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
bashed his face and bled him
he slid down the wall
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
the smells
of the raw
meats cooking,
there is a clearing:

a rabbit
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”,

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
              to the soft
      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:

. . . . .
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
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.
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.
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:


“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:


the choppy swing
of hips

a cool breeze
this café

like the sea
for Egyptians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The eyes nervous
over the hazardous page

A deep breath in .  .  .

Then mount the wobbly tightrope bicycle of speech


Each syllable locked
in an opaque shell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laws I follow
your lead

in breaking
we kiss

the lights turn 

with recidivism

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

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

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

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

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

Graeme Miles: Infernal Topographies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John A. Scott: Shorter Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Langford: Eardrum: Poems and Prose about Music

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

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

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

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

A Beethoven ending is not a true ending.

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

He raises the volume.

He tensions the strings and attacks . . .

Eases silk across skin.

Still God refuses to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inversion of scale is complete.

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

Here there are only
immense folds of darkness.

At one point: some wingbeats.

Then: miniature dialogues, off.

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

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

James Brown,
live at the Apollo -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a music released
from its comic-book triumphs:

a bedrock without a home-key.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

made it sound
as if nothing
need keep them apart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Musgrave: Numb & Number

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . 
                    stepped through a rust harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rereadings IV: Richard Packer: Being Out of Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Boyle: Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was I assembling? . . .

Before going on to look at the possibilities:

Is it 
the elaboration

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

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

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

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

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

so far a thing
he goes
into the zero


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

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

all the light of the trees
speaks for me
this presence

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

the death lord has held me

within us
as far over us

this light returns

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

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

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

from so far off
we will glow

among our objects
and our traces

unspoken irreplaceable

the underworld’s
almost indetectable

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

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

at the foot of the door
a light

and the small step before the light
sheer     beckoning     bridgeless

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

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

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

Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2019, 193pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basho’s Sin

was leaving that child
by the side
of the road.

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

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

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

John Jenkins: Poems Far & Wide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judith Rodriguez: The Feather Boy & Other Poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Harris: The Gang of One: Selected Poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Boleyn . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Day: Towards Light and Other Poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Lew: Crow College: New and Selected Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2019, 122pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon West: Carol and Ahoy

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 59pp.

Simon West’s fourth book begins with two poems which, in a way, embody the major themes of the work. The first, “River Tracks”, is a kind of celebration of the Goulburn River working its way north-west through Victoria to its meeting with the Murray just before Echuca. It’s a free-flowing meditative poem (recalling someone like Coleridge) and one’s first response is that this kind of poetry is a long way from the Italian influenced lyrics of West’s other books but the word “free-flowing” is slightly and importantly inaccurate. Inland Australian rivers aren’t free-flowing, they are muddy, rainfall-affected, often broken streams and “River Tracks” wants to exploit this quality. It isn’t just a matter of making a poem which mimics its subject: the rest of West’s poems show us that it is more likely that he sees an unavoidable harmony between what he wants his poems to do and the landscape that he inhabits. And it is a very distinctive landscape of river red gums standing in the channels, overflows and sandbanks of the Murray and its tributaries. The poetry, to match this, wants to move not by logical or imagistic assertion towards a triumphal conclusion but by surprising shifts and disjunctions. The significances which poetry seeks won’t be found here in a steady flood flowing majestically out to meet the sea but in oddities and surprises symbolised in the isolated pools left behind near the river after a flood event. So the poem ends with the poet, walking around a park in Shepparton made on the site of a place where the river has scoured out a track which it will fill at the next flood “letting us bide for a bit in common reflection”. These words, the poem’s end, are designed to be read in a number of ways. The first would stress the word “common” with its double sense of ordinary, unpretentious, far from the conventional Romantic sublime but also of communal, social, far from an incipient Romantic solipsism. Another would focus on the word “reflection” – also a crucial term in Romantic epistemology – with its double meaning of thought and physical reflection: the water will cover the complexities of the muddy, detritus-filled ground that West is very interested in and reflect the sky.

True to its plan of being more like a Murray-Darling river than, say, one of the east coast “Northern Rivers” like the Tweed or the Clarence, “River Tracks” spends its second stanza in a slightly unexpected investigation of the original names for the Goulburn:

Round Murchison it’s said the Ngooraialum
called you Bayungun, but Mitchell
might have got this wrong. Waaring
was also recorded, while downstream you were Kialla
and Goopna, deep waterhole,
living on in Congupna and Tallygaroopna.
Tongue sounds taken for runs, then stations
and finally the towns that drank you . . .

It seems a detour with a double purpose, at one level recording the processes by which original names were transmuted into the names of properties and towns and thus venturing into the territory of the study of the function of naming in landtaking. But this respectable and conventional interest is balanced against the very distinctive interest West always has in languages and their sounds. “Climbing the Tower of Babel” from The Ladder speaks of the complex emotional experience of language learning – “and doubt echoed, / ‘This isn’t yours to call your own’. / It was love kept me going . . .” – and it’s a theme traceable to the title poem of his first book.

And then there is the first stanza of “River Tracks”:

Never a straight line or a single course,
never blue. Most maps mistell you.
Eager to find where you finish,
they mistake your daydreaming, your loops
and faux pas and odd sidesteps,
your misgivings and floods of largesse . . .

On the surface (an appropriate cliché when speaking of rivers) this says that the complexities of the Goulburn’s course can’t be mapped (ie represented) without considerable abstraction and stylisation – that is, reduction. But it’s also a poem about poetry of course (another appropriate phrase), and may well want to make the point that various descriptions of poetry, especially those found in end-oriented disciplines such as literary history and literary theory, are always reductive, missing the point that the richnesses of poetry are often to be uncovered in unexpected twists, turns and seeming dead ends. It might also be read not as a general statement about poetry but as a specific description of West’s own poetry and thus a warning to anyone writing about it, saying something like, “In my work it’s not so much the big picture that counts as the surprises to be found in lesser things: bear this in mind when you write about it!”.

This all makes “River Tracks” a significant, even pointed, opening poem and raises the paradox that it might be a pointed poem about how poems aren’t pointed in the same way that Coleridge’s Dejection ode is partly a poem about not being able to write a poem. “Hans Heysen” also has a specific point to make. It is a poem about a painter’s problems in representing a gum tree and it uses material from Heysen’s own letters. The difficulty – as the poem begins – is “to keep the gum tree solid” given the way in which the distinctive morning light is echoed in the tree’s bark and thus tends to etherialise what should be a solid, earth-bound lump of timber. I read this as an example of the tension in any art between significance and “thinginess”. The Romantic tendency is inclined to favour the former and there is a swing to the latter embodied in movements like Chosisme and Neusachlichkeit. This might be a lot of weight for a comparatively small poem to carry and the last two lines – “as truth, world’s truth, not absolute, is blent / and filters through our pulsing temperament” – seem to locate significance not as universal, undeniable meaning but as a subjective, Romantic experience in itself.

The issues raised in these first two poems appear in later ones in the book. “Floodplains on the Broken River” is a dip into personal history and place (as is the preceding poem, “On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land”) but is interested, as are many of West’s poems, in the richness of the subsoil: “I trod on litterfall and felt under foot / a stir of living things”. This takes us back just over a hundred poems to the first poem of West’s first book, “Mushrooms” – but it’s a recurring theme, a kind of alchemical change from decay to fruition that might – at a stretch – be made into a variation on Judith Wright’s “coral” approach to Australian culture whereby generations of the exiled and failed dead make a kind of base from which something might flower. And this idea of the riches underneath is the theme of “Walking in the Bush at Whroo” where the activity of the nineteenth century’s gold miners – digging downwards hoping to stumble on wealth is contrasted with that of the cicadas, “miners in reverse”, which move upward from the darkness to the light. I think this is connected with the question raised in the first poem of where significance is to be found and how it is to be found, suggesting that the answer is not as a random symbolisation but as a long-held loving development that sees, rather than makes, connections. At any rate these cicadas are not merely insects with a weird life-cycle:

. . . . .
But I listened and it seemed
those insects from the stones
were driven by a need
to avow old love with their own,
to fathom a dying branch
and the eggs left as a gift,
the spider-like nymphs that fell
to a course of katabasis
where, fostered by black roots,
the imago grew well-fed
as the living learn to bear
visions left by the dead . . .

This all rather makes Carol and Ahoy into an exploration of aesthetics, which is part of its interest but not the only one. There is, throughout the book, a strong personal theme. “On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land” is about the poet’s family history:

. . . . .
Death wiped a shipwrecked generation’s slate.
Their children seemed to spring from wind-tossed seed
and grew staked to the mores of English State.
My grandmother denied her convict breed,
kept corgies . . .

But the poem does end in a poet’s resolution, significantly flavoured with a Latin (ie early Italian) reference to Aeneas carrying his father.

