Shevaun Cooley: Homing

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 108pp.

At an initial glance, almost everything about Shevaun Cooley’s first book, Homing, suggests the programmatic. It’s so highly organised, from its division into two locations (each introduced by its co-ordinates) to its poem titles (all derived from the poems of R.S Thomas) that it is hard not to expect it to be rationalised as something like “a series of studies in the phenomenon of being at, and getting, home”. The problem with a “series of studies” is that it suggests poems being written to fill out a frame rather than being written because they have to be. It also suggests a project that can be justified in an application for a grant or admission into a Creative Writing degree. And usually the core of the program, the area of interest, is quite specific and thus slightly simplified, perhaps even conceived extra-poetically. It’s a relief to find that Homing is actually a much more difficult book than it looks on the surface. My sense, though it is no more than a reader’s guess, is that the programmatic element arrived at a fairly late stage as a way of giving the book a sense of unity. The poems, taken in themselves, are, in other words, a little more open and resistant to simplification than one might initially think.

But, to explore the programmatic elements a little further. The book comprises two main sections with a group of three ghazals with nicely alliterative titles (“Grain”, “Ground”, “Grasp”) dividing them. Each of the two main sections is introduced by the geographical co-ordinates of a location which turns out – after a little, not-too-difficult detective work on Google Earth – to be an islands. Each of these is off a fairly remote coast, one in the southern and the other in the northern hemisphere. The first is the island of St Alouarn off the south-western coast of Western Australia and the second the island of Bardsey (probably early English or Old Norse for “the island of Bard” rather than anything to do with poets, Welsh or English) known in Welsh as Ynys Elli (The Island of the Tidal-Race). I think we are supposed to imagine these islands as sites for an imaginary lighthouse or homing beacon because they don’t figure very strongly in the poems themselves although the areas which are jumping-off points for the islands (the area inland from Cape Leeuwin in south-west Western Australia, and Snowdonia and the Llyn Peninsula in Wales) are the places in which many of the poems are set.

Having said this, it’s worth pointing out that there is one poem in each section which deals with travelling to that section’s emblematic island. In “There is an island there is no going to”, the sun has set behind hills in the west but out to sea, St Alouarn’s Island (its name, as exotic as that of its northern hemisphere counterpart, derives from its eighteenth century French discoverer) remains brightly sunlit. Any temptation to see this as some kind of epiphanic moment of illumination, though, is stoutly resisted:

. . . . . 
I mean – a wingspan of darkness has come in
over this corner of land. But the island stays alight, out
to the south-east. A deep-buried ember that never gutters entirely,
it flares up like the bronchial longing I can’t shift
from my chest.

It means – it’s maybe a curse. Island’s full
of rabbits and snakes, old Sam Griffith said, when I asked
what he’d found there. It’s too hard to make landfall.
You have to go to the side you’ve never seen. It’s best in a flat-
bottomed scow, but no-one can make the crossing
in one of those . . .

So the desire to arrive here is as much a curse as anything and the island’s grotty ecology reflects its unbenevolent nature. Of course it could be that the homing instinct is itself a curse, something capable of turning an innocent island into somewhere maleficent. It’s also, interestingly, unreachable – if you can cross you can’t land: if you can land you can’t cross. In the northern hemisphere (in the later poem, “Ran with a dark current”), things are a little more promising. There is still a preoccupation with how you approach sacred ground:

. . . . .
                Monks who came here first ghosted
the currents in boats of ox-hide. They knew a deep keel is
more quickly grasped, and dragged . . .

but there is a strong suggestion that something sacred in the island (the graves of the monks, for example, which provide the island’s alternative name “Island of 20,000 Saints”) makes it a place that promises something intangible but powerful:

. . . . .
                             You think you could stay here
and lose the names of everything, even yourself – and the price

would be to find the deepest intimacy with something
you couldn’t speak. Just lichens under hand. The mumbled
bee, the hushed sea, the seal’s melancholic howl coursing

the channel . . .

Although the visit is a short one (“But you won’t stay”), it’s still a poem with some degree of optimism: “We’ll / likely have a good summer, says the skipper. You can tell, / when the kittiwake dares to nest so low in the cliffs.”

Another programmatic element is the way in which each of the poems’ titles is derived from a different poem by R.S. Thomas. As I’ve said, my suspicion is that this was something done “after the fact” – that is, the book isn’t a rather over-planned exercise in writing poems with provided titles as take-off points but is a collection of poems whose original titles have been discarded and replaced by something that has, at least, some sort of unifying effect. Thomas may be the iconic modern anglophone poet of Wales but his poetry is a long way distant from Shevaun Cooley’s. An unnervingly eccentric man, even by the more relaxed standards applied to poets and other creative types, he was an Anglican minister for the whole of his working life, servicing minor parishes in rural Wales. His poetry moves from celebrating (in a very bleak register) the glum members of his flock to bleak poems of meditation on his absent god. Later in life a degree of Welsh nationalism emerged and he attacked both “the machine” of modern life and the hordes of post-war English visitors who ruined the Welsh economy by outbidding the locals and buying up incredibly cheap (by English financial; standards) houses as holiday homes. (As someone who spent his childhood holidays in Snowdonia in the 1950s, I always get a twinge of guilt when I read these poems, but I console myself with the fact that my parents were nearly as poor as Thomas’s Welsh and that our holidays were spent in tents on camping grounds rather than in comfortable second homes.)

My initial sense is that Cooley’s poems don’t have a profoundly important engagement with Thomas’s: he is, in other words, a fellow-traveller or iconic mentor rather than a generative principle. The first of the poems I’ve looked at, “There is an island there is no going to” takes its title from “Pilgrimages” the first poem of Thomas’s 1981 collection, Between Here and Now. Thomas’s poem recounts a trip to Bardsey (he was briefly chairman of the island’s council in 1978-9) and contrasts the modern, metaphorical pilgrims with those of the medieval past (for whom three pilgrimages to Bardsey was the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Rome). It’s opening lines focus, like Cooley’s two poems, on the kinds of boats one might use to land on the island –

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned –

but taking her title as the entire first line and ignoring the enjambed “to but in a small boat” gives her a perfect title for the paradox of the attempt to land on St Alouarn’s Island. Another poem, “About mountains it is useless to argue” derives its title from Thomas’s poem, “Alpine”, but rather as in the case of the previous poem, it plays with the title’s meaning so that “about” is taken to mean “in the presence of” as well as “on the subject of” (the same play is made with the same word, “about” in “Trees are about you”). At any rate, while “Alpine” is a fairly frosty short poem about doing things half-heartedly, Cooley’s poem is about the tension between the arguing of a bickering couple and the geological perspectives of the Welsh mountains:

. . . . . 
                  As we too could rest,
and no longer bicker – but the clefts

and corries were sluiced by glaciers
in a thousand-centuries hurry, and we

can’t bear to think it, can’t even watch
the clock hand ratchet through another minute.

Finally in this random sampling of titles, one might look at “I was no tree walking” which takes its title from the first line of Thomas’s “A Thicket in LLeyn”. Thomas’s poem is a meditation that occurs while pursuing his hobby of bird watching. It concludes with the injunction to himself that, since the mind in meditation always migrates (like the birds it has been observing) it should take as its navigational markers the “spray from the fountain / of the imagination”. Cooley’s poem puts together Hölderlin (and his woodworking host during his madness) with David Nash’s sculpted wooden boulder which – in a more than relevant art experiment – was released over a waterfall and allowed to “home” in its own way, having its progress documented: when it disappears it is, as its creator says, not lost but “just / somewhere else”. True, it also includes material about the poet’s own seeking for a right way which will produce poetry when “your body becomes a tuning fork” and this does accord with the last part of Thomas’s poem. But, all in all, I have the sense, as I have said, that these poems (at least the ones I have looked at) don’t engage really intimately with Thomas’s work. I might well be wrong though, and it would be an interesting critical task (for someone with patience and time) to put each of Cooley’s poems next to the Thomas poem from which it draws its title and to try to describe what the exact relationship is.

Despite all my concerns about whether this is a planned book or one whose poems have arisen and then been subjected to varied attempts to unify it, this remains a complex book about the subject of its title: “homing”. It is a book whose poems concentrate on currents and flow – in water and in the sky. And between these two is the surface of the world: the key word in the poems may well be “grain” which is the current of matter inside timber as well as a word used, in its adjectival form, to describe light. It’s also important to go “with the grain” rather than against it – a direction that produces nothing but profitless exhaustion.

Also inhabiting the surface of the world are the animals, and there is a strong interest in animal life and the way animals – blackbirds, petrel, deer, foxes, weasels, false killer whales (but blessedly not pigeons) – navigate their way through their own lives according to patterns that other species like humans find difficult to sense. Two poems deal with the famous beaching of a large number of false killer whales on Flinders Beach in 1986. Cooley begins with an attempt to see the beaching from the lead whale’s point of view:

To be the first of them:
coming up from the twilit plain,
upswelling to the shallows – the draft
of your keel growing less; to rise

though you don’t yet
know why, hauling in on the bitter
end until you hit air hard as granite,
the concrete winter light;

to be beneaped then, and bent;
for the first time to feel the utter weight
of yourself . . .

For the whales, the elements are inverted so that air and light are hard as concrete and granite. The poem’s last stanza repeats the interest in being “the first of them” but switches species to consider the first of the humans who came across the whales. The concern of one species for another is celebrated in the second poem about the beachings, “I have let her ashes down in me like an anchor”. Here, one of the rescuers is reaching the end their life and the act of saving the whales is remembered, but the poem is really about the history of using whales as a source of oil:

. . . . . 
Your father used to light
lamps on the bridges over the Swan River,
whistling quietly as he set the wicks
to burning. Even then, they used
natural gas.

We had forgotten
almost entirely how the bodies
we soothed to stillness on the shore
held a secret of
combustibility –

And they didn’t burn, or light up
our tired faces, but were ushered
back out to sea.

Although, superficially the switch from animal derived oils to natural gas can be celebrated as an improvement, I think the real point here is made metaphorically: we shouldn’t expect animals to be the source of our spiritual illumination, providers of epiphanies when we cross the path of a fox or deer. In fact the poems which mention foxes and a weasel, tend to focus on the fiery redness of the animals (the deer in “I have no name for today but itself” may well be a red deer too). The weasel of a fine poem, “In the hushed meadows the weasel” is nothing more than a brief flaring of the world, “less / than a reddish passing, some deadly surprise / that sinuates sometimes through each of us”. The fox, encountered on the road in the first of the five sections that make up “Meadows empty of him, animal eyes, impersonal as glass” detects (as I read it) the “predatory” desire of the poet to make it part of herself, to reduce it to a powerful personal experience, and intuiting that “my knowing of it will be the worst / of all deaths” it “skips / sideways / from the path”.

The poems of this book seem to be saying that a simple model of epiphanic illumination, inspired by the animals of the natural world or by momentary configurations of light and current is inadequate. What the poems propose, I think, is that we should go through life as purposefully as possible, looking for markers that might help us in our ad hoc navigation. This is certainly the tone of the first poem of the book. Its title – “Without catching a thing I was not far from the truth” – is particularly revealing after a few readings. The poem is an extended description of an Easter road trip (Easter being another marker of the conventional transcendent and something that raises the suspicion that this might have been conceived as a mini-Commedia) and allows plenty of the poet’s affective life in – there is a lot of bickering to counter the implicitly symbolic movements through landscape (both across plains but also climbing up into mountains). It’s also a poem haunted by death and the realisation that “I write poems for dead / friends. This seems now to be some kind / of terrible error”. I take this, together with the later realisation that in the abundant roadkill “death / rides the edges” of the road to be a fear that the navigational markers the poet is trying to read might be either wrong ones or ones which will have some impact on the lives of her friends. At any rate, the idea of being sensitive to intimations not of immortality but of the knowledge that a chosen path is a correct one, is clearly spelled out in the description of the road at the end of the poem:

Back to driving this road. It is dead
straight, but undulating. Ahead

the bitumen is interrupted
by patches of uncorrupted light.

Brief moments when we’re caught
in the light, then as quickly, we’re out

of it . . .

It may be a “dead” straight road but it’s not without signals.

[I’m going to take my annual break this month. I hope to be on deck with a review on 1st August.]

Luke Fischer: A Personal History of Vision

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 100pp.

The first section of this, Luke Fischer’s second book, is called “Retrospect” and begins, significantly, with a poem in which the author looks backwards.

The setting is a gallery and the object seen is a head of Zeus:
Turning to see
if you’ve missed anything
in a quiet room in the gallery,
you’re startled by a marble head . . .

But what follows is not so much a description of the head (although it is that) as an unusual move in which the head seems to expand to suitably cosmic dimensions:

His locks are swirling cumulus; the curls
of his beard, entangled waves
whisked by winds. The dome of his skull,
the perfect ceiling above the clouds
from where he looks down at this tumult.
His wide cheeks hold the atmosphere.
Slightly unsealed, his lips are pregnant
with the pre-storm stillness, electrified air;
while his eyes sharpen on a toy ship
rocking unawares – in an instant

Disoriented, as ever, at the beginning of a new book of poetry, the reader (well, this reader) isn’t entirely sure what kind of shift has happened here. Either the head has expanded to fulfil the requirements of the god which it portrays or the poet’s imagination has expanded – liberated or prompted by the statue – into a more cosmic perspective. It’s ultimately a matter of whether the power driving the expansion is divine or human. At any rate, this idea of retrospect as a physical turning backwards is complemented by poems which exploit the word in its more usual, temporal aspect. In “Rain and Memories”, for example, the rain prompts a series of memories of childhood including one in which, interestingly, learning about the various Norse gods enables those gods momentarily to enter the contemporary world and wreak havoc in a schoolground,

. . . . . 
and one recess, as though a stormcloud had migrated

from the legend into our minds, we all turned
on each other, wrestled, threw stones -
girls and boys were injured, in tears.

Not spirits whom one wants to invoke casually, any more than one does Zeus. And later in the book, memories recur which are not of childhood experiences like this but of lost friends and mentors – elegies in other words, another kind of retrospection.

A Personal History of Vision could be read as something of an anatomy of seeing, a mode perhaps fitting for a Rilke scholar. There is a fascination, for example, with what is sensed at the edge of vision. A poem about the “Annunciation” of Fra Angelico focusses on the odd sight lines of angel and Madonna commenting that “Her vision reaches beyond the normal boundary / of the human mind”. And though this seems merely one of the portals towards transcendence, other poems in the book worry about the balances involved here. Much is contained in the idea of “double vision” which can be taken to mean the simultaneous apprehension of both the mundane and non-mundane (ranging from metaphoric and symbolic to divine) aspects of any phenomenon but which comes out as a little more complex in a poem with that title. Here various different experiences of double vision are recorded: the poet’s wife and a friend, met in a local café, are suddenly Isis and Osiris, weighers of the soul; a new environment has an odd familiarity; an unreligious self finds intimations of the divine; tiny petals twirl like dervishes and seem to mimic galaxies; and a poetry reading merges with an initiation into one of the ancient Greek mystery cults. Whatever the exact pathology of this kind of seeing – it seems related to synaesthesia where normally separated paths of interpretation get connected somehow – these are experienced as welcome “openings-out”: “Though you’re unable to explain / these double visions, in the long interims / the world feels confined”.

“Double Vision” in followed in the book by “The Novice” which emphasises the fragmentary nature of these moments of double seeing, calling them “Luminous fragments, crumbs / from the gods” a description which seems to accede to the idea that revelation from above is what makes it all work rather than the active achievement of a kind of seeing on the part of the observer. And later on there is a poem, “In Wait”, which is a kind of wry gloss on Rilke’s first “Duino Elegy”:

We know that if the great poem comes
it will come like an eagle riding a gale
while the gulls, sparrows, finches
hide in whatever shelter they can find . . .

finishing with the author’s failed attempts to get much more than fragments of the great moment of revelation:

            For days, perhaps years,
we’ll return to the manuscript
held in a desk’s top drawer.
This thought comes to light -
it’s been lingering in my shadow
for some time – as I sit at the end 
of a jetty on a quiet lake, put
down a book, and a few ducks
approach, expecting crumbs.

That is, the ducks expect crumbs from the poet as the poet expects crumbs from the angels of inspiration.

The issue of seeing, in the poems of A Personal History of Vision, isn’t completely exhausted by topics like retrospectivity, seeing beyond boundaries, and experiencing moments of double insight. Many of the poems, for example, are about “seeing” landscape, and the landscapes seen range from the mountains of the European Alps – home of the German sublime – to the homelier vistas of Australian beaches. The former group are interesting because they seem to require a different sort of focus to that even gaze into the middle distance that Australians are supposed to have bred into them. And in the spectacular scenery of the mountains above Lac Leman (in “Translation” and “Horizon of the Alps (K)”) where there is a kind of double vision in that the mountains are reflected in the lake, a quite different sort of vision is required. In the former, there is a drive towards interpretation which imagines the skyline to be a seismograph – “I follow the grooves / like the needle of a phonograph, / attempting to translate / feeling’s contours”. In the second, which begins with the remark that the mountains are “Always at the boundary of vision, of thought / even when we look the other way”, a series of metaphors are thrown at them in an attempt to define their unyielding solidity, almost by accretion:

. . . . . 
Frozen tsunamis, primeval modernists
their abstraction rises above the lake and
its scattered sails – white chips in blue paint - 
above the foothills’ sprawl of villages, the tangle
of forests and human lives, above emotion.

Resembling a heterodox order of monks
great mathematicians . . . 
. . . . .
Still epics, skeletons of mythic creatures, crystal skulls
pure forms, the moral law, metalogic, consonants
isolated from vowels . . .

The metaphors here move in a number of directions. One – the idea that the mountains are figurations of the stones that make them up, leads towards a poem like “Stones” from later in the book which derives a lot of its ideas (as the notes explain) from Heidegger’s meditation on stones – objects which when broken open reveal nothing. Thus the mountains are stones writ large. The second – that the mountains are like pure abstractions – leads towards a poem like “Power Tower” where the power lines are held up by a kind of abstract human being: “A man of steel, / with its head and arms / it holds up thirteen power lines”. This particular abstraction has, unlike the non-communicating mountains of the Alps, a sinister quality though, recalling a stormy Sumerian mythology:

. . . . . 
Perfect copies, bodybuilders posing for a mirror,
their iron fists suspend the weight of wires,
whose arcs, inverted rainbows, have harnessed
lightning. Up close, the clenched hands resemble
bulls’ testicles – hunting trophies
won from Adad.

And then there are the birds, an irresistible subject in a poetry that tends to focus upwards towards the sky and the mountains, rather than parallel to the ground (in a focus on the social activity of humans). Birds were a major subject in Fischer’s first book and they appear here, inhabitants of the middle heights: the crowd at the beach in “Sunday” simply never sees the goshawk which hovers high above them. And birds have intimations of the divine, not least because they seem, if looked at with “double vision”, to be prefigurings, or metaphors, of angels – the beings which mediate between the upper, divine world and the lower depths of the ordinary. So it’s probably no coincidence that in “Annunciation” the archangel tasked with delivering the good news has “parrot-feathered wings” or that the Christ child in “Madonna of the Goldfinch”, looking as he does not at John the Baptist but “past his appearance / into another space”, should have this interaction take place over a goldfinch.

All of this description thus far probably makes Fischer look like a poet obsessed by a group of essentially philosophical issues, especially those relating to how we apprehend the world (seeing) and what the relationship is between the divine and the mundane: is the former, as in a materialist perspective, simply an illusion of the latter or is there really a realm of the numinous, experienced by human beings. But there are other issues, perhaps homelier ones, in these varied poems. There is a mild confessional element, for example. A poem like “Deadwood” focusses on the subject of depression or those depressive episodes in which whatever in the past sparked the much sought-for sense of an expansion of the world, no longer works. Remembered moments of excitement – ie magical moments in which it seems a god or angel has “pressed its deep blue seed / into my mind” – when seen in retrospect, “fail to convince”, leading to the obvious question “How is it possible / in this infinitely varied world, / this multi-dimensional universe / to accrue deposits of apathy?” The poem, “I”, focusses on the upright figure which becomes no longer a figure of the self-confident self guided by its own star but rather “a charred post / in a vast waste.”

Other poems deal with early experiences of loss which mean that “Darkness / found a home / in me” an experience which, if we accept the existence of a divine plane, might be accommodated in the mystics’ idea of a dark night of the soul. “In the Mouth of the Shark”, which takes its title from a geographical metaphor (the shark’s mouth in question is the “jaw of sandstone between Bondi and Tamarama”) lists a succession of dead friends and mentors. And “Matthew and the Angel”, a response to Rembrandt’s painting, which looks as though it will be a celebration of the inspiring spirit that hovers just outside of the corner of our vision, turns out, in its conclusion, to be a poem about lack of inspiration – “All this I felt I knew. // Now I write / to address the absence.” There is an intriguing poem, “Breakdown”, ostensibly about a train becoming “detached from the grid” and coming to a halt inside a conifer forest. I read this as a poem about not being able to move – in one’s writing or one’s life – but there is a hint of promise in the way the sun manages to illuminate small patches on the floor of the forest.

But under this personal bleakness, there is also a strong current of interest in macro-suffering. Those poems that address mistreatment of refugees, victims (“the ravaged / whose screams are punctured by bullets”) and so on (as far as Mother Earth herself) don’t seem really satisfactory to me but this may be simply because the task is so much more difficult – for complex reasons. By far the best of them – because it adopts a mode which is satisfactorily oblique – is, I think, “After the Storm”. It has a quite complex scena in which the poet investigates the fringes of a recent storm. Metaphorically we read this storm as the Second World War and a reference to Anselm Kiefer famous, together with Ingeborg Bachmann, for insisting that the memory of that war be continuously brought before modern Germans only too happy to consign it to the past, leads readers to think that the opening clause “Sheltered, we glimpsed / a fringe of the storm” is about Australia’s status as a lucky peripheral player in the vast event. A poem in Paths of Flight and “Banksia Spikes” in this book, both invoke the poet’s grandfather, a holocaust survivor, who “knew darkness / far better than me”.

Finally, there is “Why I Write”, appearing late in the book and, as a “poem-poem”, occupying much the same position as “Poem” does in Paths of Flight. It’s always tempting to read a poem like this as the centre of the book since it seems to address almost all of the issues that the other poems of the book raise. Structurally it’s a set of negations – “I don’t write to modulate my griefs . . . Nor do I write for recognition . . . Nor is it bibliophilia . . .” – and it goes on to address the issues I’ve raised here specifically:

I don’t write for revelation,
though poetry has opened rooms
in the mansion of world-mind
and led me closer to the hearth
than philosophy has.
. . . . . 
I don’t write to foster the art
of double vision – to sense
the divinity in the morning gleam
on granite cliffs, whispers of the dead
in the fall of snow, the epiphany
in a stranger’s friendly glance,
the way a gull floating on a thermal
becomes the singular word for grace.

I don’t write to ease my conscience,
redress the past, though in moments
of recollection, the broken soil of pain
(as if time were a hidden gardener)
is transfigured into a bed of snowdrops,
roses of sublimation . . .

There are two things (at least) one needs to say about this poem. The first is that poems such as this, in which a poet analyses what he or she is doing, might well come out of the analytical/critical part of their minds rather than the poetic/creative. They may represent no more than a writers’ day-time brooding over the issues that their night-time work seems to raise – in their own practice and in the context of poetry generally. Secondly, this is a skilfully constructed piece simultaneously denying and then qualifying, built on the pattern of “I do not . . . though”. In other words, the function is to raise the very issues that it goes on to reject as the purpose behind the poems. At any rate, the final stanza, as one would expect, is outright assertion: “I write for the expansion of the present . . .” and, as far as a writer and reader are in control of these things, this seems an eminently admirable ambition.

Amanda Joy: Snake Like Charms

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 117pp.

It’s probably significant that this review is appearing the day after a Victorian mother’s photograph of her two-year-old daughter which accidentally captured a very large and nasty looking brown snake sliding past the girl’s feet appeared in substantial numbers of digitised news media at home and abroad. There are snakes everywhere in Amanda Joy’s excellent Snake Like Charms – a first book full of poems celebrating or recording such accidental meetings – and I won’t be the first critic to warn those readers who are sent into fits of the heebie-jeebies by the very idea of snakes that this may be a book they need to leave on the shelf. The poems work through all the possible significances they might have: they are there as nasty surprises, venomous threats to children, fellow-parents, Medusa’s famous locks and benevolent incarnations of the great Rainbow Serpent. Almost all the poems are intriguing and they range in complexity from fairly simple accounts of meetings (“Brown Snake, North Lake”) to challenging poems like the book’s first, “Almost Pause / Pareidolia”.

In fact, it’s the variety of approaches and kinds of poems that are an important part of the success of this book. There is an archetypical first book of poems in which a range of styles is a result of an author’s not being entirely sure what his or her true voice is though being, at the same time, quite sure that all the poems are, in their own way, “successful”. If this sounds more like a literary critic’s imagination than a practical reality, I can think of several first books which match this description. In a world where many first books come out of Creative Writing degree dissertations and thus have the unity of an argued-for project, variety might not be sign of weakness but rather of a realisation that one’s central material can be approached in a number of ways. And, on this subject, I might as well voice a fear about this kind of book, good as Snake Like Charms is: which is that one isn’t at all sure how its author can progress from here. Are there more snake poems? – probably not. Is there a unified experience as important as the snake meetings and which can be explored in all its ramifications? – probably not.

Generic doubts aside, the snakes of Snake Like Charms are usually recorded in interactions with the author in some way: they are not abstract principles (though a long and difficult sequence, “Medusa and the Taxonomic Vandal”, might be an exception here). “Gwardar Means Go the Long Way Round” has a title which derives from the literal meaning of the native name for the Western Brown snake – described chillingly in Wikipedia as “a species of very fast, highly venomous elapid snake“ – and it describes on of these accidental, usually abrupt, meetings:

. . . . . 
             I lost my footing and slid
with a barrage of rocks

in a confusion of vision and pain
kaleidoscopic flashes of what may have been
a gwardar, in panic knotting itself as
though attacked from all sides

Somehow I stopped
No sign left of any creature but myself
all torn clothes and shredded knees

In a conspiracy of senses, fragments
of snake have swallowed every other
memory of that day.

The last stanza thickens the mix a little in the same way in which the end of Judith Wright’s “The Killer” (quoted as one of the epigraphs to Snake Like Charms) suddenly opens up new complexities in what otherwise seems no more than the description of a snake-killing. A lot is happening in those last three lines in Joy’s poem. The shocking meeting obliterates all other memories (though the poem does begin with memories of a group of boys and a kookaburra, these are ancillary to the meeting with the snake) but because the perception was so fragmentary and confused, the memory is equally fragmented. But the fragmentation of snakes (their bodies, not the memories of them) is a recurring image of this book. “Quetzalcoatl” is a complex meditation on the relationship between birds and snakes but it begins with the observation, “Fossils of snakes almost never retain the skull / Bones grown for expansion stretch apart one last / time and go to ground, evade being bagged / numbered and lost again.” And “The Tiger Snake Talisman” is about a single vertebra used as a talisman:

. . . . . 
Gateway of dark tunnel waiting
to call out a dormant echo
not banished but still

an uncertain distance
from my silence

as though the snake in Judith Wright’s poem had an afterlife inside the poet in which it could speak back as part of the poet’s self. Snakes are, I suppose, because of their bodies’ construction and shape, eminently segmentable, fragmentable animals. But it isn’t only the snake which is fragmented at the end of “Gwardar” it’s memories themselves and this is a book interested in memory, language and the visual and the way in which these categories can inter-relate.

The complex first poem, “Almost Pause / Pareidolia”, is, as the last word tells us, about our tendency to misread things visually, to see patterns, shapes and resemblances which aren’t there: a man’s face on Mars or Jesus of Nazareth in the clouds, or, for that matter, his mother in a slice of pizza. So the sea slug is no more a hare than the dugong is a mermaid. But, of course, poetic language exploits technically inappropriate resemblances (between girlfriends and roses, for example) to widen its expressive power. The last part of the poem moves into the world of language and also, almost inevitably, into that of snakes:

                                    Language hesitates
to enter the concealed strand of vertebrae beneath
a dark lick of scales, uncoiling across blackened remains

of balga, racing as snake into our shared vision. Our
hands extensors and abductors gripping themselves
riven in resistance, the words “beyond regeneration”

heard again in a stand of sheoaks. We can follow
the blood red trail of uneaten zamia nuts out
of scalded wetlands. Mining mountains no longer

unmoved, even this verse cannibalises itself
remembering the feast to come. Like, when I
use the word “eternity”, when what I mean to say, is “water”.

It’s not a conclusion that I feel comfortable in providing a reading for but I can recognise many of the things it seems to be saying about language and the way they mirror what the first part of the poem says about our visual apprehension of the world. And then, of course, there is the inevitable snake. It cannot speak or be spoken for but it can be metaphorically described (as a “concealed strand of vertebrae beneath / a dark lick of scales”) and the snake, as so often in this book, is, of all animals, the one that may seem at first to be a visual misreading of reality: “Could what we just saw have been a snake?”

This concern with the information of the senses and the pre-existing templates for rapid interpretation (“Married to what / we intuit as signatures . . .”) persists. In “On Warmth” the rigid interpretive frame of syntax is removed by sitting far enough away from a speaker so that the words themselves are only vaguely apprehended in the total experience of the act of communication. The metaphor for this alternative kind of interpretation is the bee swarm which contains a map in a “hive’s song of wings”:

. . . . . 
The sun throbs behind my lobes. I am too far for
your words, just outside their reach, I imagine
skeins, some transparent consonants, stretching
towards me,

divest of their meaning, I could touch them, just
the sensation of an S whistled through the abacus
of your teeth, resting on my fingertips. I spread
my hands upwards

on my knees to catch them, the mathematics of
your sound. Later in bed, when you ask me what
I thought, I touch your lips, lean forward to push
my tongue into your mouth.
Into the swarm.

Alongside the world of the snake (and bees too, I suppose) is the affective life of the author. It’s rarely the central issue of poems and I think this is another of the book’s successes: the author’s complex relationship to both the natural world and the social world of human interaction – intimate or otherwise – is always present colouring each of the poems but never being dominant. There is something about the current situation of the world and its arts that means that poetry as bildungsroman or even livre compose seems inappropriately self-obsessed. The external world suddenly seems to need as much exploring as the inner world, especially when that external world is the snake-filled landscape of north-western Australia. But behind the personal elements of the poems in this book is a shadowy suggestion that alchemical imagery may be being used as a framing device. Poems called “Nigredo”, “Rubedo” and “Albedo” are warning enough that we are entering the territory of the Magnum Opus, but I don’t think that, in the poems as they are, they are used as an extended structural device. In the first of these three poems, the emphasis is on black as the colour of the snake’s “base matter”, its “blood-black” scats “jewelled / with tiny bones”, and in the last of them – a strong poem to my mind – the focus is on the white object which recalls to the observer the bleached debris of an earlier life:

. . . . .
To me it exhaled pale silt
and swamp rushes, unearthed chert
a calenture, also

in lingering base
note as I brushed
it to my cheek, the bleached thread
my grandfather repaired
his last nets with.

This is from the fourth part of Snake Like Charms which begins with a number of poems about paintings. Although this might be dismissed as merely fashionable, their interest is legitimate in the context of this book because almost all the artworks contain snakes in one form or another and, perhaps more importantly, because they are, in a way, extensions of that first poem which explored how we process visual clues or, to put it more memorably, as Amanda Joy does, “how often we graze / our hulls on rocks of clear vision”. The two drawings by Cornelia Parker are Rorschach (ie freely interpretable) shapes, the first made from snake venom the second from antivenene. “The Gigantomachy Pediment of the Old Temple of Athena Polias” – a celebration of the fragments of statuary from the original temple on the Acropolis destroyed in the Persian invasion – is not a mere gloss on the magnificent (and terrifying) image of Athena holding out her aegis towards an enemy with snakes looped through circles in the hem but a complex response in its own right:

Another dead language, revived tongue first
into battle, head bowed, snake drooped
through each loop of aegis, the latent
flare of muscled effigy

(Exhume the awe, the lifting chorus
of breathlessness and dig the words in)

Eyes, empty as stone, lidded by stone
Unswayable, what’s left of a foot stepped
warily in her path, leaving a world of giants
unguarded, black air towering above

I read this as emphasising that the “dead language” of this art and its conception of the gods and their war with the giants reproduces the situation in which visual clues can play us false, but I suspect that it’s a more complex piece than that suggests and seems also to want to speak of the act of uncovering old foundations. This section also contains “Atlas Moth”, not an artwork as such but an animal that looks suspiciously like one when its wings are opened, and “Caduceus” in which the twinned snake symbol of Hermes in his function as messenger and leader of traders is, by a misprision of the medical profession in which they grazed their hulls on the rocks of clear vision, converted into a symbol for Aesculapius the Healer.

Towards the end of the book is “Your Ground”, another snake confrontation poem in which an upreared snake matches the pose of the shocked observer. The poem talks about the experience (“The luminous trance stays / for more than months / (you still can’t remember / standing”) and the way different people – a psychologist, an elder from Broome – interpret it for the author. But the author stumbles on a different reading:

Then one morning you get it - 
                That paired wisdom
                   your bodies made

                              Snake says
                                     Be still
                 Stand your ground
           It’s the only protection
                                    we have

It’s an attractive and simple message and one fears that it’s a passage which readers (and reviewers) will highlight and remember. But it is, at bottom, just a piece of advice about living one’s life. I think it’s a long way from the kind of knowledge that the interactions with the other snakes of the book provide. Individuals of a species nearly as alien to us as William James’s octopus, they have profounder messages in those poems where the poet is tempted to try to move across the uncrossable boundary that separates species.

Kevin Brophy: This Is What Gives Us Time

np: GloriaSMH Press, 2016, 80pp.

Kevin Brophy’s This Is What Gives Us Time together with David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice are the first two productions of a new press, GloriaSMH – a name which derives from the wartime Parisian resistance group and thus, like Puncher & Wattmann, conceals a Beckett allusion (and the morse code for GSMH makes a very satisfying logo). This Is What Gives Us Time is, to me, the most satisfying of Brophy’s books since Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion. His contribution to Radar, a book shared with Nathan Curnow, was a set of prose poems which had a decidedly abstract ring (as prose poems often do) and Walking, from 2013, has always seemed to me to have a slightly unfocussed quality. The overall shape of Brophy’s poetry, despite its unchanging interests and values, seems to be a move away from documenting life in a Melbourne suburb towards elegant abstraction. A few poems are no sort of evidence, of course, but a comparison of the first lines of Brophy’s first book, Replies to the Questionnaire on Love, with the first lines of this new book will give some idea of what I mean:

In my street
there are fig trees and grape vines in back yards
and stone lions guarding front gates . . .


Fountains work hard to be joyous for us. Look how they 
                                                                   keep their mouths open.

Of course all of this oversimplifies badly. There are poems of great local precision in This Is What Gives Us Time just as there are lines like “Now in its fifth year, / my plant learns to take / on the details, all the business / of being a tree” in Replies to the Questionnaire on Love but the feeling that this is a poetry moving from the specific towards exploring the more abstract remains.

What anchors This Is What Gives Us Time and is one of the reasons for the favourable impact it makes is, I think, the fact that all its speculative, imaginative flights are anchored firmly in a place. It was written, the book itself tells us, during a six month residency at the Whiting studio in Rome. To be entirely accurate, the book doesn’t say how many of the poems were written there but almost all of them have a Roman background. As a result, familiar themes from Brophy’s other books are given both a twist and an extension by their Mediterranean setting. There is something imaginatively satisfying, for example, in considering the general issue of the all-round potential for sheer destruction that humans possess in the context of a city which for nearly two millennia has pillaged its own ruins for new building material so that people actually stand metres above the past and in kaleidoscopic creations from the material of the past. This appears in the book’s fine second poem, “Elena!”, for example, whose refrain – “We are building the ruins” – is both a statement of this fact and a perverse image of destruction. It is

. . . . . 
left for latecomers to imagine

what might have been said
from a second-storey window
on a Sunday morning late in April

when a woman called from the street
Elena! Elena! -
to her friend above.
. . . . .
Elena, leaning over her red geranium
on her window sill calls back down to her friend
in a voice that carries all that will be ruined.

And, of course, as Italy is geologically far more active place than Australia, the possibilities of a purely natural destruction are also everpresent: as “A Name For It” says, “I read of volcanoes and earthquakes coming”. The poem, “Rabbit” is devoted to this more general view of the mechanisms of history:

. . . . . 
The fat black rabbit knows each crack and hole
a poet or hermit might creep in.
It knows who pilfered the bronze and the marble,
what the earthquake said when it shoved its shoulder
under the deepest rocks it could uncover . . .

Another reason why This Is What Gives Us Time seems so satisfying is, I think, that Brophy has moved towards responding to the challenge that each poem should satisfy as a unique conception rather than, as with so much contemporary poetry, being cut and pasted from an endless conversation between the poet and his experiences of the world. One of my favourites among the earlier poems, “Up There” (from the 2002 volume, Portrait in Skin) describes fixing a leak on a fellow poet’s roof. The strength of the poem comes from the symbolic possibilities of its narrative situation – two poets dealing with a flaw in the universe perched between the earth and the sky, etc etc – in verse which is kicked along by a lively metaphoric language:

On top of your house I could see the universe
still needs a carpenter for your tin roof 
where the nails pop like toast
and tin buckles worse than wet carpet.
My shoes were scuffed red with the roof’s patient rust
and we were leaning to the east. . .

But, fine as this poem is, it doesn’t attempt anything unusual at the level of discourse. If it’s compared to a poem like “A Visit to the Convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary” in the current volume, you can see the effort to do something distinctive at this level:

If the chapel is white, and the nuns have their founder
Put away in a side room, in her own sarcophagus,
If their seven martyrs are on the wall prepared to die,
And the chapel door is open to people from the street . . .

And so on through a total of twenty-five conditional clauses that have us yearning for a simple consequence clause.

The book’s first poem, “The Drowned World”, is about one of the most important recurring images in the book, that of water. It appears, at first, to be a set of discontinuous propositions:

. . . . . There is something unstable in water, a life under
                         ground then this spilling of light.
The surface of the mind is permeable under the swirling
                      suggestion of water.
If fountains are only truly happy in summer, why do we
                      leave them out in winter?
There is something ridiculous about water, its mindless
                   falling and welling . . .

and there is even an uncomfortable narrative thread that emerges every so often – “She was drowning, her face was upturned. Someone / lifted her clear of the water . . .” – as well as a personal element – “My first thought is to swim across it. The water invites / me in to its liquid mind”. At first it seems like a mix of these elements – imaginative proposition, narrative, lyric – that strains any conventional notion of unity. But the poem’s structure is, at heart, mimetic: what looks like a mix is really a braiding, taking its shape from the way water flows like (to use another image from the poem) a rope. And the formal quality is emphasised by the poem’s visual layout in which turnovers regularly decrease and then increase.

A number of other poems are built on the model of a list, something that, though common, still has a certain frisson because the mechanical nature of a list is so far from people’s conventional expectations of an imaginative mode like poetry. “Numbering”, “What We Know”, “A Life In Fifty Moves”, “Negatives Not to Live By” and “Sightings” are all built around this principle though each retains a distinctive character. What they share, though, is a sense of accounting – accounting for one’s values about life, one’s experiences of life, even for the fact that one’s life is being spent in Rome. At a profound level this is probably prompted by the unfamiliar setting but at a more trivial level it relates to the fact that anyone having been provided with a grant to spend half-a-year in Rome is going to have to, in the end, provide a written account, justifying the investment of the money. I think this lies behind both the structure and humour of “A Brief Report”:

I failed to sleep last night. I failed to find the dreams
that would take me safe from one day into the next.

I failed to be brave, afraid of the train, its snout of steel
pushing out of the dark into the station at San Pietro,

its sides towering over me blue and white and dark with night.
It hissed, cracked open, impatient, warm as a belly inside.

I was shaken as it took me; it was like some fallen angel breaking
its teeth on a language too new and too earthly to speak.

I have opened the door to the day without faith in its miracle,
I will cough up the night from my lungs, the city will breathe

and I will see across on the opposite hillside a man on a balcony
move among his plants, touching them, sprinkling them, nodding.

This parodies a formal accounting, moving straight to the world of dreams rather than that of mundane realities, but its linear structure is retained. Thematically, the threatening, apocalyptic world of dreams is contrasted with the homely world in which a neighbour can be seem watering his plants. It’s a kind of restatement of “Elena!” (which has a circular, repetitive structure) in which the warm world of the human (in co-operation, perhaps, with the world of geraniums and other domestic plants) stands out against ever-present and ever-irrupting forces of destruction.

“Sightings” and “How We Made It Through a Whole Day (Again)” are also linear, list poems with a ghazal-like disjunctiveness. The former is a list of two-line experiences:

. . . . . 
A man with a red string around his bare ankle and masses of hennaed hair under a
Straw hat sits next to me on the train, trimming his nails and talking of sunglasses.

The new cordless phone has instructions in Italian on how to set it to another
Language. It rings in English now but still speaks to me in Italian . . .

and the latter, closer to a diary, accounts for the events of a single day from early morning to night when

. . . . . 
         electric haloes on the heads of saints
burn prayers into the sizzling air, dissolving all complaints.

Their holy marble gestures are more eloquent than words:
we could never say what they have not already heard.

Finally, there are two poems of protest which, unlike the rest of the book are “set” outside of Italy. The first concerns the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran at the end of April, 2015 (ie within this book’s time-frame) in Indonesia and the second, “From The Book of Examples”, about Australia’s notorious treatment of asylum-seekers. In a sense it is public poems like this that demand most of a poet since they must be conceptualised in an imaginative way that prevents them being only one step up from an outraged rant. It’s something that the poems of Bruce Dawe did brilliantly (configuring the execution of Ronald Ryan as a marriage, for example) and I’m not sure Australian poets have done it quite as well since. If neither of these achieves that level of conceptual daring, they are, nonetheless, successful public poems. The former, “Somewhere They Are Executing Young Men”, circles back to the Indonesian president himself, imagining that the crime, “like all crime in his country, / Will be paid for in time” and it’s a reminder that by concentrating on the way the poems of this book are conceived I have bypassed a more traditional look at thematic obsessions.

Time (as the book’s title indicates) is certainly one of them and most of the poems in the first part of the book allude to it in one way or another. In “Hours” it is both a gift and something that can be escaped:

. . . . . 
Minutes fill the hour and go, gone as snowflakes.
A micro-second in a photograph could stand for years
of these hours.

I time my walking by them, then lie down with an hour
by lake, mountain, window, ruin.
Two dozen at a time they’re thrown our way. . .

And this strange fluidity applies to water, introduced so expansively in the first poem. In the book we meet water in the guise of underground, confined black fluidity, lakes, oceans, rivers (or, rather, the river, carrying its cargo of rubbish and dirt through the city) and fountains. In some forms it can represent the world of phenomena, the world of the dream-generating unconscious, the oblivion of death, and time itself. As the book’s second last poem says, “What is the ocean if it is not a god?”

