI of her father’s brain but it too is, in a sense, a poem about a place: here the centre of a human brain. There are other poems about the father’s travels and planned travels and they continue the sense of the father’s decline as a kind of black hole warping the spacetime of the poetry, forcing itself on to them so that what should have been poems about place and culture are distorted.

The only section which initially seems free of this distortion is the third where Holland-Batt deals with the other distressing aspects of emotional life, especially the failure of relationships. Even here, though, the father makes an appearance – or non-appearance, “Miles away / my father is disappearing” – in the poem “Alaska” where summer in New York and a partner’s story of how his friend’s father took his own life leads the poem to shift to the suicidal spawning run of salmon in the icy rivers of Alaska:

. . . . . 
I turn to you to say I blame them, these fathers
who do not wait to see us grow up
or what we make of their tyrannical love
but you’re silent, already sleeping,
and morning is coming on again, another morning. 

No need to point out the homophonic pun of the repeated word of the final line.

In this third section, although there is less of the intense verbal registration and the extended involved metaphors of other poems in the book, there is still a baroque, over-the-top quality about many of the poems. They aren’t, in other words, stony evocations of personal misery: the poetry is driven by a kind of hyperbolic exuberance. “Instructions for a Lover” is a good example of this playful baroque:

Bring me lemons and mint, a pitcher’s fishbowl
loaded with ice and slices of cucumber,

a Tom Collins in a tumbler, the fizz of it.
Give me sulphur summer heat, tarry sidewalks,

a tired hydrant geysering over the street,
a plane ticket to the Virgin Islands or Madrid . . .

One’s tempted to say that this might be what is asked of a poem rather than a lover but even this playful expansion of desires is constrained by a sharp finish: “and above all, take note of all the things I say – / pull me closer, push me away”. Another poem, “Ode to Cartier” has no such return to practicalities in its conclusion. A celebration of bling – “I want to be decked and set – / smoke rolling from my porte-cigarette, // plush as a leopard’s pelt . . .” – its finish – “let me die in peace // with the silk of a jaguar’s breath / huffing in my ear at dawn” – arrives at the animal of the book’s title, an animal that has gone through various modifications, including appearing as a car (a Jaguar XJ) which the poet’s father buys on impulse as is mind begins to become erratic. “Affidavit” is, like both these poems, a baroque extravagance of desire:

Fly me on a Lear jet to Antibes
          and lay me in state on a sunflower chaise.
Read me the rich list. I want to be chased
          with coconut oil and redacted
behind Jackie O shades . . .

We can also see the attraction to extended developments of hyperbolic metaphor in these poems, the kind of thing I looked at in “My Father as a Giant Koi”. “Parable of the Clubhouse” begins with a metaphor used at the end of a relationship – “When it ended, he said I had never let him in” – and opens this out in the most extended way possible:

. . . . . 
as if I were a country club with a strict dress code
and he’d been waiting outside all those years
without his dinner jacket, staring in
at the gleaming plates of lobster thermidor,
score of waiters in forest green blazers,
and the stout square shoulders of other men
who alternated tweed and seersucker over the seasons . . .

and so on. It brings me back to the issue of metaphor in Holland-Batt’s work, metaphor as something subject to the same intensifying and development as other features. In one of the poems, “On Tiepolo’s Cleopatra” – undoubtedly written with John Forbes’ great poem in mind – she imagines the reclining Cleopatra looking with contempt on the world Mark Antony brings with him:

. . . . . 
this is your idea of wealth, is this all it takes
to woo you, poor rubes, there is a land beyond metaphor
there are luxuries beyond empire’s comprehension – 
and to prove the point, I’ll swallow a pearl.

The notion of a “land beyond metaphor”, conceived as something a little more than saying that riches are a metaphor for true wealth, is an intriguing one from a poet whose use of metaphor is so complex and seemingly driven.

Dominic Symes: I Saw the Best Memes of My Generation; Pam Schindler: Say, a River

I Saw the Best Memes of My Generation (Canberra: Recent Work, 2022, 79pp.)
Say, a River (Port Adelaide: Ginninderra, 2023, 70pp.)

The initial pleasure in connecting these two excellent books derived from what seemed their absolute difference. It was both rewarding and fun to actually read poems from each book alternately and I was tempted to structure what I want to say about them by seeing them as opposite poles of the poetic spectrum: the one being tonally inclined to the wry and in terms of subject matter very much about how we are located in the (comparatively) new digital age; the other, tonally serious and thematically concerned with how we live and interact with the natural world. A little thought showed this to be misguided: there are far more alien outposts in the map of poetry than these: “language” poetry, found, conceptual poetry, the various forms of text-fiddling, multi-authorship poems, and so on. In fact, thinking of as much of contemporary poetry as I know and imagining it as a map or many-cornered geometric shape, these two books would occupy a reasonably central position and might even be able to speak to each another.

Dominic Symes’s I Saw the Best Memes of My Generation is, I think, a little betrayed by its title which suggests a certain facile cleverness. The reality is rather different. True the poems have a wry, often self-deprecating tone but they also worry about things in a serious and moving way. Admittedly some of the things worried about can be worried about in a reasonably comic, shoulder-shrugging way. The first poem, “Algorithm”, for example, is a list of contemporary insecurities, its title, presumably, deriving from the digitally structured way in which, nowadays, our profiles are matched to what is fed to us so that the tailored input we receive shapes us by confirming and strengthening our prejudices: no need to engage in real argument with an opposing case here. The poem begins with a sense of loss of identity when the world doesn’t process us correctly:

stood before an automated door
that refused to acknowledge my existence
I thought
but I’m here . . .

and goes on, through various contemporary angsts, to finish with the fear that one’s previous digital history will create a portrait of the self that will make getting a job tricky:

now I watch the candle
folding in upon itself
anxiously encoding its light
upon the ceiling of my bedroom

while I’m up all night
deleting statuses from when I was 19
in case I ever want to get a job

I like the compressed transition described when the ancient lighting method – the candle – encodes itself on the ceiling. It’s part of a contemporary sense of time being speeded up by the accelerating pace of technological development (something that was predicted, at least in general terms, by the book, Future Shock, now more than half a century old). It produces a sense of premature ageing that many of the poems in this book reflect. Since the gap between twenty and thirty now seems more than it did previously – caused by the nature of technological developments that the former are on top of – it’s no surprise to find a thirty-year old poet looking back to a time – what might previously have been imagined as a golden age in an infinitely distant past – when “time online was / less anxious – not a threat / to national security”, or one didn’t have to apologise for pontificating about love to someone “under 25” as he does in “Machu Picchu”. Time present is “no country for old men”, except that for Yeats being old was being sixty whereas now it is more like being thirty.

“Late Night Thoughts” is a kind of compendium of reasons for a contemporary depression, or, at least, a way of feeling oneself a failure in the contemporary world. It’s a list, imagined as being items seen from the window of a speeding train: “past all the times you said you’d read an article when you’d only read the headline . . . & the loyalty schemes you signed up to only to harbour years of frustration at all the spam . . . every time you nodded confidently in the seminar about Bruno Latour // every Bergman film you lied about enjoying . . .” It finishes by asking “why a train?” to which there are a couple of answers. Firstly because, archaic as trains are, they are a symbol of a sense of life moving quickly, too quickly for calm ratiocination. And secondly, because there is a kind of Australian poetic tradition of seeing train journeys as a symbol of life itself, something going, as in Slessor’s great poem, to unseen destinations, “mysterious ends”.

I Saw the Best Memes . . . is also a book that has a lot to say about the nature of poetry both in its subject matter and in its methods. I’m attracted to the poems formally. Many of them have a satisfying tension between a superficial unity derived from the subject matter and a tendency to pull apart derived from the fact that Symes is a poet who operates in discrete and pithy pieces of observation. This can be seen to good effect in “Scatole Personali”, an extended piece about Rome, where the structure of discrete observations is reflected in the title which (if my reading of the author’s note is accurate) derives from an art exhibition in Rome in which boxes of found objects were laid out on the floor and viewers were encouraged to take things. The method feels a lot like the poetry of Laurie Duggan but the personality behind these observations is rather different. With Duggan one gets a sense of wry but dispassionate observation of aspects of the world and of human cultures revealing themselves in odd and surprising ways. In Symes’s work, I think, the impress of the personality of the author, and especially of the awkwardness of contemporary living, seems stronger. I can’t imagine a Duggan poem beginning, as this one does, with

Rome opens its doors
but is never around
when I choose to stay in

          so in a way
          we miss each other
          but still I get to enjoy
          sifting through cupboards
          & using the free wi-fi . . .

One of my favourite poems in this book is the concluding one, “Nice Things, Artfully Arranged”, which pointedly asks, “how do I go fitting all this in / one poem”, the “all this” being not only meditations about marks and traces – very much material for a poem-poem – but also about the issue of compression and the inevitable fact that poems, the smallest and most ephemeral of the art-products of human creativity, often have the ambitions of containing the largest range of experience. And keeping the poem from being an intellectual exercise is the issue of grief underlying it in the references to his grandmother’s death and wake. It’s an issue and a setting which also occurs in “The Coffee Coffee Drinks” which is built around a necklace given by his grandfather to his grandmother. How can a small “heart-shaped chamber” contain that much love. How can a poem contain that much of the lived lives of the world, let alone the vast non-human expanses of the universe?

Emotion, in the form of underlying grief, is a feature of Pam Schindler’s Say, a River. If the dominant issue of I Saw the Best Memes . . . might be said to be how we live and love in the contemporary world, Say, a River might be said to be about how we respond to the loss of loved ones expressed as an intense engagement with the natural world. It’s a world where digitisation seems to have made no impact and as a result detractors will find it old-fashioned and admirers – in which I include myself – classic and timeless. Just as Dominic Symes’s first poem set the scene for what is to follow, so does Pam Schindler’s:

the flame tree scatters
little silk goblets, Chinese-red
loosed handfuls of scarlet

the storm, passing at a distance,
is a clot of dark gestures,
flung brushstrokes – stilled,
suspended

and the flame-tree scatters
the light red and the dark red
little stemmed cups

and it is a tree scattering itself
against the light
mingling red into its own shade

exclaiming itself
in wet red silk
against the painted light

On the surface, this could be read as a painterly version of the classic “capture” mode, obsessed with getting the exact colour of the flame-trees’ spectacular blossoms “down” in words. But the context of the other poems, which often deal with loss, makes one rethink the scene. That passing storm with its “clot of dark gestures” that looks originally like a visual contrast to the “Chinese red” of the blossoms, also wants to be read as the darker background which in other poems is overt grieving. In other words, the natural world where most of these poems are set, bears a responsibility to reflect human emotional life, not in a one-to-one “pathetic fallacy” way, but in one much subtler where the balance between the inner world and the outer, “natural” one is constantly explored. A poem later in the book, “Fig-tree / Fig-bird” might well be, fairly covertly, about this issue. The two – tree and bird – are so intimate and similar that it almost seems as though the fig-tree had produced the birds as an expression of itself. It’s tempting to read the relationship as that between the natural and the human world and this might be supported by the end of the poem:

 . . . . .
in its dark foliage
wings speak to leaves,
to hands – who is it
sings in this tree?

I think I am the sand’s familiar
how it shapes feet for walking
for printing its skin

The question of whether the bird is singing, or the tree is singing through the bird can be read as asking whether the natural world forms us or we simply express ourselves and our griefs and excitements with the natural world as a background. And the way the same issue is transferred out of metaphor in the last three lines supports this.

Loss – more frequent in these poems than excitement – interacts with the world in intriguing ways. A really fine poem, “The Leaving”, shows how well the “outside” world can be deployed in an elegy. It begins with a walk towards the water with carefully observed details that prevent the allegorical nature of what is going on dragging the poem towards vagueness:

your brother with you as you walk
down to where the air goes fuzzy with salt
and a boat carves the green bay,
a cormorant on every channel-marker

you sing him a hymn from childhood
the sand braided with the tide
jellyfish like heavy-petalled glass flowers
sea eagles rafting the wind . . .

The “walk towards the water” is, of course, the walk towards death and so at the end, “it is suddenly too deep / and he goes on without you”. Although it is a standard trope (think of Paul Dombey or Tennyson putting out to sea) the quality of this poem lies in its precision about a natural world which generally has to serve as an allegorical image. The idea of the ocean as one’s death is also used in another intriguing poem, “Or This Way”, written as an answer to a short poem by Anne Kellas, and configuring death not as a plunge into the deeps but as a quiet retreat into the familiar shallow waters of a bay:

 . . . . .
I will head out across the shallows
the flat shelving seabed
ankle-deep, dappled with sun

and flatten myself like a stingray
into a resting hollow
and pull up the sand like a sheet . . .

As a counterbalance for the tendency of poems about the natural world to inhabit only a very small and precisely rendered portion of that world, there are also poems in this book that deal with more exotic locations. In fact the last of the book’s three sections might well be read as different ways in which poems can inhabit a wider world. And this doesn’t only happen because they are set in places like Iona or Assisi but because sometimes they deal with ethical issues – “Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones)” is about the German art-project which involves placing plaques in the pavements where Jewish victims of Nazism lived. One of the last poems of the book, “As if, Curlews”, describes the birds which leave Queensland in autumn to fly to Russia for the northern breeding season. The poem ends by imagining the riches of the northern spring – “the insect burgeoning // as if only such plenty / could feed such flight”. It may be fanciful, but I want to read this as an expression of poetry’s pull towards wider vistas, something that will be in opposition to the intense focus on the local that Schindler’s treatment of the natural world – as in the first poem, say – involves.

To try to bring these very different books together by way of some sort of conclusion, I note that the final word of I Saw the Best Memes . . . is “trace”, a word pregnant with contemporary (well, fairly contemporary) significance. There are traces in Say, a River too and Schindler is very sensitive to the worn signs that populate parts of the natural world she is exploring. “The Old Track Signs: Little Lake Valley” is, as the title says, about the old sign cut out to name the place and expressing the hope that words in a poem might be left in a similar way to commemorate a death. And “The Old Track Signs: Lake Holmes” describes in detail how the words “Lake Holmes”- “two English words” – are carved in “frayed silver wood”. It’s an example of a trace but one that is, temporally speaking, very shallow. As the poem says;

 . . . to know its old name
is beyond our listening 

and before that? a presence
of darkness and silver, nameless
dip in the moraine,  
a pool for the wind’s shaping.

Peter D. Mathews: From Poet to Novelist: The Orphic Journey of John A. Scott

Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria, 2022, 242pp.

One of the defining motifs of John A. Scott’s poetry and prose is the recurrent notion of an underground lying beneath the surfaces we are accustomed to treading on. It is the source of his interest in the myth of Orpheus – who ventures into one version of that underground in search of Eurydice – and the complex notions of creativity and death which, following Rilke and the late nineteenth century French poets, he teases out and deploys. There are many other undergrounds from the sewers of Paris in Before I Wake to the network of tunnels which underlie the reality of the events of N and connect distant times and places as well as distant and dissonant voices. The imperative for poor Telford in N is expressed by the sinister Esther Cole when she tells him that, if he is to uncover how her husband died, he will have to “dig deeper . . . not just for my sake but for yours”. Digging deeper is also the imperative that lies behind good criticism, differentiating it from material that considers that its task is, Petronius-like, to separate “good” from “bad”, and from material that thinks that its main function is to bolt a specific, contemporary interest onto a defenceless text and see how it matches up. Peter D. Mathews’ book, From Poet to Novelist, is an example of good criticism in that it sees its function to be to tease out what the underlying generative structures in Scott’s work are. It’s not an easy task since Scott’s books are, for all their superficial attractivenesses, immensely complex in construction.

Although structured as a chronological survey of Scott’s books, From Poet to Novelist: The Orphic Journey of John A. Scott, has, as its full title suggests, an interest in framing how that chronology can be approached. In fact the book as a whole is sensitive to the balance between the extraordinary thematic and methodological unity underlying Scott’s work and the diachronic perspectives that are sensitive to developments and changes. As such it embodies a tension underlying much good criticism: on the one hand there is the desire to trace developments and changes and on the other, the desire to find underlying, everpresent generative obsessions. The major change that the book concerns itself with is Scott’s “abandonment” of poetry for fiction. The “death of the poet” is something the book is especially attracted to and its overriding Orphic notion of death, dismemberment and rebirth nicely deals with the fact that Scott’s most recent book, Shorter Lives, is, generically, a poetry book, despite its prose poems and prose sections.

A number of things are clear from Mathew’s investigations of these seven books of poetry and six novels. The first is that the literary cast of their author’s mind owes most to the literature of nineteenth century France not only in the frequent references to the poetry and prose of that period but in its themes: the nature of desire and its complex forms inside human lives, the nature of art and the principles on which it operates and by which works “of art” are generated, and so on. Secondly, there is a remarkable unity in Scott’s work, despite the radical differences in tone: the term “livre compose” is used and in Scott’s case it is accurate. Remarkably different as the books are – compare the high campus comedy of Blair, for example, with the fraught intensity of The Architect – they share underlying themes and generative procedures: their unity is well beyond the obvious one of having been written by the same person. Thirdly, there are three crucial texts for making sense of what Scott’s “project” (to employ an overused term) is: “A Stitching of Water: Notes Towards a Poetic” of 1993, “Towards a Scriptural Realism” of 1996, and Scott’s doctoral thesis of 1997, “Approaching Coherence: Reflections on a Writing Practice”. As Mathews says:

The eventual development of the notion of “scriptural realism” derives from two key objectives. First, Scott reveals that “for the majority of my writing life I have sought to produce texts with an ethical trajectory, whilst still declaring the methods and processes of their construction”. This imperative partly explains why Scott has little interest in replicating the experimental approach of Robbe-Grillet. “My books seek no claim on this ‘authentic real,’” writes Scott, “yet their enquiry into human behaviour places them at odds with texts of zero readability. . . . . . Scott’s vision of “scriptural realism” thus eschews the false opposition between experimental and realist writing, innovatively deploying characteristics of both approaches . . .

This seems to go to the heart of the poetic and novelistic issues that Scott is dealing with. There is a perceived opposition between, on the one hand, the realist novel with its ability to look intensively at human behaviour, especially the ethics of human behaviour, while, at the same time, deploying plot devices that ensure that we keep turning the pages and, on the other, those experimental methods – the nouveau roman and the productions of the Oulipo, for example – which are capable of pulling the veil aside from the illusion of reality that realistic fiction deploys in the interests of a more honest vision of what a text is and what the author’s role as generator of that text is. Scott’s “scriptural realism” is really an intelligent compromise which – and this is where the genius lies – gets the best of both worlds. Scott’s fictions are built out of complex narrative devices – including unacknowledged quotation, superimposition of texts and their significances, phonetic translation, distortions of existing texts, to name only a few – which are not entirely hidden and can be found by readers prepared to dig beneath the surface of the text: Mathews makes much, in his analysis of Before I Wake, of the way in which a hyper-realistic portrayal of Parisian streets and restaurants is deliberately undermined by a single temporal impossibility. But Scott’s work is also immensely pleasurable at the superficial level.

A good example of both the underlying methodology and Mathew’s careful exposure of it might be found in the chapter devoted to Warra Warra. This novel has always seemed something of an outlier in Scott’s work in that its surface seems to mimic the genre of the popular ghost story. I think admirers of Scott’s poems and novels have always felt a little uncomfortable with it. Blair, another novel mimicking a popular genre, has enough brilliant prose at its surface to be attractive on that level and “Preface”, the finest of Scott’s pre-novel, long poems balances features of the “uncanny” genre of fiction with a surprising and unexpected amount of humour, especially in the letters in which Carl ventures into the London popular music scene.

A superficial reading of Warra Warra might see it as little more than an expansion of a clever idea. A commercial aeroplane explodes over a rural town in New South Wales but the spirits of the dead passengers begin to appear to haunt the inhabitants. Thus it plays on the notion that Australia’s inhabitants saw the newly arrived English colonisers as ghosts of their own departed. The ghosts become increasingly dangerous and, after wreaking violent havoc on the townspeople, eventually set up their own community, replicating the cosy English houses and gardens they have left behind and thus beginning to take over the land and impose their own culture. If Warra Warra were no more than this it might also be no more than its unfavourable initial reviews saw it as: a popularly written book in a popular genre with a clever idea as its starting point but with the fundamental problem (noted in a review by Ken Gelder) that the inhabitants of the town visited by the ghosts are not indigenous Australians but white Australians, only a few generations earlier than the ghosts who descend on them, despite the fact that the town itself and its major protagonist, Bill Pemmell, have names that relate to indigenous resistance. Beginning with two more sophisticated responses by David Mesher and Suzie Cardwell, Mathew’s chapter takes us into these issues in a subtler way, one more worthy of the book’s author. Mesher makes a connection with Laurie Duggan’s book on the visual culture of Australia, Ghost Nation, and its idea of “ghost” as not being “a shadow of something which is dead, but in a visual sense of images which ghost each other”. Scott, in “Approaching Coherence”, describes his method of “stitching” together existing texts as “not a characteristically postmodern adaptation of collage (Schwitters) or photomontage (Heartfield) but rather a form of combination printing (Henry Peach Robinson). As Mathews comments:

Warra Warra, then, is not only a ghost story, as its subtitle announces, but a “ghosted” story, a narrative that is created by the repeated layering of ideas and references that appear to operate on a single, interrelated textual plane.

Warra Warra declares itself to be more than a good idea expanded into a pastiche of a genre of popular fiction in many ways. One is in the context of Scott’s work, where it is part of a development whereby internal workings of desire, abuse and guilt are slowly moved to a national level, something made increasingly possible by moving from the fragmented forms of the poems to the longer, discursive possibilities of the novel. There is a lot about the Algerian dead in Paris in Before I Wake, and The Architect (whose core text is the The Book of Job) is, at least in part, about postwar Germany and its relationship with its Nazi past (as well as being, according to Mathews about “the dangerous susceptibility of the Australian mindset to the seductions of authoritarianism”). Warra Warra concerns itself with Australia’s colonial heritage not as something from the past but as something layered, photographically, onto the present. Warra Warra has echoes of the books that precede and follow it, radically different though they are. The Architect is about a devastating betrayal that the elderly German architect commits on his innocent Australian admirer: like The Book of Job, of which it is a kind of avatar, the betrayal is a horror that comes “out of the blue”. Warra Warra begins (after some throat-clearing scenes which establish the community of the town) with a brilliant narration of the remains of an exploded passenger plane crashing down out of the sky on the township. The Architect has, near the end, an apocalyptic scene in which Von Ruhland re-enacts God’s address to Job from the whirlwind: Warra Warra begins with an equally apocalyptic one. And N, the next novel, it should be remembered, contains, early on, the bombing of Darwin, again, fire from the sky. The Book of Job is also recalled in Warra Warra when the priest, O’Phelan, finds his bible opened at the page in which Eliphaz describes a vision arriving “at the hour when dreams master the mind and slumber lies heavy on man . . .” O’Phelan’s desperate attempt to cobble together an exorcism from random texts that he barely understands as well as popular texts like the novel, The Exorcist, which became a popular film, is, by the way, a semi-comic version of Scott’s own method of stitching texts together and a reminder that there are faux-poets in many of Scott’s works, especially Blair.

Mathews devotes some space in his chapter on Warra Warra to dealing with the book’s problematic conclusion in which the ghosts decide to leave aboard a paper ark and descend into one of Scott’s flooded cities. It’s a puzzling conclusion, slightly reminiscent of the final, “Exodus” section of Rodney Hall’s Just Relations, which might act as a reference text for the book although its hyperbolic, “magical realist”, style is a long way from the cooler, realistic prose of Warra Warra. As Mathew’s points out, we can hardly expect a triumphant conclusion to a vast problem such as Australia’s colonial heritage anymore than we could expect The Architect to solve Germany’s postwar problem with its Nazi past. It is an issue which has puzzled me since I first read the book and I’m impressed by Mathew’s approach which is to take the reader back to the individual issues of desire and guilt. In summary, he convincingly sees the book’s conclusion as being about fulfilled desire and the restlessness this produces:

The ghosts are caught in a pernicious cycle of nostalgia for their English homeland that brings them no actual satisfaction. The paradise they have created is entirely superficial, an external performance that becomes more empty with each reenactment. . . . Repetition thus functions as a form of emotional entropy that turns paradise into its opposite . . . . .This crucial theme of repetition, of returning to the past, drives the downward journey of the ghosts to the flooded city of Cudgegong . . . a descent into a watery underworld that releases them from a “power which for so long had held them in this state of neither life nor death relinquishing its grip”.

It’s a convincing solution and derives from extended engagement with the text, something not available to most time-pressed reviewers of novels. It certainly makes sense even if it makes our initial readings of the book embarrassingly superficial. The idea of “ghosting” as simultaneously a textual and anthropological practice is valuable though Warra Warra is not a one-dimensional parable/allegory about Australia’s dispossession of, and cruelty towards, its indigenous inhabitants. Rather it is a book (surreal ending and all) in which various allegorical possibilities lie over the top of the narrative. One of these, by far the most important, is the record of Pemulwuy’s war of resistance, but there are others. The novel begins with fire from the heavens and ends with a flood of sorts (at least a protracted spell of rain), a character called “Noah” Thompson is building the ark which eventually is mocked up into a version of the aeroplane that the ghosts “arrived” in so that biblical apocalypticism also overlies the narrative. And perhaps Mathews is right in seeing how important the theme of satisfied desire is in the experience of the ghosts, raising once again the theme of the inauthenticity of white Australian culture which was a major issue as early as the 1930s.

Thus Warra Warra, unsurprisingly, turns out to be an infinitely more complex text than early reviewers picked up. My widow’s mite in its interpretation involves the luring of the ghosts into the ark. It can only be done by recreating their original boarding of the aircraft with the ghostly flight attendant calling out instructions. This reminds me of Bunuel’s film, The Exterminating Angel (whose title alone resonates with almost all of Scott’s work). In the film a group of middle class citizens are trapped inside a house by a mysterious force. They eventually realise that the only method of escaping is to recreate the exact situation before the entrapment began. And it works.

My only lasting reservation about Warra Warra comes from its realist, popular fiction, mode. Usually Scott’s texts are coruscating and brilliant on the surface but Warra Warra’s surface prose is that fairly dreary narrative style that Australian novelists seem to fall into when they set their plot in a rural community. One of the passages that Mathews quotes, part of the character-establishing scenes of the novel’s opening, will show what I mean:

Jack Elliott and Ron Aitken sat opposite each other at a free-standing table within easy reach of the bar. It was the same table they had occupied from the days when they’d returned, each on his separate journey, one from the cement works, the other from the abattoir, up to thirty years before. The table notched along two sides with burns from Ron Aitken’s forgotten cigarettes. . . 

Scott is a brilliant stylist and this can only be a parody of the flat prose of Australian rural narrative, down to the carefully chosen neutral names for the two men. But it forms the bulk of what readers experience when approaching the novel and is one instance where I have always felt that the “benign realist” surface is unattractive and too dun-coloured.

To leave Warra Warra as a critical test-case and return to Mathew’s excellent book, it’s extraordinary how much lies below the surface in Scott’s works. There are references, teased out here, which I have never seen: the origin of the repeated theme of letters that one character passes on to another to read in order to determine whether they would have been “bearable” has a passage of Derrida as its source (or perhaps merely as a text that chimes with it). David Brooks reflects what will be a common experience for admirers of Scott’s work when he says on the book’s cover, “There are a great many ideas and details, which had not occurred to me or that I had not yet discovered . . .” So many, in fact, that one feels, after reading Mathew’s book, that it really might be no more than a primer, encouraging readers to dig deeper and more carefully, rather than being exhaustive. In fact, in Scott’s case, criticism might play an unusual role. Different writers hope for, and get, different things from criticism (ie another’s careful and sympathetic reading of their work) and in Scott’s case, I’ve often wondered what criticism can give him. There will be little that readers like Mathews or Brooks or myself can tell him that is new and we are, in a way, doomed to labour in territory that he knows intimately: we are unlikely to be able to offer any intriguing new perspectives to this particular author. To use one of his references in N, we will wander in amazement through the complex structures of his work knowing that we can only follow in his footsteps; like Professor Lidenbrock in Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth who, exciting adventures and discoveries notwithstanding, is always only ever following in the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm.

Sarah Day: Slack Tide

World Square, NSW: Pitt Street Poetry, 2022, 109pp.

Sarah Day’s new book begins with a prose quotation which explains its title. One might think that the moments between outgoing and ingoing tide barely need definition but the passage, in pointing out that though the water surface may appear placid, there are likely to be important and often conflicting currents running underneath, fits Day’s poetry so perfectly that you can see why it was included. Day has always been a poet sensitive to the complex phenomenon that might be called “what lies beneath” and the way in which this interacts with what lies on top. The title poem of her first book, A Hunger to be Less Serious, is a description of traffic being halted at a canal bridge which opens to let a boat pass through. It’s an emblematic scene that is rich with allegorisable possibilities: the drivers and passengers leave their cars to watch the boat pass serenely at eye-level, “carrying on board a gleaming catch / of strayed dreams and wish-fulfilments”, for example. But it is also a scene in which the drivers imagine driving onto the bridge as it opens and then crashing into the water: “The water-surface puckers with the quick current, / underneath, the grey deepens steeply; / its effect is sobering, satisfying”. A memorable poem from a later book, The Ship, describes a town suffering from the subsidence caused by centuries of mining so that when a house is sinking, its occupier “took it as given that a far distant / farmhouse had risen to view from an upstairs window”. Here the cumulative misery of the mining life of the past is what “lies beneath”, as the poem says, “far, far below on thought’s periphery”.

One could cite dozens of such symbolic situations in the poems of her eight previous books and there are plenty of them in Slack Tide. There is the title poem, for example, describing the experience of entering mud at the side of a flooded causeway at night, stepping “from the blackness / of air into blackness of water”. The world that the daylight-living, air-breathing protagonists enter is one with its own history, its own confidence, and one whose inhabitants have their own integrity:

. . . . . 
         The familiar is strange
as an underwater garden in lamplight,
an arrangement of star-struck shrubs
and tiny trees, idealised metropolis
for a myriad fish for whom the enchanting
is quite normal – neither are they troubled 
by our turbid wake. . . 

“Ouse” describes the profoundly powerful tides of The Wash in East Anglia and “Undertow” – the poem which follows it – the experience of being controlled by the contrary forces under the water. And a later poem, “The Mud Layer”, operating at a less forbidding, faintly comical, perspective, describes a mother swan attempting by example to convince her ducklings that the underwater world, the world of mud, is rich in nutrient possibilities. The chicks prefer the world above where they can “scud freely / and right way up, across mirrored clarity // of liquid blue sky, cumulous, green shoots of rushes, / and the flawless reflection of their blithe unruffled selves”. It might be a little allegory about the frustration of parents with their children’s generation but if that were the case it would be contradicted (or balanced) by an earlier poem, “School Strike for Climate”, in which the generation of the ducklings is the one that might actually achieve something in the fight against climate denial. More likely, I think, is that the allegory of the swan is to be read as demanding attention to the richness of the world beneath. In “Ouse”, after all, the tidal flood brings renewal and is likened to breath which, in the form of oxygen, reinvigorates the blood.

To step back from individual poems for a moment and look at this oft repeated scenario in Day’s work, we might say that the world above symbolises the everyday, sometimes the trivial, but always a human perspective – for better or worse. The world beneath reflects larger processes, inexorable, often dangerous to humans, but also capable of being benevolent. Like the currents of “Undertow”, though, they can’t be fought against, only yielded to. These wider processes need not be cosmic or geological – though they often are. They can also be human-based activity on a large scale. Day’s previous book, Towards Light, engaged with this because it was, as its title suggests, very much concerned with contrasting the light with the dark. There, one of the forms that the dark took was her mother’s mental decline and death and the title poem seemed more hopeful than demonstratively positive. A longish sequence in Slack Tide, “Kissing the Cobra”, has a similar, rather bleakly positive ending after a tour through contemporary misinformation and ecological stupidity:

. . . . .
Even the night birds are silent.
Red Mars hangs in the lens of the telescope
its extant life an augury of what we might become.

Will the little birds, the silver-eyes
and wattlebirds, the honeybees
all recall we left out bowls of water for them?

The opposition of the brief flicker of the humane positive against the darker backdrop of human stupidity and destructiveness (what a poem by the Queensland poet, David Rowbotham, described as licking honey from a thorn) is a common theme in Day’s work. Early on in Slack Tide we meet the crescent honeyeater going about extracting nectar:

. . . . . 
For a moment, a second really,
the relentless statistics
on the day’s news
blur behind the intimacy
of the beating wings, the tiny flower
relinquishing its sweetness
to the busy tongue.

And the book’s final poems, “In the Air” and “Voyager I” both take human creativity in the form of song as the expression of honey. In the former, listening to something written in Naples in the early seventeenth century – a time as violent as our own but perhaps less endangered – is a reminder that, in a context of “the plundering of rivers, // removal of trees, forests, farmland, / the poisoning of long sleeping aquifers”, some notes on a score might represent “a compassionate moment”. In the latter, the little disc containing the Bach concerto and “ancient songs of Arnhem Land” eternally travelling through interstellar space, may be the only survivor of the entire human race – its good and bad.

“Aldinga Cliffs, South Australia” is an extended poem built around the interaction between large, generally destructive, processes and momentary but positive flickers of light. It begins with a faux-naif but very significant line, “There’s no getting away from things”, and goes on to describe a visit to a site where monarch butterflies can be seen mating. The journey is full of two of the powerful processes. First there is geological activity evident in the cliffs with their “pebble threads to denote other epochs / of Earth events” but also in the beach shingle which has seen millions of years wear away at stone to produce pebbles “suffused with coloured hieroglyphs”. Secondly there is the equally remorseless process of human carelessness and stupidity so that you have to try consciously to

. . . . . 
                                    not notice
it is sea spurge and invasive weeds that are
their lover’s beds in the cove in the cliff
and that the cliffs themselves
are being eaten away by the ocean and wind and rain,
by runnels and rivers that have not soaked into earth
because the land for miles has been razed of its trees
and scrub and native grasses, and overgrazed
so that topsoil has followed rainwater down to the sea. . .

Balanced against these two processes are the butterflies, endowed with wings that look like the stained-glass windows of a church – short-lived expressions of hope and beauty like a honeyeater or a seventeenth century Neapolitan song.

There are poems in Slack Tide which, rather than balancing dark with light, inexorable processes with moments of illumination, prefer to deal with the processes themselves. In the case of geological and cosmic time, the issue of perspective becomes significant. In “Solace”, concentrating on the moon helps to steady the mind since in that larger perspective, “we might almost / think our great mistakes / inscribed onto land, / atmosphere, ocean, / were minor, trifling”. And “Long Clock” celebrates Danny Hillis’s complex project of building a clock that will record not human but geological time. Another of the larger processes underlying our existence is the inevitability of loss, those things that are devoured by – in Aubrey’s phrase – “the teeth of time”. One sequence, “Standish”, describes what is, in effect, the loss of one of the poet’s grandmothers, not to age and time but to incarceration in a now-destroyed English mental institution while “One Thing and Another” – a nicely judged title that uses the same shoulder-shrugging cliché as the opening line of the Aldinga Cliffs poem – details the slow but steady diminution of her father’s previously active life.

Slack Tide is, in some ways, a more outwardly looking book than Day’s earlier ones but only slightly so and only in specific ways. The themes have always been present but here there is a touch more anger and frustration and a slightly more pointed preparedness to name and shame when possible. Moving into a more public sphere involves problems for a poet where the great poetic resource of suggestiveness might have to be put aside for more direct statement. One of the techniques that poets use in this situation is allegory and Slack Tide is full of allegorical scenarios. The book’s very first poem, “Transhumance”, deals with the Covid pandemic. It’s method of preventing it’s resulting in no more than journalistic recording, is to imagine the spread of the disease to be like the spread of human populations and then write the poem from the point of view of one of these metaphorical humans:

It happened more quickly
than anyone might have expected,
we were unsure whether
we were shifting from mountain
to plain or low ground to high.
There were false starts,
many reluctant to leave
the familiar old terrain.
Then suddenly we were all
on the move in both hemispheres
and in every continent. . . 

In a similar way, “Ivy” looks carefully at that omnipresent species of semi-parasitical plant and sees it as an allegory of capitalism at its most exploitative extreme:

. . . . . 
The imposter that is the familiar
thrives on all six continents,
has founded a lush new social order.
It knows neither diplomacy nor democracy,
only how to look after itself.
Exploiter of space and sunshine,
expansionist over earth and root,
seeker of fissures in soundness,
it is impervious ro bramble thorn
and claw. . .

Allegory involves readers in some interpretive work but compensates them with the pleasure of having “worked it out”: it’s probably significant that the little poem about the honeyeater is called “gnomic”. But allegory isn’t always as simple as in “Ivy” and “Transhumance”. “Whipsnake” describes how the poet’s companion, in a normal, humane gesture helps a small snake climb out of a dangerously hot sand dune by building a little ladder of “driftwood // and dried seaweed”. But the poem finishes by suggesting (I think) that innocent actions might assist what are, ultimately, evil processes:

. . . . . 
The snake seems to understand your intent
finding refuge at least in the ribbon of shade.

It is black, venomous
as cruel actions born of old sorrows.

You turn without waiting to walk along the beach,
your gesture light as innocence.

A poem from Towards Light, a villanelle called “Sea Ice”, takes us towards the farther end of allegory where simple certainties of interpretation no longer exist. On the surface (!), it is a poem about how the sea ice breaks up into smaller floes but two elements make me want to read it allegorically. The first is one of context: the book in which it occurs includes a later series of poems detailing the slow disintegration of the poet’s mother’s mind. The second is the use of the word “self”:

. . . . . 
Frazil ice is granular and lacks
a crust: the heft and turbulence below
stirs up a slush; the solid mass reacts

as now the waterline, like wax,
recedes, yields up the pieces of the self below.
The slowly setting sun lights up the cracks. . . 

It could be no more than another poem about the way in which the forces below the surface disturb and eventually destroy the world above, but it’s tempting to read it as an allegory of the way in which the disintegration of the mind in dementia reveals the self in fragments.

At any event it is worth thinking about the technique of allegory as a way of allowing poetry to face brutal realities (what Yeats described as poetry’s “responsibilities”) without being mealy-mouthed or merely rhetorical and without sacrificing all of poetry’s immense capabilities of widening perceptions and making suggestive connections. Allegory is a trope and so it is, in essence, about a surface meaning and a deeper meaning and in this it mimics the idea of a world above and a world below. Given how much the relation between the above and the below is an important part of Day’s view of the world, there’s an attractive consistency in deploying (even if not in all the poems) a technique which adopts this at a hermeneutic level.

Peter Bakowski: Our Ways on Earth

Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2022, 73pp.

Contemporary poetry, at least for the last two centuries, has often been accused of obscurity and difficulty. True, this may be a result of woolly thinking or bad writing, but it can also come from a desire to push into unknown territories: territories of language, of the inside of human minds and emotions, and, more recently, of texts themselves. It’s rare to find a poet who is simultaneously comprehensible at a single reading and also poetically and thematically sophisticated. Peter Bakowski has always seemed someone with his hand in the air offering to step into this breach. And there is nothing accidental or unconscious about this. Many of his poems have statements to make about both the function and mechanisms of his poetry. “Fire, fire, in the mouth of many things”, the first poem of his second book, In the Human Night, uses images bordering on the surrealist to require a transformative power for poetry:

I want your poem to
turn my train ticket into a canary,
I want your poem to be like
a gunshot in a convent,
I want your poem to cure
the forlorn man who can’t see any further 
than the horizon of his beer,
I want your poem to 
turn his eyebrows into ants
that will bring him a tambourine . . .

Of course this is distanced in a way that something beginning “I want my poems to . . .” would not be, but I’m sure it is designed to be read as an expression of a desired power for poetry rather than, say, as a pastiche of a rejection slip by an over-excited editor, or the encouraging remarks of a fellow-poet.

By the time we reach this most recent book, the opening poem has become “Driving Instructions” conceived as an extended metaphor whereby writing a poem is imagined to be analogous to driving:

Start the poem with a verb,
release the handbrake that’s a comma,
but slow for the intersection of two thoughts
.  . . . .
Upon reaching the destination, try to accept that it may not be
the destination which you had in mind,
but that’s poetry for you.
Check that your licence for it
hasn’t expired.

And between these two there are a host of poems speaking about what he wants his poetry to do, about the effect of reading other poets and where poetry stands (perhaps shakily) in what is really a fully-expressed humanist vision. Running throughout the books are a series of self-portraits, a sub-section of the portrait poems that I’ll speak about in a moment. One of the first of these, “Self-portrait in East Melbourne Flat, 22 June 1994” from In the Human Night finishes:

. . . . . 
In the meantime there are
more poems to write.
I like to try to put
a small truth in each one.
Say, about the size
of a mouse or a matchbox.

And in the same book is a poem for Charles Bukowski – another writer of “say it simply like it is” poems and a poet with probably the same Slavic surname as Bakowski – which says:

. . . . . 
You’ve taught me
to be lean in the poem,
to say the thing
directly,
the way the hammer
says things
to the nail. . .

You can detect the slight scent of a danger here in that the plain-speaking model often derives its strength from the intensity of experience and sometimes that experience is based on a fantasy of a kind of pared-down, vagabond, hard-drinking, peripatetic life that is generically American, not Australian. No doubt this has its origins in the Depression but a century later it seems a distinctly American fantasy. In another country an equivalent fantasy might be of staying in one’s village, growing gracefully old, smiling at one’s grandchildren and killing pigs. And, as readers of this site will know, I don’t like the idea that these fantasise are transferable across cultures, even if they come from a country which has had, especially in the last seventy-five years, an overwhelming influence on our popular culture. Bakowski writes a number of poems on this theme, crediting the model of the Americans as something that, in his earlier life, encouraged him to travel, virtually penniless, and thus escape the dreariness of factory work. But as the books have gone on, this model has rather faded and the poet of the later books is one who has his own view of poetry, people and places and doesn’t attempt to tap into a foreign fantasy.

I described Bakowski’s stance as humanist and it’s a comment that deserves both expanding and defending. The core of it involves focus: that four-centuries-old shift away from cosmic and god-based perspectives to a human position. “Man as the measure of all things” doesn’t mean the abandonment of the transcendental but rather the notion that the human is the standpoint from which perspectives can move out into cosmic proportions or down into sub-atomic ones. There is very little of God or the cosmos in Bakowski, or, for that matter, of quantum mechanics. A “human” perspective is also, though, a double one: it involves looking into the mystery of the self but at the same time it involves looking at the mysteries of one’s fellow humans. There is nothing, in other words, necessarily narcissistic about the perspective that replaced the God-centred one of the high European middle-ages: plumbing the characteristics of one’s fellows can be as daunting as speculating about the attributes of the deity. As another of Bakowski’s self-portraits, “Self-Portrait with Beliefs, 19 October 1997”, says:

. . . . . 
I’m trying to write about
what it is like
to be
a human being,
but without fail,
each one I encounter
causes me
to tear up
my latest definition. . .

It’s difficult for a critic not to move into a classificatory approach when faced with the substantial number of poems contained in Bakowski’s books. Perhaps the most important category are the portraits but it’s a category that you have immediately to subdivide. There are the self-portraits, the portraits of the creative greats (and less greats), fictional portraits, and the portraits of fellow citizens. This last group, and the author’s benevolent stance towards them, is well introduced by an early poem:

. . . . .
The streets, of course
are full of poems,
rushing off to work,
fretting at each kerb,
waiting for the hiccup
of each cursed traffic-light. . . .

This poem, “The Dictionary is Just a Beautiful Menu” adopts a tone of note-to-self – “Tsk at their velocity / and bad taste in footwear, / but write of your love for them still, / write of your love for them still. / Undress them carefully . . .” – but the opening poem of Personal Weather, looking at a similar scene of “City workers during morning rush hour”, is less self-admonitory and more aspirational:

. . . . . 
There’s the story of each person, on the trains, trams and street corners.
How vulnerable you are, how strong you are. I want to reveal your
Essence via the camera of this poem, as you swarm and 
Rush in the business district, glancing at your wristwatches.

There are a number of these “portraits of ordinary people” in this most recent book and they all show a sensitive non-judgementalism and a blessed freedom from the various currently available ideologies. “Backwater Song” describes a potentially fraught situation in which a man’s partner has abandoned him and his meetings with an overweight sheriff who had slept with her. Both are profoundly unhappy and ill=placed men carrying a lot of bad things with them, but the poem focusses on the slow growth of their relationship:

. . . . .
This year Floyd and I have gone forwards - 
talk about favourite baseball pitchers and Dixieland tunes,
how both of us don’t always like to study ourselves in the mirror
first thing in the morning . . .

“Isolated Cottage off Gelantipy Road” also describes a relationship between two men who are a fair way down the social ladder but is is rather different in that it doesn’t suggest that there are any dark waters flowing underneath. Whereas there might have been symbolic significance in the fact that the men of “Backwater Song” at the end of the poem are playing chess, there isn’t the same symbolic potential at the end of this poem where at Christmas the two friends share lamb chops: “raw for Thommo, well-grilled for Ron”.

The ”creative” portraits of Our Ways on Earth include Joseph Cornell (the maker of box collages), Caetano Veloso (the Brazilian singer/activist) and Syd Barrett as well as an opening group of Lucian Freud, Philip Larkin and Graham Greene. None of these are of the titanic dimensions of the subjects of the odes of Beaver’s Odes and Days, but a reader is always interested in whether a poet like Bakowski is responding to similarities or exploring differences. The Freud-Larkin-Greene group focusses on the relationships between artists and people and thus investigates the issues involved in the act of portraiture itself: both technical and moral. The Freud poem, for example, looks at Freud’s confronting treatment of his subjects, a kind of extreme portraiture that can be damaging to both subject and artist. The Larkin poem catches him in the middle of a letter to Monica, also concerned about “injuring the recipient” as well as conveying himself as a writer who is “selfish, unfaithful, dutiful, supportive, morbid, witty”. And finally, Greene is seen in his character of traveller and visitor, something which makes a reader think not only of Bakowski’s portraiture but also of his own travels. Greene is described as melting into a foreign (Asian) city, picking up its method of operating while learning to “blend into an arcade’s protective shadow / or move surely through a barrage of peddlers”. The blending, though, involves dissolving one’s self and so it’s possible to read this poem as an exploration of the way in which the art of portraiture (which is, after all, no more than one of the attempts to understand something which is different) requires a loss of the self.

These various portrait types are only one of the kinds of poems that Bakowski produces and, as I’ve suggested, they are a complex enough group in themselves. I haven’t, for example, spoken about poems from earlier books which are titled as portraits but are of fictional characters: “Portrait of Edith Murtone: Fiction Writer”, for example, from Personal Weather or “Portrait of Leonard Drysdale, District Sales Manager, Birmingham, England, 1946” from Beneath Our Armour. And then there are those which have a first person point of view as opposed to those in the third person. One of the new developments in Our Ways on Earth is a series of poems spaced throughout the latter part of the book dedicated to the lives of a (presumably fictional) family. Whether these are portraits – they don’t announce themselves as such – or simply narrative character studies is a moot point but it’s a reminder of the way portraiture can overcome its status as a single penetrating snap-shot and move into something closer to continuous narrative.

But any catalogue of the types of poem which Bakowski writes would be very limited if it only dealt with portraits. He has a nice line in very short – often two-line – pieces which can be images or just witticisms. One, in this new book, called “Beneficiary” – “Far below the hairpin bend / a fox drinks rainwater / from an upturned hubcap” – nicely, with the help of its title, suggests how the human disaster of a crash can be reinterpreted in the natural world as something valuable. It demonstrates a sharp eye. Another of these, “At the Dentist” – “You may find out / that not every tooth likes its neighbour”- is what I have called a witticism and when these kind of ideas are gathered together you get another category of Bakowski poem. They could be called “list poems” I suppose and can be found in many of the earlier books: “Times for Drinking Tea in China” from Beneath Our Armour is one such poem: “When you’ve bargained well at the market // When you’ve cleared stones from a field . . .”. In Our Ways on Earth there is “Observations and Suggestions” mysteriously dedicated to the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke:

A puddle is water relaxing.