In a sense this is a preparation for the last three poems of the book. “Swimming” is about the death of West’s father and, to a lesser extent, his paternal grandmother and grandfather, figures symbolically carried from the wreck of Troy by pious Aeneas. It’s a more sophisticated poem than perhaps I am making it sound, as interested in absence as in significant, if inexplicable, presence – “The thought bridged both your being / and not being and made no sense”. This is followed by a version of part of Book VI of The Aeneid, “The Twofold Tree”, dedicated to West’s father. One can see why this is being done, even though it seems at odds with the style of the other poems. Aeneas’s descent into the underworld (the mythical equivalent of the “litterfall” and productive humus of the earlier poems) is prefaced by an encounter with the Cumaean Sybil, the instruction to find a golden bough (in which he is assisted by doves sent by his muse/mother), and the correct filial behaviour towards a drowned friend. All of which sets out Aeneas as a symbol for the poet, above all as someone concerned to carry his predecessors and their household gods to safety, rather as the cicadas “bear / visions left by the dead”. The final poem continues this Virgilian theme by being an eclogue, a conversation between two farmers (but, in reality, two opposed positions inside the poet’s own head) in which the complaints of the younger – an inevitable catalogue of personal miseries derived from the social set-up in which he lives – are countered (or, at least, opposed) by the elder who argues for making the most of your luck and going on writing: “Such fears / are better sung than dwelt upon.”

Describing the concerns of Carol and Ahoy and showing that they are present in the earlier collections rather obscures the fact that this book feels utterly different to West’s earlier books. One superficial feature of this might be the comparative lack of Italian elements. The earlier books showed someone inhabiting two different cultures and two different languages – climbing the Tower of Babel. When such things do appear in this book it is only in the distant echoes of Virgil’s Latin. But a more important feature is the mode of the poems themselves. As I said earlier there is often a kind of Coleridgean quality to them (I am thinking of important pieces like “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode”). They meditate in sophisticated ways while working along in a mundane environment. They sometimes sound extraordinarily old-fashioned – a word I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to use in these reviews – recalling pieces like FitzGerald’s “The Wind at You Door”. At one moment – in the second stanza of “On Looking into a Chinese Scroll” – I think I actually winced. When a poet is as good a writer of lyric poetry as West proves himself to be in his earlier work, this is something of a surprise, and the impetus to change one’s mode of working from complex lyrics like “Mushrooms”, “Out of the Wood of Thoughts” or “Roman Bridges” to this sort of post-Romantic ambulatory meditation must be a powerful one. Perhaps he is looking for a way of thrashing out issues that might, in the future, form the basis for another kind of lyric. Perhaps he wants to recreate the meditative mode for a new century. At any rate, I’m contented with reminding myself of the truism that really good poets follow their own imperatives and it’s the job of critics to keep up.

Clive James: The River in the Sky

London: Picador, 2018, 122pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liam Ferney: Hot Take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rereadings III: John A. Scott: N

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

time is weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

even before it comes
rain creeps into the joints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Malouf: An Open Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. Frances Johnson: Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov

Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2017, 86pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Aiken: Satan Repentant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Harrison: Anywhy

North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2018, 78pp.

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . 
Night pins my species

to essence, to tasks
of the sleeping word

and like a rough leaf
released by autum

I settle into 
presence, the desk now

a diminution . . .

There is no ending
to shadow, to the

nature that explains
us to the deep earth

and earth to our past - 
our present poison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . 
when clothes

lie fallow
and audiences drift away

I see the soaring dirty lid
of canvas open

and the stars arranged
in a show unparalleled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristen Lang: SkinNotes; The Weight of Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mid-step -

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

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

Philip Neilsen: Wildlife of Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . 
                   Colonisation is its pulse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judith Bishop: Interval

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

passage in the history of play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Taylor: Impossible Preludes: Poems 2008-2014

Witchcliffe, WA: Margaret River Press, 2016, 86pp.

Andrew Taylor can be a hard poet to write about. Although he has never seemed especially prolific (in contrast, say, to John Kinsella, who contributes a brief introduction to this new book) his cumulated work is very substantial – another two books will see it cross the thousand page barrier. It’s also very consistent without being at all the same and a reviewer, aiming for any kind of conspectus, will be torn between the opposed tasks of mapping out changes of manner and documenting the recurrent themes that give his work a strong sense of unity. There are changes of mode but they are not really radical. If we compare the title poem of his first book with the title poem of this new one (a cheap tactic, I know, but one which can have some value):

The Cool Change

We say: After a hot day the cool change
is like a fresh shower and the spirit stands
renewed and alert despite the summer thunder.
Despite the summer thunder and despite
the jagged fulgurations of dry rage
over the Brighton Yacht Club and beyond
the enclosed alerted small boat anchorage,
despite the ominous clashings in the trees,
after a hot day and a sea like slate
the cool change comes like mother with light skirts
sweeping the torpid gulls from their malaise.
Like mother with cool drinks the cool change gathers
families out of the tea-tree and the water,
moving with her urgency among hampers
caressing, hurrying, to her mysterious ends . . .
The cool change sweeps us back into Sunday night,
the long drive home, the children to be fed,
bathed, put to bed. It makes us parents again.
Later we think of the sullen sea, the obtuse
and adolescent arrogance of the sun,
the dominant zero, pointless, tyrannous.


Impossible Preludes

A leaf floating up
memory drifting along a line
of music
whump of bass from a car
beside you at the lights
goldfish –
                         have you ever
tried to count the shifting
of goldfish?
of light across a river
that phonecall
you never made
or received

all impossible
all possible
all preludes

True, the subject matter here is very different but that is just a matter of accident: I might have matched “The Cool Change” with “Two Dates” or “How Much Better Can It Get?” from Impossible Preludes, just as I might have matched “Impossible Preludes” with “Exemplary Poem” or “A Vision of Myself in the Window” from The Cool Change. But, stylistically and conceptually there are marked differences. “The Cool Change” obviously sees itself as a free-standing poem, an object where enough is going on internally – by way of echo, repetition and extension – for it to have a strong presence as a thing despite its apparently lightweight material, material that resists a reader’s search to allegorise it into something more challenging and profound than parenthood and weather. The heavyweight language of the last two lines is definitely a conventional way to achieve some sort of climax. I used to read this poem (before I knew how sensitive Taylor is to ambient conditions like weather) thinking that perhaps it was a kind of critique of the “well-made” poem (as Waiting for Godot can be read as a critique of the well-made play) where the content is trivialised or evacuated but the form remains predictably the same.

By the time we reach “Impossible Preludes” (more than forty years later) we can see a more gestural quality. The gestures are not images but ideas, ideas, in this case, about what might instigate the writing of a poem. Though this poem has its own elegant shape (a list, the last item of which contains mutually exclusive possibilities followed by three propositions about the contents of the list which share the mutually exclusive structure of the final item) it suggests intellectual reverie rather than the sturdy, stand-alone quality of poems like “The Cool Change” or “Developing a Wife”. You feel that, as a reader, you are not so much being presented with an object as lured into a universe of speculation involving paradox and unresolvability. If there is an overall change in the mode of Taylor’s poetry over the years, I think it has been the rise of such poems at the expense of sturdy, well-made pieces like “The Cool Change”.

A love of paradox and paradoxical meditation, taken as a theme rather than a structural method, has probably always been a component of Taylor’s poetic sensibility. The much anthologised “Developing a Wife” is quite straightforward but it rejoices in the way the metaphor of photographic developing endlessly draws towards itself images of violence (“he held her face two inches under the water”) and of domestic “education” (so that developing might mean “changing to suit” or, more likely, “changing oneself to match an existing wifely personality”). There is nothing paradoxical in the nub of the poem which is, after all, about nothing more than the now archaic technique of developing a photograph, but paradoxes are suggested by the metaphors. One of the most potent pieces of Impossible Preludes works in this way and recalls that earlier poem: “Dark Employments” deals with interactions between the dreamer and the characters of his dreams but it does so under the metaphor of business meetings, the “clandestine meetings in the small hours”.

One of Taylor’s central paradoxes is the idea of absence as a presence. It’s not anything new and is a topos beloved of composers but absence is a powerful presence in Taylor’s work at an emotional level. Early in his career there are three books which move away from notions of a stand-alone poem in different ways as though experimenting with possibilities. These are The Invention of Fire (a kind of psychodrama where the poems are fragmentary expressions of the inner self), Parabolas (a series of prose poems, very much focussed on paradox and elegant meditation) and The Crystal Absences, The Trout. This last book is a series of meditations marking off the days to the lover’s return. It is, in other words, generated out of absence.

In Impossible Preludes we have “Shells” whose complex structure – “as complex and better designed / than a legal system . . .” – speak of “oceans lost to their memory”. And a series of poems lamenting the death, during the poet’s absence, of a loved cat, Maxi (a companion piece to the early poem, “The Old Colonist”, which celebrated the passing of an earlier cat) finishes up by moving beyond grieving to think about how we might carry favourite ghosts with us:

It’s fine having a cat
but having a cat haunt you
is something else. Maxi’s ghost
waits at the back door as we bundle in
at 2 a.m. from Frankfurt
three years now and I greet him
with the ghost of a grin
an ethereal hug. Can I
shift him with us when we move
to Sydney? After all
he’s silent and weighs nothing.
I could take him as hand baggage
or – more to the point – heart baggage.

It’s all more complex than the light surface might lead us to think: a loved ghost is an absence that is a powerful presence even if it is just a cat. One of Taylor’s gifts (and markers of style) is to be serious but never portentous. The title of this group of poems – “The Maxi Poems” – is designed to recall Olson’s Maximus Poems a sequence which, whatever can be said about its virtues and vices, is extremely self-important.