Antigone Kefala: Fragments

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2016, 82pp.

One of the things about Antigone Kefala’s fifth book of poetry (her first, The Alien, was published all of forty-three years ago) that stays in the corner of your mind as you read it, is the title. Nothing could seem less fragmentary than these elegantly shaped lyric poems which are marked out by their self-contained unity. The fact that four of the poems carry a “II” after their titles and that there is no equivalent “I” in the book leaves the reader with the impression that the poems of this volume might have been chosen from a much larger corpus of work and so, in a sense, the entire book might be said to be no more than fragments of that larger work. And then, of course, there is the possibility that with increasing age – one of the themes of the poems – one might well want to find some fragments to shore against your ruins. But I think the issue is a bit more complex than that and that perhaps the answer lies in one of Kefala’s most important (and compulsively readable) works, her Sydney Journals, where excerpted journals record daily life in Sydney and on travels.

These prose pieces, like the poems of Fragments, have their own lovely shapes but they are clearly fragmentary. They are month by month selections grouped into ten journals. They tend to omit names so that we don’t have the usual voyeuristic pleasure of diaries: seeing what the writer says about people we know – or know of. A group travelling or, more likely, going out to dinner is usually just “we” and visiting artists are ”the Canadian writer” or just “she” as in the entry for February in Journal X: “She was back in Australia for the ceremony. She still looked at Australian society with affection and contempt, like the young . . . . . When she spoke about someone she disliked, her entire face collapsed, but her eyes dark and very warm, thinking from inside, trying to come to some balance.” It’s not so much that these pieces are fragmentary because they are selected from fuller accounts; they are fragmentary because they reject any attempt to totalise the experience, instead paring away everything, like identifying names, that seems inessential. Perhaps – and it may be the same with the poems of Fragments – they convey what can be conveyed.

They share with the poems a sensitivity to weather and, especially, to light so that you feel that Kefala’s first look must always be upward, towards the sky. Countless journal entries begin with something like “Raining and a slight wind. The trees moving as if shaking themselves under water” or “Stormy night. Brisk walk to the Opera House. Sydney wet and beautiful in the night, full of golden lights, the sea”. Even dreams, an important part of these journals, are described in terms of the light:

I was falling in and out of sleep, dreaming of Mother in the backyard putting clothes on the line, talking. I helping, making myself useful. The light on the clothes, brilliant white, peaceful, full of a live element, like the light for the last few days – luminous.

So when we get to a poem like the second poem of Fragments, “Letter II”:

The light today
clean as if made of bones
dried by a desert wind
fell in the distance on the roofs
and I remembered you.
Nothing will bring you back
only this light
falling so innocently
yet so self-contained
in an unbearable indifference.

it’s hard not to be reminded of the Journals and to begin to speculate how many of the poems had their origins in notes made in the Journals and omitted in the final, edited version.

There is also the fact that Kefala’s poetry has gradually become sparer as time has gone on – perhaps more Greek, if that isn’t too crude a cultural generalisation – and there seems less an attempt to build something larger out of dreams. It’s tempting to compare these poems with the first poem of The Alien, “Holidays in the Country”, a complex and extended piece with a touch of narrative. It could be read as a reasonably realistic account of a child overhearing her parents at a country retreat speaking enigmatically of a neighbour or servant, Katke. This latter gives an account of the well which, if you jump into it, will bring you into a kind of otherworld “where hills and trees / are of the purest gold, where glass birds sing”. It’s possible the child misunderstands Katka’s speaking of an imaginary journey to the antipodes – New Zealand or Australia. Thanks to Kefala’s many illuminating autobiographical accounts we now know the basic facts of her early life well enough and we might think that the whole poem was a dream perhaps provoked by talk of emigrating. I used to find this readerly uncertainty about the very core of the poem to be unsettling, and thought it was the result of the fact that this was a different writer writing out of a different tradition where the border line between reality, dream and myth might not be as razor sharp as it is likely to be under the fierce Australian sun. Now, I’m a bit more comfortable with the experience and am inclined to appeal to a reader’s modification of Keats: we should be able to live in a poem and let it breathe without the irritable search for certainties. At any rate, compared with the poems of Fragments and, to a lesser extent, European Notebook (a significant title) “Holidays in the Country” is comparatively expansive.

There is another, more overt, way in which the Journals prepare the reader for Fragments: in the occasional comments made about the poetic process itself – or, at least, in Kefala’s practice. There is an early passage which, brief as it is, opens up a large debate about literary expansiveness versus literary spareness (at its extreme: minimalism):

Discussing with I. the idea of size in literature. I felt that it has something to do with the physical space of the country, as in America too, people trying to cover it by inflating all things – oversized cars, buildings, novels, instead of concentrating them as in populated countries . . .

And there is a shrewd description of a fortunately unnamed poet at a reading:

The young man reading before me had a rough voice, a de rigueur voice developed in pubs, which they are giving us in literature too and think that this makes them Australian. A sort of inner brutality now that masks pretentiousness, an energy that never questions itself, a battering of language with no sense of its fragility, the beautiful energy, the dynamics that can be released when well used.

When Kefala speaks of her own writing it is in terms of paradoxical wrestlings with language:

Writing – constantly trying to recapture the living element at the beginning of the experience, an elusive element that has to be re-created constantly by discovered means that will bring it out. A process which seems far removed from the experience itself, grounded in the medium.

Finally, one can recognize in the Journals, situations that will re-appear in the poems of Fragments. It’s not possible to tell whether the situations are the same since, understandably, the poems omit all markers of identity and the Journals themselves, as I have said, are often deliberately vague. So the pungent little poem about the death of a neighbour –

On Monday, she said
they took her away
on Tuesday
the dog was put down
on Wednesday
the furniture went . . .

might or might not be about the Mrs Crawford of the Journals: “the small utility carrying away Mrs Crawford’s meagre furniture . . . It seemed such an impoverished ending, sad and vulnerable”. And the dying figure of another poem, “Anniversaries”

Faster and faster you were sinking
pushed gently by those unseen hands
the disinheriting
who took away relentlessly the gifts . . .

might or might not be the figure on the second page of the Journals: “Little is visible on his face, yet they say he is dying”. On the other hand there is not much doubt that “Metro Cellist” –

The faint sound travelled
from the centre
through the tiled tombs
the pores of the concrete
rode boldly through the doors,
we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
of youth.

is based on an experience in the Paris Metro documented in the Journals:

He was young, almost an adolescent, with black eyes and hair, the score was open in front of him, and he was drawing these long, full tones. Bach was reverberating in the closed space. And as I came up on the platform, the sound was coming through the pores of the concrete, through the openings, as if the earth was singing.

Of course, all of this searching for a book’s origins, methods, and resonances rather takes one’s attention away from the matter at hand, Fragments itself. The poems are collected into five parts on what seems, generally, to be thematic principles. One wouldn’t want to be too definite about this since the first section, which one might want to think of as poems about the way the past (and figures from the past) imposes itself on the present in memories, dreams and sudden irruptions (“This return / the past attacking / unexpectedly / in the familiar streets”) also contains what looks to be a straightforward character portrait where the second stanza provides an expressionist comment on the first:

She was smoking
stirring her coffee
giving me her news.
A detached observer
presenting a life
unconnected to her
that left her
Through the glass
the sea green with the wind
and the seagulls
icy white with red eyes
shrieking above the beach.

“Variation on a Theme II” in which, in reality or dream, someone plays an ancient instrument, touches on a less personal conception of the past – though one that you meet in Kefala’s comments about writing – that art and language come out of the far past of an individual culture. It’s a chthonic approach where the sounds made by the instrument are

close to the truth of bodies
a truth that went beyond
the skin, the bones, the nerves
to some dark soil
that he found by touch
to feel the beat
release it of all bonds.

The poems of the second section are, generally, poems about meetings with places and, in pieces like “The Bay” and “Summer at Derveni” we get a chance to see Kefala’s impressive ability to “capture” the atmosphere – the “weather” – of a place, as well giving a precise visual rendition. Take the former of these, for example:

Green sea
fermenting into waves
laced with white foam.
Along the empty quay
abandoned houses.

Three divers
near the boat house
strange amphibious creatures
with black rubber skins
wrestling the waves
climbing the rocks
in the apocalyptic sunset
that left
gold orange strands
on the dark waters.

I think this is rather wonderful. It’s an example of one of the things that poetry can do. And although one wouldn’t want to live in a culture which thought that this is all that poetry can or should do, there is something exhilarating about a poem that does it as well as this.

The central section of Fragments is unremittingly about loss and is, interestingly, made up of poems that are a little unlike the style of the other sections. They might be said to be more like Kefala’s poems in her earlier books, tending to expand an experience (by taking it into a compressed sequence) rather than paring it down in the manner of the Journal entries. Again one wouldn’t want to be too schematic about this: the section contains, after all, only a three poem sequence, a two poem sequence, and two small poems.

The fourth section is intriguing because it seems to want to expand the imaginative resources of the poetry by moving into almost surreal territories of idols and rituals. Though the poems share the same spare quality of the poems of the first two sections, they have precious little connection to the world of the Journals. There seems a distinctly European quality about some of them: “Sacred Idols”, for example,

They watch us from inside
in silence
anxious too
trying to sustain
their brittle images
worn thin by our hands
constantly greedy
for some tangible proof.

or “The Furniture of Generations” where the objects of the title rest

at ease and self-sufficient
as if since the beginning
they had dreamt themselves
exactly as they were . . .

There is also, in this section, a poem, “Diviner II”, which recalls one of the poems of European Notebook. Both concern a totemic creative figure in touch with the wellsprings that lie under the ground and both refer to a fire-ravaged above-ground:

Traveller from a rocky country
scorched by a great fire
the shredded trees
black veils moving in the wind
full of distant echoes
that only you could hear.

Obsessed with the great depths
could not find other measures
watching the waters in the evening
you traced the way
a great forgetfulness.

It’s possible of course that this may be another portrait of a contemporary or even of a figure from the past but the imaginative approach – surreal, suggestive, totemic – is a lot different to the capturing method of poems like the ones of earlier sections.

Or, for that matter, those of the last section which is largely composed of portraits. Sometimes these are portraits of friends – “Patricia” – and sometimes, as in “Public Figure” or “Committee Member”, of figures seen only from a distance. Often they are spare, compressed portraits of people reduced in some way – by age or incapacity. The final portrait is the cellist in the Metro which I have already spoken about: it seems fitting that a book which is concerned so much about loss and ageing should conclude with an unnamed creative (or expressive) figure, perhaps an avatar of the diviner, capable of harmonising the body and the instrument with the depths of the earth so that the earth itself “was singing, / singing in an exuberance / of youth”.

Rereadings I: Rodney Hall: Terra Incognita

Sydney: Macmillan, 1996, 211pp.

(This review is the first of what I hope to make an annual event: a rereading of a text which is important to me but which, for one reason or another, I have never written about.)

Terra Incognita is the first of three novels grouped under the general title of The Island in the Mind and published twenty years ago. More importantly it is the first of a series of seven novels devoted, at least on the surface, to tracing the history of a small part of the south coast of New South Wales called Yandilli in the books but recognisable as the area around Bermagui and Tilba. But, as with Marquez’s Macondo in his Hundred Years of Solitude, the single small location stands as a symbol for the nation it is part of and so the heptalogy presents a view of Australia’s history up to the Second World War. And it is a view which begins more than a century before the arrival of the “first fleet”: like the Americas, Australia is a country that could be said to have been invented before it was discovered. The novels themselves, as one would expect, have complex interrelationships. They also have a complex order of composition (not entirely unlike the Star Wars saga), beginning with Captivity Captive, the sixth, so that the order of writing (and publishing) is: 6, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 7. Terra Incognita concerns itself with the earliest phase of Australian history beginning with the writing of an opera in a small and unidentifiable European country in the middle of the seventeenth century.

For all its historical and cultural obsessions, Hall’s imagination has always seemed to me to be essentially a dramatic one. And at the heart of all drama is not understanding but conflict. It would be an understatement to say that the seven novels are rife with conflict: at every point conflict between individuals is the core of what is happening (at least on the plot level). You would have to look hard in these novels to find examples of contented marriages, placid childhoods or bland mentorships – there is almost always, even if suppressed, a crackle of conflict. And the key conflict is not between historical or cultural enemies (representatives of nations or religions or classes) but between closely bonded individuals. As such, the central conflict might be called rivalry. At its best rivalry is not a destructive relationship but an opportunity to raise the bar. You can see this in a poem from the mid-sixties, “The Two of Them Are Rivals”:

The two of them are rivals
both attempt the chute of wind,
forcing their climb with flattened hair
toward some exploration of success.
And yet they stay together:
not quarrelling (as most outsiders would expect
as hydra-headed third men definitely hope)
but edging upward with each other’s help
already dangerously above the city . . .

But, of course, it isn’t always so mutually supportive and one is likely to find Hall’s characters locked in a psychic struggle for supremacy.

The closer the characters are together (think of the large family in Captivity Captive, or the de facto family of the female followers of Muley Moloch in The Grisly Wife) the more intense the friction. A crucial moment in the relationship of father and son (both, interestingly, sharing the same name: Richard Godolphin) in the third novel, Lord Hermaphrodite, occurs when, imprisoned in Kishangarh, each tries to prise open a shuttered window. Needless to say, the younger succeeds where the elder fails. In Hall’s universe this isn’t a simple, mildly oedipal triumph to be acknowledged wryly, but rather a rearrangement of the entire relationship:

The shutter gradually screeched open. Daylight flooded in through a barred window. We faced one another.

Our whole lives were before us at that moment: justices and injustices through the years, protections and beatings, playfulness and puzzlement, trust, treachery, disobedience, love, buried contentments and raw fears. Dear uncle, whatever your plans for the future, never again send a son with his father. Together, neither of them can be relied on. Indeed families are a microcosm of the world’s horrors – loving families no less than families forever embroiled in jealous quarrels. After nineteen years of affection Richard and I had reached a difficult moment, never mind that it may have seemed so slight a thing. And we both knew it.

And closeness reaches its highest point in the case of identical twins. One of Hall’s best poem-sequences is “Romulus and Remus” from the late sixties. It explores a relationship so close that it could be called schizophrenic: one twin almost thinks for the other and the rivalry is almost between two halves of the same self. At any rate, it is Romulus who triumphs, killing his brother who has jumped across the wall he is building: “Death to anyone / who dares to clear my battlements; / we murder those who try / to make our vision small”. All of the novels in the heptalogy, despite their focus on the complex history of Australia as a nation, have this underlying value: a hatred of those “who try to make our vision small” and a commitment to “imagining the unimaginable and searching for something new”.

There is a final issue to be thought about when it comes to the question of rivalry. The Second Bridegroom (the fourth novel) contains a passage in which the narrator explains the myth of the two bridegrooms, supposedly derived from an Irish translation of a commentary on the Thebaid of Statius:

Going back to the most ancient times before history there was a Goddess who took two bridegrooms each year – have you heard of her? – one for the winter and one for the summer. Each had the task of killing the husband who had lain with her for the six months before him. This idea could still be found, so the commentary said, under the skin of the Thebaid of Statius, enemies in pairs and friends in pairs. A warrior having a lion’s mane, with a warrior whose bushy boar bristles rise like a horror of white-shrike wings when with wild angry terror he seizes his enemy.

In the Celtic tradition, lacking lions and boars, these totemic animals have been transferred to a horse’s mane for the summer bridegroom and goat’s thighs for the winter bridegroom and the legend is imagined to have survived in the horse-mating feast in spring and the goat-mating feast in autumn. As we will see, rival bridegrooms (metaphorically and literally) are common in the seven novels and it raises an important issue that I’m not really able to resolve: is this myth the generative foundation of all of the novels (and other parts of Hall’s work as well) or is it simply a mythic version of the central theme of rivalry? I can think of arguments in both directions.

The dramatic cast of Hall’s imagination makes itself felt in the narrative method as well. All of these books are monologues and the narrating character usually has a very distinctive (ie dramatically “rounded”) voice. The central books of each group of three are narrated by women, as is the last book. Hearing them read, or reading them aloud, is likely to transform how readers relate to them, opening up vistas unseen to those for whom reading fiction is a matter of quickly processing words in order to follow plot. Some of the voices are easier to grasp than others and Terra Incognita is narrated by an excitable young man whose voice is easy to recognise. In contrast, the narrator of the third volume, a middle-aged man who, almost without his knowing, is engaged in a process which will expand his vision, is far less vocally distinct. And I’ve always had problems with the breathless (post-tuberculosis) disjointed narration of Catherine Byrne, the narrator of The Grisly Wife. But the consistency of the speaking voice is what makes all of the seven novels unified wholes.

The second issue is the relationship of the narrators to the action. I think Hall is always excited by the dramatic irony whereby what is really significant is not necessarily what is being conveyed by the narrator, and in fact it sometimes must be seen through the obfuscating screen of the narrator’s excited tale. There are dangers in this method because many readers will feel a constriction of their readerly freedom: there is a response to the events that they must see and one where the author has been there before them laying down a trail of clues. It can feel like a bit of an examination of one’s credentials as a reader where the author has a sheet with the correct answers. But seeing the central events obliquely, as it were, can be justified on other grounds than its success in producing a theatrical coup. When Isabella Manin, now guardian of Aurangzeb’s treasures, meets the Goldophins, she tells the story of the planned execution of a Christian by the Moghul emperor so that he can make a point to some visiting ambassadors of the East India Company:

“Have you ever thought how the sacrificial beast might feel, facing the grandeur of death, sir? The rarest privilege is to find death’s meaning. Most do not, I suspect. Most are probably more muddled than elated and cannot make much sense of the ceremony. Perhaps being too close to the centre to see any coherence, even. For anyone who wishes to understand, it is important not to be right at the centre.”

Obviously this can be read in terms of the relationship between the centre of an empire and it’s outlying provinces, but I’m content to read it also as a justification of Hall’s oblique narrative methods.

There is an important exception to this technique of having a narrator who looks towards the crucial events but can only see part of them. That is Captivity Captive where the narrator, Pat, is intimately connected with the three murders that the novel centres around (it is a solution to the “Gatton Mystery” and it stays very close to the known events but shifts the location to southern New South Wales). I think it’s fair to say that, unlike the other narrators in the series, Pat knows everything and has witnessed almost all the important things. Given that the solution to the mystery is not presented until the climax of the novel, this makes for a lot of challenges for the author. As a result, readers will be inclined to think either that the narrative has a lot of uneasinesses in it (to whom could Pat be imagined to tell the events in the order and with the elisions and emphases he does?) or that it is a narrative tour de force (a bit like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but in a very superior mode). I’m inclined to lean towards the latter but the characterisation of Pat and the way he moves towards revealing the events of the night of the murders is a complex issue well beyond the ambit of this review.

The narrator of Terra Incognita is, as I have said, an excitable young man in a permanent state of excitement. I’m not sure exactly how Hall wants us to feel about him and it may be that his creator is a lot more critical than I am. He is marked out by his self-confidence and his tendency to misinterpret things. But given the complexity of the court world of which he is a part, this doesn’t seem a terrible failing. Although there is a lot of humour at his expense, especially in the business of his seduction of his sister-in-law, Adelaide, he is no Emma Woodhouse. True he fathers an illegitimate child but then he has the decency to visit the mother and offer her his protection, and he is also granted an extraordinary vision – a single sentence two-pages long – of the world spinning out from a single baby to the farthest reaches of the known and the unknown. True, he remains a mere observer when a blind old woman drowns when the ice covering the river breaks up, but he does help her would-be rescuer. True he allows himself to be drawn, Waverly-style, into dangerous court factions, but he loves his king and his older brother and tries to put nation and family first. One could go on multiplying examples like this where readers would probably want to feel free enough to make their own ethical judgements about him.

In the conflicts and rivalries in which he is involved and which we know best because he is the narrator, he is typical of all the characters in the book – with the possible exception of the Venetian theatre architect, Tranquilli (whose name might be a clue). Everyone is involved in serial conflicts and rivalries, usually resolving themselves into threesomes as two strive to win a third. The most important (though readers have to see this – I’m not sure the narrator does) is between Scarron, the king and the queen. If there is a central figure – though it distorts the novel to try to shoehorn it into the kind of fiction that has a central character – it is Orlande Scarron. He is the only one of all the cast of this court who we will meet again in the later novels. We learn that he is a prodigy of very humble origins who (as an extra during a hunt) befriended the king while he was a mere prince visiting a French court. A request to be given the boy is refused (how scandalous such a request might be and what its implications might be is never followed up, either because the narrator is not interested enough to find out or because it falls outside his remit). The boy turns up a couple of years later as a flute player in a visiting orchestra, is recognised by the king and made into his court composer. The two are very close, discussing all issues privately and hunting together as a lone pair. At almost the same time as his befriending of Scarron, an English queen is found for the king. The fact that she remains barren and that her husband prefers to spend his time intimately with his concert-master leads to the obvious implication that the king is homosexual. Some readers have seen the fact that the narrator never seems aware of this to be part of the comedy of the ignorant narrator but I think the real issue is that the sexual side of this threesome is very secondary to the power-relationships: at courts sexuality is very fluid and essentially a tool to be shaped and manipulated.

It doesn’t take any great readerly skill to realise that the relationship between king, queen and Scarron is a weird distortion of the two bridegrooms myth. Instead of the two men competing for the hand of the queen (at least for six months), here the queen and Scarron compete for the love of the king. And just as one of the rivals must always lose and be occluded, so here the queen loses. Throughout the book she is a sick, fretful, mildly delusional and pallid creature (the last of these probably a reflection of the fact that she is at the mercy of doctors keen to order enemas and bleedings). As she weakens, so Scarron thrives to the point where he becomes a kind of übermensch, Hall’s visionary artist-hero.

There are other variations of the two bridegrooms theme. The narrator decides that he must seduce his sister-in-law, a representative of the faction centred around the Lord Treasurer to whom the narrator is opposed. As such the younger brother supplants his rival, the older brother. But there is, as I have said, a good deal of comedy about this deriving from the fact that the narrator seems quite unaware that his sister-in-law has, off-stage so to speak, come to the same conclusion: the seduction turns out to be remarkably easy because the seducer is really the seduced. In another triangle, the king has an odd sexual quirk whereby he wants to visit the narrator’s lover, Marie, immediately after their love-making with everything left as it was when the narrator finished. This could be read a number of ways, but I see it as the king usurping his younger “rival” by sliding into his position. At the level of court mechanisms it is a bizarre but intriguing way for messages to be sent to the king since the narrator knows that anything he says in confidence to Marie will be immediately passed on to the king.

The most spectacular example of the two bridegrooms theme in Terra Incognita, though, involves the arrival of Louis XIV of France on a visit made early in his reign (the events of this book are set in 1661 – 2). The fate of the kingdom is in the balance as court factions argue between a future role as a small, expanding, imperial power or as a financial supplier and guarantor of greater powers, a “neutral exchequer” as Adelaide calls it. The novel goes into these issues at some depth, reminding the reader that the conflicts at the macro level are not just a setting for those at a more intimate one. The narrator, indeed, has a long passage in which he positions his country as one of the third rank, parallel to states such as Belgium or Switzerland. The narrator’s state hopes to make an alliance with the French by being one of the first to invite him on an official visit and Scarron’s opera, by being in a mode much loved by the French but outdoing them at every level, is to be one of the most winning of gestures. Initially it is only part of the celebration (together with a military tattoo and fireworks) but because Louis’ arrival takes place in driving rain, all hopes of a treaty depend on the opera alone. Between Louis and the king, under the guise of the surface requirements of a courtly visit, there are immediate tensions:

The monarchs greeted each other gravely but, I thought, with a touch of unlooked-for strain. They were much the same height, wearing full wigs and the ermine robes appropriate for such an occasion. Their likeness was remarkable but scarcely surprising given the Habsburg connection. Louis carried himself well, showing notable assurance for a man of twenty-three. Yet there was something, in their exchange of civilities, which gave me the firm sense that they took an instantaneous, perhaps faint, but nonetheless ineradicable, dislike to each other.

During the performance of the opera, the queen appears and is made a great fuss of by Louis who offers her his seat and spends a good deal of time raising her spirits, “He conversed exclusively with the queen, showing her the handsomest gallantry, even bringing colour to her cheeks so that one glimpsed, now and again, kindlings of her former beauty”. In fact, of course, at a metaphorical level he is wooing her. And not just as an individual, because he is also making the point that a connection with England is more important to him than a connection with the little country he is visiting. All of this is done with tremendous brio on the novelist’s part. The arrival of Louis and his accompanying troops is a brilliant climax, though I will have more to say about the book’s structural dynamics later. Louis’ soldiers displace the local army and there is some fear amongst the locals that they have been invaded. It is a terrible blow to hopes and pretensions: as the narrator says later,

Bitterly I saw the truth of it, there in the blue salon. Our political future is to fight for room at the trough among a swarm of piggy little kingdoms and principalities, each insatiably engrossed in a scramble for scraps and favours, each tyrannized by the dictatorship of feverish ambitions. The great powers are above all that . . . . . So, no doubt, when France received our invitation she accepted it – not for the sake of raising us to the rank of ally, but for the opportunity of putting us in our place.

The political humiliation is part of the occlusion of one king by another – again the rivalry exists at both political and psychic levels. After the meeting, the narrator and his brother attend the king in his disrobing where he is, again both literally and symbolically, stripped naked. But he is, also, rerobed:

Clean underwear was brought and the king’s nakedness covered. . . . . For no reason he smiled. Was it the emergency inspiring him with fresh courage? He struck me as tragically radiant. His mouth had changed – a subtle unevenness, the slightest shadow, who knows? – whatever it was, his curving lips confirmed my suspicion. A new man emerged. No longer the monarch whom these same valets had dressed that morning. How this might affect me or Marie I could not guess. But I caught a glimpse of his grief.

Finally in this extended discussion of the most important of the triangles, there is the fact, never mentioned in the novel, that Louis is the Sun King, arriving as a visitor in autumn to symbolically depose its king. He is, in the language of the opening of “Romulus and Remus”, the “sunbrother”. And both the kings at the end the opera, when art has the power of engaging its audience by letting them join in the final dances, appear as rustic goatherds. The question arises as to whether the intense power of these episodes arises because the author has tapped into an energy-providing universal myth. But it’s a question I’ve never been able to even begin to answer and I suspect that it requires too many disputable assumptions even to be begun.

One of the pleasures of Hall’s oblique narrative method is that we never hear the final words spoken between Scarron and the king, though we are told that the composer was never seen in court again. We do, however, get to see a final scene between Scarron and his erstwhile rival, the queen. It forms the last chapter of the book and is full of pithy but extremely enigmatic dialogue. We have to wait until halfway through the third novel for Scarron’s judgement on the king, conveyed (thoroughly obliquely) by an old poet accompanying a Danish embassy who recounts his meeting with Scarron:

He drew me aside. “I once loved a prince,” he confessed privately, “who, when he became king, no longer quite deserved that love. He was not evil, nor even bad. He lost his radiance. For political reasons he chose to play the doubter. Then he grew to be a doubter. Doubt was the fashion at the time. But he had no need of fashion. He could have remained aloof and chosen to go on earning his crown . . .”

Though it may be drawing a long bow (a thirty-five years’ long bow in fact) and prove nothing more than consistency, this recalls a poem in Hall’s first book, Penniless Till Doomsday, which compares two Velasquez portraits of Philip IV:

. . . . . 
Unshaken, untried,
you once stood in your finery
hardly a king.
Now discreet in your clothing
you sit king entire -
and yet man incomplete.

Terra Incognita is keen to separate the processes of creativity from the processes of the court – ie politics. And one of the ways in which this is done is by the comparison between the hectic rivalries that dominate the latter and the relationship between Scarron and his theatre architect, Tranquilli, where there is no question of rivalry. Two professionals, both geniuses in their own fields, co-operate to get the work done. Scarron is in fact rather prickly in these scenes, impatiently working through the architect’s plans to see what solutions he has proposed. No doubt it is all idealised but these scenes have great power, taking us as close as possible to the processes of creation since each of the creators has to work in co-operation and thus feel their way into the ideas of the other. The fact that this relationship is the only one of its kind – and entirely unlike those of the court – gives it the right degree of highlighting.

The opera itself is dealt with at some length in the novel and there is no doubt that Hall is invested enough in it to imagine it in all its details. Importantly it changes as the events of the novel’s plot develop. In the beginning, for Scarron, its subject – The Enchanted Island – is an attempt to visualise what lies beyond the reaches of the known and the conventional but, as the events surrounding Louis’ visit develop, it becomes more and more an attack on imperial expansion. By the time of its first performance, it has begun to seem a dangerous attack on French policy and risks offending the visitor. But since the visitor has offended his hosts (by supplanting their king) it becomes interpretable to the viewers in the court as a warning against France’s imperial designs on them! Tranquilli’s part is not to be underestimated. Hall furnishes us with a lengthy description of his creation of clouds (by thin wooden lathes attached to spindles inside white cloth) enough to convince us that the opera satisfies all the requirements of a theatrical mind: it will shock and stun and then later reorient the minds and emotions of its viewers.

In fact the mechanisms of the opera seem to be contrasted to the theatrical spectacles of empire which are assemblages of the grotesque, ostensibly for scientific purposes. In the second novel, Isabella Manin finds the Australian aboriginal man, Yuramiru, in a collection of freaks for which her father acts as a dealer. In a sad irony – reminding us that Empires are all the same whether of east or west, she finds herself curating a similar collection in the court of Aurangzeb. In Terra Incognita, the initial, “feeling-out”, interview between the Lord Treasurer and the narrator, takes place in the court’s “Cabinet of Art” where, among the collection, are bottles of dead babies:

He reached among the clutter of wax pots, surgical instruments on trays and boxes of talc to pick up another of these fine large jars. He held it out towards me. This baby was tinier still, a newborn boy with washed hair, eyelashes and translucent ears. As the Lord Treasurer turned the glass in his hands the manikin drifted around like a compass in oil. “Little monkey,” he swore crossly, “won’t face me.” No matter how he rotated its death chamber that child – eyes wide open – confronted me instead. Confronted me with the unblinking perfection of an arrested moment not of death but life.

We can allegorise this out in many ways – the tug of the need to react to events as a human being rather than as a politician reaches the narrator through this child and later his own child – and it has a profoundly comical as well as grotesque element. But, at another level, it is a representative of the kinds of collections made by the scientific outreach of the imperial venture. In Australia (and North America) in the nineteenth century, this appeared as the bizarre need to measure the skulls of native people and the interest which the Ottoman sultan, the pope and the Venetian merchants have in Yuramiru in the second novel, The Lonely Traveller By Night, is exactly this kind of interest in its nascent form.

Finally, I want to say something about the dynamic structure of Terra Incognita, surely one of the main reasons for its success. It will come as no surprise that one wants to speak of this in musical terms because I am convinced that that was how it was conceived. The endless rivalries which I have described are cycled through in a way that makes one think of a fugue (though it could also, I suppose, be seen as a theme and variations). It is also quite possible that the entire novel is conceived as the first (allegro) movement of a seven part musical piece and I have always wondered whether there is any structural significance for the novels as a sequence in the fact that seven is the number of notes on the heptatonic scale. Significantly the first novel describes the writing of an opera and the last (The Day We Had Hitler Home) describes the central character’s being present at a performance of Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra in a hall in Munich in 1919, a piece which, she feels, has in it intimations of the future.

Seen as an entity in itself, Terra Incognita has a spectacular opening describing the complex procedures (which the narrator as a recently promoted Gentleman of the Bed Chamber is involved in) for bringing the food from kitchen to dining rooms to serve the king and lesser members of the court. The narrator is required to oversee the complex procedures for poison-tasting and is happy to tell us just how miserable the feasting process is for the rest of the court who, according to protocols, cannot begin any course until the king has finished it. This has the dynamic quality of an overture and it is no accident that, as the tension ramps up towards Louis’ visit, court protocols are introduced again as the equally complex procedures for people arriving to stay at court are described: as with the feasting, there are many uncomfortable and unhappy members of the court. The whole book is clearly allegro in tempo and the beginning of this process will give some idea of the energies of narration which have been building:

Although the daylight was only just fading, flares outside already sputtered and brightened. Boys ran helter-skelter with lanterns to guide the rain-shiny coaches rolling in. Tired horses snorted steam while grooms darted among them repeating the names they were to announce and shouting directions to the drivers. Pale powdered faces, blurred behind streaming window-glass peered out at the palace through distortions of rain. Rain swept down and swept on down out of a glowering sky to cascade across the vehicle hoods and splash carpets of crystal coronets among the horse hooves.

And so it continues, not just mere fine writing (of the kind that always seems pleased with its own sensitivity) but fine writing whose pace and material is determined by the structure of the book so that this set of arrivals is merely a dynamic preparation for the arrival of the Sun king himself. If the ordinary local visitors provoke prose as good as this, we might ask, what will the visiting king, replete with the mythical trappings of the usurping bridegroom, produce. In other words, Terra Incognita is a musical book. Or, perhaps, it is an operatic book. It is full of the intertwinings and sudden, theatrical (in the best sense) surprises – rather like Scarron’s opera.

Since my concern is Australian poetry, I don’t keep any sort of watching brief over Australian prose fiction but clearly twenty years is a long time in the publishing of literary fiction and readers’ tastes are easily influenced by exposure and publicity machines. But if there are many books half as good as Terra Incognita published in the last twenty years then Australian fiction must be in radiantly good health.

Carmen Leigh Keates: Meteorites

Geelong: Whitmore Press, 2016, 49pp.

I have to begin this review with a declaration of interest. Most of the poems in this book I have seen in earlier incarnations when I myself was in an earlier incarnation as an academic and Carmen Keates was a doctoral student for whom I shared responsibilities with Bronwyn Lea. I don’t think I have had an intimate, editorial relationship like that with any of the other poems which have turned up during the ten years of this site’s existence. I realise that I might be accused of having a sort of foster-parent’s fond regard for these poems but, as someone said, there are two kinds of hometown referees: those who shamelessly favour the home side and those who treat its players harshly out of fear that they might seem to be playing favourites. I like to think that I belong to the second group. At any rate, many of these poems are pared down and so much improved from the early versions that I saw as to be almost unrecognizable.

Having said that, I also want to say that this is a really striking first book announcing an important talent with the ability to engage with issues and perspectives far from the habitual ambits of most readers. It’s something we always look for in poetry: a sign of a unique voice which we hope is good enough to engage us and take us with it on a journey we might otherwise never have made. And the journey of the poems of Meteorites is a complex one touching base with the films of Tarkovsky, Bergman and Kurosawa, dreams, family history and travels in Scandinavia. And the mode of journeying is distinctive: these poems do not operate by smooth, lyrical graces but rather by sudden juxtapositions and detours.

Two examples will demonstrate this nicely. The book’s third poem, “Gålrum Gravfält”, is based on the author’s surprise discovery of one of the great Bronze Age sites on the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. We know from other poems that Keates is riding a bicycle on a longish journey from Ljugarn to Nãrsholmen in order to visit the site where Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice, was shot in 1986. (To the north of Gotland is Bergman’s island, Fårö, where, three years after Keates’s bicycle ride, the annual Bergman Week festival would celebrate the film’s thirtieth anniversary):

. . . . . 
                                     Today I bike for six hours
in an upright sickbed inside a fever-dream
where a Baltic Sea island creates a road to move me
in an unwitnessed procession past actual milestones.

I’m on my way to somewhere else but pull in
where I see a sign saying something here is historical . . . 

In other words we meet the “seven boat-shaped graves” – one of which has a “motherly juniper over it” – as a distraction on what is really a pilgrimage, usually the most end-focussed of journeys. And the pilgrimage itself is undertaken in a mildly bathetic way, riding a humble bicycle while “incredibly ill” from a long flight. All of this makes the sudden appearance of the graves of the site not so much a distraction, a turning at right angles to one’s road to explore another world, but rather a kind of ambush staged by another reality. And, as I’ve said, this is mirrored in the structure of the poem itself since what might have been a solemn meditation on the unreachable minds of the Bronze Age builders of these stone boats is interrupted by an account of a story told in Helsinki by an art historian about his deaf grandfather.

In the book’s title poem, a long meditation on the great scenes towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker where the three protagonists are in The Zone, there is a similarly shocking irruption derived from an anthology of Eskimo poems edited by Tom Lowenstein:

The Eskimo Uvavnuk
has a poem in which she tells
how she was hit by a meteorite
and as a result was made a shaman.

Uvavnuk waves her arms towards
the bad fortune and spirits, crying,
Away with it! Away with it!
We should all try this in our homes . . .

I don’t want to be seen as hammering a simple point but this is a poetry whose structure and methods of development and movement follow one of its central themes: the irruption of other worlds, other ways of perceiving, other “levels” of reality into a life. The journeys of this book are never likely to be merely the movement from one country to another or one culture to another.

As we might expect, gateways (“portals” in contemporary argot) are going to bear a lot of examination. In “On the Border Between the Parishes of Garda and Lau” (a poem, incidentally, which alternates between scenes set in an art gallery in Brisbane and scenes on Gotland at a site near Gålrum) we follow a pathway which is both into a forest and back in time into the Bronze Age. Although gateways can be crossable in both directions, in this one “Hoof prints go in- / to the forest, yet none come back out” and the forest has an absorptive quality, sucking even sound out of reality. This is a feature of the most potent “portal” in the book, the well that Writer sits on the lip of at the end of Stalker in “Meteorites”. As the poem describes it, the scene begins with Writer being resurrected, rising from “a death pose”, though the interest is really in the way he has been “elsewhere”:

. . . 
This place has killed him first
then released him and for a moment
he has been elsewhere –

like the owl that disappears
in that jump-cut
on those low, indoor horizons
over artificial dunes
of soft and dangerous dust . . .

Just as The Zone in Stalker is capable of making life (and owls) disappear, so it is also capable of rendering a well bottomless by making a stone thrown into it go “elsewhere” at a stage of its descent. The well is thus “a mouth that does not speak / but only swallows, / like outer space” – a more intense version of the forest that exists in the liminal space between the two Gotland parishes.

Although “Meteorites” finishes by pointing out that we always say that Earth was struck by meteorites, never the other way around, there are cases here of two-way portals. In the book’s first poem, “At the Bergman Museum”, the author rides away from a storm building up over the Baltic:

The lightning is concerned with a secret
affair far off in the unlit Baltic.
Only the rain comes home.

Tracking down the road, my bicycle, my eye,
past the Viking huts with their weird antennae,
I am riding a lightning conductor away
from a museum about a recluse . . .

The poem wants to explore the allegorical possibilities of a fraught situation: perhaps the pursuing cloud is Bergman himself, haunting his admirers like an avenging angel. But the poem finishes by considering the possibility of a two-way interaction between inspiration and masterwork:

                         For if Ingmar’s films broke

into his dreams and, as he said, sat at the base
of his soul, maturing comfortably like mighty cheeses,
perhaps now he haunts the work right back . . .

The final image of the final poem of the book, a poem about Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, is, perhaps fittingly, about a gateway, in this case the strange gateway of memory whereby we can move into the past (when we remember) but the past can, often in dreams, move into our present. “Memory”, the poem says “is a demon that walks / like a soldier from a tunnel”. I think this image probably derives from the dream in Kurosawa’s Dreams in which a soldier is confronted by all his comrades killed in the war emerging from a sinister tunnel. Interestingly, the first one to emerge from the tunnel is a suicide dog, complete with explosives, a reminder of the dog in Nostalghia who in the previous poem, “Domenico’s Dog”, “stalks / the perimeter of Gorchakov’s sleep / as though there were a fence there he / finds a hole in”.

The dominant issue of the poems I have looked at so far is the way the various levels of reality and “foreign-ness” that we live within and which live within us can be activated and explored and, when we have no control over them, accommodated. The poetic problem – which I think Keates handles with great success – is how to keep such poems unified and coherent. But the poems of Meteorites have other interests too. “Cloud on Mount Wellington”, a poem about a much homelier totemic site than those of far-off Gotland, has a decided interest in the interrelationship between perspective and creativity. It juxtaposes a tourist’s trip up the mountain (with the bus driver/guide’s comments inserted in a dry demotic) with a dream about the elements of a novel seen from above; that is, seen from the physical position of a mountain top:

. . . . . 
Last year I dreamed I saw the plan
for some wunderkind’s novel laid out
on the floor of a warehouse. Chalk outlines
of different continents and Scandinavian coasts
were drawn on the bitumen. Regions demarcated.
Artefacts grouped on blue tarps.
Everything was meant to be

viewed from above. . .

The result (as I read it) is a description of what happens when an artwork “works”, when the bell, the forging of which occupies a very long stretch of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, actually rings:

This writer was revealing
something he knew to be right
but its elements had to first be
arranged properly, tended,
for it to manifest at all.

What he was preparing to reveal
would as much be disclosed to himself
as it would be shown to others . . .

There are a lot of complex things happening in the poem (the obsession with cloud and condensation, for example, which appears in many of the poems relating to the Tarkovsky films) and it would be oversimplifying to see this as a “poem-poem”, one engaging with its own method and the principles that lie behind the other poems of the book, but that is undoubtedly part of what it is doing.

Although reality and dream interact in “Cloud on Mt Wellington” it’s tempting to group it, in this book, as one of a series of domestic poems, a series which would include “One Broken Knife”, “Burning Train”, “I Bought My Father an Axe”, “I Remember Two Lines Upon Waking” and “Leaking Through”. Though the basic situations are far from those of Andrei Rublev or Nostalghia, the way the poems work and what they want to explore are not dissimilar. In “One Broken Knife” and “I Bought My Father an Axe” we are in the world of totemic objects, no less dangerous for having been (or being in the process of becoming) domesticated. And the poems, though domesticated and having none of the glamour of Gorchakov’s Italy or Rublev’s Russia, have their own, rather wonderful weirdness. In the second of them, the poet, having got her gift home, puts it on the kitchen table:

. . . . . 
I put a bow on it. My axe. I tried to introduce myself more,
just until I handed it on. I had this feeling it wouldn’t come when called,
somehow, not just yet. No trust. I wondered, Is any axe new? . . .

It’s strange, distinctive and as far from cliché as it is possible to be.

“Burning Train” and “I Remember Two Lines Upon Waking” are dream poems, the former an especially powerful vision of passengers inside a passing train who barely register that it is on fire. But this dream is interspersed with memories from childhood and, especially, with the misunderstandings of childhood that create yet another reality:

. . . . . 
As a child I remember Dad calling
the electricity company to report
that on the pole outside our house
the transformer was humming.

To me at four, these words meant war
was coming, and I packed
my baby doll’s clothes in a suitcase
and waited in that living room
to hear the tanks come down the road,
cracking our bitumen . . .
And “Leaking Through” recounts hearing (perhaps at the edge of sleep) a woman’s shout and deciding that it belongs to another world which is “leaking through” – not all interactions between worlds need to involve wide open portals that can be crossed in either direction.