The middle rungs of ladders don’t get the credit they deserve.

It’s hard to get an octopus to try on a jacket.

The one-winged bird may peck the hardest.

Don’t get used to being used.

Look at what you do for a living and at what living you do.

Witticisms and images are all part of an attempt to describe “what it is like / to be / a human being”. In the former, language with its odd accidents and structures does the work while in the second the world reveals part of its mystery to the sharp-eyed observer. It seems right that such comparatively slight pieces should form part of Bakowski’s project.

Finally, of course, there is the issue of poetry itself, especially a poetry priding itself on caring for its reader even if it doesn’t always care for its poet by leading him (as the book’s first poem says) to destinations he hadn’t entirely expected. Wit and images are part of the fabric of the larger poems and do the work of sustaining them and preventing their being nothing more than prosy explorations. It’s somehow fitting that the last poem of the book should echo the first poem of “In the Human Night” in being a “list poem” focussing on the power and transformative possibilities of the art:

A poem is more jazz than recipe,
more breast milk than formula.

A poem is daily life
or an inky break from daily life.

A poem is the glad yellow of lemons.

A poem is an odd sock made into a hand puppet.

A poem is medicine which tastes better than you’d imagined.

Sometimes it’s a big breaking wave
effervescent around your driftwood bones.
Sometimes it’s a big blundering wave that flattens your sandcastle -
so you start another one.

An optimistic view of what poetry might be able to do – and what it might demand of its poet – as part of a simultaneously modest and wildly ambitious humanism.

Rereadings VII: Michael Dransfield: A Retrospective, edited by John Kinsella

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2002, 92pp.

In just over one hundred days it will be fifty years since Michael Dransfield’s death in 1973. A half a century, as I have observed elsewhere, is a very long time in literature, especially modern literature and especially modern poetry whose history – influenced at least partly by the accessibility of poetry from what were, in the past, unavailable cultures and languages – is inclined to develop at breakneck speed. With a nice harmony, it is twenty years since the publication of this retrospective edited by John Kinsella which, itself, appeared after the two major contributions to understanding Dransfield’s life and work: Livio Dobrez’s Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry (1990) and Patricia Dobrez’s biography of 1999.

Kinsella’s book is an ideal introduction to Dransfield for those in 2023 coming for the first time to what now must seem like a poet of the distant past. Like all critics I have my own imaginary selection from Dransfield’s poems and it would contain even more poems from the first book, Streets of the Long Voyage, despite the fact that nearly a third of the poems of that book are included here. I might also have tried to find space for pieces like “Sub Judice” and “I Do This I Do That” from Drug Poems, “Returning” and “The Process” from Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, and “Lonely as a Cloud” and “Distance” from Voyage Into Solitude. The poems Kinsella has chosen make an excellent introduction to Dransfield’s obsessive themes although this is surely because Streets of the Long Voyage is itself such a good introduction to these themes, containing as it does the earliest poems of leaving (“Pas de Deux for Lovers”) and its concomitant themes of journeying (“Morning, Silk Road”) and minstrelising (“Minstrel”, “Goliard”). We meet the first Courland Penders poems (“Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man”) with their evocation of the imaginary, inherited decaying country mansion that occupies such an important place in Dransfield’s imagination and we meet the first of the drug poems (“Overdose”, “Fix” and “Bum’s Rush”). And, in a piece like “Lamentations”, we get a first taste of a generalised anger about his contemporary culture: a dislike of its colonial past – “They ringbarked the Dreamtime” – of Capitalism and of city-culture.

Tracing Dransfield’s career – not always an easy task because of the fact that the poems’ dates of book-publication don’t necessarily coincide with dates of writing – you can see the treatment of these themes darken as addiction and its concomitant ill-health casts an ominous shadow. The first drug poems are comparatively dispassionate accounts, for example, but in many of the poems in Drug Poems (which reprints some of these earlier ones) there is a flaunting of being a drug insider, cool with other users’ dying and happy to reproduce its sub-US slang – “in the bluejean days / when acid was still legal / we used to sell shit for fourteen an / oz & everything was cool & the DS only had / three cops”. At the end of this darkening – a period when, as Rodney Hall, the editor of the posthumous The Second Month of Spring, says, Dransfield was “a man in the desperate throes of a struggle to survive, far less concerned with illuminating the metaphysical relationships of culture and the natural order” – there is a clear tone of paranoia and the result, at its worst, is something like “Bi Shits Revisited” a crazy assault on David Malouf for expressing reservations about The Inspector of Tides in a review. It’s a long way from the tone of the earlier poems whose titles alone – “Chopin Ballade”, “On a Theme of Taktakishvili”, “Scriabin” – and so on, indicate comfort with the arcana of “high” culture. (In some of these early poems, we seem to be in the same world as early Slessor with its comfortable inhabiting of the late medieval and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It could be a matter of influence, of course, and we know that the young Dransfield wanted to impress Slessor but it may also be something that happens to prodigiously precocious young poets who want to expand into areas that they feel they inherit as part of their territory.) And the distance travelled in a career of eight or nine years is expressed by these changes of tone, I think, rather than changes of theme. The one important theme which is only hinted at in poems from the first book is that of solipsism, the state where windows become mirrors. “Miss Havisham” – based on Dickens’s character who, abandoned on her wedding day, spends the rest of her life locked up in a suite of rooms – and “Chaconne for a Solipsist” are important poems here. But, it could be argued, this is just the solitariness of the journeying theme, or the Courland Penders retreat theme, developed in a darker key.

Solipsism is a subject treated at some length in Livio Dobrez’s book and it should be noted that it, Patricia Dobrez’s biography and Kinsella’s introduction share a common interest in positioning Dransfield and his work as though this was the central desideratum. Livio Dobrez’s book is an attempt to argue that Dransfield is more central to the poetic movement anthologised in John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry than most people then, or in retrospect, have believed. In other words, it attempts to put him into a version of literary history both in relationship to his peers and to his forerunners (largely represented by Hall and Shapcott’s anthology, New Impulses in Australian Poetry). It also, unusually for poetry criticism in Australia, explores connections with the visual arts, positioning him especially vis a vis the painting of Brett Whiteley. Patricia Dobrez’s biography is, as its title, Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography, suggests, an attempt to position Dransfield in relation to the unusual times in which he lived and wrote, the times of hippiedom and the Vietnam war which were already requiring a lot of explanation to the generation that followed them. Kinsella’s selection, too, is a retrospective attempt at positioning, trying to move Dransfield more in the direction of the issues which Kinsella himself was speaking of and which have, in the last twenty years, become even more dominant: settler status, colonialism, environmental issues and a more postmodern sense of self and art-styles. In an engaging introductory essay to this selection, he sums up his view of Dransfield as: “Environmentalist, critic of the power establishments of the day, libertarian with personal safeguards, and, I believe, an anarchist individualist”. And he makes a good case, despite the fact that, superficially, this looks like nothing more than a back projection of Kinsella’s own interests.

Such a perspective does, of course, have an influence on the selection of the poems but I can say at the outset that there are no really bizarre omissions or inclusions in this retrospective selection. No matter what perspective you read them from, Drug Poems and Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal are poor books by Dransfield’s standards and are only lightly selected from here whereas the two posthumous volumes edited by Rodney Hall, Voyage Into Solitude and The Second Month of Spring (especially the former) are treasure troves and are selected from generously, as they should be. Mapping the tastes of an editor against selections is actually quite an enlightening practice in Dransfield’s case. At one extreme there are the three anthologies compiled by Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann. Two of them omit Dransfield entirely and the other – The Younger Australian Poets – includes only two minor pieces accompanied by a contemptuous “explanation” which describes his philosophy as being made up of “hippy clichés”. In other anthologies – by Vincent Buckley and Peter Porter, for example – the selection reflects the tastes of its editors more than such selections usually do and so, in a way, Dransfield could be seen as something of a litmus test for anthologists, focussing more than almost anyone else the editor’s notions of what poetry – and Australian poetry, specifically – actually is. A subject that might repay a lot of careful study by some imaginary scholar in a utopian future.

I want to continue this issue of positioning Dransfield in this Rereading but to do so in a counter-intuitive way, rather as a sort of “thought experiment”. The other positionings operate on the basis of the poet’s having a set of beliefs, sensations and practices which are, in some way “expressed” in the poetry: in other words, for all the sophistication of the analysis, a communicative model lies behind it. And Dransfield is rich pickings here since, as all commentators and critics note, at the “beliefs and practices” level he is a lively mix of contradictions. A “hippie” with a private school education; a pacifist with a respect for the military (his father and grandfather were soldiers); a dropout and drug-user driven by old values of pride and dignity, obsessed by an imaginary aristocratic past; a ruthless critic of the capitalist power-structures of his country who considered himself to be a canny real-estate dealer; a self-indulgent ascetic; a “tell it like it is” realist who tried to convince others that he owned an ancestral estate. And so on.

What if we position Dransfield in terms of poetry itself, asking not “Where does he fit in the history of Australian poetry or culture?” but “Where do his poems fit in the world of poetry?” – that pan-cultural, pan-temporal expression of human creativity? In other words, to subjugate the beliefs and practices to the poetry rather than vice-versa by asking how useful his themes are in the poetic cosmos rather than trying to evaluate their correctness in social analytical terms. I think the first thing that emerges in this notional approach is that contradiction or tension within the beliefs and practices forms a very valuable base. This leads one into thinking of the different relationships ideas can have with the poems that manifest them. At the opposing pole to rich contradiction, for example, would be the situation in which the poet has a coherent but complex philosophy that lies behind lyric poems that only express a part of the complicated web. To understand a potent piece like Yeats’s “The Second Coming” you have to know a bit about Yeats’s distinctive notions of the cycles of universal history and to make any sense at all out of “Byzantium” you would have to know a lot more. This, of course, is grist to the mill of academic approaches to literature because it introduces an ennobling intellectual quest motif – Can I construct a map of the ideas that lie at the heart of x’s poetry? – though it also tends to have difficulties when a poet’s convictions undergo modifications over time. Another potent generative device for lyric poetry is frustration, which could just, perhaps, be seen as a sub-species of contradiction. All of those extended sonnet sequences spawned by Petrarch’s love for Laura are generated not by the emotion of love or by the poet’s conception of the nature of love but by the continuous frustration of denial so that individual poems keep returning to the same issue from a slightly different perspective like a robot vacuum cleaner negotiating a chair leg. And something similar could be said of the troubadour tradition of the thirteenth century. At any rate, without following this lead too far, it is possible to claim that in Dransfield’s case, a set of contradictions might be enriching poetically rather than debilitating.

The broadest description of Dransfield’s place in poetry is as a lyric poet, though this is a “Western-heritage” notion and might lead to complicated attempts to define the meaning of the word “lyric”. But keeping it as a notional, provisional description we can say that lyric poets tend to share some personal features and some poetic features. The former of these I want to abandon immediately since the psychological profile of poets is beyond any expertise I have (and, I suspect, beyond anybody else’s). On the other hand, though, there is something familiar about what one might call Dransfield’s impracticality or lack of perspective. Shakespeare (or at least his Theseus) passes this off as a “head-in-the-clouds” phenomenon whereby the poet’s eye “in a fine frenzy” oscillates between heaven and earth, ie between the ideal and the sordidly practical. One thinks of Li Bai as a classic of this type and I suspect Catullus was too: it certainly takes a lack of balance and perspective to insult Julius Caesar.

But putting the murky world of the psychology of lyric poets aside, we are likely to find that the map of types of lyric poetry is a complex one, describable only by using all sorts of complex topologies. The best start might be with a cloud since the borders of “lyric” are very vague (should dramatic monologues be included, or something extended like “Lycidas”? If “Lycidas” what about an even more extended lament like Shelley’s “Adonais”?) and we would need to keep the outline “fuzzy”. My own image for what happens inside this cloud is that individual poems exist on a series of scales (I want to avoid the word “spectrum” since it suggests clinical diagnosis) which I imagine as straight lines in the form of sticks. As an example, there is a scale that goes from “Self-contained Object” at one end to “Fragment of Process” at the other. Another is a scale that goes from “Momentary Disposable Engagement with the World” at one end to “Masterpiece that the World will not Willingly Let Die” at the other end – those poems that deliberately try to change the history of poetry. There are dozens of other scales and an individual poem will seem like a node penetrated by a lot of sticks when it is mapped onto them. Importantly a poem’s description is the sum total of its scales and no one is necessarily more important than the other.

One scale which I will look at a bit more deeply is that of the poet’s position and stake in the poem. At one end are those impersonal poems (sometimes called “song lyrics”) in which, although an “I” may possibly speak, and although intense experiences and emotions may form the material, it is entirely a conventionalised personality. You don’t listen to “Yesterday”, for example, to learn about Paul McCartney’s problems. At the far end of this scale (on the “right” so to speak) are poems which are anguished (or ecstatic) and marked at every point by the situation of the poet: Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son” being one example from a long list of possibilities. This scale enables us to locate – though it is in only one of many dimensions – something like Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving”. In a way it masquerades as a folk song and so wants to be placed at the left end of the scale but we know enough about Byron to know that it is built on specific personal experience: exhaustion and disgust from too much sex at the Venice Carnival and the sly little dirty joke of the sword outwearing its sheath – delivered, one imagines, with a knowing wink to the audience – means that we should drag it farther to the right of the scale.

This is only an example. Using a Formal to Informal scale, Byron’s poem would appear close to the left end (it is three, four line, regularly rhyming, metrically rhythmical stanzas). Dransfield, like almost all lyric poets, operates in a variety of styles so that his collected lyrics look like a kind of cloud within the larger cloud. But I want to test out this idea of positioning him poetically rather than thematically by focussing on a single poem, ”Pas de Deux for Lovers”. It comes from the second section of Streets of the Long Voyage and is the third poem in Kinsella’s selection:

Morning ought not
to be complex.
The sun is a seed
cast at dawn into the long
furrow of history.

To wake
and go
would be so simple.

Yet

how the
first light
makes gold her hair

upon my arm.
How then
shall I leave,
and where away to go. Day
is so deep already with involvement.

Readers (with the exception, presumably, of Gray and Lehmann) have admired this poem since its publication and fifty years and a succession of modal changes in poetry are unlikely to have changed this admiration. It can be looked at in terms of Dransfield’s ideas and responses, of course, and be seen as a poem reflecting a dropout’s tendency to prefer serial relationships but it looks different from within the perspective of lyric poetry itself. Like Byron’s poem, it suggests that a personal experience rather than a generalised one stands behind it. In other words, it is expressive of an individual’s actual experience although there are no obvious hints like Byron’s joke, and the assertion is based on an informed subjectivity which most would go along with although there is no evidence that would stand up in a court of law. This tension between a conventional speaking position and an individual, personal one can be frustrating for readers I think though it doesn’t seem to be as frustrating for poets. As readers we want to see Catullus’s poems to Lesbia as intense expressions of his love for, and frustration with, an actual person, probably Clodia Pulcher. But there is always a group of scholars arguing that the entire situation is a mere convention unrelated to any specific experience. The more intense the poems the more frustrated are the readers since we are forced to choose between entirely different, even contradictory, responses: intense engaged sympathy for a fellow human or admiration for a clever job brilliantly executed.

And then there is lyric structure. “Pas de Deux for Lovers” would be reasonably close to the formal end of the Formal to Informal scale. There are all sorts of formal structures of course, rhyme patterns, verse patterns, syllabic counts and other numerical patterns, and so on. Deep down, you feel, most lyric poets have a tendency to formal structures: they are not something imposed by dreary literary traditions that the great bravely react against. Dransfield’s poem avoids all patterning of sound – rhymes, half-rhymes, internal assonance and consonance etc – and is decidedly un-Tennysonian. Its structures involve the interaction of syntax and line length. Enjambments – the default device for the movement of the syntax into lines – enable the six sentences to be spaced into a stanza pattern of 5,3,1,3,5 lines, something that has a formally pleasing quality (I’ll avoid speculating about the potential numerical symbolism and the avoidance of the number two except as the unit by which the stanzas are reduced – going away – and increased – staying and suffering the involvements). It’s, obviously enough, a poem about balance something that it enacts mimetically by having the quintessential proviso word “yet” at its exact centre. It not only balances the two desires – to continue a relationship into a world of lasting “true love” or to break free into a world of serial relationships none of which can be restrictive – but it also balances the firmly assertive propositions of the first half with the dreamier thoughts of the second.

In fact – not too sound too much like one of the early New Critics – it could be said that there is a tension within the poem between balance and change. The formal structure indicates balance as the controlling principle but the language suggests a one-way journey from certainty to doubt. And it does this at a number of levels. The opening two sentences are strong statements: morning ought not to be complex and, as a metaphoric development of this theme, the rising sun creates a jungle of complexities as though it were a seed cast into the ground. By the latter half of the poem we have moved into a much less assertive tone indicated by the very slightly precious fact of the sun lighting up the girl’s hair, and the very slightly mannered phrase “where away to go” (both of these give the poem a rather pre-Raphaelite air) and so the final statement does not have the certainty of the two opening sentences. (This matching of sentence to theme would put the poem towards the left of another imaginary scale which might move from mimetic to non-mimetic.)

This is a lot of space to spend on a single poem but it barely scratches the surface when it comes to trying to describe its position in lyric poetry generally or in Dransfield’s lyric poetry specifically. But if we look at structural features in Dransfield’s poems we can see similarities with other poems not necessarily associated with it thematically. Another great early poem is “Epiderm”:

Canopy of nerve ends
marvellous tent
airship skying in crowds and blankets
pillowslip of serialised flesh
it wraps us rather neatly in our senses
but will not insulate against externals
does nothing to protect
merely notifies the brain
of conversation with a stimulus
I like to touch your skin
to feel your body against mine
two islets in an atoll of each other
spending all night in new discovery
of what the winds of passion have washed up
and what a jaded tide will find for us
to play with when this game begins to pall

It’s a two part poem which since it is sixteen lines and breaks at the ninth line might conceivably be seen as an extended sonnet with additional lines at the octet and the sestet. The omission of all punctuation prevents it being, as “Pas de Deux for Lovers” was, a matter of the interaction between sentences. But it does share with that poem a movement from celebration to a much more down-beat conclusion: something always interesting in poetic shape when most readers expect conclusions to be conclusive and upbeat (think of Rilke’s panther and Stevens’s snow man, examples I have used before). The initial celebration of the skin, couched in a set of marvellous images and done in high style moves towards simple statement – “I like to touch your skin / to feel your body against mine” – and then transitions to an extended sea metaphor whereby the lovers are, memorably, “two islets in an atoll of each other” but which leads to a conclusion where passion is jaded and the couple look only for remnants: presumably sexual memories. It is a poem with a powerful and unusual shape. Possible famous companions from the world of lyric might be something like Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” which begins with high activity and concludes with that famous flat last line, “Before the indifferent beak could let her drop” – an anticlimactic climax.

At a certain level of structure these two poems are not atypical of Dransfield. His advice about structure – “You put the knife in and, in the last line, turn it” – doesn’t preclude an attraction to the downbeat. “Fix” ends with a double twist: “For a while the fires die down in you, / until you die down in the fires. / Once you have become a drug addict / you will never want to be anything else”. Students of rhetoric will know the technique used in the former as antimetabole (“This man I thought to have been a lord among wits; but, I find, he is only a wit among lords”) and would analyse the second as some sort of pun or equivocation on two meanings of “want”. “Fix” might well fit into a mimetic section of the world of lyric since the comparatively intense tone of the body of the poem – “send the dream-transfusion out / on a voyage among your body machinery” – leads to this conclusion in a way that mimics the drug high and the way it inevitably leads to a comedown. The success of “Fix” lies in the way the end is simultaneously intense and downbeat. Or, to revert to New Criticism-speak, there is a tension between the mimetic representation of the rise and decline of the experience that the poem speaks of and an imposed but common-to-the-lyric-poem movement towards an affirmative, upwardly directed finish.

Another feature of the outputs of lyric poets is that they tend to at least try some poems that are at different ends of the various scales that the bulk of their poems inhabit. Tennyson tried long, narrative poems, Browning short ones. Had Dransfield live a long and healthy life he may well have moved into modes which would have made the shape of his output completely different. As it is, there are a couple of pieces which show him reaching beyond his normal operative modes. “Society” from The Inspector of Tides is a set of eleven numbered statements:

1.	The citizens group in categories/officials, wives, children, priests, revolutionaries.
2.	They enter the compartment assigned to their category/ classroom, office, kitchen, garret. . . .

In a sense this is at the mimetic end of the mimetic – non-mimetic scale since it reproduces the mechanised divisions of the capitalist view of the citizenry. But it is also worth looking at as a kind of poem vastly different to Dransfield’s other poems, even those concerned with the vices of Australian society.

And then there is “Love (dialogue) poem”, a piece between lovers built out of reproduced dialogue:

Where can we go today
He’s in Liverpool Street.
We could go to the Park.
Someone might see us.
Where then.
. . . . .

We’d better get dressed. You’ll miss your train.
It doesn’t matter. Will you ring me before you go?
If I can. It’s a bad scene.
When are you leaving . . .

Enough of the detail makes us confident that this built out of one of Dransfield’s own relationships – it is in fact, thematically, a “leaving poem” – rather than a sort of playwright’s exercise in transcribing overheard speech. But it’s an outlier in what is otherwise a reasonably consistent lyrical output. Neither it nor “Society” are likely to appear in selections like this one of John Kinsella’s.

Lucy Dougan: Monster Field

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022, 100pp.

Lucy Dougan’s fourth book operates in the same territory as the last two of its predecessors – White Clay and The Guardians – exploiting the unexpected perspectives of her distinct vision of the world. A good deal of the apparatus of the book – its title and the description included in the blurb which is transposed from the back cover into the half-title page – prepares us for this. Monster Field is an idea taken from Paul Nash to express worlds which are apprehended momentarily at the edge of vision and which have the power to disturb the preformed, edited view that makes up our sense of what is happening. I have a feeling that this is very much post facto. Lucy Dougan’s poetry has been interesting exactly because this has been her mode of operating and it’s a mode that enables her to escape conventional tropes and predictable interests and responses. She lives simultaneously in an ordinary and extraordinary world and anyone reading her poems would have picked this up without requiring any kind of critical apparatus (Creative Writing Project-style) as a support.

At any rate: some examples of the unusual. The first poem of the book, “The Throne”, focusses on a chair which the poet finds outside the local library. Unable to fit it into her car – significantly because a child’s seat for her grandson (ie a family responsibility) is taking up the room – she cannot take it home and thus domesticate it or, more likely, put it alongside what in an earlier review I called her “homely totemic animals”. It remains in its own context from which it will derive whatever meaning it has. So far this is a predictable kind of poem in the Dougan universe but there is a lot more to it than this – it isn’t simply a poem built out of a single attractive idea. There is a barely stated personal element, for example: the poem’s first line is “In crisis” and it’s a dis-ease which seems to be responsible for a kind of paralysis: “I go to the local library / and do not take out / the book I find, / this one or that one first, / what matter?” And the poem finishes by allowing the chair to have an effect because, if it had been domesticated, it would have been used in front of a bathroom mirror and, having left it, the poet acknowledges this in a perhaps unconscious way by using the car’s mirror: “though I fix my hair and do my lips / before I reverse away”. It’s a good introduction for someone reading Dougan’s poetry for the first time: a certain blandness of tone and anecdotal narration matched with underlying dis-ease and infected by genuine strangeness.

“The Throne” is echoed by a poem in the last section of the book, “Gomi Office”, where some passing boys have arranged the rubbish in a kerbside council pick-up so that they recreate an actual office with table, desklamp, phone and – again – chair. The boys may intend no more than a whimsical parody but to Dougan it’s rather more than this. Like Malouf’s bicycle, this office is a visitor from another world, rather lost and looking for its own context. To the observer it raises the question – as do others of this type – of what kind of world it might inhabit where it is as much at home as we observers are in our own world. As a result, it is a poem which concludes not by describing how the poet is affected and drawn to the totemic object but by how it leads one to speculate about alternative worlds:

. . . . . 
At night it is perfectly at home
beneath a sliver of moon
and the trees with their leaf outlines
neat as paper cuts.
I dream a man comes to work
at this gomi office -
a ”one man for the use of”
kind of man,
but I cannot for the life of me
fathom the clock he will punch.

Each of the three sections of Monster Field has an epigraph which gives some idea of the poems that it will contain though the overall interests are so consistent that these probably should just be seen as groupings. The first is a quote from Deborah Levy – “It was true that I had no idea how to endure being alive and everything that comes with it” – which emphasises the personal costs of the poet’s contemporary life. The second, from John Berger – “I propose a conspiracy of orphans” – encourages us to think of the de-contextualised visitors as orphans, and the third – “All the blood facts that follow me to bed at night” – warns us to expect the world of dreams to be dominant. The second section begins with an orphan poem, “Leonie”, which centres (a metaphor to use carefully here) on a statuette which the family has taken around with it over the years. It becomes one of Dougan’s totemic guardians – “Stranger, stay with us, / watch over us / never leave us” – and in this sense it is as close to a predictable poem as we are likely to find in Dougan’s work, but the actual poetic structure is more complex and intriguing than that.

. . . . . 
If I were rendered blind I would know
your lightly pitted cheekbones,
your brow line, your rough underside and slight headache-inducing
scent of epoxy resin in which a finger could snag a glassy splinter
of what it is you keep inside the void of your cast.
I cannot see you as empty for in your hollow head lives the clamour of us all.
And something else, you still abide with us
even though our mother and father are dead and gone . . .

The poem seems to have a double perspective. We see a set of scenes (in other poems, expressed as photographs) of family life with a changing cast and different locations and points of view although all have this humble statue buried somewhere in the background. But we also see the statue as the central focus of vision, staying fixed while almost everything else changes around it. It brings together, in other words, the ordinary life in this world and the life of one of the visitors.

Incidentally, the three poems I have looked at briefly so far are on pages three, thirty-three and sixty-six of Monster Field and for a while I was lured into a kind of speculative numerological hermeneutics with all the possibilities that entails but, on reflection, I think it’s probably no more than an accident though that is a decision, in poetry, not to be taken lightly.

Among the homely objects which have been living their lives alongside the author’s and her family’s, like the statuette, are, predictably, dolls and, perhaps less predictably, some miniature lusterware horses. Dolls are celebrated and examined in “The Dolls” where the power of these toys is evident in their ability to frighten the poet’s children. They are, really, figures of power rather than nostalgia. They are not inherited from childhood but bought at a crisis moment:

. . . . . 
I still remember the texture
of the day I found the dolls.
I swung down the street
feeling open, reckless,
and I swear the dolls called to me
. . . . 
To this day, I think of it
as a return -
the moment I brought myself back -
agreed that warring selves
could live beneath my skin . . .

“The Claphams” deals with a specific genre of dolls and imagines the world through their eyes, a world in which they understand that the children who are responsible for their sad state of repair nevertheless possessed a “frenzied love” for them that the adults who do the repairing never can. Though the poem focusses on the two dolls, its concern is really with human beings and the possibilities lost in adulthood by the editing out processes that we are forced to apply to the world – always much stranger and resonant than it appears to us (something brilliantly conveyed in a poem about two foxes from The Guardians which seems to have lodged in my consciousness and refuses to remove itself).

“The Horses I Threw Out” inhabits the same territory as these doll poems. The model horses, thrown out “in a fit of anger”, are also creatures removed from their context and the poem speculates as to what this might be:

. . . . .
What had their wider world been
before this unhappy fate?
An unlocatable “Planet Lustre”:
their hooves cavorting on the carpet
at my mother’s lover’s house . . .

In a sense they are out of a context because they fall between two periods of the poet’s life: the childhood one and the later one where objects – like the dolls – were collected because of their sensed power. Like the Claphams they had been injured by the child’s love but never had the opportunity to settle into being potent items from the past. What is striking about the poem is the intensity of the poet’s grief and guilt:

. . . . .
O little abandoned horses,
I am sorry, I am sorry.
Where was it that we travelled
my unharnessed companions? . . .

It’s expressed in a single line with a repeated sentence and is very moving.

Guilt and regret figure largely in another poem, “The Wallpaper”, which is not about objects but about contexts. A childhood friend has wallpaper depicting a forest put up behind his desk and realises from her silence when she sees it that she doesn’t like it. In a way, her response is a childish one because she hasn’t yet learned – as adults must – to tailor responses to other people’s likes in a way that takes their feelings into account. There is a lot that could be teased out of the idea of an alternative context being provided for a person by a superficial change in their habitat and the poem does follow this direction at least to some extent. But the overwhelming drive of the poem is emotional rather than phenomenological:

. . . . .
It is so long ago now.
So long since you lived there.
So long since we were close
(as if we had both vanished into the well-laid depths
of the wallpaper wood with no search party sent).
. . . . . 
I was such a stupid girl
and yet there you sat
in your wood
with never a reprimand.
Down the bombed-out years
I imagine you sitting there still.

An emotional response of guilt and regret may be less sophisticated than the intellectual possibilities of exploring notions of alternative worlds but it is undeniably powerful. And certainly more powerful than the contempt that runs through two poems about a school “Home Economics” course which could be said to refuse to accept that the past itself is a different context: as the famous quote says: “they do things differently there”.

One of the aspects of the idea of objects coming into our world from other worlds is the realisation that they can be present in entirely unmystical ways. Our view of life – the view even of the most altruistic of us – necessarily involves placing ourselves firmly in the centre and relating what passes and what we experience to ourselves. But to do this we edit out the complex contexts that are connected to what we see. So a man we do not know, passing us in the street, is a man we do not know. But he has family, genetic history, employment – and a host of other connections – of his own. Our view, even when we are at our most negatively capable, is ruthless in cutting out the entirely ordinary otherworlds that lie all around us. There are many readers who would argue that one of the functions of great narrative – the worlds of Tolstoy and Proust, for example – is precisely that: to give us some sense of the incredibly complex worlds which everyday life demands that we devote so little time to that they may as well not exist. Dougan’s “Girl on a Rug With a Cat” explores a painting (I assume) of just what the title says but wants to move outside the frame to speak of what is omitted: the person who made the rug, for example, or the way the cat’s hair is growing and the way the girl herself is experiencing life “making a start inside” her. “In this scene” the poem says at its end, “a lot remains unknown, / just as it always does”.

A final poem that deserves some attention is the lugubriously titled “Features on Artistic Women Who Live by the Sea in UK Magazines”. It begins in a mocking mode which continues the title’s comical ambiguities: it is the feature articles which are in UK magazines not the women’s facial features, and neither the sea or the women live in these magazines. These are women devoting themselves to “upcycling” repurposing junk to become saleable items. To this extent it fits in with the world in which chairs turn up outside libraries and in which passing boys rearrange kerbside detritus into an office. The poem’s structure is to move from mockery to approval:

. . . . .
Artistic women who live by the sea,
I’ve changed my mind.
I hope that patrons come in droves to your doors
and pay mightily for what you make . . .

and we sense that the reason for this is that the efforts of these women are not in themselves trendy and faux-artistic; that’s an impression we get from the glossy and expensive magazines in which their stories appear. In their way, they, on the shores of Devon or Suffolk are objects taken out of their usual worlds and they respond to other objects in the same situation. Like dung-beetles (to use an unnecessarily cruel analogy) their activities are valuable. They only seem initially contemptible because they are first met in an eminently dislikeable fashion magazine surrounded by “spreads / for pricey anti-ageing creams”. In this sense, they too are objects taken out of their worlds and put into an alien one. As with the chair that Monster Field began with, context is everything.

Theodore Ell: Beginning in Sight

Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2022, 73pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep over ministering sleep,
tresses of rain

drift over the lake -
pins and needles,

intermittent silvers
where no depths stir:

water rising to know water,
allaying creases.

At last this is your only pain. . . 

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

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

All patina, dial and pirouettes
the windmill

hovering above the corrugated roof
could be an airman,

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

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

a sudden peak above the house . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Wearne: Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2022, 252pp.

So large is Alan Wearne’s collected body of work, exploring the lives of Australia’s under-, working-, and middle-classes that Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021 isn’t at all a traditional selected poems, the sort that tries to collect the best-known and most important examples of a poet’s work and present them in such a way that a new reader can get a compressed overview. True, this could be said of the last two sections of Near Believing, the one selecting from the short poems of The Australian Popular Songbook and the other, “Metropolitan Poems and Other Poems” selecting from among reasonably recent mid-length narratives and monologues. But Wearne’s poetic activity in the last quarter (or perhaps even third) of the twentieth century was dedicated to two very large works, The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers which, put together, amount to nearly a thousand pages. The former is represented in Near Believing by a single long monologue and, although the latter gets nearly fifty pages, including Kevin Joy’s long monologue “Nothing But Thunder”, it’s only a fragment of the enormous and complex whole. In the case of these two mega-works, in other words, readers get not so much a selection as a sampler, something that might give one a faint sense of these books and perhaps, hopefully, lure one to explore their complexities further.

One of the things that Near Believing does is confirm the ambit of Wearne’s interests. He is, basically, a poet observing his own postwar generation. There are glances at the generations after this and something more substantial than glances at a generation or two before. In The Nightmarkets, for example, much of the interest in the love affair between leftist journalist Sue Dobson and the patrician politician Jack McTaggart derives not from the different worlds they inhabit – that of a dope-smoking inner-urbanite and that of a patrician landowner – but from the generational difference. And standing behind McTaggart is his mother, Elise, a representative of the generation born in the late teens or early 1920s. (Wearne seems to have a special affinity with this group – women reaching adulthood in the late 1930s – and this may well be because it’s his mother’s generation.) I don’t think that Wearne ever strays, generationally, outside these boundaries, though his work is so substantial that I could be wrong. At any rate, at least up to this point, he has never done historical reconstructions: there are no renaissance painters or bishops (pace Browning) and certainly no voyaging Australian explorers, all alone or otherwise. So much for temporal limits. In terms of space, Australia, especially Melbourne, is strongly the centre, as one might expect, and there is an emphasis on the postwar suburbs like Blackburn, Wearne’s own locus familiaris, although the Mr Asia Syndicate dimension of The Lovemakers means that the poems do make trips to south-east Asia.

Newcomers will be amazed by the extraordinary complexity and detail of the lives that are on show in these poems but admirers and critics may be able to use Near Believing as the kind of overview that makes it possible to ask some basic questions about a brilliant career spanning more than half a century, questions which haven’t perhaps been able to be answered in any satisfactory way before. They are what might be called “second-level” critical concerns which are really beyond the ambit of reviews which, after all, are required to look closely at a book immediately it is published. When there was, briefly, at least the skeleton of a scholarly critical community in Australian literature, one used to be able to say that they were topics later students might take up in their postgraduate theses. Now they look rather like questions that a reviewer poses but can’t really answer: in today’s language, cans being kicked down the street.

At the risk of writing a review which is a set of questions rather than a set of observations, I’ll begin by listing some of these issues and then have a look at one of them in some – if inadequate – detail. One of them is the need to see what patterns of progression there are in Wearne’s poems. In other words, what does that phrase, “as his powers developed”, mean in this instance? How are the most recent poems, “Near Believing” and “Press Play, different to “Eating Out” and the selections from “Out Here” from Wearne’s second book, New Devil, New Parish? Are they better – whatever that might mean? Then there are the characters themselves. Do his women characters seem more developed and less likely to be stereotypes than many of the male characters and if so why? Are the large, aggregated works like The Nightmarkets or The Lovemakers the formats in which Wearne’s genius is shown to best advantage or is it the more minimalist portraits such as are found in the sonnets of The Australian Popular Songbook? (Again, readers can slot in all my reservations about value judgements in the world of creative activity here.) What is the poet’s stake and his role? Is it a dispassionate responsibility to document; is it a humanist responsibility to allow characters to express something of the fullness of their personality, especially in the monologues; is it a desire to analyse underlying social patterns in Australian society (especially in the cultures of prostitution and drugs and their interaction with personal and political lives)? Or is there fundamentally a moral vision – as was the case with Dickens – describing character and social constructions but having a very strong judgemental view of aspects of them? If there is this evaluative component, is it aligned with those generally accepted by the intellectual/creative class of today or is it opposed to them? What is the function of the growing predilection for comic doggerel? Why is it that Wearne himself appears as one of the characters of the long narrative sequence, “Operation Hendrickson”? How are the enormous cast of characters differentiated: do they have different speech patterns, for example, or does their individuality only lie in the complex interaction of family, sex, suburb (always important in Wearne), friends etc – an interaction that produces the ideas and opinions that the character is keen to share with us (in the case of the monologues) or that the narrator wants to explore (in the case of the narratives)?

I’m especially interested in this last question, and the first thing to say about it is that it isn’t a simple issue. One always has the sense that there is a basic “Wearne style”, that he is, in other words, parodyable. The same can be said of Browning, surely the founder of the specific genre that Wearne works in. One of the features, in Browning’s case, is a kind of bluff energy that animates even a depressed old painter like Andrea del Sarto. It’s an energy deriving from the desire to express oneself fully that often keeps monologues poetically alive, pumping through enjambed pentameters. And that energy can lead to a kind of gigantism that is difficult to rein in. Every student thinks that Bishop Blougram goes on too long and the same can be said of Sue Dobson’s two monologues in The Nightmarkets and especially of Therese Lockhart’s in the same book (it runs to well over two thousand lines). At any rate, a poetry which is driven by energy is likely to have the same powerful pulse whether the speaker is an inner-urban activist from The Nightmarkets or a drug-running Kevin Joy from The Lovemakers. And this pulse seems to determine repeated syntactic structures so that a passage from Near Believing’s second-last poem:

                     And if on Saturday evenings
that station’s Sexuality Show was somewhat fatuous
(though for those times and on its terms well meaning)
often it seemed we both were giving
differing answers to quite similar questions . . .

seems identifiably a passage by Alan Wearne with its “and if” opening, its deployment of “somewhat” and the balance of the last clause. Wearne is obviously sensitive to this issue whereby characters, no matter how different, sound “somewhat” the same and a note at the end of Near Believing explains that certain passages have been omitted when he found himself “announcing to his creations: “Truly, this isn’t you speaking . . . it’s me!”. There are also quite a few slight emendations to “Climbing Up the Ladder of Love”, Sue Dobson’s second monologue from The Nightmarkets, and the one included here. Again. I’ll bequeath a detailed study of these amendments to some imaginary scholar of the future but one of their functions is clearly to make Sue sound more like herself and less like her creator. To take a single, not necessarily representative, example, the original,

Yet, even if portions bore, I thought, love some to last.
This starts my career, it must. But was about to get cast
by John in some wilting bloom role. . .

becomes

[“]Yet even if such portions bore,” I knew, “love some to last.
This starts my career, it must. . . “
                                  Though was I set to be cast
by John in some “wilting bloom” role? . . .

The original has two very Wearnian compressions: “love some to last” – ie “I would love some of them to last a long time” – and in the next line, “but was about to get cast” – ie “but I was about to get cast” – and presumably the existence of two so close together makes Sue sound more as though she is speaking a kind of Wearne-speak than the author is comfortable with.

This underlying style doesn’t inhibit verbal differentiation though; it can just provide a context in which it can occur. For me the strongest part of this Selected is the last section made up of individual narratives of medium length and the first of these, “Chatswood: Ruth Nash Speaks”, is one of my favourite Wearne poems. It is built around the Bogle-Chandler mystery of the early sixties where two of the guests at a New Year party for CSIRO scientists, Gib Bogle and Margaret Chandler, went off together for some extra-marital shenanigans. Their poisoned bodies were later found at the Lane Cove River but no murderer was identified and there have been many theories about the deaths ranging from a prank gone astray to a sudden eruption of hydrogen sulphide from the river floor. The party was held by Ken Nash, another scientist, and his wife, Ruth. The whole poem is a monologue which Ruth delivers in lolloping, bathetic couplets and it has a wonderful opening:

. . . and we are, in best sellers or movies, near press-ganged to pretend
how simple, bland beginnings might prologue a ludicrous end,

so there’s Gib on arrival lightfooting it down our hall,
and there’s Gib a day later lightfooting bugger all.

We think we know the limits? We’re merely to follow this text:
Lives unfold lives fold, here’s one hour here’s the next.

And where in a plot place “the heavens”, their ever-expanding No?
Well you barely ask such questions of the CSIRO,

for (lab coats, leather patches, pipes and British cars)
my other half worked with boffins who rarely trusted the stars. . .

It’s a gorgeously precise evocation of Ruth Nash who is clever in her own way and rather outside the male domain of the scientists at the party. She must, incidentally, have been born in the early twenties and is thus a contemporary of Elise McTaggart who, with her friend, Molly, has a similar position vis a vis the male political world of the postwar Menzies government. She is thinking, through the poem, about the mysteries of the events of people’s lives, rather as a narrative poet must and she’s quite removed from the mental processes of science: as she says, “Well you barely ask such questions of the CSIRO”. She’s less uptight than her husband – who objected to Margaret Chandler’s husband’s Hawaiian shirt – and there’s a slightly larky quality about her conveyed especially beautifully in that phrase “lightfooting bugger all”. All of this is transferred to her tone of voice in the poem itself. We aren’t told about her parents, suburb and school as we might have been in a longer monologue, and so this has a minimalist quality. But her personality is as strongly conveyed as Kevin Joy’s or Sue Dobson’s. As a poem it’s a masterpiece in miniature with a sharply individuated speaker.

Another poem worth exploring from this point of view is “A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers”. We aren’t told the date of the portrait but it feels like the sixties or even, conceivably, the decade before – a period when the three young women “in full, pleated, white or floral-patterned skirts” are not allowed to wear slacks. The poem opposes female friendship to the way in which the high school “does things” and thus to the way in which prevailing social structures do things. The idiom of the poem sounds like reasonably familiar Wearne narrative:

. . . . .
And if outside, starting at Holland Road
(after which they’ll circle out into those whatever-beyonds)
the instant museum of jingles and choruses, slogans and chants
continue their parade:

a Peace Congress for both civic-minded and pest,
or for the troubled, the naïve, the plain inquisitive,
Revival Crusades making sure of merely nothing . . .

As the poem says, “friendships can at least delay these dour, sour uncertainties” and it’s the friendship of Ruth, Frances and Yvonne which is the subject of the poem. The power of the last stanza is that the language moves from that of conventional narrative to direct speech in the form of a very elegant invitation:

            So, walking to their staffroom
Ruth, a young woman at her most formally informal
tells Frances: “A few folk are coming over
this Saturday. Yvonne and her fiancé will be there.
You and your husband are very, very welcome.”

It could be argued that this is not so much the individuated speech of a precisely defined character so much as the clichés of a particular class but it doesn’t feel that way to me. The contrast with the third person narrative ensures that it seems to the reader immensely human and really quite moving. It’s the mark of an author with a sure and very delicate touch and just as Ruth Nash stands outside the world of the scientists, so these three friends stand outside the structures of school and wider society.

One way of investigating both the processes of individualisation and the issue of Wearne’s development of a poet might be to pick similar figures appearing in early and more recent poems. “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” is a piece that chimes with Sue Dobson’s experiences in The Nightmarkets. A leftist activist (admittedly from a middle-class background and with an academic father) finds herself in a situation which challenges the values she has evolved for herself. In The Nightmarkets, as in the earlier “Out Here”, the plot is deliberately rather tenuous and the author leaves you in no doubt that it is the characters that are to be highlighted and the function of events is to challenge and define these characters. In a sense this happens in “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong”, but the situation is so good and so full of ironies that it is hard for a reader (at least, it is for me) not to be much more interested in it than I am in the central character who is, after all, just another activist facing social change. To summarise: the central character falls in love with a French girl while they are both in school but when, older, she travels to France to renew the relationship, she finds that things have moved on for Antoinette:

. . . . . 
       Nothing I would ever do had been so planned,
so mis-planned.
               Candidacy and scholarship were certainties
whilst French would never be a problem:
wasn’t it all mine, not as a kind of loan
but the zealous gift which, steeled and committed,
I thought had chosen me, such being that on-cue bravado
History and love both offer.
                            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
. . . . . 
          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,
and how right now in the compost of our caprice
and paranoia, my Antoinette was truly blooming . . .

The Australian sums this experience up as “She cut me and I caught a chill” but the chill turns into something much more life-threatening. So far, the poem exploits the ironies of the way in which changed times and conditions challenge previous experiences and values, not entirely different to the questions Sue Dobson faces when she finds herself in love with a member of the privileged rural elite. But the next irony of “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” is more delicious. Her life is saved by the unremitting efforts of her parents and Australian consular staff, exactly the people she has spent her activist life fighting against:

. . . . .
         Week after shaky week I’d little else but sweated,
though now someone was saying my name and I caught that
monotonal national voice diplomacy never could dispel.
Whilst all those manner of people I wished exterminated:
governments, Foreign Affairs, specialists, flight crew, anyone
wanting the world purged of every Antoinette-and-I
were helping to lift, mend, fly and propel me
through Customs and out, school girl ruthless still . . .

It’s an irony worthy of Henry James (who would surely have hailed it as a “germ” suitable for expansion into a Jamesian novel) and it reaches some kind of resolution at the conclusion when the character shares a joke with her father. It’s too complex an issue to go into here, but one would like to spend some time comparing this woman’s idiom with that of Sue Dobson, even if the issue is complicated by the fact that Sue’s monologues are imagined as occurring almost immediately after the events she describes whereas the character in “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” is looking back on her life from a much more mature viewpoint – she’s described as “recently retired”.

“Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” raises another issue which perhaps I should have added to the list of issues that one would like to see examined in Wearne’s poetry. The final section of the poem, after the daughter’s laughing with her father, is a strange imagined poem/song in a tricky rhyme scheme:

We knew Struggle, we knew Truth,
          Knew Hué and Hai Phong,
Served such causes in our youth,
          Waitin’ for the Viet Cong.
Whilst Johnson, Nixon strafed the North,
Bellowed each July the Fourth:
“Longin’ for the Viet Cong to win girls,
          Screamin’ for the Viet Cong!”

And so on for another five stanzas. I’ve quoted it simply because to try to describe it in a way that made sense to a reader who doesn’t have the book would take a lot of space. It’s really hard to know what it’s doing as it seems so out of keeping with the monologue style of the poem and its proliferating ironies. It can certainly be said of it that it stops the whole poem from being too po-faced and it isn’t something Henry James would have been able to do. Perhaps it ties in with Wearne’s obvious delight in comic poetry seen in poems like “Dysfunction, North Carlton Style or, The Widow of Noosa” or “All These Young Australianists . . .” from Prepare the Cabin for Landing. (Interestingly, the first of these occurs immediately after “A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers” in that book as though to say that there are more registers available to the poet than the solemn, sensitive tone of that poem.) The whole technique appears first (I think) at the end of The Lovemakers where Barb and Neil’s relationship – one of the running themes of this nearly seven hundred page book – is concluded in a tone which is the opposite of what a reader might expect:

          Neil was in Melbourne attending a funeral,
he called up his old flame to check out her scene.
          She was delighted and jumped at a meeting,
before he’d fly out from Tullamarine.

Her heart was kickstarted, it wouldn’t stop thumping
with part of what happened and part might’ve been.
Then she panicked; if Neil has a touch of the cold feet
won’t he run off to Tullamarine? . . . 

And so on for another eighteen stanzas all finishing with Melbourne’s airport’s name providing a rhyme. At the time it struck me as a daring experiment, a way of avoiding the solemn rounding-off that a long narrative poem might be expected to have – as Ian Metcalfe’s final section of The Nightmarkets has, for example. Perhaps its appearance here and in “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” is a sign that it is part of Wearne’s long-term thoughts about tone and conclusions.

Wearne is a great poet with a freak hypersensitivity to people, their inner lives, relationships and conflicts, and the familial, educational and suburban elements that make them what they are. This sensitivity allows him to tap into the almost infinite complexity of our subjectivities. Michelle Borzi, in her excellent introduction, quotes Sue Dobson’s remark, “Take any normal street of average length . . . / Simply concentrate on / a street of a suburb: that’s mindblowing!” Admittedly, in this passage from the first of her two monologues in The Nightmarkets, Sue is talking about the sex going on in that street but sex is only a part of the infinitely complex interactions of human beings. It may be that there are other people around the place equally as sensitive to human subjectivity as Wearne and one should really focus only on Wearne’s unique powers of giving imaginative expression to this material. I made a brief list at the beginning of some of the questions that a mature literary culture would be asking of such a poet. Another one to add to the list might be the question of the extent to which he is a social or a biological determinist, answering Ruth Nash’s question about the role of the heavens, perhaps. Deciding which of his vast cast of characters is able to make the freest choices might take a long time.