The force of absence is, in a way, recorded in a number of poems in the book which deal with writing. “Lament for the Makars” (another allusion-by-title, this time to Dunbar’s great poem about the deaths of his contemporary poets) is a mildly comic piece about the way, as we age, the number of “predeceased / contemporaries” rises. The dead are all categorised and given – Dante-like – fitting afterlives: I like the fate of the Rationalists who are “undoubtedly / scrutinising the bill” in their “immaculately designed / resort (their last)”. But the poem finishes with the poet: “I’ll be forever revising / that poem, you know, the one / I said I’d read to you / when it was finished” suggesting not only an inevitable incompleteness but, further, an inability of poetry to make a final comprehensive judgement on experience. Perhaps this is not so much an absence as an incompleteness and endless chasing after the powers to express a changing reality. Impossible Preludes carries an introductory poem, “Writing”, which begins by describing the act as “tracing a spider’s footprints / across a web” and concludes by saying that writing is “leaving oneself behind / as a spider does // as it spins its web”. Given this is the case, perhaps the best introduction to Impossible Preludes might be the “The Impossible Poem”, last poem of The Unhaunting, Taylor’s previous book:

There are only two poems -
the one you write
and the one always undoing
your words

and as you get older
that impossible poem
stretches its fingers toward you
and you can – maybe – just

feel what it might be -
as Adam might have felt it
when God leaned across the Sistine ceiling
toward his touch

or as a cat waking
on warm stones reminds you
or as alone
in a language you don’t understand.

you know a stranger’s smile
is a word even or a phrase.

Here poetry’s ultimate inability to “grasp” the world is configured as the existence of a kind of anti-poem that matches each existing poem and whose presence becomes slightly more detectable as we age. The fact that the poem refers to cats and to the Sistine Chapel (which an early poem associates with spiders) is a sign that several of Taylor’s distinguishing topics have accreted here. Just as a poem here has an antipoem, so in “This is the Empty Page” from Impossible Preludes, every printed page has an anti-page that, if looked at correctly, peeps out behind the various words that are trying to conceal it:

. . . . . 
I’ve tried to disguise it 
with writing 
my printer hums and buzzes 
across it
but if you look closely
you’ll see the empty page
peering out at you
from behind the letters

In a way, here, we are being returned to the paradox of the doorway that one of the prose poems in Parabolas deals with: “Because a doorway is nothing, this fact is often disguised by tremendous decoration. For example, the portals of Chartres, or the Sphinx couching around the tiny doorway in its breast”.

There are also other poems here which, if not necessarily invoking the presence/absence paradox, also want to speak about poetry and perception. One of the recurring motifs of Taylor’s poetry is swimming. It is the basis of many poems about growing up in southern Australia but it is also always likely to touch on issues that relate to poetry. Swimmers (and kayakers) move on the surface of an element which has a lot of things going on underneath. In “Beginnings” the canoeist watches a dolphin explode out of the depths through masses of ordinary rubbish which it feeds on in a way which, you feel, is designed to refer to a certain kind of experience-hungry poet. Taylor modestly contrasts this with himself:

. . . . . 
                      While I
skimming the surface in my kayak
might have brought a glint of query
even pity, to its inquisitive eye.

I don’t think we should take the self-deprecating tone too literally here. In the following poem, “The Sea Eagle”, the observing animal is the opposite – “aloof and interested / he charts my splashy transit / from the high branch of his / detachment”. Two poems, “River” and “Where the Track Ends” focus on these watery issues. The former speaks of the kayak’s inscribing patterns on the “universe’s mirror” and the latter is a symbolic scene of poet and lover arriving by track to the “almost / limitless expansion of sea” – expansion of consciousness, of course, as much as physical dimensions. Intriguingly the partner is described as a “river / person” while the poet belongs to the sea: “I / scanned for rips, stripped off / my clothes, carefully / walked to the surf and plunged in”. Again any hint of ecstatic symbolic triumphalism is undercut by that little word, “carefully”.

One theme which has developed in its own way as Taylor’s life has gone on is that of our perspectives on our own lives. What appear at the time as moments of trauma – separations, divorces, deaths of friends, of parents – get fitted into a retrospectively viewed pattern. Taylor writes well about this. He clearly enjoys the paradox that what seems at the time, when looking forward, to be host of possible directions becomes, when looking back, the only path that could have brought you to the state you are in now:

There are many paths 
through a childhood that offers
when you look back
only the one you took. 
. . . . . 
That’s where you find
if you’re not too traumatised
there was no other way
inexorably to you.

One of the poems about childhood, “Vanishing Species 3”, exploits, structurally, the same sort of tensions that animate poems like “Developing a Wife” and “Dark Employments”. It begins, “I went back to my old school” and, by the time it begins to speak of talking to “my old teachers” we begin to start doing those calculations of age that the elderly always do. Since Taylor was born in 1940 his youngest teachers must have been born in the teens of the twentieth century and that would make them etc etc. The poem quickly resolves this:

. . . . . 
had died or retired to their own
pastures or coasts. But they had not

I remember Gunner Owen
I remember Chesty Bond . . .

It’s not that the teachers were entirely icons of popular culture which can always outlive the normal lifespan of a real person, it’s that these and the actual teachers “Mr Ingwersen who heroically / tried to teach me French” are present absences in the poet’s mind.

As I said at the beginning, Taylor can quite hard to describe as a poet. Some features are not difficult to talk about: the love of certain paradoxes, for example, and the way the poems are anchored in an entirely distinctive Taylorian(?) world of homely realities (made up of weather, cats, spiders as well as more complex experiences such as a double life lived on two continents). But I always feel that the deepest, most essential component of his poetic personality – made open as it seems to be to readers – somehow resists really accurate description.

Jane Williams: Parts of the Main

Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2017, 106pp.

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

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

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

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

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

to turn right and lead somewhere else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

expressions not so alien
from our own –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rereadings II: Norman Talbot: Son of a Female Universe

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

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

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

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

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

& Hers no more tangled a now couch.

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

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

Ring of Red Gold Away:
                                                  to the language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

his coast . . . my old printing . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Middleton: Passage

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 117pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before memory takes the graft, the stasis of the past

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

of a fear whose source is lost . . .

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

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

. . . . . 

     we walk a common metre
     weigh a common kilogram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fay Zwicky: The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, Edited and Introduced by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 388pp.

There is a minor but delicate problem with this book that arises right at the beginning and is reflected in the heading of this review: how should it be titled. Released, according to its publisher’s website, days before Zwicky’s death, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, has a distinctly posthumous sound to it, rather like a scholarly edition of a classic author – The Collected Poems of Kenneth Slessor, for example. Marvellous as Zwicky’s poetry can be – and I have always felt that her intense ethical engagement with the world coupled with a very tough, intelligent and humorous scepticism about virtually everything including herself, has made her one of the Australian poets who speaks most sympathetically to me – it isn’t yet that of an established classic and the title might be criticised as an attempt to smuggle her in immediately after her death. It is, in the long run, a minor issue but one feels for the publisher and editors who must have pondered long and hard over the title.

Poetic careers are made up of a combination of stable, unchanging elements and developments over time. Your view of poetry (and, probably, life generally) will influence which of these mean more to you. Zwicky is a good case in point. The two most important of the ever-presents that I find in her work are an ethical concern with “care” and a bracing, sceptical intelligence directed equally towards the outer world and her own, inner life. The first of these is a complex phenomenon. I have written about it briefly in a review of Zwicky’s Picnic on this site (where I endorsed Ivor Indyk’s excellent article on the ethical dimensions of Zwicky’s poetry, an endorsement I would like to take the opportunity to repeat). My interest was in the extent to which this derived from cultural perspectives: in Zwicky’s case an underlying Jewishness. As for many people in the twentieth century who were born into a secular middle-class environment, discovering Jewish roots among forebears was not an exciting adventure into origins but an enquiry into certain aspects of one’s intellectual set-up and, simultaneously, an attempt to define how one related to one of the great persecuted ethnicities of that century. Zwicky herself in the essay “Border Crossings” – included by the editors in this book – acknowledges Job as the central image of this tradition in contrast to Prometheus who stands for the opposed, Greek, tradition. In an essay in The Lyre in the Pawnshop she describes this inherited worldview as:

a whole way of being at home in the world that is best described by the word “reverence” which accords life meaning in terms of debt to something. One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as rightful obligation, what one feels about the taking of responsibility for oneself and for others.

This is a stance which underlies almost all the poems of her collected work. It seems as close as we can come to Zwicky’s essential poetic character though it isn’t without complexities and paradoxes especially when put in a volatile proximity to the second of these stable elements, an intellectual scepticism.

“Rightful obligation” takes the form of the imperative of care and it’s a theme that produces some of Zwicky’s best poetry. Mrs Noah, from the sequence “Ark Voices”, is a figure whose outlines have become steadily more solid and imposing as the years have passed since the sequence was first collected in Kaddish in 1982 – and that is not something that one could say has happened to many of the mouthpiece characters of Australian poetry in the last half-century. As in the other poems in this sequence, Mrs Noah speaks directly to God (“sir”) and her tone is one of complaint. Her burden, unlike that of her husband – “a large sweet soul and incorruptible” – whose actions are marked by an unquestioning dedication to the commands of God, is exactly that of “care”. Her task is to keep the entire animal world safe while the little ark floats above the results of the greatest holocaust in legendary history, afloat on God’s “watery negative”. Care is more than a matter of keeping bodies together like a good nurse – “Yes, / I’m just about to lance the horse’s leg” – because it leads to an involvement in whatever it was that caused the need for care. Mrs Noah, unlike her husband, is engaged in an ethical argument with God (as Job was, if only fleetingly) and, more important, is the one who hears the call of those beyond her care:

                  The speckled pigeon
and the tawny owl have drawn me to the edge.
The drowned folk call to me:
Deliver us from harm!