Of course, separating the poems of this book into those about Gotland, those about family and those about film obscures the fact that their interests and methods are remarkably similar. There are two newer poems though, “The Bandit Without Mifune” and “Smoke Talk” (the former alluding to Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the latter to Bergman’s Persona) that seem more like poetic meditations in that they don’t have the startling juxtapositions and alterations to a different mode of reality that the other, earlier poems have. Whether this heralds a new method is something that only a second book will reveal, but for the moment it’s enough that we should content ourselves with the remarkable poems of this remarkable book.

Peter Boyle: Ghostspeaking

Newtown: Vagabond, 2016, 370pp.

The simplest way to describe this remarkable book would be to say that Peter Boyle has invented eleven, mainly Spanish-speaking, twentieth and twenty-first century poets and made a fictional anthology which is a selection of his English translations of their imagined work. Beyond that it’s rather difficult to describe it accurately. One could look to Boyle’s Apocrypha published in 2009, another work of great ambition and sophistication, for comparisons and contrasts. There we were given an anthology of imagined lost texts delineating a version of our own world but, whereas the focus of Ghostspeaking is fairly tight (the dominant language is Spanish, the oldest of the poets born just before the turn of the twentieth century and the youngest in 1965), Apocrypha ranges over a vast expanse of human history – nearly two thousand years – actual and fictive.

And Ghostspeaking isn’t entirely an anthology – there is a lot of novelistic activity going on inside it as well: the lives of the eleven imaginary poets are sketched in and their relationships and interactions with the author brought to light in a way that makes you think of an author’s professional journal/diary with translations appended. And at another level, Ghostspeaking could be described as an extension of the well-known genre of what might be called “the text-based uncanny”. It is full of the markers of this genre including mysterious manuscripts appearing in the post or being discovered hidden away in a barn. There is even a gramophone recording, found among business papers. In keeping with this genre, identity seems compromised at all points. Lazlo Thalassa an “eccentric Mexican poet of mixed Bulgarian and Turkish origins”, for example, who initially claims his work is itself a translation of a manuscript written in Persian on the shores of Lake Ohrid by a “heretic refugee from Urbino” turns out to be Miguel Todorov, a research scientist specialising in plate tectonics and significantly sharing a surname with the scholar known for his work on the fantastic (or uncanny) as a genre. This is an extreme case (the Argentinian Elena Navronskaya Blanco is, in contrast, biographically positively demure) but the overriding sense is of identity as a kind of vertiginous labyrinth among people who are at the behest of “forces larger” than themselves. It extends to the author himself who at one stage receives a letter addressed to Peter Doyle and, in another, is mistaken for the late actor of the same name: his response to this (in a footnote to a passage dealing with his translation of Lazlo Thalassa) is important for the ideas that lie behind Ghostspeaking:

I remember, several years back, a friend sent me a link to a blog where a young woman had just published one of my poems and one of her friends had posted: “I’ve always loved Peter Boyle. Everybody Loves Raymond is my favourite programme. I never knew he wrote poetry.” I wanted to write to say I am not Peter Boyle the American actor, but was I sure? By then he had been dead several years but he seemed much more alive than me. Perhaps in some way I was him, lingering on under his name, slowly acquiring his face now he was gone. Perhaps I had always been his amanuensis. How can anyone know that someone else isn’t writing them? And I thought: maybe all the dead have the same name.

Although the idea of ghost-speaking is a complex one in this book (involving, especially the idea of “ghosting”) this would be a case, literally, of a ghost speaking.

This generic element in Ghostspeaking (there is a similar though much less significant element in Apocrypha) seems to me the least interesting part of the book but this may derive only from my sense that it is a tired, creaky old genre. At any rate, during my first reading of the book I fought against it, dreaming of a purer (or perhaps merely more extreme) version of the book: a faux traditional anthology with only brief biographies of these poets introducing selections of their work and omitting the poets’ dealings with the anthologist altogether – as one would in a conventional anthology. But you can see why it was never possible: the editor would have had to create a rational for the inclusion of these, and only these, eleven poets and one can’t imagine how this could have been done. In Ghostspeaking they select themselves by their various involvements with Peter Boyle.

One could approach Ghostspeaking from quite a different angle and see it as, at heart, a collection of poems by Peter Boyle which, of course, in a sense it is. This would lead one to explore the relationship between the eleven poets and their creator. Are they genuine heteronyms in the Pessoan sense or simply masks that allow Boyle to extend his range? I’ll leave the answer to the first part of that question to experts but my sense is that are not true heteronyms. They are not speaking parts of the poet’s unconscious which simply emerge as fully fledged individual poets. I think Pessoa somewhere invokes the idea of a class of “semi-heteronyms” and that might turn out to be the best description of these eleven.

On the surface it is the poems of Ricardo Bousoño that most seem to resemble those of Peter Boyle from collections such as The Blue Cloud of Crying, What the Painter Saw in Our Faces and The Museum of Space. This might explain why he appears first in the book and also last – thanks to a collection of poems imagined to be written (and translated) later in a newer, simpler style. From an included interview we learn that Bousoño is Argentinian by birth, gay, and, fundamentally a non-political poet. He is also in a permanent state of exile – symbolic of artists generally. He fled from Argentina to Brazil after the military coup of the mid-seventies and lived in São Paulo before moving to Spain and thence to Mexico. Boyle, as all readers know, is a passionate verse-ethicist concerned with the cruelties and viciousnesses of the world. Bousoño is somebody who has lived in places where injustice and oppression are far more overt than they are in, say, Australia. But he has never taken the route of becoming a political poet, like Neruda. This is both an unconscious choice – the political poems to be written from exile in Brazil simply never occur, despite his efforts – and a conscious one: “I didn’t want those bastards to think they’d captured my psyche for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to give them that satisfaction”. Speaking of Juan Gelman (whose son and daughter-in-law were “disappeared” in Argentina’s dirty war) he says: “I respect Juan Gelman of course, there’s no need to say it, for all he does, though seventy percent of his poetry is I think pretty slight, one-dimensional or very thin . . . I could never sit down and write poems of witness”.

You can see the relevance of Bousoño to his creator here: how does one deal with the miseries of the world when one’s location and experience prevent one speaking as a witness. And what would being a witness do to the poetry anyway. Poetry of documentation has the problem that it puts the recording of injustice (and other acts of evil) before poetry itself. Ethically this is probably quite defensible. But poetry is a despotic force itself and is quite likely to ensure that such poetry remains “thin”.

The poems by Bousoño in his section begin with a breakthrough poem, “House Arrest in São Paulo” working the idea that the place of exile is a kind of house arrest. The mode is what I would call Latin American surrealism though my knowledge of this literature beyond the inevitable figures of Neruda, Vallejo and Borges is so lamentably weak that I only have the vaguest general impression. But, for me, it’s a poetry where the demands of “the real” are loosened to the point where revealing and valuable imaginative gestures are made and allowed to determine the direction of the poem. And so in “House Arrest in São Paulo” the image of living in a coffin runs through the poem and becomes a symbol of the inevitable destiny of the poet. In the ninth section we meet another trope of this kind of verse, the figure whom the poet moves towards who is, in reality, his future self:

He is waving to me
 from the farthest room
 at the end of innumerable corridors:
 the ghost I will become.

 in the history of the universe
 has so tenderly familiar
 a face.

But, as one might expect of a breakthrough poem, it contains its poet’s obsessions even if in embryonic form. It focusses on exile: “Once the nomads have entered you / there’s no way of going back, / no way to slow the chaos in the blood” and on the ubiquity of evil in a world where “We are all torturers now”: “Say this only: / what happened elsewhere / speaks now because / there is no elsewhere”. Flight from oppression and the ubiquity of evil turn up in later poems like “I Do Not Trust That Word ‘Oxygen’” and “Freiheit”: “Just by breathing and accidentally / opening your eyes you see them, / Prussian outposts” a reference to the fact that Argentina proved a happy home from home for Nazis fleeing Germany after the war.

Bousoño’s final poem, “Threads”, imagined to be written in a “late”, pared down style retains the themes of the earlier poems but is mainly obsessed by the desire to prevent the world being “disappeared”. To this end it uses the unusual device of long, thin lines (usually no more than a word or two to each), in a way reminiscent of Ken Taylor’s “At Valentines” which, coincidentally, dealt with rather the same issue. But the lines are imagined as threads, appearing in three columns per page, creating the impression of threads which might be plaited to hold on to what is likely to be lost. The poem is quite explicit about it:

. . . . .
 these small photos
 and swaying
 at the piano
 (another of
 my tribe who
 got away)
 my lover
 the pianist
 as on the
 raft of
 his life
 a plaited band of
 at his wrist
 . . . . .
 these sounds
 I utter
 threads we
 weave to lay
 hold of
 the past
 the sounds
 the last threads
 holding things
 after they have
 after the
 nameless ones
 smash the china cups
 shred the photos
 empty our apartments . . .

I dwell on this at some length not only because it is the book’s final poem but because the word “threads” forms a sort of motif running through works by other poets included and if we were to adopt the tactic of reading Ghostspeaking simply as a book of poems by Peter Boyle then it would be an image whose significance would need to be explored in detail.

Threads certainly figure in the selection of poems by Antonio Almeida. If Bousoño is a poet of translocation, Almeida is a poet of visitations. Though these two things can be related (one thinks of Rilke’s endless travels awaiting inspiration) Almeida and Bousoño are entirely different animals with, one suspects, an entirely different set of possibilities for Boyle. Almeida’s poems and fragment of autobiography are tightly enmeshed as part of a narrative conception built around complexly interlocked frames. The overall tone is overtly of the uncanny. Boyle, even before his career as a poet has begun, suffering his own inability to begin to write, stops off in Rome and is met at the airport by a woman who knows to look out for someone of his age, his inherited Irishness and his limp. She takes him to her father whose poems he will translate. Almeida himself, in his autobiographical sketch, describes his own inability to talk as a child and his meeting with Rilke in Ronda (where his father works in the hotel where Rilke will come to stay). Later in life Almeida meets up with Antonio Machado, who shares a railway carriage, at the point where the events described in Machado’s “Iris de la Noche” occur. Later in Uruguay, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, in a state of entire despair after the death of his wife (as well, you feel, as the accumulated miseries of the world described in “The Time of Weeping”) he meets up with a mysterious prophetic visitant (perhaps one of Rilke’s angels) who re-establishes his identity and warns him to leave the country when the violence begins and so Almeida is able to flee to Rome with his daughter and her two children. In Italy he publishes a small book of poems. In Ghostspeaking all of this takes place in reverse. We meet the poems before we meet the autobiographical material that makes sense of them (or better, provides a context for them). Boyle’s meeting with him and his daughter in Rome comes at the end. To complicate these matters in an interesting way, the ”translations” of Almeida’s poems are dated and they are translated in exactly the reverse order to their appearance (presumably in the order in which they appear in the Spanish-Italian edition published twenty years after his death).

As a compressed exercise in uncanny fiction this is brilliantly done and it may only be my lack of interest in that genre that makes me undervalue this component of Almeida’s story. But the poems themselves are rather marvellous and the way in which the autobiographical details illuminate the individual poems is exciting. Since Almeida is a quiet figure whose life is never going to be explored in detail by literary biographers, the only facts we have are those briefly recounted in the autobiographical sketch. So it’s a matter of putting a prose text next to a poetic one. The little twelve-poem selection has at its centre a café poem in which a long mirror doubles everything; the first poem is called “Waiting” and the last “Conversation While Waiting”.

Staying with the question of what these created poets have to offer Boyle, their creator, there is the case of Lazlo Thalassa (Miguel Todorov) whose poems are flamboyant, often grotesque and, stylistically far from the poems of, say, Almeida or Federico Silva which retain, despite their celebration of the possibilities of an unrestricted imagination, just a touch of distinctive orotund solemnity. Thalassa’s long poem Of Fate and Other Inconveniences shares the preoccupations of much of the poetry of Ghostspeaking but allows itself to be written as a kind of faux newspaper-headline summary of the parlous state of things (“Public opinion managers replace counsellors and statesmen. Meanwhile plague and war remake the earth”) followed by a more conventionally toned but equally grotesque poem. Number ten (of thirty) for example:

(Meetings by night on mountain passes. Cinqueterra’s journey to the Eastern Marches interrupted by rival film crews. Fortinbras and the Afterlife Investment Fund move west.)

Sent back from Parinirvana he sees:
 the golden pulse of the sun spinning
 wildly like a potter’s wheel, dry
 salt-crusted earth and a sagging
 banyan hung with voodoo dolls.

Later Thalassa translations include a tour-de-force describing the arrival of the god of love in seventeenth century Venice (coinciding with the invention of opera) and a monologue by Prince Myshkin, imagined to have been translated to Mexico City (“on the sidewalk the blare of a city / workmen demolishing whole blocks of humanity / gourd-carvers knife-grinders hat-hawkers taxi cabs fruit stalls”) accompanied by a letter from a guilt-ridden Dostoevsky to his own fictional creation apologising for having dragged him from Switzerland to enter his novel at that remarkable and justly celebrated opening of Idiot:

. . . . .
 Maybe every life is like mine.
 Maybe every life has so much guilt
 it outstrips us,
 a shame so large
 there can never be room for the saying.
 Maybe that is why we have ghosts,
 those detached portions of uncontainable guilt
 that go on trying to speak . . .

In other words, these are themes familiar from the book but in a very different mode. One suspects Boyle is exploiting the tonal possibilities opened up by what is called the Latin-American neo-baroque here: he is, after all, a translator of José Kozer.

In this respect, a final poet worth looking at briefly is Ernesto Ray because his poetry is of a deeply different kind to the others. Imagined as a popular Puerto-Rican singer-songwriter in New York in the 1980s he abandons popular music for a much harder road. When his partner begins to die of cancer he produces the poems of his only, posthumous book, which are designed to be spells: that is poetry of the most ancient, performative kind. Ghostspeaking includes parts of the preface to his book:

Magic is not easy. Spells are not made casually, don’t happen just because we want them to happen . . . . . What pleases people immediately, what can be understood immediately, is incapable of casting the deep resonances that make poetry happen. The language of a poem-spell needs to be more wrought than that. One-dimensional poetry, linear poetry that can be pounded out at a New York rap club, that thrills the youngsters or fits neatly into the thematic units of educators and academics, none of that can work any more. Not for me at least. Not for what I need now.

The resulting poems are not at all what one might expect from a poetics built on the idea of magic: they never name the sick woman, for a start and are oblique in other, surprising ways (most of them are about other women, for example). The final poem is, if not a spell, then at least a prayer built around a homely pair of coloured sandals:

. . . . .
 although this dark world grabs at you
 you have stepped
 onto the soles of an altered shining
 that these simple swirls of colour may
 spiral up your legs into your inmost
 core of being . . .

Although each of these eleven poets represents a figure Boyle can inhabit and exploit (perhaps Dostoevsky’s letter to Myshkin should be read as an apology made by Boyle to his poetic creations) I can’t help but feel that Roy’s comments about poetry (“I don’t want audiences drawing me back into well-worn stories of who we are, what we suffer. Identity isn’t magic. The poet magicians weren’t hung up about the dividing lines between their people and other people” and so on) are close to Boyle’s own. But that would be something that was very difficult to prove.

David McCooey: Star Struck

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2016, 90pp.

This new book of David McCooey’s is written in the aftermath of a heart attack – what is now called a “cardiac event”. Massive singular experiences like this must pose major issues for a poet. If you’re committed to charting the patterns of your life then this is going to make a dramatic centrepiece, comparable to divorce, birth of children and so on. But not many poets, nowadays, are committed to a poetry of open documentation. In the case of a recent book by Joel Deane, Year of the Wasp, written in the aftermath of a stroke which affects the speech centres and thus is, perhaps, more profoundly sinister for a poet, the option of a kind of symbolic self-myth is taken up. McCooey is never given to this degree of flamboyancy but, like all those wanting to chart the odd things that happen in our inner lives, he can hardly avoid the repercussions of such a major event. You would have to be a poet from the extreme end of the spectrum, clinging to Eliot’s theory of a necessary impersonality on the part of the poet, to ignore it altogether.

Most of the poems dealing with the physical event are corralled in an opening section called “Documents”, a title that can, just conceivably, be read as a verb rather than a noun so that this section “documents” the event. But all of these pieces are genuine poems, standing on their own two feet rather than appearing as wodges of information justified by the greater project of documenting-the-traumatic. The first of them, “Habit”, sets the tone by avoiding any overt reference to the illness. It is “about” the poet’s son reading a book on Ancient Egypt and its culture of death and rituals of burial. At the end, the boy makes his own playhouse equivalent of what is really a tomb:

. . . . .
In the morning, dressed in his gaudy pyjamas,
he builds with his mother a room-sized construction
out of chairs, cushions, and blankets,
filled with unblinking stuffed toys and plastic jewels.
They are playing tomb raiders. You are invited in.
In your sacerdotal dressing gown, you get on
your hands and knees to enter the labyrinth.
You are shown the bewitching everyday things
that have been set aside for the afterlife.

The stylistic markers of McCooey’s poetry are here, especially the quiet domestic tone and the preference for second person pronouns over first. But the issue touched on – what objects would you choose to accompany you into the afterlife if you were blessed (or cursed) by a religion that made that possible – is a fascinating one. On a comparative cultural level we know that at various periods and in various cultures people have taken slaves, horses, food, jewellery, weapons, pet dogs and a host of other items. It’s rather like the question of what one would save if one’s house suddenly erupted in flames: although it seems a simple issue it uncovers immense complexities of personal and cultural values. And, as the later poems documenting more of McCooey’s experience will make plain, this afterlife that the poem concludes with, will be life after recovery from the heart attack. It’s odd to think that an Egyptian pharaoh, met in the Egyptian equivalent of paradise, would have seen his decline and (probably painful) death as we might see a successfully recovered-from heart attack. “Habit”, like other poems in this book, is also marked by that sensitivity to harmonies and resonances that marks out this kind of poetry. I used to think of this as a method of accretion whereby a central theme attracts to itself images and, more significantly, entire events. It makes a poem unified and structurally strong while, at the same time, widening out its significances. An example here is the mention of the homely fact that the son’s bath towel is made out of Egyptian cotton. It’s a potent and oblique introduction to the poems of illness and threatened death, and has a decidedly sinister reference to the god Anubis, “presider of the weighing of the heart”.

As for the other “cardiac” poems, they are, as one would expect, habitually oblique. In fact you feel that the extreme experience, in McCooey’s case, heightens existing responses rather than wrenching him off track into a completely new dimension. McCooey’s poetry is always highly sensitive to ambient sound for example. One of the first poems of his first book, Blister Pack, is “Signal-to-Noise Ratio” which begins, “The refrigerator keeps in time with cool darkness. / A video records, though the screen is blank. / Even the stereo cannot be silent”, documenting the almost inaudible but nevertheless present sounds of the world expressing itself, perhaps even the background hum of the universe itself. In the cardiac ward poems of this new book, there seems a similar sensitivity to the background noises of the hospital. “Music for Hospitals” is a clear documentation of this:

Sunday morning.
The sound of church bells;
a patient answers her phone.

Nurses recalibrating equipment:
“Four, five, six become
seven, eight, nine . . . . .

only to conclude with the arrival of the specialist with his silent students looking like “graduates / from The Village of the Damned”: a shift to the visual (film) and silence. And when the final poems of this section want to document the weird sense of being given, by surgery, a new life which is, paradoxically, much the same as the old life, the conclusion goes back to the ambient noise of existence:

Delivered by green-clad
medical staff to this place,

you enter the realm
of the second-person singular,

a new you
to ghost the old,

the one on the other side
of a recalibrated life:

a body lying in
a bed, alive to

the homespun sounds of
each unprecedented sunrise.

It’s not a confronting world of blaring sirens and brightly lit theatres but a continuation of life with some earlier elements redefined and emphasised. As well as ambient sound, there is a continuing sensitivity to the metaphorical component of language use, especially the double meanings produced by the endless multiplication of dead metaphor. The first poem of Blister Pack was called “Occupations” not because it was about careers but because it was about where people chose to live. Something similar happens here in the title of the poem, “Callings”, which is not about vocations but about painful telephone calls. Similarly the phrase “one way or another” in the poem of that name begins as a promise of information about the date of the surgery – “’We’ll be in touch / each Wednesday / to let you know / one way or another’” – but the phrase itself begins to seem mysterious or even sinister. What meant, in context, “whether it’s a yes or no for surgery this week”, seems to move to meaning “by one path or another” and thus “in one direction or another”. And so the next stanza slides into a common McCooey binary of the inside as opposed to the outside:

And so your future
waits, somewhere
outside, while you
sit inside and re-read

Muriel Spark . . .

And the poem follows this through since after weeks of high-stress anticipation – “your nervous system / a shivering horse within you” – the poem says: “But everything can wait, / one way or another, / as you discovered in earlier / visits to the cardiology ward.” We expect this kind of linguistic sensitivity in poets, of course, but it’s worth noting that in McCooey’s poetry it isn’t connected to a high level of metaphoric intensity (we’re a long way from Hart Crane here) and actually, in an odd way, seems connected to the sensitivity to ambient noise. It’s as though each of these little alternative meanings (“way”, “callings”, “occupations” and so on) represented a sort of hum at the linguistic level, matching the hum of sunrises and refrigerators at night.

If the first section is dominated by noises, the second, “Available Light”, focusses on the visual, though that title, of course, also has sinister connotations for a person with a life-threatening illness. The first poem is a collection of titles of early photographs and taps into – at least for one reader – the disconcerting effects of these early images: they are simultaneously fascinating and, though visual documents, weirdly unreal: they make us seem voyeurs, looking into what should be an unrecorded past in the way that contemporary snapshots almost never do. But the emphasis of almost all of the poems of this section is visual representation shorn of emotive interpretation. Sometimes it is highly precise and imaginatively verbal “capturing”: the poem, “Available Light” includes, among other images, “a low-slung cat” which “crosses / the photographic dusk” and “the science-fiction lighting / of deserted 7-Elevens”. In other cases – “Scenes From a Marriage”, for instance – we get an absolutely denotative, verbally flat representation:

A man and a woman
walking on a beach.

Their small child runs
across the hard, wet sand
of the intertidal zone,
from one parent to the other.

A strange dog barks
at the waves, or the wind,
or at nothing.

Now the child – unrelenting - 
is wanting to be carried.

The car park in the distance;
a scattering of vehicles
in a cold, unsentimental light.

This is not entirely unlike “Three Hysterical Short Stories”, especially the brilliant second “story” where a car, parked across the road, becomes, for no real reason, progressively sinister. One has the sense in poems such as these that it is types of visual representation that are being explored rather than types of poem – rather as in the “The Art of Happiness” sequence in Blister Pack. Something the same happens, though by different mechanisms, in “The Doll’s House” (another poem whose title alludes to a Nordic masterpiece). Here both house and its occupants are described as though they were living people and the description of the dolls gives some access to the personalities of the inhabitants, so that the father, for example,

sits in front of the television,
     with his fixed smile.
If you look closely,
     you will see he does not view the screen.
Instead he is gazing off into the middle distance . . .

“Whaling Station Redux” is a rejection of an earlier poem, “Whaling Station” from Outside – “What trash, that poem of mine about the whaling station / we visited in Albany in the primitive 1970s . . .” The rejection is ethical not poetic (the earlier poem is, as far as I can judge, a perfectly good poem as poem, certainly as good as its counterpart) but the occasion is visual. It is built around the poet’s father’s slides of the visit (as perhaps the original poem was – it describes brother and father taking of photographs – though if it was, this is converted in the poem itself to the recording of a memory) and finishes with the difficult issue of how to explain what happens in whaling stations to a small child.

Interestingly, the second last poem, “Letter to Ken Bolton” – an accretive, interlaced poem like “Habit” – visual in that it is set in a power outage, documents, with fitting epistolary casualness, the experience of playing a recorded “performance” of “The Waste Land” and relishes the interpretive intensity: “Shaw made “The Waste Land” strangely sexy; the / Cockneys in ”˜A Game of Chess’ funny and tragic”. All this at the expense of Eliot’s own reading which is described as “adenoidal”. It’s unexpected that in this section of rather bleached visuals something baroquely verbal should be preferred – but perhaps for McCooey quiet obliqueness may only go so far.

Fittingly the last poem in this section dominated by the visual is devoted to darkness – the absence of “available light”. It’s a dramatic monologue finishing:

. . . . . 
                    Night after
night you dream of me. One day
you will wake up for good,

and there I will be, at last.
Your new and endless climate.

Don’t look at me; I don’t compose
any kindertotenlieder.

There is the same weighing of clichés that I commented on before in the phrase “for good” but the last lines are a little tricky. My tentative reading is that darkness is saying that the poet need not fear that his writing about death in the poems of this book will precipitate the death of his child (as Mahler’s setting of the “Kindertotenlieder” – “Songs on the Death of Children” – was supposed by his wife, Alma, to have, in some way, precipitated the death of their own older daughter, “Putzi”). But it’s a very tentative reading.

The last two sections of Star Struck don’t, to my mind, have quite the compelling qualities of the first two. The third section comprises eighteen dramatic monologues relating to the “music industry”: speakers include the secretary of the Beatles, the photographer Patrick Lichfield at the Jaggers’ wedding, an Elvis fan – “reaching back, / until I find that boy in a Tupelo shotgun shack”, a Stevie Nicks fan, and so on. Much of my difficulty in responding to this section probably derives from the fact that popular music has nothing like the powerful hold on my memories and emotions that it does for McCooey and so I can’t really intuit the significance of the poems for the poet empathically. The series is called “Pastorals” ensuring that we read it under the rubric of the pastoral and its contemporary incarnations and ironies. The last poem is a brilliant one, being spoken by a monkey waiting to be used (by “the tailless ones”) as an experimental subject. It’s a nightmare anti-pastoral, wonderfully controlled:

. . . . . 
My metal cage is hard, like
the light and noise of this birthplace.

The quiet sounds of night are our food;
our food is a trick, as if we didn’t know.

In the night of night that the big ones
call dream, I see green, endless.

But that sweet retreat does not last;
each sunrise delivers me to this world.

The day/night dichotomy invoked here continues into the two shortish narratives of the final section, both being nocturnal stories. Both are, in a way, about the interpenetration of reality and unreality: one accomplishes this by the juxtaposition of a hoax call at a school camp and the other by the uncanny movement of objects in a widower’s house. It’s as though the night world had a reality not quite the same as that of the day and when the two get mixed, strange things occur. All in all I prefer McCooey’s lyric poems to his monologues and narratives but you want good poets to explore and extend their range as much as possible.

Nathan Curnow: The Apocalypse Awards

Nth Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016, 63pp.

One thinks of Nathan Curnow – based on his previous books as far as the recent The Right Wrong Notes (which is really a kind of miniature selected poems) – as a fairly familiar kind of biographical poet expanding the inner life by exploring the social and family worlds: he writes touchingly though unsentimentally, for example, about his children and thus, by implication, about his own experiences of fatherhood, one of those inner-life expanding events available to many. There isn’t much there that would prepare us for this new book, The Apocalypse Awards, where the subject is the end of the world and the mode, fitting for such a grotesque imaginative scenario, is largely surrealist. On first reading it seems like a momentary aberration, perhaps an attempt to escape an image of himself as a poet which seems too limitedly cosy and has just a suggestion of being a pre-conceived project. Its nearest relation might be an earlier book, The Ghost Poetry Project, in which suites of poems were written about ten supposedly haunted places in Australia. But the grotesque, violent and imagined territory of the haunted is hardly as intense as the apocalyptic and, on top of that, was marked by absences: no ghosts appeared. Readers were left to guess at the poet’s stake in the experience and in the same way a reader has to guess at his stake in the fifty-two poems of The Apocalypse Awards. What makes the question worthwhile is the way the poems develop with successive rereadings: fake projects usually look inviting but rarely sustain interest. These poems, especially those in the first and middle sections, have a pleasing habit of staying in the consciousness and flowering there, grotesque images and all, and that rarely happens unless they derive from the deeper layers of authorial creativity.

A clue for readers might lie in the two epigraphs to The Apocalypse Awards. The first is attributed to Kafka (though I had never previously seen it) and points out that the so-called Last Judgement is actually “a court in permanent session”. The second is from the Neil Gaiman graphic novel, Signal to Noise (also something I’ve never read), in which a character says, “There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones”. This invites us to read the poems as extreme projections of what might be a more subtle internal state. If I suggest that a candidate for an internal state which expresses itself in apocalyptic imagery is clinical depression, this comes from the fact that the only parallel work I know is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Anyway, on – as they say – to the poems. The book is in three parts, made up of two lengthy collections with a single long poem, “The Lullaby Pregnancies”, separating them. The poems of the first section are rather narrative in cast, often dealing with imagined preparations for the end of the world, and are often faintly comical and quite grotesque. The poems of the final section are collections of nightmare images, much more surreal in method, and often dream-driven. The central poem, “The Lullaby Pregnancies”, connects with the end of the first section in which the causes of the apocalypse are put down to over-breeding on the part of humans – “no one blames a tree in its final season / for blossom that outdoes itself / the world remembering what it once did best / before giving up all together . . .” It’s a really nightmarish and violent scenario made palatable, oddly enough, by its surrealist cast which seems to put the entire poem in a bracket and marks it as an extreme byway of the creative imagination. The five poems of “The Lullaby Pregnancies” rather enact the movement of the book as a whole, beginning with a reasonably comic recreation of the way humans with their industries and their fads react to something and gradually becoming more disassociatedly surreal. We begin with “Team Love” who hand out pregnancy test kits for all:

Team Love will arrive with pregnancy tests
requiring compulsory participation
introducing the term “lullaby pregnancies” -
this implausible wave of conceptions
it came before locusts and deep image colour
world’s end – a cinematographer’s dream
when all I ever did was touch myself
to recorded whale music
PREGNOW - PREGWOW in a large envelope
10x Urine Collection Cups
a pregnancy pack with 25 strips . . .

We are in the middle of an apocalypse which is, in a sense, the inversion of those narratives (like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) where the end of the world occurs through sterility. But, as I have said, the faintly comical government agencies quickly become sinister and almost unimaginably violent (except, of course, that it is imaginable):

we’re blaming the midwives hunting them
they’re stripped and dunked to one hundred
we set traps – a woman full-term on a platform
every new-born baby another riot
they armed themselves so we spread more lies
we hang placentas in trees for the morning . . .

In the final poem we leave the expecting mother about to give birth and about to seal the hatch of a bunker where she and her new-born child – “I’ve a sharp boiled knife the cleanest towel / the gas lamp I’ll hiss along with“ – will die together when the food runs out.

This five-part poem is a hinge between the two longer sections. As I’ve said, the first section is made up of poems which investigate grotesque responses – on the part of governments and individuals – to the oncoming apocalypse. In the first poem, “The Last Day”, we are briefly introduced to jargonised responses from religions – it is called “The Great Migration”; the media – sedatives are provided free by a weekend newspaper; and individuals (always the more interesting and moving) – “there will be a club gluing model planes / quietly in the candlelight after curfew”. One of the things that makes this a poem which stays in the memory is its painful conclusion:

the voices of trembling children singing
louder children louder like rehearsed

I’m not sure where in Curnow’s experiences of fatherhood this image came from but it rings wonderfully true and reminds us that the earlier poems of parenthood such as “Bath Towel Wings”, the second poem of his first book, No Other Life But This, have a darker side that balances the cuteness:

Embracing herself in bath-towel wings,
corners clutched with tight, pink fists,
she waits for pyjamas in the centre of the room,
warmly dripping what is left of the bath.
I don’t want to die, she says, and if I could waive
death somehow, waive it like a day at school . . .

The other poems from the first part of The Apocalypse Awards go on to explore the sorts of imaginative possibilities that “The Last Day” introduces. There will have to be, as the book’s title confirms, a Hollywood-style Awards Night, for example, technically irrelevant but “some kind of ritual at least”:

. . . . . 
Should we celebrate? Yes! Now more than ever!
and that’s when the host pulls out
the winner is Tango Defeats Depression
thanking God becomes a bigger joke
the orchestra is ready to drown on cue . . .

In “Death Duty” – “we are all on it / getting promoted every day / constantly filling the vacancies” – we meet “the only industry in perfect health”; “Duel” records the pre-suicide moments of a couple who have spent their entire relationship fighting; “At Tender Touch” the closing down of a brothel; and “Christians” the altogether calmer, professionalised approach – they “break into small groups to share / Kingdom Rule – What It Means For Your Super. But other poems record more insane scenarios which have more poetic promise perhaps. There is an outbreak of Houdini-like escapology – “the last global craze” – and “The Angel” describes a bizarre ritual in which people, often in organised groups, line up to kick the angel of destruction in the groin. Again it is the comic bizarrenesses of human group behaviour that stimulates Curnow as he imagines single mothers, boy scouts (hoping “for a last-minute badge”), and Cancan girls all lining up at the free-throw line of a basketball court, waiting for their turn.

Perhaps the best of these comic-horror scenarios is “Séances” which proposes not, as one might expect, a simple increase in spiritualist activity but a situation in which there are so many dead to send messages that the Ouija boards get out of control and go on banging out their messages despite the desperate attempts of the users to stop them:

. . . . . 
some wrap it in blankets and stash it in a drawer
some submerge it in a tropical fish tank
an anonymous narrator dictates War and Peace
and the back story of the Cheshire Cat
something is spelling quality mince matters
perhaps a butcher with undying remorse
this last parlour game this after-life rhythm
a constant tapping of fees and charges
Rosabelle-answer-tell-pray – believe believe believe
over and over from beneath the house
wedged in a locker at the Ever Fit gym
abandoned in a food court at an empty mall . . .

From “Back Paddock” on, the poems are not so much explorations of responses to the Apocalypse as descriptions of extreme activities which require a generalised apocalyptic atmosphere to occur. The message being, I assume, that this kind of behaviour is becoming more and more the norm as groups of Americans plan for life in a post atomic-war age. “Library” gives the best description of this imagined world as “a mix of The Road and World War Z / plus A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. In this poem a group barricade themselves inside a library and set off searching for How to Take Hostages for Dummies. In “Legoland” the world is taken over by lego simulacra of reality and in “Meteorite” someone who finds a landed, smoking meteor – surely the most harmless of visitors from outer space – finishes up taking it into the chicken coop where he reads it “Gilgamesh and Ozymandias”. And, finally, there is a description in “Botanicals” of people strapping flower bulbs to the backs of their heads so that, when they die, their bodies will nourish the plant. Grotesque but, in it’s odd way, rather moving.

The poems of the book’s final section are surrealist pieces organised so that they begin with poems that “make sense” in the apocalyptic environment of the rest of the book but which gradually become more extreme. How much they are based on dreams – that regular provider of meaningful but incomprehensible images – it’s hard to say though “Dreamliner” and “Bear Forest” both tempt the reader to interpret boat and forest as symbols of dream. The first poem, “Red Shawl Flapping”, seems entirely coherent:

there are not enough flowers and the wolves close in
a baby wakes in an empty house
a splash upon the doorstep and a red shawl flapping
but nobody heard the shot
strands upon the spade that remains unhidden
a plot of earth beneath the pines
the moon comes chanting at the broken gate
the rope puzzles remain unsolved
cicadas sizzling above a war of wheat
sparrows revel in the dirt-bath dust
a television turning the milk upon the bench
toward a slow bold hunter’s nose
and the baby the chanting a red shawl flapping
on the grim slack whip of the line
a racket of carriages passing in the distance
everything gets dragged outside.

Clearly we are here in an environment which is part crime-scene, part Brothers Grimm. The images are laid down bluntly (rather like the “racket of carriages” of the poem) but they get a kind of incantatory effect by their repetitive structures, an effect supported by the use of the slightly archaic and formal “upon” rather than the more demotic “on”. The repeated phrase, “red shawl flapping”, prepares for the later poems where there is a much more intense repetition of important statements.

By the time we get to poems like “Excluding Guns and Ammo”, “Confession” and “Ravine” we are a long way from coherence and in a nightmare surrealist world whose images are consistent in that they share the apocalyptic atmosphere of the rest of the book. But if there is no humane “cuteness” there is also no palpable emotional commitment. As such, there may be a therapeutic function in the sequence or there may be an adjusting of poetic reputation on the poet’s part but, either way, it’s hard to see the poems of this final section as representing a road one would want Curnow to travel too far down. A poem from the middle of the final section, “Ex”, seems to want to be read as symbolising the dream images as a circus (a symbol that goes at least as far back as Rimbaud and perhaps further). I read it (somewhat nervously) as a critique of the keeper by his ex-wife: both of them being components of the creating consciousness, one providing the material the other keeping some kind of control. But when she says, at the beginning, “the keeper is living in a fantasy / dream sequences are for losers these days / my job is to keep the talent tight / in the circumspect light of the compound” there’s a statement there about dream-images that might be true for the poems of this final section.

Peter Rose: The Subject of Feeling

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2015, 78pp.

One of the best descriptions of Peter Rose’s poetry is to be found on the blurb (not normally a site of good descriptions) of his third book, Donatello in Wangaratta, which, after mentioning intelligence and a delight in language, speaks of “a heightened awareness of life’s surprising gifts and irredeemable losses, a contemporary and cosmopolitan sensibility”. Of course there is no causal relationship between the two parts of this description but both are, in their own way, true and serve as a good way of describing this new book.

To begin with the second part: one of the things that marks out Rose’s poetry as so distinctive is that, while it explores a complex and intense inner life, it’s a life which is lived in the context of an urbane, cosmopolitan, professionally literary outer life. Everyone’s inner life has, of course, an outer life as a sort of vehicle or protective shell – we are all, after all, situated somewhere in our lives, in a job, an age group, a country – but Peter Rose’s outer life of the activities of a major literary editor, the inevitable visits to the opera or a gallery or a book launch, hours spent at mind-numbing proofreading etc, isn’t really like the outer life of any other Australian poet. It has been said that it feels rather English but this is only because such a professional life is more likely to occur in England where publishers and non-academic intellectuals are rather thicker on the ground. Rose’s national identity (or perhaps, Victorian identity) is, anyway, impeccable since he grew up in a rural town the son of one of Australian Rules Football’s greats.

My feeling about the slight strangeness of the milieu in which the experiences of these poems occur is that it tells us more about other Australian poets than it tells us about Rose. It’s surprisingly odd to read a poet with, apparently, absolutely no interest in landscape, for example, and it’s a reminder of how important landscape, and the various ways its significances can be configured, is to Australian poets. Even Slessor, whom one might look to as a similar literary intellectual, equally a man of the city, has poems about landscape and at least one about the cosmos even if those poems make the point that those things are alien and disconcerting. One might look to Peter Porter but Porter’s exterior life was spent in England and though he happily speaks of “the permanently upright city where / speech is nature and plants conceive in pots” there is a lot of confrontation with landscape and alien geographies in Porter’s poems. And then there is the fact that Porter’s and Rose’s poems seem so entirely different that you feel that the comparisons were made out of ambience rather than poetics.

Then there are “life’s surprising gifts and irredeemable losses”. In Rose’s poetry the former can derive from art but they are usually amatory. He writes brilliantly of the revelations of falling in love even though the experience probably contains the seeds of its failure. There is a poem, “Cheap Editions”, in his first book, The House of Vitriol, which describes those intense moments of literary discovery that happen in one’s late teens. First St John of the Cross encountered in “one of those nasty American editions, / putrid spores and tight-arsed spine” and then Camus’ outsider introduced at “one of those ill-lit parties” turns the world of the saintly doctor upsidedown. But the poem finishes: “Then I met someone, for the first time. / Contentment, voluptuousness, blasted forever”. In other words (as I read it) the early literary passions are essentially trivial and self-indulgent in the face of a real, if temporary passion. Rose has always done this really well: the title poem of Donatello in Wangaratta is about the revelation the child experiences when he sees a print of Donatello’s David.

The failures and losses the world imposes are always present of course. “Sentence” from Rattus Rattus, imagines the self as a kind of Roman victim waiting for the senate’s decree and, probably, the method of execution. As the poems progress, the failures of love become less about love and more about memory, a memory which fixes certain scenes, dates and anniversaries. Thus “Bait”, from The Catullan Rag, begins:

It was one of your last visits.
My memory is sharp, even clinical,
gives interviews like a criminal . . .

Much of this comes together emblematically in the first poem of The Subject of Feeling, “Impromptu”. (Actually, technically, it’s the second poem since the volume is prefixed by “Twenty Questions” an answer to Donald Justice’s poem of the same name. Interestingly the first poem of Rose’s first book, comprises twenty reasons for failure and “Notionalism” in The Catullan Rag is a list of twenty kinds of notion.)

Moments ago, back from the library
and the noisy, populous park
(that shrill of infantocracy),
I was entering our building when
a magpie swooped – taut dart of surprise.
. . . . . 
Well, I was beyond cavilling,
too full of the poem that Donald Justice
had absently enjoined me to pen,
the poem that might lead somewhere
or fail to ascend. Four flights up,
our terrace doors open to summer,
you were playing an Impromptu
by Schubert (very carefully),
arpeggios audible on the street,
if the street cared to attend.
I stood there listening,
mindful of the magpie
and his fierce, nesting, arrowy urge.

There’s stable love, intimacy and music in the upper floors here and they are approached by a poet with his head full of a poem that might or might not work (described in terms of leading somewhere and ascending). And yet the whole thing is framed by a dangerous magpie. I take this to symbolise the darker side of the world and its treasures. It’s tempting, momentarily, to try to be a bit more precise – the magpie is ferocious because it is protecting its nest but poet and partner have no young; or the magpie comes from the natural world into this urban world of flats and music that deliberately excludes it – but in the end, I’ll stay with the slightly more general interpretation.

The “irredeemable losses” that the world imposes are not only amatory ones, of course. There is a trauma at the heart of this inner life and it is one that is continually revisited not to probe a sore tooth but to explore memory: Rose’s brother, Rob, became a quadriplegic after a car accident and died comparatively young. Rose’s much admired memoir, The Rose Boys, details these events but they have always been part of his poetry going back as far as “I Recognise My Brother in a Dream” from The House of Vitriol. In The Subject of Feeling the second section is devoted to poems which are memories of family and the long poem, “Tiles”, which seems, at first, to be about his mother’s experience of eight months in hospital with rheumatic fever and no visitors quickly becomes a story about Robert, in hospital, staying sane by trying to count the tiles in the ceiling of the ward.