Marcelle Freiman: Spirit Level; Peter Skrzynecki: Travelling Among the Stars

Spirit Level (Waratah NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2021, 67pp.)
Travelling Among the Stars (Np: Vagabond, 2022, 208pp.)

It’s a fact well-known that the advances in medical science in the last half-century have enabled those who have access to them to live longer and healthier lives than those of previous generations. This seems all to the good but I wonder whether many have pondered the effect that this has had on creativity, on poetry specifically. Since poets are now likely to survive longer, how does this affect their own sense of the shape of their writing lives? (And for that matter, since critics survive longer too, how does that affect their engagement with “the literature of their times” since the “times” might well be getting towards three-quarters of a century.) I don’t think it’s simply a matter of what has always happened being mathematically extended (or distended). There may well be tangible changes that occur when poets get into their seventies assuming that the inner life continues to grow and change and the creative impetus survives. One of these changes might well relate to memories which, I think it could be argued, alter in quality, significance and insistence as writer approach the deeper recesses of age. Marcelle Freiman’s and Peter Skrzynecki’s recent books come from writers now in their seventies – late seventies in Skrzynecki’s case – and they are both very much books built on memories, exploring the fact that memories are far more complex things than the simple word suggests. When the life of the poet has also been marked early on by the experience of migration with its imposition of a double identity, memories have an extra edge although it could be argued that the memories of everyone who reaches their seventies are memories of a childhood so far in the past that it might just as well be “another country”. A past where, as Brook Emery says in a poem in his selected, “We used to eat Chiko Rolls, Sargents Pies, / Pluto Pups, Polly Waffles, Rainbow Balls . . .” could seem nearly as unfamiliar and exotic to a poet of the third decade of the twenty-first century as a foreign country of origin like South Africa.

Which is a good point at which to look at the poetry of Marcelle Freiman. Spirit Level is her third book – she is hardly a prolific poet – and, like the other two – Monkey’s Wedding and White Lines (Vertical) – is a book dominated by memories of a South African childhood of the apartheid era. To make matters more complex, her grandparents, on both sides, were themselves migrants from Latvia and Lithuania. The striking cover of this new book alludes to this by showing an extraordinary photograph of Freiman’s mother as a child in Lithuania. It’s alluded to in a three-part poem called “The Mother Poems”:

My mother sits in her armchair – by her side
photographs and a document assembled in a frame:
1931 a Lithuanian passport: the handwritten words identify
my grandmother Chana b. 1903 and Mina b.1926.
Alongside, a snapshot in a forest of birches - 
a satchel on her shoulder, the child looks straight at the camera,
her heart-shaped face, a half-smile,
the shine of a clear lake through the trees . . .

Photographs like this, a way of embedding and preserving a fragment of a past, have only been known as a mass phenomenon since the beginning of last century and can act as triggers of memory or, as here, something that extends our responses back beyond the time of our own consciousness as a marker of the memories of those who went before.

Freiman is a more complex poet than simply a purveyor of migration memories and her work is especially concerned with the visual arts, the poems often responding to, or taking as a starting point, paintings, especially contemporary Australian paintings. But the theme of memory is an important one and its importance is established in the first poem of her first book in which a sun-shower in the garden in Sydney generates, willy-nilly, a childhood memory:

. . . . . 
I remember -
another sunshower in November
called a “monkey’s wedding” in Africa -
the picture leaps charged by rain in sunlight
and eyes transformed to childhood
imagine a red sky and monkeys. . .

Here, right at the beginning, we meet the idea of memories not as something indulgently cherished and polished but as something that calls from the past to the present, insisting on being registered. Spirit Level emphasises this by having as an epigraph a quote from David Malouf, himself an expert in the complex phenomenon of memory: “The world not as it was, or as we were, but as we find ourselves again in its presence”, stressing that memory is a way of living in the present rather than moving ourselves into our pasts. And the first poem, “Still”, might even be imagined to be a revisiting of “Monkey’s Wedding” in that it replaces a sunshower with a dry landscape and a fascination with the content of a memory by a fascination with the precise requirements on the mental plane which will allow such memories to emerge:

there is a stillness I require
no rain drumming the surfaces of things.
now, there is no quiescent water
rather a dry crackle of grasses, a sunset in Africa
yellow-brown and moving soft as hair.
only the child’s eye can see
a memory like this. . .

The title, “still”, referring to the mental state, also – probably deliberately – connotes a photograph, imagined as a single frame in the continuous movie of life, and, as I’ve said, it’s one of the ways in which memory is triggered. Almost the whole first section of Spirit Level is devoted to memories of a South African girlhood and they are poems which raise a lot of issues. The first of these is the question of why particular memories should occur. Guilt is obviously a powerful driver as is trauma: in a couple of her poems Freiman describes the memory of a man crying out for help while lying on the road bleeding after a bicycle accident. And in the poems of Spirit Level there are a number of reasons for memory which, like guilt and trauma, might apply to pretty well anyone. There are family memories, for example, which, considered in the cold light of age, are messages about our selves in the present since the outlines of genetic heritage are made clearer. In “The Mother Poems”, for example, the poems move backward so that they conclude with a portrait of the mother’s mother, someone who escaped the anti-semitic pogroms of Europe to settle in South Africa:

. . . . .
Through wordless nights, with steel wires
tying her to family, she made new life in the sun – my mother
a proof of it: snapshot of a young nursery-school teacher
wild-haired and free at eighteen.
Ambiguous, the losses of family not spoken,
the traces would ripple close to the frames
of my mother’s silence, beyond my limited grappling,
my vision too narrow to fathom, even now, years later
in this room.

Here the “losses of family” refers to the fate of the grandmother’s mother and sister, killed in Lithuania at the end of the war. It isn’t a trauma of immediate experience to the author but one whose “traces would ripple” – a reminder that the far past is part of our present, even if we barely know its outlines.

At a social level, a particular kind of memory forces itself into the consciousness of someone growing up in South Africa. In Freiman’s poetry it isn’t so much an issue of having lived under an oppressive, even psychotic, political regime, so much as the lack of childhood awareness of the nature of that regime, of its oppressed majority living in the townships. It’s partly an inevitable guilt reaction about a child’s insensitivity to the lives of the house’s gardener and servant. And guilt and shame are powerful impulses that drive memories into our present. But there is a poetic problem about such memories in that poetry has a strong drive to work its own magic on them, teasing out meanings, emphasising symbolic elements, slyly punning, and so on. In other words, treating these memories as material for poetry when they might be something that is trying to communicate in its own language and doesn’t want to be shepherded or translated into a free-standing poem. To me, one of the least satisfying poems in Spirit Level is “Country of my Birth – written 27 June 2013” a highly structured set of memories of South Africa interweaving the author’s own experiences with the life of Mandela then approaching its close. It’s a portrait of “a country of misery” but the attempt to work the intractable material into some sort of shape is not only a failure but I think a misguided attempt at the poetic level. Something similar could be said about “The Dam”, a much more satisfying poem built around the childhood memory of an afternoon swim at the grandparent’s place in a concrete reservoir under a windmill pumping up water from artesian levels. Unlike “Country of my Birth” there is scope for a powerful sense of the tactility of the experience:

 . . . . . 
holding the ladder, I backed in, heels pressed,
                 toes gripping the sludgy coating.

Above our heads the windpump clanked as the wind changed direction,
        its tailfin a sail, blades turning lazy and squeaking . . .

And it continues – it’s a long poem – with these powerful tactile memories before switching to an interest in why such memories arise. It describes standing in Sydney, “by a stand of ti-tree bushes and eucalyptus” and experiencing a kind of revelation of plenitude, cast very much in terms of the strata that underlie existence. The poem finishes by reverting to the memory of the afternoon swim in childhood where the windmill drew up the water that was underneath the dry South African “straw-coloured grassland”. Again, this is to make sense of the memory as a proleptic experience of a kind of grace underlying the harsh surface: the poem, early on, reminds us that this is also a country where seams of gold lie underneath. The poetic issue, I think, is one of control. To make a good poem a memory is harnessed to an intense experience of the present and the result is a satisfying poem as poem. It’s just the purist in me that worries whether the situation might not be that memories deliver their message in their own language and shouldn’t be translated and structured. It’s a poet’s problem but a significant one and it’s probably the reason why I prefer the poems of memory here, like “Greyhounds – on the plots” where there is no translating or interpreting and little apparent structuring.

Peter Skrzynecki’s Travelling Among the Stars is a book full of memories and their effects. In fact his poetry, since his third book, Immigrant Chronicle, has been located in memories of the past. These have often been deployed for their recording quality – the word “chronicle” in the title is significant here – and for their social relevance as part of the attempt to understand and celebrate the effects and achievements of post-war immigration from Europe. In a sense there is nothing new in Travelling Among the Stars but the importance of the book is that it shows us – or, at least, me – that Skrzynecki’s poetry is not a comfortable repetitive mining of a standard stock of memories but rather a poetic oeuvre built out of obsession: these are memories that don’t go away though they may derive from experiences more than half a century old.

The core memories are located around two scenes. The first is family life in Sydney starting in the fifties and then following through to his parents’ deaths. The second is his time as a recently graduated teacher in a one-teacher rural school in Jeogla on the New England Tableland. I think we first meet Skrzynecki’s father in the second poem of Immigrant Chronicle where he is memorably described as someone who “kept pace only with the Jones’s / of his own mind’s making”. From there he has gone on to make regular appearances (or the poet’s memories of him have) and probably establish himself as the most loved father in Australian literature – at least in my knowledge of Australian literature. A number of the poems of Travelling Among the Stars detail one of the distinctive problems of age. We have in our possession small objects that are “left over” from our parents’ lives: in his case, his father’s shoe-last, watch and alarm clock, in his mother’s, “small plates and cups, statues / she collected”. Their value is only as a tangible adjunct to memory (I have an ugly cigarette box that my father was given when he left his job in England before we emigrated to Australia) and this can only have a painfully short life: “Who will save them / when I am dead – my children / who have lives of their own / or their children . . .”. It’s not a problem faced by those who die young.

Memories of his first stint as a teacher occur in both There, Behind the Lids and Headwaters – earlier books than Immigrant Chronicle – and in those poems you can feel Skrzynecki struggling with modes of writing about them. Fifty years after the publication of his first book, these memories seem to have settled into a mixture of surprise and rhapsodic celebration, an almost Wordsworthian celebration not only of the natural world and its inhabitants – Skrzynecki writes very well of the local people of the area – but also of the accession of the desire and ability to write. There’s a certain paradox in the fact that what seemed at the time an exile from the comfort and love of the family home into a difficult post in an unheard-of town hours to the north should result simultaneously in illumination and a realisation of one’s talent. But perhaps it isn’t such a paradox.

My sense of the function of memory in Skrzynecki’s work over the more than half-century of his writing is that there are tensions there which are made clear in this recent book. There is no doubt that there is a process of memorialisation going on, if we define memorialisation as a gift given by the present to the past. Those in the present pay homage to those who have passed by keeping their spirits alive, to an extent at least, in memory. Any chronicling does this even if its basic aim is to understand some phenomenon of the past like post-war migration. But there is a push in the opposite direction that I think grows as we age: the past forces itself on us in memories and demands that it be heard. Feliks Skrzynecki is a slightly more active figure, for example, in the poems of this book than he was in the poems of the earlier ones. The first poem, “My Dear Father”, is a letter to the dead man, written in order to “reconnect” and is thus more of a resuscitation than a simple description would be. Most tellingly in “A Visit from My Father” we have a dream – not announced as such until later in the poem – in which the father

  arrived unexpectedly
carrying a travel bag and asked
if he could visit.
“I won’t be staying long,” he added,
almost apologetically . . .

It’s ultimately a poem about dying and the father, still carrying his bag, leaves through customs at the airport where the son can’t follow him. His final message is that “once you pass through the gates / there is nothing to be afraid of”. But though it is advice about the future, to me it reads as a case of a memory – in the form of the father – imposing itself on the present, refusing to be something passive that can be conjured up in the present when the poet feels like memorialising the past. It’s no accident that when one of the Jeogla poems, “Wollomombi Falls (2)”, speaks of the memories of the place, it does it in terms of a similar visit:

. . . . .
Fifty years and it still surprises
by coming to mind
like a relative
who arrives without notice -
a reminder of youth and identity
in a home where I boarded
and knew that I belonged.

This idea of memories as the past insisting on paying visits to the present rather than passively recreated as memorials is put well by Pasternak in his autobiography (although there is an important distinction to be made between visits and gifts). Speaking of his memories of meeting Rilke, he says, ”I am not presenting my recollections to the memory of Rilke. On the contrary, I myself received them as a gift from him”.

Claire Potter: Acanthus: New Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022, 76pp.

The poems of Claire Potter’s new book, like those of its predecessor, Swallow, are simultaneously fascinating and challenging. It feels as though the book itself understands this and does its best to help you because there is a lot of material devoted to exploring what it is that the poems are actually doing. To begin with, there is a short note, preceding the first poem, which describes the inspiration behind the capitals of a Corinthian column. A basket covered with a roof tile was placed above the grave of a young girl. A dormant acanthus plant grew around the pot and over the tile, curving inwards as it rounded the corner. Seeing this, Callimachus decided to use it as a model – a challenging one – for a new kind of capital. This image is crossed with a quote from Derrida that seems to say much the same thing: “Everything will flower at the edge of a desolate tomb”. In a way these are both assertions that the baroque will evolve around emptiness: as Merwin says (or implies) somewhere, the bigger the emptiness of the doorspace, the more elaborate the decoration of the doorway. Why this is the case can be open to debate? is the emptiness loss or absence – they aren’t entirely the same. Does the art compensate for the nothingness or does it derive from it and thus, in a way, express it? The answer to that probably depends on where the philosophical tradition that you work within comes from. To make things a little more complex we are told, at the end of this note, that the poems of the book “might be said to begin” on the overlapping edges of the two accounts (Derrida and Vitruvius – who tells the story of Callimachus’s inspiration) and thus introduces the word “edge” which is going to figure largely in the poems to come. At the other end of the book is its blurb. Readers of these reviews will know that it is not a genre that I ever feel is very helpful for a critic and, I suppose, it isn’t intended to be since its main function is to lure innocent readers to buy the book. But in this case, the blurb has more help to offer, describing the poems as dwelling “in the landscapes of edges”, being interested in “surreal gardens, oblique geometries, cloud rooms, witches, and childhood remembrances”, all elements that can easily be traced in individual poems. Acanthus is also accompanied, as are all Giramondo’s books of poetry, by a sheet containing an Author Note on the reverse and, again, this is more than helpful:

An enduring line running through Acanthus is perhaps one that inevitably moves obliquely or sideways. Looking back now, many of the poems traverse the clarity of a dream-like state: diverting from an imaginary centre and meandering across strange ground. As with all poetry, fragments matter; figures and objects – as if on the level of the bee – are significant; unintelligible feelings turn into a blueprint language that errs and wanders in order to find a resting place. Nothing in the collection was fixed beforehand, you could say the writing took place in order to think a way through, think about certain things or events that at the time didn’t have any formal presence in my mind . . .

This degree of help is unprecedented and although those who don’t like the poems will think that this poet is protesting too much, I can see a fascinating attempt to make sense of – or to make a whole out of – very disparate poems some of which are extremely strong.

And then there is the help to be derived from the poems themselves which are often explicit about what they are trying to do to the extent of making it a kind of meta-theme. “Counterintuitive” is perhaps the closest to what I call a “poem-poem”. It begins with a passage by Gerald Murnane as an epigraph, a passage which seems to dissolve the writer-meaning-reader relationship in favour of “images and feelings in a sort of eternity”. There’s a not uncommon paradox in the fact that the poem which follows speaks very meaning-communicatively, almost prosily, in advocating a poetry of edges and intuitions:

There is a writing that escapes the head, rustles
          like stars of purple thistle,
moves the tiniest bones of clavicle, tilts like
                    a compass from centre to radius to peregrine. This writing
          cannot be analysed or
     understood by conventional means. Its solitude is written
in a vine that veins a crumbling edge, the foliage
           of a dream in amber . . .

and then modulates into the world of acanthus leaves developing around the edge of a tile. If it works as a poem it is because this expository introduction develops in a way which rather performs its own subject by moving into a metaphorical undersea world: “Sometimes from the seabed, it having become impossible / to work on land . . . / I drift to an underwater forest”. And this is only the first of a set of transformations. Underwater lights are likened to “paper lanterns / I pressed at other times” and the poem leaves the sea to speak of the “other times” which turn out to be liminal, edge-times:

                        At twilight for example or sometimes before dawn
               when I decrease myself and my misreadings in the camouflage
          of singing grasses where the tourmaline colours
     in a nest of eggs could stand in for a palette
of seaweeds and stones. Here the elements become
     woven, here the words come in the noon of heatwaves
                    backwards, forwards, sea creatures in bricolage
                             images and feelings in a sort of eternity
                  that float in a trilogy of windowpanes – the flaw
of the paper, the fleck of the eye, desire attempting to feel its way
      rub its runic skin against the arch of page

One of the reasons for quoting this poem at length is to give readers some idea of what Potter’s poetry actually feels like. Encountered on its own in a journal, say, I think this would be fairly daunting but within the context of an entire book, where it has an explanatory, and thus helpful, role, and where it is surrounded by friends in the form of poems which work on the principles that it speaks to, it looks a strong piece. The “flaw / of the paper” and the “fleck of the eye” are those revealing moments at the edge of concentration, the moments when Potter’s poetic self begins to become interested, the moments “too visible to be seen straight on” as another poem says. The exact nature of the “desire” which is attempting to feel its way is a bit more problematic. We are anxious to work out what it is since it hints at the thematic forces behind the poetry but is ambiguous. It could be nothing more than good old physical desire: this would suggest a core interest in the complexities of relationships. It could be the desire to find a structure and development in one’s life: this would account for the poems which revisit childhood and also for poems like “Of Birds’ Feet” and “The Birthday” which are very much about direction. Or, at its most extreme it could be no more than a desire to push one’s own poetry to explore what can be done with material that comes from the edges of things. At any rate, in a poetry so full of development and transformation it is understandable that readers search for reasonably familiar, conventional underlying certainties in as many poems as possible: ailing parents, problematic relationships, childhood memories and so on.

Other poems which have a methodological component include “The Art of Sideways” and “Plant Poem”. The former of these is one of the more difficult poems of the book even if its title makes its subject perfectly clear. It begins with a striking metaphor which determines much of what is to come: the diminution of sunlight as the northern winter solstice approaches is likened to the sleep of “a yellow snake in a tight burrow”. I think the basis of this connection is the sense of the sun circling lower and lower on the horizon (to the point where, if London were a thousand kilometres farther north and touched the Arctic Circle, the arc of the sun’s course would barely rise above the horizon at mid-winter). But the snake is also an image from Australia – “Last summer I stood over a sheath of snake in the bush” – something that introduces the issue of the poet’s journeyings and developments. The central section of the poem is an extended description of the snake’s shed skin, another metaphor for an individual’s development, but the main concern of the poem precedes this:

But just as rain can fall sideways   and eyes look aslant
might a northern winter   not widen light in the way
a snake   exceeds its skin?

Again, this wants to be read as a guess on the poet’s part that the changes in her life that are happening in the northern hemisphere may be changes in the quality of her perceptions but before we get to such a straightforward concluding assertion, there is a complex passage:

Trees are empty on the sidewalk   their fallen leaves   layered
and overlapping   like shelves of ancient papyruses
One tree casts a long shadow   two arms striking upwards
as though piqued   by pavement light
Between the shadow lying flat and still   and the tree standing
long and tall   there is an angle of forty-five degrees.
There is Icarus   falling from blue   to decimal   to amber
The distance between north   and south   is mapped
with the shape   and angle   of his eyes
The snake’s skin is colourless   his eye invincible
The winter light is warm   piercing darkness
a trajectory that points in all   directions

There are two puzzling parts here. The first is the issue of how the shadow of a vertical, winter-struck tree can be at forty-five degrees to the tree itself when, if the surface that the shadow falls on is a road or pavement (presumably “sidewalk” is used when it isn’t the accepted term in either Australia or the UK because it involves the word “side” which “pavement” doesn’t) it should be ninety degrees. The only solution I can offer here is that the shadow falls on a wall. It isn’t entirely a trivial point since Potter’s poetry reveals an interest in angles, not only as part of the sideways, edge-seeking view, but as something measurable. There is a nice poem about a couple and “the incandescence of love / and hate in two ordinary / people”. It is called “Eighty-nine degrees” and the line “eighty-nine degrees to the usual” shows it to be derived from E.M. Forster’s famous description of Cavafy as “standing at a slight angle to the universe”. Potter’s poem, and perhaps her poetry in general, wants to be more precise than this and actually to measure the “slight angle” as being one degree. Then there is the issue of Icarus, falling into the poem much as he fell from the sky. His presence is made less surprising by the context of the book’s other poems: he appears reasonably frequently as an image of plunging descent. The puzzle for me – which may be no more than a result of my own readerly inadequacies – is how he can fall from blue (the sky) through “decimal” to amber. It can’t be a matter of falling from one colour to another via a measurable process of declension since declension is measured in degrees which derive from the old Babylonian sexagesimal system and are thus not part of the decimal system. And why “amber”? Possibly it is a description of the northern winter light that the poem is concerned with or possibly it involves the meaning of preservation – it does occur in “Counterintuitive” in that sense: “a dream in amber”.

“Plant Poem” is rather a different beast:

The decision of a plant
to grow this way or that
might mimic the decision
to leave by this door or that
but ultimately like a plant
one stays put, moving only in minute
imperceptible degrees, craning
the neck for example towards the sun
towards light that remains glacial
towards peace that carries spurs
towards a singular voice, a neon
strobe which may flicker or be broken
but which nonetheless shines
some small thing inwards to pinken
the discoloured mind, brighten the worsted
eye looking this way or that
towards a door ajar but not open
extending just enough to hear as well as to feel
the work of the feet outside.

The mode of this poem is quite different to that of “The Art of Sideways” in that it is syntactically “smooth” moving through its propositions sequentially. Other poems are inclined to break the material up into individual units even if only by tab spaces so that the structure of such poems seems more like an assemblage. At their most extreme these poems begin to look as though they might be closer to the “field” style of half a century ago and it’s perhaps significant that three of the poems from Swallow are built around propositions from Olson’s Projective Verse essay. It’s interesting to see something that always looked to be so much “of its time” get a sympathetic run two generations later. (A passing reference to “roots and branches” in “Call them Blueprints of Weather” deliberately alludes to Duncan’s book, born of the same period and ethos as Olson’s essay.) As do many of the poems of Acanthus, “Plant Poem” also exploits a context that has become familiar. It’s familiar metaphorically because the plant recalls the acanthus curving around its roof tile and familiar thematically because it’s about seeing things at the edge of vision. The stationary observer picks up “some small thing” which is capable of flooding a “discoloured mind” with fresh colour. That then enables the poet to both hear and feel what is happening in the world outside of their anchored mind. It is, in retrospect, a very Romantic poem, concerned with the nature of the interaction between the mind and reality. One could almost read it as a gloss on Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” where the state of the poet’s mind “colours” the reality he sees and only the access of “joy” will enable him to throw a net over the phenomenal world. In Potter’s poetry there is none of the all-encompassing interactions of temperament that there is in Coleridge: for her it will be a small thing that works its way back into the perceptual and poetic apparatus.

Having dwelt for so long on poems that explore the methods behind the book, it seems trivialising to begin to list the book’s themes and I’ll simply touch lightly on them. One of the foremost is the notion of transformation. This can appear in a number of guises. It can be a matter-of-fact assertion that recalls the opening of Kafka’s story. A prose poem, significantly entitled, “Metamorphosis”, begins with the poet as spider centred on her silk threads and attached to the world. For all its vulnerability in the face of wind and rain it’s a stance engaged with the world from which poems can be made but the darker implication is that the poems are in the “benumbed form” of a captured bee or fly. Transformation is something enacted by metaphor of course in that the tenor is altered by the existence of a vehicle. I’ve mentioned the way in which the snake of “The Art of Sideways” enters the poem as an explanatory connection – the arc of the sun is like the coils of a hibernating snake – but it then becomes part of the fabric of the poem, altering its direction and transforming it as it does so. In “Slow Corsage” the detailed observation of the way a fellow train passenger holds a loaf of bread as he prepares to leave is disturbed by the sight of a camellia blossom when the poet gets home and the poem is then transformed from social observation into something quite different – “I became distracted from any trace of the tall man with the bread upon whose lapel, given the chance, I might have pinned a day-old camellia” – perhaps, as in “Plant Poem”, exemplifying the idea of the small thing which enables a wider comprehension.

Perhaps the most striking of the many manifestations of the idea of transformation occurs in “Pond Weather” which begins as an immersion poem – this time into a pond in the middle of London – and seems to want to be a poem about the dissolving of boundaries. But it changes direction radically at the end:

. . . . . 
Silken as a cormorant my mother arrives out of the trees
Her wings rake the pond into an exclamation of black glitter

She addresses me from her wingspan, her beak
clapping like a pair of scissors

I rise amphibian into her weather
A fugue of water beetles drifts into the brocade

They form a net of black eyes
She drinks a blue moon from their gaze

Hatching herself from bird to
woman to mother

It’s a strong poem and one that a reader would remember from even a casual first reading. Looking into it a bit more closely, you can see that the way in which it is a kind of transformation in reverse adds a lot to the dynamics of the poem – the thing that ultimately makes a poem memorable. In the edge-dissolving world of the pond it’s quite possible to transform one’s mother into a bird, it’s an environment ripe for transformations. But there is something exciting and challenging about the reverse process. Does the mother call the poet back to reality, a reality in which she is not going to be a bird but a mother? Is it that a domestic relationship – mother to daughter – trumps the transformational world of poetry? Whatever the answer, the poem has both a strongly memorable structure and, of course, that image of the “beak / clapping like a pair of scissors” – also something that is hard to get out of one’s head.

Transformation – metaphoric as well as actual – is only one of a series of themes in the poems of Acanthus, in fact the vaguer word, “interests” might be more suitable. An obvious question that a critic might pose would be to ask where are the poems which, instead of taking their own natures and grounding in edges of perception as their theme – as in, say, “The Art of Sideways” or “Plant Poem” – simply use these perceptual methods to generate poems. These will be poems which have nothing of the “poem-poem” about them. I would choose a couple of poems here, “Errand” and “Antigone”, as representative of two different kinds of result. The former begins with the image of a mother bird flitting in and out of bushes like someone sewing:

In and out of leaves   the blue tits sew the garden
because to the mother bird   in my mind   I’ve tied
an infinite string   as she zig-   zags fervently   shirring
distance in a loose smocking   of air

Faded winter grasses   rosebushes tinted with rust
amulets strung with the dry hairs of weeds
the entirety of the field   broken open   restitched
and engrossed   with minute wing-

work   a prowess   I must   remember   when putting seeds
out tonight for birds . . .

and it then moves on to become poem partly about doing necessary work (another theme of the book) and partly about the mother. “Errand” – whose title indicates both work and a side to side flitting movement (it derives from the same source as “erratic”) – is a poem that wouldn’t be too disorienting for a reader with no other knowledge of Potter’s aesthetic and thematic interests. Our reading of it is deepened by the context of other poems but we would not be lost without them. It may be complex, in other words, but it’s not really challenging. At the other extreme is “Antigone”, a poem I rather like now – partly because of its apparent refusal to bring poetic methods into the fabric of the poem – but which initially I found frustrating and irritating.

In a room circled by nets of gorse
I wept in a long black dress
Across the window, plovers rake the sky
with the gold dust of feather
I replay dreams with an abacus of stones -
hang-gliders, Catherine wheels, meadows
of butterflies because I curved into the sunken bell of his shoulder
unmarrowed his beard from everlasting snow
I threw dirt in ferns of silt and loam – there was no midpoint
between a daughter and a father
The hem of my skirt felted in bog-blood, billowing
like a diatribe in my uncle’s burning ears. In a room
circled by nets of gorse, I hung
in a long black dress

Not a poem that anyone is going to feel comfortable with immediately. The title itself is a very strong element, invoking Oedipus, his daughter and her uncle, Creon, and is capable of distending any poem it is attached to. To my mind, the tension that animates the poem is that between its mythic context and a domestic situation transformed, perhaps, by dream images. Other poems in the collection help a little: it is hard not to find a connection between the girl in her dress here (together with all the other images of circularity) and the spider in her web in “Metamorphosis”, for example, but, fundamentally this is a stand-alone poem with no connection to the theme of how the poet’s perception works. Is it an early poem, a little outside of the methodological emphases of Acanthus, or is it a new direction? An outsider can’t really tell but it’s just possible it’s the latter and that Potter’s next books will feature more poems of this kind where she decides to stop using an examination of her poetic methods as subject matter.

Brook Emery: Sea Scale: New and Selected Poems

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2022, 291pp.

Since I’ve written about Brook Emery’s last three books – Uncommon Light, Collusion and Have Been and Are – individually (the first two reviews can be found on this site) I don’t want to be guilty of too much repetition and so here I’ll focus on the new poems that accompany this selected and also, at the same time, I’ll try to explore some general issues that apply to all of Emery’s output. The new poems are begun with an extended set called “Self Portrait: Provisional Sketch” and concluded with another set “Self Portrait: Sea Scale”. This piece of structural organisation in miniature encapsulates something that can be seen as a crucial dynamic within all of Emery’s work: the tension between the reasonably aleatory processes of the mind that his work has always acknowledged and the desire to impose some kind of structure or order on the poetic expression of it. This could be rephrased as a tension between process and the creation of an aesthetically satisfying object. Process poetry – “I do this, I do that” – responds to the fluid nature of our lives, both mental and physical, in the world, but must, by definition, avoid those aesthetically pleasing structures that poetry, like all the arts, inclines to exploit: balanced juxtapositions, for example, or conclusions where the rhetorical level of the language is heightened.

You can see a lot of organisation going on at the macro, book-structuring level throughout his work. In the most recent book, Have Been and Are, all the poems apart from the last have poetic (or semi-poetic) epigraphs and the poems respond to these and employ them in varying ways. (It reminds me of the sequence, “Improvising with Flaubert”, from Emery’s first book and raises the general issue of the way in which quotation and literary allusion – sometimes at a very faint, gestural, level – are part of Emery’s poetic personality: the dailiness of life for anyone in the literary world involves the continuous entry of other literary texts if it is going to be honest about what goes on in the mind when the subject is going for a walk or washing dishes.) Collusion, the book preceding Have Been and Are, is imagined as a dialogue with a figure, K, and intersperses long meditations with short poems about what is happening at that moment in the local environment, a structure that recalls Bruce Beaver’s Odes and Days except that long and short are kept in separate compartments in that book. Uncommon Light was built around the tension between the human move to transcendence (to a divine light) and the horrors of human viciousness. Misplaced Heart, Emery’s second book, is structured in six sections, each with an introductory sonnet that begins with a metaphor for what the mind is: “The mind is a misplaced heart” is the last of these. Finally, even And Dug My Fingers in the Sand which might, as a first book, have been nothing more than a collection of successful pieces, has a strong six-part structure in which the opening poem of each part is also the title of that part. On top of this the first and last poems are seven-part sequences and thus have a similar balance to the two self-portraits which bookend these new poems.

All this argues for a strong impulse towards formalism in Emery’s work and a heightened sense of how units can be deployed to create an effect – an effect of aesthetic satisfyingness or conceptual unity – on the material at hand. And very often the material at hand is the opposite of satisfyingly shapely because it wants to follow the processes of the mind as it responds to particular stimuli. The two “Self Portrait” poems are a case in point. The first of them seems to imitate the random connections the mind makes when dealing with a theoretical issue:

How then shall we proceed? Word by word, fearlessly,
cautiously, line by line, one foot after another, again
and then again, seduced by the pull of a sentence
(as Marianne Moore would have it) into near and far,
where an umbrella and a sewing machine
circle uneasily on a dissecting table: implausible,
but interesting none-the-less. I write now
what I couldn’t write before or after, the inner
out of oneself, out in the world, write myself
as other in the “I”, doubling, tripling,
twisting in and out of shape. Reason is all we have,
reason lets go, is not near enough. Consider the body
and its out-of-body, the between where unknown waits.
I make my memories now, the gut a second brain,
skin a free-trade zone where words are coins.

In a way the centre of this poem is the reference to the umbrella, the sewing machine and the operating table. It derives from Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror and was taken up by Breton as a surrealist position: a total lack of conventional aesthetic shape in an idea can still produce an exciting juxtaposition. In Emery’s poem it stands for one kind of shapelessness – the result of free-associating and letting the words generate the meanings – and his embrace of it is accepting but cool: “implausible / but interesting none-the-less”. The rest of the poem focusses on the nature of the writing “I” and its relationship to the “written I” before finishing by making a gesture towards the mind/body dichotomy of Western philosophy and thus introducing one of Emery’s persistent themes: What is the mind and how does it work?

Having made this distinctive start in pursuit of a self-portrait, the other eight poems in the sequence explore various parts of the problem. The second poem, for example, treats of the dangerously attractive nature of words themselves and its introductory statement,

“Lugubrious”, there’s a word to conjure with,
what a mournful mouthful, which brings to mind
“lucubrate”, “lubricious”, “luscious”, but this 
could go on forever: pellucid, lucid, limpid,
even Lumen Scientiae that long-forgotten motto
of my old school where we studied Latin, French . . .

suggests the way the mind moves from one topic to a related one quite casually. It’s a movement repeated in the passage I have quoted above where out of the sounds of words arises the motto of his old school which then leads to memories of himself as a language-learner and -user before returning to the lubricious attractiveness of words themselves:

             “Bamboozle”, now that’s a word!
What might be its derivation, who might have
coined it? Should I look it up or let it be its own
hypnotic, almost onomatopoeic self? “Hornswoggle”,
boondoggle, befuddle, lollapalooza.

I want to say that the other poems of the sequence spin out from this initial concern with self and language but the metaphor “spin out” begs the question in that it assumes a particular relationship between the elements, as though the poem were structured as a developmental set of variations. Reading “Self Portrait: Provisional Sketch”, one has a stronger impression of a mind hopping almost arbitrarily among its themes, operating, in fact, as a mind rather than as a conventional poem does. Emery’s poems always have a strong forward drive and this is another way in which he seems to be a successor to Bruce Beaver, but whereas the drive behind Beaver’s poems, their skill with enjambments and long syntactic units, seems to come from an aggressive assertiveness, Emery’s poems seem driven by questioning and restlessness. No-one so consistently asks questions and the appearance of a question doesn’t weaken the drive but rather strengthens it, even when the question is just something that the mind produces as part of the way it plays over reality. Take the opening of the sixth section:

Can the mind be simultaneously consistent and complete?
The answer may have passed this way, may be hiding
in the words, erased and re-worked, erased again,
the derivative masquerading as original,
perpetually pitoning up the same sheer mountain face,
perpetually slippery-sliding down again, confounded
by the impulses of the heart, the temptations of the eye,
the doublespeak of distinctions with very little difference.
Is it possible to be a body without a mind,
or a mind without a body? Come, you Greeks,
come Descartes, to my assistance! Is it
matter within mind . . .

And so on, the tone recalling an earlier passage, “Is metaphor inimical to thinking / or essential? Ask Hobbes, ask Vico, don’t ask me!” There is nothing formally philosophical about this. It’s not pompous and it doesn’t aim for the serenely denotative of, say, late Stevens but instead confronts a series of issues stirred up by the mind as it considers ways in which its owner (or partner, or slave) could begin to make a portrait of himself. But to return to the issue of thought and form and the question of what shape the processes of thought have in Emery’s poetry, whether they have an aesthetic quality in themselves or must wait for one to be imposed, one part of “Self Portrait” seems to suggest that Emery thinks that the latter is more likely. A self-portrait is going to involve some kind of recreation of the past when the self was a child. Of course, as all autobiographers know, to describe one’s own past is to recreate a past self from the perspective of the present self, a process of “doubling, tripling” that Emery speaks about in the first section. The past appears in the poem’s fifth section and it is deliberately introduced not as a logical component of a self-portrait but as a random association produced by some hot weather:

Today, we huddle inside, wish for air-conditioning,
wish for fans, complain of February’s heat
as though it wasn’t always so, and suddenly 
it feels like 1959 again: the Bondi tram
is running on time, and the one down the cutting
to Bronte Beach; milkshakes are malted
and come in metal cups; milk is delivered to our door
by horse and cart . . .

And in a later section when the past is considered – “We used to eat Chiko Rolls, Sargents Pies, / Pluto Pups, Polly Waffles, Rainbow Balls . . .” – it’s subsumed in a comparison of the processes of cultural change so that the self of the poem is “out of time”: in not podcasting, blogging, or following people on Twitter, Emery describes himself (as many of our generation might) as “an analogue fish flummoxed in a digital sea”. The point I’m making here is that what one might expect to be a solemn attempt to recreate one’s past in all its sensual preciseness is allowed to slide into a predictable lament for the speed with which things have changed. If this seems a rough judgement, it can be said to be confirmed by the opening of the next section:

I seem to have gone a bit skew-whiff
in the aforesaid. Despite my intention, this poem has become lament,
a debased form trailing threads of self-indulgence
and nostalgia . . .

All of this analysis is really just an attempt to argue that the basis of Emery’s poetry might be an alertness to process in the form of observing and recording the movements of the mind. And that this produces material that although it has no aesthetic shape in itself, does fulfil one requirement that most of us hope that the aesthetic does: it is true to reality (I’m aware that there is a considerable literature in which poets have argued that the best poetry is the “most feigning”). The shape has to be imposed and this can be done at the macro level by a good deal of organisation and at the textual level by a mode of writing very sensitive to the questions that drive it on. The fabric of the verse is also thickened by a strong tendency to quotation. Again it’s a technique that might derive from Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets (a book celebrated in an early poem from Emery’s first book) where quotations are inserted frequently, although in Emery’s case they are acknowledged quotations. And, as I have said in the beginning, it is no more than an accurate and truthful representation of the processes of a literary person’s mind. Quotations, whether entire and acknowledged, or mere syntactic gestures (as in the “trailing threads” of the last quoted passage which is an ironic glance at Wordsworth’s “trailing clouds of glory”) are not intrusions or showings-off but part and parcel of the way in which a mind like this works.

In keeping with the desire to structure at a large level, this book-length group of new poems finishes with another approach to the issue of self-portraiture. Unlike the first, which begins with a mix of first principles about conceiving and describing oneself – language, text and perspective – this final poem, “Self Portrait: Sea Scale” is located in the sea, an element which in the work of another poet might herald a commitment to a grounded life but which, in Emery’s poetry is a symbol of reality in a permanent state of Heraclitean flux. Matter, as another poem says, “is movement – / restless, oscillating particles tensely bound”, and we merely “live on the fringe, not at the heart of matter”. Also interestingly, this longish sequence has two human characters: the poet in the sea and a man “on the shoreline / facing the horizon” who performs a complicated and ultimately uninterpretable dance cum exercise. I’m probably skating over a lot of complexities here but it is hard not to read the existence of the two humans as an example of the doubling that the first sequence, “Self Portrait: Provisional Sketch” spoke of. I read it as an expression of a double existence: the first in the sea of “reality” and the second – standing on the shore between the flux of the sea and the solidity of the rocks that lie behind the shore – making the equivalent of poems in his body motions. At any rate the final poem of these new poems wants to end on a note which is simultaneously upbeat and undeceived about the inevitable processes of temporality. It begins by quoting Issa’s famous haiku which, in a few words, encapsulates the human response to flux by art:

What unfolds here, unfurls, is grace
(On a branch / floating downriver /
a cricket singing). I give thanks
for joys which come unbidden,
which cradle the uncommodified body
in a caress which could as easily kill.
I will take the devil’s deal for more of this,
for the dance, the sounding beauty, knowing always,
that I will surely end.

Many of the other new poems are brilliant. Again, as we expect by now, they are carefully divided into groups by theme and each section is marked by a three line poem which responds to the group that has gone before (the first “Self Portrait” group, for example, is followed by “Devote less time, O Poet, / staring into the mirror: / you can’t write your own reviews). The first of these groups is very much in Emery’s mode of philosophical speculation and its first poem, “Rendezvous” is devoted, yet again, to describing the odd and unpredictable movements of the mind. As a poem, it is structured around four descriptions of mind, beginning: “that dematerialised, invisible thing, / swaying like a ship’s light in a storm, / picking out memories, slights, landmarks / which may not exist at all . . .” and so on. You feel that the poem is built as though it were a compressed version of the sonnets which occur throughout Misplaced Heart. The second of these poems, “Pickpocket”, is about how the mind plays tricks in terms of our experience of time and change, allowing one state to overlap another. Memory, it says memorably,

                                  contrives
to catch us off-guard, pick time past
from our empty pockets or put it back again.
Nothing mysterious here, other than a dawning realisation:

that the obvious can still surprise is, in itself, a surprise.

Another poem, “Joe Palooka”, focusses on memories, also, describing the way images of the past, of childhood, recur unpredictably:

 . . . . .
The past comes back stuttering, backlit
and un-sequenced like slides rattling and sticking
in an old-fashioned carousel:

A scene with a dog you can’t recall, children in cashmere,
three-quarter pose, awkward in a photographer’s studio,
a paddling pool made of canvas . . .

One thinks of the description of school life that the second of the poems in the original “Self Portrait” sequence falls into when it looks as though the poem is going to be about language.

Sea Scale collects the work of a major poet. It’s outlook – “demotic/philosophical” as I’ve described it earlier – seems to derive from its location. It’s a Sydney book in ways which it would be difficult to be too satisfactorily specific about – after all, all of Australia’s major cities are on the sea, inhabiting the symbolically potent landscape between rock and wave. But it does seem work which echoes, though it is very different, the poetry of Bruce Beaver, another poet of sea and shoreline. But, as I’ve said, rereading these, essentially twenty-first century poems (Emery’s first book was published in 2000), I’m struck be the tensions between the accurate delineation of process – especially the processes of the mind – and the desire to make aesthetically satisfying, even beautiful (a word that many of Emery’s poems worry at) structures. “Is this shape without pattern”, asks one of the new poems, making an important distinction but leaving it, as so often in Emery, an open question. Finally one might focus not so much on the tension between process and form as between experiencing and writing. Writing is imposing a kind of shape, even if no more than the shape of an interrogative clause, but the writing act, as Emery has said somewhere, involves a lot of fiddling, playing and exploring. It is not a logical controlling of meaningless flux. Typically, one of these poems brings the act of writing and thinking about writing into the texture of the poem itself. After making an analogy (very relevant in terms of form imposed on process) with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a law which, narrowly interpreted, would require process to triumph over form, Emery stops himself:

     That’s going too far:

stretching a milestone moment in physics and turning it into
      a cheap poetic trick.

Peter Boyle: Ideas of Travel

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2022, 160pp.

Like his 2019 book, Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, this new work suggests itself as at least a kind of diary by giving the dates “September 2020 – November 2021” at its conclusion. It differs from that earlier book, of course, in that the former was really a grief-diary, marked by responses to loss. Ideas of Travel records poems made during the pandemic but makes no specific reference to those times apart from choosing, as its focus, the idea of travel, one of the great losses of the period. In fact, one might read the title as a humorous take on the cliché that, since “real” travel is denied us, we might profitably choose to focus a little more on “inner” travels: read some books, play board games with the family, etc. The very choice of the word, “travel”, over the more poetically acceptable synonym, “journeying”, in the title leads me to think that Boyle might have had that irritating cliché in mind when he found a name for the collection. Significantly, the word “travel” doesn’t occur in any of the one hundred and forty poems that make up the book.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Boyle’s marvellous poetry that this is a book of a very different sort of journeying to the conventional, touristy kind. We could describe the journeys as voyages into the self but, although all of the poems here are, in a sense, internal voyages, this isn’t really a satisfactory description since they open out into otherworlds that are vast, even infinite, and which the voyager often can only dimly intuit. Of course, to travel one has to have a geography, and one of the pleasures of Boyle’s poems is the way we are lured, as critical readers, into trying to be precise about that geography. The simplest map of the kinds of journeys being undertaken can be found in the book’s very first poem, a prose piece in which the reader is invited to see the “small stone lozenges of a path” which leads over the hills and, literally, far away, since the path will provide a standpoint from which “if your legs can carry you, you can stand on tiptoe and see the infinite”. I am always a little leery when the mathematically problematic matter of “the infinite” is invoked in poems, but this is only a prelude to an immensely complex geography. If the poems of the book were no more than an extension, through various modulations, of the invitation to experience the infinite, this would be an unrewarding book indeed, but there is surprisingly little repetition and a good deal more exploration in Ideas of Travel.

Another early prose piece – No 8 – is a complex extension of the first and, at the same time, the beginnings of an overt geography. It speaks of a series of roads, each deeper than the other, or, at least, each running under the other:

The road went further down under the trees, under fences and slowly decaying houses, below high-voltage barriers and under purple fields of bracken and thistles. Entering the ocean, it continued unperturbed across sunken valleys where cattle once grazed, over the skeletons of abandoned shepherds’ huts, below the stone slabs of the drowned city.
	And, beneath the road of your waking breaths, the road of not-seeing, not-moving, the well-paved royal road of sleep, and under sleep the road of spiralling dreams – and under that, the lone solitary road, a road with no one on it, the road where all the dreams of a lifetime, remembered, not remembered, fuse together, stretched out under the world’s inner sky. The long quiet space of the one flash of light that held you.

Interestingly, the poem doesn’t begin with the road of ordinary, “everyday” life – the one we barely register as we drive to work or to the shops – but with a slightly surreal one, a road travelling through a drowned city. I take the significance of this to be that Boyle resists being fitted into the common scheme whereby poets are seen to remind us that we aren’t really awake to the realities of the world and allow our brains to be fooled by overriding perspectives. In Boyle’s poetry, generally, we take for granted his distinctive view of the world and our perceptions of it: it’s a starting point, not an end product. The next two roads in No 8 are dream roads, a reminder of the importance Boyle’s poetry places on dreams. Dreams, together with conscious “poetic” conceptions, form the major image- and structure-producing elements of this poetry. But I read the final road – “the long quiet space of the one flash of light that held you” – although it might be read as a statement in apposition to the road of totalised dreams – as a separate road, a road which opens the way to many of the poems of this book.

There is a lot of stress here, for example, on childhood especially as a time of flashes of light. In fact Boyle comes close to the conventional notion, here, that childhood is a time in which the perception of the infinite, of magical otherworlds, the true nature of things, and so on, is a natural response which is only ironed out of us by the act of growing up and being properly socialised – what Boyle refers to in one of the poems as a process whereby you “marshall on your carapace / woven over a lifetime”. Sometimes childhood is recalled by an event in the present, as in No 48 where being hospitalised as an adult brings back memories of being hospitalised as a child. Something is happening a second time and “I don’t know if seventy years separate the two events or seven minutes”. Childhood is also a place and state of mind which the adult attempts to revisit. No 66 describes this painful process of climbing a hill towards a childhood home and finding the houses on the way full of “threatening larger-than-life figures all wearing masks and garish summer costumes from the 1960s”. These turn out to be “witches and wizards possessed of an exquisitely refined malevolence” but they form an impassable barrier, “I am only a block now from my childhood home but I know I will never get there. No matter how far I walk, life offers no right of return”. No 134 describes one example of a blessed “flash of light” in which a door to childhood and childhood’s superior perceptions is held open for a moment:

At random, at the wrong hour
for the space of a few heartbeats
memory holds the past open
ready to be touched:

one winter morning in childhood
in the open door
watching my breath
ghost itself in the spiralling air.