Deliver, sir, deliver them
and all of us . . .

I’d never thought about these last lines too much on earlier readings of this poem, being distracted by the importance of the idea of the drowned calling the living. I think that the prayer for deliverance is supposed to be seen, on the surface(!), as applying to the inhabitants of the ark, but its proximity to the drowned makes it a prayer for them as well, impossible as “deliverance” is in a religion without a transformative afterlife.

Mrs Noah’s voice and concerns ripple throughout Zwicky’s work. Interestingly they can be heard in an earlier poem from her first book, Isaac Babel’s Fiddle, a poem in which the poet and her husband arrive at Urbana in the US mid-west in the middle of a dark December and in the middle of a fungus plague which has destroyed the town’s elms:

. . . . . 
People keep saying how normal it all is. They have seen
Disease, the day all the elms in Urbana died overnight:
Stretched beside my husband I have been found unfit
For saying what kind of place is this to bring
Children to when what I really mean is I am frightened
By the smell, the corruption of death, the shouting
Tides of my death specifically, an old woman fallen
Out of space, unready.
                                          Flooded, I shake in the dark. My hands,
Encrusted with apple-scab, lame the stride of his dream . . .

Just as Mrs Noah’s cosmic cares don’t stop her from including her husband among those who must be at least reckoned with, so here the speaker worries that she hampers the “stride” of her husband’s professional ambitions. And then there is “The Gatekeeper’s Wife”, the title sequence of Zwicky’s 1997 volume. This is a series of brief poems, framed in a kind of Roethkian invented myth of the self whose details we never fully learn. But the speaker herself, mourning her lost husband, lays out a version of this ethics of care:

When a man died
My ancestors lit a candle.
It guaranteed eternal memory.

Severed from my ancestors
I light a candle for you
Every night inside a clay house.
Memory is only half the story.

And, late in the sequence, she speaks of herself as “Maimed by compassion”.

Care also produces a sequence of poems about caring for the dying. They make up a substantial component of the third section of Ask Me, beginning with “Hospice Training”, an intellectual’s protest against the demeaning necessity to master the cliched language of health administrators, keeping its dignity by a lightly buried Shakespearian allusion – “I’m feeling murderous, / listening to the air explode / before their words put out the light”. It concludes with a story about a father, the iconic figure of all of these elegies:

. . . . .
When Lucia, Joyce’s agonised daughter
heard about her father’s death, she said:
“What is he doing under the ground, that idiot?
When will he decide to come out?
He’s watching us all the time.”

That doesn’t sound insane to me.
If you were ever a writer’s child
you’d know the terror of the word
from the mouth of a primary carer.

They put her in,
these masters of language,
breakers of the whys and hows of a tale,
deciders of your fitness for the road,
who tell you how to mourn
and how to die . . .

“Hospice Training” is followed by a number of examples of caring for the dying, all recounted unsentimentally, often humorously and with a sharp-eyed observation of both patient and self as though interacting with the dying were a crucial way of obtaining information about what it is like to be a human being.

And all such interactions of course produce what one might think of as proto-elegies with the subjects in death’s waiting room. Zwicky’s elegies – seen in the light of a collected poems to be not just an occasional genre but something fundamental to her whole poetry deriving from the idea of care, care for the memory and the name – are probably something that should be looked into with more critical devotion than I can afford here. The starting point is, inevitably, her poem, “Kaddish”, an elegy in memory of her father (though it isn’t the first: there is a conventional elegy for the painter Ries Mulder in Isaac Babel’s Fiddle and a number of the other poems in that book hover around the genre of memorial). Later elegies are often memorials to fellow poets including those for Vincent Buckley, Hart-Smith and James Legasse. (Other memorials are not necessarily elegies, of course, and there are a couple of them which venture into the comic: one, for the English poet, Charles Causley, is imagined as an ocker phone call from the bush, another, for Ted Hughes, mimics that poet’s Crow poems and “Finding Focus” is dedicated to Vivian Smith, a coeval and fellow wartime Argonaut.) Of all the elegies, the one that has stayed with me most is, paradoxically, the least specific. “The Young Men” is an elegy for all those who died before any kind of fulfilling achievement, most likely “in their country’s wars”. They come “with shattered skulls, intestines trailing / in the sand . . .” and they are examples of the “drowned folk” who call to the living. Their message is that the life which the living poet lives – of “book and candle, / night light burning infantile, shoes tucked / beneath” – has long since lost the power to repel the call of the dead:

“. . . . . 
silence lasts forever. Listen, while you can,
to unseen saplings somewhere falling.”
Young men, you dear young men, I’m listening.

“Kaddish” is a large scale, almost operatic piece and, I think, shouldn’t be seen as representing the core of Zwicky’s elegiac mode. It’s subject – the father – does, of course, belong to the elegiac core since the relationship between poet and good man is here strongest. It’s operatic not only in its slightly baroque ambitions towards grandeur but also in the way it accommodates other voices than the poet/daughter’s. It also accommodates other modes apart from the solemn especially when it moves into nursery rhyme. There is also a colouring of folk-tale when Zwicky sees herself as the eldest of three daughters, the wicked one accompanied by the wise one and the simple one. I suspect that musical analogies lie behind its structure and not the model of the Jewish prayer for the dead and, if I could pursue this line of enquiry, I’d look first at the late Beethoven quartets, invoked in a later poem, “Pie in the Sky”, which is a humorous experiment, responding to the imperative, “Only connect”.

(It is worth noting that one of the later, uncollected poems that Dougan and Dolin have included marks a painful closing of the circle of the issues of caring. In “In Rehab” the poet gets the fatal diagnosis, at dusk, from a black man, Dr Kiberu, “geriatric oncologist supremo” who wishes he had better news. At the very end, the endless ethical complexities of caring get dissolved when one is in the position where one can only be the recipient of care. Zwicky’s recorded response is interesting: “Being well brought up I thanked him warmly, / My mother would have been so proud”.)

Revisiting “Kaddish” I’m struck by its epigraph – “Lord of the divided, heal!” – which has stayed oddly memorable. This may be because it looks like a slight modification of something completely and uninterestingly conventional – “Lord of divided Israel, hail!” – but more likely because the idea of dividedness is so important in Zwicky’s poetry. Again, in the conventional sense, there are those in exile (productive or paralysed) divided from their homelands but there is also the sense of division within the family (accorded a central status here), division between husband and wife and, especially, division between a daughter and her father who dies, away from her, on a sea voyage, thus preventing the daughter from making final apologies and accommodations. In a sense a later poem from the hospice series, “Afloat”, is a kind of addendum to “Kaddish”, celebrating love of father from the adutlt perspective of parenthood:

. . . . . 
Each day I waited for the toy-box
called an Austin
to rumble down the street
between the elms towards a
grey-green Melbourne sea,
jumping the running board
to ride that little strip of freedom
called “our drive” before our mother
collared us to silence:
“Be quiet. Don’t disturb your father.”

Would it disturb you now
to know I know what duty let you in for?
Or to tell you how, each day,
I wait that day’s-end glimpse
of the whispering sea?

In “Kaddish” – as well as in many of the poems from Isaac Babel’s Fiddle – we meet the frustrations of guilt which is a kind of dark counterpart to the imperative of caring. Zwicky’s father, an admired and sympathetic doctor, is a carer and his daughter, rebellious in an entirely conventional teen-aged way, can only feel later (and perhaps at the time) that she is ungrateful, a “wicked”, child. “Isaac Babel’s Fiddle Reaches the Indian Ocean” describes how Babel, destined for life in a performing troupe, and given violin and money by his impoverished father, suddenly decides on a different career and throws the violin onto Odessa’s sandbar. Zwicky responds to this as a parallel to her own decision to abandon life as Julia Rosefield with a possible career as a concert pianist and become, instead, Mrs Fay Zwicky. As the poem says, “whose voice / Did you obey that day you / Sounded out the waterfront?” and though it’s imperative to obey this call, it doesn’t lessen the guilt produced by a decision that puts the maker at odds with, even in exile from, the family.

Guilt is often comically connected with the values of Jewish culture, probably internalised from a history of prophets and writers finding that the only possible explanation for the god of the universe’s inability to protect his people from a range of real-world threats beginning with the Canaanites and progressing on through the Assyrians must lie in the faults of those people themselves. But whatever its status, it’s a wonderful antidote to any poet’s tendency to inflate themselves into a lyrical ego. Zwicky’s sense of self, though it is one of the themes that adds nuances as this book progresses, is always wry and simultaneously sharp and humble. The first poem of her first book is a two-part piece which puts together a poem written as an undergraduate celebrating, in the mildly hieratic tone of that time, a youthful love affair – “made / One and still divided in burning clarity of / Self . . .” – with a sharp critique of the same poem written twenty years later: an example of re-evaluation in visible action. And in the book’s second poem she is happy to characterise herself (among much else that is equally self-critical) as “fraught with quibble and / Linguistic tic, pernickety ironic nit-picking / Academic.”