As I’ve said, you feel that, as Rose ages, memory itself becomes the subject of the poems rather than the event which is memorialised – something that occurs in Tony Judt’s brilliant memoir (equally devoted to trauma), The Memory Chalet. And movement is involved here in interesting ways. Sometimes you feel the poet move towards memory but, at other times, memory moves towards him. That’s the reason, I think, why “Late Autograph” stays in the mind: Rose is signing copies of The Rose Boys when he sees, in the queue approaching him, an old flame from his adolescent past. What to write? In the end, words fail to solve the problem and the friend gets “something fond and anodyne” but though words fail, memory doesn’t and we are left with a sharply focussed image from the past:

. . . . . 
                                       And then,
transcending those wraiths of reality,
you were standing in front of me again
brazen amid a horde of admirers -
naked, panting, grazed down one side,
towel over your shoulder, teasing me,
calling me nicknames, sweet, aromatic.

If we stand back from this poem a little we can see a situation in which the trigger of a memory moves towards the poet through the mechanism of a queue. Another, “Dux”, which involves meeting with an older woman poet, also is set in a queue though here the queue symbolises a procession of poets slowly getting older but always retaining the same relative positioning. It has a wonderfully oblique opening (a bit like the first sentence of A Passage to India) – “I always remembered her, / if I remembered her at all, / which was not very often, say once a year . . .”. But it is really about another issue of memory: though our memories may be clinically clear and we may be confident as to what the actors of those memories mean to us, we cannot be equally clear about what we mean to them in their own memories. Memory, as an important early poem, “The Wound”, suggests unfortunately inclines towards solipsism and here the older poet says “cordial things about a past / more apparent to her, more vivid, tangible.

The quote from the cover of Donatello in Wangaratta which I’ve used to structure these observations so far, also has a comment about Rose’s “delight in language”. It’s an interesting issue and one remembers another early poem about his brother which says:

You never understood my lexical craze
but I could spend eternity hunting for a
long beautiful word for addicts of anniversaries.
There must be a name for it, a need. . .

In Rose’s previous books I’d always felt that part of the structure of individual poems involved a certain linguistic tension. Many of them seemed to have one unusual or unusually-used word which, you felt, was a way of tightening the poem’s cross-braces or, perhaps, of suggesting the existence of a more complex lexicon that might produce a poetry that is more precise but less comprehensible. I haven’t spent any time on this issue here because I have a sense that it’s not as consistent a feature of the poems of this new book than it might have been in the past. But one poem demonstrates it nicely. “The Vendramin Family” is about Titian’s famous painting:

And why the shocked awe on the staircase
leading nowhere but infinity?
Tell us now, earnest youth
in the second row, mouth open
in something like mystification - 
the idiot as inspirado?
Listless we shelter in the gallery,
the gallery as reliquary -
wet from the London rain,
shaken by wonted sirens,
half-expecting catastrophe
in a handsome guise. Who knows
which way the wind blows,
why the candles lean fondly to the west.

The final section of The Subject of Feeling is a twenty-five poem addition to Rose’s “Catullan Rag” a series imagined to be in the style of Catullus. I think the function of these poems is to allow the poet to let his hair down a little and enter a reasonably scabrous version of literary life, its petty hatreds, viciousnesses and loves, without causing insult to anyone in particular. Thus:

Give up, Catullus. Bury your umbrage and head for the bush.
Warty Suffenus has just got an OAM,
Postumia a Pulitzer for her comic sequel to Moby-Dick.
Wither away, Catullus. Why don’t you just die?

The first thing to say about this enjoyable series is, I suppose, that they tap into only part of Catullus: the epigrams. I don’t want to appear like a picky pedant here, but I love the poetry of Catullus as much as Rose does and I can’t help but feel that someone who went from Rose’s poems to those of Catullus would get quite a shock at how much more they are than mere literary scabrousness – imagine coming up against any of the poems from numbers sixty-one to sixty-four. And even the epigrams almost always sustain themselves not by the shock of their coarseness but by their complex (though witty) structures. It’s also worth pointing out that these poems might now be seen as part of a genre: there are versions of Martial (who I think might be more like Rose’s Catullus than Catullus is) by Peter Porter and Laurie Duggan, David Malouf’s continuing series of modernisations of Horace, some imagined poems of Catullus by David Brooks and Geoffrey Lehmann’s rather wonderful imagined poems of Nero. Someone, one day, will write a long and involved essay about this and what it might mean in Australian poetry.

The second thing to say about the poetry of Catullus vis-a-vis that of Rose is that the former is marked by two traumatic experiences, represented by the two lines of Catullus which have passed into the language. The first (“vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus” – “Lesbia let us live and love”) introduces Catullus’ experience of the agonies and ecstasies of true love and the second (“atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale” – “and so, forever, brother, hello and goodbye”) the untimely loss of his brother whose grave, in the Troad, he is able to visit only in passing. None of Rose’s poems about his brother, Robert, have any connection with his “Catullus” poems, and chronology argues against it, but still it is hard to suppress the idea that a hidden link of loss between the two poets has somehow suggested the idea of inhabiting Catullus’ voice.

Rae Desmond Jones: A Caterpillar On a Leaf

Glebe: Puncher & Wattman, 2016, 57pp.

Published in 2013, Rae Desmond Jones’s selected poems, It Comes From All Directions revealled a poetic career of two halves with a twenty-seven year gap between. The first part was marked by poems of a gritty immersion in the world of the inner city streets often producing disturbing monologues. The poems of the latter part were committed to exploring a host of new directions. This new book develops out of this exploration. In form it focusses on one of those possibilities – it is made up of fifty ghazals – and seems to be aiming for a new and deeper kind of lyricism, lyricism always having been an element of Jones’s work despite the fact that many of the earlier poems wanted to extend the range of language in poetry by including the scabrous.

To look at the formal issue first, the ghazal – really a classical Persian form though with Arabic origins – has made fleeting appearances in Australian poetry, first (as far as I know) in the later work of Judith Wright. Essentially it is made up of a series of “couplets” whose second lines, in the classical form, all rhyme (often multisyllabiclly) or share the same final word. In the latter case the effect is very like the rhetorical scheme of epistrophe. Ghazals can be unified lyric meditations but they can also be a series of disjunctive end-stopped propositions, a serial set of brilliant detonations. In the poetry of Persia’s greatest poet, Hafez, this is taken to an extreme so that the act of reading the poem is to discover the hidden string on which propositions are threaded. I hope I won’t seem to be drawing attention too much away from Jones’s book if I give my beginner’s literal translation of one of Hafez’s most famous poems by way of example:

If that Turk of Shiraz would take my heart into her hand,
For her Indian mole I would give Bokhara and Samarqand.

Bring, O winebearer, the remains of the wine which is not found in heaven
But by the waters of the Rokhnabad and the flower gardens of the Mosalla.

Alas for these saucy gipsy girls who disturb towns with their ”˜skill',
They have taken peace from my heart as Turks steal booty from a table.

I know of that ability to daily grow in beauty which Joseph possessed,
How love drew Zuleikha out through the curtain of chastity.

The beauty of our lover does not need our incomplete love.
What does the beauty of her face need of make-up, or eye-liner! 

You spoke harshly to me and I rejoiced, thank God you spoke well,
A bitter answer is suited to sweet ruby lips.

Listen to my advice, my dear, the advice of a wise old man
Which the happy young hold dearer than life itself.

Tell fables of musicians and wine and seek less the secrets of Time
For none have solved or will solve these riddles by wisdom.

You have sung the song and threaded the pearl, come and sing sweetly, Hafez,
Over whose poem the heavens have poured the splendour of the Pleiades

(The name or, more precisely, the nickname, of the poet in the last couplet is a convention and the sex of the “Turk” in the opening is indeterminate and a male should, if anything, probably be preferred. For contemporary Australians that probably disorients the reading of the poem more than it would have for the fourteenth-century contemporaries of Hafez. The exquisitely beautiful fourth couplet refers to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife who, in the Islamic tradition, is called Zuleikha.)

It’s a poem worth reading in the utterly different place and time which we inhabit because it gives some sense of the lyric possibilities that the ghazal brings into Australian poetry with it. Above all, the sharp, self-contained utterances prevent that extended discursiveness which the conventional English language lyric is given to. Not that there is anything wrong with that per se – indeed one of the pleasures of the conventional lyric is the way the utterance falls into syntax through the length of the poem – but the ghazal offers new possibilities to poets. It also makes readers approach the poem differently, not so much translating as constructing the “meaning”.

Jones’s fifty ghazals vary in their adherence to this model. None of them try to copy Persian rhymes, which is probably a good thing, but some stay quite close to the spirit of the form. Of all of them, the first probably stays closest. It is dedicated to “the beloved on the last night” and thus immediately alludes to the idea of the absent beloved, a classic trope in the mystical tradition of Persian poetry where the desire for union with an absent God supplies the power of the verse; it also has the traditional symbols of roses and the moon.

in the dark a woman knits across the table,
          her needles click softly & tenderly.

the smell of roses are rich & sweet,
          the pulsing blood of moving air.

the old pepper tree shudders & whispers,
          the full moon spills silver into my hands.

shadow, what do you know?
          the sinistral mirror smiles along its crack.

the sparkling stars peck at the clouds,
          an angel breathes down my back.

there is no one else in all there is
          & our world is alone in its wick of light.

Despite its traditional appearance, I think this is best described as a poem of celebration and perspective. And as such it is well-positioned to introduce the other poems of the book. The small world “alone in its wick of light” might be the domestic universe of the poet and his beloved, looking out onto a backyard of rose bushes and single pepper tree, but it might also be the world of the whole human race seen in the perspective of the cosmos (the stars) and the divine (the angel).

The rapid alterations of perspective from the individual to the cosmic are one of the features of this book. In a fine poem – which produces the book’s title – each of the first three couplets oscillates between the intimate and minuscule act of writing and a larger perspective which in the first is introduced by juxtaposition, in the second by metaphor and in the third by a dead metaphor which is resuscitated by the first two:

my pen drips dark blue ink,
          hungry rivers break their banks.

deep clefts of my making
          are as distant as the Moon,

words which slide & fail
          the depth of my adoration . . .

In another poem a lamp, seen in a photograph, is “an iridescent expanding universe”, and almost the whole of a late poem imagines the connection between an individual’s desire and the “coupling, birthing, fire” of the whole universe: the last couplet “now a dying body snatches / at the light” plays on the way the word “body” is used of planets and stars (heavenly bodies) and also of the solitary human being. It’s a moot point whether these plays with perspective are encouraged or in some way contained within the formal possibilities of the ghazal but it may be no coincidence that Judith Wright’s ghazals also dealt with cosmic themes (albeit slightly different ones) and the situation of the infinitesimally small but significant human individual.

That first poem also asks “shadow, what do you know?” an introduction to the repeated images of alter egos, inner twins and other selves that runs through this book. A brilliant poem (No VI) describes a girl seen in passing in a mirror’s reflection. It might have been a portrait in Jones’s earlier style but the real interest is in the way she belongs in the mirror world. But instead of being less substantial because of this, she actually has more presence. The poem finishes

         what causes her to hate me?

she is no body to me as i walk on,
          hand in hand with the dead.

Sometimes the other figure is death itself (not an unusual preoccupation for a poet born as long ago as 1941 and now living “in a time of winnowing”) either named as such – “death was such good fun – / booze, drugs & poetry. // how did i avoid you? / so Byronic, so good looking!” – or embodied in an unknown lover “although I have never seen your face / you are near me. // so close . . .” Another internal figure “that thing that is not me” is an embodiment of the individual’s less desirable traits and, in the fortieth poem, a sinister character standing at the entrance to the poet’s street is surely another internal self which has been objectified:

. . . . .
our street rolls out behind him,
          a long tongue of forever.

he hasn’t shaved for a week:
          what questions does he ask?

the whites of his eyes,
          no moon, the darkness.

Whatever the exact perspective, the end of the first ghazal seems to me to want to celebrate our world which is “alone in its wick of light”. It’s a reminder that at the heart of Jones’s poetry there has always been a great love of live as it is conventionally lived, a love for the “fun of life, the sheer / tragic bullshit of it”. The fourth poem, lacking any cosmic perspectives and focussing entirely on a suburban backyard, has an almost Maloufian finish:

leaves mulch my concrete pathway:
          somewhere in the roof there is a rat.

after this year’s winter storms
          the gutters & downpipes block & overflow.

a rough pyramid of sandstone could make a wall
          if i would dig a deep neat trench.

citrus trees produce sweet fruit,
          small oranges, fat grapefruit, oozing lemons.

as we sleep Eden grows around us,
          weeds & bright coloured singing birds.

Of course, celebration only makes sense to us if it is framed by the darker elements of life which stand against it and there is a good deal of poetry in this book which engages that darker element. There are those young who are always potential jihadists in one cause or another driven by lust and money:

what are the dreams of boys?
          a burning itch between the legs,

galleons loaded down with silver
          in a rising storm.

waves of dopamine – images
          of naked houris dancing . . .

In this poem (No XLIV), though, there is a sense of the author identifying with this analysis of the forces impacting on the young because the poem goes on to adulthood (the time of “babies & nappies, sleepless nights” before finishing with a personal plea:

          lord or demon of my brain,

if you exist here or beyond the stars,
          make me indifferent, brave & wise.

There is a poem (No XXIV) about the way our foreign policy and minerals exportation are connected, done as a set of almost comic historical metaphors:

air force 1 hits the tarmac
          as huns bang politely against the gates.

. . . . .

our Roman armies may march North through deserts
          where riches bleed beneath the earth.

bulldozers scrape empty the guts of time,
          they dig our fortune & our grave.

And another poem (No XXII) is, if I read it correctly, an attack on Australia’s media monopoly:

. . . . .
announcements are distributed
          on yellow paper from corners.

we are unused to speech since
          your tongue stopped our mouths.

through broken sewers under sunken roads
          our waste returns,

we have created you in our image:
          all of this belongs to us.

But, despite contemporary media and contemporary terrorism, despite the fact that we recognise inside ourselves alter egos that are often disturbing, and despite the fact that the human world inside its domestic garden or its little “wick of light” is rendered infinitesimal in the perspective of the cosmos, this seems, essentially, a positive and affirming book. For poets it is poetry itself which is usually invoked as one of the most valuable of humanity’s positive resources, an expression of the human drive towards creativity rather than self-aggrandisement. Interestingly it is a line rarely taken in A Caterpillar on a Leaf but the final poem is an exception here. Perhaps it marks a way of responding to the “the sheer / tragic bullshit” of life:

my seed pushes beneath the earth
          unable to break the crust.

still i do what i want to want,
          dipping into the stunted bag of “i can”.

an old eagle watches from the rock
          thinking “what is meaning? did i create it?”

always that girl with long red hair
          scrapes a drum with a furry stick.

there are lots of them have gone that way -
          i will follow them soon enough.

If creativity is one of the best ways in which human beings respond to a positive perception of life out of their stunted bags of “i can”, we can count the fifty experiments in ghazal form contained in this book as a development of new ways in which the lyrical-poetic branch of creativity can move forward.

Liam Ferney: Content

Santa[sic] Lucia: Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2016, 87pp.

This impressive and engaging collection continues in the vein of Liam Ferney’s previous book, Boom. We experience the same immersion in the complex allusions, codes and structures of contemporary popular culture while at the same time registering a kind of distance from it. For a temperamentally late-adopting, island-dwelling recluse like myself it all constitutes a bit of an education and I’m aware of the irony that it is the technology which usually disseminates this culture that also makes it possible, by reading Boom and Content with your Google page ready for action, to make sense of the references. I now know at least the basic information about subjects like John Hughes, Insane Wolf, The Gentleman’s Jolly; I even know what a fixie and a noseflip is.

Ferney is often seen as the kind of poet we go to for an experience of cultural immediacy, an immersion in the ever-changing world of fads, fashions and acronyms. Although his work is very different to that of, say, Pam Brown, Laurie Duggan and the ever-influential John Forbes, it can, clumsily, be pigeonholed as belonging to an approach to existence which won’t accept that poetry’s essential interest is in the deep, personal experiences (birth, love, death and things in between) which are inflected, but never radically altered, by whatever cultural milieu (or, for that matter, language) the poet happens to have been born into. The life experiences, in other words, which don’t have brand names. But pigeonholing like this always seems to finish up obscuring more than it reveals. Ferney’s poetry has its own issues, tensions and dynamics, and they need to be looked at.

It seems to me that it’s a poetry pulled in three directions and it’s the pull that tensions the best of the poems. The first is towards immersion. Contemporary and “popular” culture provides almost all of the references, habitually in Ferney’s poetry, in a web of similes: where else could familiarity be likened to “the Freo Doctor / pushing DK through the final overs of a WACA belter” or a poem’s shapely conclusion be likened to “Senna’s // deadly speed”? Take “National History”, for example:

The port haze wheezes on the harbour
& the oil tanker of regret
              Demtel demo’s dugongs
when the propellers fire up &
              someone’s fiancée flees
for the fertile fjord of shittheyjustmadeup.

Fisheyed noseflips & manual pads
might’ve powered an early nineties
              skinny board tech sesh,
but post-millennial they smell fear.
              Time to resurrect your boombox;
go Jamie Thomas rawlarge / Iron Maiden style.

It’s in two balanced parts, the first is devoted to the present and the second to the past. The present is made up of related maritime images: typical of Ferney’s references he uses a neologism from commercial television – “Demtel demo’s” – for “slices-up”. The second stanza is built on decade-specific fads like skateboarding. The recommendation, surely ironic, is to retreat to the end of the last millennium, the time of skateboards, Iron Maiden and ghettoblasters.

And it’s no accident that this should be a poem which is, in a larger sense, about time (or Time), that great subject of Australian poetry in the immediate pre- and post-war periods, now long disappeared into the past. Here time is conceived as cultural time, its markers being changes in fashion. To be immersed in contemporary culture is, in other words, to experience a situation which is far from that of a kind of timeless continuous present. It is, on the contrary, to be obsessed by time because one is surrounded by rapidly changing markers of the passage of time. We can see something of this in a poem called “Date Night” where the protagonist (a bit like Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam) tries on – immerses himself in – the cool postures of post war cinema finding out that, for it to work, you have to be equipped with a scriptwriter completely in tune with the rapidly changing tastes of the audience:

. . . . . 
And these things don’t ever
come good. Not unless
you’ve got a scriptwriter
blessed with a golden Remington
and an almanac detailing
exactly what next month’s
popcorn guzzlers want
in the Friday night makeout slot.
And even if I was still there at the end
                                  the Forties were all over
and the Fifties were yet to begin.

This poem is preceded in Content by “. . . of the Dead” another poem which is, in its way, about immersion. The poem attaches itself to Shaun of the Dead a film which asks to be read as a funny, profoundly hostile and canny critique of aspects of contemporary popular culture while being made in one of that culture’s topical genres. Here the speaker is a member of the inevitable living dead, shuffling along, waiting

while the eye-patched holdouts broadcast

in some Krushchev-era bunker
it happened so quickly: no d-day all Dunkirk

This is a sort of immersion that introduces a second drive within Ferney’s poetry: that of a desire to find a position in the contemporary world from which to critique that world. In my reading of “ . . . of the Dead” the poem piggy-backs the film’s comment – dangerous to endorse too overtly – that the “public” are no more than living dead, mindless absorbers of the material foisted on them by the controllers of cultural life. In other words it belongs to that element of Ferney which is aggressively positioned against the stuff that bombards our existence. If that means turning him into a contemporary Savonarola there is the evidence of an earlier poem from the book, “Falò delle vanità”, which suggests that it’s a comparison he may have pursued himself though, despite the fact that the poem has plenty of references to rapid changes of taste (“Our dictionary is out-of-date. / The word coined by last autumn’s meme / highlighting its redundancy”), it is also, I think, an attempt at a personal poem and there is never much use for the personal in the pronouncements of Savonarolas.

At any rate there is a great deal of the judgemental in Ferney’s poetry and this is an area where the poetry gets put under a lot of pressure. Immersion in the contemporary always has a kind of poetic life because of the sheer novelty of previously unheard brand names and inventive hipster argot. But judgment is pulled towards the familiar tones of parents and Old Testament prophets. And there are plenty of quotable examples in Content: “Lonesome Death” begins with “We have been unable / to master // the ethics of war”, “Mugabe” contains the lines “We have traded greatness for convenience, / our atrocities are those of acquiescence” and the book’s first poem says openly “Isn’t it enough that we have already / diminished ourselves?” Of course it’s possible that this tone is to be imagined as being in quote marks, a repetition and brief, theatrical inhabiting of a common tone. It’s even possible to defend it as being ironized: part of the contemporary “system” is a space given to clichéd and impotent attacks on that system. But I think that would be drawing far too long a bow. Instead, it might be better to acknowledge that there is a Savonarola lurking inside Ferney and that the anger animates many of the poems while at the same time producing a lot of poetic challenges.

Evidence for this might include the fact that the first and last poems of Content – the frames or bookends – are overtly angry poems. “When God Dies” takes on Queensland’s appalling public media:

So let’s get this straight:

               we don’t do state funerals ”“

but what we do do
                is tabloid extravaganzas starring Valmae Beck? . . .

The poem imagines a film built out of filmland aliases (George Eastman, “Polanski, / an Alan Smithee stand in / for Joe D’Amato”) in which Godard’s Anna Karina “Goes under the axe blade in this / sub B-Grade faux-Bergman B&W shocker”. All of this is a complex take on the mechanisms of B-Grade culture but the poem finishes in the poet’s own voice (though the initial metaphor comes from the B-Grade examples of a different genre):

& I stick to my guns
because the newspapers in this town
                               only report reliably
on gossip, slander & opinion.

The final poem, “The Comments”, whose title must be derived from the usually bigoted and often delusional comments that readers add in the space under journalists’ accounts (as a devoted follower of the EPL and a reader online of English sports journalists’ analyses of its matches, haud inexpertus loquor) is an openly angry piece which does summarise much of the book’s material:

Forget everything you know.
Or don’t: haunt
your secularism,

& define yourself by
the memes you like.
Abandon all coherence

as long as you balance
that marble between
outrage & having

no skin in the game.
We have never
had so much data,

so many stages
to rehearse the sound &
the fury & that’s why

my poems let me say
what Insanity Wolf won’t.
Nice Guy Greg

tells you It’s all Brady
Bunch in the end - 
but it’s not

It’s Ted Bundy rampaging
through a Florida dormitory.
Marcia, Marcia, massacre.

Even a tree branch
mince’s meat.
Don’t look surprised ”“

you fucking deserved it.

That’s quite a tour de force and, like all such, takes a lot of risks. Again, although it could be surrounded by all sorts of protective shells (it’s ironized, it’s a dramatic monologue, etc), I think it is the purest expression in Content of the Savonarola side of Ferney and, significantly, that is the one he wants to leave readers with. It also reminds us that he wants the title of the book to be stressed on the first not the second syllable. And, poetically, it seems a success to me, not least because its mode is so difficult in poetic terms, far more difficult than to invent a poetry driven by immersion in the contemporary.

If immersion and anger are two components of Ferney’s poetry, the third is the autobiographical. They come together in those poems which see him in his role as a public affairs consultant irritated by the difference between real reporting and “press release journalism”. You get a sense of it in the second poem of the book, “Monsoon Season”:

. . . . . 
instead there are crickets & cigarette filters
even though I quit smoking before Christmas
& I never learnt to play the guitar

& if there’s no time for an obituary
stick to a hot issues brief
to cut through the Boss’s clutter

& make sure the hagiography is on message ready
to be spliced up for some news director’s jollies

so when the cycle rolls over in the morning
the frumpy bloggers know exactly where you stand

Although in conventional lyric poetry (built on the idea, as I have said, of “universal” experiences) autobiography is a normal mode, in poetry such as Ferney’s, it is something poetically difficult to do well. As anger is. Forbes is a model here though one is never sure whether the brief glimpses of feelings and personal experience which his poems contain are strong spots or weak ones. Connected to the autobiographical is poetry itself since the most significant part of a poet’s life is his or her poetry. There is a strong tendency in Forbes (and in Ferney) for poetry as an art to be one solid “universal” phenomenon that can act as an anchor point in a world-view which is usually anxious to show that such anchors are a mere chimera. Forbes’s “Sydney Harbour Considered as a Matisse”, listing the features of contemporary life, “girls reduced to tears just once, blokes in // sports cars fuming, their parasite careers . . .”, ends memorably

Can art be good enough to save all this,

plus perfume of frangipani blooms
crushed on sandstone piers? Maybe just.

And you feel the same drive in Ferney’s poetry. “Old Physics” begins with a description of the way quantum mechanics (“the chancers // played dice / at the deity’s funeral”) replaced the previous model, interestingly metaphorised as “carvery classics, // dim sims, Chiko rolls, // potato scallops and / chips gold as glory”. But the poem’s real interest is in how any physics can be used to describe poetry, though the metaphor used for poetry itself is one derived from mechanics:

How do you use
physics to explain

a poem?
A hardly measurable

deceleration into a corner
the slingshot setup

for a home straight
with all of Senna’s

deadly speed . . .

To me all of these issues: immersion, judgement and autobiography (with a poet’s art being one of its crucial components) are riddled with interesting problems. It’s fascinating to see Ferney navigating between them as well as making a high percentage of satisfying poems in the process of doing so. One of Ferney’s poems in Boom had a fine description of its author as “a sceptical astronaut”: “Two Zone Weekly” from Content finishes with a description of the poet and a fellow passenger on a city council bus (the latter reading a “phonebook-thick teen vampire love novel): “we are both of us shucking oysters / diving blindly for pearls”.

Anthony Lawrence: Headwaters

Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2016, 77pp.

“Murmuration”, the second poem of Anthony Lawrence’s new book, is a meditation on the way flights of birds form and unform shapes with what seems like practised ease. The collective noun for a flock of starlings, a “murmuration”, derives from the sound the flocks make. The word itself is Latin and much of the poem is devoted to examining the similarity of the birds in both Australian and Italian (Roman) contexts: the sound they make, the poem says, is the same as the sound of rain “falling over the Pantheon / or through miles of telegraph poles / on the Monaro Plain”. The poem moves towards conclusion as the birds settle down to roost in both locations: the separate worlds of “columns and skylines” and “remnant stands of box iron-bark”:

and where the sky pours down
               like madder lake
                              into the roosting dark
sturnis vulgaris preens feathers
scaled with metal highlights
buffed into song
               and who could not be moved
                              aside from themselves for this.

There is a lot about language here, about English’s dual heritage of Latin and Germanic (it’s no coincidence that the first word used for the birds is “starlings” and the second is “sturnis vulgaris”) but the poem is as equally interested in the sound of the words as it is in their history. It is even possible that the last two lines – bringing the poem home to the effect of its scene on a viewer – might invoke the Greek word “ekstasis” (our “ecstasy”) whose original meaning “out of place” describes the way we can be moved out of ourselves by something (it is the origin of our phrase “beside myself” used to describe the effects of anger).

So, I think, one of the many things that “Murmuration” wants to say is that words have both a history and a presence. It may even be that Lawrence wants to say that uncovering the etymology of words is a scientific activity whereas responding to the presence, their sound and appearance, is a poetic activity. Certainly the whole of twentieth century linguistics is built on the notion that the word’s relationship to what it refers to is arbitrary but, perhaps, the poetic imagination with its tendency towards porous boundaries (as in synaesthesia) is capable of fighting against such rigid separations.

But “Murmuration” is also about the shapes that the birds make and thus introduces an issue that emerges in other poems in the book. “Bogong Moths”, for example, includes a delphic proposition in the middle of a memorable description of other shapes produced by animals:

. . . . .
          as children on farms, we had learned
                      from migrations
and infestations, that form is a mirror for disorder
that the brown shag pile carpet
a drought had unrolled from silo to kitchen
                               had been made of mice
so numerous and fast they moved as one, a ground-
swell of need, that locusts in swarm make patterns
in the air if you lie under them
                               and let your eyes
lose focus to see congested flight break away
from the linear lines hunger draws tight
across the land . . .

I’ve been puzzling over the implications of “form is a mirror for disorder” since my first reading of this book. Perhaps it means that all apparent disorder can be shown to have shape if viewed from a different perspective. In this case location is important and Lawrence is very clear in “Murmuration” that the starlings are seen from below, here by an observer who (in another challenging proposition) is in a position that

could imply supplication
or simply the attitude of someone
at ease with how grace can be
         divisive or calming . . .

The animals themselves (the starlings, mice and locusts) are driven by straightforward needs but, like the formula whereby endless iteration produces an infinitely complex (and in the case of fractals, an incredibly beautiful) result, the patterns they make, when seen from a perspective far enough away to be able to embrace the whole, are examples of intricate unstable forms. And if form can be a mirror of disorder then, as another poem, “Connective Tissue”, says, “disorder // can be the tradesman’s entrance / to mindfulness”.

I emphasise this issue of form, chaos and perspective because it’s part of Lawrence’s complex poetics that I have never really thought about before. I’d always blandly assumed that the startling precision of his images derives from an intense focus on the thing described so that, in the wonderful first poem of his previous book, the oysters on the rocks of the harbour are described as being like “ceramic fuse plates // sparking and shorting-out in the wash” or, in “Paper Wasps” from this new book, the nest is described as being “like a graphite sketch of a shower rose”. Both of these are close to a Hopkins-like precision and, when meshed in a poetry marked by a strong onward syntactic push they have something like the same effect that they have in the poetry of Bruce Beaver (a poet who is both like and very unlike Lawrence) where they have a throwaway quality so that the verse seems to say, “I’ve more important things to do than wallow in precise ”˜capturing’ of parts of the natural world”.

So the poems of Headwaters make one want to look at formal aspects in Lawrence’s poetry, not in the predictable sense of metre, quantity and rhyme scheme but in the sense of the shape of a poem. Starlings may form beautiful and apparently spontaneous shapes but so do poems. The book’s third poem, “Ode to a Whistling Kite”, is worth looking at in detail from this point of view:

I heard you before you appeared. You were hunting
the margins of all things estuarine, tracking the wind-
abbreviated signature of your song.
Descriptions of flight and sound should begin

with how these tidal encampments are home
to three other raptors, and naming them summons
the vowel-driven variousness of your calls:
Osprey, Brahminy Kite, white-bellied sea eagle.

Now I’ll attest to having seen you circle and stall
over the shallows, where mullet were so many
when they turned, the water was lit as though
by bars of polished chrome, and you dropped

to settle in a mangrove, still as the bird below you
in rippling imitation. Often, spur-wing plovers
will fly out to intercept you, the word trespass
broken down into volleys of avian abuse.

Sometimes, if the sky has been reduced to rain
the colour of marsh grass, you will be elsewhere
on the nest you have been shaping and repairing
each year like a busted wicker basket

on a grand scale, or inland, attending a fire
to overrun whatever escapes the flames.
You work the flats for live fish, and turn to carrion
out of season. I turn to you when I need reminding

that wonder and amazement are only a glance away
and that gulls might seem common – that rowdy
beach crowd in white rags craning necks for food - 
yet their beaks and legs are beautiful.

One needs to be reminded of this in full to get some sense of its strange and exciting shape. To begin with, one might see how it seems marked by continuous indirection. Far from focussing obsessively on the thing itself – the highly concentrated, ”mindful” gaze that, allied to a poet’s hyper-expressive language, is supposed to fix the object under view – the poem moves to other matters at every opportunity. It is obviously ecologically correct to say, as the poem does, that you can’t describe an animal properly without describing the animal’s environment as well, but here the poem seems to want to bring in the kite’s fellow raptors just as it wants to bring in the plovers which try to drive it off. It seems entirely deliberate that the poem should conclude not with the bird which is its subject but, first, with an account of how the bird’s effect on the narrator is to remind him that “wonder and amazement are only a glance away” and, second, with seagulls, whose legs and beaks are also beautiful.

This poem so deliberately flaunts the conventions of description, turning away from its subject whenever it can and even refusing that subject a final appearance by letting in a scruffy competitor for attention, that it leads you to wonder what the idea behind it is. It certainly makes for a fascinating shape because the strong onward, enjambed drive of the verse, characteristic of Lawrence, is always deflected from its target. Conceivably the twists and turning asides of the poem reflect, in a mimetic way, the twists and turns of the bird in flight. Also the poem might, like the bird, be hunting on “the margins of all things estuarine”. It could be saying (as it does in passing in the beginning) that you define an animal not by a careful, bird-watcher’s checklist of size, colour, call, habits etc but by locating it in its environment and observing the parts of the natural world which impinge on it, but I think the idea is a little wider than this and is rather about observation, imagination and language in poetry in general. The idea, after all, almost reflects the methods of the French Symbolists whereby the inexpressible is “expressed” by the symbols that surround it; it is also the governing idea behind “negative theology”.
“Ode to a Whistling Kite” makes me think back to the last two poems of the animal section of Lawrence’s previous book, Signal Flare, “Cattle Egret” and “Sightings”, especially the former in which the egrets, “attending stock” become “central // and peripheral” much as the kite does in his own poem. “Cattle Egret” deliberately contrasts the practice of consulting “a text / on wetlands birds // or a guide / to animal husbandry” in favour of “observing // in diffuse, patient ways”. In both cases the result of such observation is an effect on the poet himself, either a reminder that “wonder and amazement are only a glance away” or the experience of having been where “things are companionable / and alive // with possibilities”. And, as in “Ode to a Whistling Kite”, there is a strong emphasis on sound, not in the sense of the bird’s call but in the sense of the consonants and vowels of the animal’s names.
The form of “Ode to a Whistling Kite” is related to that of another Headwaters poem, “Giant Dragonfly”. Here the drive towards finding one of these insects in the hinterland mountains is what gives the poem its relentless forward dimension, but even at the beginning the search is thrown aside by the appearance of other items in the landscape:

In the Nightcap Ranges, in needle-point installations
of light on the rainforest floor, a windfall
of quandong berries
                                 give blue shade a darker hue
and upside down on a palm fringe lit with red beads
a wompoo pigeon is dispersing seeds with a call 
like a mistake: whoops, whoops . . .

All the sounds heard are not the expected one of the dragonfly in flight (“something akin to a low, insistent drone / as when a model aeroplane comes in”) but that of Friar birds, and the quest gets temporarily transferred to the various mimicries of the lyre-bird. Eventually the poem moves away from searching for an insect to the poet himself searching for some kind of identity or peace. Interestingly this too has a language dimension when the word “endanger” is taken apart to make an imperative “end anger”: not something that can be done logically since there is no etymological connection between “danger” and “anger”, but something that works on a non-logical plane. The poem finishes with its searcher “either asleep, or mapping / the area for giant dragonflies” thus, formally, bringing it back to its opening subject while at the same time announcing that that subject has not been found. It also, conceivably, ties the end with the poem’s first line in that the sleep is occurring in the memorably named “Nightcap Ranges”.

Something of this kind of “form through negatives” occurs in a long and difficult poem, “Connective Tissue”, whose title suggests, as does that of a later poem, “Bloodlines”, that the interest is in connections rather than disjunctions. “Connective Tissue” is punctuated by concretised metaphors based on experiences which the poet claims not to have had: the opening lines are a good example:

I have not paused at the summit
of a building or leaned
from the rail of a bridge, waiting

for the wind to turn, and to then
base-jump into the whistling night
my chute thrown clear to open

like an ink bloom in the wake
of the lit canopy of a cuttlefish
but I have stood beside you

as good news came through
the radio-active test site
your body had been . . .

Although the poem is really about connections between the speaker and his past, between the speaker and his partner, one of the things that I think this opening (indeed the whole structure of the poem) wants to say is that an experience can be inhabited imaginatively even though its only function is as a metaphor. The vision is just as intense as in the contemplation of the “real situation” of a medical outcome: witness the memorable comparison of a parachute to the ink bloom behind the canopy of a cuttlefish. In “Giant Dragonfly” the plants and birds which the poem focusses on in the absence of the central insect are realised just as intensely.

These matters of poem-shape, vision, metaphor and language are very complicated and I have the feeling that I should reread all of Lawrence’s previous work to feel comfortable with any of the generalisations. But then, really major poets need to be reread constantly. Certainly many of the other poems of Headwaters can be tied to these issues. “In Extremis” is an unusual poem in that it is ostensibly about an historical figure, Douglas Mawson, but its real interest is in the way Mawson, in a near-fatal situation, finds that his mind creates apparitions or, to put it more relevantly, breaks down the barriers between reality and imagined reality:

. . . . . 
In the late night flare and burn of the Aurora Australis
he finds the arc of a distress signal. In displacements of ice
breaking bone and rifle shots . . .

And, in extremis, he thinks about the origins of his name (we aren’t told whether he thinks of himself as “the son of the gut” or “the son of the sea-mew”), another example of the issue of language hovering alongside perception and imagination. (I’m not sure how relevant it is but it’s difficult not to read this poem alongside Michael Dransfield’s “Bum’s Rush” where the cave in the ice also encourages hallucinations but where the extreme situation is a result of drugs.)

And then there are others. “Loss” is a little poem about forgetfulness and the guilt of forgetting where one’s father’s ashes are – not so much a poem with a perspective from the negative as a poem about something that breaks the connecting tissues. And in “Lies” the lies are imagined to take on a physical form which makes a metaphor concrete – “Saying I had to attend a meeting / when a friend was breaking down / turned my voice into a baling hook / in the wall of a disused wool store . . .” “Paper Wasps”, apparently simply about being stung by wasps might really be about how the fiercely accurate visual sense (the nest, as I’ve quoted before, looks like a drawing of a shower rose) is replaced for a moment in the face of intense pain before reasserting itself in a final image of the wasps’ nest as being like a snow dome with the wasps as snowflakes trailing “live wires”.

It’s a complex and magnificent poetry able to activate our own imaginations in response. The poems’ shapes, which I’ve concentrated on here, are always interesting and challenging, and as a result Lawrence’s poems are never a wodge of imaginative discourse dumped onto the page. At the same time, the strong drive of the verse always means that the aesthetic beauties are never merely effete or self-congratulatory. For those new to this poetry, Headwaters makes an excellent introduction to Lawrence and there is the additional benefit that it comes in such an attractive package. I know I have said this before but it is worth repeating that the poetry series from Pitt Street Poets sets very high standards in book design: these things have certainly improved since I was the publisher of a small press a quarter of a century ago.

Jennifer Maiden: The Fox Petition

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015, 64pp.

Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition is perhaps best seen as part of a rolling project to engage contemporary political and social issues, a project that has been developing since early in her career but especially since Friendly Fire published in 2005. It sets itself an ambitious goal since the disjunct between poetry and the greater public world is a wide one indeed and the latter will take a lot of convincing that the armaments that poetry and its distinctive poetic logic can bring to bear have anything of value to contribute. Significantly, all of the books since Friendly Fire have appeared under the Giramondo imprint, a sign of a publisher being in tune with the direction a particular poet has taken. The accompanying publicity suggests that this might become an annual event, a continuous engagement with the contemporary. I hope this is what occurs since Maiden’s work shows ways in which poetry and an individual analytical process can say something about public life and its dramatis personae. And the ways this showing is done are not fixed but subtly altering and developing.

The Fox Petition demonstrates this latter point even in its title. The essential metaphors of Maiden’s other books, revealed in their titles, are military (her first book was called Tactics) and the post Friendly Fire sequence of titles that I have been speaking of all have titles suggesting military matters: Pirate Rain, Liquid Nitrogen, Drones and Phantoms. The interaction of metaphors of conflict with human dramas both at the personal level and at the social is one of the fascinating features of Maiden’s earlier poetry. When she begins to develop the poetic methods that allow her to write so well about international affairs, those affairs are dominated, anyway, by issues of war beginning with the first invasion of Iraq. This latest volume, fitting for the time in which the poems were written, is rather more interested in issues of migration, of the crossing of various borders from the national down to the personal. The major focus of her hostility moves from things like US politics in the Bush and Obama periods to Australian governmental biosecurity units. As always Maiden shows that wonderful alertness to synchronicities and metaphors which we hope to find in poetries and so the fox of the title appears as an innocent, rather beautiful animal threatened by government operatives as a noxious pest, as a ghost in Asian folklore, as the name of Murdoch’s egregious US network, and as the name of the great eighteenth century Whig statesman, Charles Fox. Nor is this interesting concatenation dreamed up for this book alone: some of them appear in a group of poems from Friendly Fire called “Foxfall”.

You can reread Maiden’s entire output watching how this current mode has slowly evolved. “Mandela in New York” and “Janet Powell Poem” from the 1993 volume, Acoustic Shadow, are early examples of a clever reading of a public individual’s inner personality based on media-transmitted images. By the time of The Fox Petition we have, in “Orchards”, a very subtle analysis of two politically opposed figures, Melissa Parke and Julie Bishop based not on their opposed political positions but on their clothes and the way these reflect both origins and reactions. The poem’s epigraph points out that Parke’s parents owned an apple farm in Western Australia and Bishop’s a cherry farm in South Australia:

When she met the Christians Bishop had arrested
for protesting detention of refugees, Parke
wore a coat like apple blossom: pink,
white and green, translucently. Bishop
on the day the Bali two were transferred
to the death island wore a dress
the colour of cherry blossom, dark pink,
looked gaunt with anxiety. Politics
will pierce you with its empathy, if you
practise it successfully. Apple flowers
spread raggedly and openly, breeze
dapples through them. Cherry blossom
reblooms so densely, brilliantly, that we
plant temples to ensure its resurrection.

One could imagine using this wonderful poem as an introduction to some ideas about the way in which lyricality emerges (and is developed and transformed) in Maiden’s poetry. Here the colours of the women’s dresses are themselves staples of the lyrical tradition, and there is also the fortuitous chiming of the appearances, the odd – decidedly “poetic” – interest in such out-of-the-way facts as the women’s origins, and a poem in Liquid Nitrogen which moves from a description of the way in which a frozen magnet can float to statements such as “Lyricism / is about positioning”. But I’ll leave this complex issue for some future opportunity.

Friendly Fire introduced the idea of a character waking up in an exotic location in each of the first six poems devoted to the adventures of George Jeffreys and Clare Collins. This series is continued in all the succeeding books including this latest one. They are a couple we first meet in Maiden’s second published novel, Play with Knives, a disturbing genre work built on the relationship between these two characters at the point where George is a probation officer and Clare – who murdered three other children when a child herself – is coming up for parole after years of being institutionalised. Maiden tells us in the introduction to the first poems of the sequence in Friendly Fire that George and Clare were resurrected from both Play with Knives and an unpublished continuation, Complicity or The Blood Judge, as a way of entering the traumatic events of what we now call “September 11”: “The two could clearly do New York and in the process, with the freedom of fiction, the horror-inhibited portions of my mind might speak . . . . . I have always agreed with Freud that the imagination is bisexual. It seems to me that you achieve a clearer view if you let the two sides talk to each other. Hence George and Clare”.