And then there are the dead. They play a major role in the poems of this book, perhaps because of Boyle’s recent loss. They live below – as they do in the ancient cultures of Homer and the Hebrew bible – and visitations to them involve the downward movement that is so potent in Boyle’s poetry. (A single poem about a childhood memory, No 24, which looks, on the surface, quite unexceptionable, may be important here. In it the boy climbs upwards towards a cave from the inside of which he feels that he could tunnel to the centre of the earth. It almost seems an image out of Jules Verne’s narrative of journeying to the centre of the earth but it is significant that to go down into essences you have first to go up.) Although the dead are gathered “in small crowds, their hands / lightly joining” in regions below, they are also inside us. One of the poems about his dead mother, No 81, speaks of how the dead live within us:

Now she is dead
I carry my mother inside me.
It is how the earth is made.
In an inner space behind space
out of the everyday, the chaotic,
the greater and lesser disasters,
she fashioned a single thread 
of luminous being.
. . . . . 
Lost, now ash or air,
the dead we love have gone
so impossibly far inside us.
Brushing against the curve of silence
we touch most deeply
only what we can never hold . . .

As another poem (one which, incidentally, deploys the odd, and in this book, repeated, image of shirts on a washing line) says:

. . . . . 
Between the rows of freshly planted shrubs
the dead have given up
on resurrection. From now on
they will speak only from inside us –

whispering scrambled incantations
from their manuals
of grief and love, trying to mend
the broken universal translation machine
that ferries us across time.

The dead lead another life within one of the lower worlds and Boyle’s poetry is especially sensitive to the way in which different worlds impinge on each other. These might almost be thought of as a variety of contact narrative, of the sort that anthropologists are fascinated by: that moment when two cultures with radically different interpretive frameworks meet each other. Poem No 23 imagines an inhabitant of an underworld as moving upside down so that it is “underneath its own shadow, stretching downward into the earth’s remotest layers”, an image which ensures that “our world” is “at once doubled and deprived of foundation”. Not unexpectedly the most moving points of contact are those between the living and the dead, something that recurs constantly at least in Western cultures. An early poem, No 14, imagines meeting with the lost partner, rather like two bubbles touching, and each partner is writing to same work: “And the poem you and I are writing now, / on our separate sides of the void, / glitters as impossibly as silence . . .” A potent image.

Thus far in this review I have been forced to adopt some of the worst practices of critical analysis in attempting to treat the book as a whole, a solid mass of poetry, and then to abstract some of its features. The nature of Boyle’s notions of the geography of his different worlds really forces one to do this but I want to look now at some of the features more specific to the book’s poetry as poetry. The first thing one would observe is that the book is made up of both prose poems and free verse pieces. The conceptual frameworks that underlie Boyle’s work make it immensely suitable to prose poetry: we are going to be fascinated by complex and striking ideas rather than by the skilfully chosen line and stanza breaks. But there is, within the poems, more variety than one might initially see. There are a few poems with what I would call a distinctly hieratic cast. Take poem No 33, for example, made of three stanzas each beginning “Music for the five princesses” and ending with a comment about the realities which these creatures never know: “Grief”, “The bones’ deep pain, the heart’s emptiness” and “Love’s grief”. Each stanza deals with a specific activity or skill of these imaginary princesses and this adds to the sense of patterning in the poem. It’s just possible that it is an allegory prompted by an experience of some contemporary’s luxurious life, or it may even be about how formally constructed poetry – what the princesses do – doesn’t penetrate the human experience very deeply. If the latter is the case then there is a deliberate irony in writing a more formal poem than usual about the blessed but empty life of these privileged princesses whose lives are eminently formal. But whatever the motives generating the poem are, it does represent a momentary change of mode from the contemporary free verse of most of the poems. Poem No 47 is not dissimilar. It describes an accession of desire to which even the elderly are subject even if “it’s the wrong time of life for this / breathless visitation”. But desire is expressed as the arrival of Apsaras – the erotic, dancing demi-goddesses of Indian classical mythology. The humorous disjunction between these creatures and the ordinariness of modern Australia – “The Apsaras have come for tea” – is what drives the poem and, although it isn’t as formal as No 33, it has a quality rather different from most of the other poems. The same could be said of No 127. Here the material is straight, as they say, from the Boyle playbook in that it deals with the difficulties of launching out into life’s journey, but the structure is very formal. The first stanza announces that there are “five layers of leave-taking” and the central stanza devotes two lines to each:

. . . . . 
ragged bush choked with vines and lantana
                  running down to the harbour,
the water’s blue crests flecked with sailboats
                  and passing ferries,
the strip of shoreline opposite with its white cliffs,
                  its miniature houses and cars,
and, beyond, the open sea stretching
                  clear to the horizon,
behind the horizon, across immense oceans,
                  the glittering facades of other worlds . . .

There is something stately and attractive about this sort of construction, especially in contrast to the free-flowing stanzas that make up most of the other poems.
Finally, there are the short lyrics. These might be described as poems which don’t so much explore the complex geography of Boyle’s vision but rely on it when they go on to make a statement or image. They are often very striking as poems and they also have something to say about a certain kind of lyric poem in general. Great poems like Blake’s rose and sunflower are simple statements arising out of a complex view of things. As such they adhere to the requirement of the “purest” lyrics that they be both simple and have a “thrown-off” quality about them: as though a dozen might be written effortlessly in a day. They also have a “throw-away” quality about them: as though they were no more permanent than the situation they catch. And we know that in the cultures of the world millions of such poems are “thrown away” in that they never achieve the status of being copied or, in later technological cultures, of being printed and circulated. (When I think of this I always shudder slightly at the way in which the “lepidum novum libellum” of one of my favourite poets, Catullus, survives in a single flawed manuscript from the middle ages and of the way in which so many Latin poets, some named by Catullus, don’t survive at all. And that in a globally dominating culture with a manuscript-copying industry. The slightness of this kind of lyric means they don’t have the same survival chances as the more solid epics, histories and long, philosophical poems.)

Sometimes, as in the case of No 126, Boyle’s lyrics are striking statements made possible by the view of the geography of the world which the rest of the poems – and Boyle’s earlier work – explore:

Everything that seems infinite
is only once.
A dog barking, a day passing.

But at other times they are allowed to register something of the emotional experience of some part of that complicated world-view. My especial favourite is No 122:

After pitching the heart
to the line of the sky

to descend a little, entering
the humble foreground of being –

upside down, at full speed,
to join nightfall’s raucous procession
of cockatoos cascading through trees.

Geographically, it’s a “going-down” poem, but it’s hard not to respond to that wonderful final image of cascading cockatoos.

A. Frances Johnson: Save As

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2021, 76pp.

The poems of Amanda Frances Johnson’s fourth book have the same kind of double focus as those of her earlier collections. They look towards personal and family history as well as outwards to a world that seems fraught with intimations of apocalypse. And, as with the earlier books, the poems are divided into large sections with related titles in a way that stresses that these are not self-contained poetic subjects. In The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street there were future, present and past sections; in Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov the three sections were homophonic puns – “Soar”, “Sore” and “Saw”. Here the two sections are “Save Us” and “Save As”, the former generally made up of poems focussing on individuals and the second on wider, public concerns. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that the title of the latter (which doubles as the title of the whole collection) is something of a motif in Johnson’s work. It appears as early as in the poem, “Future Ark”, from The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street where the saving of species is done digitally – “inside the darkened hull, / /under haloes of urgent ultraviolet, / you hit save as”. A somewhat similar scenario of a future flood generated by climate catastrophe appears in “Ultima Thule: Swimming Lessons” from Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov and the same pun, “save as”, is deployed at the end. At any rate, the way her books are structured suggests a desire to see relationships between poems that look outward towards the gathering storm and those that focus on individuals, especially family members. These latter poems tend not to explore inner lives but rather lives under great stress and as such could be seen as intimate versions of those that focus on planet-wide matters.

The first poem of the book stresses the interaction of personal and familial with the broader environment in which these are located:

I was a daughter of lead, petrol my childhood.
Bowser and breast fed the same rush -
stains on the drive sump lakes for doll picnics.
“Nice clean Amoco” was seatbeltless.
The futura was Ford. Opec. Crude.
Combustible plant and animal corpses. . .

and as such it perfectly establishes the book’s double focus. But it also sets the tone in a way that is quite complex to explain. To summarise: good poetry – it is often said – unlike journalism, doesn’t draw its energy from the things it is dealing with but rather from its own resources: an introverted artform. When it comes to the apocalyptic quality of the times in which we live balanced against the personal pain of ageing, dementia-suffering parents and relations, good poetry can’t expect to derive its energy from the misery and fear it faces. Johnson’s approach to this has always seemed to be to make sure that her poems stay afloat by, on the one hand, their textual density and on the other, their conceptual sophistication. So that first poem, very much about the oil-based culture of the end of last century, wins readers over by the way it uses the idea of the poet as a “daughter of lead” – a description repeated at the beginning of the first three stanzas. This also establishes a kind of hieratic tone which is slightly at odds with the whimsicality of the conception. It’s a tonal tension that occurs throughout Johnson’s poetry: a clever conception as a way of dealing with obvious (almost cliched) environmental issues helps to strengthen the texture of the poem because there is a slight dissonance in tone between that required by the subject matter and that provided by the conception – which might be humorous and almost larky.

The book’s second section, “Save As”, begins with poems which serially address standard early twenty-first century environmental issues: deforestation, coal-dependence, space junk (though the poem, “Moon”, has a more general view of pollution on earth than that suggests) and global warming. And these poems work hard, at a conceptual level, to escape the charge of allowing clichéd subject matter to produce a cliched poem. The first of them, “The Violent Trees”, might have developed out of the image of a war on trees as it is conceived as a dramatic monologue spoken by a soldier in an army which is attempting to put down a kind of imaginary (or faked for political purposes) insurrection by an army of trees. That makes a start at producing an uncliched poem but it is made more satisfyingly complex when it introduces the issue of poetry itself. One of the reasons for the speaker’s hatred of trees is the idea that trees are responsible for bad poetry by providing conventional nature images. They, like poetry, need to be taught a lesson about discipline:

. . . . .
          Trees teach the slouch-hatted soldier
the deceptions of camouflage, provoke anew
the wild, bloody signatures of white foresters.
I blame trees for straining poetic excess:
“verdancy”, “mote”, “middle distance”, “landscape”.
Like me, the politician plays a useful role,
busily extracting, taking nature down,
teaching poetry a lesson, discipline. . . 

Raising the issue of poetry immediately complicates the author’s location – as a poet – in the poem. It’s worth noting briefly here that another feature of Johnson’s poetry is the way she increases the poems’ density, and hence their ability to stand on their own feet, by the use of puns and allusions. “Mote” and “middle distance” recall Max Beerbohm’s celebrated parody of Henry James, “The Mote in the Middle Distance”. Assuming this is intended, it is hard to see what role it was designed to play but it is a good, brief example of this method of increasing density by a particular kind of intertextuality and warning the reader that there are unexplored avenues to surprising places behind the surface of the text.

The best example of conception and density might be the title poem, “Save As”, which is ostensibly about global warming but is conceived as an address to that “muscly thug” the sun. Of course, any such address makes one think of Donne – “busy old fool, unruly sunne” – and so the poem is built by allowing “The Sunne Rising” to infiltrate it and prevent it sliding into a predictable lament about the disappearance of Arctic ice, etc. Donne’s poem is not about global warming but is an “aubade” – a morning-after-love poem – about his relationship with his lover (and the way in which that can encompass the whole universe). This fact alters the direction of Johnson’s poem so that she imagines her partner leaving to escape the sun:

. . . . . 
Your solution, dear, is pack
the hybrid wagon with the rags
of modern time and drive
to the other side, as if time
apart in remnant bush will cure
when leaf and love are done. . . 

“Save As” is, thus, a love poem crossed with an environmental protest. I’m not sure that this crossing works linguistically – “Thou art teary now” – but conceptually it produces something very intriguing. And as with “The Violent Trees” – and other poems – the role and function of poetry is involved. And the prospects are not good: in an environment where “climate-denying princes play us” poetry can only “elegise the fight” and as a result, as the poem says, when you press “save as” on the keyboard, “world fails to attach to worlde”. The “real” world doesn’t obey the rules of what is, simultaneously Donne’s cosmos-defining love coupling and the world of a mere verbal construction such as a poem.

The issue with a poetry that relies so much on an intriguing and challenging conception to rise above a cliched approach is that, although there is something intellectually and aesthetically satisfying about this, it can also be at odds with the tonal environment of the situation. Someone fighting the bushfires of 2019-2020 might well, in fact, see it as smart-arsery typical of poets. It’s a very old problem but each new attempt to solve it can produce something valuable. I think Johnson is a clever exploiter of the tonal dissonances that I have been speaking about and the way “Save As” connects to Donne is a good indicator of where she, at least, finds solutions. The so-called “Metaphysicals”, of whom Donne is the most important, revelled in conception – the more dissonant the connections, and the more dissonant the resulting tone, the better. The bully-boy tone of the opening of “The Sunne Rising” – “Busy old fool, unruly sunne” – is an obvious example, being far from the solemn, nature-struck tone expected of a conventional lyric address to the morning sun. These dissonances infuriated Johnson’s namesake, Samuel, as we know, because his very different notion of poetry involved skilful execution within conventional approaches and, above all, a tone in keeping with the solemnity (or humorous possibilities) of the chosen subject. I think we are happier with Donne than with the slightly more “journalistic” world of Eighteenth century poetry but the fact remains that, although intriguing conceptions excite us, help a poem stave off cliché, and strengthen the fabric of the poem itself by generating exciting tonal dissonances, there still remains the issue that the poem is driven away from being a proper response to the crises it wants to respond to.

Putting general issues aside and getting back to this excellent book, it is hard not to see it as a kind of compendium of conceptions. “A Short History of Aluminium Cans”, like “The Violent Trees” is a monologue and the interest lies in the fact that the speaker is a can himself (itself?) meditating, as humans need to do, on the environmental damage caused by his own existence as well on his bleak future prospects. Again, conception is bolstered by textural densities. He says “For my part in that, I’m sorry”, echoing Kevin Rudd’s parliamentary apology to the stolen generation, and, interestingly, “What’s left is aftermath, / demise of brand auras, refund / potential . . .” Here the joke is that the can sees only the horror of the demise of the can, rather as humans think of the catastrophes ahead in terms of the havoc wreaked on their own species. But the word, “aftermath”, suggests an allusion to Randolph Stow’s great poem, “The Singing Bones” and it’s tempting to think that part of the conception of the book as a whole might be an intertextual response to that poem’s concern with how the present is built on the bones of a past with very different values and how those bones continue to sing for those who can hear them. “My country’s heart is ash in the market-place, / is aftermath of martyrdom” is a reference which chimes very well with Johnson’s concerns and the word “ash” has already appeared in the poem “Save As” which speaks of poetry’s “ash-in-glove”.

“Ring-in” is another example of a poem approaching a very conventional theme – having a dead parent’s personal property returned. It’s one of the personal/familial poems from the first part of the book and is conceived as a description of a trip, with a friend, to a mortuary block “in a rainy satellite town of failing industry” to retrieve, especially, her mother’s rings. The approach to the place has a memorable and metaphorically dense description”:

. . . . .
                       We find the place, a plain Besser-brick parlour
framed in doric grief, the short drive massed with orphaned
icebergs that can never know life as a true rose . . .

The “orphaned icebergs” are those medium-sized pyramid-shaped rocks that people used to paint white and use along drives. They are orphaned because the word used to describe the way icebergs break off glacial ice-sheets is “calving” and these rocks are taken out of any parental context – like the poet herself, here. Again, the theme of poetry appears in the metaphor used for the noise of the friend’s tapping on the car window – “I can’t hear against the rain’s dolorous half-rhyme, and you, you are typing / on the roof, on your old Scalextric” – and the poem finishes, as its title suggests it might, with a series of puns on the word, “ring”:

We drive off together, all three, your sun-spotted ghost-hand in mine,
rings tight, but not tight enough; this unbearable ring, a ringing-in,
I peer through the wet windscreen, wiper blades noisy, ragged gulls arguing
for chips and a decent bird book entry. I see my friend is crying.
But me, I am desperate to spot a true rose.

The title poem, “Save As”, has set me thinking in terms of Metaphysical poetry and the tensions between the tone expected of the subject matter and the delight in the yoking by violence together. I’m momentarily inclined to see John Donne as Amanda Frances Johnson’s totemic poet and in this connection it is good to look at the one poem in the book where the conception is so complex that it is very difficult for a reader to twig to what is going on. “Death in Venice” appears in the second part of the book just before “A Short History of Aluminium Cans” and after another Italy-based poem, “Drought Faith”, which describes the moment when the Vatican, in 2017, turned off its fountains as a response to severe drought conditions: there are a lot of metaphors about sources, the flow of faith, “myths of perpetuity” and so on, here. “Death in Venice”, however, is a puzzle from beginning to end and this is because it’s difficult to understand the conception. It’s ostensibly about the dead:

We knew better than to come back,
marry ourselves underwater - 
no better church, our dull bones said,
than history’s murk lagoon.

In sleep, marble lions roam
with intent. Eyes closed,
stone paws gentle our necks,
force ersatz land claims.
We resile, ash-scattered.

There! Our old selves crawl
back to meet us. Marble, flesh
and water compact but remnant
amphibians won’t photograph . . .

I’m not sure at all what is happening here though that doesn’t stop one enjoying the poem. Its reference to “land claims” makes one think that this is as much about Australia as Italy. It’s positioning after “Drought Faith” makes one think of Venice’s experience of the same drought and the way in which lowered water levels might bring the bones of the past into view. My final, tentative reading is that it is really about history and how, in all places, history is built on the bones of past inhabitants. And these can, despite a radically different present – there are now “Nigerian hawkers” at San Marco, and cruise ships operate relentlessly in the area – still be brought alive enough to confront the present. As the poem makes the bones say, “we rise, open-mouthed, to the surface, / hoping to see ourselves there”. As such “Death in Venice”, a most un-Australian poem in terms of its setting, may well be a response to Stow’s “The Singing Bones” in which bones are allowed to sing their own song.

Adam Aitken: Revenants

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022, 90pp.

Since his first book A Letter to Marco Polo, published in 1985, Adam Aitken has always seemed, at least to me, the quintessential Asian-Australian poet. The double-barrelled quality extends right down to the genetic level because he is not merely the child of an immigrant Asian family but the product of a marriage between an Australian man and a Thai woman.

His development as a writer took place during a period in which such issues developed rapidly. The migrant experience moved from postwar European migration to Asian migration. At the same time the response moved from a need for documentation to extensive theorization both of the migrant mind-set and of kinds of hybridity. As an intellectual development, this latter is not something I have followed but I can say, as an outsider, that it is more likely to produce interesting results poetically than the idea that poetry’s main function is to document. On the other hand, it’s not likely that much poetry of any interest will come out of an intellectual (and career-academic) subject area – something that good poets have always seemed to know instinctively.

Letter to Marco Polo is made up of poems written after its author’s stay in Thailand during his early twenties. The aim of the trip and the writing that followed is clearly to make some sense of the Thai component of his heritage which, at the time must have seemed the more exotic and intractable. The poems tend to be built around the strangeness of individual characters like his uncle, “the old chief prosecutor”:

. . . . . 
No one left to send to hell he took up poetry;
manuscripts scattered a desk wide as a raft.
Wrong-doing locked in glass -
teak cabinets, swords laid to rest.
Who knows what life subsists in buffalo horn trophies? . . .

but also around odd events, the kind that somebody welcomed as a long lost relative needing a proper education in fastidious Thai etiquette might experience. The key to what made Letter to Marco Polo an important book in the mid-eighties is that the poems result not from a desire to document strangenesses or exploit them as poetic material but from a forensic drive to make some sense of a hybrid self. It’s a book of exploration, in other words, rather than poetic exploitation.

There is a big shift in emphasis that slowly develops in Aitken’s subsequent poetic career. The early poems seem to suggest that it is the Thai side (the mother’s side) of the poet’s life which needs exploration. It’s understandable since for a boy growing up quite conventionally in the seventies in Sydney with a brother and single mother (the father left when Aitken was thirteen) the Asian component is what seems to need exploration. This is made doubly exotic by being mediated through the mother who is not in any sense a straightforward migrant woman, bearer of a simple ethnic identity: her background includes being fluent in French and a lover of French literature, and being the first Thai woman to get a fork-lift driver’s licence in Australia (her later life is detailed in the poem, “Cairns”, from Eighth Habitation). But as the books have gone on, the father has played a greater and greater role. The reason for this might be simply psychological – in middle-age all men have to come to grips with their father in some way or other – but I sense that the real recognition is of the fact that the father is just as mysterious as the mother. To generalise this out, in other words, “familiar” Australian culture is just as exotic as South East Asian. But to follow the psychological line for a moment, the father is certainly an ever-present, slightly larger-than-life extrovert for the poet’s childhood who, in the poet’s adolescence, becomes an absent figure. He doesn’t make a debut poetic appearance until “Sonnets for ‘58”, a sequence from Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles, Aitken’s third book. It’s a sequence built around trying to understand what happened between your parents and how they – whose life histories you have been intimately involved with – managed to actually fall in love, marry and produce someone like yourself. And the hard evidence – despite the fact that both parents are still alive – is only really letters and old photographs. “A Biography of 13”, in the next book, Eighth Habitation, is a fine poem built around that unlucky number, and it makes a start at exploring the father’s (and son’s, of course) genetic heritage from a great-great grandfather who established a successful brewery, to a great grandfather who was a successful major in the First World War, to a grandfather who fought in the next war, down to his own father:

. . . . . 
13 years after V Day my father went to Singapore
and bargained with a waif at Changi
for 13 postcards, “so cheap”
he just had to buy them.
His talents were letters, logistics,
advertising copy, wearing suits.
At the Office Party in Bangkok
he danced, quite pissed, in women’s lace
then swapped the Major’s “lucky” digger hat
for a set of Dutch clogs.

When I was 13 my father left home . . .

This initial view seems to see the genetic history as one of decline but the father is a much more complicated figure than that: his often apparently empty-headed extroversion being balanced by business (and social) talents and an odd drive to be obsessively detailed, both in the carefully kept-up correspondence home and, especially, in the keeping of lists. This emerges in “Archive” from later in the book which is really material excerpted from the father’s diary and gives a clearer sense of the obsessive behind (or in direct conflict with) the amiably, boozily social, being. Another fine poem which precedes “Archive” is “The Fire Watchers” built around his mother’s furious burning of all of his father’s (generally rubbishy) books after he had left and the father’s interest in accidents – which looks like a prescient response to the shape of his career – an interest that is passed on genetically to his son:

. . . . . 
In the city he would always love
my father would slow down to procession pace,
passing accident scenes.
I asked a lot of questions then, a kid stuck on “Why?”
Obsessive, thirteen, and forensic I could memorise
the number injured, type of vehicle, angles of incidence.
Years before crumple zones,
crash dummies or digital instruments . . . 

By the time of Aitken’s brilliant prose memoir, One Hundred Letters Home, the father is centre stage – although a good deal of time is spent on his mother’s later history as well. The book takes its title from the exactly one hundred letters, carefully recorded, that Aitken’s father sent to his own mother when he moved to South East Asia in 1956. As a book it’s a probing of the life history of Aitken’s parents but it also reflects – as perhaps all the writings about poets’ parents do – an interest in the genetic origins of the poet’s own creative drive. Seen in this perspective, the father, with his obsessions and an approach to life that is most likely to end in failure (conceived in terms of how competently one deals with the world and navigates one’s places in it), seems to have more to contribute than the mother who comes across as having a steely competence about such matters.

At any rate the growing significance of the father prepares the way for this new book, Revenants, which, significantly, begins with the poem, “Xmas, Singapore 1957”:

Much better than that
Melbourne day
in ’56 -
so my father wrote
in blue fountain pen
on airline parchment
 
to his mother Jean.

Apéro-time then
English goose + trimmings,
a bottle of BOAC Bordeaux,
2 anti-acid for dessert
all in best company.

In itself it might not be the strongest poem in the book but it is hard to imagine one which better heralds the obsessions that drive many of the poems. For anyone for whom Revenants is their first experience of Aitken’s poetry, it might be quite a puzzle: “Yes, but so what?”. But on the other hand it makes clear to such readers where the author’s interests lie. Another of the early poems in the book, “Luang Prabang”, tells the story of the Frenchman who improved his mother’s French (before her marriage) and inculcated the important love of French literature but it, too, is a poem exploring genetic inheritance since it concludes with Aitken recording the result of his researches into paternity that are written about in One Hundred Letters Home: “The Frenchman who was not my father”. It’s an important blow at simplistic notions of how the creative gene is passed on.

While the first section of Revenants goes on to contain poems about South East Asia, the second section begins with “Sincerity”, another father-poem. This time the location is a hospice, a sign that personal interaction between father and son is reaching its inevitable conclusion:

. . . . . 
In the end, when you’re in ICU
don’t be dumb enough
to talk fitness to your ailing father 
or compare that to poetry.
Talk Buddhism, or Hinduism,
allow the staff to believe.

We didn’t argue, we both agreed to agree
more often, or not to say we didn’t agree. . .

This is followed by a poem, “The Far East”, which perhaps provides what current cliches would call “a more nuanced view” of the relationship, exploiting Western views of the East – a region of inscrutable inhabitants engaged in endless, intense mercantile activity – to make what seems to be a final judgement about a tortured process in which “you became / the template of my becoming”. The ending is a sustained deployment of metaphors of the give and take of trade:

. . . . . 
Some days I’m so extreme,
in the sense of far away,
too far away to calculate a trade,
like Marco Polo locked in a castle
on the edges of a distant green sea.

But on a sliding scale I’m
neither Oriental nor mean.
My tender presence brings you the key:

the gates open, at least an inch,
and the corridor sounds again,
with all the merchants of my desire
wanting a sale, offering closure.

The other component of Aitken’s poetic drive is response to particular environments, as though the complexities of family can be put aside and the poet function poetically as the observer he is, no matter what the significance of his own hybridity and the international relations of the countries he is in. So Eighth Habitation concluded with a sizeable group of Cambodian poems. Archipelago is like an entire book of such poems (based in France) and the final section of Revenants is devoted to more “French” poems, reflecting his current home. There is a lot of variety in these poems and considerable density to the point where one is tempted to feel that leaving family as a subject behind enables a freer dip into the complex possibilities of poetry. There are poems that “capture” an ambience (“Seasonal Domestic”) or a famous site (“Monet’s Garden, Giverny”), a poem about Stendhal and even a list poem – the objects on sale at a bootsale in Chateau St Victor. There are also three poems which relate to the book’s title and introduce something of a new theme. The revenants are, initially, imagined ghosts of people “who died too young” and a kind of alter-self which appears in a dream. The issue is taken up in the last poem, “Revenants Again” which asks what the functions of these figures are:

Not here to entertain
Nor forgive . . .
Then for what?

Guaranteed to pester
Break the ice
Or clear the air

To bring out the shining
To remind me to relax

Cast off, troubadour,
Stumble into the dream
And get well soon.

It’s hard not to read this as a note-to-self about the poet’s entire history as a writer driven by obsessions, especially those relating to parents and heredity. They aren’t guilt figures, in other words, and can be seen as a source of emotional liberation rather than a nagging problem that simply has to be solved no matter how many words it takes. It looks, in other words, as though Aitken’s future poetry might avoid the issue of family altogether and concentrate on the registering and exploring of the places he inhabits. But, of course, that’s only a guess and, if he intended this poem to be read that way, it would be a guess on the poet’s part as well as mine: experience teaches us that ghosts which demand to be placated can be fractious and unpredictable, and have a habit of appearing when they are least expected.

J. S. Harry: New and Selected Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021, 306pp.

One of the really distinctive voices among those poets whose careers begin in the 1970s belongs to J.S. Harry. She shows no particular allegiances among the groups, anthologies and received influences (usually American) of that period, doing her own thing in her own way. This new, posthumous collection forms a kind of companion piece to Giramondo’s earlier Not Finding Wittgenstein – a gathering of her Peter Henry Lepus poems – and together the two provide an ideal introduction to an unusual and fascinating voice. In addition, this New and Selected has a valuable introduction by Nicolette Stasko which, although it provides little in the way of standard biographical information (dates, occupations, travels, correspondence, etc), does give a strong sense of what the author was actually like as a person (something lacking in the most scholarly of recent literary biographies, built out of months spent in a library among the subject’s papers).

She is a very hard poet to describe adequately even though fifty years have passed since the publication of her first book, The Deer Under the Skin in 1971 – the fifth book in the Paperback Poets series of the University of Queensland Press. I’ve been reading her work since that time and find myself coming up with shifting notions of what is at the core of her poetry. After looking at this Selected, I’m inclined to see its central tension as a drive towards lyrical forms tempered by a distrust of many of the features of that form. This distrust is something shared by the poets of her time, some fearful of the dominance of a homogenised “lyrical ego” (rather a straw man since good lyric poetry is likely to present the self as something even more complex than theoreticians of the unstable created self are apt to imagine), others preferring to attempt to adopt the models derived from such contemporary approaches as “field theory”. Most, perhaps all, seem to be fearful of a kind of lyric smugness, or even the lyric kitschiness of the worst of the Georgians. In Harry, dealing with this distrust takes many forms. Sometimes it is countered in the structure of the poems themselves while at other times it produces a whole series of balancing poems devoted to issues of language, logic, poetry and meaning: Wittgenstein, Russell and Ayer tend to make appearances here.

The very first poem of The Deer Under the Skin, “The What O’Clock”, looks like an attempt to write a contemporary conventional lyric poem:

A puff-ball
on a slim green stem
is more attached
to earth than I.

The wind will tear
its seeds away -
perhaps they’ll root - 
Words root. My words? Mine?
. . . . . 

If first poems in first books often establish a sort of keynote, I think this does exactly the opposite: it lays down an extreme beyond which the rest of the poet’s work will never go, in fact may even fight against. I think – although I haven’t checked exhaustively – it is the only poem in her entire corpus that uses the first person pronoun as expressive of a conventionally simplified personal voice. In dealing with dandelion seeds it also risks being twee: as I’ll show later there is a recurring element of what has to be called “tweeness” in Harry’s response to the world (ducklings, the soft noses of animals, mossy hollows, compound adjectives, etc) and one of the tensions in her poetry is how to allow this in as a genuine personal response to the world while at the same time exercising a poet’s toughness. Interestingly “The What O’Clock” is revisited in a later poem, “Whistling the Fluff” from the 1995 volume, The Life on Water and the Life Beneath. By that time the nature of Harry’s interest in levels and in the balance between creation and destruction had become a little clearer. This poem is interested in three elements: the breeze, the seed and the fluff which enables the seed to find a home before itself being destroyed. The seeds themselves can be carriers of new life if they are lucky to fall into mud (or, as in another poem, into a “clump of horseshit”) but they can also fail and end up as food for the local birds, “taken out” as a memorable phrase says, “by some / gutblocked Duck of Chance”. The structure of the poem is to abandon any simple celebration of “a whole new / green generation” of “gold-flowered / weed dandelions” and switch to focussing on the fluff which carries the seed and which, unlike the seed, is able to exist, if only briefly, in the air.

The tensions between the drive towards lyric and a more analytical poetry of forensic examination especially of language but also of poetry itself, is often expressed in the structuring of the poems within her books. In The Deer Under the Skin, that opening poem, “The What O’Clock”, is followed by “How Old Pity Left the Poem” which imagines the poet killing pity (one of the expressions of tweeness) by extreme GBH:

So then I smashed him up
systematically
bashed his face and bled him
he slid down the wall
over-ready
The blood brightened
his greasy clothing . . .

It finishes with the identification of victim with abuser: pity is, of course, the poet herself: “I am the bugger he said / I am yourself”. This is followed by a three-line poem, “Guinea Pigs” – “on bad days / it is sweet to watch them / nibbling their lives like grass” – again lyrical but dangerously close to the cute. The fourth poem is the important “The Little Grenade” which is exactly about the tensions between lyricism and its opposite, though here the opposite is not a poetry investigating the philosophy of words and meaning, but a poetry of explosive action. It doesn’t, however, necessarily consider “explosive action” to be simply a politically incendiary result (the dream of many poet-activists of the sixties and seventies). It’s a bit more complex than that:

The little grenade
wanted poems that explodexplored
or pushed candles
inside the pumpkin people
to make flames sputter and drip
where their darkness bulged. . .

And the friend of the little grenade is on the side of a sensitive response though this isn’t described in terms that are entirely approving:

The he that was a friend of the little grenade
liked poems that sat fatly in the middle of stillness waving their feelers
The poems that he wrote were lumpy mattresses
stuffed with kapok. Or flock . . .

Although it is a poem of oppositions, the conclusion suggests a kind of compromise: “there will be room for explodexplore and stillness / in one of the corners”. It’s also intriguing that in tone and conception, this poem is designed to be read in Hans Christian Andersen mode – the ultimate in twee. Conceiving the central characters as “a little grenade” who has a friend described as “the he that was a friend of the little grenade” is not so far away from the world of ugly ducklings and little mermaids. Again, as with the decision to open her first book with “The What O’Clock”, I think it is a matter of deliberately raising an issue that the poet finds causes tension rather than suppressing it.

Evidence for this as a carefully evolved strategy is present in the way the next two books repeat the structure. Hold For a Little While and Turn Gently begins with its title poem, an overt discussion of kinds of poetry, perhaps expressly the “explodexplore type”

. . . . . 
He conceived of a style that could
                 rise up	off its page
and stop us cold as the steelpoint
sunk in, upto its hilt,
                  yet making fire
in the belly . . .

The poem further separates itself from lyrical assertion by using a technique Harry adopts in other poems: that of allowing the voice to be a parody of a bemused bureaucrat:

. . . . . 
What he did say was
that the Cora Indians	do not find it meaningful
            to distinguish
between the words of a man and his deeds	between
the sounds of a “mind”	and the moves of a body.
When we had proved, to our satisfaction,
that he was not	a Cora Indian, (and that there was,
            for him, some slight nuance
between the sound of the idea-knife in his
   “mind”	and the feel of a blade in his body)
                          he was quite dead . . .

At any rate, “Hold For a Little While, and Turn Gently” is followed by a poem in full lyrical mode, rabbits and all:

Already Someway Off

and peaceful
in the distance far
from the small fires
flickering,
the smells
of the raw
meats cooking,
there is a clearing:

here
a rabbit
grazes
the stubble
on his cheek;
the sun
moves out
through a rift
and suddenly
it is evening

As with so many of Harry’s lyrics, this contains its own “anti-lyric” elements. A peaceful scene contains rabbits but also the smell of cooking (something rabbits, and other innocent animals, might well be subject to). Death and violence are always present in such apparently arcadian scenes in Harry’s poetry.

Not to over-emphasise this point, the same structural set-up occurs in her next book, A Dandelion for Van Gogh. The first poem is the first part of a diptych the second part of which turns up half-way through the book. “Parts of Speech as Parts of a Country” immediately follows an epigraph by Russell pointing out that the meaning of words is “distilled” from their use rather than the other way round. Both parts of the poem, “I as Desert” and “He/ He Tried” narrate the same surreal story in which someone escaping the accusation of consenting to conventions by breaking through a wall (“its alive / crustations of habit”) finds themselves beheaded by a single axe-stroke on the other side. Not a straightforward poem but it is followed by one of Harry’s best, straight-lyric pieces, “Temple-Viewing”,

respectfully
barefoot
mute as lovers
a pair of spotted turtle doves
enter the green silence

walking on round
brown wooden stones
sunk between
white pebbles

it is the japanese garden
to a japanese temple
the dwarf bamboos
sway in the wind
dipping
              to the soft
chimes
      of the windbells

& the doves
who are visitors
from india

nod & bow
at the ground as if
they were in accord

with both the customs
of the place
& matters invisible

It’s a wonderful poem in its own way even though, just as Harry probably didn’t want this to be the only kind of poem she is remembered by, so a reader wouldn’t want his or her entire poetic literature to be written in this mode. But, as in all good lyrics, the reader is invited (or expected) to contribute to the poem, fulfilling the wish of the poet quoted on the blurb of The Deer Under the Skin that “there should be room in each poem for the imagination of the reader to work in”. In the case of “Temple-Viewing” there are allegorical issues to be recognised: these doves are from India which is where Buddhism originated before spreading east in its Mahayana form. There are also contextual elements in the form of markers of those situations that, from the rest of her work, we can see that Harry is especially sensitive to: here it is the wind which sways the bamboos and activates the windchimes. In a sense it is the same wind as the one which disperses the seeds of the puffball in that first poem. It also brings sound into what seems to be an entirely visual representation and this is a technique used in the fourth poem of A Dandelion for Van Gogh (the alternating structure is continued) where a visual portrait of the goings on at a lakeside is finished with sound: “A crowcoloured dog / gallops over the hill / while the voice of his colour / caws above him”.

The idea of contextual elements in the form of distinctive responses by a particular poet leads me to look at some of Harry’s very distinctive, and endlessly repeated interests. These are not to be dignified by being called themes but they are, instead, I think, characteristic patterns of thought and, as such, take us closer to one area of Harry’s creativity. In fact one of the reasons for Harry’s remaining such an interesting poetic voice for a reader may well lie in the fact that we can see the shape of her mind a bit more clearly than we can for most other poets. Perhaps the most dominant element in her mental setup is a sensitivity to vertically organised layers, something forshadowed in “The What O’Clock”. Sometimes these layers are allegorised out into a simple binary of upper=life versus lower=death. But sometimes there is evidence of fertility-in-corruption in the dark underworld where, for example, in “Wind Painting”,

. . . . . 
there is one fat gold
dandelion for van gogh
tethered by its own sap
in the black damp shade
by a clump of horseshit

Here, as often, any tendency of lyric to move towards the cute is countered by a healthy linguistic vulgarity of image and word.

In the layering of these poems there is also the issue of death and destruction, something closer to a theme than the cast of a poet’s thought. “Navigating Around Things” from The Life on Water and the Life Beneath, begins as a typically Harry-ish lyric description of a scene, unusual only in that it is immediately declared to be “windless”. We meet cardboard cartons that seem to be imitating birds before meeting actual galahs themselves – “eyes only / on what is relevant to galahs”. The next to appear are galloping horses, typically, for Harry, producing “in the ovens of their bodies” steam from one end and dung from the other so that an object moving horizontally generates material that moves upwards and material that moves downwards. The horses are photographed by a man, fittingly described as a “downwardly mobile young professional” on

. . . . .
  an “indefinite
unpaid vacation” – from a job

with a broking office; not at all
suspicious he’s been

“floated”, on the air current,
outside a high-up window,
like a Kleenex with snot on it . . .

Eventually the poem turns to the life beneath the water which is comprised mainly of eels who have developed the unpleasant skill of sucking newborn ducklings down:

. . . . .
the large eels suck like centripetal force
that drags the water
out of the bathtub
                      & suddenly
in the dying dark
alone down an eel
goes a trusting fluffball . . .

This interest in layers and the various ways in which they can be allegorised is everpresent in Harry’s overtly lyrical pieces but it is present also in the non-lyrical ones. The title poem of The Life on Water and the Life Beneath is an extended narrative of a man taking a boat out into the waters over a town which has, Adaminaby-like, been flooded. We find, at the end, that it’s a suicide poem. The man has lived with the genetic scar of having had an axe-murderer for an uncle: the genetic heritage being conceived as something lying beneath the surface of an individual. The whole lengthy sequence is interwoven with references to Debussy’s tenth prelude, “The Sunken Cathedral”. And in the previous book, A Dandelion for Van Gogh, there are two poems which rework layers in a parody of bureaucratic incompetence. “This Explains” is a solemn denotative analysis – entirely misguided – of the difference between a chimney and a ferry presented as a kind of report:

. . . . .
You say	this explanation	does not fit	your problem’s appetite . . .
If only	you had told us sooner -
instead of hazing us	with that query, about
chimneys, ferries, & cargoes – what you needed to know
we could have projected
an entirely different	set of developments, specifically
designed to locate
                  “ideally suitable stocks”
of consenting human heads . . .

But the material of this faux proposal is based around issues familiar in Harry’s poetry: the interest in the horizontal motion of the ferry as opposed to the vertical motion of the smoke. The fact that the chimney stays still while the smoke passes vertically through it, reminds a reader of the comment in another poem, “it is strange to speak / of the hill as ‘rising’ / when the hill / stays exactly / as it always has”. “This Explains” is also a poem that tempts interpretation. I have always, for no real reason that I can justify, associated it with the Holocaust even though those victims were moved by rail rather than by ferry. But someone must have put in tenders in the correct impersonal prose, to actually build the extermination camps. On the other hand, it might be more humorous poem that it seems, something like the Monty Python sketch in which the architect presents the design of his housing block replete with rotating knives.

“The Gulf of Bothnia” also uses a deliberately non-lyric voice to deal with the levels peculiar to that upper branch of the Baltic Sea where water of the northern part is virtually fresh (from the large number of rivers feeding it) and that of the southern part is salt. At the same time the land is rising out of the sea with what, in geological terms, is considerable speed. This is a poem where the levels are not of earth to sky or of the above-water to the underwater world but rather of levels within the water itself. The anti-lyrical element is present in both the images used and the tone of the narrator’s voice:

. . . . .
boat houses sit in cow paddocks
falling green on their knees into grass
waiting for the sea to come back
& the boats to visit -
much as grandfather & grandmother
might’ve waited	for “life” to come back
to visit them 
on the old-age farm – had they lived
by the gulf of bothnia near the top . . .

Two poems from the “New Poems” section of an earlier Selected poems, “Brindabella a Shot for the Seventies” and “Mousepoem” are good examples of where this lyric vs anti-lyric opposition has developed later in Harry’s career. The former is a description of a complex scene that, for all the fact that it seems superficially like Harry’s other lyric descriptions (“Sleepers in a Park, Centennial . . .”, for example, or “Walking, When the Lake of the Air is Blue with Spring”) is drenched in blood and death. A trout is being gutted and inside it is a beetle which had fallen into the water and been swallowed; nearby is a fox which has been shot (the poem’s title puns on the two meanings of “shot”) while it was on its way to kill the young of a wood duck. But the processes of life go on: flies breed on the dead body and parrots feast in the trees:

. . . . . 
he hangs now in the poplar
ropestrung by that brush

flies make their reproductions 
where he swings red in the sun

red & green
king parrots gorging
on green apples

high	four thousand feet up

“Mousepoem” is an example of structure by misdirection. The context is one of erotic disappointment – “Her lover departed / to the warm purry / bed of his wife” – which has resulted in a poem. This poem is described as so slight that “if a mouse breathed on it, / it would collapse”. This common syntactic ambiguity (the poem would collapse, not the mouse) enables “Mousepoem” to move into the mouse world:

. . . . .
        the mouse which is made
of tough, mouse material, whiskers, ears,
small, quick, risk-assessing eyes
. . . . .
Who would wish for blind, hairless
mouse-children, but a mousy mother?
Does a mouse wish
or are children merely what happens to it
wishless but wanting?

and so on for the bulk of the poem until it returns to the character’s poem of loss in the final three lines. In other words, the excursion into the slightly twee world of the mouse is structured as a distraction from the mental anguish which is the real subject of the poem. This represents, I think, a later poem’s view of the temptations of cuteness which Harry fears.

Before I finish this brief report from the strange poetic world of J.S. Harry, I need to say something briefly about the Peter Henry Lepus poems because, although they are collected in Not Finding Wittgenstein and generally omitted from the chosen poems in book under review, this does have a section of new Peter Henry Lepus poems as its final section. These poems were a major development for Harry although they were, to me at least, puzzling when the first appeared. An imaginary rabbit, straight out of the world of Beatrix Potter is allowed to wander through texts, free in time and space, and meet up with those philosophers whose true subject is language and meaning. In having a “famous fat little British rabbit” as its protagonist, it brings into the world of analysis of meaning and the nature of words exactly that element of cuteness that marks popular culture of the late-Victorian/Edwardian ethos and still has attractions today. It is, I think, Harry’s way of dealing with this element in her approach to the world which is, in earlier work, dealt with by alternating the lyric with the forensic/surreal and it suited her well and produced a kind of poem that works for both poet and reader. In allowing a cute rabbit to wander among complex texts these poems symbolise the tension between tendencies in the lyric and explorations of meaning that I’ve been focussing on here. As poems they are, in keeping with Harry’s later work, rather bleak. They are set in the Iraq of the gulf wars among a cast not of philosophers but of journalists and scholars. Peter himself is engaged in a double comical quest: he is “researching” a book on the pre-socratic philosophers and, at the same time, trying to get into Iran because a friend of his, a huntsman spider named Clifta, has read Omar Khayam’s line about Jamshed and Bahram the great hunter and thinks that Bahram must be an ancestor of hers. The complex set-up of the Peter Henry Lepus poems ensures that these new (and final) ones cleverly balance the cute with the bleak.

Rereadings VI: Bruce Beaver: Odes and Days

Five Dock: South Head Press, 1975, 103pp.

This is a book published in the middle of a decade which looks, with the perspective of half a century, to be the most important in the history of Australian poetry. With a similar perspective we can also say that this book looks to be the climax of Beaver’s poetic career. It comes as the third of a kind of trilogy – Letters to Live Poets and Lauds and Plaints, being the other two – which now look to be the pinnacle of Beaver’s output. Later works, especially the fascinating autobiographical work, As It Was, have their moments, but Letters to Live Poets, Lauds and Plaints and Odes and Days are an undoubted high point of Beaver’s poetry. There are other perspectives too. The 1970s are usually seen predominantly as the site of an opposition between the “new” poets, collected a decade later in John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry, and a group of poets loosely associated with Les Murray. The perspective of half a century shows that the truth of the situation is a lot less clear: neither of the so-called parties was quite as organised as people thought at the time. Poets, Australian poets, are perhaps not instinctive joiners of literary groups. At any rate, Beaver could have been claimed by both groups. As an older poet (born in 1928), connected with Grace Perry’s Poetry Australia project – a project that probably doesn’t get as much analysis as it should when the 1970s are being considered – and having a temperamental distaste for the counter-cultural activities of the young of the time, Beaver would normally be slotted into the Murray “party”. But he is the poet who opens Tranter’s anthology and the opening poem, the great elegy for Frank O’Hara (conceived as a letter to that poet), sets the tone for an anthology open to the influences of contemporary American poetry.

But creating maps and plotting the terrain of poetic history is (or should be) only a minor part of poetry criticism. What matters are the poems themselves. Odes and Days, as its title declares, is conceived in two parts: a set of elevated, extended poems followed by forty-seven short poems written almost in diary mode – “weeks of daily verses scratched / into this small notebook”. This twofold structure is an example at a macro level of one of the deepest generators of Beaver’s poetry: a sense of the double, most especially as two responses to the world. Undoubtedly it derives from his own psychological problems – a major part of his history as a young man is described in As It Was – which, whatever its exact clinical description, involved periods of elation followed by depression and a suicidal sense of his own worthlessness, but also periods of optimism about his fellow human beings alternating with periods of intense and furious (he calls it Swiftian) loathing for the human race. This psychological duality runs through all his poetry but Letters to Live Poets is probably where it is seen most clearly, especially in poems like XII, one of the great descriptions of psychic unease:

. . . . .
I’m never likely to forget
the day I walked on hands and knees 
like Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, scenting the pit.
So it’s one day at a time spent checking
the menagerie of self; seeing
the two-headed man as half as much
of twice of everything; curbing the tiger;
sunning the snake; taking stock of
Monkey, Piggsy, Sandy’s belt of skulls.

The binary construction of the second book of this group of three is expressed in its title. Lauds and Plaints has poems which are built around the two possible poetic reactions to the world: celebration and despair. Odes and Days, on the other hand, can be said to have a single focus, despite its being based around binaries, and that focus is on creativity. In the Beaver world, creativity is not a simple expression of the positive phases of his personality but something which can have quite sinister overtones. The source of the creativity is not a bland, nymph-like muse but an altogether more potent force that he here, I think for the first time, calls his “daimon”. It is a word that grows more common in the books after Odes and Days.

The first of the “odes” is exactly about the nature of creativity. It is a long and complex meditation beginning:

Where does the fire come from
that burns in us like a lamp’s flame?
Not consuming the being
but using the body for a wick

so that lower and lower
the living fire descends in us
while ever higher and higher
the fumes of our immolation ascend.