This defining and understanding of the self, especially its intellectual dimension, is another of the continuous themes in Zwicky’s work. It’s intimately related to the experience of other cultures and again, now we have all of the poems together, it’s extraordinary how what had always seemed to be incidental in the individual books, now seems so coherent and important. Zwicky has always said that it was the literature of the United States which made poetry possible for her in what is really a wasteland: “The concerns of Australian literature have always appeared essentially solitary, inward-turning, never outer-directed, the babble of speech masking a dumb void . . .” and her first poems of visiting are, significantly, about America. (A poem like “Memorial Day & Tornado” from Isaac Babel’s Fiddle, which seemed fairly incidental when first read, now looks like an early essay at dealing with the theme of memorialising. It concludes with a list of – to an Australian – bizarre American names – “Bagby Bobowski Clabaugh Coonz . . .” – arranged cruciform fashion.) Other books include poems of visits to other cultures including Indonesia, India and China, cultures infinitely removed from the Levantine culture of reverence that is the basis of Zwicky’s sense of herself. Zwicky acknowledges as much in the first of the poems about the Somnapura temple which is devoted to the elephant-headed god, Ganesh:

. . . . . 
A light shaft strikes the stone,
mints spry slumped corpulent Ganesh,
elephant-crowned runt
of jealous Siva,
the enormous first parent –

Grant, O Lord, we beseech Thee
won’t do here –

It’s not an environment in which the intimate, pleading arguments of “Ark Voices” or the ambitious anthology of voices and modes in “Kaddish” make any sense at all. The Indian poems are balanced in Ask Me by a suite of poems based on a visit to China – in 1988 this was perhaps more of voyage into the unknown than it would be thirty years later. The opening poem revolves about defining the poet’s self in terms of the Chinese system of animal totems:

. . . . . 
I am a Rooster.
Honest, frank, obliging, difficult
to live with.
Spot on, so far. What’s this?
Vain? Despotic? Prickly about criticism?
Perhaps there’s nothing in it
after all . . .

It’s impressive how un-European these visits are (one thinks of Zwicky’s familiarity with Indonesia) and how, at the same time, they avoid the obvious pitfalls of “travel-writing” and, just as this Collected lets us see these “poems of foreignness” as a recurring mode, so it also suggests how close to the core of Zwicky’s poetry her narrative sequences are. “A Tale of the Great Smokies” from Ask Me, a long set of narratives that I have never felt entirely comfortable with, uses the trick of overlaying The Odyssey on a contemporary rural story and “The Terracotta Army at Xi’an” from Picnic is, like “Ark Voices”, one of those sequences which explores individuals whose personalities refract a core situation. That core is the presence of the first emperor, Quinshihuang, the builder of the wall and the burner of books. The last of the portraits is of the Potter and in its portrayal of the meeting of warlord and artist it not only visits a well-worn theme but probably also provides a disguised portrait of Zwicky the poet at the same time as recalling the voice of Mrs Noah:

. . . . .
                    Remember to stay calm.
Or, as our saying goes,
“Hide your broken arms in your sleeves.”
Who am I to pit the hollow of my skull
against tyrannic arsenals, soft body parts
afloat with sewer rats, heaped skulls,
atrocities of conquest? . . .

The particular branch of a concern with the self which might be called a concern with the poetic self is the issue that one can trace developing across Zwicky’s career as it’s captured in this book. Whereas the culture of reverence and memory, with its inevitable outcomes of caring and guilt, is a kind of ground base, inflected by different events at different times but remaining essentially essential, Zwicky’s interest in what is involved in the act of making poetry is one that develops throughout her career, beginning with the satirical portraits of a performing poet at the end of Kaddish and including the calmly introspective meditation at the end of “Makassar, 1956” where a detailed account of her “flight” from family and career is concluded by a section detailing her interest in the way in which an image, encountered at what is really one of life’s crisis-points, can wait for a half-century to become a poem. She sees, on her first morning, a wedding procession and later, three heavily-veiled women:

. . . . . 
My heart stood open like a door – the bride looked
very nervous sitting, eyes downcast, beside her thin
proud groom in a little cart bringing up the rear.
As it jolted past us in the warm rain, I felt a poem
Starting to take shape under the reedy rhythms of the band.
It settled on my heart for nearly fifty years . . .

The move from initial comments about poetry and its engagement with an empty landscape to an interest in the mysterious inner workings of creativity can be traced across the entire book in poems like “Orpheus”, “Poems and Things”, “What Fills”, “Groundswell for Ginsberg”, “Close-Up”, “Hokusai on the Shore” and “The Ivy Visitant”, a symbolic set-piece in which a praying mantis, shaken out of the ivy onto the poet’s arm, becomes a vehicle for the poem itself, “something planted speechless / in the dark, waiting out its season”. In the late poems, there is no interest in large generalisations – something at odds with Zwicky’s habitual cast of intellect – but a kind of forensic fascination. About half way we come across a poem like “The Caller”, a brilliant set-piece devoted to the statue at the Art Gallery of Western Australia which, in its stance of “wordless patience”, expresses for Zwicky something of her own fate:

. . . . . 
Prompt me, brother. What is required of me,
long failed, who once craved silence
stillness timelessness? Obedient and rebellious
to what end? . . .

It seems just a fraction over-intense for this poet and one might explain this by saying that it deliberately mimics (or takes the opportunity to mimic) the statue’s over-the-top, expressionist conception. But it too is concerned with creative origins – “It can’t be / forced but, like the sparrow’s fall, will come” – and thus asks to be measured against “Genesis” the second-last poem of her last book. “Genesis” includes a bathetic rehearsal of all the possible sources for her own poetry, asking “what’s it going to be” this time:

. . . . .
Will it be one more bulletin from the zone
of dread? Another bleat of unbelonging?
Or some grim soot-faced riff on the long-dead,
the incantatory singsong of nostalgia - 
serial murders, violated wombs, decay
the foot-in-mouth neuralgia of our days? . . .

It may be that this list is no more than a list of the sources of bad poems by others but it’s hard not to see a phrase like “riff on the long-dead” as referring to the poems of the responsibility for the memory of the dead that have been part of Zwicky’s remit. And if the bathetic tone of “Genesis” wasn’t enough to convince us that Zwicky’s view of the mystery of poetic creativity is not going to be surrounded by clouds of elevated but obfuscating glory, there is the poem that follows it in Picnic, and, in a sense, the one that says goodbye. It’s a comic treatment of an invitation to read her poems “in a garden / somewhere in the city of / light” and the way in which a poet’s inevitable fantasies of “lovers lounging, children rapt / drowsy grandmothers, a hermit / or two, an emperor awake to / prophetic nightingales and / clusters of attentive courtiers / hanging on your every word” are punctuated by the dismissive comments of “a flat-vowelled crow”. No room for wish-fulfillment here, either in the stony wastes of Western Australia or in the bracing climate of Zwicky’s intellectual temperament.

Shastra Deo: The Agonist; Charlotte Guest: Soap

The Agonist, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2017, 87pp.
Soap, Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017, 46pp.

Shastra Deo’s poems seem to inhabit the same symbolic space. This makes The Agonist recall something like Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares (though there may be much more recent and current examples outside the scope of my reading) despite the fact that the tone of the poems is much different. But you feel that there is a continuous symbolic landscape that the poems inhabit even though different poems occupy different parts of that landscape. Generally, the poems, as the title suggests, are about conflicts but these conflicts are never the clash of immovable objects or positions. An even more important principle in the mini-mythology Deo has created is that conflicts involve interpenetrations: these are poems where the border lines between one individual and another, or between an individual and the world are, if clearly defined, important sites of definition, mapping and change. Though many of the poems explore relationships between individuals, these are often people who have some sort of stake with each other, as lovers, brothers, parents and children.

In “The Bering Sea”, which is probably as good an introduction to the poems of this book as any, two siblings – the speaker and the speaker’s brother – make a kind of imaginary angled journey across America from the coast off Alaska, through Minnesota and Tennessee to Florida – from cold to warmth – one stanza per location:

Brother, do you remember the Bering Sea,
where we promised to go home again?
You caught rock greenling and I slid the knife
into their bellies – bird-egg blue, like your eyes at noon.
Brother, what a match we were: you,
the stolid fisherman’s son, and me,
a fisher of men.
. . . . . 

I will confess, brother, that
that night I dreamed of taking a knife
to your belly, the hidden machinations
of your body spilling past your palms,
the smell of it hot and rich like venison.

Brother, this is how I remember the end of the Bering Sea:
melted ice in overturned glasses, blood on my hands.
Far down the beach there was soft breath and silence
and the sound of your leaving.

That final reference to leaving touches on a recurring theme in this book but the dream of gutting also stands out as one form of the obsession these poems have with the insides of the body. One of the strengths of this poetry, it seems to me, is that the physical, inner world is taken as literally as the outer, even to the extent of including anatomical drawings in the pages of the book itself. Whereas poetry is happy to invoke the insides of the body it usually does this at a fairly generalised level as the world of hearts, kidneys, livers and lungs. Deo’s voyages under the skin are replete with all the precise technical language one could imagine. This turns the body’s interior into the known, precisely mapped world which holds its own in the conflict with the outer body of shape and skin and with the mistier realms of the inner – emotional and intellectual – life which poetry so often wants to make more specific.