The first poems (the ones in Friendly Fire) concentrate on the psychology and situations of players like George W Bush and Condoleeza Rice and the analysis is compelling. By the sixth poem we have what is, I think, the first of the imaginary encounters which grow to dominate later: George Jeffreys meets Saddam Hussein in the ashes of a bombed Baghdad restaurant and the pair discuss both Bush and Saddam’s activities from an ethical standpoint. There are two George Jeffreys poems in The Fox Petition. The first is devoted to a discussion (held while the couple and two friends are on holiday in Wollongong) about the Charlie Hebdo killings and the deaths of dozens of animals in a fire in a boarding kennel in Adelaide. But the surprising thread through this poem is the idea of holiday – the animals were being boarded while the owners were on vacation, as was one of the staff. This transmutes into a discussion of delegation and guilt. As Clare says:

                                            “Every time
some child dies on a school trip, some
of the other parents defend the school, even
sometimes it’s parents themselves. Any 
institution seems more powerful than
human love or loss.” George said, “But it’s just
what you said: the guilt of careless
delegation. And blurring of ego with
any perpetrator . . .”

If you’re coming to Maiden’s poetry for the first time you are quite likely to think of this as rather clunky and put it down to a generalised difficulty that poetry has when dealing with the exposition of abstract ideas especially in a duologue (“Ah, but you say to counter that . . .”) But the fact is that this rather arch but intellectually unrestrained dialogue goes back as far as George’s first interview with Clare at the beginning of Play with Knives and is really better seen as part of Maiden’s distinctive style. The second of the Jeffreys poems is an extended narrative (at over four hundred lines the most extended so far) in which George and Clare, on Kos, observe what is happening to Syrian refugees and become involved when one of these is recognised by their translator as a spy: some Mediterranean-mountainside, night-time shenanigans follow.

The Fox Petition also continues some of Maiden’s imaginary conversations where a contemporary figure speaks to what is usually an admired (and dead) mentor. Hillary Clinton continues her interactions with Eleanor Roosevelt (which began in Pirate Rain) and Tony Abbott continues talks with Queen Victoria which began in Drones and Phantoms. In Clinton’s case the issue revolves around her political “original sin” of voting for the invasion of Iraq and so there is a lot of opportunity for exploring how the “necessary violence” that any person of power with humane, liberal convictions will be involved in will affect their psychology and their morale. This is also explored in “The Possibility of Loss” where Obama speaks to a rather delphic Mahatma Gandhi. Obama is in the situation of having approved a raid in Yemen in which a hostage and a child were “collateral damage”. Maiden seems a lot less sympathetic to Obama (and, for that matter, to Hillary’s and Eleanor’s husbands who appear briefly in some of the poems devoted to this pair) than to some of the other figures she looks at – Bishop, for example – and the implication seems to be that these kind of figures are more deeply entwined in the system, using charm to paper over the various ethical compromises that they are continually forced to make.

The poems devoted to Tony Abbott’s conversations with Queen Victoria are a lot more fun. They meet first, in Drones and Phantoms, near the embers of a gum tree where Abbott has been doing a stint as a voluntary firefighter. His first reaction is one of relief “that she wasn’t Santamaria, Mannix / or Loyola, with all of whom he’d grown / deeply tired of conversation” and when she points out that the use of gunboats to drive back would-be migrants is something her husband would have seen as “extravagance of a similar nature / to that of real war” his reply is memorable: “But, Ma’am, inside me everything is war”. The two Victoria and Tony poems in The Fox Petition continue the issue of asylum seekers and thus harmonise with this book’s most pressing theme. The second of them, “The Famine Queen”, is as structurally complex as one of Maiden’s diary poems and plays with the importation of potatoes into Ireland, the resulting famine (which, really, occurred as a result of monoculture rather than importation since only one variety was brought in and thus there wasn’t enough of the immense genetic diversity present in the vegetable’s homeland) and then moving on to the issue of biosecurity:

. . . . . 
                    “The rumour 
that I gave them only five pounds is not
right: I gave a large amount: well over 
a hundred thousand in your currency from
my private fortune, but the toxic
and imported can be necessary, dear
Sir Anthony” – he loved the title so – “I
myself am fond of potatoes. Do you know,
they called me ”˜The Famine Queen’?” He jumped
to her defence, as usual: “Oh, Ma’am, no:
you are always the source of my nutrition.” She
added, “I see your Queensland Biosecurity has started
a ”˜military-style mission’ against South American
fire-ants, using remote sensors refined
from the US Military. Surely that would mean
rather a lot of money?” It was not just, he discerned,
of fire-ants she spoke: her words were often
dual citizens: knowing he was, knowing quite
painfully about his vanished home.

This might be a point at which one should ask how accurate and how valuable (not quite the same thing) Maiden’s analyses of contemporary macro-political events are. Can they apply poetic logic successfully? Or, to broaden the question slightly, can a poet’s analysis of the greater world ever again be penetrating and important. It’s a complex issue but it’s fair to say that it is hard to imagine this occurring at the moment or in the foreseeable future. It may well be that intellectual life has seen an irrevocable separation between the professional (political aide, speechwriter, journalist) and the amateur (the creative type). I’m not confident enough to pursue social generalisations like this, nor am I competent to pass judgement on the quality of Maiden’s comments about individual politicians and political events. But I am, at a general level, inclined to be sympathetic and the main reason for this is that her judgements rarely fit comfortably with the clichés of the day (what we would now, in an equally clichéd way, call “narratives”). There is a refreshing awkwardness about her view of people that can only be valuably confronting. Julie Bishop, to a casual observer like myself, looks to be a hard-nosed professional politician and Hillary Clinton seems a deeply unattractive power-player despite the continual emphasis on her looks in the poems devoted to her conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. The less someone follows the existing grand narratives – propositions like “Islam is essentially a medieval religion” or “ISIL is a reverse crusade” – the more attractive they seem to me. At one level, of course, this is saying no more than that a poet is free to focus on the individual datum and can avoid making large, gestural statements about societies. But it can be said, if nothing else, that poetic thought is an antidote to the non-thought of ideological grand narratives and, intellectually, I’d be on the poets’ side even if I weren’t as interested in poetry as I am. You’d like to see Maiden’s poetry set compulsorily on school courses because her poems show that it is possible for people to see clearly and think imaginatively and critically, free of imposed and casually accepted media clichés.

So I’m inclined to give Maiden a high level of tacit belief: I love the surprising ways in which she thinks about the people in power and I’m equally interested in her beliefs about issues like responses to trauma, blame, guilt, the issue of incarnation and disincarnation, and so on. At the same time, The Fox Petition makes contributions to Maiden’s evolving sense of what her poetry is doing and how it might develop. We are used to her “cluster poems” and “diary poems” and “x-woke-up-in-y poems” but this book allows for some interesting developments in the latter when Julie Bishop’s mentor turns out not to be a dead human but the Harvard School of Business and, though an earlier poem doubts whether a university department can wake up alongside a contemporary politician, in “Animism” that’s exactly what happens. But “Diary Poem: Uses of the Female Duet” probes the possibility of using a new kind of interaction between public figures. Not imaginary conversations but operatic duets, the simplest example of the operatic ensemble, that wonderful, still immensely relevant, form in which characters sing of their own obsessions while harmonising with those whose obsessions are quite different. It seems the only art form which can do this and Maiden’s appropriation of it has Tanya Plibersek speaking of her personal griefs while Julie Bishop pleads for the lives of the two drug runners in Bali. The form enables readers (as it does for listeners to opera) to focus on the conflict and differences between the characters and, almost simultaneously, on what they share. It is thus another way of avoiding the polarisation which contemporary narratives prefer (and which, for that matter, the western systems of justice and politics require) and so strikes a poetic blow in the right place. “Uses of the Female Duet” is a diary poem whose title declares its subject but it may well be that “Orchards” is the first real “duet” poem.

Brendan Ryan: Small Town Soundtrack

Santa[sic] Lucia: Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, 2016, 91pp.

Brendan Ryan’s first book, the strikingly titled Why I Am Not a Farmer, mined the personal experiences of growing up in the West Victorian country north of Warrnambool on a dairy farm. In a sense, reasons for not being a farmer could be said to form the basis of most of the poems, an unlovely catalogue of hardness to humans and, more especially in this book, to animals: dehorning heifers, hauling calves out of cows, watching a bulldozer bury cows which have been burnt alive in a bushfire. It is what nowadays would be called anti-pastoral, a tradition in Australian writing which begins with the great Henry Lawson stories. But what is striking about this first book of Ryan’s, and the subsequent ones, is a lack of the polemical edge which is so much a part of this tradition: there is no sense, in other words, of a narky contempt of one writer for other writers and even for readers. In Lawson, this appears as a loathing of those writers peddling comfortable illusions about the rural life, in early Murray it is a contempt for cosy urban elites who see themselves as superior to those who work on the land with their “sparetime childhoods”. Calmer explorations of this world can be found in some of the poems of Geoff Page and in Gary Catalano’s first book, Remembering the Rural Life, as well as in the poetry of Philip Hodgins. In fact the last of these appears in an important poem in Ryan’s third book, Travelling Through the Family, important because Ryan here does his own positioning of himself within these rural poetic traditions.

“Philip Hodgins” is made out of two dreams about the late poet. In the first Hodgins is seen driving a tractor around the edges of a diminishing square. The process is like mowing but the tractor is harrowing instead, building up lines of dirt. Like a classic Freudian dream it is built on a verbal pun, here on the word “lines”:

. . . . . 
                                     The windrows of dirt
are stopping me from entering the paddock.
I want to ask him about his lines
yet sense that I will never get close to him.
He seems to be on a mission to work the paddock
to its own manic rhythm. I measure my distance,
windrows of dirt brush against me.

In the second dream Hodgins is pointing a shotgun at the poet demanding that he continue the former’s work, naming him, in other words, as an heir. It’s significant that one of the themes of Ryan’s work is the complicated ways in which farmers who have worked unremittingly all their lives have to take a wider view as they age and begin to make plans for some kind of transference of the property after their retirements (a hard step to take for most) or their deaths. Just as Ryan’s poems have, from that first book, tried to explain his reasons for leaving the farm, of not being a conventional heir, so this dream tries to explain the reasons for not taking up Hodgins’ metaphorical baton. It seems to be a matter of that polemical edge, of the directness and bluntness of statement. The second dream is worth quoting in full:

In another dream he is holding a shotgun at me
pointing it between my eyes. He is looking down the barrel.
He seems tired, resigned yet determined.
This is about the time I am writing my thesis
on his poetry. His rhythmic lines intersecting in my head,
His untimely death, direct nature of his address - 
There’s nothing in these dying days
consumes me and I live in two worlds,
grappling for an argument like a rock-climber
who has lost his footing, arms and legs flailing
for a ledge. He is looking down the barrel at me - 
Now it is up to you, to do this work
which confounds me. I am not up to
such direct statement. One of those moments
in a dream where I feel myself sweat,
wake soon after. A dream to burden the day - 
his words, that stare down the barrel.

Perhaps it’s a rejection of a kind of abruptness and directness that derives from certainties. Ryan, perhaps, feels much more equivocal about both farming and poetry. As a reader, one wants to go on speculatively and suggest that perhaps there is a kind of paralysed indecision at the heart of Ryan’s poetry. Though it poses the question of why he left, many times, and seems to continuously circle around issues of how we carry the past within us, how that influences how we act in the other lives we now lead as parents, as city-dwellers, the question never gets answered to the extent that it no longer needs to be asked. To return to the geometry of the first dream, the tractor doesn’t zero in on the last and central section of the paddock but instead circles continuously.

It’s true that the first book flirts with the possibility of mining his childhood experiences and producing a kind of rural version of confessionalism deriving from the weirdness of being one of a Catholic family of ten brothers and sisters working almost continuously on a dairy farm. As Murray says “I can tell you sparetime childhoods force-fed this / make solid cheese but often strangely veined”, and yet, as many critics have observed, you have to stand outside of yourself to get this sort of perspective: you have to have become somebody you weren’t before you realise that the earlier you has a marketable story. I think, again reading speculatively, that Ryan must have realised that there is a directness about the confessional/expose approach to writing about the rural life that didn’t answer to the way that the issues appeared in his own creative life where they act as a generative mechanism that rejects being reduced to certainties. I’m suggesting, in other words, that we might stop positioning Ryan within the complicated maps of poetic pastoralism and think of him, instead, as an obsessive poet, returning again and again to the issues that generate the poetry. The true binary for him might not be rural versus urban but childhood immersion in the immediate world versus adult disenfranchisement. If we take a single event that recurs a number of times in poems throughout the books – the time when his father worked in the knackery and brought the stink of dead animals back to the house in his car and on his clothes – we could say that what is important is not the specific nature of this trauma (fairly mild, on an international scale) but the very fact that it recurs, generates poems, and can’t be purged – a bit like Dickens’ very unrural experience of the blacking factory.

One way of looking at this new book, Small Town Soundtrack, is to see it as widening the way that this central obsession can be explored. It’s in four sections and though the first of these is called “Small Town Pastoral”, it is the title of the first poem, “Outsider Pastoral” which really establishes the key since the section is made up of poems about unease in different situations. That first poem, a little puzzling on first reading, turns out to be a strong piece in which the poet, an expert in the rules of community belonging, enters a pub and observes three regulars. Since the two men are described as possibly mountain men and the woman is expert enough as a hunter to make fun of city-based tourist hunters, the odds are that this is in upland territory. Readers of Ryan will know that his poems about the rural life take place in the “intimidating flatness” of Western Victoria with its occasional blisters of ex-volcanoes – “a moonscape of low-lying paddocks” as a later poem calls it. Although it’s never stated, you have a sense that the landscape in which this pub is set increases the sense of awkwardness that the poem wants to focus on:

. . . . .
One more pot and the glances will extend
into questions.
Where are you from? What are you doing?
Growing up in the country, I learned
there is a line running like a fuse
between here and away,
between the jokes accepted
and the contentions that hold sway.
Is it better to drink with the locals
or rest your foot on the rail bristling
with accusations?
. . . . .

It says something about the hypersensitivities of Ryan’s poetry that the atmosphere which in other, more clichéd poems (and hosts of genre novels), would be heavy with physical threat is marked only by an intense awkwardness. The poet is an expert on belonging and knows the general rules but even rural environments are self-contained. “Grounded Angels” tells the story (part of it repeated in another poem) of the man who buried his mother and then his wife two days later. When he buried his father, his ten year old son

stood in a lounge room
taking in the cousins, the silences
as if the person we had been thinking of

had quietly left the room.
Out of politeness, the boy grinned
as if it was a trick he could call upon.

Of all the images of unease, belonging and not belonging, this is one which stays with me: it’s an exquisitely awkward response on the part of the boy but it also makes sense. (This kind of poem goes back to a group in Why I Am Not a Farmer including the wonderful “Country Parents in Town”). In “Dairy Farmers at the Beach”, we meet father, mother and the children on a brief outing to the coast, another symbol of unease in an alien environment: “For they are an inland people / the beach is a type of joke not to be taken / as seriously as a basket of washing, / shifting the dry cows, or getting ready for Mass” and, in another poem, a man waiting while his wife buys underwear, “happy to be on the outside / as if entering between the bras / could instill a type of vertigo / a paddock he’s not used to”. But the setting is as likely to be urban as it is rural: we meet a single girl at school reading during recess and parents picking up kids. A spell of walking the dog (an activity where the sense of unease is mitigated by the fact that you are in the charge of an animal with its own, different sense of belonging) runs the poet up against an individual who is about as far from belonging as it is possible to be:

. . . . . 
I think of the old man who used to stop me:
I hate this area, I grew up in Geelong West.

The way he waited at the picket fence,
his discontent at 93.

Bare carport, blinds drawn
his liver brown brick veneer

caught in the creep of McMansions.
How did he wash up here?
. . . . .

If the first section is a set of variations on the theme of outsider unease, the second section, “Songs of the Clay Mound”, is built around the idea that, as people age, popular songs move from being something that sets the body dancing to nostalgic doorways into the past. “Where the Music Takes You” is made up of a list of destinations beyond such doorways and “The Music That’s In Us” says, “Songs from pubs and shops leave me ajar // the way snatches of Barry White in the supermarket / can hurl me sideways into a decade”. Songs are not only triggers of a return to an earlier personal world, they can also be portals to an alien world: “Across the Universe” is a fascinating meditation on the way in which John Lennon is part of the poet’s childhood life but he has no part in John Lennon’s life,

The local radio station hammered “Just Like Starting Over” while I squee-jeed the cow shit across the yard and into the drain hole. I often wondered if John Lennon could imagine this was happening. He was somebody I’d grown up with, taken for granted, like a cousin I once fought with . . . . . Central Park was in another universe.

The third section, “Towns of the Mount Noorat Football League”, looks initially like a clever way of organising a set of studies of the towns of the poet’s immediate childhood area. All told it’s a bleak picture of rural decline, “Pubs closed, churches sold, the store’s windows / exposing clumps of unopened mail, upturned / food display cabinets – the end of a town [Garvoc] / or the view of a former self”. But the notion of a Football League is more than just a structuring device because it points up the way in which Australian Rules football (and the same applies, presumably, for Rugby League in outback New South Wales) acts as a unifying agent. As someone devoted to “the round-ball code” I’ve probably been guilty, over the years, of looking down on these other, rather homely versions of football but it’s well to remember what a cohesive force they are, more cohesive than religion since religion has many divisive and combative sects but there is only one Aussie Rules. It’s celebrated in earlier poems like “Saturday Morning” and “Man on the Gate”, where it is “A small town’s investment in belief. / A community finding something to do” and where we meet the image of grounds where cars can park nose to the boundary.

Although the final section of Small Town Soundtrack is less tightly thematically organised than the preceding three, all of the poems chime with Ryan’s earlier poems. It’s true that “Cows in India” and “Shanti Shanti” are brief excursions into a sub-continental exotic but the observer brings, as ever, the paddocks of his own childhood with him: “The first time I saw cows in India / I wanted to round them up. // Yard them, milk them, close the gate / on a paddock, watch them nod along a cattle track. . .” There are poems like “At fifty” which attempt a slightly broader self-definition than those deriving from an obsession with locating the self: “I am still an old punk, / an Indian freak, a farmer’s son / besieged by superannuation, mortgages, infrastructure – / all the dead nouns lining up to be counted”. But perhaps the most intriguing is “Camellias” unusual in that is contains none of Ryan’s habitual tropes. Superficially it is about gardening but at heart, I think, it is a meditation about Ryan’s own poetry. He finds himself picking up some fallen camellias and placing them in a circle around a garden bed made up of salvias, Lamb’s Ears, Grevilleas and a single Manchurian Pear:

The contrast works and I realize it is one of the few
creative acts I have achieved this week -
placing fallen petals around the edge of a garden bed.
. . . 
I will come to notice the camellias in the coming week,
feel the kick as from a recently finished poem - 
something layered in doubt but flickering with surprise,
the way one snake story sheds its skin for another . . .

Not a straightforward allegory about what he thinks his poetry is made up of but it needs to be compared with a similar poem from Travelling Through the Family, “Self Portrait”. That poem speaks of walking ahead “into paddocks and more poems” of “half-succeeding in understanding / yet knowing my limits, self-doubt increasing with age / with rage”. Here the setting and metaphors are rural whereas in “Camellias” they are urban but, when speaking of poetry, they share a tentativeness as though Ryan’s central theme is something that can’t be dealt with definitively, can’t be exhausted.

π. ο.: Fitzroy: The Biography

Melbourne: Collective Effort Press, 2015, 740pp.

It is now nearly ten years since π. ο.’s remarkable 24 Hours appeared, seven hundred and forty pages of immersion in the physical environment of the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy and the grungy side of its café culture. But also seven hundred and forty pages of immersion in the weird language of the place, Balkan and Greek versions of English that could be as difficult to penetrate as a passage from Finnegans Wake:

Wai yoo look mai kaartz?!
Eye look yoo “fayc” n - o yoo kaartz!
Tin . . . . .aa’ft - o? Tin aa’ft - o . . . . vrr - e??!
Giv him! GIV HIM!
Aa’k oos ti ley . . . ???!: GIV HIM!
Tha naym iz Aapostoli!
Aapostoli Kaangaar - oo (ggh – aamot - o)!
F’err - e m - e t - o pistoli!
Ggggggaam - o. tin. paaaaanaaayia s - oo!
Hoo . . .? Hoo ey’m?! HOO . . . .?!
N - o look HIM!: Hoo?!

This (at a card game) isn’t an unrepresentative passage, at least of the more hectic stretches of dialogue. And so 24 Hours, remorselessly realistic, clear-eyed and unsentimental about multicultural traditions in a Melbourne suburb is as much about an experience of language as of place. The sly warning on the cover, “Contains Language”, admitted as much. And in the latter parts of Fitzroy: The Biography we are in the same linguistic world:

. . . . . 
Bobbie (the house painter) at the Costa Azzura (in
Brunswick St) said: Tha layf thet taym (Fitzroi) woz “lonli”.
Tha MAYGRaaN, dai gon to EKSPRESSO to e’KS-chaynj
tha filling. (Thai g-o to playc th’aat AAXCEP dem)!
Pipol wit ewt-pipol k)))aaaaan living! Iz a H’yoomen instink.
Tha gerlz (ne’chyoo-raali), dai pik da MENZ! (Shi
kum, to yoo). Whair, YOO g-o? / EKSPRESSO!
Wun g-el kum . . .

It’s a brilliant evocation of an Australian dialect that we have all heard and the achievement should rightly be considered poetic – it is far more than a phonetic rendering – since language is poetry’s obsession and it’s an obsession that can range from the vocabulary of the highest of high styles down to this, the lowest of low styles.

Fitzroy: The Biography is a kind of counterpart to 24 Hours. It signals this by being almost exactly the same length. But the focus is historical so that instead of getting a snapshot of a single day we are introduced to a single suburb for the nearly two hundred years of its existence. The governing principle appears in a portrait of a fellow-student, Nonda Katsalides (“But, Nonda was / the coolest bloke in Fitzroy; he had a girlfriend (at / school): Notta – the sexiest girl alive . . .”) which finishes “’The people are the city’ Shakespeare said, and / I guess I’d agree, with that”. I don’t want to play the dreary pedant here but, of course, it is a tribunus plebs who says this in Coriolanus, not at all Shakespeare and not remotely a trustworthy character in Shakespeare’s eyes. Perhaps a better quote for π. ο.’s project might be from Aristophanes’ The Frogs: “I came down here for a poet so that the city might be saved.” At any rate the “biography” of Fitzroy is a catalogue of portraits of its inhabitants organised chronologically and it seems to be a suburb that, from the very beginning of its existence as a civic community rather than a tract of land, does need some saving. This is especially true of a period beginning in the late nineteenth century: “Vags, Pros & Drunks” and “Police: ///// pencillings” are both examples of a kind of compendium poem that collects fragments of a group of lives:

. . . . . 
On Saturday morning, a Gardener found the dead body of
a woman of about 35, lying under some bushes.
There were no marks of violence, and nothing to indicate
who she was. She died of cold, and exposure. (The weather
Friday night was particularly bitter). Christine Gilligan (with
a record of over 40 priors) was charged with vagrancy.
She had made a raid on the front garden, of Dr Howitt’s
residence (in Victoria Pde) and prior to that had created a row
in a fish’n’chip shop. She is the laziest vagrant in Fitzroy!
Herbert Brooks, is a nasty piece of work also . . .

Slowly the world of poverty moves into larrikinism – describable as poverty with a certain kind of violent style – and then eventually into the full-scale gang wars which have bubbled up inside Melbourne’s underclass to the present day. “Fitzroy Vendetta 1918” is a forty page, twenty-two poem section following the dealings of Squizzy Taylor with women (Dolly and Ida) and with other gangs in the area before he was killed by “Snowy” Cutmore (“Fitzroy was about the only Place in the World, that / could tolerate Snowy”). Not all the portraits are entirely bleak however: Fitzroy footballers like Haydn Bunton and Chicken Smallhorn are positive figures as is Pastor Doug Nicholls an aboriginal man who began as a Fitzroy footballer before becoming a minister and eventually governor of South Australia:

. . . . .
When Doug Nicholls died, they took
him back, to Cummeragunja (on the Murray).
Fitzroy would like to, salute him here

Once postwar migration begins and the poet’s family arrive in Bonegilla from Greece on their way to an eventual life as café proprietors in Fitzroy, the book changes a little to become more autobiography than survey of a suburb’s history. But since the author and his family are so centrally positioned to document what is happening in the life of the suburb the change is more superficial than anything. There is a brilliant twenty-poem sequence, “The Flats” about the complex of events and processes that eventually lead to the demolition of the older, slum parts of the suburb:

. . . . . 
                        Some arsehole from
the Housing Commission, got into a light-blue Ford, armed
with a copy of Morgan’s Street Directory (and a blue-
pencil) and went out, looking for a slum to tear down.
He drove down Brunswick St, Gertrude St, Napier St, and
King William, and overnight (by virtue of Sec 56 of
the Local Government Act) our shop (and the 2 rooms we
lived in at the back, next to the toilet) were declared a Slum.
The dog, didn’t even have “the decency”, to get out of
his car, and have a look around. When the facts are few,
there are experts aplenty. He did the whole job, looking out
from the /// windscreen of his car, and everything
I knew thereafter, or could point to
          got demolished . . .

Fitzroy: The Biography has, as readers of the passages I have quoted will have noted, its own eccentric punctuation whereby every subject and its verb is separated from the rest of the clause by a comma and often subjects are even separated from their verbs by a comma. I’d thought initially that this may relate to the fact that this is very much a performance poem (or poems) as 24 Hours was and as most of the poems in Big Numbers: New and Selected Poems are. But it’s hard to see how these commas mark units of utterance in a performance: all that can be said is that it is a convention that is carried out completely consistently throughout the seven hundred and forty pages. As are some unusual spellings: “stomach” is always spelled “stomac” and “soccer” always “soccor” and so on.

The first four hundred and fifty pages of Fitzroy: The Biography might have been a slightly solemn collection brief lives, the sort of thing a local history group might produce if they were locked in a room with unlimited supplies of alcohol, were it not for the dominant and most interesting poetic technique of the book which is the continuous use of generalisations in between sections of narration. These generalisations usually seem random but they have a sly relevance and serve as a sort of sardonic groundbass underneath the lurid goings-on of the inhabitants of the suburb. Late in the book there are fascinating portraits of Bert Newton, E.W. Cole and, especially, Barry Jones who first became famous as a quiz contestant on a radio program called “Pick a Box” hosted by an American Bob Dwyer and his wife, Dolly. His poem, recounting a famous moment in the show’s history (from memory it was about Warren Hastings) where a contestant became more interesting than the compere, is a good example of these truisms at work:

          The human brain, weighs 5.4 kilos;
same as a bowling ball. The first public library
was opened in Warsaw, in 1747. I saw Barry Jones
on the steps of the City library; a beard, 
is a sign of wisdom. And in spite of bell, book, and candle
he seemed all too human. Hello Customers!
an owl’s eyes, make up 30% of its head.
Bob Dyer was born, in 1909 in Tennessee;
arrived in Australia ’37, played a Hillbilly (with
a ukulele) at the Tivoli, in Sydney. He was
a keen big-game fisherman. Began in radio, in 1948;
had his own quiz show, Pick A Box with Dolly (his
wife): The money, or the box? (an Australian-
wide *joke) – The box! / Come here Dolly! -
One day, Bob asked Barry Jones (one of
the Contestants) who the Governor-General of
India was?, and the answer came directed
in a language unexpected; the most common
letters of the English Alphabet, are R,S,T,L,N, and E.
France granted Laos sovereignty, in 1953.
There are 12, 634 butcher shops, in Great Britain.
An archipelago, is a long run in music.
Useless features, are just simply add-ons & whistles.
Potatoes go well, with almost everything. Prostrate means /
lying face down. – Bob Dyer, looked “fazed”.
The first victim of the electric chair, took 8 minutes to die.
The Adjudicator (George Black) was /// stumped!
Barry had muddied the waters, somewhat.
PS47 was a school for the “hard” of hearing.
The first pictures on Tv, were shots of “the heads
of dummies”. The sponsor was Colgate Palmolive.
All the contestants on the show had
to wear ( ) ( ) headphones (Trivia, is important).
Information Please, was the name of a Quiz show
in the United States, and as a kid, Barry Jones
would go by tram, to 3DB, and listen to
Professor Osborne, prattle on about . . . . everything.
Information needs, a context. In 985 AD, “25 ships” sailed
for Greenland. In 1924, John Poole underwent,
a total laryngectomy. – Customers!!!! I find myself in
a dilemma, Bob Dyer said. (Knowledge, is
a commodity). The contest, was “a No-brainer”!
Barry Jones, the schoolteacher (from
Dandenong), had come out “triumphant”.
China invaded Tibet, in 1950. The whole of
Australia, was clapping!

This technique seems to come from a group of poems, beginning with “9/11”, at the end of π. ο.’s New and Selected Poems and we can see it fully developed here, especially in this brilliant poem about popular cultural phenomena, the way quiz shows treat knowledge and the historical and global contexts of the period. There is also a dose of humour so that “arpeggio” is confused with “archipelago” (there are a lot of these truisms that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny) and the host’s “fazed” expression is connected to the first victim of the electric chair, and so on. The constant moving between narrative and generalisation also thickens the texture of the poetry itself and acts as a narrative-retarding device. You can imagine this working very well as a spoken text.

Fitzroy: The Biography, like its predecessor, is a tour de force even if its author, tongue in cheek, says it is. It is one of those works that extends an area in a national literature by replacing po-faced, realistic representations with over-the-top panache. The literature never looks quite the same afterwards. It will probably, in the future, get pigeonholed into discussions of migrant experience but really it belongs to the larger field of the documentation of specific urban areas and a specific way of life. This seems to be a Melburnian obsession. Bruce Dawe (significantly he is one of the portraits in this book) wrote brilliantly about the general experiences of the postwar period in the expanded outer suburbs of Melbourne in poems ranging in conception from “The Rock-Thrower” to “Homo Suburbiensis”, but Alan Wearne is usually considered to be the master of this field. In fact Wearne and π. ο. are very different poets: the former has an essentially dramatic imagination while the latter has a bent for accurate recording. At any rate Melbourne is a lucky city to have the culture of this single, bravura suburb recorded so intensely.

Philip Hammial: Asylum Nerves

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014, 207pp.

Philip Hammial’s amazing poetic output now runs to something like twenty-five books since his first, Foot Falls & Notes, of 1976. Let’s say about a thousand poems, probably more. As a result of this sheer volume, together with features of his method, it might be more appropriate to think of Asylum Nerves as a sampler rather than a Selected. It doesn’t, after all, confine itself to collecting acknowledged successes and making them available in one volume to impecunious readers. What it does do is give new readers some sense of what it is like to tap into the verve, intensity, profundity and humour of Hammial’s work and encourage them to seek out the individual books on online sites like Abebooks.

It also contains an excellent introductory essay by Martin Langford, indispensable for orienting people unfamiliar with the poetry that crackles away inside the rest of the book. Langford begins by locating Hammial among the European surrealists which he himself has cited: “Breton, Eluard, Aragon, Peret, Desnos, Jacob, Michaux, Lereis, Soupault, Char, Ponge; Lorca, Jiminez, Alberti; Rilke, Trakl, Benn, Celan; Seferis, Ritsos, Elytis”. These aren’t proposed as models – few of them sound like Hammial – but as authors that someone like Hammial is going to be sympathetic to. Myself, I would add early Beckett (though I don’t think he is cited anywhere) to these: reading works like Murphy and Watt and experiencing their insanely logical and remorseless worlds would not be a bad introduction to some features of Hammial’s work, especially of the “narrative” poems.

Langford’s introduction also reprints an invaluable description of Hammial’s compositional methods, taken from an interview in Cordite. I’ll reproduce it here: it, too, is an essential document for a reader approaching the poetry:

As a non-Tibetan I find many of the Tibetan visualisations too alien and complex, so I make up my own, spontaneously, as I go. I’ve been assured by people in the tradition that my home handyperson approach is acceptable. One day, several years ago, sitting down to write, I found myself playing with the drop . . . heating it up, moving it up and down the channel. Suddenly, on one of its runs down, it kept going, right down to the base of my spine which I visualised as a well, circular and lined with stones, that was miles deep. As the drop plunged into the ink-black water it turned into a bucket. In my mind’s eye I used a rope on a pulley to haul the full bucket up, rapidly, rocket fast. It went soaring up through the channel, out through the top of my skull, the Aperture of Brahma, and up into the noonday sky. When it was about a mile high I had an impulse to use the still attached rope to jerk it to a stop. Of course the black water just kept going. It spread across the sky, turning into white sky-writing-like words as it went – a sentence, a line of poetry that I was able to write down before it faded. That’s amazing, I thought, I wonder if I can do it again. Down went the empty bucket, up came the full bucket, another sentence splashed across the sky. In about five minutes I had a thirty line poem.

One’s tempted to say that they don’t teach that in Introductory Creative Writing – but then again, for all I know, perhaps they do. At heart, it isn’t an especially radical creative model: most writers, even those whose sense of their work is built on a notion of craft, know that a lot of the stuff comes, often unbidden, from “somewhere else”. Hammial’s method is just a culture-specific way of accessing it and it could be argued that various oriental traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism, tribal shamanism etc are much better at doing it than any methods of the West. After all the bases of oriental mythology encourage the practice and they have had a couple of thousand years to develop these techniques. What is probably, in the long run, more important than the notion that poetry comes from another part of the brain is the drive towards immediacy, the belief that any sort of imposition of craft in the form of revision is the triumph of the logical part of the brain, a matter of being, in Graves’s words “ruled by the god Apollo’s golden mean”.

The central critical issue for Hammial’s poetry is: Where exactly is this bucket going and what is the nature of this stuff that it brings up? Could it be the sub-conscious, the pan-cultural unconscious, the pan-animal reptilian unconscious, past lives, divine commandments or just odd bits of nonsense hanging around inside the neural system of an individual’s brain? Langford argues that it’s a more primal experience of the madnesses of reality: “An important aspect of his project is the desire to re-enact the crazy energies we work so hard to disarm with familiarity and inattention. In some ways, he is a romantic of such energies: as if he thought the world, for all its terrors, should not be denied”. The fact that this is such an attractive framework in which to read Hammial’s poems doesn’t mean that it is correct nor does it disguise the fact that it is a big step which casually bypasses any number of competing psychological ideologies. But I’m happy to run with it for its heuristic value. It also enables Langford to speak of the poems as works which future audiences will find increasingly relevant:

If the point of poetry is to produce as many ways-of-being-in-the-world-through-language as possible, then Hammial’s unsettling and confronting ways are nothing if not distinctive, and, on that ground alone, worthy of attention. But these days, I suspect, there are few who are not quietly bewildered by the incomprehensibility of the world’s energies, and the absurdity and inappropriateness of so many of our behaviours: as an expression of such bewilderment – such subterranean astonishment – it is hard to believe that these poems will not find the wider audience that they deserve.

It’s a discomforting proposition that, as our response to the world is to find it more and more irrational and incomprehensible, we will find Hammial’s poetry more and more central, more real! But then perhaps something similar occurred in the case of the poetries of Smart and Blake and even Pessoa: as the world seemed more mad and personality less stable, their work seemed less mad, less unstable. Some evidence for Langford’s approach might lie in the autobiographical fact that Hammial, since his youthful days in the US Navy has been an indefatigable traveller, and a genuine traveller, no mere tourist. My own sense is not that such travel broadens the mind by adding exotic experiences but that it makes one resistant to the conventional – and often outrageous – stylised simplifications of other cultures. That it is, or can be, in other words an accumulation of millions of gritty, personally experienced data, all of which are likely to be difficult to fit into simplistic programmes and thus represent the basis of an attack on them – or, at least, a lack of commitment to them.

This is a long introduction to another revisiting of Philip Hammial’s poetry. When I reviewed Sugar Hits on this site more than eight years ago I tried to describe the poetry overall, rather than concentrating on a single book. Though I’m not at all sure, in retrospect, how accurate or valuable my typologies were, I don’t intend to revisit that “seen-as-a-whole” approach, and, as readers will know, I’m not about to exhaust myself looking for new idioms of praise. What I want to do is think about some of the new issues that this latest opportunity to reread Hammial at length has provoked. There are two main ones: issues of content and (no prize for guessing) issues of form.

The world that one enters in Hammial’s poems, the world that Langford sees as a real or at least “realler” experience of reality than the one we edit to make it comprehensible or bearable, is a distinctive one. It is driven by meaningless rules and rituals (perhaps the essence of a ritual is that it is the application of meaningless rules) and its atmosphere might be described as cruel but comic. The act of living is often figured as a journey on some kind of wonderfully grotesque vehicle (dog-carts, bicycles and boats figure largely here) or as a pilgrimage hemmed about with odd rituals and equivocal destinations. “Bicycle” from In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children (2003) is a (for Hammial) very straightforward example:

It’s my fifth birthday & I’m sitting on the present that Uncle Stan has just given me, a green Schwinn bicycle. He gives me a push & down I go, down the gentle slope in his back yard in Chicago that becomes a hill, an interminably long hill that, sixty years later, I’m still going down, the bicycle having become rusty & dilapidated but still capable of moving as fast as the wind. Fortunately the doors, front and back, of the houses I’m passing through are open and the corridors unobstructed, the people, my friends & relatives, in the rooms on either side of the corridors going about their business as though I don’t exist: Aunt Mary & Uncle John sitting at opposite ends of a long table, John’s prayer of thanksgiving going on & on while the roast beef gets cold; Aunt Jane having one of her fits in the kitchen while Uncle Max looks on helplessly; cousin Dan & his new bride, Eleanor, banging away on a hideaway bed while the radio newscaster tells us that Normandy has just been invaded – D-Day. Over a hundred houses & I’m still going, Uncle Stan passing away at the age of ninety-two, the war in Vietnam grinding to a halt, the Berlin wall torn down brick by brick as I roll by on the Schwinn wondering how the hill has managed to descend through seventy-two countries on five continents – a mystery I’ll never have time to fathom because there, at what appears to be the bottom of the hill, is an open grave, half a dozen people standing around it as though waiting for a hearse to arrive.

It’s a very simple but rather wonderful poem conveying both the hunger for experience (the number of countries Hammial has travelled to is carefully documented) and the usual incomprehension as to the overall pattern and even the overall meaning of an individual’s life. If one wanted to look for hidden generative puns (Riffaterre’s hypograms) one could imagine the two meanings of the word “career”. “Lost in the Amazon” from the next book, Swan Song, replaces the image of bicycling with that of rowing, but has a similar view of life even if the tone is more sardonic and comic:

The canoe of this admiral (who by some miracle has remained unharmed) is so full of arrows (at least a thousand) that it’s bound to sink at any moment, & of course, the no-longer-paddling & now saluting admiral is honour-bound to go down with it, a fitting end to a glorious career.

The 1985 volume, Vehicles, is, in a way, a celebration of bizarre events and bizarre metaphors conceived as modes of transport – in the case of the latter the poems probably exploit the technical term, “vehicle” associated with analyses of metaphorical language. “The Vehicle of Demented Canonization”, for example,

is not, as you might expect, the cannon in the circus, nor is it the net that always catches the human ball. The Vehicle of Demented Canonization is the toothless old lion who, though he’s heard it a thousand times, is still frightened half to death by the cannon’s roar.

The generative structure of this poem lies, as I read it, with choosing “demented” for its implications while the rest of us were concentrating on the possibilities of “canonization”.

The number of Hammial poems involving movement, vehicles, rides, weird means of propulsion, pilgrimages and so on is enormous. Another good example might be “Steps” a poem from Voodoo Realities not included in this selection:

Already, at five in the morning, the beggars
are here, assembled, one on each of the one hundred
stone steps. Where have we been? Where
are we going? And, more importantly, what
do we have for their bowls? – their bowls
of ivory, of amethyst, of silver & gold, of
porcelain filled with steaming mu-mus to slurp
to the metonymic thunk of Chinese truncheons
out on the Barkor, a pilgrim from Kham caught
with a photo of the Dalai Lama – Free Tibet. Fat
chance, the warlords in Beijing testing their rhino-
horn potency on giggling concubines. Tibet’s
not a priority. Nor is the rhino rotting
on the veld, Hong Kong pharmacists rolling
in money, alchemists with gold. Know
thyself, & drink this hemlock, a perfect compliment
to the steaming mu-mus, all the rage in the 60s, worn
in defiance – up yours with your mini-skirts/thigh-
high boots made for walking all over us as hot
to trot we’re prodded like cattle, like pilgrims
up these steps on our hands and knees, beggars laughing
at our progress. Bloody-kneed oafs, at the top
there’s a cliff, eunuchs waiting to push us over.

Although this poem develops into a fairly overt attack on the mistreatment of developing cultures by the developed – the Chinese are responsible for the near extinction of the rhinoceros, the Hippie invasion of Asia responsible for untold corruptions – the framing structure is that of a bizarre pilgrimage ritual in which the beggars (“one on each of a hundred steps” in a typically numerically sensitive organisation) possessed of fabulously rich begging bowls, laugh as they watch Westerners plunge to their deaths.

And, finally, in this quick sketch, there is “A Pilgrim’s Progress” a complex two-part piece which might be about mercantile behaviour, even meditation, but which, in my reading, is about poetry which attempts to please a market, or, at least, to spruce itself up enough to be able to appear in public and, on the other hand, poetry like Hammial’s. I think this is a recurring theme in Hammial’s work (see “Bytes” and “Hit Parade” – “. . . this poem //a perfect example of my perennial inability / to articulate some universal truth, a sad fact / that’s guaranteed to keep me in the ranks // of the also-ran until the day I die . . .”). Whatever the case, my interest in it at the moment is as another example of the obsession with movement and vehicles:

Who on a path that only to the market leads is but
a frilly man who once upon he thought he heard
the tinkle of a lost drummer

is not my concern.
Am only on this cart for my health.
Am only going thus for a gourmet’s song.

For glass on this path, & in the wayside beds
a bleeding host of questing men who barefoot
in a breach had thought to run and win. But patience

is mine, as it must be – this heavy cart with its limb
from limb load of a once magnificent ox that on
spindly legs a golden calf is pulling.

The inverted syntax here is more common in Hammial’s poetry than the comparatively straightforward poems I have quoted so far. And there is obviously a lot here which is drawn from the Buddhist image of ox-herding used as a meditation model intriguingly combined with the biblical image of the golden calf, a symbol of both greed and apostacy.

If mad journeys on impossible machines is one central image in Hammial’s work, the other is that of the asylum. They are related, of course, because the inmates of an asylum are bound to the obscure medical procedures which they do not understand and thus are in the same situation as those on the mysterious vehicles or mysterious pilgrimages. What is interesting is that the asylum images have an autobiographical base. You don’t have to have read widely in Hammial’s work to know that he worked as an orderly in the Athens State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Ohio. His first book, Foot Falls & Notes, was, he tells us, prompted by the sudden desire to give each of the inmates he knew a voice and a poem:


are a few poems
in a few voices learned
while cooking in Athens
State Hospital, Athens, 
Ohio, built in
1868, with turrets
& gables &
doctors & 
nurses of that period.