Significantly, we are immediately presented with a binary conception of the whole process whereby part of us – the creative activity – ascends while the body is slowly consumed not as fuel but as a wick-like vehicle for the fire. The poem goes on to attempt to answer the question posed in the first lines, firstly by using the analogy of the flower on the stem of a plant, fed by the sun, and then exploring the image of the sun in some detail. Again, this is done in binaries for the sun is “more like Prometheus bound / than the bringer of light” – it is a hostile force which, like the protagonist of Aeschylus’ play, “writhes / and fulminates in its glowing shackles” and from which we need to be protected. But, “twin flames / there must be to experience: / one that renews the life / of things and one that cancels flesh”. One of the poetic sophistications of this first poem is that after nearly fifty lines of high-toned meditation, it modulates into an introduction to the situation in which the book is conceived. The poet is standing at the entrance to Grace Perry’s home in Berrima where he will be a visitor and write many of these poems. The sun that has become an answer to the question of the nature of creativity is a sun actually experienced as “the filtered warmth / through the green laden branches” which can also, in keeping with its double function of light bearer and destroyer, be much more violent:

         then I moved
and felt the oppressive fist of noon
box me about the ears
and drive me giddy indoors.

Even the little flower – a grape-hyacinth – which was pressed into service as a symbol of the sun’s ability to produce something small and beautiful from the soil, is an actual flower seen outside The Magistrate’s House which is the location of these poems.

There are nine “odes” of this sort, turning over notions of the interaction of personality and exterior source of inspiration (between the fourth and fifth of them are an important set of seven biographies of genius which I will look at in more detail later). The fact that Beaver is a visitor on foreign ground casts a distinctive light on the first of these. The third poem imagines a servant seeing in the blossoming of a tree in spring outside a window a symbol of a world going about its own processes far removed from the mundane and imposed task of dusting a desk. The poet as visitor sees the same tree a few days later and speaks of “my servant and my master selves” being blessed again by the tree’s “transforming ritual”. This “two-headed man” becomes part of the menagerie of self in the next poem which – another binary – allows the celebratory quality of the third poem to be balanced by a much bleaker tone as it looks at the darker side of creativity. The metaphor is not the beast selves of Monkey as it is in Letters to Live Poets XII but that sinister bird, the cuckoo:

The cuckoo-poet kicking out the fledglings
and even the parent birds from the convenient
nest in which he prepares for the proving
flight is doing only

what he was made to do. This does not justify
the damnably ruthless doing but explains
what happens to the friends and lovers
unfortunately his. . . .

It’s not only a general statement about the ruthless activities of the artist, the antisocial results of adhering to one’s inner vision, but a specific response to his own situation as guest. The last lines convey something of the state of self-disgust familiar from Letters to Live Poets:

. . . . . 
                   The spring is chill
that drives me to rehearse my two-
note tune of love and death.

And I have come into the decent lives
of loving friends and buffeted with thoughts
their nestlings, taken all the while
the freely proffered food,

to leave upon the generous table-top
a turd or two of anecdote and verse,
the dedication of a book,
pin-feathers for their nest.

This balance of the light and dark sides of creativity is continued in the six and seventh of this group of odes (their actual numbers are XIII and XIV). The former wants to celebrate creativity

. . . . . 
And yet the moving, making act
continues intermittently.
The special seeing and the half-conscious
ordering of words into a chant

that changes consciousness in others -
for good or bad’s the moral catch -
justifies most. . .

and the transformative power is seen in terms a move from winter to spring. There is nothing merely symbolic in this in Beaver’s case: winter brings physical distress in the form of neck pain – “an icy / hypodermic has snapped off in / the tendons of my neck” – a recurring experience which is an important part of the poet’s relation to the world and the subject of “Letters to Live Poets VI”:

Pain, the problem of, not answered
by dogma, orthodox or other-
wise. The only problem being
how to bear with. You may have an
answer ready. I, only the 
long-winded question breaking words
up and down the crooked line,
the graph of pain. Burns got it
in the neck. That’s where it gets me. . . 

The transformation to a world in which “the hour and I are warm again” is intensely felt rather than being a situation with nice, exploitable symbolic possibilities. As I’ve said, the following poem is its dark counterpart. The overriding image is not, this time of the cuckoo but of its arboreal equivalent, the strangler fig. It’s a more complex scenario than would appear on the surface. While the host tree is locked in a battle to the death with its “sinewy matricide”, there is a third element in the bees which are “not overly concerned / at the silent impasse / of tree and predator vine”. They are the bringers of fertility and creativity: “their metier was to fecundate / the living and the dying; / with blossoming / their day begins and ends”.

There is an extreme level of parallel and organisation in the odes section of this book though I have never been entirely sure what the organising principle is. Taking a clue from the continuous “Beaverian” alternation of light and dark and the emphasis, in the Beethoven ode, on the late quartets, I wonder whether Beaver isn’t imagining the structure to have musical parallels since, in the forms of “classical” music, the alternation of major and minor, adagio and allegro, is s crucial factor. With this in mind it’s hard not to see Beethoven’s Opus 131, the great seven-movement quartet, as a possible model for these nine poems. At any rate, the ninth takes a suddenly different tack by interesting itself in the poet’s antecedents. It is set on the late September Jewish festival of Yom Kippur – the day of atonement – and leads to Beaver thinking about the “Jewish eighth” part of his heritage as well as the others of “a motley sum of antecedents; / the Frankensteinian machine // of forebears nondescript and stubborn / to be accorded recognition”. It enables Beaver to think about the relationship between those who are creative and those who aren’t since “the silent ones” are not only part of his genetic history but also those readers who make up his readership. It’s a subject broached in Letters to Live Poets which is, as he says, addressed not only to poets but to a reader of poetry, “a not-impossible creative reader, a live poet in his or her own sense”. Ode XV finishes with a modest assessment – unduly modest to my mind – of Beaver’s own abilities, especially in relationship to the geniuses of the central section:

. . . . . 
Perfection of the life or art’s
a genius’s prerogative;
mere talent has no simple choice.

It manufactures book and babes
because it must. The rest is chance.
Schismatic, average, sensual

the muffled voices of our time
interpret Babel, prophesy
in tongues, and I along with them

in doubt, in all but ignorance
of antecedents and vocation,
put one foot before another,

proffer one hand instinctively
toward the mediators of 
high art, holding my talent close,

interpreting the human scene
in endless ambiguity
with peers as numerous as clerks.

A night and day suffice to judge us -
all guilty, all innocent, because
all complex found before the gods.

Superficially the seven odes devoted to the biographies of genius, slotted in as a sequence in the middle of these poems, looks like an attempt to investigate creativity by looking at case studies, a process that will widen the inquiry by moving it away from the limitations of one poet’s experience. Perhaps the sequence was conceived this way, but there is nothing mechanical about the portraits presented here which I think are among the high points of Beaver’s creative life. Biography, as we know, can take many forms, all of them unsatisfactory. The largest, most scholarly multi-volume work (something like the de La Grange biography of Mahler) still captures only a fragment of even the outer life, let alone the endless complexities of an individual’s subjectivity. At an opposed pole is the “biographical sketch” reducing a life to a minimalist skeleton. A variant of this is what might be called the “poetic biographical sketch” which often involves an intuitive stab at defining the essence of a person and then expressing it in a poetic form which is even shorter than the conventional sketch. It’s a case of poetry’s claiming to be able to say most in least and good examples of it can be found in Auden’s work from the 1930s, especially poems like those devoted to Rimbaud, Houseman (sonnets), Melville and, of course, Yeats. Another poetic way of dealing with biography is in sequences where each poem can take a period in the life, or a feature of the individual’s character, and express it imaginatively. Interestingly both of these kinds of poetic biography occur in Beaver’s treatment of Rilke, one of his favourite, and most influencing poets: there is a single ode in Odes and Days and an extended sequence (twenty-three pages) in the later book, Charmed Lives.

The seven creative geniuses who appear in Odes and Days are, in order, Hölderlin, Beethoven, Brennan, Mahler, Rilke, Delius and Hesse. Although Mahler was born before Brennan, and Delius before Rilke, the ordering is roughly chronological if one looks at their outputs. But it is tempting to look again at the Opus 131 as a structural model since these odes, as they are positioned, alternate language geniuses with musical geniuses. They were something of a shock at the time because they revealed a talent for striking and incisive portraiture that Beaver’s previous five books showed little sign of – it is hardly a signature skill of someone who seemed to oscillate between confessionalism and a fast moving lyricism. Hölderlin’s life, for example, blighted as it was by an early madness which led to him spending the last forty years of his life in the care of a kindly carpenter, begins with “He did grow old and he must have known it” a striking sentence and a striking approach to the experience of madness which Beaver himself must have related to. Rilke’s ode begins “He said the alps were too distracting” before using this to explore the possibility that the great poet of taking things within and making them into poetry (especially in the New Poems – “Nothing / was not sacred: a truncated marble, / a ball on a water-spout, a panther”) found the final sight of the alps too much to absorb. And the poem devoted to Hesse begins with a series of analytical, single stanza propositions about the very genetic inheritance which will recur in Ode XV:

If one’s father is a clergyman
and one is male
one becomes either a canny business-
man, a politico or a writer.

If one is Hermann and loves his father
there is nearly
another saint in the family until
the peculiar daimon asserts itself.

With a grounding in comparative
religion it’s hard
not to revert to pantheism
with a bias to the humanistic.

And there’s nothing so likely to abort
the clerical as
a clerkship in a well-stocked bookshop.
Hermann held one for four years. . . 

There is the shadow of a pattern in these portraits – a striking and incisive opening followed by a quick sketch of the subject’s life seen from the perspective of this opening – but there can be no question of an endlessly repeated trick. The portraits are, in contrast, remarkable for their variety of approach. The Beethoven portrait, for example, whose beginning lines – “Gneixendorf – a name like / the snapping of an axle-tree” – are a quotation from the composer’s letter to Haslinger written to introduce the town where he wrote his final works: the ending of the Opus 130 which would replace the Gross Fugue, and the Opus 135. It is, for the most part a dramatic monologue focussing on the way in which art can be some kind of compensation for domestic woes. But there is a personal element in that you feel that Beaver attributes to Beethoven (probably accurately enough, given the evidence) the same sort of out-of-control disgust and fury which he, himself, suffered at his worst moments. Here Beethoven’s anger is directed towards his sister-in-law, the probably innocent mother of his nephew, Karl:

That canker of menses and venom,
his mother – My ears crack with pressure
so that I almost hear -
almost feel –

her grating mew against 
the farting ground-bass of my brothers.
O friends, not these tones! . . .

The ode’s structure is also not as linear as the other portraits, and reverts to Beaver’s characteristic binaries by contrasting Gneixendorf with Heiligenstadt the village to which twenty-four years earlier Beethoven had retreated, probably with suicide in mind as his deafness became more acute.
Even more distinctive is the ode devoted to Delius. It is seen from the perspective of a shadowy figure, Thomas Ward, who came across Delius in Florida and for a short while taught him compositional techniques, and then pretty much disappeared from history:

. . . . . 
Wards’ time was up by fall. His task
complete, he left the other’s life as easily
as he had entered to work at a church.
No more is ever heard of him. . . 

Narratively this belongs to that tradition where the point of view is of someone who tangentially sees an important historical event. Thematically, I think Beaver’s interest here is in outsiders who make the functions of creativity possible. Sometimes they are teachers, like Ward, at other times patrons, and these latter appear inevitably in his various poems about Rilke, a serial exploiter of well-bred patrons of the arts. Given the setting of this entire book in Grace Perry’s house, there is undoubtedly a glance at his own position and a nod to Perry as, in his case, an enabling friend. At any rate, the theme is of the exploitation of patrons because the poem finishes with another example:

His guest and mentor then is Grieg.
They milk an income from a wealthy uncle
and so begins the maelstrom of
his early making and debauch.

The rest is music. Never such
was heard or will be heard again on earth
as those exquisite harmonies
wrung from mortality and love.

Finally in this survey designed to establish that these poems are all very distinctive productions rather than the extended mining of a stumbled-upon creative seam, there is the ode devoted to Mahler which gives no details about that short and stormy life but which is a recreation of the nightmare, fairy-tale world which Mahler’s music so often draws on.

Perhaps the creative figure with whom Beaver finds himself most connected is Brennan and the portrait begins with an acknowledgement of that poet’s own experience of lauds and plaints by describing his late romance with Violet Singer and her death in a tram accident:

To have come thus far within, without,
an honoured man and slandered, past the middle
way of years, a youth and life’s work past,
to have come upon such love.

The simplest meeting of two oldest friends
who, strangers a month before, became such lovers
that time itself became a twice-told tale:
then, nothing; now, all. . .

Brennan occurs a number of times in Beaver’s work, perhaps most importantly in “Winter Dreaming” from the posthumous volume, The Long Game, where the personal parallels are stressed simply by the fact that, oppressed by weather, Beaver finds Brennan “and his load of ancient night” coming into his mind. He has no illusions about the size of Brennan’s talent – “He was a monster with a minor gift / Rating somewhere between James Thomson and / Dowson, no major talent certainly” – which fits in with Beaver’s tendency to see himself (over-modestly) as possessed of a “little talent” rehearsing “my two- / note tune of love and death.” But he understands Brennan’s position as someone who, having spent “two long magian years” in European culture, returns (as Patrick White would half a century later) to its dry polar opposite:

From Europe to the country he called home,
that olden mother-continent of the South,
the dragon-lover of her haunted children
and art’s ultima thule.

Incredibly he essayed in the brazen
ears of his never-fellow countrymen
the good news of the poets of the silent
music. He was ignored

or ridiculed by the nominally educated.
Even his peers rejected the dense structures
and tortuous order of his celebrations
and lamentations both. . .

But the two years in Europe are paralleled by the two years with Singer, not in contrast as the two villages of Beethoven are, but in consonance.

Beaver’s talent for portraiture is exploited in his later work though the subjects are not usually part of this forensic examination of creativity. Someday someone will look at Beaver’s portraiture in more detail than I can here, but Charmed Lives contains the extended life of Rilke and Poets and Others has the brilliant portrait of Richard Packer which I have quoted in an earlier Rereading, as well as “Poems for Adrienne Rich” which is conceived in the letter mode, much like “Letters to Live Poets I”.

And so to the forty-seven short poems which make up the Days section of Odes and Days. Although they range in length from twelve to twenty-five lines and cover a range of subjects, there is a tonal and structural unity about them: no-one, coming across a few of them at random would have any doubts they are by the same poet. What they share is Beaver’s distinctive energetic, poetic movement. The tendency of the odes to divide into short stanzas embodying a single proposition is replaced by a structure which is always a single stanza and usually contains only a few sentences. Beaver is a master of making a poem power along, driven by its own internal dynamics which include long, remorselessly enjambed sentences. There are also throwaway metaphors which give the impression that they might have been exploited but that the poem had no time. The same could be said for the extended adjectival phrases which obviously point to a desire for accuracy but also suggest that there is no time to find a more syntactically conventional way of stating the same thing. There are also some wonderful, clever, clinching conclusions. Some of these characteristics can be seen in a single poem, No 17, a poem rehearsing one of Beaver’s themes – his extreme sensitivity to seasonal changes:

This first official day of spring,
started with hay-fever and sodden
handkerchiefs, ends with smoky
milky light falling on the hail-
stripped trees, the dented
iron roofs, the benzine-fumed
and oil-stained streets, blinking
back from slivers of the
hail-shattered windows
of the big storm of Sunday
last. Legitimate spring
will smooth out the bruised,
storm-cowed psyches, set
new leaf chirping in flutters
of warm air like green
birds on the stripped
branches. And of course the birds
themselves are preposterously
vocal – poets must be
reincarnating sparrows,
on wings of song and
a little lousy.

The subjects of these poems are the homely and immediate details of life. But since it is a poet’s life, it isn’t exactly the same as that of most other people. There is a good deal of reading (two of the poems talk about the prose of Henry James brilliantly and No 33 is a daunting list of obscure books that Beaver would like to sample) and, of course, a good deal of writing to go along with the usual events of visits, seasons, objects on the writing desk. In this sense these poems complement the odes’ concern with creativity since they document it in its immediate, down-to-earth environment. There are also examples of Beaver in his angry mode. Poem No 40 begins innocently enough as a registering not of the state of the season but of the quality of the air and quickly moves on to be an excoriating and funny attack on the world of car-lovers:

. . . . . 
The place is lousy with machines.
The streets harbour them
like a colony of gigantic cockroaches
feeler to feeler, bumper to bumper.
And if Saturday night rocks
with copulating couples,
Sunday morning sways
with lovers recumbent
under machines, oiling grease
nipples, adjusting fan belts,
feeling with eerily erotic
fingers the goddess’s private parts.
And when some of them die, they die
welded into her, unparted in death,
while the lives of the rest are truncated
obsessed, in rusting thrall, fouling the air.

These homelier poems are distinctive and they are in a mode which grows more common in Beaver’s later books. Some of them do, however, look back to the earlier poems from the Odes section of Odes and Days. There is a portrait of the NZ poet James Baxter which is also an elegy

. . . . .
We never met though I saw him once,
bearded, in unkempt gear, wintry
blue feet in battered sandals, 
a pretty girl with him – St Francis
and the snow lady. . .

and No 19 might well be a combined portrait of Hölderlin, Schiller and Goethe. There are also poems which are essentially letters to other poets – Nos 39 and 42 – recalling the style of Letters to Live Poets rather than that of Odes and Days. But for all these continuities, I think they represent the establishing of a new mode for Beaver’s later work.

K.F. Pearson: The Complete Apparition

Melbourne: Black Pepper, 2021, 285pp.

Somehow it’s hard not to warm to a book whose acknowledgements page tells us that many of the poems about “the apparition” – the character or state that the whole lengthy work is devoted to – “have been rejected by prominent magazines and anthologies. I would like to thank them for authenticating the nature of his character. The few that did take poems I do not embarrass by naming them”. And you can see why it would be difficult to get these poems into journals. Most of them are attempts to define something indefinable and their strategy is to continuously look at the subject from different angles, different perspectives and different genres: not something that produces stand-alone works. On top of this the poems are often very rough, sometimes even doggerel though – I’ll look at this later on – this seems to be a deliberate ploy on the author’s part, perhaps to avoid the unwanted elegances of symbolism.

Pearson’s obsession with “the apparition” can be traced, at least for an outsider such as myself, to The Apparition’s Daybook, a slim volume of 1995, and a later volume, The Apparition at Large, from 2006. Only one of the poems from these two books is included in The Complete Apparition (I think) so this isn’t going to be one of those rolling accretive projects like Pound’s Cantos or Berryman’s Dream Songs. In fact it couldn’t be, since the poems of the earlier books are first person pieces from the point of view of the central character himself. And the result is quite different to – and, in a way, more restricted than – the outsider’s attempts at definition that make up The Complete Apparition.

What can be said about the Apparition himself? Although there is a certain comical paradox in a reader attempting to define in prose what more than four hundred pages of poetry doesn’t really do, it’s still a question that one has to ask and a reading strategy one has to adopt. Firstly it can be said that he has sometimes a physical manifestation and sometimes a non-physical one. As a tangible character he can appear in a number of different guises and in a number of different roles. The most important is as a man who exists in the world, regularly taking walks and watching the ducks on the lake or the Kookaburra on the Hills Hoist, but at the same time being invisible to everybody else, not because he is technically invisible but because people don’t see him or, at best, see him as something that “disturbed them at the edge of vision”. To those who are receptive he will pay a visit, and many of the best poems are about these visitations. The opening of “Johnny-come-lately”, for example:

The arriviste has arrived
on your doorstep, late at night.
Mere pressure of the fingers opens
all dark hallways of your house.
There’s an almost-pad of footsteps
like muted shivers from the past
as they approach down corridor
though you’re asleep and still sleep on 
a moment before the restless air
requires you shift, then startle awake
to something short of recognition
but with a certainty of presence
you could not deny, nor have the will
to object to in the instant of your stirring.

It’s hard to say what’s come upon you
by an invasion (or your calling forth)
of one beyond the realm of easy comfort . . .

At other times he becomes identified with the downtrodden, appearing quite often as a swaggie “on the wallaby”:

With dilly bag and walking staff,
he strolls his lonely way,
to meet the future or lose the past . . .

In these concrete manifestations he has a specific set of interactions with those who are in the right state of mind to perceive and accept him. He isn’t a simple embodiment of saintly visitation, poetic inspiration, intercession or annunciation; in fact he needs others so that he can have a sense of his own existence. A late poem in the book says “do not disremember / yourself who are his author” and an earlier one, describing him as being in subjection to “a mistress or master” shows him wandering in ‘sleep mode’ awaiting the summons that will activate him:

. . . . . 
He can doze, despair and await a summons.
He does not himself possess a lure.
His time is all the time in other’s hands.
I you ask him, he could be your creature.
Applicants are warned, although without one,
he is, once yours, an imposing figure.
He has the power of insinuation.
They speak for him but he’s the more secure.

Although we are in the world of paradox here – an imposing figure who doesn’t have a figure – this component of the poetry has a solidity that is reasonably easy to grasp. Indeed it invites allegorical readings. He could represent that sensation of dwindling into invisibility and irrelevance that can come to most of us late in life. Conversely he could represent a visitation which shakes us out of the conventional tracks on which we run our lives so that we realise that while we thought of ourselves as free, in actuality we were entirely constrained by “mind-forged manacles” that we couldn’t even see. We could read him as interceding – certainly this is the image that the book’s last poem leaves us with. We could read him as an Ariel figure, an embodiment of inspiration. And we could also read him as an erotic figure, specializing in night-time visitations. This latter view gets some support from reading the earlier book, The Apparition’s Daybook, which is more like a sequence and could be read as a modern version of the renaissance sequences detailing a love affair and focussing on the lover’s sense of being insubstantial when apart from the loved-one. This is certainly true of “His State”:

My condition makes me suffer
a state I’d not prefer,
to be dependent on
a certain gazer’s whim.

To know when out of sight
I am in no-one’s thought
brings me to the brink.
I am, but you don’t think.

But these reasonably substantial portraits of the Apparition – as visitant, as tramp etc – are only part of the complicated fabric of this book. There are very good poems defining him negatively, especially those in which various social structures – religions, the law, military intelligence – try to cope with him and, of course, fail completely. A group of three poems early on summarily dispatches the legal world, the police world and the mercantile world, and the first of these, using the equivocal language of legal process, double negatives and all – “The unresolved not impossible non sequitur / his is, your Honour, is not incapable of repair” – is not only a lot of fun but also an example of the way language can approach the indescribable as a mesh of contradictions. He is also a creature who sometimes leans towards the messianic, “despised among men”, a “figure on the hill” – the Beatles’ fool as well as the preacher of the sermon on the mount – an avoider of activism as much as religious structures:

. . . . .
No mass hysteria ever could persuade him
on St Peter’s balcony or in Tiananmen Square
but roads or floorboards or a verge of grass
that are the ways by which he finds his way
can summon him like an hypothesis . . .

There are also a host of theatrical references which set a frame of disguise, impersonation, exits and entrances for him – in a poem from The Apparition at Large he describes himself as “a tragedian in civilian garb”. In “Debut” he is an outsider “lured inside by a cabaret tout” who is forced to perform: the famous long-handled shepherd’s crook doesn’t drag him off the stage but onto it. And as “Any Proscenium in a Storm” says,

. . . . . 
Less a charade, more harlequin
     with colour leached from clothes
his hold, once curtains part, is in
     Republics of Suppose.

Finally, there are also two memorable descriptions of him as a sufferer of “reverse Alzheimer’s” – “He doesn’t forget but is forgotten” – and as a “reverse pilgrim”, one who goes:

. . . . . 
     not to the shrine
     with relic or lock
     of a martyred saint’s hair
     her mother cut off
     when she was a babe,
or on a beaten track to sacred rock or tree,
     but rather he’s the one
     who wanders to be found
     in drawing room, or byway,
     or hidden in a crowd. . .

These are all concrete manifestations – even though the approach is often paradoxical – and as I’ve said, they aren’t the entire picture. Sometimes he is completely insubstantial as in “Selfie” where it’s said, “Spotlit at any camera angle / there is a sheen but nothing stable” but also in those poems which relate him to gaps. In “The Resting Place” he lives in “the discrepancy between the time / on wristwatch and the mantle clock” and in “The Finer Things” he is a “devotee of interstices” who “has spoken well of filigree”. This idea of a creature of the spaces between things is probably best expressed in “A German Poem Read in his Youth” from The Apparition’s Daybook, one of a number of poems that refer to Morgenstern’s comic poem about an architect who, much to the discomfiture of the local authorities, steals the spaces between the palings of a fence and makes an edifice from them.

The book’s structure whereby seemingly endless attempts at description and analysis are brought to bear on what is conceived as an indescribable and unanalysable phenomenon seems a satisfying one to me. Each fits well with what poetry does because each of the poems is, in itself, a complete entity but is also only ever one possible approach to life. And the book uses this well by allowing the approaches to be in completely different styles and genres. There is a good deal of warm-hearted parody going on here, for a start, and you can hear snippets of Robert Frost, Kipling, Henley, Burns and Stevens – the latter’s “let be be finale of seem”, if reversed, might make a good epigraph for the project. And Les Murray’s “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow” – a poem dealing with an individual as anonymous and ungraspable as the Apparition – makes an appearance in “In Praise of Cowards” which begins, “Ah! the whisper sighs around the Showground. / It is heard in Fitzroy, and on Fitzroy Street”. But the apparition also appears in different settings and genres. There are a couple of Gordon- or Paterson-like gestures at the bush ballad including “Before Back of Beyond” – a nice paradoxical title – which begins in full bush ballad galloping style – “Way out where the track’s exhausted / far beyond the dingo’s cry” – before reverting to more conventional rhythms. And “Recitative” sounds like those twee late nineteenth century poems about childhoods remembered and lost:

There’s a sigh that hovers near the memory
of a passenger seat and an aura gone by
that’s why there’s a yearning
to be just returning
along the track to Make Believe. . .

So much for the variety of genres. There is also quite a variety of styles. Sometimes the syntactic style is very awkward – these are poems that share with others an uncomfortableness with the way English deploys a compulsory definite article “He wields stick with ferule”, “or who has stilled brass tongue of bell” – but I think the awkwardness is a kind of deliberate rawness: it’s not there in the earlier Apparition books. This is a poetry, in other words, that wants to sound more like Blake than Tennyson. And a number of poems are written in a rhymed two-line stanza style that I find very attractive, again they nod towards Blake and also to the ghazal form. Take, for example, one of the last poems, “Pebbles”:

Who reads a chapter before sleep
has plot lines her dream may keep.

Who hesitates is taking time
to weigh the waits, to find the rhyme.

Who spends ten minutes with an orchid
knows the earth’s good habitat.

Who plucks a pebble from a pool
feels water close once hand is pulled.

One who observes her walking feet
looks up to see who she will meet.

A kookaburra on a rotary hoist
lifts breakfast to a higher place.

Who studies formation of a leaf,
green or skeletal, finds relief.

It probably belongs to a group of poems whose relationship to the apparition is a bit tenuous – “Corona Wreath”, for example, is a straightforward Covid poem in which the apparition doesn’t appear either as a figure or a set of moral imperatives – but it has that nice, raw Blakean quality.

What to make of this strange and intriguing book, when all is said and done? A central hermeneutic problem is that an “outside” reader such as myself can’t really define the poet’s stake in the whole project which, since The Apparition’s Daybook was published in 1995, has now occupied its author for more than a quarter of a century. There are obviously autobiographical elements – the kookaburra on the Hills Hoist and the daphne that lines the lane recur so often that they lead a reader to think that this must be happening at the author’s home. One of the most important poems, if we are looking at this question, is “His Letter of Support” from the second book, where he has a kind of alter ego relationship with the poet, describing him as “my amanuensis”. The apparition can also be allegorised as both inspiration (something that visits the poet) and poetry (and its authors) itself, a force able to play a non-activist but important part in public affairs and to celebrate the generally uncelebrated. But these two readings are mutually exclusive: the apparition must be either outside the poet or a part of the poet’s life and personality; that is, on the inside. Pearson’s stake in all this can probably only be described by the author himself, and although that is a situation that applies to almost all poets, it’s especially complex here in this extensive and multi-focussed collection.

Petra White: Cities

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2021, 64pp.

Petra White’s Cities is a slim book by current standards but it is a dense one and there is a lot to be said for connecting it to its predecessor, Reading for a Quiet Morning. Both, for instance, begin by broaching crucial themes in the form of a revisiting and reconstruction of an existing myth. In Reading for a Quiet Morning the myth revisited was Ezekiel’s strange visions “at the edge of the Chebar” during the Babylonian exile. In Cities it is the old Greek story of Demeter and her lost daughter, Persephone. Taking an even longer perspective we can see that White has often employed sequences to work away at a theme and often these sequences are comprised of quite different poems. What strikes me about “How the Temple was Built” – the long sequence based around Ezekiel – and “Demeter”, is the way they each seem bifurcated, able to develop in two different directions.

“How the Temple was Built”, for example, begins as a kind of exploration of the relationship between artist and prophet. Its impetus is Blakean, I think, involving the notion that a “perception of the infinite” is the beginning of all inspiration, poetic as well as prophetic. God is thus a voice within Ezekiel whose promptings take us towards ideas like inspiration. But from early on the poems leave Ezekiel behind to focus on his dead wife (here given the name, Esther) who, becoming an angel, is able to be a part of the history of the fall and thus the human race’s entry into the real world. She’s a female principle and an angel of expansion – an issue not, of course, separate from notions of human creativity. The sequence finishes by returning to Ezekiel, and also the last chapters of his prophetic book, to describe the mad details given for the construction of the heavenly temple in a new Jerusalem. It’s a long sequence – nearly book length – and it takes several readings for an outsider like myself to feel at all at home in it, but I think, in retrospect, that it’s quite a major achievement, even if I can only give a sketchy account of it here.

The Demeter poems at the beginning of Cities share, as I’ve said, this thematic bifurcation. Demeter is the ultimate mother – willingly or forcedly plunging the earth into perpetual winter in search of her daughter – and thus a focus for a whole thematic area of motherhood. But motherhood isn’t just a one-directional expression of love from mother to child, it is also the looking back of an adult child at their mother: that is, it enters the rich world of family, genetics and upbringing that many poets have exploited. The last of the Demeter poems is a longish sequence called “Persephone at 40” whose very title makes the point. And the second series of the book, “In Front of the Sea”, concerns itself with White’s mother, seen both in memories and photographs. The question the sequence asks is an obvious one, “Now I’m a mother myself, how do I reinterpret my relationship with my own mother?” and this is pretty much the same issue that Persephone encounters as she crosses into early middle age. In “Chicken Shop”, looking at a photo of her mother holding her as a baby, she says that “her long future wriggles its gills in my blood” and in “To My Mother’s Ghost” she sees her mother as a kind of revenant, perhaps coming to tell her how much she loved her, an experience which the poet’s recent motherhood makes possible. It’s a sequence in which what to an outsider is a comparatively clear-cut if powerful experience is seen as intensely complex with the author positioning herself as both a Demeter and a Persephone. It’s also a sequence in which the sea appears as an image of psychic instability – something that will occupy the last poem of the entire book. After the sequence of poems about her mother is a single poem, “For My Daughter Ten Weeks Old”. In a sense this is an elegant, almost old-fashioned, high-toned lyric of address (one wouldn’t have been surprised if it had rhymed, for example) but it’s opening line, “Stay afloat, in your wobbling pea-green boat”, prepares us for the final poem of the book which will deploy the Odysseus myth and also use the sea as a symbol of unsteadiness.

It would be impossible to underestimate the significance of motherhood in this book and I’m not going to try, but one of the features of the Demeter poems (as it was of “How the Temple Was Built”) is White’s interest and response to the humans who enter the poems either as inhabitants of the city in the latter or as the dead and potentially dead in the former. It’s an area where the allegorical possibilities of the myths are rather cut off: we know that the author is, on the one hand, Ezekiel and Esther, and, on the other, Demeter and Persephone and a lot of the bifurcated pleasure of poems like this is that they hover between mythic recreation and disguised personal “confession”. But if the humans of the sequences are of a separate order to the divine figures then the second of these is rather supressed. It’s a technical issue that I have met before and I haven’t explained it very clearly here, but my real interest is the way in which the poems come alive when they deal with a divine figure responding to the small creatures that make up the human race. We can see it in “The Corn” where Demeter, knowing that the mother-love of ordinary mortals cannot match hers, is nevertheless sympathetic towards their suffering while she is wreaking havoc:

. . . . . 
That love that slugs a goddess -
they can barely stand their own little cupfuls of it
ripping their hearts.
Those cottages littered with rancid grain, poor bodies
in the fields . . .
. . . . . 
How I once adored the golden mornings when the tufty
harvests fell into being from my hands,
and the slumbering black world
came to at a tick from me.
And all the people were fed and happy
as zebras without predators . . .

It’s a moment of re-evaluation from a new perspective and one’s reminded of the great moment in Paradiso where Dante, near “the final blessedness”, looks back down on the earth that he had a few days previously been living (and fighting) in, calling it “that little threshing-floor” – though Dante’s attitude to the people of this floor would be a lot more dismissive than it is in these two books. “How the Temple was Built” itself begins with a loving description of the small folk who inhabit and construct their city:

     In the frail city that burns from within
and all along its distances
people organise into families,
make more of themselves,
bedeck sadnesses, build houses,
a town, a king and queen, princes,
footpaths and passageways, hiding places,
make weapons, listen for war,
violate, love, murder, ground themselves
in the concept of home, cultivate
adorable individual souls, speak of forever
and ever and believe
they have time . . .

And later describes,

    This peculiar town, it swarms in itself, with its handmade gods
vivid as puppets held up to the burning sun,
its superstitions rooted as fact, nourishing itself
with industries of fear and fate, its clever canopy
that turns the voice of God
into a howl of the wind, a skittering of something in grasses . . .

and so on. Perspective is what matters and one of the problems of beginning with the infinite (or the nearly-infinite in the case of the God in Job) is that it’s a very long leap to the ordinarily human. But there’s a verve in the poetry that deals with the ant-like humans that leads me to think that the impulse behind these poems is fundamentally humanist.

Nothing could be closer to the scurrying humans of “How the Temple was Built” or the suffering ones of “Corn” than the poems in the last half of Cities which are – at least roughly – travel-diary poems. We follow White as she follows her partner from Australia (its “delicate orange-blush / tracery they call ‘the Outback’” seen from the passenger seat of the plane) to London and then Berlin. Although they are built on a continuous series of observations – as travel poems tend to be – they are complex pieces in themselves, partly because of the interactions of the themes which run through them. Sometimes they are “mother” poems – there is something symbolically satisfying about the way the baby is virtually a newborn on the initial flight so that newness of place and life are combined – sometimes they gravitate around issues of love and marriage and sometimes they just make acute comments about the new environment so that in a London square, “The homeless man’s camp is gone / hoovered up with the efficiency it lacked” and in the flat geography of Berlin “A siren lifts above all else, two notes / played maniacally, / this emergency / hurtling into the arms of the city”.

But underlying these poems are both psychological sensitivities and mythical structures. The beginning of the first of them “To London”, which describes the departure, describes Australia seen from above, as I have said, and immediately moves to a memory of the past:

There I ran with the hippies,
free as a stray dog, dole forms
signed with an eagle feather.

For readers who are arriving at White’s work for the first time this will seem an odd reminiscence to drop in but those who have followed her writing will see it as a recurrent item. It appears first (I think) in a longish sequence from her first book, The Incoming Tide. It is called “Highway” and, though the poems and their approach vary – as they do in all of her sequences – it covers this trip with “hippies” across the Nullarbor towards a nirvana in the east. And references to it occur so regularly in White’s poems that its significance as a journey undertaken during a bad period of aimlessness and psychological lowness slowly impresses itself on the reader. It becomes rather less of a young adult’s madcap adventure and more an experience which embodies psychic dis-ease, recalling, for example, those references to his experiences as a child working in a blacking factory which occur in almost all of Dickens’s novels.

The final poem of Cities is set in London in July of 2020. It is carefully called “Home” and thus balances “To London”, the first of these travel-poems. But it also balances the opening of the entire book in its deployment of myth. Whereas the beginning sequence was based around Demeter and Persephone, “Home” is built around the myth of Odysseus and Penelope, the great myth of homecoming – after, in the case of Odysseus, time not only spent at sea but also in the Underworld ruled by Persephone. Given that White’s poetry tends to be centred around dis-ease, depression, awkward relationships with her mother, with her own past, and even with her co-workers during a long spell in the public service, “Home” is a remarkably upbeat poem, beginning with an image of equilibrium. It finishes with an image of Odysseus “sat among his people, his son” settling “a little heavier into the earth”. This stability replaces his voyaging mode which is a symbol of an unsteady life, a life where one’s legs are “wobbling and rippling” and where it is always possible that the boat might sink, just as it was always possible in the opening of the earlier “To London” that the “perilous” plane, might fall out of the sky.

Before this conclusion, though, is a stanza which summarises the experience of not feeling stable or steady:

In the otherwise empty Trafalgar Square, the homeless men
for whom the city is neither inside nor outside,
stale home on cobblestones, a wandering sense,
stand up, sit down, roam back and forth, sidle into
the blue July sky.
Twenty years ago, on the Nullarbor Plain
I walked, or knelt,
enveloped in the hygiene of space.
My fragile brain set like a flower in the desert,
thoughts flew, none could be caught,
believing only in a fizzing distance
in which my gaze could dissolve,
naked in the desert air, shitting in soft holes,
desperately becoming,
this wild source . . .

It’s no surprise that the “hippie” pilgrimage should turn up here as a symbol of a lack of a sense of stability and steadiness. Those who know their Odyssey well will know that during his visit to the Underworld, Odysseus is told by Tiresias that after he returns to Ithaka and Penelope he must placate the god Poseidon who has been the cause of his traumas. And the way to do this will be to voyage not on the sea but inland carrying an oar on his shoulder. When he arrives at a place where people are so ignorant of the unstable sea that they ask him why he is carrying a winnowing fan over his shoulder, he can make propitiatory sacrifices and then return to his home and a tranquil old age. Everyone has a different way of overcoming a psychological (and physical) lack of stability.

Jane Gibian: Beneath the Tree Line; Amanda Anastasi: The Inheritors

Beneath the Tree Line (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021, 88pp.)
The Inheritors (North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2021, 57pp.)

The author’s note which accompanies Jane Gibian’s Beneath the Tree Line begins by saying, “More and more I have become preoccupied with the natural world and our place in its increasingly precarious situation”. This together with the emphasis on those who will be stuck with our mess in Amanda Anastasi’s The Inheritors inevitably suggested their connection and a chance to round out, as it were, the emphases behind the books reviewed in my previous two posts. In fact, both books have more in them than an obsession with the cumulative toxic effects of the Anthropocene, Jane Gibian’s book, especially. Its five parts comprise five different perspectives on living which could be summarised, very crudely, as: living in the world, in language, in the digital age, the act of living in itself and living in the natural world.

Some of these poems, especially those of the opening and closing sections, are very fine lyrics often working by cross-breeding a couple of different approaches so that there is an air of conjunction about them. This might well be an extension into lyric meditation of the essential mechanism of the haiku, a form which Gibian has often used. For example, the first poem of the fourth section (which I have categorised as being “about” living itself), “Sound Piece”, is essentially about memories, that important part of any living that we do. Part of the dynamism of the poem comes from the way it focusses on sound memories and their interaction with visual ones. Indeed, it ends with a striking visual image:

. . . . . 
                             A lower drawer consists

of walking into threads of old spider webs, the distant
grumble of a bus arriving at last. This section
for sea creatures: the skeleton of a fossilised fish

with eerie blank eyes and slender barbel, rasp
of scales and the graduated spiral of a shell so
flawless we lean into the ocean’s hum. A stripe

of sunlight across our shins, leading to a shelf
that preserves the pang of a muted light
gleaming from the window of your last house.

Throughout the poem there are the kind of tensions between visual and sound memory which the reader will feel underneath this final section. The idea may be that, as human animals, we continually rate the visual sense above the aural one and that the tension between them can produce a fruitful dynamic for a poem. But there is also the strategy of organising the memories. We might have expected a straightforward list – I have written elsewhere of the interesting complexities and issues of any kind of list in a poem – where the refusal to organise the list in any obvious way is itself a structural device because it exploits tensions between a perceivable order and randomness. Here the memories are organised in terms of a “curiosity cabinet”, one of those weird pieces of furniture beginning in the seventeenth century in which mementos were stored. Such cabinets shock us by the way in which items are ripped out of any context but the virtue of this device poetically is that the memories themselves come to the author devoid of context. They are also wonderfully precise: “The next drawer / slides open to the sound of rain and the plinking // of flags blowing against flagpoles”. It’s an intriguing structure because it acknowledges the aleatory element of remembering while at the same time providing a framework. I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s marvellous The Memory Chalet in which, dying of ALS, unable to sleep or even move, he structures memories of his life (transcribed by an amanuensis during the next day) by assigning them a room in a hotel remembered from childhood. There’s nothing so desperate and extreme in “Sound Piece” but the complexities of the structure strengthen the poem making it – of course – a sound piece of work.

I’ve described the first section of Beneath the Tree Line as “living in the world” but it might be more accurately described as “living with the seasons”. Most of the poems engage in some way or other with subtle seasonal changes. The first poem, “Tilt”, describes that transition that all Australians understand between January and February. January, even for those with jobs, always seems a holiday, a slightly guilty extension of the relaxation of the Christmas to New Year week into the whole month that follows. But by the end of January all that is over: children have gone back to school, the cricket season is winding down, the tennis is over and people are beginning to think about the forthcoming football season. So the change to February isn’t so much a matter of registering subtle changes of temperature as subtle changes in the citizenry:

February, a cake fork fallen from the plate,
the sedate beat of bat wings
in the mango tree. We’re sewn into place

with work, seams restitched at the elbow,
the slow spread of January past, fading
the improbable flight of pelicans.

Only in January could the ample shell 
of a spider float from the cliff to settle
at our feet on the sand; before the scooter

of March gathers speed, a second-hand offer
spruiks wetsuit for tall thin man: the tilt
of the earth’s axis, the year tapped open.

But the conventional shift from January to February is not quite as innocent as it was in our youth. Seasonal change is one of the things affected by climate changes and Gibian’s poetry is especially sensitive to this. “Less Golden” plays with these seasonal changes, “It was in March, no it was April . . . when we noticed that each year / autumn is less golden”. And “Light Less Guarded” might have been used as an example of the doubled approach that I wrote about with regard to “Sound Piece” since it deals with seasonal change in a framework of playing a toccata on a keyboard – “the start of winter’s turning in the golden scent of those // flowers . . . light less guarded”.

These first poems are marked by their ability to register very subtle seasonal changes, but they also – in keeping with contemporary experience – have well-done sinister touches. The cake fork fallen from the plate, the first image in the first line of the book, might well be one of those sinister details, as might the beat of the bat wings and the shell of the spider. Gibian is really good at this particular version of sensitivity. I can remember a poem from an earlier book, Ardent, in which a description of the “harsh wind” of an October describes the way people on jogging machines at a gym move “up and down in waves, as if fleeing / something terrible, their faces grim masks”. Tilt and balance are no longer innocent words: they are part of that sinister notion of “tipping point” at which changes to the environment have an exponential effect rather than a gradual, linear one. A final point to observe in this first section is the frequent reference to streams of water, usually underground. I’m not exactly sure of its significance in poems like “Street of Hollows” and “Light Less Guarded” but there is no doubt it is not accidental. In the former it might be no more than a symbol of underlying fear – “a note // of dread trickles through the senses” – but it more likely refers to the burying of streams by “development”, and the way that such waters emerge as seepage.

I characterised the second section as containing poems about living in language but this group is actually a little more complex than this. Language has always been present in Gibian’s poetry but the perspective is quite distinctive. She concentrates on the experience of adult language-learning. We all admire and envy the situation of those who are polylingual from childhood but there is something very significant about learning a language as an adult when one’s mother-tongue is so ingrained that it is, essentially, how we conceive and express the world. The subtle changes that happen as this iron-hard matrix is painfully stretched (or, perhaps, dismantled) is exactly the sort of thing that an especially sensitive lyric poet will be interested in. In Gibian’s case there is a special interest because her second language is Vietnamese: a tonal language with very precise emphases unshared by an Indo-European language like English. “Double-jointed”, the first poem of the group, is a good description of, among other things, the way meaning is declared in the tones rather than the syllables:

In the mesh of a tonal language, there’s sound
slipping over furtive vowels; with it, meaning dragged
crookedly in its wake, a worn hem coming loose . . .

“Lash” is a good example of the double structure that I described “Sound Piece”. It’s both love poem and language poem: the opening line, “My dearest, the belly and the heart overlap here”, referring not only to a physical situation but to the fact that in Vietnamese the words for “belly” and “heart” express overlapping semantic fields (or, at least, I assume so. I wouldn’t want readers to think that I’m competent in Vietnamese). It’s not uncommon that reality is divided up for a language’s nouns in a different way to which it is in English. Words for colours, for example, can be puzzling: Old Icelandic seems to make no distinction between blue and black and the exact way in which the colour spectrum is divided up in Homer has often occupied scholars. At any rate it’s a conceptual challenge for people learning languages and just undermines the inherited way that their mother-tongue processes reality. “Lash” concludes by nicely tying together the language experience and the love experience, the latter by concluding the poem as a love-letter: “But in this language / of few tenses I remain lashed to the present, and yours always”.

“Earshot”, whose title puns on the idea of a person being assaulted by a language within hearing, is an attempt to speak about the subtle effects of learning a language as an adult through a process of immersion in the culture of the language. It is enticing, all-pervasive but also almost always beyond the grasp of the learner who has to go through a kind of linguistic version of “traveller’s syndrome”:

Language approaches from all
directions, with caresses & gestures
in the genial air, an earworm

burrowing into a brain sparking
with connection. Its ornaments
could be the servants of melody,

but it becomes evasive, whispering
just out of earshot & retreating indignantly
when you reach to clutch at words . . .

And, finally in this group, there is “In Slumber” which makes, behind the metaphor of a snow-covered landscape, a comment about the linguistic health of the world. Under the snow is silence, but plants which are in hibernation are like languages with only a few speakers and so on. It’s perhaps designed to be a reminder that linguistic extinction is as distressing a current problem as climate change and species extinction.

The central section of the book is very much about living in a digital/locked-down age. The mode here alters from the generally lyrical cast of the earlier sections to one of assemblage and “found” observations: “Seventeen Titles on the New Books Shelf: June-July 2019” will suggest the representative method of these poems. It’s not a mode that ever does much for me but I can respond to the fact that every age speaks for itself and in its own way and there is something attractive in the idea that the digital age should reveal itself in assemblages of, say, email responses and on-line reviews as happens in “Leftovers From a Pirate Party”. I think the most impressive poem of this group is the first, “Under the House”. It may be because, although it assembles, it avoids quotation. It begins with images of disturbance in the present and ends by capturing a sinister ambience brilliantly:

. . . . .
                                   Behind you
on the highway for some hours after,
a car with one dimmed headlight,
sinister in the early evening.
The light bulbs seem too bright for the light fittings
at your in-laws’ house. In the painting, the dark fleshy
leaves, almost purple-black,
curl inwards as if to meet
something craven in you.

The fourth section – introduced by “Sound Piece” which I have looked at already – is a little harder to pigeonhole than the previous three. If “Sound Piece” is about memory and how it can be organised, so is the second poem, “Recomposition”, a piece that seems to be essentially about how we relate as units to the some total of our memories, “a portrait assembled across / years”. But the later poems are about pregnancy: “nesting” and being a parent of small children. Again, though the subject is conventional, the treatment never is: a sign of a really worthwhile poet. I’m especially taken with the three “Nesting Songs” and with “Slipstone”, a fine rendition of the semi-delirious state induced by looking after the needs of a new-born:

Untrodden rhythms: the pace of your life
a tightly wound timepiece on short
rotation, slight distinction between darkness
and light, slipstone or clingstone, peach

or nectarine: thoughts verdant and ropey
twist in night colloquies . . .