In “Anatomy of Being”, a clever alphabet poem, each of the precisely delineated sections of the body is mapped as the home of a more abstract sensation – “. . . the worry forcibly exhaled by the / pyramidalis muscle; the panic placed, / quietly, in the quadrangular membrane. / Rumination held, always, in the / stomach, in its roils and rugae . . .”. And something similar happens in the book’s final poem, “Salt, Sugar” – whose title derives from the joke involved in saying “Pass me the salt, sugar”:

. . .  . .
          They didn’t stop searching until they found the sorrow,
tucked away in your thoracic viscera, the longing
distilled in the pedicle of your liver, hunger
hidden in the mitral valve of your heart . . .

And since the insides match the outsides in terms of precision it is no surprise that insides should be harnessed in the search for meaning. This is the reason for the numerous references to the various kinds of augury. What is, to most readers, a bizarre offshoot of humankind’s endless search for an ability to understand the processes of events is, in this book, something to be treated seriously, not for its lurid evocations of a magical world but as part of the way the interior is as compelling as the exterior. “Anatomy of Being” concludes “Each / zygapophysis interlocked, the process of prophecy in reverse”. That is: what holds the components of the body together fights against the processes of dismemberment which can lead to divination. “Concerning Divination” devotes itself to the issue of prediction through the flight and song of birds before concluding with the figure of Prometheus and describing his personal vulture as a haruspex

who grew weary of sectioning his liver
day after day, only to uncover
the same omen, regrown
and promptly forgotten.

I’ve focussed on this recurring image of ways of uncovering meaning from an investigation of the inside of a body but it is worth pointing out that Deo’s poems are also interested in the skin – the barrier between inner and outer. The skin too has its system of meaning most obviously in the still-surviving myths of palmistry. “Little Fists” begins by saying “The map – /made of tendons and bone shards / -written in your little fists / unfurled and vanished / when you took my hand” and “Knife Edge”, which is a good example of the principle of interpenetration (“I think I was thinking / skin should not separate us”) finishes with the blood welling up from a partner’s cut wrist “drowning / the fate lines / etched in my palm”. Finally, “Haven”, which I think is to be imagined as describing a couple faced with a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter (although that might, conceivably, be no more than an over-the-top metaphor for the decline of a perfectly conventional domestic relationship) ends with the woman describing the man’s back – “And his back, freckled / with oracular precision, the site / of more soothsaying than the stars above”.

The central section of The Agonist is highly organised and made up of a number of units – the life of a soldier, a boxer’s son, some found poems from the first line index of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry and three three-part dream poems defining words which turn out to be important in various places in the book. These “units” (a clumsy word) are allowed to interpenetrate in a way the recalls, deliberately or not, the wider theme of interpenetration. Again the emphasis is on insides and borders. The poems of the boxer’s son revolve around mangled hands and split skin. When he attacks a friend “the skin / stretched over my knuckles / split” and, thinking that his hands are split to the bone, he goes to a hospital where a nurse attends to his hands:

. . . . . 
That night I unclenched my fists
and held my hands up to the light.
I looked for the fortune in my upturned palm
but it could not tell me
how I would die.

The whole of this second section is prefaced by another, free-standing poem about boxing, “Cutman”, where the attentions of the assistant responsible for looking after cuts in the ring slide into a sexual embrace and then into dismemberment, interpenetration and finally into a kind of transposition of personality. Just as “Cutman”, related to the poems about the boxer’s son, prefaces this section, so “Tenebrae”, related to the story of the soldier, concludes it. At first the soldier’s tale seems like one of psychological rather than physical wounds but there is a good deal of the former as well when one of the poems describes a wartime attack that results in a dislocated shoulder and then goes on to describe – in the sort of precise detail I’ve been commenting on – the operation that will repair it:

You were awake when they sawed
through your humerus, popped the bone
out of the glenoid cavity, but
you could not speak. They shaved away
the coracoid process, coated the clavicle and scapula
with precious metals . . .

The final section of The Agonist includes two sequences: one a set of responses to an old text of the scouting movement, Scout Tests and How to Pass Them, and the other responses to a number of cards from the Major Arcana of the Tarot pack. In each case a set of themes seems to be reworked, almost like musical variations and the fact that they are highly organised and, at the same time, fragmentary, might point to some features in Deo’s imaginative personality. There is a high degree of fluency here together with what renaissance rhetoricians called copiousness of invention..

Charlotte Guest’s Soap contains poems, she tells us in an Afterword, written between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five and are thus a kind of document of achieving maturity. It goes on to say “While this is a book about selfhood, I hope it is not overly self-involved” and this tentativeness might be highlighted in the title with its suggestion of soap-opera. What makes it a striking first book is the way individual poems are stand-alone pieces with their own dynamic and their own stance towards the world so that feeling comfortable with one poem doesn’t mean that the next will immediately make sense. It’s also a very slim book, suggesting that it has resisted the impulse to mine late adolescence and early adulthood for material which can be transmuted into a series of poems all of which work in a similar way. This kind of book always appeals to me: its slimness isn’t a product of a constipated poetic imagination but one that produces poems not shaped by the same discursive pattern.

The diffidence about recounting personal change can be seen in “Hush, Memory” (an approachably conventional poem but possibly the best in the book) whose title is a nice variation on the title of Nabokov’s great autobiographical work. It’s about expectations and inevitable disappointments:

The lodgings at the end of girlhood
are not as advertised. I had not expected
these island features, or the grass
to whip. I wasn’t told hard rubbish
would run all month. Our doors are
red; our mirrors done over with breath.

It seems I have forgotten all I learnt
at Revolution School, and instead glide
past Neptune Pools in a car I do not own . . .

as well as recollections of a friend who “disappeared” – “Some of us didn’t make it to the lodgings / at the end of girlhood”. Modally it is entirely different from the next poem, “Baskets”, which is a comic dream poem set in a supermarket and it is certainly very different to pieces like “Picnic at the Rock” and “Hey Preacher” which are surreal prose pieces. “Hush, Memory” is balanced by a later poem, “Autobiographical Fragment” (whose title might allude to any number of texts) in which memories of celebrating a friend’s eighteenth birthday – with a ceremony involving burying a symbolic doll – are set against watching a birthday party in an opposite apartment: seeing in the “nearly-women and nearly-men” the next generation going through the same processes. The epitaph to Soap, Fay Zwicky’s “Is anyone ever ready for who exactly they are?” perfectly catches the sense of the unpredictable developments into selfhood that these poems deal with.

The virtues of both these books are, in a way, equivocal. If one wanted to be hostile to The Agonist, one could say that the effortless mining of an idea to produce series that could be almost infinitely extendable is nothing more than facility and facility ultimately is a marker of a certain superficiality. If one wanted to be hostile to Soap, one could say that the slimness of the book – the product of many years’ activity – is a sign of a sluggish creativity. I don’t think either of these objections are valid but it is difficult to judge on the basis of a single book by each author and we will have to wait until each writer has produced three or four books before being at all confident that the more positive judgement – that The Agonist is marked by a powerful poetic imagination and Soap by a system of high standards which result in poems quite unlike each other – is the correct one. In any case it is interesting to find two first books which operate in roughly the same area of subject matter and which show such opposed ways as to how the poetic faculty operates.

Alan Wearne: These Things Are Real and as editor: With the Youngsters

These Things Are Real, Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 126pp.
With the Youngsters: Group Sestinas and Group Villanelles, Flinders Lane, Vic.: Grand Parade Poets, 2017, 90pp.

Here are two books which, put together, show Wearne in three of his most important poetic roles: as maker of the best verse narratives Australia has produced, and as satirist and as teacher. Perhaps this final role should be modified slightly since With the Youngsters is not a book about how to go about teaching the writing of poetry at university level but rather an anthology of what students and their teacher have, over the years, produced when faced with the task of writing something collectively in two of the most demanding fixed forms. If anything, then, it might be more accurate to speak of Wearne in his little-commented-on role of explorer of fixed poetic forms. The big verse-narratives – The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – never seem happy to operate entirely in Wearne’s distinctive blank verse and are always ready to rise to the challenge of one of the available forms.

At any rate, of the three roles the one I value most is the verse narrative. Wearne’s two earlier extended narratives are made up of monologues and third person narratives but in the case of The Nightmarkets these are extended pieces. The Lovemakers is rather more complex narratively speaking and interweaves an immense number of shorter narratives into an enormously complex whole documenting postwar Melbourne and Sydney and exploring the relationship between sex and politics, the media and drug cultures: a kind of postwar Australian Comédie Humaine. The shorter narratives in Wearne’s previous book, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, and the five that make up the first section of this book can be seen as either distillations of the longer ones or as examples of the kind of stories which could, imaginably, be woven into something ambitious and thematically wide-ranging, like The Lovemakers.

In These Things Are Real, the five narratives make up a section the size of a conventional book and though the satires, grouped together as “The Sarsaparilla Writer’s Centre”, run to fifty pages, it’s hard not to see them as little more than a light addendum to the book’s narrative core. I’ll have more to say about “The Sarsaparilla Writer’s Centre” later, but, for the moment, I want to focus on the first part of the book which is where Wearne’s genius is to be found. Though they are in no way interlinked, they do have thematic and structural resonances. Two, for example, could be said to be about varieties of violence – domestic and drug-culture – while another two explore the way individuals born in one cultural environment are forced, as they age, to accommodate newer times and the judgements those times pass on the culture of the past: a pregnant theme which Wearne deals with brilliantly.