And a number of the autobiographical (and very straightforward) prose poems of Travel describe experiences in this hospital, including one, “The Examination”, in which, temporarily in the violent ward, Hammial is examined by a man with all the outward appearances of a competent psychiatrist. Of course he is an inmate but one of his comments is that two of the actual doctors are “mad as March hares”. Hammial says, “And having dealt with these individuals, I agree wholeheartedly”. Although it is a cliché to speak of psychiatric inmates as doctors and vice versa, the pressure of an actual experience of an uncomfortable reality means that when such things appear in Hammial’s poetry they are intensely felt. “Marlene” from Wig Hat On (not included in Asylum Nerves) describes a willed erotic, communal fantasy:

. . . . . 
I’ve just described is Ward 12 (the dirty ward)
& its fire-escape in ASH, Athens State Hospital,
where I worked for a year as an orderly in charge
of forty men who weren’t overly concerned
about their personal hygiene, the wonder-working
cabaret dancer from Berlin a figment of our collective
hallucination. As punctual as a Swiss watch, she
would suddenly appear in our midst every afternoon
at three when the last soap ended and the first
children’s program was about to begin, blow us
a sultry kiss & slink away, disappearing behind
a gossamer curtain that covered the scar
of a bricked-over door.
Harold would try to follow her, managing
three or four awkward steps before his chemical
straitjacket checked his progress like a pendulum
at the end of its stroke . . .

The hospital appears, transformed into an image of existential existence in poems like the significantly named “Saint Philip’s Infirmary”, in which everyone is the victim of ungraspable – but generally cruel – procedures of exploitation:

Are we here to save our lives? Big
should we beg? If we pay enough
can we crawl under? Do our keepers know what it’s like
to burn bare naked? With our persons
should they have their fun free? Are they & they
our destiny . . .
 . . . . .
          On hands & knees
do Arch of Submission. Or suffer
spurs, some egg on
a face you thought was yours.
. . . . . 
                                    Told, again,
what we already know: In us is folly
fully engaged for which, if we’re smart
& know the rules, we’ll kneel & do the praise
we’ve been trained to do by betters. And told,
again, lest we forget, how among the dead
of all the dead we are, by a mile, the most dead.
Flung like stones, all of us.

And “Asylum Nerves” from Sugar Hits, which give this volume its title, exploits a double image of life as an asylum which is, more or less, a torture chamber run by casual psychopaths:

Pretend more than ever
that you’re being nursed 
by a motorcycle mama
with a six-day beard and plenty of time
for a bad case of asylum nerves . . .
. . . . .
                                             How long 
can you last? – these incursions into the stuff
that makes you you; it’s surely
women’s business this, & it’s done
by men to music while ex-Ranger
Daniel Devine demonstrates his ”˜Nam pig-sticker
to the girls next door.
exciting, already bored with you,
your tormentors wander off to have a play
with that giggling entourage.
                                                  Your you,
it seems you can keep it, a mother’s milk
to soothe your nerves.

Journeys and asylums are, of course, only part of the repertoire of motifs that these poems are built on. A number of others could be included: family members, especially the mother figure; selves which shift personality, age and gender in the way they do in dreams; engines; Chinese boxes, eating and so on. But the sense remains that these are autobiographically related even though they are distorted and twisted. Martin Langford’s introduction quotes Hammial’s comment that “all of his poems are derived from some actual event” but leaves its implications unexplored.

An important poem for any reader trying to explore this autobiographical base and the way it relates to the striking poems it eventually contributes towards is “The Ritual of the Stick” from Just Desserts. It contains a footnote, “On January 2, 1991, in Radigon, Bihar State, India, Philip Hammial & his wife were viciously assaulted by seventeen members of the CPM”. The poem is made up of fifty-one discrete sentences though this reduced to fifty in the Asylum Nerves version by combining two (“viciously assaulted” in the footnote is also emended – to “savagely beaten”) and in the central part of the poem each of these contains the word “stick”, which, crudely mimetic as this analysis might seem, suggests a state in the middle of a beating in which the mind dully repeats something. It’s too complex a poem to look at in detail here but much about it is suggestive. For example Father and Mother recur as invoked characters: the poem begins “Tell us, Mother, for how much longer must we continue to hold ourselves up standing” and a later section includes both Father and an imaginary institution:

Stripped down, Father, to a bare essential.

Your pound, gentlemen, of flesh.

But, gentlemen, our generosity does have a limit.

Too long, Father, in Your Church of the Interminable Flagellation.

Is there in this, somewhere, a hallelujah?

Obviously, a passage to something, but to what?

Whether, Mother, to come or go? In one direction only; there’s no turning back . . .

The second issue is, as I foreshadowed, a matter of form. Hammial’s poems are, whatever their relationship to reality, the unconscious, or whatever, invariably shapely utterances as poems. Sometimes this is no more than the sardonic twist given to a narrative by a good raconteur as in the case of the admiral who went down with the ship of himself. We can see this in two prose poems from With One Skin Less. In “Wheels”, surely an allegory of Hammial’s approach to poetry, a man on wheels performs dazzling manoeuvres that disturb onlookers – some positively, some negatively. He is returned to his asylum and scheduled to have his wheels surgically removed. When this is done the result is a “man who stands on his own two feet”. In “A Drive with Dr. Plotz” an internee is taken in the psychiatrist’s specially designed machine into the woods so that his demons can be released. But when they arrive the internee is reluctant to abandon his tamed demons to the wild demons of the woods and the pair return having accumulated some of these new, wild demons, much to the distress of Dr Plotz: “Hopelessly snarled with the paraphernalia of madness – bits of glass & bottle caps & silver spoons – what will her colleagues say when they see it?”

Among more specifically poetic structures, the most common is circularity. Innumerable examples could be given but a representative one is “Books”, from Sugar Hits. Essentially “about” a culture’s treatment of outsiders, its central term is pharmakos – scapegoat:

As the only naked white man in our village
who could cook a book with a single match
it’s up to me (my lot in life)
to get the word out where it can be seen
for what it is – pharmakoi . . .

The central section of the poem is, as often in Hammial, an extended, highly energetic diversion into another sphere:

if you took all of the men by the hand
who have taken you by the leg & led them
up George Street to the intersection where
Rachael’s grandmother has set up her treadle-
driven Singer sewing machine, the train
of Rachael’s wedding dress hopelessly snarled 
in rush-hour traffic . . .

then, the poem says, you would have enough men to invade “six or seven of those no-name places” from where the refugees arrive, the

                             scapegoats who,
dressed to kill in St. Vini hand-me-downs,
in addition to seducing our wives & daughters
have taken our jobs as well, such as they were,
in my case a cooker of books.

Obviously other things are happening in this poem, apart from its shape: it begins with a series of slightly distorted metaphors, for example and concludes by making fun of the clichéd rhetoric of those opposed to migration, and we might ask whether it’s poets or demagogues who cook the books. But the circular shape is entirely typical. Occasionally the circularity can be self-referential. “Of Tubs, Sailors & Inflation”, which begins, “Tub prices up. Rub / down. Which combination, up & down, makes it easy / for a body, any body, to get a proper break . . .”, concludes:

those sailors from the boat in your tub they can’t
be had for just a song such as this one that manages,
but just barely, to get back, the proverbial
tail-swallowing serpent, to its opening
statement – the rising price of tubs.

And “Invocation”, a poem from Drink From the Animal which is not included in this Selected, begins: “Invoke something, anything! – floating teacups / as at sea we take our tea . . .” and then goes on to recount an experience at the Iran/Afghanistan border and an imaginary stroll with Leon-Paul Fargue down a Parisian boulevard in 1928 before concluding:

                                Dressed to kill,
where are we going or, more to the point, where
is this poem going? Your guess 
as good as mine. Should we just give in,
call it a day? Or one last try – some transition
that will slip us back to the floating teacup image
& here we are (easy as pie), Leon-Paul & I at sea
as we take our tea, his new tome, Banalité,
the talk of the Dôme.

And then there is what I call serial form. Here the poem is structured essentially as a list but its dynamic shape is likely to derive from the way the list is ordered. “Houses”, from Voodoo Realities is made up of seven imaginary alliterative houses – Gurdjieff’s Guthouse, Blavatsky’s Bughouse, Huxley’s Hexhouse etc – each of which has a colour, a rate per minute, an individual monk proprietor – “a monk / in combination”, “a monk / ticking”, “a monk / as string, thrummed” etc – what will be found there, and an exit to the next house. The poem’s dramatic shape is derived from the fact that the rent gets cheaper so that by the time we arrive at Reich’s Ribhouse its twenty-nine cents per minute:

                               Exit to:
Ribhouse. White. Twenty-
nine. The proprietor: a monk
cancelled. Paper & pen, ready
to have the last say, the pen ever
so gently removed from your fingers
by a smiling nurse. It’s time
for bed. Sweet dreams.

In “Bridal Suite” a series of different occupations – bakers, circus hands, butchers, astronauts – carry the groom to the bride’s bed in neat, separate two-line stanzas: in each case the occupation affects the way the bridegroom is presented. Finally he is carried by poets, “THE WORD MADE FLESH tattooed on my chest”.

There are other shaping devices used in these poems that could be analysed. Especially important would be the usual surrealist one whereby puns (hidden or overt) generate meanings which take the poem into new direction. But the issue that matters here is the very fact of the poetic shape of Hammial’s writing. His description of the way in which the poems are made out of material dredged up in a bucket during a trance, splayed across the sky and then transcribed, would suggest that the results would be fragments, bleeding chunks, rather than the very well-made things they actually are. The only conclusion is that these often autobiographically-based works are fabricated, complete, in the unconscious and brought up, section by section, in the bucket.

Ultimately, whatever they are, however they are made, they live or die by their ability to engage and fascinate. There are few poets in Australia whose work is so consistently energised, challenging and enjoyable. Clearly the autobiographical element is part of this and it is worth pointing out that the prose poems of Travel are examples of non-surreal poetic methods, clinging closely to facts perhaps because some of those facts, especially those detailing a delinquent childhood in Detroit are so weird that no additional strangeness is needed. The last part of Wig Hat On contains half a dozen poems that are similarly openly autobiographical without the surreal expressive techniques. Some of these have very interesting and valuable information about Hammial’s sense of himself and his poetry:

A black & white photograph from 1949: yours truly
stripped to the waist, shoveling coal
into the boiler of the Tennessee, a steam tug
working the Sandusky, Ohio harbour. It immediately
brings to mind Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape”
though any resemblance between the scrawny
twelve year old & a real stoker in the stokehole
of a tramp freighter is laughable, as is the one
between the twelve year old & the old man
writing this poem, licking his wounds
from yet another weekly brawl with his wife
of fifteen years . . .

It recalls Bruce Beaver’s As It Was a documenting, autobiographical volume that tries to get factual details down for the record without processing them through the usual channels of his poetry. There is a lot of information about Hammial in these poems but the self-description I like most is the one that comes at the end of “Mentors” from Wig Hat On:

I’ll have dinner with someone
who understands me, a no longer young man
who took to poetry
like a puppet to wood.

Simon West: The Ladder

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, 57pp.

The Ladder is Simon West’s third book (after First Names of 2006 and The Yellow Gum’s Conversion of 2011) and it gives readers an opportunity to see more of the complex world its lyrics inhabit and explore. West is a very sophisticated poet who can be seen – now that we have a hundred or so poems – as rather more resistant to schematic plotting than my review of his first book, published on this site, might have suggested. But while we always speak of the way poets develop through their first books perhaps we should also speak of the way that our own responses as readers of that poetry develop as well. In that first review I wrote of two elements: an obsession with the tactility of language and a fascination with the vertical axis which moves from the under-soil – the word “humus” kept appearing as a kind of talisman – to the surface of the earth and on to the celestial view, re-enacting Dante’s three zones.

The Ladder, as its title suggests, contains poems which do develop the second of these interests. In fact the book’s epigraph is taken from that moment at the end of Paradiso XXII when Dante and Beatrice are about to ascend to the eighth heaven, after Benedict’s discourse about Jacob’s ladder: “The little threshing-floor which makes us so fierce was all revealed to me from hills to river-mouths, as I circled with the eternal Twins. Then to the beauteous eyes I turned my eyes again”. (I’ve used the Singleton translation here and should point out that by rendering l’aiuola as “threshing-floor” rather than “little plot” it perpetuates what many feel to be an over-interpretive, liberty-taking translation. And if I sound knowledgeable about all of this it is entirely thanks to the resources of Google and Wikipedia!) This epigraph should be enough to alert us to the fact that vertical axes still operate at the basis of West’s poetic imagination. Of course the passage in Paradiso is about seeing our little world – the place of all merely human drives, including savagery – from the perspective of the cosmic and may be as much about perspectives as it is about those drives. It may, in other words, be a comparatively abstract view which reminds us that everything seen is seen from somewhere and thus fits in with a number of other poems (beginning with “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarara Tjapaltjarri” in First Names) which are about point of view – or its lack.

At any rate, this passage from Paradiso is the basis for one of the poems of The Ladder, “Speckled World”. The narrator, like an Astronaut in the space-station, finds himself sailing over “deserts and the lights / of towns clustered against the dark”:

. . . . . 
                                               But then
I was taken with fear at the thought of drifting so far
I might lose the smell of soil on a frosty morning
when the sun refracts through dew on grass blades
and the tops of hills float in a layer of fog.
With longing I looked down on the speckled world
and knew my betrayal of Gravity could not last.
She would tug me back once more from this mad flight,
and I would return to plot my Res Gestae thus -
in my thirty-fifth year, after a long struggle,
I conquered my mistrust of life. . . .

Although it’s difficult for a reader to orient him- or herself in this poem – is it a rewriting of Dante’s experience (which occurs in the fiction of the Commedia at the age of thirty-five), a dream of the poet’s who is, coincidentally of the same age, or is the narrator neither Dante or the poet but a separate, invented character? – the general point is the same. Ascending into the heavens is one thing but the loss of the feeling of earth and its tactility – the smell of its rich humus – is intolerable. The narrator, as I read the poem, is going to focus on the horizontal dimension of this world and, indeed, many of the poems of The Ladder, despite its title, develop into discussions of the possibilities and protocols of this “speckled world” as well as what occurs when we break free, or at least half-free, from it.

The first poem, for example, “Roman Bridges”, concentrates on one of the defining features of the horizontal world: the way we move into, through and across it. The bridges, whose arches make a kind of leap, show that there is

           grace in holding gravity at bay
and a certain poise in being in between.
My ideal landscape has room for bridges and hills,
spires, birds and echoes: halfway things.

A later poem, “The Go-Between”, tells of a bridge in northern Italy built across a gorge by a devil in exchange for the soul of its first user. As often in these folktales the devil is tricked when a dog rushes over in pursuit of a bone. But you can see the schema of the thing and the way it appeals to West. The context of the poem is one with a vertical axis – it is about a demon pulling, or trying to pull, a member of the human world down into hell. But what is left is a horizontal bridge which, as the poem says, is a “marvellous / go-between” that leads the rest of us “somewhere else”.

It’s also chastening to see that this interest in way a bridge makes a kind of horizontal step into space is present in First Names too. A poem there, “Flight”, was about a couple arriving in a new country (“a change both of money and language”) at an entirely new kind of house (“all narrow stairs, and doors of different sizes”). Nothing really happens except that, “with a cry of joy you jumped / forward and ran a few paces ahead”. Taken on its own, in a first book, it was difficult to see what sustained this poem, apart from its desire to represent a brief, important moment in a relationship. Read alongside “Roman Bridges” it can be seen as one of those moments of horizontal leap into a new world, like the arches of the bridges:

. . . . .
at last it seemed so easy to break
from that poise which had
borne the weight of times past.
And my heart jumped behind you, startled
at having to catch up, busy collecting
the slipstream of a new intent.

And there is a striking, autobiographical poem in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion, “Door-Sill” which is about a bare “slab of red gum” serving as a door step, a threshold between the inner world of the house and the outer world. Initially one read it – in a rather Maloufian way – as a poem about liminality, interested in the doorway between two worlds. Rereading it, one can see that it is the step forward, rather than the different worlds, which interests West:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes,
after a poise
that seemed about to come
when top-heavy we pitched,
and were too quickly seeking
peace with gravity . . .

In The Ladder, “Nothing Ventured” – the title exploits the many ways of reading that phrase, as part of a cliché and as complete in itself – is about, as a child, crossing the wire fence into an empty field for the first time. Again, the emphasis is a little unpredictable in that the poem is interested in the way the mind and the body are engaged in this crucial step – rather as they were in “Flight”:

. . . . . 
Something came of nothing, though, when first
I leapt that fence alone. Giddy with lag,
my head raced to catch where my feet now stood. And did,
and was pledged, like saying to a mirror, here I am.

And a poem about Tintoretto’s weird “Miracle of St Mark” in which the saint, seen from behind and rather below, floats through the air, about to save a slave due to have his legs broken for worshipping the Christian god, is interested in the way in which this odd pose is a matter of capturing the moment before the miracle, the step (if one can make a step in mid-air) from which “Everything / set in motion must occur”.

One of the features of this “halfway world” whose landscape is made up of bridges, spires, echoes, mountains and rivers – but also doorsills and birds – is that it is a place where boundaries are less clear than is usually assumed. There is a halfway state in which, say, under the effects of fog, shapes lose their precision. A longish poem late in the book, “Chimera”, is about the patron goddess of this state who sounds a little like Spenser’s Mutabilitie:

. . . . . 
Eagle-eyed when she surveys the land
each leaf is lucent as in Vermeer,
and all at once softens to take its place
in a patchwork of colours by Klee.
It is thought she is the patron saint of nay-sayers,
and easily consumed by spite, but when at twilight
the trees unmoor in winter fog
and, in a panic, you reach out as if they could be held,
don’t despise her clown hooting from the bank. . .

And “The Perfection of Apollo”, about Ribera’s painting of the flaying of Marsyas, contains a stanza which, quoting Pico della Mirandola, claims an ethical virtue, deeply humanist, for the race of humans who live in the halfway world of continuous change:

. . . . .
          our dignity resides in having
no fixed seat and no form of our own,
in being placed halfway; not wholly mortal,
rather free to mould and make ourselves. . .

Another poem, with the faux Chinese title “Outside on a Warm Evening I Consider My Confused Ideas about Poetry. For Now I Offer This Brief Account” (a title that ensures all critics will return to it to read it carefully) revisits the same idea. It begins with something of an assault on the idea that poetry (together with the other arts) is a way of expanding our inner lives:

The poets of my youth spoke of dwelling
in themselves, as if they meant a secret
cavern of emotions where an essence
might be found purring like a cat. . .

It’s the defined stability of this model of the inner life which is being criticised though West doesn’t invoke the usual philosophical and psychological arguments of the last half-century. For him it seems more an issue of poetic temperament:

Too restless to abide, I’ve mostly lingered
round the threshold which the senses keep.
Outside there is so much to contemplate.
Some talk of depth and things as they are. Others
see layered surfaces alive with light. 
. . . . . 
In the poetry of mountains and waters
a path meanders through vast landscapes. Sometimes
it is hard to distinguish a man from a cloud or a tree . . . 

And it’s important to have not only the correct perceptual perspective but also the correct ethical protocols in this halfway landscape: “Here too, I imagine, before crossing a stream / it is wise to wash one’s hands and offer a prayer / while gazing into the flood”.

It’s a distinctive poetic perspective and West is a distinctive and, already, powerful presence in Australian poetry. My own perspectives on poetry are not much interested in national or ethnic distinctivenesses but one could imagine readers of First Names thinking that much that was distinctive about this new poet came from an acquired Italian component of his creativity. If so, well and good. But the second and third books have enough of Australia in them – especially at an autobiographical level – to make readers feel that this issue of Australianness, however murky and unhelpful the debates about it might generally be, is one of the issues raised by West’s poetry. There is a poem in The Ladder, “The Mallee Singer”, which is a tribute to Shaw Neilson. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect from this poet but the poem contrasts Shaw Neilson’s sensitivity – “you sought quieter weightings in your line / for the balm of green and flight of water birds, / for children in the sunlight in the spring” – with the louder, cruder music of his contemporary world, “Salvation drums, and blokes’ ballads / thudding over the black flats”. This aligns Shaw Neilson not just with sensitivity but with a sensitivity to the fluid boundaries of West’s halfway world where outlines are not so rigidly maintained as they are in Salvation Army hymns and in bush ballads.

The gum trees that begin to turn up in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion play an important role here and perhaps they do add a precision and specificity to what in First Names was inclined to be a generic “dark wood”. They are celebrated, in a way, in the first of twelve poems about Rome in which the author sees a gum tree among the Roman ilexes. The eucalypt has a particular quality that the poem wants to celebrate. Because, when we look at one we also look through its slim, falcate, downturned leaves, it is obviously very much a halfway tree:

Unreal city, still. By default. And then
the jolt of recognition hitting home - 
a gum broke the shade of holm oaks.
Its exhortation – remember, make known.

It was how light sifted through those swinging leaves - 
you looked at it and beyond it all in one.
. . . . . 
Intimate, drab and tragic, the branches curved
like Christ’s limbs in a deposition scene. . .

I think it is this odd quality of the gum that appeals to West – the poem doesn’t want to celebrate nostalgia. And after all, it’s a moot point how “Australian” the gum trees are nowadays. They are grown throughout South East Asia, for example, as a source of quick-growing hardwood impervious to local diseases and predators, and are common in North America and around the Mediterranean. I myself once saw a stand of them on the road between Kashan and Qom in Iran.

John Tranter: Heart Starter

Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, 149pp.

The first fifty-six of the one hundred and one poems in John Tranter’s new book, Heart Starter, are “terminals”, poems which take another writer’s poem and, by retaining the words that end each of the lines, allow the poet to construct a new poem. It’s a form, as far as I know, developed by Tranter alone though it has its origins in a poem of John Ashbery’s which was based on the words ending the lines of Swinburne’s double sestina, “The Complaint of Lisa”. It is, as Brian Henry notes in an essay in The Salt Companion to John Tranter, a poetic form which is “vastly open to possibility”. Far from being a matter of proposing new patterns of rhyme or new stanza shapes or variations in syllabic requirements it can be as varied as the immense number of poems which it can take as a base. It is closest, if anything, to the sestina where an initial choice (which words will appear at the ends of the lines of the first stanza) generates a set of requirements for the final words of the rest of the poem. It thus oddly combines almost infinite freedom with what can be a mind-bendingly difficult formal requirement. Tranter’s Studio Moon had a number of examples but fifty-six poems is a more substantial sample when it comes to investigating the possibilities and implications.

Usually, in Tranter’s comments about his generative practices, there is a strong sense that the chosen method provides not a poem but a draft that might be made into a poem. You feel that the author here wants to take final responsibility – he must be satisfied that the poem “works” and the original poem for a terminal is thus merely a starting point. But the poems of Heart Starter re-establish the importance of the relationship between the original work – the source – and the terminally-derived new poem. You can see this foreshadowed in the two early terminals which were based on Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, a poem which seems to invite reworkings, perhaps because it is an almost canonical example of a certain kind of defeated response to the growing horrors of the modern world balanced by the precarious faith that to be true to one’s loved-one remains a value that an individual can espouse. As such, this poem remains as relevant and almost as often quoted as Yeats’s “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (who says that the poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries doesn’t speak to our present twenty-first century condition?) Arnold is certainly a figure with whom Tranter has a complex (and generally hostile) relationship: “The Great Artist Reconsiders the Homeric Simile” from the 1979 volume, Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, makes fun of Arnold’s pastiche mini-epic “Sohrab and Rustum”. And the two terminals based on “Dover Beach” – “See Rover Reach” and “Grover Leach” – gain much of their interest by the way in which they assault the homogenous, even-toned, despairingly calm, language of the original. “Grover Leach” seems like a mad, slightly disjointed version of a poem by Edward Arlington Robinson or Edgar Lee Masters, and the opening lines of “See Rover Reach” proclaim sudden shifts in subject and register:

Something’s bothering the dog tonight -
the neighbour’s pig, maybe – it’s not fair
the way they feed that thing. Your hair, under the porch light,
it reminds me of Jenny, my long-ago one-night stand -
at least we thought it was a one-night stand – at Baffin Bay,
drinking vodka and pissing on the ice in the night air!
And then there was the time on the “Ocean Spray” -
some affair! – stranded miles from land . . .

Poems like these seem to suggest one of the strengths of the terminal. You take a canonical poem, scoop out most of the content and rewrite it in such a way as to bring it screaming into the disjointed world of modern fragmented and multi-layered discourse.

But, we can now see, there is much more potential in the terminal than this. And much of this potential derives from which poems are chosen as sources. All the terminals in Heart Starter derive from two canonical anthologies of American poetry. The first is Robert Pinsky’s The Best of the Best American Poetry of 2013 – an anthology selected from the twenty-five annual editions of The Best American Poetry series (and not to be confused with Harold Bloom’s Best of the Best American Poetry of 1998 which selected from, and celebrated, the first ten years). The second is The Open Door which collects one hundred poems over the one hundred year existence of what began as Harriet Monroe’s little magazine. This anthology begins with the high modernists – Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Yeats – and works its way through most of the major developments in American poetry up to the contemporary. Both source anthologies are, in other words, convincing snapshots of the major national poetry in English: one covering the last century, the other the last quarter of a century. So the very act of choosing them as sources for a set of terminals alerts one to the prospect that Tranter may be wanting to say something about American poetry or wanting to do something to it. If terminals are inherently hostile then the poems of Heart Starter are an attack on the American poetic century; if they are, instead, essentially polite hommages then the book is a genuflection in the same direction. It’s also just possible that they are hubristic acts of competition: show me your poem and I’ll rewrite it in a way that shows I’m a better poet. If this seems unlikely (or undignified) it’s worth remembering that the improvisation competitions in which the early Beethoven took part in Vienna were not dissimilar and that the most famous of these (with Daniel Steibelt) involved Beethoven’s taking his competitor’s music, turning it upside down and setting off with what became, later, the theme of the variations that make up the final movement of the Eroica Symphony. That’s a process not so dissimilar to what happens in a terminal. And, dauntingly, attack, homage and competition are only three of a large spectrum of responses.

Heart Starter begins with a terminal based on the first poem of the Pinsky anthology, Sherman Alexie’s “Terminal Nostalgia” (this anthology, like all the “Best of American Poetry” anthologies, is organised not chronologically but alphabetically by the author’s surname). Alexie’s poem (he “grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation” and his name sounds remarkably like an anagram of the sort that Tranter sometimes uses for titles or authors of his terminals) is a very funny representation of what the competitive nostalgic spirit (“Brisbane was a much better place when I was a kid!”) might look like from the perspective of a Native American:

The music of my youth was much better
Than the music of yours. So was the weather.

Before Columbus came, eagle feathers
Detached themselves for us. So did the weather.

During war, the country fought together
Against all evil. So did the weather . . .

These opening three of the poem’s sixteen couplets will show how daunting Tranter’s task is with this particular poem. “Terminal Nostalgia” is structured like one of the more intricate varieties of ghazal: each of the couplets finishes with the word “weather” and all the first lines of each beit are either a perfect or half-rhyme with that word. Tranter’s poem is a single verse paragraph, avoiding the refrain-like repetitions of “weather”, and thus has the additional difficulty of needing to make the appearance of the same word at the end of half the lines seem natural. I don’t think he entirely succeeds and Heart Starter opens with what is perhaps its weakest poem but you have to admire the way such a difficult formal task is taken on. The material of “Algernon Limattsia” (the title is an anagram of “Terminal Nostalgia”) is, understandably, not at all about nostalgia and doesn’t seem to engage in any apparent way (as critique, homage or competitor) with the parent poem: it’s about “the weather” in both literal and metaphoric sense – a common theme in Tranter’s poetry (“Voodoo”, “Dark Harvest”, “Storm Over Sydney” among many others). The attraction which ensured that this would not be one of the poems that Heart Starter omits (the fifty-six poems are chosen from two hundred originals) must surely be (apart from its being the first poem) the happy accident of its title, “Terminal Nostalgia”, which Tranter’s practice ensures that we read as “an affectionate regard for terminal poems” rather than “nostalgia taken to an extreme degree”.

The second poem – to continue programmatically for a moment – is based on Margaret Atwood’s “Bored”, a poem about the way childhood boredom, induced while assisting her father as he goes about various chores in Northern Quebec, leads to an acuity of vision unattainable as an adult – “Now I wouldn’t be bored / Now I would know too much. / Now I would know”. Tranter’s poem retains the boat-building of the original but – I think – converts it into a vehicle which will carry its builders to a new, exotic space:

. . . . . 
                    You pointed
at the ocean – look,
you said, it may seem boring, but under
the horizon there’s a much sunnier
place, an island full of coconuts, often
clangorous with birdsong,
even the natives get
excited at the birdsong – but to
get there we need a boat . . .

This may be allegorised out as a voyage to Cythera but it may also be the voyage into a new poetics that The Alphabet Murders of 1976 used as its overarching metaphor. If that is the case then the title “Robed with the Cloth of Gold” (the first word is an anagram of the title of Atwood’s poem) might suggest that the protagonists are burdened with a vatic notion of what poetry is and, awaiting something that will make the boat-building – the construction of the necessary poetry – inspired and easy, end up bored and stuck at the site of what they imagined would be their point of embarkation. If this reading works, then this poem shares with the first, a use of the terminal form to deal with an established Tranter theme rather than being a reaction to a source poem.

Terminals which set out to be critiques of some kind seem to be more common among those whose originals appear in Open Door. I assume that this is because the poems of that anthology cover an entire century and thus the kinds of poems and poetries that a contemporary might disapprove of are likely to be more common. Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty”, a poem from the mid-sixties by a poet born in the mid-twenties, is a wry and elegant observation on ageing with enough unexpected imagery – especially the idea that the slightly less solid ground men in early middle-age find themselves walking on is like a ship in an as-yet gentle swell:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair-landing
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy . . .

And so on. It’s a fine poem of its kind, suggesting an origin in its author’s experience but generalising it out in a way that avoids cliché. But it is also a kind of poem whose calm, even, wry wisdom can be irritating to a certain kind of reader, as irritating as the same qualities in “Dover Beach”. Tranter’s poem, “Older than Forty” isn’t so much a full-on attack as a slight twisting, allowing a bit more madness, a bit more “verbal intemperance” into its fabric. In fact the entire emotional and intellectual shape of the poem – it’s response to a watershed and the way things are on the brink of sliding out of control very rapidly – is retained:

So now I’m one of these older men, older than forty,
men who move slowly and speak softly
and know who they are, but they may not be
quite who they think they are, as they think to

themselves when they pause on the stair-landing,
eyes flicking back and forth, lips moving.
Don’t they know every cabin on this ship?
Every plank? Their movements are gentle,

the[y] are surprised to find themselves in mirrors
looking old, looking older, hoping to rediscover - 
what was it now? That trick in boy scout lanyard tying
or some other knack, or that other secret

like, for example, how to be their own father.
In the shaving mirror they work at the lather
then shave, then pause – now
while the sun stands still they think of something

they meant to remember – some sound
or some tiny image which holds immense
importance – then they’re sliding down the slope
that ends in the green grassy backyard of all those houses.

Like its original it plays with the involvement of the author’s own experience, making the innocent question – “Is this a personal or impersonal poem?” – even more difficult to answer than usual. It reminds one also that one of Tranter’s earliest rewritings (and one of his best poems, one which poses the questions about the relationship of a rewriting to its original that I have been looking at here) is “Having Completed My Fortieth Year” from the 1988 collection Under Berlin. That poem rewrites a poem by Peter Porter and perhaps overcomes any scruples about the act of rewriting since the Porter poem is a response to Byron’s famous poem. Like “Older than Forty” it keeps very close to the structure of its original, letting only a few intimations of an out-of-control verbal intensity into the text. It can be read as a critique though, not of Porter’s poem but of his preparedness to move from Australia to England and become a feature of an English rather than Australian literary landscape.

Craig Arnold’s “Meditation on a Grapefruit” seems to have the even-toned meditative register of the Donald Justice poem and is “about” the moment in the day when infinite possibility gives way to the inevitable agitations. This hinge is occupied by a precise breakfast ritual which, empty of meaning in itself, is nevertheless crucially important. It finishes, as many poems do (Stevens’s “The Snow Man” is a good example), with a piece of subtle ambiguous syntax that opens up possibilities:

. . . . .
                    so sweet
                              a discipline
precisely pointless          a devout
involvement of the hands and senses
a pause          a little emptiness

each year harder to live within
each year harder to live without

Tranter’s version, “Meditation at Breakfast”, immediately seizes on the faux-Buddhist notion of meditation, its proper subjects and its creative possibilities, rewriting it as a rather manic interrogation of a potential neophyte conducted by member of a Meditation Centre:

You want to meditate on what? No, that’s not possible.
Maybe tomorrow, you can meditate on it, maybe the day
after tomorrow. You know, the angry way you
shout when you think you’re alone in the kitchen,
that’s not a good sign. Meditate on a basketball?
Are you serious? Come on, have a little breakfast
and cheer yourself up.
. . . . . 
Now Kevin, I think it’s time we talked a little about discipline.
You know here at the Meditation Centre we’re mainly devout
Buddhists or at least pantheists, having come to our senses
about the problem of meditating on the general emptiness
that people – Kevin? – people generally find within
themselves – Kevin? Are you listening? Within or maybe without . . .

It’s a very funny poem deliberately rupturing the meditative calm of “Meditation on a Grapefruit” so that, although a dramatic monologue replaces the “overheard eloquence” of the traditionally lyrical original, the voice and character of the speaker are unstable and very unexpected: the opposite of the bland paradoxes that either infuriate or impress westerners experiencing a meeting with oriental religious thought and practice. There’s an additional frisson in the very Australian name of the neophyte: it may have no especial significance but it’s hard not to think of both Kevin Hart the poet and Kevin Rudd the former Prime Minister.

As Tranter points out, the final words of the lines of the originals are only starting points and they are open to emendation. Formally the most free of these poems is “The Animals” in which Anne Carson’s “The Life of Towns”, a mini-anthology of thirty-two poems with a prose introduction (which has the same inconsistent and unstable speaking voice as many of Tranter’s poems) generates an eighty-four line poem. “Three Lemons”, based on Bukowski’s “Three Oranges”, is also very free in its opening two stanzas. The final poem can be read as a redirecting of the hatred of the original. In the Bukowski the target is the parent who reads the title of Prokofiev’s opera as saying that sex can be bought for no more than three oranges whereas the child had read the three oranges as a triple love-object. In the Tranter, the target is a father-figure poet/composer whose initial is either P (for Prokofiev) or B (for Bukowski) who has the capacity to take:

                                         . . . this heap of cheap ideas,
eating food, drinking drink, smoking, sex,
and in the blender of his art he turns it
into a handful of damned lemons!
 . . . . .
Now he’s dead, thank God, I listen to that
composer, what’s his name, I’m stuck
remembering his name, starts with
P, B, no . . . I have a real home now, I’m in
clover . . .

Again, this is a fairly manic dramatic monologue and the speaker’s criticism of Bukowski shouldn’t be taken as being endorsed by the author, but it’s hard not to read the poem as being critical of a certain “raw experience” tradition in American literature. At any rate, the freer the version, the less the engagement with the original can be seen as a conscious response – hostile or benevolent – to it. The original, in a free version of a terminal, becomes no more than a quarry to be mined in order to produce a poem that “works” – and, as I have said, this is what most of Tranter’s generative practices do.

The last part of Heart Starter is a collection of poems which demonstrate some other generative and structuring devices than the terminal. There are sonnets with various rhyme schemes (including that of the stanza form of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin) a number of which follow out Rimbaud’s ideas about the colour of vowels. There are a group of poems which Tranter calls “quintets” which work by choosing the first and last sentences of a novel and placing between them three other sentences. This sounds like Roussel’s method whereby the text of an entire novel is a way of working from the first sentence to the last (which is homophonically – and in other ways – derived from the first). But actually Tranter’s quintets are rather the opposite. Instead of fabricating smooth transitions so that the resulting short poems read as homogenous statements, the result is a very Tranterian poem which, rather than smoothing over the disjunctions, exploits them so that the slightly fractured speaking voice is in keeping with that of other poems. “Power”, derived from Greene’s The Power and the Glory, is a good example:

Mr Wilson went out to look for his gas cylinder,
into the blazing Spanish sun and the dust.
Anyone can tell you’re a man of education.
It was, of course, the end, but at the same time
you had to be prepared for everything,
even escape. “Bastards,” the man said,
and his hand lay wearily where it had got to,
over his heart; he imitated the prudish attitude
of a female statue, one hand over the breast
and one upon the stomach.
But the boy had already swung the door open
and put his lips to his hand
before the other could give himself a name.

“Four Variations on a Poem by Pam Brown” and “Variations and Reverse Mazurka” adopt different sorts of variation techniques and are thus an interesting way in which one of the staples of art-music can be brought into poetry. In Tranter’s work this goes back at least as far as the eight sonnets beginning “She turned off the radio and listened to the blues” which were published in the 1977 volume, Crying in Early Infancy (and which were the first poems of Tranter’s that I fell in love with).

The two poems that stand out in this final section, though, are “Manacles” and “Loxodrome”. Significantly there are no comments in the notes about the generative principles behind these poems. “Manacles” (presumably recalling Blake’s “mind-forged manacles”) begins as though it is going to be an assault on vatic notions of inspiration – “I was born with a silver ribbon in my hair, / a fizzing link to the aether that compels me to / listen to the sky babbling. . . ” and, though it moves on disjunctively to other topics, this issue continues to return. The second stanza begins “Sit and doodle, that’s how it’s done?” and the third stanza opens with the idea of there being a key to the barbarous sideshow of the universe:

write “We were born into the secrets of Gomorrah
Under the Sign of the Double Key” -
that is, lock slot metal type reversing mirror
nihil obstat, determined to learn it quick
under the humming sign
of the Great Reader above and behind
the edge of the observable universe . . .

In a sense it is a theme – “How Messages are Received” – with variations. And the variations occur at the verbal level as well: “nihil obstat” recalls “nil bullshit”; “Double Key” recalls the earlier “bar code key”; “bracket creep” recalls the earlier “bracket racket” and so on. “Loxodrome”, which looks as though it might be structured like “The Anaglyph” from the previous book, Starlight, actually feels more like “Ode to Col Joye” in that you have the sense that the poem is making itself and its own form as it progresses. It could be described as a set of variations on the idea of finding oneself in a place – almost all of the stanzas begin that way – and thus attempts a set of answers to the question “Where Am I?” posed literally and metaphorically. It also has a passage about connections that reveals something of Tranter’s engineer-like interest in the mechanisms not only of poetry but of the world itself:

. . . . . 
Refreshment break: Sir Francis Bacon and Charlie Parker
had one thing in common: they stopped for a chicken.
It killed Bacon, and at the start of Parker’s career
may have seemed a sign. Sigmund Freud and
Arthur Hugh Clough both applied for jobs in Australia,
and were knocked back. Then, when you think about it,
Clough and Cartier-Bresson had one thing in common:
they were the ambitious sons of rich cotton merchants . . .

“Loxodrome” also contains a good deal of autobiographical material deriving from place: listening to Ken Bolton at a conference, reading with John Forbes and Peter Schjeldahl at the Harold Park Hotel, for example. And this brings us to the question, common in thinking about the nature of Tranter’s poetry, of the degree to which it can be said to be abstract – ie concerned only with the processes of language and poetry. My own feeling about this (stated many times) looks like fence-sitting: Tranter’s poetry points in both directions and is simultaneously interested in forms and contents. The poems in this rich and completely engaging book are not exercises in any sense but genuine explorations and though they may mock conventional well-made poems and their understanding of our inner and outer lives (especially by allowing the speaking voice to fragment under the pressure of verbal intemperance) they have a lot that they want to convey. There is certainly an “abstract” side to Tranter’s poetic personality but there is a good deal of the expressionist as well.

Les Murray: Waiting for the Past

Collingwood: Black Inc., 2015, 78pp.

Among the many marvellous poems of Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past, there is one of special interest and significance called “I Wrote a Little Haiku”:

I wrote a little haiku
titled The Springfields:

Lead drips out of
a burning farm rail.
Their Civil War.

Critics didn’t like it,
said it was obscure ”“
The title was the rifle
both American sides bore,
lead was its heavy bullet
the Minié, which tore

often wet with blood and sera
into the farmyard timbers
and forests of that era,
wood that, burnt even now,

might still re-melt and pour
out runs of silvery ichor
the size of wasted semen
it had annulled before.

There are a lot of interesting things happening here: firstly at the level of the poem itself. Because contemporary poetry can range in length it is possible actually to embed a poem within another one rather than merely allude to it. The fact that “The Springfields” is quoted (it appeared in Murray’s previous book, Taller When Prone) means that one poem is embedded in another in the same way, of course, that the lead bullets are embedded in the forests and farm rails of the battlefields of the American Civil War. The embedding is announced formally by having the first two lines in seven and five syllables respectively, thus preparing for the five, seven, five pattern of a traditional haiku and the pun on “bore” reveals a meditating, poetic mind whereby such connections rise to the surface. The poem thus belongs to that small but profoundly satisfying (for the reader) genre of unusual and thought-provoking mimeseis. Even mimesis can be said to “embed” meaning in the sense of enacting it and so “I Wrote a Little Haiku” turns out, at one level at least, to be about how meaning is embedded in a poem. To follow this line of thought allegorically, the suggestion might be that the “true” meaning of a poem is revealed (melted out as silvery ichor) only many years later (perhaps when a new, superior generation of critics of Australian poetry has arisen).

Contradicting this reading, slightly, is the undeniable fact that this is a poem which is not prepared to wait for the future but which wants to explain the meaning of the first poem now. Thus, structurally, it follows the old “Text – Gloss” form which is quite different to “Meaning hidden within and awaiting release” which is the one suggested by the poem’s content. The explanation that the larger poem gives is one which ties the event of the released metal of the bullets into Murray’s notion of war and the way in which war can be an assault on a generation of young men. In the case of the Civil War, where men from rural towns joined the same regiment, a particularly fierce encounter (the “Bloody Angle” or the “Peach Orchard) could deprive a community of an entire male generation. Thus the silvery ichor is not only meaning but also wasted semen. And, finally, one has to entertain the remote possibility that “I Wrote a Little Haiku” is a hoax poem, a mine embedded in a text, a deliberately dud poem designed to attract critics whose love of complex mimeticisms and lack of any sense of value will make them easy dupes: but that way paranoia lies!

It is also a poem which raises the complex issue of obscurity in poetry. Although obscurity ties in with the conscious riddling of many of Murray’s poems (an issue dealt with by Lisa Gorton in her review in the Sydney Review of Books), riddling is only one, fairly benevolent kind of obscurity. In the Indo-European poetic tradition, riddling arises out of the poet’s meditation on the connectedness (often through kennings and other sorts of metaphor) between things and, especially in the Germanic tradition, between things and their names. But, basically, riddles have only one answer and all power lies with the riddler. The riddle may be obscure but that is because the solver’s mind is not as attuned to reality and metaphor as is the riddler’s. In a way, “Yregami”, a poem from The Biplane Houses, shows how much Murray ponders these matters: there, metaphors are interestingly inverted, the tenor becoming the bearer (“A warm stocking caught among limbs / evokes a country road . . .” rather than the more conventional “a country road looks like a stocking”). The title, which sounds like an interesting Japanese art practice, is of course, the word “imagery” appropriately inverted: you have no freedom of interpretation here, you just have to “get it”.