If the first section of Beneath the Tree Line dealt with living in a domestic world of subtle and often sinister changes, the final section contains poems that address living in the “natural world” as it is more usually conceived. These are poems that involve getting out amongst the trees whether they are the mangroves accompanying a river that has been overtaken in its upper reaches by human habitation – “wilder here / than the subdued trickle through bricked-in / culverts” – or the angophoras of a southern tableland recovering from summer bushfires. Again, the overall tone is permeated with suggestions of threat so that the fascination (in “Further South” and “Restless”) with the complex way in which a forest regenerates always leads the reader to remember the human origins of the fires which had provoked this. One tricky poem, “Lip”, finishes with an image a river carrying a “curled raft of leaves” towards the lip of a waterfall, and this again is an image of threat even though the poem’s main focus seems to be on the inclinations and desires of the author. Another crucial, though not uncommon, tactic of these poems is to work on the inner/outer relationship plotting first one then the other as metaphoric, so “Lip” speaks of the “mind’s / unseen lake”. There are also inversions of perspective: in the significantly titled “Within” a journey inside a gorge reduces the observer to being a “smudge of red soil” or a “dry spiralling leaf of pandanus” and in “The Peeling” – which I have been reading as a poem essentially about writing poetry, or, at least, the status of the written word – the observing eye is merely that of a “warm-blooded animal” from a mosquito’s perspective and her hands are, nature fashion, nothing but “peripheries”.

If the sense of threat and dis-ease is an underlying theme of Beneath the Tree Line – running through it rather like the underground streams that seem so important in the first poems – it’s entirely on the surface of Amanda Anastasia’s The Inheritors, whose poems focus specifically on climate change. Its title provides a clue that its concerns are with conditions of life for those coming after us: our children and grandchildren. Its title, of course, repeats that of William Golding’s novel about the displacement of the Neandertals by modern humans and I wondered if this might not be a deliberate allusion, exploiting in some way that novel’s tragedy of a declining people faced with a bewildering change in their circumstances and unable to adapt to it. On reflection, I doubt if it’s the case, though, since there is nothing and nobody in these poems capable of allegorically representing the new species of that novel. Anastasi’s book is in two parts: the first part has poems which are set in the present but look forward while those of the second part are usually set sometime in the future. And this is a future whose intricacies the poet obviously enjoys exploring, one whose symptoms vary from messed-up breeding times in Greenland to reality TV programs in which a group of contestants have to survive not the jungle but the streets of Melbourne on a summer’s day.

Books dedicated to poems on a single theme are often ultimately uninteresting because repetition seems more irritating in poetry than it is in any other medium. The Inheritors avoids this by exploring as many ways as possible in which the single theme can be approached. Anastasi has a talent for the gnomic and this produces a series of poems in one-line stanzas which are spread through the book. It’s an attractive form since it blends compression with expansive development. There is also plenty of tonal variation and some poems – “Lady Returned”, whose vision of the future is of one with sex-dolls that ultimately prove unsatisfying, and the imaginary programs of “TV Guide” or the headlines of “2029 News Headlines” – are funny, even if grimly funny.

The framing poem for the first section, and, indeed, the book as a whole, “Newcomer”, makes no reference to the climate crisis. It is about a new baby and the way in which its future development – its initial socialisation and then its reaction against this in later years – can be plotted. But, of course, this baby will become an inheritor and so the subject is broached by omission. There is also a sense of the kind of shadowy dis-ease which is reminiscent of the early poems of Gibian’s book. You can see this is in “Parameters”, which describes living in an outer suburb of Melbourne and feeling at odds with the house – “I bump a hand or leg // against the corner of the bedside or kitchen table” – to the point of becoming more like “a temporary lodger”. The first of the poems with single line stanzas, “Monostich I: The Turn”, is interested in those decisive early markers of the onrushing change. It reminds me of the sensitivities of the first section of Gibian’s book as well. Certainly we would expect poets to be sensitive to internally registered markers of change that are missed by most of us. One of the single lines in this poem says: “The people of the sea are moving inland”. To someone who lives a couple of metres above sea level on a sand island, this resonates uncomfortably: an especially disturbing observation.

John Kinsella: Supervivid Depastoralism

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2021, 144pp.

Supervivid Depastoralism is Vagabond Press’s contribution to getting the prodigious output of John Kinsella into print. It’s an output that seems to require several publishers just to keep up with the author. Its unusual title is also something of a guide, reminding readers that they are going to be exposed to a very complex and highly idiosyncratic approach to the ecological state of the current world and the reactions of one poet living inside it: each of its two words is a neologism pressed into service to play a role in Kinsella’s view of things. It’s the kind of title that doesn’t appeal to the sort of publishers who hope their books will appear on bestseller lists: I’m reminded of the story that Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar had to have, in its English translation, the grotesque title The Beloved Returns because American publishers were worried about a title in which two of the three words would not be familiar to their hoped-for audience. Or perhaps they hoped financiers would buy the book having misread “returns” as a noun rather than a verb.

Seen from a wide perspective, Kinsella’s poetry is largely about the “environment”, that is, the natural world in relation to our treatment of it. But his perspective is ethical as well as ecological, focussing on that old issue of how we should live in the world. Readers’ first experience of this poetry is often to be numbed by the complexity of its analysis, the continual dragging in of new perspectives often reduced thereafter to nonce words: as the title demonstrates. There is some truth in this but beneath it you sense that this poetry is more personal than analytical, more doubting than dogmatic. It’s possible even to see it as a poetry of the self, but a self inhabiting a crumbling environment. Someone like John Clare, faced with the early horrors of the Industrial Revolution might make an analogy, though, as we’ll see, it’s a Hungarian poet whom Kinsella chooses.

At its simplest level, Kinsella’s position is, as various of the poems assert, vegan, pantheist and pacifist. One should disturb the natural processes of the world as little as possible. This might be an almost Jain-like position although in that religion it is the belief in reincarnation which demands that devotees never damage the creatures of the world. But to even mention the Jains raises the issue of limits, something that occurred to me in my reading of Kristen Lang’s book in last month’s review where there seems an absolute break between living creatures and, say, rocks. In Kinsella’s case I wonder at what point interactions “impingings” become insignificant. If you are careful with rabbits should you be careful with mosquitoes? If you are careful with mosquitoes should you be careful with mites? And so on. He is obviously driven to fury by the crassest end of the scale: mining companies destroying country deemed to be unproductive, pastoralists employing mass herbicides, morons shooting native animals. These are at a macro scale and produce a mixture of anger and despair that runs through much of his poetry. It raises the question “What should be done?” but that isn’t quite the same question as “How should I live?” and it’s in the answer(s) to the latter questions that this poetry become most engaging. The major decision is, ethically, to allow all orders of creation their right to exist and to respect their unique and, finally, incomprehensible way of grasping their world. One of the long poems in the book, “Cultivating a Testament: Bending Space” has a fine description of this sensitivity to, especially, birds:

. . . . . 
As light bends
as we see around
the corner of a tree
the bark-piercing
grubber, a magpie code-
breaker as all magpies

see around the limits
of the age so determined
with space a song-reach
a warning a call a consensus
or a tyranny: what’s a yellow-
plumed honeyeater if you watch
without seeing the way

air and light shift
to accommodate its exquisite
presence its claim and no claim
which is what you aspire to
but are stuck in an XY co-
ordinate’s dimensional thinking? 

Pressing the physicist’s notion of the deformation of space-time by mass into an explanation of the way in which all observer’s affect, even if only slightly, the objects they study, may be drawing a long bow here but the point is a good one. The Kinsella mode of living at a practical level will involve respect of difference and as little impingement as possible. It comes in to play when decisions about all aspects of life have to be made: should water be trucked in during a dry spell, for example, or how does one discourage rabbits from burrowing under the foundations of one’s house. But again the issue of limits arises. It’s hard for a reader not to notice that the orders of animals such as birds don’t behave with the same thoughtful care: in the insect world birds are as rapacious and brutal as humans are in their own world. Should one save a bird rather than a fly? If so, why? Don’t flies have their own beautiful “presence”? I don’t think these are objections to the way of life Kinsella is exploring, but I can’t help but feel that a lot of ways of thinking about our environment involve value-derived chains of importance which are only another way in which humans have imposed themselves on things: I’m not sure there is a “natural” order.

This concern with how we should live leads to what has always seemed to me that the most important issue in the poetry of disaster: the positioning of the individual (in this case, poets) and his own stake in the events. One of the features that makes Supervivid Depastoralism such a good collection is that the caustic analytical perspective is turned on the author as well. A simple example might be “Poiesis: Whistler!” in which Kinsella reminds himself that there are many reductive forces hampering the mind and imagination’s desire to be properly attuned to the immensity of experience. These will “close myself off” and may be no more than simple physical issues: “bothered by the glare the overly bright day and my eyes / losing focus which interrupts even stuffs-up my hearing”. But this is followed by a shift in which there are a set of accusations that might be made by outsiders but also might be made by the poet himself “I am second guessing I am filling in the song I am stacking / up my outdoors cred my exposure to the surprises of classification . . .”

All this of course is worrying about issues at the ethical/intellectual level. At the poetic level regular readers of Kinsella’ work will have noticed that poems are often built up out of surprising conjunctions. True, some are logically explicable, usually as metaphors, so that the domestic issue of rabbits undermining foundations (“Destabilising (The) Pastoral” and “Eclogue of Shoring Up”) moves to issues of how to deal with larger scale destruction. But just as I’m always interested when the logical gap between the two parts of a metaphor becomes almost unbridgeably wide, so I’m also interested in experiences that are yoked together (to borrow Johnson’s phrase) in unlikely ways. Such moments I think tell us a lot about a poet’s cast of mind. In Kinsella’s poetry you get a sense of just how intense the mind’s activity is by the sheer unlikeliness of connection. “Decoding a Tartini Violin Concerto” for example connects the music with water seeping from a valley wall and the book’s longest and most expository poem, “Late Sunlift Testament While Listening to SYR4 (Christian Wolff)” also joins its meditations to a piece of music. Again, detractors (Dr Johnson would have undoubtedly been one) will claim that this is nothing but mere quirkiness whereas I find in it the pressure of an immensely active intelligence that really isn’t interested in notions of aesthetic propriety. An interesting poem of this sort is the dauntingly titled “’Screech Owl’ (Eastern Barn Owl) During Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician”. Here Bergman’s wonderful meta-film which never denies the possibility of magic (and explores its effects wonderfully) while continually deconstructing it and showing its artifices gets pushed up against the cry of the owl to argue (as I read it) that the magic of the natural world is of an order that doesn’t need to be interpreted from the human perspective of occult powers. It derives from the alternate universe of the natural world’s methods of operating:

. . . . . 
its mesmerist’s eyes uncloaking night
to show what forces don’t have to be

harnessed as “powers” but are there in their
own rights and not ours to own any more

than their own splice of surprise and apprehension,
and wonder and rodent fear, a most bizarre

mix of compulsion and tendency,
of dark matter and body heat.

Another feature of Supervivid Depastoralism that might conceivably come under the heading of conjunctions are the appearances of two other poets, Miklós Radnóti and Les Murray. If they are conjunctions there is nothing strikingly unusual about them, however. Radnóti is a fascinating presence in this poetry: a poet himself obsessed by the pastoral form of the eclogue who was murdered by his own people having been worked to exhaustion as a Jewish labourer during the war. He continued to write poetry throughout this period in extremis and his last “eclogues” were found in a notebook on his body when it was exhumed two years later. It’s not hard to imagine any poet in the accelerating natural disasters of today finding here some kind of image not only of what might happen to a poet but of how a poet might respond by writing obsessively as the light fails. One poem of Kinsella’s describes the relationship as a bond returned to after a quarter-century and “Thinking Over the Missing Sixth Eclogue of Miklós Radnóti” begins with a passage summarising the situation of contemporary poets:

There are many poets voicing
out of isolation or demi-isolation
or ranging about around isolation: all types.
How silent we are together in our lonely speech,
our shouting into disrupted winds, the range of spread . . .

The second poet is also a ghost figure: Les Murray. Two poems engage with him directly, one as elegy and the other as dream. The first of these, “Elegy for Les on a Stormy Night and the Next Morning (Breaking a Drought)” is an impressive piece confronting immediately the differences between these two poets obsessed by landscape and pastoralism before moving on to focus on what they shared. Murray of course was inclined to blame issues of rural degradation on an urbanised middle-class. In his “The 41st Year of 1968”, recent bushfires were blamed on developments out of hippy culture which refused to allow “settler-style clear felling” of native trees, and destructive industrialised farming was seen as deriving from overseas meat-eating habits, “a London red-shift / on the flesh-eating graphs”. As Kinsella’s poem says, “Leaning, / we might have talked it over, disagreeing / on whom and what to blame . . .” In the later poem, Murray reappears in a dream in which he wants to discuss the previous poem:

. . . . . 
I am obviously bothered because we discussed weather
in my elegy and changes of weather in the state of death,
and I said that the only states I recognise are states of matter.
It was a dream in which birdsong from different parts
of the earth drifted or cut in, and we remarked on their
perspicuity in terms of the travelled words we were using.
You asked after family and friends and I said, I never

knew your family beyond what you told me, Les. And you
said, All the voices are in there and that is my job.
It is my job still, I wished he’s added, but he didn’t . . .

This is the dream presence of a ghost but Murray appears in an even more insubstantial way in Supervivid Depastoralism in a couple of places in other poems where moments of style sound very like Murray’s own poetry. The poem I have spoken about briefly before in which a screech owl interrupts the watching of a Bergman film, has a passage

. . . . .
It’s an interruption that opens hope for all works
and nights of valley ways, the small community

of disassociation and its edgy living, its distress
of semi-older ways . . .

where the phrase “its edgy living” recalls a line of Murray’s (though I can’t at the moment place it). And when one of the poems of “Graphology Surroundings” says that a red wattle bird is “working / its terrain” this inevitably recalls the wonderful sentence, used as a title in “Birds in the Title Work Freeholds of Straw” from the “Walking to the Cattle Place” sequence. The former may be no more than a distant, ghostly echo, but I read the latter as a deliberate allusion in homage.

Radnóti and Murray are specific poets. Poets in general don’t fare so well in Supervivid Depastoralism. As part of the “Arts” in general they must sustain the charge of complicity. It is powerfully put in “Memory and ‘Consolidation’”:

Growing up in an era of settler
“consolidations” where each trail
is re-opened or built-over and each
building rebuilt and each hardship replayed,
“we” trace heritage with funding.

Which is not to diminish any form
of suffering, but to question motives
of fact vs. pathos, The Arts underwritten -
support of consolidation: artistry
and adroitness, so much work
of flair with little protest but plenty

of self-affirmation. Each policy shift
accommodates as much as needs be taken
in to maintain the best interests of the established,
the flow of profits. It’s that base, that ugly. That lyrical. . .

One of poetry’s potent drives – to accurately realise the natural world in words – is also questioned in “Pivots”:

. . . . . 
All “Art” pivots but is it overly satisfied
with its own rise and fall, its accomplishment
of mimicking wing and leg, appendages and hesitations
or tipping into a pastoral reclusivity
because it claims to be able to feed so many? . . .

And one of the angrier, darker poems at the last part of the book speaks harshly of poetry’s obsession with itself, presumably in the dynamics of its history as well as in the way an art looks at itself as it is composed:

. . . . . 
Poetry having so little to do – really – with the pastoral, it rabbits-
on about changes to practically nothing because it hears only its own song-strains . . .

One might stretch the issue of the Arts out into the post-enlightenment development of the sciences in the West. There is a potential contradiction between the gift of the sciences – an unimaginably deepened appreciation of the way the natural world works, its almost infinitely complex web of interaction of which what is called ecology is only a small part – and the knowledge that the sciences are, like the Arts, funded and are complicit in the activities like industrial farming and mining that Kinsella most abhors. It’s a theme touched on in various poems of this book but one would probably need to reread a substantial part of Kinsella’s extensive work to form any conclusions about where he stands on this issue. It may be that he is equivocal about it, in which case it would fit in with my sense of his poetry as being more seeking and worrying than dogmatically conclusive. One poem from Supervivid Pastoral, “Poiesis and the Occupation of the Valley”, does speak unequivocally about the natural sciences. Beginning by observing large-scale landscaping in a valley and seeing this as a kind of reductive response to land, it moves on to:

                     to a display case of singing honeyeaters
pentatonic against all invasive analysis of their syrinxes
those little brag sheets from universities and institutes
from big business and public/private collaborations
about something revealed in the make-up of bird
or insect as utilitarian . . . 

Though Kinsella’s poetry recommends a hypersensitive state of observation, sometimes things have to be dead to show how they worked when they were alive.

Kristen Lang: Earth Dwellers

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021, 90pp.

This century has seen the human race enter a condition not previously experienced. Cyclic spells of natural disaster, warfare and horror have always been a part of our existence but I think it is the first time that we have ever felt the fragility of the natural world. It is quite remarkable how a few years ago we might have seen the Amazon basin, for example, as a stupendous and daunting natural phenomenon, a fit setting for danger, adventure and discovery. Now it seems an endangered and delicate ecosystem. And the same could be said of things like the oceans, “smaller” things like the Great Barrier Reef, even smaller things like individual species down to a host of microscopic phenomena. There will be those of course who claim, and have claimed, that this is just politically motivated fear-tactics designed to help a smug middle-class push its agenda in a culture war. A quarter of a century ago this might have been a poor, but at least a tenable, position but it certainly isn’t now. The mongols aren’t just a vague rumour from the East: they really are coming.

From the altogether narrower perspective of poetry – both its writing and reading – one wants to know what effect this will have. It’s important because it isn’t simply a matter of a new theme to be merrily added to the existing ones: it involves a new way of experiencing the world. In other words, it must effect a change at the very heart of how most poetry – poetry which operates where inner self meets the outer world through language, rather than focussing on language or poetry alone – conceives itself. If reality becomes less a solid block of existence and more of a fragile and unravelling web, then poetry might be one of the first activities to register this. It may be going too far to see poetry as a sort of hyper-sensitive marker, a human equivalent of the green tree frog or, more morbidly, the canary in the miner’s cage – I doubt that poetry can any longer claim that sort of social relevance. But we certainly expect poetry to make some kind of change as human sensibilities change. It will also, although this isn’t strictly relevant to a review of a new book, affect the way we think about the poetry of the past which dealt with the natural world. Wordsworth’s sense of Nature as a powerful force which educates (in the original sense of “drawing out”) the individual’s soul relied on a sense of the solidity of the natural world embodied in the mountains of the Lake Country.

Kristen Lang’s Earth Dwellers is one work which focusses on the human response to this new situation and this alone should make it intriguing. It isn’t a book of poems of case studies and it doesn’t play the contemporary game of blame or adopt the contemporary tone of outrage. Instead, its poems try to explore what the new sensation of the fragility of the natural world actually feels like. One of the keywords here is “entanglement”, a word made more familiar in the very different science of quantum mechanics – though there may turn out to be analogies between the quantum world and the physical world which are more than merely metaphoric. The book’s dedication – “For the wombats and the slime moulds . . . And for all who work to protect the entanglement, the network of lives, billions of years in the making, by which the Earth is more than stone” – is our first meeting with the word but it isn’t the last. The notion of “entanglement” – non-unravellable interconnection – doesn’t in itself herald a new sensitivity since it is an intellectual concept rather than an emotional one but many of Lang’s poems want to explore it. In fact, in a sense, she has always been exploring it. The first poem of her first book, SkinNotes, contains the word in its first line and you can’t get more emphatic than that even if the entanglements focussed on there are those of genetic history. And entanglements, closer in kind to those of Earth Dwellers, figure prominently in her second book, The Weight of Light.

“Wading with Horseshoe Crabs” is a more expository piece than most of the poems of Earth Dwellers – I’ll talk about the variety of modes of these poems later. It begins with the inconceivably long pre-human existence of life on earth:

. . . . .
                                                 Already
there are spiders – four hundred million years of occupation.
Beside them: diatoms, turtles and sea jellies. Bristleworms
and sundews. Skinks and ants and . . . not ourselves. Not nearly.

There are butterflies. Bandicoots and geckos. Eucalypts.
Wood moths and quolls. And when humans do emerge.
we’re inside the entanglement. Earth-lines in every cell . . .

I read it as a poem not content with the truisms of human evolution but an attempt to make us confront the emotional, behavioural and social consequences of it. Two poems before “Wading with Horseshoe Crabs” is “The Roar of It”, a less expository and more visceral recreation of someone’s sense of the endless changes that surround us from the subatomic level to the human level “Sand sucked out of rivers / into more New Yorks, more Bangkoks, more / Luandas”. In a sense the roar is the roar of entanglement in action. Interestingly a little lyric piece is placed between these two ambitious poems. “A Small Child Finds a Ladybird” recounts a child’s fascination, her identification with the natural world, and the adults’ response of disappointment that they have lost this minute example of recognising entanglement through identification:

. . . . .
           She is
bug-eyed. We
are behind her,
wanting even
half
of her gaze.

When the poems of Earth Dwellers want to focus on the response to entanglement they introduce other recurrent key concepts which might be summed up as penetration and porosity. We continually meet a speaker in the process of registering great natural patterns as they move through him or her. The first poem, “Arrival”, concludes with “The day rolls, / the world tumbles through me. In the wave of its momentum”. It’s a way of reminding both poet and reader that our tendency to see sunrise as an event followed by noon and sunset is a human-centred perspective. In fact, the process is a continual rolling as the earth turns and we just happen to be stationary objects that it rolls over and through. As “The Turning” says, “How the dawn does not end but travels, / always arriving”. This seems to be a kind of touchstone – there are innumerable experiences of the “sulphur roar of the sun” in these poems – a way of resetting one’s perspective on the self and the natural world.

Another image which relates to entanglement is the idea of “stitching” though it differs slightly because it is an intentional act (on someone’s or something’s part) rather than a passive response. We meet it in poems I have already referred to such as “The Turning” which concludes “stitch marks / through us all” and in “The Roar of It” which has a passage dealing with entanglement at the sub-atomic scale:

. . . . .
                              In her gaze -
        a fusion, so entangled there cannot be names
     or borders. She is stitched into molecules
        up quarks    muons    the tremors of time
  in the strange-fleet     puckerings    she calls the hours
      she calls the years     millennia     aeons . . .

But stitching also operates at a less literal level. A pre-dawn meteor shower over the Himalayas is described as a “needle-point burst / mending the sky like a tailor, / his thread invisible” and “Headland” is an amusing poem where the processes of dissolving the boundaries between self and world – “the sun’s warmth / woven through my marrow” – involve skinny-dipping. When the couple are disturbed by the arrival of visitors,

We dress each other, stitching into our clothes the rock-
rhythms, the pull of water, the tattered lines of the shells . . .

All of this sets up in the reader a kind of sensitivity to such images so that, when we read in “Postcard From the Island” – a description of connections largely underwater – of the seabirds “bombing the waves in the distance” we are quite ready for the assertion that this is another stitching image like the meteors: “The rush // of their beaks, the muffled thwok sewing him / into the hug of the undertow . . .”

Many of the poems, beginning with the second, “Learning the World”, and then spaced throughout the book, involve the experience of being in a cave with the lights extinguished. This isn’t so much an experience of entanglement as a chance to reboot one’s responses: as “Touching the Dark” says, “you remove distance / by turning off the eyes”. But it’s also an experience of actually entering stone and, as a result of the porosity of the self, taking some of that stone into oneself. The “status” of stone is something I am not clear about in Earth Dwellers. Are we entangled with it? Does the book want us to see stone as a different order to the multiform varieties of life that humans are part of? We may take it into ourselves but is it part of us? I like stone and, in another life, would probably rather be a geologist than a biologist so I’m keen to see whether the poems of Earth Dwellers (and, for that matter, poems like “These Mountains – What the Body Cannot Keep” from The Weight of Light) think there is an absolute break between the inanimate world and the animate one. Of course, it may all be there and it’s only my misreadings which are causing me to be unsure about it. There isn’t much doubt that the other great division of reality – the one between non-conscious life-forms and conscious ones – is one that these poems aren’t very interested in sustaining. In that sense it is an anti-conventional-humanist book seeing connection with the world of life-forms as more important than the free-standing, incipiently solipsist emphasis on that mysterious state, consciousness. But then, of course, slime moulds don’t write poems and probably don’t worry about whether or not they are entangled with wombats.

One of the technical problems of Earth Dwellers is a result of one of its virtues. At no point does this seem to be a mere “project” book of poems, the kind of thing which, in proposal form, can be bowled up to a body issuing grants or a board accepting enrolments. It is far too varied in its modes for that, moving from expository pieces like “Wading with Horseshoe Crabs” to extended narratives like “Mount Duncan” or “The Woman and the Blue Sky” which recreate the Romantic mode whereby experience of the natural world is best done in poetry by taking a reader slowly through it. And then there are lyric pieces like “Blue Light” or “The Vanishing” as well as “The Mountain – Eighteen Views” where the brief images are put together to make a larger, multi-perspectival whole: not an original form but a good one. The problem, as I see it, is that this mix of styles involves awkward decisions about how the poet herself is to appear. Even the shift from first person to third between poems takes a bit of adjustment for a reader but here we get a gamut of experiencing selves from “I” to “she” to “the woman”, not to mention “we”, “he”, “the man” and “they”. We could rationalise this by saying that this variety prevents the poetic ego being emphasised so that the dominant theme – experience of the interconnectedness of the world – is not, ultimately, subordinated to the overriding importance of the poet’s consciousness: that would be an irritating paradox indeed. In other words, the perceived awkwardness of moving from one kind of poetic participant to another is a necessary de-centering of the self. But I’m afraid that that would look like what it is: a rationalisation. Somehow the multiple modes, which work so well to provide different perspectives, don’t work so well when the question of how the writer is to be fitted into these poems is raised. I don’t know what the solution to this problem is. A poet can scarcely write “hard” lyrics, leaving the self out entirely but conveying that self’s perspective when the subject matter is exactly the issue of personal response. Readers will have to wait for Lang’s next book to see how she approaches this issue.

John Hawke: Whirlwind Duststorm

Flinders Lane: Grand Parade Poets, 2021, 60pp.

Poems come claiming many different identities. There are those that aspire to be no more than songs, those that exemplify a previously worked out aesthetic theory, those that worry at an aspect of their author’s inner life, those (“I do this, I do that” poems) that want to take a slice of random individual experience of the world, those that are slabs of discourse engaged with issues of the world, and so on. The feeling I have about the fine and rather unsettling poems of John Hawke’s second book is that they aspire to be strong, free-standing objects. And I don’t mean by this that they are just tightly structured well-made pieces – though they are that – rather that they shun being dependent on meaning for their strength and stability. At the same time, they don’t seem to relate to the generative imperatives of Surrealist poetry where, in that deeply French way, unity derives from development out of a single unified process.

Trying to be clearer in my own mind about this, I go looking for parallels in the extensive domains of poetry. One local similarity might be with the poems of Emma Lew which I have written about on this site. Each of these tends to be a self-contained narrative scene whose threads of connection to place and time in the world are often not clear. It isn’t a comparison that can be pushed too far though because her poems are usually thematically consistent in themselves, they don’t juxtapose elements as Hawke’s poems tend to do. Another analogy might be with the first poems of Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium which introduce puzzling but consistent worlds – though the surprised/rhapsodic/baroque tone is a long way from the tone of the poems of Whirlwind Duststorm. No doubt a bit more thought would dredge up other analogous poetries but for the moment an example might help to make this murky description a little clearer. The obvious place to start of course is with the book’s first poem, and sometimes the obvious place is one of the best places. The poem is called “Axis”:

One sulphurous puff, then the white stick
is flicked spinning in a flare of sparks,
red globes throbbing down the harbour channel.
One vulnerable hand lifted, its sallow disclosure
pallid as the history of human error
pasted on placards, where arc-lights scatter
a brittle confetti: the florilegium of choice.
These itinerants marred by the stages of grieving
gather by handfuls at the terminus, swell into masses.
Some still bear marks of disfigurement
like mortal wounds, gashes insecurely bound,
heaped in the exhaustion of travel.
Most are older than usual, in loosely
drooping camisoles, or subsiding gowns.
A woman offers a baby she has never fed
to another for burial, passing in aura
through the mirror’s cathexis, the attendants
hunched in flag-bright uniforms,
paddling a ghost-train sleigh under the patchwork
awning of a coral tree, through scarlet petals
and tunnels of black opal. Then a steel door slams to.

The strength here seems to me to lie in the visual clarity of the images. The weakness in the slight straining at the level of elevated language. These are features that can be found in most of the poems of this book. For the reader the pleasure (or frustration if you are used to a different kind of poetry) comes from the natural attempt to harmonise these strong images. A group of people are treated to three different ways: they derive from a fun park, gas chambers and a Dantean approach to the river Styx. My reading of the poem – entirely tentative – is that we are presented with several unifying readings, none of which can be fully defended. One is that this is just people entering Luna Park (the metaphoric reference to ghost-trains, later in the poem ensures that this reading can’t be simply dismissed) and the other possible readings – the dead awaiting transportation into the afterlife (a reading that would balance this opening poem nicely with the last line of the final one – “He doesn’t realise that he’s dead”) or victims of the gas-chambers awaiting their fate – are simply metaphors. But people entering Luna Park do not have “gashes insecurely bound” though those on the edge of the afterlife well might. And then there is the odd title which could be read as guiding the reader towards the idea that these visual images are to be seen as being on an axis or thread. As I have said, this represents only my tentative response to a single poem but the tension between precise visual images and a kind of suspension of interpretation is not a bad way of describing what goes on in many of these poems. It also, interestingly, locates the unity and strength of the poem not in the poem itself but in the reader’s responses to it, an interesting move in aesthetics and one which recalls the shift made by phenomenologists. But more of that later.

A similar interpretive suspension could also be said to happen in the next two poems. “The Demolition of Hotel Australia” looks on the surface like a reasonably approachable allegory. The hotel was demolished in the 1970s (a period that a number of other poems look back to) and it must have been tempting to see this as a symbol of that Australian tendency to bury its past, especially the creative elements of that past, in the interest of new national narratives. But the poem itself resists these simplifications. Yes, Australia’s history is there – the hotel has a “midden-room”, for example, with a “full-size figure / of a Gadigal warrior blackened with charcoal” – and so is the hotel’s history – Sarah Bernhardt’s suite is there – but the texture of the poem, simultaneously surreal and sharply precise, means that a reader is unsure of the status of the individual images. “Running with the Pack” seems to set up and then subvert an equally simple structure. It looks on the surface like a set of images of Sydney that might be seen from a car or bus travelling down Paramatta Road, a structure that recalls Slessor’s “William Street” and establishes that poet (who also appears in “The Demolition of Hotel Australia”) as a key text behind Whirlwind Duststorm, or at least behind those poems in it which take Sydney as their location: sharp but fragmented visual images, “snippings of idiot celluloid”, are the raw material. But “Running with the Pack” has a far more surreal set of images than Slessor would ever have allowed himself and, in the central part of the poem it allows itself to move into biographical snippets before returning, at the end, to images of the street:

. . . until one night a car skidded on its roof
against the pole outside our front door –

the topless waitress from the pub across the street
brought hot sweet tea in her netted singlet

to the white-haired suspended passengers.
Singed by the traffic slipstream we passed

secure in an insulating cloak of diesel, running
with the pack over six lanes of Parramatta Road.

Not all of the poems of the book work in this way: that is taking on the challenge of creating a sense of the integrity of individual poems that doesn’t derive from its usual source in a reader’s interpretive comfort. “Wheat” – “The long tresses of wheat sobbing / as the wind stamps out its black dance . . .” – is almost a conventional lyric to the extent of having a conclusion

where even the wind’s tongue is caught, the canvas blowing
like a lost mouth,
like someone who has been forgotten
but now wishes to speak, after so many years of silence.

which introduces an image that deepens the significance of the strongly visual image that the poem is mainly occupied with. And “Underground Comedown” develops straight out of its title as a concatenation of visual images perfectly coherently threaded on the theme of a thoroughly seedy life.

The two most overtly surreal poems in the book are both sonnets and form something of a pair. “Sea Priestess” and “The Illustrated Library” don’t offer interpretive clues which they then whisk away, as “Axis” does, although the former, in being dedicated to the English musician “Jhonn Balance” and using a title from an album he contributed to, may suggest that clues lie in the lyrics of these songs.

Situated right in the centre of the book is something that seems, at least on the surface, as utterly unlike the kinds of poems I have been trying to describe as could be. It is a seven page prose description of the experience of attending a wedding reception at a local RSL. This makes it sound rather trite but it is far from a bland realist account and has kind of Proustian quality in its high style. And in Proustian manner, the narrator is led into processes of evocation:

. . . . . The guests’ cars, moulded to a sneer in the latest design, lie silent beneath a sheen of ice, as the final words of a contract that will cause an irreparable division in time are recited. The private essences of that previous life are retained, like your olfactory association of shell-shaped stones with the perfume of a privet bush, fleeting as the brown striped tail of a tiger snake as it slides from the track before your advancing footfall, concealed in pine-deep shadow at the mossy corner where a small dog once sank its teeth into your grandmother’s stockinged calf . . .

There are a couple of ways of approaching this piece (tentatively sidling up to it might be a more accurate metaphor). The first might be to acknowledge its daring since it could look to a casual reader like a filler stuck in to bulk out a slim book of poems. Of course it isn’t this but the author takes a big risk that it might be seen this way. A more generous way might be to see it as an experiment of the same sort that the poems are – a piece which has a structural integrity derived from tensions within it. And just as “Axis” contained interpretive tensions – none of the three images is the dominant one – so this contains tensions which are more about style and the way styles deal with reality. It suggests to readers that it might be read autobiographically and this leads us to expect an elegant but essentially bland prose style. But it continually moves into more expansive and “higher” stylistic realms. The Proustian quality is one of these but so is the conscious exoticism. Take, for example, the omniscient analysis of the lives of some of the participants:

. . . . . Some regard nature as a resource to be transformed by labour into an earthly paradise. Others, having perfected their housing renovations to a lacquered sheen, believe in conservation – even to the extent of the exclusion of any human presence, including the Baku pygmies, Mongolia’s Dukha, and the Lickan Antay people of the Atacama Desert . . .

Finally, there is the piece’s epigraph, “after Archie Schepp”, which creates a tension for the reader that is going to persist throughout the seven pages of the piece. Archie Schepp, who dwells well beyond the borders of my musical knowledge, is an American jazz saxophonist who, interestingly, left a musical career of very high credentials to become an academic. The “after” suggests that the mode of “The Wedding” might either derive from a recorded piece of Schepp’s or, more likely, derive from his improvisatory style. Ultimately it isn’t a question I can answer but it does point to a final comment that needs to be made about Whirlwind Duststorm: it is drenched in musical references from Rachmaninoff to Captain Beefheart. There is hardly a single poem in which music does not appear to the extent that it is tempting to say, only slightly hyperbolically, that this is a book that comes with its own soundtrack.

These are poems that work as poems, as I have said, attaining a solidity and independence that doesn’t depend on consistency and simple interpetability. Music may lie behind that as a structural model but the book itself points readers in a rather different direction by having, as its epigraph, a quote from Sartre:

If, impossibly, you were to “enter” a consciousness, you would be picked up by a whirlwind and thrown back outside to where the tree is and all the dust, for “consciousness” has no inside

a Delphic comment that simultaneously suggests, explores and denies a possibility. It can’t be ignored though because it provides the title of the book’s title poem and seems to be taken up in the blurb: “Consciousness is like the experience of the poem – of being in perpetual motion constantly distracted by the images before us . . .” This presents us with the possibility that, lying behind these poems, is the philosophy of Phenomenology with its focus on the individual’s experiencing apparatus rather than on the outside world of contingent phenomena. A poem, it says, is to have a structural integrity which is analogous to the self and not derived from its accuracy vis a vis externalities. It’s an intriguing possibility but it isn’t possible for a reader, having only these poems, to know whether it is the driving force behind their creation or just a post facto idea that helps create a sense of unity in the book. What matters in the end are the poems: it’s hard, even for a potent theory, to turn an uninteresting poem into an interesting one – and the poems of this book are both interesting and possessed of a disturbing strength.

Stephen Edgar: The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems

Melbourne: Black Pepper, 2020, 284pp.

Stephen Edgar always seems to me to be one of the most unusual of major Australian poets. Half a century ago there was an important shift from poems that made their way in the world as objects structured by conventions of rhyme and metre to what is usually called free verse but is really a recognition of a poem’s right to be a piece of discourse as long as it fulfils the obligation of being an interesting piece of discourse in terms of its conception and its execution. Fifty years produces an awful lot of examples but an obvious one might be Les Murray’s “Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” which is, in a sense, a pastiche of an Aboriginal song cycle and whose challenge – successfully achieved, most readers would think – is to avoid any sense in its tone that it is mocking either Aboriginal singers or modern holiday-makers. When contemporary poets do use the old metrical/rhyming structures there is usually a touch of post-modernist flamboyance about it: “I don’t really believe in these archaic modes but I can do them perfectly well”. A sense of the attractions of formality always accompanies poetry no matter what phase it is in and contemporary poets are more likely to be attracted to the sort of arbitrary formal structures that the Oulipo group exercise themselves in generating.

In this environment it is odd to find a poet whose entire work (the poems selected here cover, by the author’s reckoning, forty-four years) is conceived in poems that work within complex rhyming patterns. There isn’t even a modest prose poem to be found slipped in among the eleven volumes. Part of the satisfaction of writing this way might derive from the sense of mastering very difficult techniques, of exercising a craft skill at a very high level. The objection, of course, would be that this is an obsolete craft skill – like establishing a boat’s position with a sextant rather than GPS, or learning how to plough with a team of Clydesdales – but it has plainly stood Edgar in good stead. There is an argument to be made that one of the crucial skills in English language poetry – independent of any contingent “state of the art” – is getting complex syntax smoothly into an existing, equally complex form. Clive James rated this technique highly and it is no accident that he found in Edgar a very sympathetic fellow-poet. Once we shift the issue away from rhyme and metre towards syntax and how clauses and phrases harmonise and create dissonances with line and stanza breaks, we perhaps move the debate to a more valuable level. From this perspective, as I’ve said in writing about Clive James’s work, Spenser is almost the originary poet of English: nobody before or since has so consistently and apparently effortlessly worked complex syntactic structures into an invented form. And the fact that poets from Milton to Keats and Tennyson recognised his genius in this respect shows that running through the long and complex history of form in English language poetry there is a belief in this as a foundational skill. Spenser, in this sense, has more to teach poets than his spectacular contemporary, Shakespeare.

One could look at the formal dimension of Edgar’s poetry at some length, and the passages I quote when talking about his thematic material will provide plenty of examples, but an initial sample might help. Here are the final stanzas of the last poem of the first section of new poems, “Childish Questions”:

. . . . .
In bed at night
All the old childish questions still
Persist, to which no answer can be right:
If time began, what came
Before? When it all ends at last, what will
Succeed that vacancy? And other trite
Futilities to frame,

And hold intact,
Concepts beyond them to conceive.
Dream-lit projections of the mind enact
A garbled masquerade
From laws so strange and shocking to believe,
While hinting at a mental tesseract,
Within which is displayed

Their intricate 
Array, dressed in simplicities,
Which some dream self may grasp and contemplate,
And, like the spaceman hurled
In Interstellar through interstices,
Of time to his own future, then relate
To this, the daylight world.

The verse pattern is a variant of a familiar one in Edgar’s work, in this case rhyming abacbac. The two “c” rhymes make a sense of closure – the last word of each stanza in (I think) all of Edgar’s rhymed poems picks up an earlier word, even though the pattern may be different to the one here. But two elements prevent it being the kind of deliberately bathetic closure that one often gets in quatrains (as in Eliot’s, “The lengthened shadow of a man / is history, said Emerson / Who had not seen the silhouette / Of Sweeney straddled in the sun”). Firstly there is an enjambment across stanzas which is an admission that in the combat between imposed form and syntax, the latter is being respected, indeed here it is being allowed to expand into a full and complex length. Secondly, the stanza form being seven lines, rather than a quatrain’s four, there is more opportunity to let the syntax breathe even while it is being firmly constrained by the rhymes. All in all, whatever one’s attitude to old-style forms in poetry is, this is an impressive technical achievement even if one of those necessary inversions – “to which no answer can be right” – does establish a slightly old-fashioned air.

But why do it? The poems of this new and selected give a clue to at least one possible answer. The obsessive interests lying behind the new poems are perfectly expressed in the title, The Strangest Place, for these poems are almost an anatomy of worldly weirdness, a catalogue of the different ways in which the reality of phenomena can’t really be trusted. At one pole there is the poem I have already quoted which imagines reality to be an ungraspable projection – a tesseract – of dimensions unavailable to us. At another pole – in tone as well as interest – is “Parallax”. Here, the author, processing through reality – in this case the scenes met on a humble daily walk – thinks of himself as a recording machine like the cameras on the Mars landers. This leads to a memory of an advertisement in which, rather like the notorious “Potemkin Villages”, a fake reality in the form of screens is held up before the camera so that the “real” Martians can get on with their lives undisturbed behind them. “Parallax” wears its worries about reality very lightly, finishing with nothing more than a downbeat “that dubious effect . . . screening who knows what”. So does “Hampstead Incident” where the setting is not the daily experience of walking but a memory, forty years old and thus dangerously untrustworthy. On a hot day in London, two women escort a group of naked children – one of the girls, at least, close to puberty – into the park:

. . . . .
All ages – young ones bringing up the rear;
Both sexes – and, most striking, at the head
A girl who would appear
To verge upon pubescence.
And when her glance met mine, did she profess
The uninhibited
Boldness of a child, or an adolescent’s
New knowingness?

A striking memory and one which, one can imagine, is the subject of a lot of recountings on the author’s part when social occasions lapse into the “strange things I have seen on my travels” mode. And, of course, this makes the memory more solidly set and at the same time less trustworthy. The poem concludes by considering what might have happened both in the memory and the reality:

We watched them part the morning to reveal
A wish-fulfilling glimpse of Eden, or
A page of the surreal,
That tempted us away.
Or would a barked instruction of “Take two!”
Betray the conjuror?
The crowd peeled back, and closed on them, and they
Were lost to view.

In other words, is the memory distorted by the desire to impose an image of Edenic purity on the scene or is it just a “weird” event? Or, metaphorically, might it have been part of staged reality for a film? In the latter case the film director – the conjuror – would, like the Martians erecting the screens, have been the creator of this particular reality. And this conjurer figure, the being who controls what it is we think we see in the real world, appears throughout these poems. Here he is a film director whereas in “Mise en Scene” he is a novelist grown bored of his fictions and who leaves the poet to loiter in a reality which is merely a fiction. In “Inside the Frame” the poet looks at one of those toys in which fine particles slide between two sheets of glass or plastic, forming, as they do so, patterns that suggest mountains. The poem begins by taking the illusion as reality:

How instantly those distances collapse:
The farther peaks
Glimpsed fadingly through serried gaps
Of scarp and bluff, the cirques, the valley floor.
A blizzard out of nowhere shrieks
Its coming and dimensions are no more.

The Alps? The Cairngorms? Or this ornament
Your two hands tilt . . .

The poem finishes with a more metaphysical suggestion about the controlling force behind these illusions and thus enters a tradition at least as old as the gnostics for whom reality was a ghastly mess created by an inferior god. The world, it says at the end, might be no more than a program engineered by “supreme, / Conjectured beings”. “Dream Run” uses a similarly long-established image for an untrustworthy reality. It recounts travelling at night by train from Paris to Geneva and, on the journey, dreaming of seeing the towns that the train passes and which are obscured by the dark, as clear as they would be in the day. In other words the dream creates or reflects the actual reality leading to the inevitable question of who is dreaming whom and which is the real.

Poetry, usually, doesn’t do well with such nakedly exposed metaphysics and works best when deploying suggestive metaphors. From this point of view, one of the book’s most interesting pieces is “Feather Weight” which describes one of those performances in which somebody (of bizarre talents) balances a series of objects on top of each other creating a unified, balanced, and, in a sense, working, object. It’s rather like the strange created world of the conjuror and just as fragile:

. . . . . 
And there it balances and oscillates
As though spellbound,
Like those who watch. On tiptoe then she plucks
The feather off that made it all cohere.
The structure instantly recalls
It’s weight’s
Disjointed elements and falls
In clattering disorder to the ground.

It’s not only an allegorical technique like this that prevents these poems being sterile and fanciful metaphysical speculation. There is also a sense of the poet’s stake in this view of reality. There is a lot in these poems which register an emotional unease as well as a metaphysical one. There are poems, for example, about women in the author’s life suffering dementia. The behaviour of such patients is, in itself, an example of the weirdness of the world but, more importantly, dementia produces a view of reality analogous to the one that the poems are worrying about and thus moves towards a question which is often propounded: Are the mad simply those who see reality as it actually is?

Balancing the psychic component of this uneasy view of the world is the author’s interest – almost, one might say, a drive – to get beyond or behind the flakey world of an untrustworthy reality; to get “outside the frame”, to be at least on speaking terms with “the conjuror”. A fine poem, “Time Was”, narrates the unsettling experience of passing by a demolition site on a regular walk. Though nobody is ever seen working, the house simply becomes gradually disassembled, like a film of its construction run in reverse. This leads, inevitably, to meditating on what would happen if the process continued, if it reached back into moments before the observer, a “reservoir / Of unrecovered time” so that as the “real” world moves forward in time, it also moves backwards. The poem finishes with the question, “And what if we stepped in?”, which is only partly a time-travel question since it is implicit in “Dream Run”, where we might ask what would happen if in the dream the narrator had seen himself dreaming in his wagon-lit bed.

The new poems of The Strangest Place are so consistent and so focussed that a couple of questions emerge. The first is whether this theme of strangeness has always been present in Edgar’s poetry and the second, more evaluative, one is whether these poems are weaker then those of the past because they show a narrowing of his approach to the world or whether they are stronger because they have a clarifying unity of focus. Since the poems are followed by a tightly pruned selection of earlier work, The Strangest Place carries with it the material that might enable these questions to be answered. Ideally – in Dante’s eighth heaven perhaps, where criticism is carried out with ethical and scholarly purity – one wouldn’t entirely trust the current selection – it might be influenced by recent interests – but reread all of Edgar’s published work. I have reread a good deal of it looking for answers to these questions but I haven’t been able to face up to the issue as well-prepared as I would like to be. But what can be said is that the uncanny, a response to the oddness of things is present in the poems from the first book, Queueing for the Mudd Club. “Friends” and “A Death in the Family” from that book certainly have the same tone as these recent poems, the first worrying about the degree to which friends and lovers are imaginary beings “you carry about selfishly inside” and who occasionally don’t match the person in reality so that they are “Like an imposter whose perfect act / Slips briefly and thereafter / Is suspect”. It’s rather as though the Martian screen had a hole in it which momentarily showed the real world beyond.

One of Edgar’s regular interests lies in observing the scene before him, especially when it involves water, as in, for example, “Ulysses Burning”. The interest is really in transformation, the strange effects of time – the sun’s setting perhaps – on the visual appearance of the world. And often these scenes are framed. A memorable early poem, “In Search of Time to Come” imagines early man, within the safety of a cave looking out and seeing the cave mouth as, significantly, a screen. It’s tempting to read this as a kind of counter-poem to “Time Was” since the direction of time is the opposite. The family in the cave look for a reality which they can comprehend but, like people in the present, they have to live not having the power to look beyond the screen:

. . . . .
Only the cave mouth, that changeable screen,
Opens a gap
In the circumference; and when the light
Is gone, they have no words by which to trap,
Or the notions by which words could mean,
What that black window’s showing for them to detect,
As they look, perplexed, into the night
And stare,
Then turn towards each other’s bodies to tap
Their comfort. Someone, they suspect,
Is out there; and they’re right. We are out there.