And then there is “They Came to Moorabbin”, which is placed first. I think it is the subtlest of them and contains a relationship (between Keith and Nance) which is very complex and quite challenging. The characters are born in the twenties (and thus presumably belong to Wearne’s parents’ generation) and inherit the postwar boom years. It’s a period we have met in The Nightmarkets when the narrative steps back from the immediate issue of politics and prostitution and looks at the parents of the politician, Jack McTaggart, in a long monologue in which his mother, Elise, recalls her life with his father, John, one of Menzies’ postwar, ex-military ministers. One way of looking at “They Came to Moorabbin” might be in the light of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier which is built on the relationships between two couples who form a friendship after bumping into each other at a spa: it’s just that in “They Came to Moorabbin”, one of the four is already dead. Iris, an AWAS cypher clerk, marries Keith, a soldier opinionated enough to have extensive, but ultimately limited plans for their postwar future. At Half-Moon Bay, a decade or so after the end of the war, she runs into Nance, whom she had known in the war, who married a major later to become a diplomat after the war (serving in Wellington, Edinburgh and then Cape Town). When he discovered he was dying, he bought a house for his future widow and four children in Moorabbin – Mars as Nance calls it. The core of the poem explores the relationships between Nance and Iris and Keith (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, between Nance and her dead husband). Keith constantly breezes in to Nance’s place doing her tax for her. He seems an embodiment of Australian littleness and the poem suggests that he perfectly represents one aspect of his period while Tony (the diplomat) represents a more ambitious, disciplined, outwardly focussed component of fifties Australia. At any rate it’s a non-love affair and when Nance breaks with Keith it is over his treatment of Iris who bears the brunt of his opinionated whining. Ultimately she isn’t prepared to sacrifice her friendship and stands by Iris in a kind of unspoken woman-to-woman loyalty. Intriguingly, the poem doesn’t stop at the moment that the relationship breaks down (though it is more a slow drifting apart than a melodramatic “scene”) but continues into the future. I don’t think that Wearne often does this: usually the future is suggested at the conclusion of his narratives, a vista, good or bad, predicated on the characters he has been dealing with. The end of “They Came to Moorabbin” is especially bleak: Iris dies, Keith absconds with “some ageing bowling club girlfriend / nobody guessed he had” and we last see Nance, a chain-smoker and drinker “tubed-up for emphysema, a granny in a granny flat, / out the back of her daughter’s”.

Since Keith’s treatment of Iris is a kind of low-level sniping that can conceivably be put under the umbrella of domestic violence, there is a thematic connection between “They Came to Moorabbin” and “Anger Management: A South Coast Tale” which chronicles the relationship between a single mother and an itinerant busker, a “burly, stubbly muso in his thirties”. Whereas the anticipated affair between Nance and Keith never happens, here the anticipated violent outbursts do and, as a result, this is a less subtle poem but still a ruthlessly forensic one:

This could’ve worked except he’s sick 
and stupid. Once is a shock,
twice you’re a failure, but three times
that’s a pattern and three times mate,
matey, sport and Sonny Jim you’re out . . .

“Mixed Business” where violence might be seen as a context seems like an addendum to the world of drug dealing which forms such an important part of The Lovemakers. Its central character is an ex-teacher with a habit and a divorce, living alone on a pension. His dealer, together with his pack, all of whom might be described in terms from Wearne’s earlier “The Vanity of Australian Wishes” as “lulus”, murders a thirteen-year old junior pusher and the central character, together with Bob, a friend from his teaching days, goes to witness the sentencing. The structure of the piece is designed to place the protagonist in between the two visions of the future that his world seems to offer him: a solid, trustworthy sobriety (the kind of person who “never let his parents down”) that part of him wants to access and the incipiently insane world of the user become pusher. Interestingly, whereas the other four narratives cover an extended period of time, so that we can watch the character’s developments or the developing relationship between their character and the rapidly changing one of their society, “Mixed Business” is compressed into three years. It could be because the drug user’s world simply operates at a more frenetic pace or it could be because this is a poem that wants to portray a pendulum-like stasis.

The other two narratives, “Memoirs of a Ceb” and “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” are portraits of two characters, a man and a woman, both of whom are gay. The first focusses on the character’s love life while the second focusses on the character’s activist history, shaken apart by an affair with a French girl, begun at school age and leading to her rejection when, rather like the central character of Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, she makes a pilgrimage to Europe to renew the relationship only to be snubbed by someone who has changed with the times:

. . . . . 
                            Shy, arrogant girls,
hadn’t we kept each other’s photographs
“Moi sur Les Barricades”, “Me and my Collective”?
Maybe. But what hers had hardly shown
was all the ground she’d filled, she’d travelled,
which wasn’t I knew mere breasts and a boyfriend.
Much worse she couldn’t, wouldn’t announce
Don’t you understand, we’re hardly like that now!
. . . . . 
     Then catching this right-through-me look of hers
I knew what she was seeing Here’s that Australiene again
(some place like that) a pest from my past . . .

Eventually she is rescued from pneumonia by the very forces of middle-class parental conservatism and care that her activism is opposed to. Wearne has a history of being fairly gentle with the activists he portrays and there is something more than merely contemptible about this character who finds that, though she feels free to reject whom she wants, she still has to suffer rejection herself. Times and activist targets change (she moves from a leftist anti-imperialist position to a feminist one as she ages) but so does love: it isn’t the central out-of-time experience that she took it for.

“Memoirs of a Ceb” follows the life of conventional character, Peter, from his adolescence – where he has his “Brokeback Mountain” moment – to a stable adult career (as engineer) and a stable adult relationship with Cameron. Interestingly the meaning of the acronym (a member of the Church of England Boy’s Association) is only explained late in the poem and thus acts as a kind of nagging reminder to the reader that we are dealing with different tempores and different mores. Also interestingly, Wearne chooses to take his narrative, which is structured as a row of decade spaced glimpses, into the near present (2006) when Cameron is waiting to die in a hospice. I think the reason for this is that Peter’s broad perspective on his own life is that it isn’t the discovery of his homosexuality which is the core event of his life but the framing, accepting and accommodating of this. And this is done when, as an adolescent, he meets another member of the congregation, a doctor, who recommends him to a counsellor he knows:

     “I’m Bev,” she announced. “I gather Bob Dalzeil
said how you would never change
and why should you?” Bob told correct . . .

The initial meeting with Dalzeil is brilliantly done – Peter finds him dancing in a conga-line of little kids on his daughter’s eighth birthday – and reminds us how good a conventional story-teller Wearne is, but the point of the entire poem, I think, is that the meeting with Dalziel is more important than the meeting with the first lover (a bodgie met on an “Outreach” mission). When, at the end, a friend asks what would have happened if he hadn’t gone, he says, “I’d have got married, had children, cruised / and spent a life sensing there was something . . . incorrect”.

One feature which “Memoirs of a Ceb” and “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” share is the incorporation of some verse in Wearne’s comic mode. In the former it is the acerbic Cameron who at a holiday house with mutual friends disappears to produce a set of couplets about lesbian Catholic schoolgirls. More importantly, “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” concludes with a comic piece –

. . . . . 
Some played Dylan, some played Ochs,
     And others Cheech and Chong.
Whilst some just played at (said their folks)
     Waitin’ for the Viet Cong . . . 

It’s a very odd thing to do but is probably a healthy antidote to my tendency to see these narratives as luminous, extremely subtle portraits of people defined by time and place. It’s a kind of sophisticated doggerel – if that’s a tenable oxymoron – and it may be an important feature of Wearne’s style, telling us that there are other ways of looking at this material. It’s worth remembering that something similar happens near the end of The Lovemakers where the otherwise very serious relationship between Neil and Barb finishes up as a set of quatrains full of excruciating rhymes on “Tullamarine”.

This makes a serendipitous segues to the second part of the These Things Are Real, “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre”, because the satirical pieces there are full of “sophisticated doggerel”. As its title suggests the targets are mainly fellow poets though there are political (and religious) attacks later on. There are also some very genial ballades: one addressed to Alan Gould and celebrating the Christian name they share and another celebrating Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s reaching his eightieth year. And there are also some wonderful, gently satirical prose dreams: I especially like the one in which Alvaro de Campos (speaking with a Scots accent) claims that Pessoa is one of his heteronyms rather than the reverse: “Since he has spent time in Glasgow I ask him his opinion of Robbie Burns. I am told that Burns too is one of his heteronyms”.

Someday someone will write about the satirical element in Wearne’s poetry, beginning, perhaps, with especially important ones like “The Vanity of Australian Wishes”. It’s a complicated issue. The conventional definition – that satire is the ridiculing of human vices and follies – is fine as far as it goes but it forces us to ask: who decides whether something is a vice or a failing to be pitied? What right does a poet have to set him- or herself up as a judge of such matters and whom does the poet represent? This is a twenty-first century Australian question, perhaps, rather than second century Roman or eighteenth century English or French one. Under this spotlight, the least equivocal vices and follies are those which contain some inherent contradiction – such as hypocrisy – since there the failing is independent of any viewer’s judgement: it’s a mathematical issue rather than a morally determined one. But even hypocrisy could, conceivably, be judged more sympathetically as a frightened, willed blindness.