But this is only one kind of obscurity. The sort of obscurity which emerges in “The Springfields” is the obscurity of disjunction. It could be argued that it’s endemic to a genre like haiku where, conventionally, two images are juxtaposed. The human mind, being what it is, always tries to grasp the connection between juxtaposed elements, even in more extreme cases where the method is entirely aleatory. But good poems of paired images often have solutions in commonly accepted cultural values: the images, that is, are two boats in the same ocean. In Murray’s original poem, the matrix from which the meaning of the juxtaposition arises is Murray’s own ideas about warfare and young men. If you’re au fait with these, the odds are that you will twig to the intended meaning.

My own desultory thoughts about obscurity in poetry are inclined to relate it to structure. Obscurity in ordinary language use – ranging from non-fictional prose like reports (and reviews) to genre fiction – is an infringement of what is really a mercantile relationship between writer and reader. And the fault is always likely to lie with the writer (though he or she might invoke the excuse that they didn’t realise that their readers were so dumb!). Obscurity in poetry differs because poetry is one of the limited areas of language use where there isn’t a mercantile relationship between writer and reader: if we buy books of poetry it is probably in the hope of having our own inner lives expanded or challenged but there are no guarantees anywhere on the book that allow us to return it, like a toaster, if it didn’t work. I’m inclined to think that there is at least one kind of obscurity in poetry that is a fault in a poem’s structure so that parts of it become subject to more stress than they can bear. An incomprehensible haiku is just two images that don’t relate and thus, structurally, the poem falls apart. Of course there are other kinds of obscurity: Yeats’s “Byzantium” is a magnificently integrated poem structurally, but the world of meaning in which it exists is so complex and alien that it might come from a different culture.

Finally in these thoughts about “I Wrote a Little Haiku”, one is forced, reluctantly in my case, to face questions of value. Is the larger poem a better poem than “The Springfields”? Does this question make any sense? It will be no surprise to readers who have put up with this analysis this far, that I think the longer poem is superior, essentially on structural grounds. The tie between the first two lines of “The Springfields” and the last is just a bit weak. What if the last line were replaced by “Medieval rhetoric” (admittedly seven syllables rather than five, but Murray’s has four) turning it, if it were to be embedded in a longer poem, into a short poem about how time and the application of the various methods of allegorical reading will gradually release the silvery meaning? Or even something like “Mahler’s faint hope” (four syllables) tying the meaning to the hope that in the future listeners or hearers will be born who understand the meaning?

As I’ve said, riddling and unexpected puzzles form an important part of Murray’s approach to his art and the poems of Waiting for the Past are full of them. Sometimes one feels that if one only knew Murray’s distinctive analysis of the world in more detail, these puzzles would solve themselves, but sometimes one isn’t so sure. In “Whale Sounding”, for example, we are treated to six lines of brilliant evocative description (“vertically diving, / thick roof tail / spilling salt rain . . .”) capped by “bubba dog down”. “The Backroad Collections” has a similar, if expanded, structure. Thirteen lines of brilliant, linguistically lush and celebrative description of the sort of second-hand clothes that can be found on the verandahs of country shops (“yellow bordure and buttony rib, / pouched swimsuits, cretonne ad lib / in front of blush-crimson sleeves”) is followed by a sort of “altogether elsewhere” moment:

and cattle who haven’t yet entered
any building wander, contented,
munching under their last trees

till a blowsy gold-ginger horizon
stacked up out of the day’s talk
glorifies and buries the sun.
A nude moon burns the newsprint version.

It’s tempting to see it, at first glance, as an extended haiku although it may well be that “The Fall of Rome” is its true structural original. It remains a challenging poem though. At first you think of it as being built out of its oppositions: a catalogue of outmoded fashions (“fashion” is always a loaded word in Murray) of dress is contrasted to the naked, wandering cattle. Basic farming culture, perhaps, juxtaposed with trivial cultural obsessions. But the description of the clothes is so linguistically celebratory that it is hard to see any negative judgements here. And what are these cattle doing? The fact that they haven’t yet entered any building and that the trees which they munch under are their “last” trees suggests that a particular building, an abattoir, awaits them in which case they are beef, not dairy, cattle. And what are we to make of the last four lines? Presumably the opposition of fashion and farming is transposed to an opposition between social trivia (talk which, ultimately, covers the sun) and the clear, monochromatic view of the moon. At any rate, there are resonances here with other poems from this collection: the idea of animals being naked – here not stated specifically but arising as part of the oppositions of the poem – appears in “Money and the Flying Horses” where stallions are described as “the nudest creatures alive”.

If “I Wrote a Little Haiku” redirects our reading of “The Springfields” towards the nature of war, there are plenty of poems in Waiting for the Past which take that subject up. “The Murders of Women” is a poem about domestic violence and, perhaps, also an attack on ignorant as well as ideologically driven interpretations of the phenomenon whereby:

. . . . . 
It brings the blue sergeants
to push down a head
still full of a war
that will feed the guess-writers.
One woman. Fifty-two women.

And then there are sectarian wars. “All of Half Way” is about leaving the Catholic south of Ireland for the Protestant north and “Persistence of the Reformation” tracks that historical phenomenon (“four hundred years of ship-spread / jihad at first called / the Thirty Years War”) down from sixteenth century Europe to the farms of rural Australia. This poem escapes the charge of being sectarian propaganda by its emphasis on the way in which decency tried to alleviate the worst of the problems – it’s a humanist poem at heart:

. . . . . 
while mutual help and space
and breach of cliché and face
here civilised the boundary fences
. . . . .
the local dead
still mostly lie in ranks
assigned them by denomination
though belief may say Ask Mum
and unpreached help
has long been the message.

But the subject of war, in its widest extent, also emerges in those poems which deal with the limiting of sexuality. “High Rise” is about the new, high rise cities of China (“Latest theory is, the billions / will slow their overbreeding // only when consuming in the sky . . . . . above all the only children”) and “Nuclear Family Bees” is a semi-allegorical account of the way in which native bees do not form self-protecting colonies (“pumped from a common womb”) but, instead, build “single wax houses” much more vulnerable to predators.

“Raising an Only Child” seems to connect with such poems but it is really one of those personal poems – like “Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver” or “The Tune on Your Mind” – where Murray considers elements of his own personality as well as their origins. “Raising an Only Child” is actually a brilliant analysis not so much of an only child as of the phenomenon of an only child raised by parents who, themselves, come from multi-child families and thus “found you a mystery”:

. . . . . 
Expecting rejection, you tell
stories of yourself to the hills,
confused by your few instincts.

Employable only solo or top,
making friends from your own kind
is relief with blades in it
. . . . . 
Unable to flirt 
or credit most advances
you sit and mourn
links of your self-raising chain.

Murray belongs to that group of poets born before the Second World War and his personal overview of history is thus a long one. Many of these poems are about the past and many are about the changes that have taken place in the last three-quarters of a century. “Growth”, from which the book’s title (yet another puzzle) is taken, is based on the childhood experience of the death of an elderly neighbour, and “High Speed Trap Space”, though it might ultimately be an allegory about not swerving from the path of one’s faith, is based on an adolescent experience. And then there is “When Two Percent Were Students” (whose opening line, “Gorgeous expansion of life” is a good description of what readers might hope to get from poetry) which goes back to Murray’s days at university and implicitly contrasts the past with a present in which almost all young people are students of one kind or another. “Holland’s Nadir” recalls a visit paid to a Dutch submarine at the end of the war but moves, in its conclusion, to a wider statement about language and nations in the post-war period:

. . . . . 
The only ripostes still open
to them were torpedoes
and their throaty half-

American-sounding language.
Speaking a luckier one
we set off home then. Home

and all that word would mean
in the age of rebirthing nations
which would be my time.

Sometimes the personal component of these “historical” poems is reduced in favour of a more generalised interest in cultural history. “1960 Brought the Electric” is about the arrival of electricity in the country: though generally considered to be a miraculous thing, the artisanal skill of judging “whether boxwood / or mahogany baked longer / or hotter or better” in a wood-fired stove was lost as a result. And “Big Rabbit at the Verandah” details another war, that against the rabbit in the pre-myxomatosis years: it’s a cultural recollection spurred by the sight of a large “fleecy-chested and fawn” specimen sighted at the verandah. The way in which the change is embodied in the behaviour of working dogs, mentioned in this poem, is taken up in “Dog Skills” where what had in the past been “untrained mixed-breed biters / screamed at from the house” have morphed into surprisingly professional animals, going about their work with no fuss at all:

. . . . . 
Now new breeds and skill
silence the paddocks

a murmured vowel
brings collie and kelpie flying
along the road-cutting

till each makes its leap
of judgement into the tractor
tray, loose-tongued and smiling front.

Of course the expanded wealth of historical perspective that comes with age is counterbalanced by an increase in general physical decrepitude. A number of poems – including “English as a Second Language” and “The Plaster Eater” – refer to Murray’s wife, Valerie, his long partnership with her and the inevitable separations of hospital stays. The most moving poem in the book is “Last World Before the Stars” a vision of depression induced by separation which is imagined as standing on Pluto:

. . . . . 
looking off the short horizon,
the Sun a white daystar of squinch
glazing the ground like frozen twilight,

no life, no company, no nearness,
never a memory or a joke . . .

Future scholars will probably make much of the fact that this poem appears next to “Bird Signatures” which is in every sense positive, celebrating the beauties of the natural world and, even more, poetry’s ability to convey something of it. Being able to say that the “Tiny spinnakers / of blue wrens wag among waves / of uncut lawn grass” or that the cry of the Nankeen night heron is like a Japanese wood saw or an “Oz nail pulled out” – presumably reluctantly and by a claw hammer – is always something to place against the oncoming darker days.

Sarah Holland-Batt: The Hazards

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2015, 93pp.

We’re sometimes told that second books are more important than first books in that the former often contain the multiple explorations of a poet’s early work – experiments in voice, style and subject which produce successful poems but which are not necessarily indications of a true, individual manner – whereas the latter give us some idea as to what a particular poet’s mature style is likely to be like. This isn’t always true of course; some poets find their distinctive way of thinking and writing in the first poem of their first book and all later developments spin out from there. Sarah Holland-Batt’s second book, the strikingly impressive The Hazards, is unusual in that it replicates the varied modes of her first book, Aria, almost exactly.

Rereading that first book, one can see that there are two basic modes: lament (for the failure of love affairs) and rhapsody, though a rhapsody that is rarely celebratory. Although The Hazards is a more substantial book, these two poles recur. The last section is almost entirely devoted to documenting the pain of amatory failure. Sometimes, as in “The Atlantic” (definitely an “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea”!), a grotesque image of the external world is wedged, Lowell-like, against the body of the poem which is essentially narrative:

Now you lord it in a blue-blood job
that will make you a millionaire by forty . . .
If only I could wait. Yesterday’s Times said
more body parts washed in at Oak Beach:
Long Island Sound’s serial killer
stalks his hunting grounds while we sleep. . . .

“The Invention of Ether” is another piece which is Lowellian in manner, setting and allusions. The Boston Common, the setting of “For the Union Dead”, also contains a statue celebrating the discovery of ether, the first widely used medical analgesic. But though the poem longs to tap into this pain-killing ability, the pain returns (“Like a hammer to the knee / it jerks in and out of focus, always throbbing”). This poem also finishes with segment from a different world:

Still, I cling to the sting
like the slobbering octopus
I failed to rescue
from boyish torturers
on a Sicilian beach:
hopelessly suctioned, unable to release.

And then there is “Via dell’Amore” – “Nothing will destroy the Ligurian Sea / or that sheltered spot where we sat / by Riomaggiore’s corrugated rocks / and ate a loaf and Spanish salami . . .) where the failure is expressed both directly (“Was that the end of love? / No money, in no month to swim, / we stayed until failure hit the rock”) and through a clever image: the via dell’amore of the title is a lover’s pathway between two Ligurian villages but in this poem there is no movement and the stationary lovers are stranded in one of the villages.

What I’ve called the rhapsodic mode in both these books probably now needs some more careful description in that it refers to poetic form than content. Rhapsody is usually one of the forms of celebration but, though there is celebration here, it is often quite equivocal. The method of these poems involves a repeated introductory phrase. “Of Germany”, which opens the book’s third section of poems, very loosely about place, is a series of prepositional phrases beginning with “of”: “. . . of Berlin / on a Monday afternoon, of love / and of Germany, of the scrawny Dalmatian / running free in the Englischer Garten . . .” “No End to Images” – “No end to grief, never any end to that . . .” – does something similar with “no end to” and “O California” is set of objects for the phrase “I want”. Although the word “rhapsody” suggests a lack of structure, it really refers to a lack of conventionally accepted structure: how the thing is organised and how it is going to make its way to a fitting conclusion is, if anything, thrown into sharper relief. In “O California” the shape of the poem seems to be the dark underside of the sub-tropical paradise which is suggested all the way through (so that a list of roads includes “the death roads”) and which blossoms at the conclusion when the syntax switches from “I want” to “won’t you”:

                                 I want my perfect teeth
preserved, California, my teeth buried
in the earth like a curse, California, and won’t you show me
where the bodies are kept, California,
won’t you show me, show me, show me.

Something similar happens in “Of Germany” where after a concluding series of “ofs” – “of vanity and perishable memory, / of the invisible cats sleeping indoors / and the longest nights” we meet “the beautiful cars / that go so suicidally fast.” A poem from earlier in the book, “Approaching Paradise”, is overtly about the dark and light sides of a tropical beach environment – “Praise the bloated body washed in” – but is structured by continuous and unpredictable appearances of the central word, “paradise”.

The Hazards includes another sort of Holland-Batt subgenre that we met in Aria: the poem of a Queensland girlhood. “The Orchid House” is about the grandfather’s orchids, “Tropic Rain” – conceivably categorisable as a rhapsodic poem – is about Queensland storms, “Botany” is not about the bay but about school classes on mushrooms and the mysterious messages they leave, and “A Scrap of Lace” is about a grandmother’s lacemaking. “The House on Stilts” – which acknowledges Malouf as its inspiration – is about the underside of a Queensland house, “that wedge of darkness / chocked beneath our weatherboard”. All these seem to parallel poems like “Cavendish Road”, “The Woodpile” and “The Sewing Room” from Aria.

This all poses the question of whether The Hazards is essentially a revisiting of the possibilities opened up by Aria, containing, perhaps, more accomplished and confident poems, or whether it branches out into any kind of new territory. The differences, slight at first, turn out to be significant. And the main difference is that the “art” references in Aria are usually literary (Marquez, Chekhov, Dante, Carver etc) or musical (Rachmaninov, Puccini, Beethoven) whereas those in The Hazards seem to come largely from the visual arts. These include references – as well as responses to – paintings by Ingres, Lucian Freud, Botticelli, Matisse and others.

I have the sense, not entirely logical or supportable, that these paintings take Holland-Batt into rather different thematic areas. They certainly seem to lead into new areas structurally. They emphasise, as the poems about text and music do not, the idea of the moment of entry since paintings are “entered” in a rather different fashion. “Interbellum”, which is based on Hopper’s “Summer Evening”, a painting showing a couple on a porch in a patch of light and excluding everything else by banishing it into darkness, emphasises all those things which occur outside the frame, outside of the “crate of light”:

Late April: forsythia
             grafts to green wood,
napalms into blossom ”“

simple yellow in the yard, earnest,
             pliant as youth.
Inside, buttered rooms

are cooling . . .

The way in which “Against Ingres” enters the painting is by moving from an accurate, remote description of the painting’s subject to an imaginative entry into her life (“The women / she oiled faithfully every morning / are distant as the cries of a peacock / in the sultan’s garden”) and from there to an imagined interaction between the subject and the painter:

I’m tired, I’m cold, I’m hungry.
Ingres, it’s late, it’s raining, the servants
and girls are dreaming in bed
of knives and birds that cry like wolves
and by now even you must know
what it means when a woman turns
her back on you.

“Primavera: The Graces” enters Botticelli’s landscape (“See, we move through the black wood / like gods through time . . . “) to make the point that the endless circularity of the seasons is the opposite of the fate of the human which only gets one go at living. It seems to match the painting with Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”, beginning with oranges and ending with birds:

. . . . .
                Only the birds hurtling
like flung stones know the truth:
it is in the tiny fandango
of their pulse, in the leaves scratching
them through the air, in their descent
which is short and unspectacular
and spills out of them like wine.
Fear it: your lives are short too.

One of the most striking poems of The Hazards” is “The Quattrocento as a Waltz” which is, perhaps, about leaving painting for music. The poem is structured as a semi-comic farewell (possibly recalling MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”) to a universe ruled by light in favour of a “real” world accompanied by the sound of music:

. . . . .
Open the window: outside is Italy.
A fat woman is arguing over artichokes,
someone is dying in a muddy corner,
there’s a violin groaning in the street.

Finally, there is “Beauty is a Ticket of Admission to All Spectacles” which seems the key text in these poems about paintings. It begins by listing a series of works – mainly paintings of violence – which “you do not want to enter” but finishes with one of those real life tableaux that we met in poems like “The Invention of Ether” and which may be a central part of Holland-Batt’s technical apparatus. Here she describes her father’s killing of a crow: the suggestion is that such autobiographical scenes are a good deal more difficult to “enter”. Whether this is a reference to the fact that entry is difficult for her audience who do not inhabit the same psychic landscape as the poet, or whether they are difficult for the writer to enter, either because they are emotionally raw or because they haven’t been pre-processed as “art”, I’m not sure. At any rate this poem stresses the significance of the act of entry just as, in its final lines, it stresses the importance of the eye, the organ of entry. There are eyes everywhere in these poems and they often attract the most pungent metaphorical language. The eye of the bird in “The Vulture” is “bubbled tar”, those of the eel in “Life Cycle of the Eel” are “flat as dishpans” and that of the bird in “The Macaw” is a “black bowl”.

The tone of almost all the poems of The Hazards is phenomenally self-confident, full of propositions (“Blue is not the colour of paradise”), injunctions (“Listen, I tell you: it is lonely / to scrape eyeless among the stars”) and descriptions of elevated personal experience (“Rain I have known like music, a tin oratorio . . .”) But what prevents this self-confidence from seeming overweening, even hubristic, is that you feel that at the core of the poems is the desire to annex new experience. Hence, if I try to force my method of always making an attempt to see underlying unities in a poet’s work, it could be said that the essential gesture at the core of Holland-Batt’s work so far is the “step into”. It’s perhaps for this reason that the poems relating to paintings, which, as I have said, represent worlds you can enter, take her work to profounder levels than in her first book.

Two early poems, “A Scrap of Lace” and “An Illustrated History of Settlement” may be interesting in this context. The first begins as a standard piece about childhood, speaking of a grandmother’s lace-making but makes a more interesting move than do most of these kinds of poems when the eye of poet tries to “enter” (I may be stretching my metaphor here) the world of the lace itself:

Sometimes I have lifted a piece
          of that lace up to the light
and tried to unwind it with my eye.
          I have never found an opening
in the lashes and loops of it,
          the cobwebbed knots . . .

The poem then opens into a “real” historical world of settlement Australia, describing a convict transported for stealing lace. Unlike the poems I’ve spoken of already, it isn’t a matter of jamming a grotesque reality (a “skunk moment”) onto the end of an interior poem. Here it is a genuine modulation, eased by the pun on “lashes” but not caused by it. “An Illustrated History of Settlement” is another ekphrastic piece which describes Fox’s painting of Cook’s arrival. Its method is the opposite of the work itself in which everything is designed to highlight the central figure. This poem wants to begin with the fringes and focus on them, only slowly working towards the centre:

. . . . .
And here in the foreground, a Rubenesque swell
of redcoats tumbling over the beach
like a flock of exotic birds.
Faces fat with apple-cheeked Englishness.
Thighs bulging in white breeches.

And a man in the centre with his arm outstretched – 
This is often where the eye enters.

And often leaves.

In terms of historical method this seems to express no more than the contemporary cliché that true history lies not in the great actors but in the ordinary, forgotten people. But the poem is saved from cliché by its deployment of a notion of entering which has been made more complexly resonant by occurring in so many other poems.

Eyes and entries. It makes one realise the importance a poem like “Galah’s Skull” where the poet finds a bird’s skull with a worm in one eyesocket which seems to want to root itself like a fern. The entire scene is a complex metaphor in which “one eye [is] rolled to the daylight moon / the other pressed down into the earth”. And then there is “The Vulture”, the first of a series of poems about animals. The vulture is the processing machine, the “Shaman of transfiguration”, the “afterlife of all things”. But what stays with me from this poem, which grows stronger the more you reread The Hazards, is the way he is introduced in the first line of the poem where he “leans out of himself / into morning”. I read this as the essential gesture of entering (the poem goes on at length to describe how he enters the dead bodies of animals) and thus I have grown to see him as perhaps the totemic beast of the poems of this fine collection.

John Hawke: Aurelia; Jillian Pattinson: Babel Fish

Aurelia (Carlton: Cordite Press, 2015), 41pp.
Babel Fish (Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014), 75pp.

Although, with the exception of one poem, “Lignent”, the poems of John Hawke’s first, long-awaited book, Aurelia, are similar in verbal style – they have a relaxed, sensuous long-breathed eloquence – what they are as poems in themselves varies widely. More than in most books one can sense a struggle between a desire for creative unity and a desire to explore possibilities. Some poems are dreams, others are portraits, the title poem is a kind of dream-vision which must be intended to recall Nerval’s Aurelia but which also has a touch of Shelley or even early Browning about it and two, “Mountain Train” and “The Night Air” can (with all the usual hermeneutic reservations taken on board) be read as straightforward portraits of the poet as a very young man.

Perhaps made uneasy by this appearance of a variety which might suggest lack of focus, Hawke includes a brief preface locating the poetry in the French theoretical landscape obsessed by the relationship between words and loss. To desire is to instigate a life of loss:

. . .  When Nerval writes that dreams are a second life, he not only refers to the dreams we experience in sleep, but also to the dreams that arise as a consequence of lost desires, dreams perhaps thwarted by chance: of lives once meant, but never lived . . . These lives often coexist with our own as lost alternatives, counter-experiences or impossible possibilities; they lie within the everyday like a subtext or a haunting . . .

I don’t want to sound too much of a Francophobe empiricist here, but this seems to be one of those large statements which evade the difficult and more precise question: in this case, what is a poet’s personal stake in a particular character or situation; why did this one rather than innumerable others get the creative act going and give it the energy to continue. It is a question that looms large (and is often avoided) in responses to the great monologues of Browning. If Dramatic Romances had had, as a preface, a general statement of this kind we wouldn’t really be greatly enlightened about masterpieces like “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”.

At any rate, I like the mysterious varieties of Aurelia to the point of being tempted to ignore its author’s honestly offered help. The title poem is a recreation of the high Romantic mode, moving between reality and dream and back to dream-influenced reality. It details the arrival and loss of either a woman or creativity or Coleridge’s Joy or all three. Although she is a distilled and thus abstract phenomenon – “I first fell in love with Aurelia / in the face of that woman painted by Giovanni Bellini / with her serene yet introverted eyes . . .” – there is a fine, very un-abstract passage detailing the goddess’s arrival:

The presence arrives with the faintest percussion 
of bells approaching from a distance.
It hovers over this winter sea
and leaves no footfall on the sand.
I discover myself at last in its solitude,
contemplating the glitter in a midnight wave.
I feel a smothering weight:
. . . . .
                             Then, ever so faintly,
emanating from silence
like a figure outlined in smoke,
a shadow of sound that brushes the walls
with the softest presence - 
the footfall of her sigh in even night . . .

This calm extended blank verse style, here suggesting something of a pastiched updating of nineteenth century visionary narratives, is very much typical of the other poems of the book. At any rate, the arrival of the idealised loved one results in the achievement, or gift, of a vison of the universe in which “every ordinary phrase / is suddenly charged, the signals of daily life / transformed, and we enter that forest / of symbols where everything coincides”. The protagonist enters, in other words, the world of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” though it is significant that the phrase “smothering weight” is borrowed from Coleridge’s great “Dejection: An Ode”.

The other poems of the book, with the exception of the two childhood poems I have already mentioned and “Early Spring” and “Emily Street”, seem more inclined to dwell in bleaker landscapes rather than the ecstatic world where all the objects are resonant and connectedly meaningful. Hawke is terrific at providing images of the normal processes of loss – the loss of objects and experiences rather than loved ones. They form the basis of the book’s first poem, “Reliquary”, and “What Was There” a poem about revisiting a childhood home in the country, moves out to consider the perspective of the spaces between the stars:

Behind the town Parnassus with its water-tower is outlined
by a crown of stars; there is a gap below the Southern Cross

darker than the night itself, an unfillable nothingness
into which all this will be drawn in time:

the rotting house, the detailed shadows in the children’s faces,
the scraps of old iron and broken chimney-bricks among the weeds . . .

There are two interesting poems about intellectuals who become frightening activists: Saint-Just (Robespierre’s supporter) and Avimael Guzman (a professor of philosophy who became the leader of the Maoist army of Peru called the Shining Path). In a sense they form a diptych, working away at similar themes. Saint-Just’s poem focusses entirely on the metaphorical landscape of a mountain top:

Climbing this hill you suddenly
can’t keep your breath, it has gone
with the breeze that lifts your arms
and catches you like that,
leaning away from the familiar road.
All that matters is your surrender
to the red wind . . .

The emphasis is on the nightmare attraction of perfect systems to intellectual activists whereby a world is constructed whose architecture matches the visions of their minds. In the case of Saint-Just, this triumph is inhabitable only by himself and comes at the cost of countless other lives. And he will be the lone inhabitant of this perfect world: if there are others they will be only versions of himself:

Then at last you have arrived
outside a landscape which could only belong to you,
the way the long grass hoists and sways
perfectly in tune with the colours of the season,
an architecture meshing precisely above you,
building you a home. And was that another
figure moving with you beyond that window,
cut from your own soft shape, 
quiet as a ripple in the swimming glass?

Of course, Saint-Just’s execution occurred quickly and unexpectedly and his courage and contempt on the scaffold is that of a man whose dying is a kind of triumph. Guzman has been in prison since the early nineties, something guaranteed to sap the self-confidence of even the purest ideologues. His poem, even longer than the title poem, is a detailed exploration of an ideologue’s inherent solipsism. It begins – and continues for much of its length – with the act of strangling a female peasant who had called him, entirely accurately, a fascist. Guzman inhabits the same metaphorical uplands as Saint-Just but in his case they are also real: the mountains of rural Peru:

. . . . . 
Because there is no longer any guilty internal world
your private thoughts lead you to a plain
where huge figures stand frozen, towers and monuments
shuttling messages into the air, light patterns
and gaudy over-obvious symbols . . .

The perfect world envisaged by the internal mental apparatuses of dogmatic intellectual activists is one in which only they and pale reflections of themselves can live. But at about this point the reader realises that there must be a connection between the world of infinitely meaningful symbols celebrated in “Aurelia” and this sterile solipsistic universe. Is the point simply that megalomaniac demagogues are failed artists or is there something sinister in all successful acts of artistic creation, the creator expressing him- or herself in a perfect and perfectly controlled universe?

Whatever Hawke’s feelings about this, these two poems might represent not so much as a venture into a public poetry so much as a bleaker and more depressed inflection of the ideas present in other poems. Two bleak personal poems show themselves obsessed by place and the abstract response to place – mapping. “Intersection” is about loss – “When lovers part for separate cities . . .” – and about the way in which the experience of loss is outside the normal processes of time. The “circle of dreams” continues while in the outside world “stories are resolving time, // endings are written, the long curtains / swing together”. As Proust says, we love not people but images and, when lovers part, there is no reason for these images to change. The physical location of the poem is Sydney’s Washaway Beach which looks out from the harbour and the poem begins with the geometrical observation that “two ferries cross / at the exact radius of the heads”. The obsession with mapping and geometry dominates the poem as, presumably, the speaker struggles to get his bearings. At the end, as I read it, we are left with a symbol of erosion – the tides washing away the beach – from which can be seen the circular motion of yachts rounding a buoy:

Washaway. When the tide rises the beach is drowned.
Here, at the centre of this dancing-ground
littered with leaves, and clawed by sharp banksia,
I search for circumference in the geometry of the gliding water

as a line of yachts circles the bell of the buoy.

Although there are no specific allusions it is hard not to place this “Intersection” alongside that great poem set in Sydney harbour which worries about time and the nature of loss and how to deal with it: Slessor’s “Five Bells”.

“The Point” – with its pointed title – is about the speaker’s making a trip to the point of land at Thirroul where Lawrence stayed during his visit to Australia. A temporary Aboriginal embassy has been set up and the narrator comes across the scene of a man lying in front of a bulldozer “protecting the invisible bones / of a forgotten ancestor”:

I did not stay long at this turning point:
there were no good omens to be discovered.
Without reflection or further thought, I started
the engine and took the road back into town.

These closing lines will give some clue about what makes this poem weirdly memorable. It is the unremitting bleakness of the narration which occasionally sounds like a parody of a dreary guide book, “The green strip of land projecting low from the bay / is signalled by the figures of four tall pines . . .” The verse moves on in this petty pace throughout the hundred or so lines of the entire poem. My reading of this is that it is a poem where depression (another word, like “point”, with a geographical second meaning), signalled in the sound and movement of the verse, extends to political action: the narrator is unable to intervene in any way and is left with only an image.

Finally, as examples of this bleaker world of most of these poems, there are “On Woodbridge Hill” and the final poem significantly called “Black Highway”. The former seems to be a dream poem in which, in the second part, the narrator shoots his father and flees. The poetry lights up at this moment:

The gun bucked in my hand, and somehow I felt the charge
smack his slow head, but I never went back there.
I was already running for the silver hills, as the moon
faded to water behind me, sinking into weedy darkness.
. . . . . 
A strange energy was growing in me, so that I knew
I need never stop running, and I could go on forever,
speeding across the surface of this white earth.

This seems like one of those rare moments when the impressions of a dream, far from being vague and inconsistent, are actually more intensely felt and remembered than the impressions of ordinary life. And something of this can be felt in “Black Highway” which leaves readers with a concluding image of a nightmare journey that is neverending:

. . . . . 
Together we climbed a black mountain
barefoot in the wind. A hard moon
shone naked, and even the stones
glared at us. That was the worst of it:
walking on and never waking.

Variety is an important issue in another first book, Jillian Pattinson’s Babel Fish which is divided into four parts, each with a recognisable emphasis. The first section is made up of poems about the natural world conceived with the widest perspective. The opening poem is a brilliant sonnet about the eruption of massive colony of the weird algae emiliania huxleyi:

Fifty billion Ehux algae converge at the surface
of the Southern Ocean, their brilliance a mirror,
a mayday, that might well be mistaken
for the second coming . . .

The view here is from space and the poem bypasses the human to move quickly down to the narrowest of perspectives: a lone algae inside the gut of a cuttlefish. Although most of the other poems of this section don’t really follow the lead of this poem, it sets both the tone and the material. The second section, about which I’ll say more later, is a seven part invention on a single photograph. The third section is high-powered abstraction in the Borgesian mode, full of poems about infinite libraries and imaginary books while the final section contains poems of the sort that are familiar to any reader of contemporary poetry: their perspective is narrow, local and ethical, and some are lyric poems describing personal experience (I rather like the one about sitting in an abandoned EH Holden as a child).

This division into four is a sensible move because it increases the ability of any poem to illuminate one in its immediate area. The book’s second poem, for example, following the miraculous algae bloom, is about the build-up of plastics in the “horse latitudes” in the South Pacific. Being placed next to “Communion” makes us see it as a ghastly negative image of the behaviour of the algae. But fighting against these processes of thematic division is the unified sensibility of the poet and so the compartments allow a lot of metaphorical water to pass through. The “social” poems of the final section, for example, often have a rather abstract edge as though the style of the third section had infiltrated them. “Émigr锝, a poem that wants to speak about the difficulties of the economic immigrant is conceived as a semi-surreal drama:

. . . . . 
One morning, Ali fails to arrive
but Sam turns up on time, wearing
Ali’s suit. No one mentions it.
Named for his mother’s father, Jahan
arrives late: every other morning he fears
he’s lost his way; tries retracing his steps;
ends up confused; whispers a prayer
to any god who’s listening; sets out again.

And in the very conception of this poem we can see the sort of swirling that the environmental poems of the first section focus on. “Asylum (Gk.) sans (Fr.) Guano (Esp.)” appears in the first section because it is about the common Mynah, a bird that has been irritating Australians for a century and a half. But of course the poem is really about asylum seekers and thus might well have been slotted in the book’s final section.

Also in this first section of Babel Fish is a poem which is, as its title, “Oblique”, suggests, about poetic method, about how poetry comes at things:

Best not to come at the thing
head on – the glass is hard,
the wooden frame sturdy.

Instead, let your eyes follow
the flight path of the swamp hawk
at first light, or her ally,

the early morning shadow, leaning well aslant . . .

Fittingly it ends with thinking about how to end: “How then, to end a poem / about a bird you can’t quite name, / but sings beautifully?”

A number of the poems in the first section and one, “Nocturne”, in the final section, make an important move towards trying to evolve some sort of poetic style which will be more able to express the swirling interactions of the world. So we get continuously recurring though modified groupings as in the opening lines of “Nocturne”:

The cats. The crickets. The moon
speaking in tides. The caged bird,
wings fluttering against the dark.
The dark the cage the fluttering,
grace notes scratching an invisible
skin. The tidal echolalia, moon
turning and returning ocean
to coastline. The tide the moon
the ocean, the long slow haulage
of the stars . . .

I’m not sure how successful these sorts of poems are but I want to celebrate the attempt to stretch the rigid rules of syntax in such a way that sentence structure and subject are brought closer together. Conventional syntax tends to emphasise a human perspective and represents the movement of the mind whereby the agent is always privileged. It’s hard in English, without using endless passives, to get rid of the interpreting power of the poet’s consciousness and try to let the world speak for itself for once.

This focus on method brings me to the book’s second section by way of conclusion. Written to accompany an exhibition of photographs by the poet’s brother, it is seven responses to one of the photographs. This photograph of a line of six dead foxes and a single cat strung up on a fence is included in the book which means that we are spared the distracting problem of trying to recreate it from the poems themselves. The seven poems are unashamedly in the style of Hughes’s Crow poems – “Cocking his head one way / then another, Crow ponders / Death’s neat arrangement” – but conceptually they do their own thing, the seven poems all working around the number seven. What works here, I think, that makes me more impressed by these poems than I am by, say, “Nocturne”, is that structure and style are a specific solution to a specific problem. Perhaps that’s how all new styles in poetry begin.

Lucy Dougan: The Guardians

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015, 76pp.

Lucy Dougan’s new book seems structured in a way that is designed to recall her previous Giramondo book, White Clay. That collection began with a letter from a friend that was clearly designed to alert us to the sort of angled perceptions that are at the base of her poetry when it speaks of “working quietly at the edges” and it concluded with a poem about a treasured letter from her sister “carried . . . for sixteen years”. The Guardians begins with a poem about the vertical chain of genetic history – one of the book’s obsessions – and concludes not with a letter from her sister but with a drawing from her the subject of which is the author herself. Both letter and drawing seem to be messages from another world. They come from the far side of the world but they come from a member of the poet’s genetic community. “A Picture from Julia” seems a message that relates to the poet’s illness, an ordeal which is the subject of a number of poems in the third section: “Now I need your Spring / as I never did when it was simply mine”. It’s a winter portrait but it looks to spring, something which Dougan expresses in an uncharacteristically “high” mode with perhaps a suggestion of Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn” or “After the Funeral”:

. . . . . 
If anyone should take this green off me
I will summon the harpies,
set all of Campania alight;
and not rest
until the white button daisies return
and your feet make
a path through the thaw.

Most of Dougan’s poems do not have this elevated tone and, in the case of The Guardians, though every poem is built around personal experience it never seems to be a confessional book seeing the experiences of the self as the sine qua non of poetry. Even when the experiences are as traumatic as cancer surgery there is nothing of the melodramatic in their treatment, nothing of the “poetic diary of one woman’s journey through pain”. There is something distinctive about this poet’s attitudes to life and the way life and an individual poem are related that makes her look towards framing perspectives both to shape the poems and speak of the meaning of experience. Take the first of the poems about cancer, a poem which provides the book’s title:

I could not bear the empyrean capped,
not after living so long under the ground.

You were away
when I found the lump.
You came back with a wooden duck
and a black toy dog.
In the thick of it
the duck would come to live
with the small plastic shepherd
and the stone our daughter found out in the river - 
its shape sat safe in my hands.
The piggy bank was another gift.
My friend said put a coin in it a day
and smash it when you need to buy the dress
for your daughter’s wedding.
But the dog – the dog was quite something.
Being stuffed, it said nothing.
In a dream it sat quietly by our own living dog
and she looked at me straight out of her old eyes and said
Go on – it’s OK to pick it up.

Admittedly the first two lines seem odd and what I take to be their meaning – “After having finally got to the stage (in life or, more likely, in poetry) where I could more fully express myself, finding I had a potentially fatal illness was especially unbearable” – doesn’t really account for the strange vocabulary: “empyrean”, “capped”. But the movement of the poem is away from the conventional “How do I feel about this?” towards a listing of the homely totemic animals which begin to assemble. The mysterious animal world which these little creatures stand for is an important part of the framing perspectives of the poems of this book which often recount how wild animals, especially dogs and foxes, stand at the hinge of different realities. But the structure of the poem is striking as well. It begins with the body, quickly moves to models, then to a model designed to look to the future but, unknowingly, highlighting that that future suddenly has to be questioned. Finally the poem, rather than conventionally bringing us back to the pressing issues of the flesh, moves into dream and imagined dog-speech. The constant rejection of the conventional in favour of the more interestingly enlightening perspective is matched in the unpredictable but rather satisfying shape of the poem.

“The Guardians” comes from the third section of the book devoted, fittingly, to the body. The first section focusses on what might be thought of as historical and genetic history. One of the major changes of perspective that happens in our lives happens at the moment when we go from seeing ourselves as self-contained experiencing objects (an illusion bizarrely fostered not only by genre fiction but even so-called “serious” fiction) to expressions of a long genetic history. It seems, superficially, restricting because it suggests some kind of determinism but it is, in actuality, liberating: we are part of a community structured vertically in time as well as one made up out of contemporary lovers, friends and neighbours. Having a slightly unusual genetic history (the poems of the earlier book, White Clay, establish Dougan as one of those people whose familial father is not her genetic father and she thus finds herself with an exotic “other” family in Naples, the subject of a number of interesting poems) must mean that you are more sensitive to the complexities of genes than most of us.

One of the images of genetic history is the vertically suspended chain and the book’s first poem is a version of this. It begins memorably by a poetic sleight of hand – “This is the house of her childhood. / It’s not standing anymore.” – which one could expand out into a tract of explicatory material about the status of reality in a poem, the opposition between remembered experience and the “real”, and so on. In the poem a trunk is dragged out from under the room in which the girl sleeps. In it, amongst other initially disappointing bric-a-brac (the value of objects can derive from their historical and familial context), is a linen face mask which both mother and daughter put on. But the mask was made by the mother’s grandmother:

That night she wondered
if there were more rooms
beneath the room under her bed.
How deep did they go down;
and if each of her mother’s mothers
stretching right back
had left a fearful face there
for her to try on?

When I first read this I worried about that word “fearful” but I think, on rereading it, that it exploits the ambiguity of the word (“fear-inducing” or “fear-expressing”?) deliberately though it never explains why the girl and her ancestresses should have fearful expressions.

Other poems in this first section explore genetic heritage or, as the last says, the vision of “genetics sparking magnetically / along the lines.” “Wayside” begins “My body wants / the long way back / just to find lost land” and deals with the desire to discover “the uncertain map / of family trees”. The central image though is not of a rigidly mapped line of descent but of randomly sown seeds sprouting in unexpected places after having been sown by some medieval farmer “jaunty in a book of days”. At the end of the poem we meet her “nipote” – the son of her half-sister – whose vision of familial descent is not so much seeds as fireworks:

And of my nipote,
a love child too,
who took me aside
and mimed at fireworks
with hands and eyes,
his fingers sprays.

We’re like this, you see,
all kaboom and splutter - 
who knows where we’ll fall . . .

What the body had wanted was “the dark of a city / when paths were lit / by shrines, by love . . .”

Running alongside these poems about genetic pathways are those which stress, if not so much the sideways vision of working from the edges, then at least the blurring of borders that this can produce. When her sister and the poet walk either side of a garden bed at the Villa Bruno in Naples, “we step outside all drawn rings”. And in “The Mice” a childhood site once more is revisited and the author finds:

            a man sitting
on a fold-out chair
just at the edge
of where it used to be wild 
. . . 
he seemed to be doing an imitation
of a man sitting in the sun
like me
the place was lost on him.

The second section, begun with a quotation from Geoff Dyer’s book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, is about places and one of the poems, “The Old House”, makes a kind of connection with the first poem in the book in that it is about a girl revisiting a childhood home. This time the home still exists but has a new, welcoming but slightly sexually sinister owner. Significantly it is the girl’s dog, acting on scent-memory, which runs into the house first. In this sense the dog is not only more attuned to the paths of history but perhaps acts as a symbol of one of his human counterpart’s buried senses (there is a very significant dog who inhabits the zone in Stalker). But the dog is only one of the inhabitants of these spaces: the first poem of this section begins by describing an impossibly small attic hotel room in London but finishes with the jetlagged poet hearing the arrival of doves which coo “their own flight histories”. Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider introduces an exhibition at the Tate Modern and a visit to Kensal Green in search of Wilkie Collins’ grave discovers a fox, perfectly at home in the cemetery. Significantly, the poet follows the fox “in the hope that he will / show me what he knows / about the dead”. The poem of this group which stays most with me, though, is “The Foxes”, perhaps because it is less explanatory than the other poems and simply presents a visitation. Arriving back in London

We stood at the deep sash window
and beneath us
two foxes stared up.
Their gaze was not territorial
or neutral but simply there

as the grass was there, the trees
were there, and the cold summer furniture.
They did not hide their boredom
and crossed back over
into another evening.

But we stayed for a while
as if their candour held us to the spot
until lights started up
- those other unknown lives -
in the flats across.

There is, I suppose, only so much that even a poet can say about such visitations but you have to be able intuitively to understand them even before you can see them properly. Certainly foxes, rather than dogs and doves, seem the best symbols of this weird otherness of the animal world because, whenever I have seen one, I’ve been struck by the way they simply appear – as though they had always been there – and the way they go about their business, not looking at you, as though they didn’t see you whereas you know perfectly well that they know you are there and that they knew you were there before you knew that they were there! At any rate, they’re a wonderful introduction to the animal otherworld.