There is also the issue of time frozen, or at least distorted. One of the new poems, “Song and Dance” is about how the courting songs of two blue-capped finches are so quick that a listener cannot take them in. When they are slowed down to the point where they make sense, they are transformed into something like whale-song. In keeping with the themes of the book, this is a case of the weirdness of the world revealing itself with a little fiddling with time and that is taken to an extreme when, in “Eighth Heaven”, time is frozen completely. This is one of Edgar’s great poems and in it he visits his parents by entering a frozen image of them, in the past, in their own home, moving through their world, observing things but unable to interact with them because they are like “a one-sided hologram”. The newer poems add some perspective to the conclusion of this poem because it invokes that great moment when Dante looks down to the little threshing floor of our sublunary world. He is looking down from the perspective of the heavens but he is also in a position “outside the frame” in the perspective which enables a traveller on Mars to look down from on high and see both sides of the screens which are being erected for the astronauts. Something related occurs in “Dreaming at the Speed of Light” from History of the Day. And then there are the narratives involving uncanny elements, especially Eldershaw; the uncanny being, in this perspective, a little temporary eruption of a true, hidden reality into what is considered to be a “normal” one.

These observations about the thematic material of the new poems in The Strangest Place and their relation to the earlier work, are only a rough description of what is there but they form an interesting connection with the formal, rather old-fashioned, poetic style that I described at the beginning of this review. It’s very hard to resist the temptation to say that if reality is both perceived and felt as an untrustworthy, shifting thing – a Martian’s screen or novelist’s fantasy – then there must be a sense of balance in getting these perceptions into strongly-built, stable, well-braced verse-forms. If you convey such perceptions in an equally unsubstantial poetic mode, there is a possibility that the result is merely smoke and mirrors – a situation, many would say, that perfectly describes nineteenth century French Symbolist poetry. Everybody needs at least one anchor in an unstable world. For some it is the self, for others it is others – that is, relationships. I think that for Edgar it is the world in which propositions emerge as syntax which is then, with great skill, worked into existing rhyme patterns. Perhaps the poem becomes a world in which the poet is the conjuror/film director/novelist and the world he creates is not only one in which he is “outside the frame” but it is also one in which he can trust the world that the poem contains.

Peter Boyle: Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2020, 143pp.

Peter Boyle’s new book should probably be read in conjunction with his previous volume Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness as being profoundly influenced by the death of his partner. These are poems where death, memories, otherworlds and revenants turn up regularly. But it would be wrong to see it as marking any kind or radical change in emphasis in Boyle’s distinctive and impressive poetry. As far as I can see (and critically guess) it’s a matter of an altered emphasis on themes which have been present since his first book, Coming Home from the World.

One of the most important of these themes might be described as the carrying of the weight of the world, a subject reflected in the name of the first of the three sections of Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings. I think it has a double meaning. Firstly there is the existential one of the world we carry within us and the way in which that relates to the world outside. This carried world may be made up of personal experiences – especially griefs in recent poems – but it is also our genetic heritage and the way in which we are produced by the external world, an issue that needs confronting despite our cherished subjectivity. Secondly there is the world in its ethical dimension as the home of outrageous wrongs and cruelties. This is an important theme in Boyle’s earlier books and one way of reading them might be as a consistent attempt to get something of the cruelty and the concomitant suffering present in the world into poetry. Rereading some of his earlier poems, I’m not sure that it has ever been satisfactorily managed: poems like “On Sydney’s South-West Line” and “First Shift” from The Blue Cloud of Crying, which try to introduce specificity, don’t seem to play to Boyle’s strengths, no matter how laudable their aims. Something like “Group Portrait, Delft, Late Sixteenth Century” from What the Painter Saw in Our Faces is much more successful – “dealing with” the horrors of the Spanish wars in the Netherlands – because of its more complex frame and the fact that, in introducing the theme of art and its complicity in oppression, it folds the poet into the issues it raises.

At any rate, Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings contains poems where the self, in a state of dis-ease because of the death of the loved one, is particularly sensitive to the weight of the world. “Sorrow” describes that state by personifying it as an everpresent companion not to be traded “for anyone’s else’s product / marked happiness”, but concludes by claiming it to be a proper burden rather than a temporary discomfort:

. . . . .
It insists that you do not look away,
that you walk with it.
Sorrow says, owning me
is owning the due weight of a life.

The closest that these poems get to outright denunciation of politically inspired cruelty is probably to be found in “Post Howard” – a complex allegorical image involving the “inspector of underwater prisons” and whose title is the clearest indicator of its target – and “Crossing Over”, a piece about refuges at borders which has a surreal cast and a way of treating its subject that expands the idea of crossing borders from the experiences of refugees out to the situations of all psychic travellers. In “On a Drawing by Giacometti” and “The Plea” (a description of a Margaret Olley painting) the weight of suffering has to be seen in the subjects of paintings. In the latter case the ultimate plea, recalling Dante’s La Pia, or perhaps Purcell’s Dido, is “remember me” a request the speaking dead make of the living. These dead, including of course the poet’s partner, are visitors and a poem about the Pukumani totemic poles concludes with the dead offering themselves not only with the request to be remembered but with the reminder that the dead have experiences that we can enter:

. . . . . 
marks that say     Walk round me     Walk through me

in all we have     in all that’s missing

that we know nothing
that we are guests here
that we are summoned

so little of what we are stays in the light

Finally “A Time of Endings” seems to expand the dis-ease out into premonitions of apocalypse where “drop by drop / a man knows the earth is changing / and hurries on”.

Perhaps the clearest presentation of the idea of the world being what has produced us, and hence that we carry this weight with us rather than the more predictable weight of our unhappiness with the way the world is, is to be found in “Crowded Out”. It’s a poem that reminds us that our selves are a continuously changing part of a continuum which goes far back before we turned up as individuals:

The world presses in,
a towering river of debris glittering
with specks of one on-going explosion.
All of us are morphing,
our faces layered with many faces, two eyes
gazing upward from the ending of time.
. . . . . 
From somewhere far inside us
a young woman from a millennium ago
rises to the surface, comes close
and we shiver with all her tenderness.
At the place where our breath is suddenly held back
a child is there, watching the trees above him . . .

Counterbalancing this weight – at least to some extent – is a drive towards some kind of transcendence that, in Boyle’s work, often takes the form of imaginative expansion. It’s expressed perfectly at the end of the book’s first poem, a prose piece which begins with personal unease – “Slowly messages come in about the Memorial Service” – moves to observations of fellow citizens and from there to the issue of “urban grit” poems and concludes:

But I don’t want to write Sydney urban grit. I want wide fields opening into the solitude of the universe. I want a ghost to whisper this poem from under the paving stones. Exquisite perfumes stirring from the other world. A small life-buoy where I bob happy in my timelessness. I want to lie naked on the beach and commune with the deity.

Placed first as it is, it’s tempting to read this as a statement of practice or even a manifesto but I think that would distort it somewhat and ignore its slightly self-mocking – at least humorous – tone. What it records might be better described as a tension between the call of the weight of the world and the call of the imaginative infinite. And this view is supported by the book’s second poem which is built around the notion of the tensions between the inner self and its worldly location. At any rate, many of the poems of Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings explore the ways in which imaginative expansion and transcendence – communing with the deity – operate. And it’s here that we get a sense of the complexity of Boyle’s poetry because imaginative expansion is never reduced to a simple proposition: instead it’s a doorway to possibilities.

Take, for example, “Stopping by Piles of Waste on Sunny Evenings” whose title alludes to Frost’s poem and may well indicate that we should read its content as being engaged with that poem:

Abandoned planks, an old tyre -
a god of travellers hidden
in a kerbside altar of discards -
I stop to pay homage.

From their side
ghost people – a scrabbled waste -
gaze out at me – 
a woman’s arm
unhinged from her long brown garment
trails useless . . .

We almost seem in Patrick White territory here – though the piles of waste awaiting kerbside collection don’t exactly inhabit the world down at the dump – where the divine is located in the abject. “The Angels Assigned to Me”, while hardly being about waste and decay, does find the angelic in a group of middle-aged ladies in ballet outfits waiting to rehearse who momentarily surround the author “seated alone in meditation”. More conventionally, transcendence can be located in the arts, especially music, so that “Listening to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, April 2020” set in Italy at the horrific early stage of the pandemic in that country, can see the music as a spiritual vaccine, “a tonic against despair”. Something similar happens in another poem in which a condemned emperor plays one of the Mozart piano concertos before his execution – “these groping finger-strikes / against despair, into the pure / futureless air”. A prose poem fittingly called “Music” is probably the place where this issue is explored most thoroughly. It begins with an allusion to The Tempest – “Bright music came to me across the water” – and goes on to explore the effect of hearing a piano being played from a pavilion across a river. The emphasis is on distinguishing this music – played only for the player’s own satisfaction – from the functional music to be expected at events like weddings. The fact that it is cut from a context of usefulness makes it more like real art and more capable of performing the miracle of real art:

. . . . .  What sounded across the river now came to me completely freed of occasion, stripped of whatever might join it to meaning or social purpose. I dwelt within an unpredictable grace where each clear bright note might be the last sound on earth, and yet the notes balanced and sustained each other. . .

Art is one thing, of course, and theology quite another. Boyle gets close to trying to be specific about his sense of the transcendent or the divine in “Of the God of Isaac and of Jacob”:

There in the backward ebb of time
we watch you growing as
you grow endlessly beyond our hands,
visible in the purple wonder
of trees in summer, or lying
on a table top as a sleeping fly
sheltering beneath its wings.
You are just as present in the microbe
that enters through a pinprick
in the skin or the vast
turning of a hillside
from gold to brown.
This afternoon of hot wind spiked with rain,
a small dense cloud
you rise towards us from the valley floor,
or, when we are suddenly nowhere, you appear
speaking to us
from inside sleep.

What we have no name for,
enduring when nothing endures.

One gets a mild shock at first to see the transcendence Boyle is obsessed by located in terms of one of the existing theologies. Of course, that particular god is, at the beginning of the poem, divorced from Yahweh – an historical phenomenon whose evolution from tribal god to cosmic overlord is, surely, a result of Jewish religious writers responding to historical imperatives rather than a response to a process whereby the imaginative infinite expands its divine figures. At any rate, this god is soon identified as something dimensionless who communicates in a number of ways, rather as the dead do. But it’s a poem which sets one thinking about transcendence, about our “endless efforts at expansion” and where this comes from. Is it an internal, psychological (or chemical) drive, is it culturally created (it’s certainly culturally mediated) and what sort of variations does it play? I’m not sure that these questions are central to Boyle’s poetry but someone in the future will read his work carefully enough to perhaps detect a pattern of hints as to what his assumptions about such questions are. At any rate, Boyle’s is really a humanist poetry in that the divine is subordinated to the human rather than vice versa. A poem appearing not long after “Of the God of Isaac and of Jacob” in the book, “Figure in a Small Icon”, investigates the subject of a religious painting in just the same way that “The Plea” does, by focussing on what is present in the face:

. . . . .
If the earth explodes this night
and I am all that is left of humanity
any future sentient being
will judge us to have been creatures
given no other means of defence
than the nakedness of their gaze.
They will see only the godhead buried
at every moment within us – 
not the deceit, the violence, the greed
that ruled our days.

The last section of Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings gives its title to the book as a whole and thus establishes its importance. Most of the poems recount dreams and have that slightly eerie narrative style which we associate with accounts of dreams – “I am standing in the front garden of my cousin’s house in Mosman”, “I am at a poetry festival in South America”. Dreams and poetry are, of course, close kin – texts full of meaning but resisting absolutely confident single interpretations – so there is something doubly complex when they are folded inside each other. Presumably, as it is a “dreambook”, we must read this as a kind of diary of thirty-six numbered dreams during the period following his partner’s death, and the dreams will contain keys to the healing process the mind undergoes. But not all of the poems are recorded dreams – some (12, 31 and 34) are “conventional” Boyle poems and might well have appeared in the earlier two sections of the book.

As dreams, their “content” is marked by an obsession with visualising the afterlife in different ways. There is a lot of movement both upwards and downwards, and the “otherworld” can be a religious college (4), a shopping mall (9), “an immense city famous for its concerts, its theatre . . .” (5), “an island in the wide fork of a river” (28) or a village on the Russian steppes (6). And the tone contains a lot of anxiety which, for a specialist sufferer of anxiety dreams such as myself, rings very true indeed. The first poem of the sequence is full of anxiety though it is, rather surprisingly, an anxiety about the poet’s work and its value rather than the partner’s fate. Perhaps, whatever a poet’s situation, concern about the vocation is paramount. The seventeenth poem is a brilliant dream in which the beloved partner slips away and is pursued through kafkaesque urban landscapes by an increasingly desperate poet. It concludes:

That we should have found each other once among life’s million roads of chance. To feel your hand now slip out of mine, to lose you on the countless intertwining paths of the dead. A circle closes. I am alone. A small child once more, stranded in the immense maze of the world, suddenly nowhere.

These aren’t the final words of the book but they make an appropriate, and slightly ambiguous ending (“nowhere” is, after all, described in “Of the God of Isaac and of Jacob” as a receptive state in which we can hear the god speak) for a magnificent collection. Peter Boyle’s poetic career is quite unlike that of any other Australian poet and Notes Towards the Dreambook of Endings is probably the most accomplished (a word critics should avoid) of his books and certainly the best introduction to his way of looking at the world and exploring its imperatives.

Philip Hammial: Inveigling Snafus

Woodford, NSW: Island Press, 2021, 110pp.

Philip Hammial’s latest collection – his thirty-fourth – is an opportunity for readers to re-enter the strange and compelling world of his poetry – something we have been doing since the mid-seventies. The length of this career makes the energy of the poems all the more extraordinary and, as readers of the various reviews I have written of his work will know, I think energy is one of its defining characteristics. And it’s an energy that shows no signs of faltering as the poet enters old age – the “Age of Frail” as one of the poems calls it. Inveigling Snafus forms something of a pair with Detroit and Selected Poems which was published in 2018 in the US. Ideally this latter book (an update of his previous selected, Asylum Nerves, with the poems from the first ten years of his books dropped and replaced by a full-length version of his 2011 volume, Detroit) would provide a career overview against which Inveigling Snafus could be examined for developments, or at least, changes.

On a first reading of these new poems we are in a reasonably familiar world, familiar perhaps in its unfamiliarity. But for those who haven’t met Hammial’s distinctive manner before, a few lines from “Ante” in this book will help:

. . . . . 
            Shish kebab time
in Toe Hold, Colorado. Burned to a crisp: the lamb
in sister’s oven. Mom’s shoes always
two sizes too large, no wonder
she can’t run.
                        Badgers 
in the kitchen again. Go there & you’ll probably
be poached for some China job. Sorry, I misheard
the Chattanooga Cho-Cho whistle, thought it was
the Shanghai Express. When Shaoqing coughs
her wrinkles deepen.
                                      Cherries
are (pop)ular now, everywhere, but they cost
a fortune . . .

As with much poetry that we use the vague word “surrealist” for, this seems to generate energy not only through its pointed, slightly fretful style of address but also through the imaginative transformations that keep the verse moving so that the popular 1940s song “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, misheard as a faux-Chinese “Cho Cho”, transforms into the 1930s film, “Shanghai Express”. And then there are the aural and conceptual pleasures of imagining a town in Colorado called “Toe Hold” where shish kebabs are available. And not just available: the phrase “Shish kebab time” suggests mysterious routines of ingestion which are not only inexplicable but likely to be violently enforced by some Kafkaesque agency.

But to return to my initial interest in the changes that might be going on in Hammial’s poetry seen over the long stretch, it’s first of all important to stress the continuities. Many familiar motifs reappear. There is that interest in the state of being taken somewhere, involuntarily, often in mysterious vehicles with wheels that are unusual in some way. It’s a compelling image, literarily, and undoubtedly relates to the train-hopping obsession detailed throughout his poetry and especially at the end of Inveigling Snafus. “Tide” speaks of “wheels to roll little me / to a finish line that some bastard deleted seven / centuries back” and “It” speaks of “you on your wheel / & me on mine”, tapping into the pun whereby wheels can be things you are broken on as well as things you travel by. Another buried pun in these strange, enforced journeys is on the word “career” whereby the strange journey can modulate to the poet’s professional career, or just his passage through life. You can see this in the significantly titled “Steering Clear” which is, I think, about being a poet in Australia (small pond) imagined as being challenged by “some motor-revving red-light / smart guy with a master plan for malcontent up- / manship”. It turns out to be a silly competitiveness:

. . . . . 
                          Should, as consolation,
we buck in the narrows, go Gargantuan among
perceived (ill conceived) Littles, be cowboy gun-
slingers at OK Corrals, the more fool us? – a fuss
at neck & face, no matter which the point of which
is what? – to concede defeat to Fast Eddy smart guys,
Pain & Glory left in the dust?

Another Hammial motif might be called “institutions” especially of medical care. This really conflates two distinct subjects: hospitals (the frequency of visits to these inevitably increases with age) and asylums – an essentially biographical motif in Hammial who served early on as an orderly in a psychiatric facility in Ohio. They come together in “Penny Hates His Booth” a three-part prose poem in which entering an MRI machine transforms in the second stanza to entering a German bunker from the Second World War and, in the last stanza, into being prepared either for the guillotine or torture and finally executing one of his weird journeys:

. . . . .
Strapped face-down to a rough wood table you sent me at breakneck speed into the “oven” to execute a series of maneuvers: forward, back, to the left, to the right, forward, back . . . it seemed to go on forever, my brain being destroyed by radiation . . . Hours, years later I was released.

Doctor, torturer, executioner.

Finally, in this quick survey of Hammial topoi, there is poetry itself which can appear as a career or even something related to medical care. “A Baker’s Dozen” is a set of little prose pieces which are about poets and their poetry. At times these can sound quite conventional. “Establishment Poet” – “Fake tongue, real teeth, fake lips, real throat. And the poems that emerge, how can we tell which are fake, which real?” – is only, for example, a slight, surreal step away from the poems of someone like Martial. Issues of poetry and careers appear in a number of other poems – “Grass Infinity” speaks of a “muse debt” – and one of the most important later poems in Inveigling Snafus, “At Home in the Imperium”, a piece about living among the horrors of contemporary life (it finishes with a description of 168 workers on a cultural project in Manila being deliberately buried alive in cement so that the project won’t be delayed) begins with:

Out there beyond the horizon – a pincushion of voices
arguing about me – my place in the Australian 
poetry canon. Boom! If you listen carefully you’ll know

that the sewing machines are fountains, are torpedos
aimed at Liberty ships . . .

This opening starts by recalling Randolph Stow’s wonderful poem, “The Singing Bones” – surely deliberately though this kind of allusion isn’t common in Hammial’s poetry – and then uses a pun on “canon” to modulate to the kind of military hardware that the current world calls for from its poets. Finally, there is “Contriving” which I read as being about – at least in its opening – the poet’s career:

Not bad, this contriving, for a defective.
Unclean in the extreme, the sum
of a big-yield exercise in slum clearance, namely
my peekaboo-that-thought-fell-flat head
back in the game. Poetry? Let’s not
get too ambitious – Demarcation one of several
lines I’ve already wrongly crossed, stumbling, a bundle 
of fever as flamboyant as a ghost in a Noh play, ie.,
Wham! Bam! Slam! Thank You Little Miss Muse;
overlook, please, my messin’ up & get me
over your barrel (the Motown equivalent
of over a rainbow). . .

This serendipitously allows me to begin to speak about elements of Hammial’s poetry which are either new or have become more pronounced as the number of his books has increased.

The most notable of these is the growth of poems specifically relating to Detroit (Motown) Hammial’s home until adulthood. These have increased in frequency generally over the last dozen books or so, but Inveigling Snafus seems to replicate in miniature the longer development since the frequency of the Detroit poems increases rapidly in the poems of the last part of the book. It’s hard to think of poet as distinctive as Hammial going through the fairly predictable process of finding in later life that his thoughts stray more and more to the details of his early life and the place in which these events happened but it may be that, simple a process as it is, this is what is occurring. At any event, it gives us a slightly different parallax view of Hammial as, simultaneously, an Australian poet of his generation (he appears in John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry) and a Detroit one.

It also raises the issue of personal elements and experiences. Often Hammial seems to be writing about a mad alternative world whose exact relation to the current one is a matter of debate – Martin Langford, in his introduction to the earlier selected, Asylum Nerves, argues that “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”. And he’s right, I think, to focus on the energies rather than, say, political and social situations. But contained in this alternative world are substantial slabs of autobiography, almost always about adolescent experiences. “At Home in the Imperium” is an assemblage of passages done in different styles and one of these, the hair-raising instructions for how to get to a party in the ghetto area of Detroit is done as straight autobiography: “Lock your doors; keep the windows rolled up; cruise / through stoplights, never stop; park in front of the house; // blow your horn; we’ll come and get you.” In a poem like “Carpet” the autobiographical conclusion forms a sudden shift which can still be seen as a surreal disjunction:

What happened to the promised miracle?
Cut short by a convulsion in which
I was in over my head? – drowning 
not waving & haggling for stones
that would print as matter & not sink, just
this once, without a trace. In situ
in other words, spraddle-legged & jumped-up
to a cat in a cage perch, that fool
with the chair & the whip dispatched like cocaine
in one of Pablo’s fly-by-night planes, straw-boss pick-ups
for divas in whose august presence I’ll never
stack up not even with a tidy-up. Go ahead, snigger
if it makes you feel good so do I It (as the proverbial last straw)
convinces me to close ranks with those heroic throwbacks
who enhance what I regard, rightly or wrongly, as
a positive downsizing, down (to a size) where “Good luck”
I can slip through unnoticed, sentries asleep on their feet,
Barbara Wysong, high school sweetheart, & I trudging
through falling snow to Paradise,
Michigan, nights of moon cake, days
of circus (too many rings to count) first it was
a house of straw, then a house of paper – the story of how
she said goodbye & married a money man, yours truly
riding the rails, hitchhiking Bombay to Delhi
with Sikh truckers, a sky burial on the outskirts
of Lhasa, wild boars on a Roman road in Iran . . .
unrolling, a Persian carpet, the promised miracle.

I’ve quoted the entire poem here because, although it demonstrates how an autobiographical inclusion can perform a striking evolution in the structure of the poem, there are also a lot of Hammial “issues” here that one could explore at far greater length than I (or my readers!) can afford. It’s really, for example, a “vehicle poem”, but here the vehicle isn’t a grotesque contraption on wheels but a magical Persian carpet (the fact that the title locks together with an item in a list in the last two lines is a reasonably common way in which Hammial gives his poems a sense of structural unity). It also contains the potent idea of “downsizing”, which occurs in a number of the poems of this book and makes one feel that there is a stronger economic/political dimension here than in other books – “Options” is a good example. But downsizing is about losing personal status and also about losing transcendental, “magic carpet” aspirations – “what happened to the promised miracle?”. The “fool / with the chair & the whip” and “days / of circus” are circus references and circuses as well as nursery rhymes and fairy stories are a rich source of material for Hammial, recalling Rimbaud’s “barbarous sideshow”. There are a lot of verbal transitions: “jumped-up” seems to suggest the later “stack up” (an odd cliché, come to think of it), “tidy-up” and “pick-up” – the emphasis being on the word “up”, part of a magic carpet ride as opposed to the “down” of downsizing. If I were forced to make a stab at summarizing the poem, I would say that at least part of it can be reduced to: Forget about easy promises of transcendence, accept a reduction of self-image from the idealised heroes of one’s youth, don’t take a short cut to a higher life by marrying or inheriting money, abandon yourself to obsessions – in Hammial’s case, serial travel.

An earlier book, Travel, contained autobiographical pieces about Hammial’s life in Detroit and these prepare us, somewhat for the same elements in Inveigling Snafus, including the book’s final “poem” which is a six page prose piece listing Hammial’s experience of giving in to the obsession with riding on freight trains, an honourable mode of travel dating back to the Great Depression in America but here a drive to both get away and expand experience. If this mode of Hammial’s work seems surprisingly straightforward, one is always reminded that it might be a case of a bizarre reality described realistically.

These comments about Detroit playing a greater role in the poems late in Hammial’s career were introduced by looking at the last lines of “Contriving”. These lines also introduce a couple of other issues. One is the reference to the sado-masochistic in “get me / over your barrel” which is an example of spanking/flogging fetishes that recur pretty often in Inveigling Snafus. In a mad world of desires, energies and compulsions-from-above this seems entirely fitting material, just as the circus world of “the / tumblers, the funambulists, the cockalorums, the Jills / and the Jacks” does. But there is also the phrase, “my messin’ up”, which introduces an element of dialect which is common in the poems of this book and which I don’t remember as being common before. There are “gonna”s, “doncha”s and even a “’sponsibility”. It seems to mark a desire in these poems to make a statement about linguistic level (avoid high style, stay low) but it is also willynilly a statement about place since these are American idioms rather than Australian ones.

Rose Hunter: Anchorage

[np]UK: HVTN Press, [2020], 113pp.

Rose Hunter’s first full length collection (I haven’t read earlier chapbooks) appeared in 2017 and announced a distinctive voice that it took a while to accustom oneself to. The poems seemed to be wrestled out of personal experiences which were themselves a continuous wrestling with relationships, dislocation, addiction and illness. The wrestling here is the key I think and it prevented the book being either a conventional diary of misery or a confident mining of experience. To add to the mix is the fact that almost all of the poems of Glass derived from experiences in the thoroughly alien culture of Mexico where external reality often isn’t as stable as it seems and the borders between the ordinary and the fantastic seem remarkably porous. Again part of the attraction of the book was that it was not a canny and professional exploitation of the foreignness of Mexico (with inevitable cameos of the famous “Dia de los Muertos” – the “Day of the Dead”); if anything life in Mexico City and later in Puerto Vallata seems experienced in a comparatively unexceptionable, almost suburban, way.

We usually say that a book rewards careful reading but Glass actually requires really careful reading to feel any sort of confidence about the goings-on inside it. A friend dies in a car accident on the road into Vallata from a tourist site called El Eden (in a place like Mexico almost any innocent place name seems right for extended metaphoric exploitation); there are other male characters (the macaw man, the sky-teller, the character of the “Yellow” series) some of whom seem versions of the dead friend but an innocent reader is never entirely sure. Then there are the five title poems that are really about alcoholism, or at least an alcoholic episode, and other poems dealing with the experience of “dead legs”, a temporary paralysis. (It’s no accident that Lowry’s Under the Volcano, surely one of the definitive literary representations of alcoholism, takes place in Mexico City on the day of the dead.) All told, Glass is a complex mix, a challenge to the reader who needs both to try to make sense of the experiences out of which these poems are wrestled while at the same time reassuring his- or herself that this is not just a prurient interest in someone else’s troubles but is genuinely required by the poems themselves.

Two of the poems from Glass make a good introduction to Hunter’s poetry and set the scene for a look at her new book, Anchorage. The first of these is “Pretas”:

and not merely something blurry between spikes. vallarta
was a city of ghosts i had to leave in the walking past: hidalgo

      up that alleyway (for you kid, I don’t inhale)   or
flailing down stairs forty-five degrees, langostinos where you yelled
      at plankton                  madero jacarandas aguacate where
we yelled at each other, insurgents and cárdenas where you dropped

milk thankfully not vodka, phew!       villa not much by the sea
where we lay, how to forget what we’ve done to each other
      but open the window          no way

basilio badillo where we smoked          olas altas
who fell in the plant box who picked each other up          alley
unnamed, where I fell, alone        gutters and red
running, your warm hand on my back, drug sick heart sick
      rise and fall          iturbide          cuauhtémoc

      skipping down stairs to meet you a smile to break a face
to meet you or further down     guerrero, couldn’t wait! malecón
how could I get to you fast enough thinking of things I had to
      tell you and what you would say and how you would laugh

your gravelly delight          in the salsa isle in the toothpaste aisle
on the telephone on the way to cinco de diciembre in the R04 in the
R08, couldn’t wait!          on carranza your greeting smile
      through the bars back when you had flesh back
      when we could smile at each other back then.

The title is an obstacle at first because, drenched in Spanish as Glass inevitably is, one assumes it to be a Spanish word but its true origin (if I speak knowledgeably here it’s thanks to Wikipedia) is Hindi where a preta is a wandering ghost driven by hunger to make contact with humans. So the poem is a kind of compendium or collection of remembered moments, rather like a set of mental snapshots. And the method of construction of this virtual album is to locate each memory in the street in which it occurred. The rather marvellous interpretive experience for a reader is the way in which what appears on the first couple of readings as a weirdly surrealist piece, almost like a poem made up by interweaving a Spanish text with an English one, quickly comes into focus once we realise that the Spanish words are all street names. The fragmented and disjointed quality – which is a feature of other poems and perhaps reflects the desire honestly to represent the fact that the poet is not so on top of these experiences that they can be distilled into shapely aesthetic objects – is mimetically justified in this poem since the images are incomplete flashes. Also mimetically justified is the surreal effect of “Alebrijes” – “the dragon head on your chicken back / turkey feet and cowrie legs, wattle dewlap quill cuttle / ventricular” – in that the poem describes a bizarre papier-mache carnival procession. This seems a demonstration of Garcia Marquez’ comment about his “magical-realist” style: the style is realistic, it’s the reality it describes that is magical. My point here is that Hunter looks for ways in which to make poems uniquely conceived and structured. She seems, at her best, to be searching for moulds for experience that will be both standalone and interesting in themselves. “Pretas” might have been titled trendily something like “Images of Loss on Fifteen Streets” to draw attention to it’s structural way of dealing with experience though I’m rather glad it wasn’t.

The second way in which Glass makes a kind of useful prologue to Anchorage is thematic. There is a lot in it, for example, about place, about moving and leaving. In keeping with this is the whole issue of the temporarily paralysed legs since that prevents movement. Most of the unequivocal assertions – “make sure it’s the right house you’re jumping out of”, “we don’t like to admit that we could have just left anytime” – are about leaving and there is a memorable passage in “Central Camionera”:

. . . . . 
                           you become irrelevant
to the place you’re leaving right before you leave it.

their concerns look strange to you, the leaving one.
also their jealousy, forgetting you have often been jealous of

leaving people who are always on their way somewhere
better than we are now, regardless of where they are going . . .

Significantly, Anchorage begins with a poem about leaving – or at least fantasies about leaving – but one in which a good deal of attention is paid to the way the issue is framed and presented. It’s a four part poem and the final part is most like a conventional poem detailing a trip to the north – presumably, in the light of what the first three parts deal with, to watch the salmon spawning run. As with the poems of Glass there is a partner and half the energies of the poem (half the energies of many of the poems in these two books) come from frustrated interactions with this partner:

. . . . .
                         Where are we going
and for how much longer, your answers are vague
and you ignore all demands to stop. Ready to leap
out of the window hitch back where I didn’t

come from, preventing it, the distance
travelled (the way the already ventured

serves to cement the presently occurring)
and curiosity . . .

This seems a rendition of a post-war Existentialist’s position: thrown into life, a situation without logic apart from that which is established by previous events, the “already ventured”. But the first section of the poem, narrated from the point of view of a reluctant and rebellious salmon – “I’m // not going to dump all that turned up / in my body in some backwater then / hang around waiting to die” – sees the desire to jump ship as being the rejection of the deepest possible instincts. Interestingly the salmons’ drive is towards the site of their spawning, their “home” in the most compelling sense of the word, whereas the poet of the final section knows that flight, jumping out of the “right house”, will not lead to a return home but simply to yet another place which is not a real home.

The rest of the poems that make up the first part of Anchorage are a kind of album of animal metaphors for the protagonists, and their abrasive relationship, laid out in the first poem. The second poem is about being “out of place” in a town where they have (perhaps) come to see caribou. It begins with a lovely description of cross-purposes and non-sequiturs:

a screwdriver when you needed a rice
cooker, an armadillo when you
needed rain, a carjacking at a picnic
and again (because no one answered the
first time) why did you bring her here? . . .

The partner appears as a jellyfish in “Medusozoa” and the poet as both puffer fish and puffin in two of the other poems. As well as these animal incarnations there are poems which focus on being somewhere strange. “What is Costco” opens with the memorable line – “This is not my familiar so it is not my strange” – and the second-last poem of the section, “The Incomplete Truth” (probably also set in Costco) contains all of the elements of irrationality involved in staying/going, loving/hating, understanding/incomprehension that run through the poems:

How many ruptures take place just like this
the matchstruck sun leaping, the squander
of beating wings on tire & curb
painterly dreams & batshit crazy

to be somewhere else: I gaze
at your knuckles, petals on a trolley
thinking of you under a life raft

of toilet paper (your
muffled voice), or neck deep in drums
of tuna (I had never seen you so happy)

The second section of Anchorage is devoted to a place – Las Vegas – at least as exotic as Mexico City. And, as in almost all of Hunter’s poems, it deals with a relationship bubbling away within that place. Just as the first section began with a poem dependent for its success on an unusual concept and structure, so this section begins with a poem, “[Anchorage] or [Las Vegas]” built around the idea of allowing the reader to insert either the main city of the desert state of Nevada or the main city of the snow state of Alaska into a gap in the text. It’s a structure that recalls the final section of the book which is made up of multiple choice questions about different bird species. The fun, but also the driving power behind this as a structure that can be exploited poetically, is the interaction between the wildly different possibilities which usually derive from totally different ways of conceiving the bird. So one stanza from the poem devoted to the Turkey vulture offers, as answers to the question of what the vulture uses to stay soaring, “the hob-heeled fist of chance”, “thermals & updrafts” and “various bribes & official oversight”. In the case of “[Anchorage] or [Las Vegas]”, the two cities represent not only environmental opposites but also emotional opposites between which a host of possibilities for living can be strung: Anchorage probably being there for the notions of emotional stability implied in its name.

At any rate, in keeping with places that seem exotic and create a single iconic image in the mind of the reader, Las Vegas is a lot more than its gambling strip. The second section of Anchorage produces poems rather more challenging for an innocent reader than those of the first part of the book. Its conception of Las Vegas is complex, too, and the notes reference a number of works about understanding its strange environment. There are two poles to the place: the well-known hotel/casino strip and the atomic testing grounds to the north-west. The former is the basis of poems like “Paris to Flamingo”, “High Roller” and “Flamingos” while the latter appears in a poem like “Desert View Outlook”. These are structured as impressionist pieces in which an observer progresses through the environment. In “Paris to Flamingo”, for example, whose title refers to hotels but has dim reverberations of origins in a city and a bird, the catalogue slowly unrolls:

. . . . . 
the Montgolfier Balloon: a lone castanet
or snazzy pyjama-striped doorknob teetering
over the Arc de Triomphe
& La Fontaine de Mers (girls girls girls
holding fish) the Eiffel corporate duck
the background ph, an angel trumpeting
the black beehives of traffic lights
& bare asses of Bally’s yeah girls girls . . .

while “Desert View Outlook”, although set in a visit taking place in the present, wants also to catalogue the iconic images and comments made about the explosions in the 1950s with the bizarre – and to a poet, intriguing – names given to their operations: “Buster-Jangle, Tumbler-Snapper, Plumbbob / Ranger, Latchkey, Sunbeam, Tinderbox”. The temptation to allegorise a toxic environment must be very strong for a poet like Hunter and I think she does well to resist it although in “I Get These Messages All the Time” she does allow herself to do it for a brief moment: “I radiated / a destructive centre . . .”.

But what happens in the poems of this section is a lot more complex and challenging than a response to a striking physical and cultural environment. For one thing the response is very sophisticated, thanks, as the notes show, to her reading. “On Fremont” finishes up being fascinated by the “open air mall” with its roof which is simultaneously enclosing and open:

. . . . .
      let’s love this aviary topiary butterfly house crystal
palace Quonset hut nut loaf cake tin canopy

& take pleasure in the sadness it brings
a curved space of strength we can’t reach

the horizon does not appear & perspective
is always about to arrive . . .

And “What is a Canopy” is a kind of gloss on its epigraph that “The interior spaces of Las Vegas . . . are arboreal: they evoke the lost forest environment that the desert has taken away”. And there is also the issue of water, far more a matter of the interaction of business, politics and law than in most places, explored in “Water”.

But to see this section as being a place-oriented poetic exploration misses the point a little. In Hunter’s poetry the self is never a solitary observing thing but is always wrestling with a partner. So a poem looking at the suburb of Summerlin and giving a very precise rendition of an artificial environment (reminiscent, at least for an elderly generation such as my own, of the desert development at the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point) begins with her partner telling a lie: “(Which is where you tell them we live, I’ve heard it / bald-faced with my eyes)”. “Flotsam/Jetsam/Wreckage” is, I think, an attempt at a summing up of an emotional situation using the multiple choice structure of the bird poems although in this instance all answers can be correct. And a group of four poems, beginning with “A Story”, while alluding to life in Las Vegas, are really about the relationship and the writer’s situation.

Both Anchorage and its predecessor present fascinating challenges and introduce a voice and an approach (or set of approaches) that I haven’t seen in Australian poetry. The sense of the poetic self as always part of a struggling couple is most unusual and the fact that the poems never become mawkish is quite an achievement. It’s a self that seems trapped and anxious to escape but isn’t confident that there is a self and a place that can be escaped to – hence the symbolic potency of the “dead legs” in Glass.

Rereadings V: Martin Johnston: The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap

Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1984, 65pp.

Regular visitors to this site will know that these “Rereadings” are my excuse to look again at books which have meant a lot to me in the past but which, for one reason or another, I haven’t written about. I have long been wanting to revisit Martin Johnston’s last collection of poems, not because I feel that after thirty years it would be interesting to see whether his reputation has grown, plateaued or declined but because there are a number of very difficult poems in the book – especially those of the large, final sequence, “To the Innate Island” – that I might understand better if I could devote some serious time to them. Entirely coincidentally, 2020 saw the release of Johnston’s selected poems in a volume, Beautiful Objects, edited (with an excellent biographical introduction) by Nadia Wheatley, designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Johnston’s death. This volume, together with John Tranter’s Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose, published in 1993, is a sign that readers of Australian poetry might be less prepared, in Johnston’s case, to let his memory slide into oblivion than they are in the case of other poets born after the war.

Johnston himself was a fascinating and very complex character. For a writer he started life with a host of advantages. Both parents, George Johnston and Charmian Clift were writers and he grew up in both Australia and Greece and was completely bilingual. This also meant that he inherited two, very different cultures and, perhaps more importantly, two very different poetic cultures. But it was also a tragic life in that his mother committed suicide in 1969 and his father died a year later of a chronic lung problem exacerbated by alcohol. His younger sister committed suicide in 1974. A half-sister, Gae Johnston died of a drug overdose in 1988 and Johnston himself died after a heart attack resulting from alcoholism in 1990. This seems to an outsider a pattern to be explained either in terms of inherited genes or a curse on the House of Johnston but it isn’t right for an outsider to pontificate on these matters. A saner approach may be to point out that there is a very old Greek sense (classical Greek rather than Byzantine Greek) of the gods withholding something subtle but vital from the gifted – just to make sure that humans don’t become hubristic. They might, as in the case of Ajax, give you great physical strength and glory in battle but withhold a certain mental balance, or they might, as with Cassandra, give you powers of prophecy but withhold the ability to make your prophesies into effective warnings. Trying to define exactly what was withheld from Johnston is difficult, of course. You could suggest simple things like freedom from the addictions of alcohol and nicotine or rather more complex things like stamina or a singleminded obsession that harnesses stamina. As Tranter’s book makes clear, Johnston’s writing career is littered with uncompleted projects ranging from biographies of his parents to an overview of genre science-fiction to a life of General Makriyannis.

Trying to locate and define what kind of poet Johnston was is a difficult task, even with the perspective of more than thirty years. One might start with the notion of intellectual-poet. Although it seems an obvious enough category – Christopher Brennan as opposed to John Shaw Neilson, for example – like a lot of such categories it tends to crumble if used too much. At the beginning of the sixties of last century (when Johnston was a teenager on the island of Hydra) Vincent Buckley took over from Douglas Stewart at The Bulletin largely with a policy of making the poetry more intellectually sophisticated than had been the case. Buckley, together with Hope and McAuley, are thus obvious candidates as “intellectual” poets, though we usually use the more derogatory term, “academic”. Whatever the case, and the radical differences between them, they are more like each other than they are like Johnston or, for example, John Forbes. The difference, I think, lies in the relationship with the ideas that are tumbling through the head. In Johnston’s case, this is a stand-alone pleasure: whereas other intellectual poets might be noted for the sophistication of the mental apparatus that they bring to issues, they are still referring to equipment rather than to the ideas themselves. Reading Johnston’s interviews, it is quite clear that he both registered, and mildly worried about, his tendency to delight in the play of ideas that might have no particular relevance to the living of lives. He frequently makes comparisons with chess, a game of staggering potential complexity but of no immediate cultural or political effect. As he says to John Tranter in the interview in Makar (republished in A Possible Contemporary Poetry):

Elsewhere I think you’ve brought me to task for my obsession with chess; as you say, “a beautiful but useless game”. I tend to think of poetry, I must admit, substantially in terms of beautiful but useless objects. I’m not clear exactly what poetry is meant to do. A game of chess is an intensely dynamic, intensely kinetic object within a static set of parameters, a fixed set of rules. The same, I think, in a much more complicated way, applies to the way language works in poetry . . .

The play of ideas as a self-contained activity, capable of being expressed (or “captured” or “developed”) seems close to the core of Johnston’s practice, though as I’ll say later, one wouldn’t want to assume that this is at the expense of the ability to write about “human” things like the agonies of loss, or a sense of permanently being “in transit” between countries and cultures. But the “play of ideas” leads towards figures like Borges who is, I’m convinced after revisiting the issue, the figure whom Johnston relates to most intensely. And so I want to begin this look at Johnston’s poetry with the figure of the “blind librarian”.

In Borges’s fictions the essential idea that all attempts to understand reality are constructs imposed on reality is developed into a rich range of results. Johnston’s early essay on Borges follows these through, looking at repeated Borgesian symbols – the knife, the tiger, the library, the labyrinth – as well as themes. It leads to a very sophisticated (and suitably vertiginous) reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths”. Borges’s essentially idealist position simultaneously raises the play of ideas and possibilities in a creative individual’s mind to the highest of creative levels – approximating the activities of the slightly shameful creator-deity of the gnostic universe that bulks large in Borges’s references – while at the same time reducing it to the level of a pointless, even predictable, repetitive and unoriginal, activity: beautiful but useless. But such uncreative creativity, whereby the only possible perspective is one of continuous irony, is not devoid of emotional intensity. Early in Johnston’s essay he quotes Borges’s response to the challenge that his work comes across to some as “cold, impersonal”:

If that has happened, it is out of mere clumsiness. Because I have felt them very deeply. I have felt them so deeply that I have told them, well, using strange symbols so that people might not find out that they were all more or less autobiographical. The stories were all about myself, my personal experiences . . .

Of course, this is said ironically because the Borgesian conception of authorship is one in which all authors are related or, rather, essentially the same author. “Autobiographical” which to us (and a naïve interviewer) implies the stamp of absolutely unique personal experiences, to Borges means something infinitely wider. This aside, however, it’s important to register the extent to which Johnston is more than a poet tossing around ideas. There may be a tendency (to quote Borges again) to “evaluate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of their aesthetic worth and even for what is singular or marvellous about them” but there is also a powerful human component. Although the beautiful objects will be beautiful not for language or metaphoric richnesses but because of the shapely beauty of the ideas they bring together and allow to interact, they don’t do so in an emotional vacuum.

This pole of Johnston’s creativity is well represented in the title poem of the collection I am focussing on:

 The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap,

is no doubt less than perfectly adapted
to its function, just as a bee-trap,
if there are such things, would hardly be the ideal contrivance
for the writing of semi-aleatory poems about
bee-traps and typewriters. Why, in any case,
you are entitled to ask, should I
want to trap bees at all? What do with them 
if caught? But there are times, like today,
when bees hover about the typewriter
more frequently than poems, surely knowing best
what best attracts them. And certainly at such times,
considered in terms of function and structure,
the contraption could be argued to be
anything but a typewriter,
the term “anything” being considered
as including, among all else, bee-traps,
softly multiplying in an ideal world.

For all its lightness of touch, this is a complex poem. At a simple level it borrows the cliched simile for ideas – “bees in one’s bonnet” – and describes the act of writing as a way of trapping such ideas, “getting them down” onto the page. The only real relevance at this level to what I have been saying is that the raw material is, in Johnston’s case, ideas rather than emotions or reality. The first of its little labyrinths is the not uncommon one of its being a poem about the writing of a poem – like his early, semi-comic poem, “Gradus ad Parnassum” or John Tranter’s “Ode to Col Joye”. In this mode, though we only have two levels, there is always the sense (especially if one has the obsessions of Borges in mind) that there is an infinite set of levels below: there might be poems which are about poems which are about writing poems and so on ad infinitum.

Why this allegory should be considered “semi-aleatory” I am not entirely sure. One possibility is that poems about ideas – at least the poems about ideas that Johnston is talking about rather than solemn expositions of some theory or other – always have a random quality because they do not originate in the need of something like an emotion or a theory to be expressed. They have no obligations and hence a greater freedom although they also have to face the challenge that they may be considered to be merely aimlessly playful. At any rate the end of the poem, specifically its second last word, requires us to read it in a Borgesian way. The “ideal world” is not necessarily the “perfect” world, it is a world in which ideas have a reality as they do in Tlön in Borges’s great short story. So the typewriter can be a contraption whereby ideas enter and proliferate into the “real” world. My own inclination is to read this situation as paradoxical (and hence labyrinthine) since the word “typewriter” suggests a “writer of types” an imposer of patterns on a vast reality which is impossible to describe without reduction. Borges, Johnston says in his essay,

starts by questioning all the constructs and interpretations we impose upon reality: language, modes of perception, modes of thought. All, to him, are more or less formalised, which is to say ritualised orderings of a reality which may have no order at all, or an order which is simply not accessible to us, or which corresponds only accidentally, or never, with our versions of it; we do not and cannot know.

The paradox, if that is what it is in this poem, is that the “writer” of such imposed types is also the vehicle by which the imagined object, the otherwise non-existent (or yet to be invented) device for trapping bees, can exist and proliferate. The reminder that “ideal” is being used in this specific, philosophical sense, then goes back to infect the word when it appeared, apparently innocently, at the end of the third line: it’s not that the bee-trap is an imperfect device for accumulating ideas and writing poems, it is saying that in the world of ideas a bee-trap may not as yet exist. Moving on from this, it is possible to read the poem as a device for establishing bee-traps as existing things, just as the hrönir of Tlön came into existence. This is all a vertiginous reading – and I am confident that its author expected that a proper reading would be, on the model of his own reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” – and there may well be other ways of approaching it (the disjunction between its light tone and its explorations, for example, or the nature of the largely unidentified emotional bond between writer and poem, or the way in which its title is part of the poem forming an additional line to the required number for a sonnet and perhaps reflecting the Borgesian view that a poem is not an understanding of reality but an addition to reality) but I’ll stop there as there is much more to be said about the other pole of Johnston’s poetry, best represented by the extended sequence, “To the Innate Island”.

“To the Innate Island” is not an easy work to get to feel comfortable with. It comes, interestingly, accompanied by an extensive set of notes which, like those of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (a poem which stands behind much of Johnston’s drive towards longer, multi-part poems) simultaneously clarify and obscure. The notes connect this sequence with an earlier one, “Microclimatology”, and the two poems are clearly connected in that they have a more diary-like structure and carefully note the sites that individual poems refer to. It’s a specific sort of diary though and far from conventional. It records, above all, time spent in Greece but not as a visitor, rather as someone treading an extraordinarily dense and specific cultural and historical reality – treading, that is, the atheist’s equivalent of holy ground, a secular pilgrimage. It is also, in complex ways, a visiting of an interior landscape and this, it seems to me, after much cogitation over the matter in the last thirty-odd years, is the meaning of the title. (Significantly its first word contains a crucial ambiguity: it is both a voyage to an innate island and a dedication to that island.)

The first poem, “The Shadow Screen”, is also one of the most challenging. Its title refers to the Greek puppet theatre, it is set in the town of Paralion Astros on the Argolic Gulf (literally in Arcadia) and the conclusion of the note devoted to it says, cryptically, “For the village, the sea and the cat, see ‘Microclimatology’”:

The small grey cat in the yard has a knack for the punctuational.
Confronted with unfamiliar yoghurt, it curls
bristling into a fluid query, later ingratiates
itself into tactful receding aposiopesis towards the garbage bag,
illuminated exclamation over the yellow light
of a butterfly to be slapped and broken, lays out evenings
in commas at the window, sentences from Proust
lapping to night where all cats are grey.