There is a very interesting essay by David Foster on satire which, though I’m not sure I agree with it, has stayed in the back of my mind since I first read it in his collection Studs and Nogs more than a dozen years ago. He divides satirists up into two classes: the “toothless” – those “willing to wound yet afraid to strike” – and the “biting” who, in Foster’s terms, are the true satirists, the desperate wounded fighters. Fair enough, but the intriguing element is the recognition that the latter are damaged and that the satire arises out of a personal wound. It’s an interesting position because, in a single step, it renders the question, “What gives anyone the right to set themselves up as an arbiter of acceptable behaviour?” irrelevant. It establishes, for the writer, a stake in the issue.

Wearne, in the light of this essay, wouldn’t appear to be a satirist at all. Partly because there’s often a kind of loving intimacy, born of curiosity, between him and his more extreme characters taken from the media, sporting and drug worlds (there’s not much room for curiosity in Foster’s sense of an extreme satirist) and partly because many of the poems in “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre” come into the category of sharp epigrams (Martial gets excluded from being a satirist in Foster’s classification). But one couplet might well come out of the kind of wounded outrage that Foster requires. A couplet about the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize for poetry says: “What you see is what you get: / Runner-up to Lily Brett”.

Whatever distress may or may not be hidden behind Wearne’s satires, With the Youngsters is a celebration, a celebration of collective verse-making. It collects twenty-three sestinas and twenty-two villanelles made by writing students mainly at the University of Wollongong as part of Wearne’s poetry classes. Wearne’s “Afterword” describes how the sestina exercise was set up. Each student provides three words, the words are collected and then an outsider is roped in to draw six of them from a bag. This six, in the order drawn, will form the last words of the first stanza. The remaining stanzas can have their last words laid out in the correct sestina pattern and then each sub-group within the class is given the task of writing one stanza. It sounds a lot of fun, especially as the emphasis is on playing with and bending the rules: none of the resulting poems are at all solemn accomplishments.

One’s immediate impression is that Wearne’s method of eliciting the final words – “From you I’ll have a colour, a piece of fruit and something associated with your home . . . from you a verb ending in ing, a movie star and an adverb . . .” – isn’t designed to make a difficult form any easier. Pound, speaking as a war-hungry Bertran de Born in “Sestina: Altaforte”, could choose “peace”, “music”, “clash”, “opposing”, “crimson” and “rejoicing” which doesn’t pose any insuperable problems, but you feel sorry for the class that were stuck with “taa”, “inoculate”, “seventeen”, “wallowing”, “reckon” and “Nazism or for those who got “Bryan Cranston”, “eating”, “bracelet”, “android”, “starry night” and “blimp”. Still, presumably the difficulty is part of the fun. You get an interesting result in a poem like “Marilyn Sestina” where five of the words chosen are reasonably easy to accommodate into what might have been a perfectly conventional poem (“Monroe”, “jumper”, “blues”, “net” and “Rio Bravo”) but one, “water polo”, is extremely resistant and brings a necessary surreal touch to the finished poem.

The villanelle exercise is a little different but allows students to choose lines from other student poems which they think might survive the constant repetitions of that form. I think the results are not quite as satisfying as the sestina exercises. It may be that I’m prejudiced against the villanelle with its oh-so-obvious syntactic variations to accommodate its repetitions but I think it’s a little more significant than this. The villanelle has always seemed a closed form. Its repeated lines are separated by a single line at the beginning but appear together at the end. This gives a sense of it spiralling inwards towards its conclusion. It’s good in that it always provides a sense of an ending but limiting in that it always feels the same. The sestina, despite its rigid rules, seems much more open: it spins out into meanings but always touches base with the form at the beginning of each stanza which has to repeat the word at the end of the previous stanza (surely the most difficult issue of both these forms is to bring that off without drawing attention to it). To lapse into metaphor for a moment: if a villanelle is like a (usually blunt) arrowhead, the sestina is like an unpredictable balloon, ready to set off in unusual directions and only held back by its six repeated words which come together to make a kind of provisional knot in the final three line stanza.

At any rate, With the Youngsters is the kind of book that will be important when criticism finally begins to come to grips with the issues involved in the professional teaching of the act of writing poetry at tertiary level. It is a tribute (or a slightly quirky monument) to Wearne’s impressive achievements in the field. But it also has a profounder connection with Wearne’s own poetry because he has always been an explorer of fixed forms. There are Meredithian sonnets and syllabic count poems in The Nightmarkets and both sestinas and villanelles in The Lovemakers. The villanelles are brilliant in that book because they are spoken by a defence counsel and thus the dramatic situation supports the repetitive nature of the form. The sestinas in the “Making the World Revolve” section of The Lovemakers are brilliant and brilliantly daring in the way they play with the form: dividing it in half, assigning the final three lines to be the opening of a new poem, and so on.

With the Youngsters and both sections of These Things Are Real are prefaced by a large number of quotations. The result isn’t pompous since many of these are whimsical but my favourite is the comment made by Shostakovich to his (then) student, the serialist Sofia Gubaidulina, at his retirement party: “I wish you to continue on your mistaken path”. It would be a good motto to have inscribed on buildings where Creative Writing is taught.

John Kinsella: On the Outskirts

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2017, 123pp.

For readers daunted by the sheer size of John Kinsella’s poetic output (not to mention the at-least-superficially unappetising “experimental” books, beginning with Syzygy and finishing up with the recent publication of a three volume collected Graphology series) this new volume probably provides a welcoming introduction. If you want to get exposed to the hyperactive Kinsella poetic world, On the Outskirts (together with the earlier Jam Tree Gully) can be recommended as a good place to start. Most of the distinctive Kinsella obsessions are there but the poems themselves work in ways that will be familiar to most readers of contemporary poetry.

The title itself is suggestive given the degree to which Kinsella’s attention has been devoted to a block of land in Western Australia, at first five acres below Mt Bakewell (Walwalinj) and later a plot at Jam Tree Gully. The poems of this new book derive from a period spent in Tübingen and some are set in the south west of Ireland. It’s tempting to think of the title as a humorous inversion of the Australian cultural cringe whereby what was once one of the centres of Western intellectual culture, the home of Hölderlin among many others, is reduced to being an outpost of Western Australia. Actually the situation is considerably more complex than that and readers of Kinsella’s other books will remember that the interaction between being ”at home” and being “away” is a complex one. Being in Europe, as he says in one of the prose pieces that make up Auto, “will only make me look closer at what’s here. The further you move away, the closer you get.” And many of the early poems of Firebreaks, which is something of a lengthy addendum to Jam Tree Gully, explore a sense of exile in England. The third poem of On the Outskirts, which begins “I can only be here – there’s nowhere else / I can be at present”, is an extended meditation on what belonging and inhabiting mean, especially in the case of imaginative inhabiting:

I am not of here and a few months (un)mapping
won’t make it so. But I am building a mental
picture, a lyrical self winding out into histories

I can’t grasp, don’t want to mark me. They have.
It’s not contained. I was here when a child
playing medieval knights with the boy

from primary school with “gigantism”.
And at other times. I am temporary
in the wheatbelt . . .

That “(un)mapping” recurs in a later poem in which, walking through rural Ireland and being met by vaguely suspicious locals, he comments, “Been in the village on & off // for three years now . . . . . I am back to fit it all together, this bits ‘n’ pieces (un)belonging”.

One feature will prove unusual for beginners. Kinsella has a tendency to involve (in complex ways that I’ll speak about a little later) other texts at a conceptual level. Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography (a 2008 book also published by the University of Queensland Press) worked its way through Dante, re-arranging the order of the three books as it dealt with life in the West Australian wheatbelt. The New Arcadia “took off” from Sidney’s text and Jam Tree Gully from Thoreau. On the Outskirts begins each poem with a reference not to the Commedia itself but to Blake’s set of illustrations made in preparation for a series of engravings and uncompleted at his death. As you get to know the poems better, it’s natural to explore the interaction between poem and its illustration.

I’ll begin by looking at a poem that appears about a third of the way through the book. It is set, like most of the poems here, in Germany, and deals with the Swabian Fasnet processions. Its illustration is of Blake’s sketch of Dante and Virgil, in Canto XX of Inferno, looking down at the pit of the false prophets and soothsayers whose bodies are twisted at the neck so that they can only look backwards. This is one of Dante’s ironic punishments where the mechanism of retribution says to these sinners: “As you spent your lives thinking you could look ahead, so in Hell you’ll always look backwards”:

Witches with heads on their backs
fixating on those marching behind,
luring them on up into the Old Town.

Old Wehrmacht helmets with horns,
skin-greaves and hooves, the fools
march without giving way. The guilds

ply their trades. When the Duke
banned “pagan mischief” he held back
an outburst that has students festooned

with fox furs, heads lolling, to band
together and shout-sing, “Sieg Heil”.
That’s what’s frightening. Not the witches.
. . . . .
I saw Manto with green hair. She was gasping
for air, her Geiger counter in the red. Those clustered
around her hooted and shouted, driven to a frenzy

by her example of a good time. The fate of a war prize.
Sealed in a room I can hear their ranting. For the fools,
those outside the club are aliens, even enemies.

Malevolence always knows this future. But the sheer
pleasure of letting loose, of indulging fat beneath skins,
brings a smile to children’s faces. Who begrudges?

Many cigar-ends smoulder on the snow-melt streets.
Visitors feel they are having an authentic Swabian experience.
This is culture. The bells can be deafening on Sunday.
              Look forward, not back?

The Fasnet processions are one of those Carnival/Lords of Misrule events that occur in many cultures. It’s an immensely complex subject (about which I’m fairly ignorant