Spreads its net of signs, assumes
the harbour and the lights folded into the hills, and we see
suddenly from within the cat’s eye; itself
or a merely perceiving Maxwell’s demon, see eye and world
and shifting waterline between them, uneasy
that over the sea fauve stripes flow, our old paintings
of a felt jungle pulling back
the keen small mind of a cat, retracting its claws
temporary, promissory, conditional
upon a saucer of milk – yet do they see colours at all?

“Caught while attempting escape”:
                                   a tinge of sun
slid away past a lost flash of thought, apt cat’s eye,
fastened onto the suggestion of a web
of just such salmon-silver scales as just then the harbour
flaunting when the white daze of streetlamps snapped along the mole
dropped into place to the acetylene
fishing-boats’ drumbeat in a slick of rain
scattered over the twisting blue scarf of the beach.

As I’ve said, this is both diary (“here we are staying for a while in Paralion Astros and the lights of the fishing boats are very beautiful in the evening”) and non-diary; a celebration of a place and an investigation of issues that arise from one of the inhabitants of that place, “the cat”.
Despite the note, the cat in “Microclimatology” is a pretty minor figure in that poem but an interesting cat appears in an early, equally complex poem, “Sequestrum”:

There’s a special sort of madness in the colours 
beyond the spectrum: not infra-red
but the colours of shapes around the corners
of fogged-up glasses when, in the evening,
trees are faint white networks through the sky.
Perhaps the cat, at least knows them,
Not our cat, of course, but some impossible
Osiris sun-cat with convolvulus ears . . .
. . . . . 
But the cat makes passes, feints
at those pale fruit like fishbowls, or the curlew
chimes on the belltower, rattles at the window.
Birdlime and aspic, golden nets to catch the time:
here is no inland sea.

In both this poem and “The Shadow Screen” we are in the world of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus where 6.341 speaks of networks cast over the real in order to provide a system for understanding it. It is only a short step from there to Borges’s position that all such interpretive networks are “wrong” in the most demanding sense but right in that they can be enjoyed for their occasional aesthetic graces.

All of this seems to belong to the same matrix as “Microclimatology” and “To the Innate Island” and it’s possible that its odd title (a “sequestrum” is a piece of dead bone that breaks off) indicates that this poem is a mere free-standing (though humbly necrotic) offshoot of a larger project. My initial reading was to see the cat as a homelier, more modest version of Borges’s tiger. The tiger is, in itself of course, a complex symbol but Johnston provides a description of what he, at least, thinks it is in his essay on Borges when he says that is “the nearest approach to something that is ineluctably there, as the concrete embodiment of pure energy . . . . . [it is] self-seeking, self-defining, dependent upon no-one, it is metaphoric of the Ding-an-sich (und fur-sich) the impossible thing-in-itself of Kant . . .” On reflection, however, I’m inclined to read the cat as emblematic not of an unapproachable reality but of the way literature throws its own net over reality – perhaps the cat as failed tiger. In the opening stanza the postures of the cat are continuously aligned to written language and the quoted phrase “caught while attempting escape” can be read as a reference to the paradox that, in attempting to “catch” unmediated reality in words, language throws another net over the whole thing.

One of the crucial “pilgrimage” sites of “To the Innate Island” is Yannina the major city of north-western Greece and the capital, in Byron’s time, of Ali Pasha. Yannina is interesting in that it contains a lake and the lake contains an island so that geographically we are in the world of possible infinite regressions. “Finding Islands”, the second poem, is, if anything, more complex than “The Shadow Screen” and its structure seems to be to move inward (towards the essential, innate, island in the lake at Yannina?) while at the same time celebrating the unstoppable movement outward of Greek culture – not “classical” Greek culture but the medieval culture of hermits imagined to be founding the great eyrie-like monasteries and shepherds and painters moving northwestwards:

. . . . . 
                                    while new-moon bindlestaffs
fringed and striped, drift up through Wallachia,
Moldavia, hill-villages of smoke and dung, into worlds of grass,
over snow and lava, paying out
the luminous eel of lies, shining over the horizons
from Mani to Vladivostok, littering the hoarfrost
with lives of saints, fiddlesticks and fake-amber worry beads . . .

It’s another net but a culturally potent one.

The whole twelve poem sequence concludes with two poems the first of which, “Water Garden Snapshots”, reintroduces the cat (it, like the first, is set in Paralion Astros) and the second, “The Whistlers of Phaistos” introduces the Phaistos Disc, a rare example of the Linear A script, which has remained uninterpretable since its discovery at the beginning of the twentieth century.

“Water Garden Snapshots” seems to me one of the most intriguing sections of “To the Innate Island”. It begins and ends with references to “the inner garden which we never visit” which I read (not in a Borgesian way for once) as a symbol of the self’s registering and structuring faculties. Since these are largely unconscious, it is a place we never visit. It is a place where insects ”proceed quietly / about their unlearned webwork of small occasions” – another network reference – and the cat is “a cloud behind the bay-branches”: an everpresent though slightly camouflaged phenomenon. The most difficult part of the poem involves the transition that follows this establishment of an image of an inner garden to the repeated image of a boat tentatively entering “the bay”. Can these be reconciled? What is the physical point of view of the narrator? It’s tempting to separate the two and imagine someone watching a boat while occasionally checking on what was happening in their inner garden, but the poem resists this since, as the boat makes its approach, “the cat withdraws behind the bay-tree”.
At any rate, the poem wants to explore the continuous and slightly varied approaches made by the boat. This must be an image, coming close to the climax of the sequence, of what someone like the poet is to make of the freight of his experience of Greece. A realistic, snapshot of contemporary life is suggested:

 . . . . .
Or land at last and view the conventional scene:
oil-slicks and oil-logged gulls, fist-sized lumps of tar,
aerosols, beer-cans and blue plastic bags. And mosquitoes,
midges, caddis larvae, fat spiders, culture and nature.
This is the point where the script indicates: acceptance . . .

Another approach is to “row off / with your cracked oars and unstopped bunghole” though perhaps this is no more than suicidal reaction to the sordidness of a contemporary Greek coastal scene. Another arriving boat scenario imagines the boat having come to the wrong continent entirely – “’Lemurs in the leaves! Is this a joke? / This is Madagascar!” – at which point, significantly, “the cat takes its mask off”. The final image of the boat seems to me to be Johnston’s description of his own living/writing/psychological apparatus:

The boat is loaded
with a second-hand phrenological head,
a smuggled ikon of the Last Judgement,
an insufficient supply of hardtack,
a postcard of the Disc of Phaistos, gold on blue . . .

In other words, a poet with an interest in psychology but only out-of-date theories of it, a remnant of religious belief acting as a good luck charm and, as always with poets like Johnston, not really enough of money and other necessities for survival.

The last object on the boat of the self, the Phaistos Disc, serves as a segue to the final poem, “The Whistlers of Phaistos”. Obviously, the disc acts as a metonymic symbol of the unrecoverability and, of more practical significance, the indecipherability of the past, but its function in this last poem is a bit less predictable than this. The disc is a remnant from an earthquake in the palace of Phaistos (perhaps even the eruption that destroyed the Minoan culture of Crete) and the poem wants to compare Arthur Evans’s lavishly reconstructed Knossos with Phaistos. Evans’s lurid reconstructions are a classic case of the spreading of interpretive nets and the whole first part of the poem brings us back to Borgesian descriptions of the possible meanings of the universe (such as that the Great Wall of China might be a “get-well card to Mars” or that the disc might be a “model of the Great Spiral Nebula”). Contrasted to the disc are the three “whistlers” – “an old man, / a young man, a brown wooden woman in black, / playing badly on tin-whistles to the lizards and tamarisks”. The poem introduces both Minoan flute playing (an antecedent of the whistlers) and ancient serpent worship before making its final statement about how an individual carries cultural complexities and indecipherable realities within:

A twittering of flutes on the transparent hill:
the palace is pulled away for a split-second
when we can’t help
blinking - 
by some particular last attachment, the call of a priest,
a bough breaking, sandal-strap
aflap on smooth paving-stone,
eye that sees the whole of it through time:
adjustment: and we see only
blind inner skin of our eyelids
and for so short a time we can’t draw the irrational inference
to think it to a world, rightly.
The ceremony. Bunting and bands
and three tin-whistles. The elect
passed through the gates: through time and words:
spinning, onto the Disc.

It’s a complex final statement and one that leaves me with a lot of interpretive problems still. The individual clings to arbitrary attachments in the culture which prevent him from seeing “the whole of it through time” but I’m unsure of Johnston’s attitude towards our tendency to make “a world” out of the little we see and how this relates to Borgesian idealism. At any rate, the sequence leaves us with the image of a hieratic procession of life and art into an unrecoverable past.

One of things that strikes one rereading The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap is the contrast between the poems of “To the Innate Island” and most of the other poems in the book. These are sonnets, adequately designed for the kind of meditations I have described in the title poem. The sections of “To the Innate Island” are, by contrast, built on expansion, variation and development. In a sense they are a good deal shaggier than the other poems but they also have more room for explanation. Often the shorter poems overcome the limited nature of their “scanty plots” by being gathered into sequences. One such is the opening group of six devoted to the story of Odysseus and Polyphemous. On first reading, these seem little more than examples of a standard, late twentieth century tactic of narrating an event from the point of view opposite to the conventional one and discovering, to everyone’s entirely predictable surprise, that things look very different from that angle. At first the series looks as though its interest is in cultural clashes: Polyphemous, seen in The Odyssey as being an antisocial solitary and thus, in Greek terms, as having no culture at all, gets to ask, “But how would you have done / on my IQ tests?”. But as the poems progress it seems clear that the opposition between Odysseus and Polyphemous is an opposition within an individual mind conceived, perhaps, with an eye to Freudian and Jungian readings of Homer’s original. At the end of the final poem, it’s Polyphemous who gets to say:

                       But at least,
you bastard, blind as I am, and a hostage
to your stiff-twined cordon of darkness, I
am still the one who writes the poems.

Another sequence of sonnets is “In Transit: A Sonnet Square” – square because it is made up of fourteen fourteen-line poems. Anne Vickery has written well about these poems so I will only concentrate on two of their subjects (apart from pointing out that the title alludes to the changes between cultures that are an essential pert of Johnston’s life and poetry). The second poem is about biography, important to Johnston because his own biography, as I said at the beginning, was so distinctive and because so many of his abortive projects – from lives of his parents to a life of Makriyannis – were biographies. And the poem focusses on the psychological impasses faced by any biographer who wants to understand his or her subject. While people can be treated as free-standing entities, it’s usually possible to cobble together some sort of theory about the shapes of their lives, but as soon as the picture is widened to include genetic history, things become problematic:

 . . . . .
Back past the sold houses in the lost domains
down in the midden-humus
glows the rotting trelliswork of “family”,
odd slug-coloured tubers wince at the touch
with feigned unanthropomorphic shyness . . .

The second subject is the issue of “poetic belonging” and is the material that the last of these poems is made out of. I began by trying to place Johnston as a poet and focussed on the distinctive intellectual cast of his mind. Another, more obvious way, might have been to locate him within the group of poets of his generation, those collected in John Tranter’s 1979 anthology, The New Australian Poetry. The poem is dedicated to four of the poets of this group – Laurie Duggan, John Forbes, Gig Ryan, John Tranter (as well as to MJ, Johnston himself). It’s a poem about being home after travelling – though, of course, the travelling has been to Athens and, as such, is a journey to what is really a very different, more complex “home”. It alludes to studies by Konrad Lorenz showing that baby greylag goslings fight as though they had fully grown and extended wings – a nice comment on poetry wars. But the poem’s final statement is that poets should “make love not imprintings”. That is, be members of a group by free choice based on admiration for the writings of its members rather than instinctively.

Thom Sullivan: Carte Blanche; Ella Jeffery: Dead Bolt

Carte Blanche [np], Vagabond Press, 2019, 69pp.
Dead Bolt Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2020, 111pp.

Two impressive and enjoyable first books whose similarities and differences go some small way to helping map out the possibilities of contemporary lyric poetry, especially in relationship to place. The accomplished poems of Thom Sullivan’s Carte Blanche, for example, include pieces like “Moorlands” and “Hay Cutting” which apply what might be called visual lyric techniques to the rural landscape of South Australia. They exploit the always interesting tensions between compression and expansion, suggesting much in little and the general in the specific. “Hay Cutting”, for example:

Brown Hills shave back to corduroy
in the final hour of light.
On the hill-line a tractor rumouring on -
riding a wave of grass,

skirting knuckles of quartz
that punch through clay.
It comes and goes through nightfall -
a blazing white, low star.

There’s a lot to be said for this kind of poem: it fixes a scene brilliantly but has an imaginative wit and grace that a film (or photograph) of the scene would never have. There is quite a bit of this (what I am calling visual lyric) in Carte Blanche – other poems spaced throughout the book work similarly: “Idyll”, “Vigil”, “In Camera”, “Summer Dam” and so on. But such poems always come with an unstated personal component: some poets are always inclined to revert to a “home” landscape and some go so far as to see themselves as personifications of a particular place, an identity that can lead to an overblown sense of self-importance as though the poet were a kind of expression of terroir. The poems of Carte Blanche seem to me, however, to operate more on the oriental inflection of visual lyric: especially the poems of the great Tang masters, which are often built on a response to a foreign environment passed through in the manner of the “wandering” sage/poet, though rather than wandering, these poets are often making a point of visiting significant cultural sites. One of Sullivan’s poems, “Two Tanka”, overtly references this oriental model and its first poem, set “on the fabled Shenandoah” is at least true to the principle of representing a foreign, rather than a local, environment.

At any rate, a book filled with poems as good as “Hay Cutting” would be impressive but perhaps a little limited. What makes Carte Blanche engaging is that the poems explore the nature of “place-lyric” quite rigorously. Take the book’s first poem, “Threshold”, for example:

To drive out on a dark dissertation of road,
to walk awhile on its gravel shoulder.
A mopoke alights from a roadside tree: it is,
in its moment, weightless – a grace note of the if only,

of its existential absence. A tidal shift
in the wind over the paddocks. A fine grain of stars.
To stand on the threshold of this trespass,
memorising – as though it’s all you will recall.

It has the same visual acuteness as the poems I have mentioned: the way the wind moves over the grass (or grain) of the paddocks is “a tidal shift” and this is reflected in the “fine grain” of the stars of the night sky. But the underlying element is a personal one and it isn’t just a way of finalising and deepening a description, as it often is in the oriental tradition. The personal runs through and against the entire poem. I’m not sure exactly what this personal element is: most likely it’s a farewell either to a place or, less likely, a person. The tidal shift now reflects the state of the poet rather than simply the place and thus a sensitivity to liminal positions – common among lyric poets – gets internalised. The more I read “Threshold”, the more I find myself engaged by the title which has always seemed to me to be a misspelling as though the word for the place of crossing over has been shorn of one of its letters – it’s not an “old” where you stamp your feet but a “hold”, at least in my guesses about its etymology. In other words, it’s always seemed a word which enacts its own meaning: it can’t represent both sides of a door (“thresh” on one, “hold” on the other) but has to teeter, balanced on the doorstep itself. Fanciful, probably, but lyric poetry can get you that way! And then there’s that odd word “dissertation” in the first line, used as a metaphor for the road into the dark. On first reading it seems to be dangerously close to being precious, something good lyric poetry always avoids, but it’s clearly meshed into the personal component of the poem. It’s also matched in the first line of the second stanza by “existential absence” a most unusually abstract phrase which is, again, dangerously close to preciousness. Finally, there is that weird word, “trespass” applied to the road’s movement into the dark but also, of course, to whatever crucial decision the poet has made. It, too, is a nice choice since it exploits the word’s origins as yet another passing over – this time into illegal territory.

“Threshold” announces a kind of poetry fusing the visual with the personal in its own way. Many of the other poems of Carte Blanche could be read as ways of exploring how images can be joined and structured. One of the pleasures we take in the oriental lyric derives from the way the images are laid out, one after the other, without being enmeshed in hypotactic structures. The oriental lyric in English is an immensely complex issue, far beyond my competence, but either the originals, or the English language traditions of translating them (begun by Pound and Waley) create a sense of images which are simply presented and self-contained without having any of the tensions of disjunction that occur in European poetry: the peach blossom follows the moving water and there is a heaven and earth beyond the world of men. It’s easy to produce this effect in English but it can’t ever seem to be more than a pastiche. Many poems in Carte Blanche experiment with using colons and spaces. “Elaterid, Harbinger”, a poem about the subtle changes that announce the transition to a new season is an example:

a beetle enamoured with my lamp : a harbinger
of spring : as if the pear tree blossoming
on the footpath opposite was not enough :
or the budding persimmon : or the bottlebrush flowers
I didn’t notice till today : there’s evidence of spring
in abundance : the enduring dusk that’s holding
still : days that are shifting southwards : subtly :
to an alternate frame of evergreens : an alternate room :
throwing the first shadows on the eastern wall . . .

Here the units connected and separated by the colon are mainly items in a list but a more complex poem like “Suburban Panopticon” – “birds have their own topography : overlaid / on ours : which is vertical and detailed : / with its own system of needs : . . . ” – takes items out of what would normally be the matrix of argument – or at least statement – the kind of thing which is usually full of subordinate clauses. The importance of these experiments becomes clear when one reads a poem which deliberately avoids them. “Easter Morning” details the simple experience of moving into a forest, way from family who are “hunting eggs”. In the forest there is the experience of starting a bird and losing track of its rapid flight. Then the poet steps out of the forest and finds himself surprisingly close to the people he had left. There’s plenty going on here at the symbolic level: the date of the experience, a possible reference to Dante’s “dark wood” or to Alice’s entry into Wonderland, the sense of the mysterious, possibly transcendental, in the forest itself which is always only a step away from ordinary reality, and so on. But the poetic technique is quite unlike anything else in the book in that it is profoundly conventionally syntactic, beginning with the narrative cliché of a participle:

Walking down across
the paddock to the forest
I slid in a dimple
of dewy grass and sent
a sudden hare scuttling
from its hollow, down
across the open ground
to the tufted grass
at the threshold of
the forest . . .

In the context of the book this might be the most extreme experiment, perhaps to see if powerfully felt symbolic structures are enough to support a poem. “Easter Morning” is fascinating but a lot more like other poets’ poems than are those of the rest of the book. I prefer the distinctive approach of pieces like “Elaterid, Harbinger”.

In this series of experiments with the best way of dealing with images of place, there is also “Grampians Panorama, 4x6S” which mimics the way in which a series of photographs can be placed alongside each other to create a panorama moving from a road to a roadside shed, to the horizon and then, on the right “a wall of sheer haemorrhaging / cloud”. It’s an interesting effect and it ties in with a interest in photography that comes into a number of poems. It’s also not something available to the classic oriental poets although the eerily symmetrical blocks of the poems in their original script might have something of a similar effect. This isn’t a complete description of the experiments this book makes. Its title poem and a sequence called “Vox” try out rather different subjects and really couldn’t in any sense be about place; “Eden En Effet” is a kind of inverted version of Perec’s novel, this time using “e” as the only vowel, and “Jukebox” is an experiment with getting a more jazz-like syntax.

But finally, to return to the theme of place and the mode of oriental lyric, there is the longish sequence, “Memorial: Great Ocean Road, 2004” detailing a journey in the south. The emphasis is on significant objects and memorials though the first and last poems are mood pieces which bracket the journey. On first reading it seemed an odd series, not really in keeping with the interest in thresholds and subtle states that the other poems in the book are so good at. But, on rereading, I’ve decided to see it as an example of the other side of the classic oriental lyric: the tour to significant places. If Li Bei could travel over virtually the whole of China and, nearly a thousand years later, Basho over the deep north of Japan, it seems fitting that a good Australian poet should perform the same feat in our deep south.

One is tempted to make a spurious connection between Sullivan’s book and Emma Jeffrey’s Dead Bolt by beginning with the observation that many of her poems are set in the orient – in Shanghai to be specific. But in fact the two books could hardly be more unalike. Dead Bolt is anchored in personality and one of the (admittedly negative) strengths of the book is that it exploits this without ever being coy or cloying. There is always a strong sense of the author whether she is killing spiders, admiring the scaffolding around Shanghai, watching butter-bream on Stradbroke Island or staying with her parents. Another negative strength is the way the poems resist the diaristic: each poem has to have enough of a conceptual distinctiveness to stand on its own feet: and most of them do. “Buying Satin Dresses at Yu Garden” is built around its author’s bicycling. Early in the poem it is casually mentioned that she buys the dresses in passing, on her bicycle, “one foot grounded” and at the end of the poem “both my feet / are already off the ground”: it’s a simple but strong piece of poetic scaffolding. Another poem, “Pomegranate” tells of a friend who cut herself. A halved pomegranate reveals blood coloured seeds but at the end, when we are told that “she is almost through / the dark half of this year” we realise that hovering behind is the myth of Persephone, trapped for half of each year in Hades on account of having eaten six pomegranate seeds.

Not only in individual poems but in the book as a whole there are strong interests also sometimes staying quietly in the background. Obviously there is an interest in place but there is also an interest in time. “The Hotel Coronado” seems at first to be a poem about a famous Californian hotel but it is also something frozen in the questionable taste of its own time. An early poem, “Simon Schama’s The Power of Art” is, again, more about time than art as it spins out from the documentary’s use of the historical present, concluding, “Perhaps it’s lucky I’m still here / in these rooms / in the present tense”. This might also go some way towards explaining the importance of the series of poems, spread throughout the book, on van Eyck paintings. The resonances they have lie in the way the paintings fix a weird past and bring it into a present. There is also a good poem about the poet’s partner reading The Iliad. The poem doesn’t say that this happens in Shanghai though the position of the poem in the book makes this likely. At any rate it’s a case of bringing something alien in both time and place into a different time and a different place. As a result of these structures, interests and complexities, Dead Bolt is quite a compelling first book. Personality on its own isn’t enough to sustain a poetic career but there is a lot more here that promises good poems in the future.

Jaya Savige: Change Machine

St Lucia: UQP, 2020, 107pp.

Jaya Savige’s third book has arrived nearly ten years after his second. And there was a six year gap between that book and his first. It’s not a prolific publishing record for an important younger poet but it does give the sense of major developments happening between the volumes, something that a reading of the poems themselves supports. It certainly seems a career in which risks are taken and unpredictable avenues are explored rather, as is sometimes the case with other poets, of a successful method being intensively mined to produce a book every year or so. The title of this third book is Change Machine and, though the poem of that name is about a change machine at Waterloo station which is not disinfected during the English version of the Covid crisis when “charity lags in the polls”, it can be secondarily read as a description of the poet (or perhaps, any poet) himself. (It might also refer to a poem itself though the changes poems effect are more likely to be in the life of the author than in the outer, political world where, as we all know, it “makes nothing happen”.) Notions of change and development vary of course with the situation and background of the individual. As someone of mixed Indonesian/Australian parentage born in Sydney, growing up on Bribie Island and now domiciled in England, there is a lot of hybridity in Savige’s history – something explored in “Spork” a poem from late in this book – and that must affect any ideas about development.

At any rate, change, and it’s more judgemental counterpart, development, seem to me to be the proper way into Change Machine. One of the first things one notices is the high density of formal play in these poems. The first of the four sections is an extensive set of sonnets whose familiar fourteen line form does nothing to harmonise the subjects of the poems in either content or tone. In other words, it’s not a “sonnet sequence” but more an extended interplay whereby the variations in sonnet form itself – the various rhyme schemes, the positioning of “turns”, the division into stanzas, and so on – are mapped on to equally important differences in subject and tone. It begins with poems about personal difficulties and ends with poems celebrating a child’s appearance in the family, though, without detailed biographical knowledge, it’s hard for readers to be absolutely confident about this personal element. One of the features of the experiments here – though it is something that can be found in the other two books – is what might be called aggressive juxtapositions. The first poem is an excellent example. Its title, “ROTFLMAOWTRDMF”, is an immediate challenge for anyone from the pre-social-media age but it is, thankfully, explained at the end:

Egypt hasn’t had a native king since Nekhtnebf
held out at Memphis
against the Persians, then his nephew
didn’t. But even that wait seems no more excessive

than yours. Engineers measure the average life
expectancy of a system by the Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF).
(Working backwards, then, from Brexit to Suez,
Westminster needs an oil change about every seventy years.)

Replays show a peloton, summoning the dregs of oomph,
grow tangled in the thirty elbows of itself
before crashing into the base of the Arc de Triomphe,

when – finally – your jacket pocket vibrates with a kiss,
and the emoji for rolling on the floor laughing my ass off
with tears running down my face.

This is a striking and rather wonderful little poem. It is “about” good news, presumably good medical news, arriving after long delays and frequent attempts and the poetic pleasures it contains derive from the way in which something intimately personal is conceived, initially, on a vast scale (not unlike my own favourite in this mode, Catullus 11, which I think I have written about on this site). So the poem begins with the history of Egypt over the last two and a half millennia, moves to the technical measurement of a systems failure, comments on the contemporary horrors of England, describes the slow-moving but inevitable catastrophe of a crash in the Tour de France (a perfect metaphor for the current English crisis) before finishing with the crucial phonecall. Tonally, the gap between the beginning – in full scholarly/esoteric mode – and the conclusion – in social-media mode – is so wide that the way the poem can hold them together is one of its pleasures. At the language level there are all kinds of pleasures too. The title looks not entirely unlike the typically unpronounceable name of the last native Egyptian king in the first line and it’s repeated in the acronym MTBF. Something similar happens with the oomph/Triomphe rhyme. Here as elsewhere, conventions of rhyming are adhered to but the extreme (not to say silly) nature of the words being rhymed conveys the impression that complex feats of linguistic manipulation are being achieved but that they aren’t designed to sink into the background as necessary poetic structuring but to draw attention to themselves and thus create a tone of effortlessly overcoming formal requirements but without having any real belief in their ultimate value: it’s all part of a game.

One of the functions of rhyme in this book, as in the case of “oomph/Triomphe”, seems to be to highlight verbal weirdnesses in English, to create an alienation effect which will prevent the language being a mere transparent carrier of meaning. English is a weird language, looked at from the outside, with its mix of Germanic and Romance elements and some Greek thrown in at the technical level. Of course for native speakers it is very difficult to see a language “from the outside” and one’s own language always seems absolutely “normal”, even “natural”. I like to think that one of the features of this book is an attempt to help us see its oddness. It is present in Savige’s earlier books but not to such a degree and interestingly, those earlier poems which use this effect feel very much like the poems of this first section of Change Machine. “To the River Burning”, in Latecomers, (it is also a sonnet) begins with a suite of bizarre rhymes: “backache/Andromache”, “pax/Astyanax” and “nicotine/St Augustine”. In Surface to Air there is “26 Piazza di Spagna” – again a sonnet – with “blitz/glitz and “fountain/Yves Saint Laurent” as the rhymes of its first stanza and “First Person Shooter” finishes with a truly grotesque rhyme: “Oh, go on then, grope in / the darkness of your purse for ibuprofen”. Although it’s an effect I noticed on first reading these books I wasn’t then sure what the point of this deliberate ungainliness was. It is such a common feature of the first part of Change Machine that it does allow for these speculations.

In Change Machine the issue of rhyme is brought to the surface in “Give It a Rest, Mr Fowler” which is angry not about language but about Thomas Fowler’s comment in the DNB that a clergyman commemorated the deaths of his ten children “in doggerel rhyme”. Having lost a child himself, the poet is especially sensitive to this – understandably so – and it is tempting to allegorise the poem out into a critic’s insensitive dismissal of poems, metaphorically a poet’s children. It also has that pleasing structural complexity of being a text about a text so that three elements are nested inside each other: the poet’s comments on Fowler’s comments on Staunton’s comments. It reminds me (not entirely randomly) of Hope’s “Meditation on a Bone” where the same three-part nesting occurs: the poet speaks of a scholar who speaks of an inscription which contains a story as tragic as the life of Edward Staunton. Similarly “Plunder (Business as Usual)” is about the strange rhymes of the song, “Down Under”, which always seem desperately forced and one has always had the impression that the group singing them didn’t want anyone to look at them too closely. This poem finishes with a direct address to the song-writer: “P.S Colin, in case you think I am pulling a fast one, / I readily admit I nicked your ‘Kombi-zombie’ rhyme / for my Woombye poem / (but not the ‘nervous-breakfast’ one.”

If the first section of Change Machine is a kind of putting of the sonnet through its paces, the second section explores the possibilities of a different kind of rhyme. Called “Biometrics”, it’s made up of sixteen pages of poetry rhyming by anagram so that a line ending with the words “wiring hadn’t” can “rhyme” with lines ending in “handwriting”, “din, gnat, whir” and “thawing rind” amongst others. It’s a daunting technical framework to establish but it has two advantages. The first (I assume) is that it gives the poem a chance to generate its own meanings rather than slavishly follow, prose-like, the path established by the subject. In other words it reminds one of Auden’s comment that one of the virtues of rhyming is that the rhymes suggest new meanings. The second, and more relevant to what I think Savige wants his poetry to do, is that it taps into the linguistic weirdness that I’ve spoken about in looking at rhymes. Everyone who does cryptic crosswords knows that anagram clues often declare themselves to the solver by their slightly unidiomatic quality (they don’t have to of course: “racing tipster” is a perfectly idiomatic anagram of “starting price” and “eleven plus two” is, eerily, a perfect anagram of “twelve plus one”). It can be seen that in the world of crosswords, anagrams create the same issues that rhymes do in formal poetry: are the best examples those which are so skilfully done that we barely see they are there, or are the best those which have a slightly alienating linguistic effect? I think Savige is committed to the second of these alternatives.

The results can be, at a poetic/linguistic level, quite striking. The opening of the first of these poems, “The Convict Lying Low by Hampton Court, Speaks” is elegant rather than grotesque in its weirdness:

Home is the hoof-crushed water mint,
the hard rushes, and an adamant stonechat
declaring mid-morning’s parliament
again in session. I wear stag scent - oath

hosed into the osier in ample train,
chains of white-gold water like enrapt mail,
warm links aglitter in the pearl matin.

Here “parliament” rhymes anagrammatically with the last three lines. Another poem, “Credo, Décor, Coder” extends the rhymes into terza rima formation and the final of the group, “Carousel” begins and ends with lines in which the last words are anagrams of the first: “Dense night is a needs thing”, “A slide show of old wishes”. Although there is a degree of verbal play in Savige’s first two books – the third poem of Surface to Air, for example, begins, “A serene riot of bees, a pollen air”, not an anagram but a homophonic pun on the French poet’s name – these new poems are all a long way from the rather Maloufian early poems set in the sands north of Deception Bay. But I like the change.

The book’s third section, “Hard Water” is, as its title suggests, a home for poems about the hardness of things: dead and beaten children figuring prominently. The developments here tend to be conceptual rather than verbal and poems like “Hard Water” and “Mr Michelin” – “Mrs Allen was fond of discipline . . .” – are not even especially striking at a conceptual level: they seem to rely on the domestic horrors of their content for their strength. But “Hossegor” and “Tips for Managing Subsidence” are a couple of poems which have their own way of going about things. The first of these is built on the odd fact that a town in Gascony and a town in Tahiti host successive events in the surfing tour. There are extracts from Banks’s journal recording the proto-surfing practices of Tahitians at the end of the eighteenth century but, of course, nothing from the literature of the Vikings who established Hossegor nine hundred years earlier. At this level it isn’t much more than a poem built around a particular historical irony, a not uncommon mode. But the poem gets animated by the conjunction of the sort of solemn scholarly style of its opening (shared also by the opening of “ROTFLMAOWTRDMF”) and the brasher language of pro surfing:

Surfing probably didn’t occur to the Vikings
     but then you never know – maybe one of Asgeir’s men
          found himself oaring his chieftain’s faering

for this Biscay shore, just as a set wave jacked -
     the kind that narrows the eyes of the guns
          who yearly light up the Quiksilver Pro

(Slater, Fanning, Medina, Florence, Parko) -
     and intuiting to lean down the face of the monster
          felt it take, the shove as the hull slotted flush

into the vein of the sea god . . .

It deserves its place in this section because, for all its linguistic brio, it is, ultimately, a poem about the arrival of European thugs on a comparatively innocent shore – “the guns will return” – and this is more “hard water”. Ultimately one might have reservations that this is no more than a contemporary piety from one side of the culture wars but it remains a terrific poem in which an historical conjunction is animated by a conjunction at the language level.

The second of these two striking poems from the third section, “Tips for Managing Subsidence”, has a similar, though less intense verbal fracture in that it begins with a rather solemn discussion of a structural engineer’s comments about cracked foundations before moving into a far more tragic idiom. But this only reflects the conceptual shape of the poem whereby the narrator moves from a quiet engagement with the engineer to a surreal development whereby the death of their child prompts the narrator’s wife to descend into the cracks in the house searching for the child. Surreal might not be quite the right word and “magical realist” might be better but the power of the poem derives partly from the tragedy of the loss but more from the painful gap between the po-faced opening and the painful conclusion whereby the narrator, by training a telescope down the cracks in the foundations of the house (as well, symbolically, as the foundations of all stability) can just “make her out: / ropeless, shivering, a speck // at such a reckless height . . .”

You can look at the final section of Change Machine from either the perspective of content or form. It’s title, “There There” bridges both because the “content” meaning is one of consolation, and this is a section that has poems which deal with other aspects of its poet’s current status. These include being a hybrid (“Spork”), an Australian in the weird environment of English culture (“Stagger Lee at Her Majesty’s”, “Surveying What Adheres”), and being an Australian Joyce scholar (“Coloratura”). There is also a poem about wingsuit flying that I assume is a poem about writing poetry. But, formally, “there there” is a repeated phrase and two of the poems of this section set themselves the bizarre task of ending each line with a phrase that involves a repeated word – “Lang Lang”, “hush-hush”, “Wagga Wagga” or a word that has a repeated syllable – “murmur”, “pawpaw”, “couscous”. I’m not sure that the result is very attractive for a reader but, presumably, for the poet it fulfils the requirement that formal restrictions should be able to create meaning to an even greater degree than does ordinary rhyme. The first of the poems, with the wonderful title, “Fort Dada” – Freud’s “fort da” distinction reduplicated to make both a place and an offshoot of surrealism – spins out into the biography of a girl from Wagga staying at a spa in Baden-Baden drinking ylang ylang and so on. At the end of this last section is an experimental move – which I suppose can be called formal – of writing in the mode of Finnegans Wake, distorting words into a constant stream of puns so that “Husband, mountain, cooled volcano” becomes in the transformed version, “Hushbound, mountchain, coiled for-kin ache”. How permanent a development in Savige’s career this is, I’m not sure. Nor am I sure as to whether, if you copy Joyce’s mode, you also copy his world-view: in this case the idea of a world-dream that Finnegans Wake was designed to be. On the surface it doesn’t seem a fruitful possibility – it hasn’t been a road many have followed since the book’s publication eighty years ago – but then, with poets, one never knows where developments will lead.

Laurie Duggan: Homer Street; Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017

Homer Street (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2020, 120pp.)
Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017 (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2018, 289pp.)

An earlier book, Leaving Here, was built around Laurie Duggan’s move to England in 2006. Homer Street is a kind of counterpart, being based on final poems in England before a return to Australia at the end of 2018. The first of its three sections is a farewell to England in the form of a valedictory poem, fittingly called, for such a visual poet, “A Closing Album” and a set of additions to his English-based series, “Allotments”. This structure (and structure is one of the things I will focus on in this brief review) is repeated in the second section where an initial poem, “Six Notes for John Forbes”, is followed by a set of additions to the Australian equivalent of “Allotments”, “Blue Hills”. The third section is an anthology of poems about painters, “not strictly ekphrastic works” as a note at the end says, but reflecting in their variety of approaches something of Duggan’s larger methods which have always involved a variety of responses to the world itself.

One can describe this variety of response, in the poems of Homer Street, by looking (slightly randomly, admittedly) at the additions to “Allotments”. Number 112 is an example of extreme minimalism (another issue I will want to return to):

orange sky (Sahara dust)

glare of a wet street

At nine words and twelve syllables this is minimal even by oriental standards. It’s built, like so much minimalism, on registration and contrast: the wet environment of England is contrasted to the dust in the air from the Sahara which is providing the visually brilliant sky. Of course, it isn’t an entirely innocent contrast and I read it as introducing a very distinctive feature of Duggan’s poetry (a feature which always makes his poetry attractive) in that there is an oblique acknowledgement of the way a growing isolationism in England is threatened (that might be too strong a word) by an alien invasion.

There is more of this not entirely innocent observation in a poem like “Allotment 108”:

the door of the Bloomsbury Room
swings shut,

St George flags ruffled by
cold air off Museum Street;

a man with a basset hound
collects coffee from Ruskin’s Café

These are three observations about the Bloomsbury area of London but the flags suggest it might be a comment on a kind of genteel cultural nationalism and this is supported by the fact that the second stanza takes place on Museum Street, leading a reader to suppose that these three little images together suggest a certain kind of mummification of England’s cultural past converted into capital. The images themselves are not invented or manipulated to provide a nice, clean symbolic tableau. One always feels in Duggan’s work that the observations are “genuine”: Homer St, for example, is a real street, not an invention designed to activate convenient puns about homing-pigeons and Greek poets. This is a world which, if looked at correctly, can, at moments, reveal itself.

Sometimes the poems record more obvious jokes – “Allotment 116”, for example: “for realism / the right of way / from Brogdale Road/ blocked by developers”. Throughout Duggan’s work these are the sorts of things that get collected into his “Dogs” series which are made up out of a collection of such jokes. But “Allotment 113” is quite different to any of these: it is a prose poem detailing the experience of waiting for a poetry reading. Although poetry readings figure largely (as do pubs) in earlier “Allotments”, this is really a personal, almost diary entry though, as one would expect, the visual receptiveness is very keen.

The Australian section of Homer Street begins with “Six Notes for John Forbes” a poem which overtly refers to an earlier “English” poem, “Letter to John Forbes”, from the 2012 collection, The Pursuit of Happiness. Both poems celebrate Forbes as someone who was capable of seeing the forces underlying cultural and economic superficialities: in other words, someone who can see when the world reveals its own mechanisms. Although Forbes was a completely different poet to Duggan, there is much in their work which is in harmony and there is a well-disguised sense of “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour” behind these two poems. “Six Note for John Forbes” focusses on Australia but the second stanza turns back to England:

I wrote to you a few years back
that England wasn’t the place you knew
now it’s even less so, or more:
the superstructure of class
showing through the fake edifice of “merit”,
all that bedrock pomposity
and servility that characterises the place
as Jacob Rees-Mogg, a seeming parody
turns out to be the real thing. . .

It’s a letter which enables Duggan to explore the imperatives behind his own poetry. Typically the result isn’t a manifesto , more a meditation on what Duggan thinks his poetry is doing and what he feels it needs to do. At the same time it reminds readers that the death of poets is a theme in Duggan’s work that exists in quite a different dimension to the registration of life in the English or Australian present.

The Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017 gives readers a chance to look at these things over the span of a lengthy writing career. It seems to me that the poems reveal two crucial issues. The first is the easiest to identify: what is the nature of the material. As I’ve said above (and in other comments on Duggan’s books) the essential material is the world as it is: an orange sky, St George flags ruffled in the street. These are usually, but not always, visual images – one of the advantages a poet has over a painter is the mobilisation of material from the other senses, especially hearing. It’s a matter of focus (an earlier “Dogs” poem from the beginning of the century contains a little poem in which a twenty-six word title introduces a four line poem:

A NEAR PERFECT DEFINITION OF POETRY SUPPLIED BY A QUEENSLAND POLICE TRAFFIC OFFICER DESCRIBING WITH A DOUBLE NEGATIVE A MAJOR CAUSE OF THE CHRISTMAS ROAD TOLL

“momentary lapses of inattention”)

There are also personal reflections, diary-like notes on the way the world is affecting the observer who is no mere registering plate.

The second involves selection and structure. Author’s notes about their poetry are generally only a little more helpful than blurb endorsements but the Author’s Note to Homer Street is very revealing:

I often work in the form of the sequence, an area between the long poem and the short freestanding lyric. This comes out of a sense that I am writing a long discontinuous poem generally and that everything eventually finds its place. . . . . . I’ve never felt that there was a single way to write poems though there are a few that I seem to use a lot. The results are always something more than the process, at least in any poems which succeed. I think I have always been a minimalist, if a minimalist with content, and that I will always try for what so many of the great modernists have achieved: more with less.

The second part of this raises the issue of minimal verbal description: what to leave out. And “Blue Hills 98” from Homer Street, refers to it specifically:

what to leave out
(the detail of all those tiles
instead of the sweep
of a roof
                 the art
of knowing when to stop

It’s an intriguing issue in poetry because one of poetry’s traditional strengths is its ability to do “thick” description either by massing images (think of Hopkins or something like Murray’s “Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands”) or exploiting the synonym-rich, consonantal qualities of English. Duggan’s poetry feels “modernist” in its deployment of a drier, more denotative diction (initially invented early in the twentieth century to tell late-Victorian poets that reacting against their predecessors by increasing the lushness was the wrong direction) but the contrast between detailing the unique “thisness” of each of a million dreary roof tiles and focussing instead on the sweep of a roof involves abstraction (isolating shape) rather than suggestiveness. Although I’ve said this many times in these reviews, I will say again that lack of a minimalist tradition in Australian poetry has meant that is a very “loud” poetry inclined to be discourse-dense. In such a culture anything minimalist is hard to get off the ground. If there is no cultural tradition of minimalist suggestiveness it can probably only be achieved by abstraction.

Opposed to the visual registrations are the mental ones. The body of Duggan’s poetry has a surprising amount of personal reflection. As I’ve said there are continuing meditations of the death of poets in poems like “Ornithology” from the 1990s. There is even, quite early, an extended biographical poem, “Adventures in Paradise”, although the impulse behind it seems to be as much parodic as confessional. I don’t think that all the personal responses mount up to a failure to be a dispassionate observing eye; I think they are based on the idea that observation – even of the moments in which the world reveals itself – must always include the observer. One never wants to praise a poet for tact, but Duggan’s usually wry inclusions of himself and his responses very rarely cross the social line into egocentricity. Nor, as a counter, do we ever think that the wry, self-mocking tone of this component is a clever social mask.

A lifetime’s work of careful observation produces a large mass of usable material and it leads to the central issues of Duggan’s poetics: namely – how to organise this stuff. This is a question with two dimensions. The first is the issue of what makes an observation or set of observations a genuine poem. The second is, how can these small poems be organised into larger wholes.
In the case of the first, although a certain amount of aesthetic policy (as, for example, the commitment to modernist practice and to minimalism) is present there is no doubt that the method is intuitive – a dangerous adjective to use, I know. But all poets operate with a test of “Does it work?” and I think Duggan is no exception. One could go on looking at poems from these two books for a considerable time but I suspect that even really close scrutiny might not produce much more than the feeling that generally the poems have a shapeliness built of balance and contrast rather than climactic rhetoric – you aren’t likely to find, for example, flocks of pigeons making ambiguous undulations as they sink downwards to darkness on extended wings! But most crucially, one never gets a sense, as one does with minor poets, of a simple template lying behind everything. Duggan’s poetry at the minimal level is based on an extraordinary variety. No doubt someone with an analytical-critical mind will in the future (if there is a future for dispassionate literary scholarship) attempt a complete analysis of all these different structures but I’m content to remain with a subjective sense of variety, supporting it only by the evidence that the extensive results are never predictable or boring.

The issue of the larger structures is also intriguing and one suspects that, as time has gone on and the bulk of Duggan’s work has increased, it has become a pressing problem. The third section of Homer Street might be relevant here. There is immense variety in what the poems do: some are descriptions of paintings that require a kind of immersion, others look at a painting from a critical distance and make a wry observation or joke (as in the one line poem devoted to Boucher: “only Cupid’s chafed arse is real”). I’m intrigued not so much by this variety – though it prevents the series looking like a “project” – but by the decision to organise the series of forty-four poems in alphabetical order by the artist’s surname. Alphabetical order is simultaneously a high level of formal organisation and a rejection of organisation itself because it doesn’t convey any information about the author’s judgements about the material. I’m reminded of the practice of Persian classical poetry where the divans are organised in alphabetical order (oddly enough, of the rhyming syllable). This plays havoc with Western readers since it rejects the orders made out of date of composition (which a contemporary critic needs in order to speculate about developments, imaginative growth, etc) or by theme.

So much for these middle level structures. On the largest structural scale, Duggan has made two attempts at unified, book length works: The Ash Range and Crab & Winkle. The latter of these is a large compendium of responses to England made at the beginning of his stay there. Since it is built around an entire year, it is in its structural essence a diary: it describes itself (again one wants to say, wryly) as “a warped Shepherd’s Calendar for the age of climate change”. But it is also an assemblage of experiences, observations and texts. It never occurred to me at the time of its publication but I have a sense, rereading it now, that its author’s interest in it may have been as much dictated by internal issues as external ones: it could be read as an experiment in seeing exactly how wide a variety of materials a single year produces. And this could, perhaps, be a preliminary to answering the questions, “What does my poetry do and where can it go?”

The Ash Range has fewer structural problems to solve. It is a portrait of a specific place, Gippsland, made up by selecting and assembling historical documents and so there isn’t any difficulty with determining what is relevant and what isn’t. The principle problems involve what “Blue Hills 98” calls, “knowing when to stop”, what to omit from the vast amount of material available and then how to organise it. The Ash Range was reprinted in 2005 by Shearsman and now includes an introductory essay about the process of writing it. It is striking how much of this essay is devoted to issues of structuring the material and it is tempting for a reader to guess that Duggan has become more focussed on the general issues of structure as time has progressed. On its first appearance The Ash Range might well have been a single experiment, an attempt to write a “documentary poem”, but by 2005 it was enmeshed in an overall concern with structure.

All of this, I suppose, leads to the question of what the nature of Duggan’s achievement is. In one way, it might be simply to be unique. Although he has close friendships with poets like Ken Bolton and Pam Brown, he isn’t entirely like them. He doesn’t seem to have any followers and there is no punchy manifesto-like statement that might prove the basis for a School of Duggan amongst younger poets. It’s even hard to work out what the legacy will be, half a century from now. He could be read as a recorder of his times, somebody alert to the world as it is who will be a richer source of material for future historians than current scholarly works of cultural criticism which are always underpinned by some theory which is sure to have a short half-life. But that doesn’t seem to square with what he has done. Worrying about it brings up the issue that Duggan covers a wide sweep geographically in his work. If he was a chronicler of any sort one would expect that place would be fairly strictly controlled. If The Ash Range suggested that he could have been a poet of Eastern Victoria, other poems – those in the Blue Hills series, for example – move to many locations in Australia. And then there are the English poems as well as poems about North America, the Basque country and so on.

He could be read as a poet-diarist progressing through life (and different countries) observing things and then making poems and books out of the material. But diarists tend to be more self-obsessed than Duggan is: although in England he gravitates to pubs he doesn’t seem to have the obsessive clubbability of a diarist. Is his total work a kind of livre compose shifting in tenor and subject as the personality of the author shifts but retaining that essential central thread of self? This seems to tap into lyrical pomposity in a way that is at odds with the tone of Duggan’s work. The two words that he links his star to in the Author’s Note that accompanies Homer Street are “minimalism” and “modernism” but these are far too imprecise (or, perhaps, multivalent) to act as guides to interpreting his work as a whole. I don’t, obviously, have any answers to this, only the hopes that the wonderful work continues so that it will leave this challenging problem for future readers.

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:

She’s 

the choppy swing
of hips
riding

a cool breeze
through
this café

like the sea
parting
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:

1

The eyes nervous
dragonflies
over the hazardous page

A deep breath in .  .  .

Then mount the wobbly tightrope bicycle of speech

2

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 
headlines

bright
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:

Bach
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.
                                                    Overhead,
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.

. . . . .
 
                                                            But
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

and 
glitters

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

vanished 
from so far off
we will glow

among our objects
and our traces

unspoken irreplaceable

the underworld’s
almost indetectable
shimmer

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!
Conflagrations!
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 t