As I’ve said, the final section is made up of poems about the body and more than half of these “deal with” – a very equivocal cliched phrase – the experience of cancer. The last of these describes a “covert pilgrimage” to the ruins of St Catherine’s abbey in Dorsetshire, perhaps analogous to the nearby East Coker. Other experiences of the body focus on the way in which an experience can open a door. A poem about needlework – the labour (or art) of repair by hand – finishes with a memory of her mother’s Home Economics class; paintings bought by her father remind her that advice by the gallery owner about how to prepare instant coffee is something she has mysteriously taken into her own living practices; a poem about her daughter’s dance school modulates from a poem about dancing’s bump and grind to a poem about menarche and menopause, though without the Greek-based technical language – “the year that you start bleeding / and I stop”; and the second-last poem, “Dearest”, which seems a simple piece inspired perhaps by Mr Darcy’s declaration to Elizabeth, is actually a complex meditation about the way a single word can open “the door / to another century”.

At all levels Dougan reveals herself as a more challenging and more profound poet than the apparently simple personal tone of her poems may suggest. I think it might have taken her some while to reach this complex unassuming clarity – Memory Shell, her first book, clearly isn’t sure what moulds to pour pressing personal experience into and White Clay alternates between first and third person poems. The Guardians is made up of poems that always seem to be looking at the world – both outer and inner – anew and though this is an ability we want from poetry – which is, after all, the most successful destroyer of cliché – it’s rarer than you would think. A measure of the consistency with which the poems of The Guardians achieves this is the shock caused by a momentary lapse. In a poem called “Kenwood House” poet and partner find themselves looking at a stack of Jacobean portraits:

. . . . .
I ask you if we bumped into Donne
or Shakespeare or their wives
(especially their wives
I would want to meet)
could we all make sense . . .

This seems like a mere conventional contemporary piety to me. Though it’s true that a cultural historian interested in provincial England at the end of the Elizabethan period might get more out of Anne Hathaway than out of her husband, it’s hard to credit that a poet – of all people – would actually prefer to speak to Shakespeare’s wife when the writer himself was available!

Clive James: Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014

London: Picador, 2014, 234pp

I have long been an admirer of Clive James’s criticism. In the early 1970s a colleague used to circulate the airmail editions of The Observer – in a pre-digital age these were printed on tissue paper to save on postage – around the department and my 1974 edition of The Metropolitan Critic still has a frail excerpt from one of his television columns tucked in the back. It is a review of a number of programs including one called “The House on the Klong” and another about a program on American sexuality which describes the style of one of the “experts” – a Dr Bronfenbrenner – as involving “assembling tautologies at the rate of a small child getting dressed for school”. It will give readers some idea of the standard of James’s writing that this little masterpiece didn’t make the cut in the selections used in his three volumes of television criticism.

Good criticism, like James’s, can do many things. It can, at its best, re-energise flagging debates. It can aim to be an embodiment of “discrimination” – one of my least favourite words in both its opposed meanings. It can enthuse us about individual books and, with far less frequent success, make us despise them. It can save us reading books – not as contemptible an aim as it seems since criticism in the nineteenth century frequently had a digest mode where unappetisingly technical books were summarised at some length. For me James was an introduction to intelligent, humorous, non-academic criticism (as was Bernard Shaw’s voluminous writing on music). The best pieces in The Metropolitan Critic, such as the first piece on Edmund Wilson, were exactly about marking out what a critic of the highest calibre might hope to achieve. It also defends literary journalism against the claim that, compared with scholarly writing, it is just amateurish stuff:

. . . the answer is: it is easy to do badly and hard to do well; and that even at its worst it is not so dispensable as the average of academic writing; and that at its best it is the full complement to the academy’s best, the accuser of the academy’s average, and the necessary scourge of the academy’s worst.

Finally, one of the results of good criticism can be a re-energising of an individual reader and the setting of new, more ambitious goals. To go on speaking personally, the most influential part of The Metropolitan Critic for this critic was a small semi-comic piece about “the loneliness of the long-distance reader”. Since I’d already read Gibbon for the first time by then I may already have set out on this lonely path but James’s description of the problems is painfully accurate:

In the four years since I finished Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic I have been unable to meet (a) anyone who has read it, with whom to compare notes; and (b) anyone appropriately dissatisfied at not having read it. To compound the dissatisfaction, the only bit of the book I have succeeded in remembering is the bit about the little children crying in the streets – a line known even to people who think Motley is a theatrical costumier.

I read Motley because of this in the early eighties when I was baby-sitting my youngest daughter and I’ve always had, circulating among my reading projects, one or other of these very large books. And this is why, at present, thirty-five years later, I’m about four-fifths of the way through a patchwork of mixed translations of The Mahabharata with no real reward except the smug sense of knowing that I’ve done it. Certainly without anyone to compare notes with or who is in any way jealous of my achievement.

The big difference between the poetry reviews in early collections like The Metropolitan Critic and At the Pillars of Hercules and this Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 is that the former seem to have been written as a critic and the latter as a practitioner. It makes a big difference, for better and worse, when you write about poets as a fellow poet. One of the many issues that the book touches on is whether good critics of poetry have to be poets themselves. One argument against this might be that a non-poet has the ability to look at different approaches to poetry fairly dispassionately whereas a poet has committed him or her self to one in particular. And a result of this might be that the shape of the ideal poet which slowly emerges through the mists of endless readings and evaluations looks very much like that of the critic.

At any rate James remains an electric writer to read. His prose is always marked by being grounded in argument and it pushes towards pithy and often hyperbolic statements as conclusions – one of my favourite of the early pieces, a review of a biography of Ford Madox Ford, finishes, “Always precisely wrong about his own character, Ford’s vaunting of his professionalism gives us the clue: he was the last amateur”. But another important part of James’s style (exploited to the full in the series of books beginning with Unreliable Memoirs) is comically treated autobiography. James as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney is so stylised a representation by now that the caricatured figure of the gormless, book- and experience-devouring student has become part of literature itself, no longer to be judged as an accurate or otherwise historical representation. There is a good deal of this James in Poetry Notebook often under the guise of comparing and contrasting his enthusiasms as a beginner with his responses late in life.

But to describe the book as being personally based might give the impression that it is in some way chattily unstructured. In fact it’s a surprisingly organised book. Whereas a collection of reviews is built on commissions that require the reader to come to grips with particular poets – to answer the questions that these poets raise – this book has at its heart a series of thoughts about poetry, poems and poets written for the Chicago magazine, Poetry. So it’s really set up as an roaming set of investigations by a poet into the nature of poetry. The issues that tend to recur in this book are issues important to James’s own sense of himself as a poet: memorability, whether a poem’s achievement is real or spurious, how memorable passages are connected, the role of rationality and comprehensibility, the significance of “craft”, and so on. Surrounding and obfuscating these crucial practitioner’s issues are the dark clouds emanating from the usual suspects: fake poets pushing their manifestos and friends (the post-poundians – “there will always be a residency for J.H. Prynne” – the Language poets, etc), pole-climbing academics with no commitment to literature (or knowledge of it) at all, Creative Writing schools and, worst of all, theorists.

The book is structured so that it searches first for some kind of core to poetry, an irreducible essence. This looks like a classical attempt to begin by definition and when James looks first at those amazing, memorable lines which make our hair stand up and mean that a particular poem is lodged forever in our minds, someone like myself is beginning to tot up exceptions before the sentence has finished. But a strength of Poetry Notebook is that it, too, searches for exceptions and manages to find them for almost every generalisation about poetry which it ventures. When, as reader, you think of an exception, James – like Verne’s Arne Saknussemm – has been there before you. But James is right to stress the importance of the line that seems to lodge in the soul, just as he is right to be leery of absolute generalisations. If you can’t write things that people either remember or want to remember (or you’ve evolved a theory that discourages doing this) then perhaps you should give it away. Furthermore, it is through such memorable moments that new readers get the injection that will ultimately keep them hooked on poetry. I learned from Poetry Notebook that Dryden called these “hits” – “These hits of words a true poet often finds, as I may say, without seeking: but he knows their value when he finds them, and is infinitely pleased” – and it’s an attractive thought that a word we associate with popular music might be the same one originally used for poetic successes arrived at in a quite different way. Every devoted reader of poetry has an anthology of such “hits”. If I arranged mine chronologically in the order I met them they would probably begin with Keats’s Ruth standing in tears “amid the alien corn” first read in High School. “Alien corn” is an extraordinary phrase and remarkably resistant to the inevitable process whereby known beauties become familiar and lose some of their shine. Some phrases of this kind become so influential that later writers can’t resist mining them for titles: almost every line of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech appears as a book title and I’ve always been surprised that “Alien Corn” hasn’t turned up as the title of a book about, say, food importation or, better, perhaps, the spread of American popular culture into other countries after the war.

James’s technique is to begin by thinking about these “hits” (his first is Hart Crane’s, “The seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards paradise”) and then move outwards to the next issue of how these are articulated into larger constructions and thus touch on important issues in the poetry in English for the last hundred or so years, especially the issue of the nature of free verse and whether rhyme and metricality are built into English poetry or are just randomly selected formal impositions. He is also interested in the issue of the extent to which such hits are consciously produced by the poet: Dryden says “without seeking” and an early essay by James on Randall Jarrell quotes him as saying that even a good poet “was a man who spent a lifetime standing in a storm and who could hope to be struck by lightning only half a dozen times at best”. But I’ve always felt that Keats knew that he could operate comfortably in an idiom in which lines phrases like “alien corn” were likely to appear.

My own interests would follow this issue of “hits” in different directions from those structural implications that James is inclined to take up. I’d like to press onto the point whereby recognition of such miracles is a sine qua non for serious readers of poetry. We all write as though these great lines were somehow self-evident. But what if different, equally qualified, equally intense readers of poetry had subtly different lists of “hits”? I’d like to see this explored in the hopes that focussing on differences rather than agreements might be the way out of the (to me) awful idea that there was a sort of ideal group of readers who had the discrimination to detect a “hit”. After all, it’s a fact in logic that we learn more about a set by looking at the awkward borders than if we look at a member from the very centre of the set: if you want to think about the characteristics of, say, “Australian Poet”, you’ll learn more by looking at someone like Peter Porter (how “Australian” is he?) or Patrick White (how poetic is his prose?) than by looking at Kenneth Slessor, born in the year of federation and a standard choice in any anthology.

This issue emerged when reading Poetry Notebook at the points where James quotes Empson’s “And now she cleans her teeth into the lake” and Auden’s “The earth turns over, our side feels the cold”. Empson I have, through various accidents, never read (mea culpa) but I know the Auden and I have to confess that neither of these do anything for me – they aren’t, in James’s refreshingly unpompous language, “killer-diller lines”. The Auden, though, is close enough to one of my own much-loved hits and, though it is not a single line but more what James calls “a stand-alone unity that insists on being heard entire, and threatens never to leave one’s memory”, I take the opportunity to indulge myself and quote it here:

She tells her love while half asleep,
     In the dark hours,
          With half-words whispered low:
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
     And puts out grass and flowers
          Despite the snow,
          Despite the falling snow.

It’s by Robert Graves who is a poet you might expect James to engage with more fully (he was, after all, no sillier than Yeats and a better classical scholar than Frost) and whose poetry has a very high density of palpable hits. It’s not appropriate here to talk extensively about its glories but this little poem begins with a very ambivalent word “tells” and turns (like the earth) on another ambiguous word, “her”, (does it refer to the woman or the earth?) which functions as what the Japanese call, I think, kakekotoba – a pivot or hinge word. And then it finishes with a repetition (augmented to make a ravishing effect). I read somewhere that Old Norse poems spoken by the dead have a repeated final line (Gunnar’s magnificent poem, sung in his burial mound in Njal’s Saga, certainly does) and you feel that the effect of the repetition here comes from deeper sources than merely the desire for a lyric grace. And on this subject of omissions in a book dauntingly full of inclusions, it’s odd that Spenser is mentioned only (I think) once. Spenser is exactly the kind of poet I would have expected to appeal to James. He is a “poet’s poet” (to use a cliché), the kind of poet who might drop out of readerly interest for a century or so but whose flame is kept alive by poets. Milton called him his “original” and he was admired by the Romantics – especially Keats – and the Victorians. He is, simply, a great technician, and no better example could be chosen of a poet doing with consummate ease exactly what James wants his poetry to do: put complex ideas and complex syntax effortlessly into a challenging stanza form.

And still on the subject of omissions, readers looking for an engagement with contemporary doings in Australian poetry will find Poetry Notebook ”“ indeed all of James’s criticism – pretty unhelpful. He writes here about Hope, and McAuley’s “Because” but they are poems that he knew when he was a student in Sydney. In other words they are subsumed into his autobiography. He does speak briefly of Wright and Harwood and confirms the contemporary prejudice that the star of the latter has risen as that of the former has declined. A book by Les Murray is included in a set of commissioned reviews at the back but they were contemporaries at the University of Sydney. There is no engagement with Bruce Beaver or Bruce Dawe or David Malouf or Michael Dransfield (who was a conscious producer of hits) or any of a dozen other important names. The one exception is James’s admiration for the poems of Stephen Edgar. Poetry Notebook contains a good detailed analysis of an important Edgar poem, “Man on the Moon”. It’s a moot point whether one should say that Edgar’s poetry appeals to James simply because (like that of Wilbur and Larkin) it’s a variation of the kind of thing that James himself wants to do in his poetry or whether the proximity of their assumptions about poetry means that James is able to write especially sympathetically and incisively. Perhaps these aren’t mutually exclusive positions but I prefer to read poet-critics writing perceptively about the work of other poets whose work their ideas should mean they dislike (Jarrell on Stevens, for example) but which, for one reason or another, they find compelling. I’ll avoid these matters and focus on issues of difference, once again. James thinks that “Man on the Moon” has a single weak line: “The crescent moon, to quote myself, lies back . . .” He dislikes the way we are moved out of the self-contained unity of the poem by a reference to another Edgar poem:

But when a poem has successfully spent most of its time convincing us that it stands alone, it seems worse than a pity when it doesn’t. It seems like self-injury: a bad tattoo.

I’ve always thought (on first, second and subsequent readings) that this is the best line in the poem. To me it’s as though “Man on the Moon” works by continually shifting its material so as to give a different perspective on what it wants to say. An external reference is like a door opening in a smooth wall where you didn’t realise a door existed and the perspective it offers is exciting and rather shocking. I don’t think, at heart, that James and I have read the poem differently but perhaps my vulgar tastes prefer the madness of disorienting surprises. At any rate, as with the anthology of widely agreed-upon hits that turns out to have a more shifting membership than most critics allow, it’s the differences that are more interesting and revealing than the agreements.

Even a great critic like Jarrell who, early on, specialised in acid hatchet jobs, wrote better when he wrote in praise and celebration than when he wrote in condemnation. I think this is because the certainties which seem to lie at the heart of an act of critical “discrimination” are often only apparent certainties. I think that this is a result not of the way in which theories and practices of poetry are always open to corruption by the inevitable group of talentless illiterates who make up whatever the critic thinks are the dark forces surrounding him or her but rather of the kind of differences that I have mentioned – differences among people whose ideas about poetry are very similar. At any rate, one of the least successful chapters in Poetry Notebook is an attack on Ezra Pound. It’s a bit like Pope Stephen digging up Formosus’s body to put it on trial – it doesn’t do a dead man any further harm and it makes the participants look either silly or vindictive or both. There should be a literary dictat forbidding such pieces. James makes his characteristic gesture of absorbing it into his autobiography, saying, in effect: “When I was young I loved this stuff; now I see that it is flimflam. How could I have been so wrong?” I think the answer is simply that, like many, James has evolved a notion of poetry which brackets Pound off. Since the other great high modernists like Yeats and Eliot can still be fitted into this version of literary history we might ask why poor old Pound has to suffer. The answer is, surely, that in the Cantos he wanted to move beyond what he had done (the Troubadour style, the Cathay style, “Homage to Sextus Propertius” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” – enough to ensure, if not immortality, then at least a long life of literary relevance) and make a modern epic. Of course the Cantos are a failure, how could they not be, but they never ask to be judged positively by the poetic tradition that will give us, via the poetry of Wilbur and Larkin, the poems of Clive James. But I deal with this at some length (trying to omit the fact that, if critics are to be judged by their ability to recognise contemporary genius – the mystical act of “discrimination” – then Pound, discoverer and unwavering supporter of Frost, Eliot and Joyce, has to be the finest critic in English poetry) because all of the ideas about poetry which lie at the heart of James’s criticism derive from the mode of the lyric. Classical poetic theory had no trouble distinguishing between the tragic mode and the dramatic but never incorporated the lyric into its analysis – that came centuries later. You could say that the approach of Poe (all poetry is lyric, epics are just marked out by having longer boring stretches between the only things that matter, the hits), ludicrous in its time and still ludicrous, has been allowed in through a side door and dressed to look respectable. James’s criticism of Milton for his tendency to shove extended classical references into Paradise Lost might well derive from this. If you think secondary epics are no good as a mode, then that’s fine (I might even agree), but you can’t criticise them for not being poems by Wilbur or Larkin.

These criticisms of Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 are, of course, really flatteries since it’s a book that makes you think a fraction less vaguely about your own notions of poetry at every point at which you disagree with something that James has said. But there are other excellent things that should be celebrated overtly. James is, for a start, brilliant at discussing poems by people whose names you probably don’t even know – Samuel Menashe, for one. He is also good at poets who have been forgotten entirely. A brief discussion of Dunstan Thompson, beginning by quoting a stanza and imagining – and asking the reader to imagine – being forced to guess who the author might be (always a delicious exercise in literature as well as music) leads to a perceptive analysis of why he should be a forgotten man. I think the same could be said about Frederic Prokosch who gets a mention in Poetry Notebook as the author of one of those interesting poems which are easy to remember and very hard to understand. But in Prokosch’s case the answer is simpler than in the case of Thompson: he never recovered from one of Jarrell’s reviews! James mentions the possibility of an anthology of such poems and, though you feel he is teasing publishers for their conservatism and the need of big, recognisable names, I think it’s a terrific project.

And then there is a self-contained essay “Product Placement in Modern Poetry” that explores a topic which not only did I have no ideas about but which I had never thought of: when does poetry start including names, especially brand names? And why, in the past, has poetry with all its vaunted specificity shied away from brands? The issue enables him to discuss Cummings, Betjeman and Seidel as well as yet another poet I had never heard of, L.E. Sissman. And his answers are persuasive, I think. Beginning in America where the brands were part of the exhilaration of contemporary speech, their inclusion marked an increase in “the vocabulary of reality” a realisation that

the artificially generated language of here and now could be continuous with the everlasting. It didn’t guarantee the everlasting, and even today so keen-eyed a poet as Seamus Heaney will tell you everything about a plough except for the name of its manufacturer: but a reference system in the temporal present was no longer held to be the enemy of a poem’s bid for long life.

No wonder that one of James’s best and most moving poems begins with a first line that quotes an advertising phrase for a home “perm”.

A good book like this always sharpens your thoughts about the assumptions behind your own approach to the magic of poetry. For what it’s worth, my own approach is probably the inverse of James’s. Whereas he begins with the central phenomenon of the hit, the memorable, scalp-tightening and enduring phrase, I’m inclined to begin at the other, more abstract extreme. Seeing that poetry, or something like it, exists in all cultures at all times, I’m inclined to see it as “art language”, the language of a tribe used at its most effective and in its most powerful way. The issues that get aired in Poetry Notebook (and my reading of it) such as the tensions between, say, formal and free verse, the post-poundian tradition and the lyric tradition, between poetry and poems, between epic, dramatic and lyric and so on, are all very minor seen in the perspective of the possibilities contained in poetry as it is and has been practiced on the planet. I think the wider the perspective the better the critic: we should be able to match observable practices in our own poetic culture with things as disparate as Zulu praise poetry, the oriental lyric, the Arabic tradition etc etc. Of course, much in poetry – like English poetry’s hits – requires a profound immersion in the language and so our perspectives are, naturally, limited. But professional linguists suffer similar problems (though they are probably even better language learners than literary people) and yet they aren’t inhibited from making statements about language in general (the study of linguistic typology) and they certainly don’t think that English is a base point from which one will be able to say anything at all useful about language as a whole. I’d rather, in other words, that poetry critics behaved more like typologists when they wanted to speak generally about the nature of poetry and less like sophisticated grammarians of English. James is never limited to English poetry and is more polyglot and more widely-read than I am, but there is still a European perspective on poetry in his approach.

Laurie Duggan: Allotments and East & Under the Weather

Allotments (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2014), 70pp.
East & Under the Weather (Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014), 97pp.

These two books, published within a few months of each other, give readers the opportunity to look at Laurie Duggan’s career from both ends, so to speak. East & Under the Weather is a compilation, re-editing and enlargement of Duggan’s first book matched with a re-presentation of his second. Allotments, on the other hand, could be seen as a kind of English version of his “Blue Hills” sequence and is a showcase for his most recent work. You can see the point behind re-releasing East & Under the Weather: essentially, as Duggan notes in his introduction, the former was a first, small book, edited down from a lot of material while the second, though it contains a great deal of interesting poetry and foreshadows issues present in the later work, manages to obscure this by its eccentric presentation. Charitably Duggan blames himself for this: “I had been away when the page-proofs arrived. As a result a couple of sections lost their titles and looked like single poems. One section had been split into two with a short line taken to be a title . . .” Although some of these are tidied up in Duggan’s two selecteds, it’s nice to see the work entire since it does make claims for a coherence seemingly at odds with its laid-back, “odd-notes-from-different-places” mode.

It’s always seemed important – to me at least – that Duggan’s first book should have begun with the sequence called “East” since that establishes at least one version of what might be called a documentary mode in his work. The sequence looks east – from West Clayton towards Gippsland – but also towards family history. The second and third poems are an actual document: an excerpt from the Argus of 1912 detailing the State Treasurer’s visit to Gippsland. In an act of formal precision it’s a reproduction of twenty-eight lines of newsprint, thus forming two sonnets. A passage like this seems like a rehearsal for The Ash Range, Duggan’s most document-inspired and document-built work, and “East” thus seems, by being placed first, to stress the importance of this strand. The original version of the book introduced many more poems in modes that won’t be so important in later Duggan such as versions of Rimbaud, anagrams (in the style of Jonathan Williams), and a piece, “Parkville”, made up of lines from Chris Wallace-Crabbe. This new, expanded version, adds even more but, again, they are in modes that later developments show not to be Duggan’s strongest suit. “A Literary Life” is a group of sonnets playing with a jazz-like structure of repeated, modified and repositioned lines and “Crossroads” is one of those poems which combines the subject of personal history with bringing the writing of a poem up to the surface: “this cruel, / gentle collision wending through / semicolons . . .” It’s good to have this expanded, chronologically ordered version of East, but I don’t think that I would have become an admirer as quickly as I did if that had been the way in which I first met Duggan’s work.

The repackaged version of Under the Weather is, in contrast, an unqualified blessing re-establishing just how good a second book this was. Again, the documentary impulse is what sustains it but it is a documenting of personal life, often involving travel either to the north – to Armidale, the Sara River, etc – or to the south – Kangaroo Valley, Coalcliff, Dapto. One bleak poem (there is another one called “Spleen”) is positioned in a library, the site of part-time employment as well as the storage of texts like “Racine’s Mother Characters”. It’s a kind of limbo (one thinks of Borges in the National Public Library of Buenos Aires) sustained by marijuana and flickering contact with friends:

          George in London squatting in Charteris Rd.
plenty of Xopta – this the only Greek word to appear in
his letters
          Terry driving thru Cornwall, Wales, Scotland – “like
a ballroom dancer with a club foot”
          Alan, drunk in New York, phoning Scotty collect from
a booth
          John working as a clerk in Australia house -

                                      O Ganja
                                      preserver of us all
                                      one more time . . .

          & then the Library, Freya’s Day

                                        O Ganja
be with me in my (8) hours of need . . .

This self-portrait of a dope-smoking drifter with a shifting cohort of friends (presented in a shambling book design that makes the structure of the poems opaque) enables you to understand the irritation it caused a lot of the reviewers at the time of its original publication. But in retrospect the book as a whole sets up the contradictory components of the Duggan self that are going to be the basis of the best of the later work whereby Duggan appears simultaneously as a vague, often confused ring-in in a group (“Ken Wythes: what do you mean? / explain yourself? / Reply: um ah well”) and also as a very sharp-eyed observer with a penchant for revealing signs. Duggan’s introduction tells us that the harsh reception of this book lead him to the next stage of poems as formal satires and from there to the translations of Martial and to a series of translations generally. I don’t think these are Duggan at his best – perhaps because to be a good satirist the poet has to speak for community rather than for an odd, individual outlook, but The Ash Range and the developing series of “Blue Hills” poems kept the documenting impulse alive, though in quite different ways – the former being a stately representation of a specific place and the latter much more quirky and free opportunities to deal with the interaction of place, life and important themes in Duggan’s work such as the visual arts.

Although the times have changed, and hippyish camps have been replaced by solid English pubs, that paradoxical core of the poet as a sociable character and, at the same time, an outsider with a quirky, outsider’s perspective on things persists into Allotments. But to imply that Allotments is the spirit of the “Blue Hills” poems transferred from east coast Australia to south-east England obscures a number of differences between them. The most important of these is that the reader has a sense that the “Blue Hills” sequence is an act of poetic freedom, establishing an open space where a lot of disparate poetic activity can take place. If it has any structure it will be an “organic” one which emerges and changes as the sequence grows. In Allotments you get a hint of an imposed form in the way in which the hundred poems seem to cycle through a year’s worth of seasons. In this sense it may be half way between “Blue Hills” and Crab & Winkle, Duggan’s “warped Shepherd’s Calendar” of 2009. At any rate, one of the poems – Allotment 5 – uses (I think) a conference on the work of Charles Olson held at the University of Kent in 2010 to air the issue of the structure of long, assemblage poems and thus return to a theme that obsessed Pound and has obsessed the post-Poundian tradition. Duggan’s position amongst these giants is characteristically modest. In “Allotment 37” he says: “my work irrelevant as / an immense puzzle, lifelong” and “Allotment 5” concludes:

. . . . .
                                                                                such the fate
                                                                                of epic

the breath of a man
struggling for same

                                                           in the light of lecture rooms
                                                                               my writing

cuts corners, loses
the thread

                                                                     the notebook
                                                                     steers towards November

towards (including) disorder
(Olson’s final line: he’d lost the lot)

This final line invites us to read “plot” instead of “lot” and thus seems close to a fairly basic comment about twentieth century “epic” poetry. But it also reminds the reader that the book’s title, which seems, on the surface, to be an attempt to find a word as completely English as “Blue Hills” is Australian, also contains suggestions of “what we are allotted”, what is our fate, as well as “how are things to be allotted, ie placed?”. “Allotment 40” engages with this by developing a pun on the word “fault”:

radio at 4.00 am
news of an earthquake, the second
in a month on the Pacific fault
as in “whose”?
                                            things happen
they’re not punishment, we just
(Shintō) have to deal with them.

These formal issues aren’t likely to be our first impressions of Allotments, though. The regular settings in pubs (there are a dozen or so of these, most of them named, the names being yet another mysterious verbal sign) replace the camps and friend’s rented houses of Under the Weather as sites of the sociability. It is no accident that the first line of the first poem, “Live, at the local . . .” exploits the pun whereby the first meaning of “local” to a poet (experience of the immediate environment as opposed to the “universal”) is overlaid by the second – the pub. But, in Duggan, the immediate is always impregnated with complexities that make the experience awkward. The pub of the first poem, for example, contains a “brooding Irish accent” and an old door, leading “through to a French delicatessen, / bolted, probably, for decades”: no ethnic purity in these experiences of the local. At a pub called the William IV in Shoreditch (celebrated in “Allotment 4”) the awkwardness emerges verbally when the nervousness induced by waiting for an audience to arrive for his poetry reading produces a stream of semi-conscious verbal gags “I have books to sell (ha ha) / and pints to go before I weep”, “the one-eyed / spill fewer beers”. Although one wouldn’t want to claim iconic status for this minor poem documenting the preparation for a reading, it expresses the conjunction of sociable insideness and awkward outsideness perfectly.

The pub is also, often, a site of writing – one of the least sociable of acts. “Allotment 28” describes how this space is shared awkwardly with two others and finishes with a fine Rimbaud joke:

a dose of “the finger” (Bishop’s)
and the fire

someone else writes in this room, or types
on a notebook
                                   a poem
a report (or both)

it’s dead quiet on the street
where earlier in the day a Dutch truck
delivered flowers

a man with a black hat and cloak enters
(also with a folder)
                                                so the room has now three (3)
readers, writers, reporters

a season by the fire or
Un Saison d’Enfer

The pub can also operate symbolically to make a sharp political point as it does in “Allotment 17”:

again, waiting
(all lager, no ale)

light glimmer through drizzle
a gust from the east

someone reads La Peste
then talks of it in German

Cameron’s Britain is
dark shapes beyond double-glazing

an imaginary space
where imagination is redundant.

And then there are, finally, those poems which are almost entirely visual. They record the momentary experience visually (“virginia creeper / red on a far wall / under a rusted vent”). Although it’s natural to want to read a visual representation for symbolic value – one could spin pages of readings of poems like 53, “cygnets on the marsh / red fox in the forest” or 41, “a robin lands, curious / as I grub weeds” – I get the feeling that these poems want to remain in the aesthetic world of visual image or, to put it another way, Duggan wants a framework that will allow representations like this to stand alone. One of them, “Allotment 74” is just a breathtakingly beautiful visual representation of a sea view. It is allegorisable, certainly, as a statement about different zones of habitation, different levels of a picture plane, but that would somehow seem to miss the point:

long grass, gnats
to shoulder height,

the North Sea:
distant, cerulean, a pink strand

far side of the mud flats,
the racket of migrating birds.

There is, in other words, a great deal of variety in Allotments despite one’s sense that it wants to suggest a structuring framework. If it is driven by an odd contradiction in Duggan’s poetic self whereby he is simultaneously a socially accepted insider and a sharp-eyed outsider it can also extend to these beautifully done visual jottings which seem to be the product of a landscape painter manqué. The poems of Allotments and Under the Weather can often seem easily-done, casual jottings but there is a complex pattern behind their conception and an extraordinary quality of poise about their execution. Both books remind us what a remarkable poet Duggan has become.

Evan Jones: Selected Poems

Wollongong: Grand Parade Poets, 2014, 208pp.

Evan Jones’s career has been a long one, beginning in the late fifties (his first book, Inside the Whale, was published in 1960) and continuing productively into the present (Heavens Above! appeared four years ago). It’s also one which raises a lot of interesting issues about how a poet should be represented in a late Selected Poems: but more of that later by way of a conclusion. At the broadest literary-historical level, Jones belongs to the second wave of “academic” poets after the generation of Hope and McAuley. The word, “academic”, really means only that they were able to find a financially secure home in University teaching rather than in journalism – as the pre-war poets had – but academic life meant that they probably found it easier to keep an eye on current developments in poetry overseas through conferences and journals as well as the kind of regular contact with equals that university life encourages. At the University of Melbourne, Jones was part of a group that we associate with Vincent Buckley and which includes figures like Chris Wallace-Crabbe, R.A. Simpson, Peter Steele and, the youngest, Andrew Taylor. Groups tend to want to clear a space for themselves and whereas Hope and McAuley weighed into the Angry Penguins group and the Jindyworobaks, the “Melbourne University Poets” found the poems of Douglas Stewart’s Bulletin to be lacking in intellect. Their influences seem to have been contemporary American poetry of the postwar period, generally of a highly formal cast.

The sense that one has of Evan Jones from this selection is likely to revolve around words like “wry”, “knowing” and “mildly defeatist”. With some reservations, these characteristics can be said to be there from the beginning. The best-known poem of Jones’s first book is “Noah’s Song”, a dramatic monologue that still puzzles and thus interests:

The animals are silent in the hold,
Only the lion coughing in the dark
As in my ageing arms once more I fold
My mistress and the mistress of the Ark.

That, the rain, and the lapping of the sea:
Too many years have brought me to this boat
Where days swim by with such monotony,
Days of the fox, the lion and the goat.

Her breathing and the slow beat of the clock
Accentuate the stillness of the room,
Whose walls and floor and ceiling seem to lock
Into a space as single as the tomb.

A single room set up against the night,
The hold of animals, and nothing more:
For any further world is out of sight - 
There are no people, and there is no shore.

True, time passes in unbroken peace:
To some, no doubt, this Ark would seem a haven.
But all that I can hope for is release.
Tomorrow I’ll send out the dove and raven.

If you have followed Australian poetry in the last thirty years or so, there is a good chance that this may be the only Evan Jones poem you will be familiar with. It was routinely anthologised, though a prickly comment about it in Hall and Shapcott’s influential anthology of 1968, New Impulses in Australian Poetry explaining that “the author restrained us” from including it doesn’t explain exactly why he did so. It is also a good example of those formal, quatrain poems of the fifties and sixties which I have spoken about elsewhere, often enough, on this site, and exploits rather than fights against the slightly attenuated, tired-and-yet-knowing air that these have – what else would Noah sound like? But it retains our interest not because of its skilful form but because of the questions it poses readers. Almost all worthwhile dramatic monologues bump up against a lyrical impulse so that we say: “Yes, that’s a fine recreation of a character from quattrocento Florence or Heian Japan (or wherever) but why did you do it? What’s your stake in the poem?” We can read “Noah’s Song” as a biblical dramatic monologue, something the consistent devotion to details seems to suggest we should do (though the ticking of the clock would be an anachronism) but we can also read it as a monologue by an elderly married and reclusive man using Noah as a kind of extended metaphor. And why is a poet not even thirty interested in the situation of an old man? Is he thinking of a friend, his father, grandfather or is he just prematurely middle-aged? The questions spin out along the dangerous but necessary path of biographical information.

Often interpretive advice comes from other poems and it’s no accident that both in this selection and in Inside the Whale “Noah’s Song” is followed by a dramatic monologue in which an elderly literary man, Samuel Johnson, looks at himself – an addresses himself with a fair amount of disgust – in the mirror. You could build, out of the interaction of these two poems an interpretation of “Noah’s Song” which saw it as a kind of pre-emptive vision of the later life of a comfortably set-up literary man gradually removed from engagement with the world to the four walls of his known room. As Johnson says to his face, at the end of the poem, “Nobody knows the paths you take to hell, / Except when we’re alone: I know too well”.

The issue that “Noah’s Song” raises – of incorporating the necessary component of a biographical impulse into any interpretation of the poem – is something that Jones thinks about and we have, as evidence, a poem, “Genre Painting”, from the 1984 book, Left at the Post. Here the first two stanzas describe a painting (probably from the nineteenth century) of a domestic scene containing a man and a woman. The poem’s mode is interpretive, entering into the scene before it is described:

“You know,” she seems sadly to be saying, “I never
mean what I say”; his head is bowed. They sit forever
in yellows deepening glumly through green to black
in front of a rain-swept window, her crimson frock
and the bowl of pink roses low in the right-hand corner,
subdued though they are, all that the gazer can garner
against the sheer gloom of a perfectly minor painting,
lachrymose, accomplished, faintly haunting.

Although it goes on to brush against the distinction between “high” and genre art – “Cezanne, El Greco, Breughel are far away” – the real interest at the end is in the painter’s stake in the picture:

                                       . . . nothing at all
prompts us to wonder or outrage. But walking away one small
question remains, as if for ever and ever: what belief
led to just such a dull meticulous rendering of grief?

The issue of how far to allegorise a poem in an autobiographical direction (so as to incorporate in any reading the author’s stake in the material) re-emerges in reading two poems from Jones’s second book, Understandings. “Boxing On” is, ostensibly, about an ageing boxer but since the phrase of the title is in more general use – where it means to continue some project in a mildly despairing way – we are tempted immediately to widen the significance away from mere pugilism:

When the bell rings you come out feeling wary,
Knowing yourself you lack that brilliant snap.
Things change: you’ve lost your old need to be lairy,
And when the opening comes you see a trap.

You’re mad with craft: even your slightest move
Has years of it, each step, each fainting lead
As smooth as when there’s weight behind the glove;
You box with shadows just to keep up speed . . . . .

It’s possibly a portrait of an ageing literary lion (as Johnson was in the earlier poem) arguing habitually but without any real conviction or the ability to land any serious punches. But that wonderful phrase, “mad with craft”, makes me – without any compelling evidence – want to read it as a poem aware that the obsessive craft-oriented formalism of the poetry of the fifties and early sixties (the sort that we associate, perhaps unfairly, with the Melbourne University poets) eventually becomes no more than a hollow reflex: you may be able (to switch metaphors) to construct cabinets full of concealed spaces with wood so beautifully handled that no-one can see the joins and hardly any pins or glue are needed but, in the end, all you have are cabinets – and poetry is much bigger than that.

And I’m tempted to read “Running War” in somewhat similar fashion. Superficially it deals with the opposition between guerrillas and a city-based garrison. The former are impossible to defeat because they are group of shifting membership and, in the long run, the holder of the citadel wishes he could fight in the same, unfair way, exploiting the lack of precisely defined territories and borders:

. . . . . 
Small squadrons of your uniform parade,
Clapping their heels, across a public square - 
All with the lucid order that has made
Almost an empire, almost; but elsewhere,

Those ragged volunteers that shift like mist
Across the broken ground of shifting war
Diced for their first disorders to enlist,
And fight to have less than they had before.

Rich in imbalance, your temptation grows
To change with the marauders on the hill:
To break their city to a waste of prose;
To ride without direction, and to kill.

All readers fear that, no matter how sincerely they are seeking the author’s stake, they may only be imposing their own obsessions when they allegorise meaning, but I’m convinced that this is a poem about conflicts between the formalists and the “free verse” poets of the sixties. While the former are huddled within a defensible city, the latter have no coherent position, are a loose confederation and will eventually win the running war by being in a position simply to ignore the walled city which will ultimately collapse under the weight of its own insignificance. Much of such a reading is going to derive from a tell-tale phrase like “waste of prose” but the clapping heels of the city soldiers does suggest metric feet. But even if this direction of reading is the right one, the poem’s actual “position” about the war is ambiguous: there is no evidence that the narrator’s attitude is the author’s.

Understandings concludes with a tour-de-force: a twenty-three page poem, “A Dream of Barricades” which is certainly not about poetry wars but about a “real” war, a revolution in an unnamed country seen from the perspective of a combatant who is there from the beginning. A protest grows into a standoff (“grows” suggests something organic but there is no doubt that sinister figures are, in contrast to the narrator, well ahead in understanding the possibilities of the situation) which grows into a firefight which grows into a bloody government response and so on all with a kind of nightmare logic. It represents a political element in Jones’s work which is consistent though not intrusive. It leads me to thoughts about the title of his first book. “Inside the Whale” is a phrase, familiar to most as the title of a review of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (as well as of English poetry in the twenties and thirties) by George Orwell. Over the years at the back of my mind I’ve wondered whether this is the source of the title of Jones’s first book without ever having the energy to find out (by digging up early reviews, for example) whether or not this is the case. The trouble with being a critic remote from “the action” is that all such readings (as of “The Boxer” and “Running War”) are speculative but the advantage, of course, is that one’s readings are closer to those of Johnson’s “common reader”. At any rate, Orwell’s essay – which describes a literary/political position – sits resonantly alongside Jones’s poems. Whereas, Orwell says, the poets of the twenties turned to the ordered world of fascism (either literally, in Pound’s case, or through the Catholic church) and the writers of the thirties to the messianic world of communism, later writers like Miller avoided all ideology in the interests of experience: “In his books one gets right away from the ”˜political animal’ and back to a viewpoint not only individualistic but completely passive – the view-point of a man who believes the world-process to be outside his control and who, in any case hardly wishes to control it . . . . .Get inside the whale – or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it.” Although Miller is a bit more assertively egocentric than Orwell makes out, this position, inflected by a kind of wry defeatism, might well be Jones’s response to the slightly hysterical cold-war activities in Melbourne documented in Vincent Buckley’s Cutting Green Hay.

The Melbourne University writers formed a group and poets’ relationships to groups are always interesting. They provide argument, an early audience and constructive engagement but a group identity seems alien to a writer’s personality: it’s no accident that Chris Wallace-Crabbe once described himself as “a compulsive non-joiner”. And all this happened so long ago that it’s difficult to find evidence for how the members of the group interacted. But, to an outsider, it does seem that almost all the members spent their maturity escaping from the poetry of Melbourne University in the early sixties. Of the two features that dominate one’s sense of Evan Jones from this selection – loyalty in friendship and a wry defeatism – there is a fair chance that the former derives from those university friendships. In Left at the Post more than half of the poems have dedications and “Drinking with Friends”, as well as being a celebration of friendship, also has a really appealing element of self-mockery in its first stanza:

We used to sit up until three or four
drinking whatever there was: the decor
was characteristically indiscriminate,
the company, those curious and articulate
about politics, art, psychology. It seemed
to me I stammered, others talked: I’m damned
if I can remember getting much of a hearing.
My friends remember me as domineering . . . . .

Recognitions finishes with a set of dedicated poems and a number are in the style of their dedicatee’s work: “For Peter Steele, S.J.”, for example, is a meditation about belief done in Steele’s involved syntax with alternate indented lines and “The Point” mimics R.A. Simpson’s way of letting the syntax of a long sentence fall through short lines. These certainly aren’t parodies and they aren’t entirely hommages: more likely wry engagements with old friends. Alex Skovron’s introduction to this selected poems does speak about the books but one is more likely to take from it a sense of the man as acquaintance and friend.

As to the “wry defeatism” it’s a complicated thing to describe. One could try to do it by comparison. The work of Geoff Page, for example, is wry but not really defeatist: it has a sharp quality that Jones’s work lacks. The best way to speak of it might be to point out that in Jones’s poems about children like “A Song to David” from Understandings and “To Catherine, aged 5 months” from Recognitions he almost instinctively moves towards the moment, many years in the future, when the child will leave : “What parents have to learn / is how to let their children go: / the learning might be hard and slow.”

This Selected Poems from Grand Parade Poets presents Jones extremely attractively but some complicated issues are involved. Some poets’ work seems, if not the same over a long career, then at least distinct and following a developmental path which a late selected poems can clearly trace. The poetry of Chris Wallace-Crabbe is a good example. But others whose work shows radical shifts and rejections – that of Buckley and Taylor, for example (to stay within the group that Evan Jones belongs to) – pose quite a problem. That important early poem which now seems unreadable: was it a bad poem or has poetic history taken a turn in the last half-century that has deposited it, temporarily, in a bin as a good example of what, at the moment, is considered to be a bad kind of poem? Jones’s first book, Inside the Whale, looked back at from a perspective of fifty-five years, focusses this nicely. It is selected from fairly ruthlessly in this selected and a whole facet of Jones’s career is thus unrepresented. “Noah’s Song”, “Dr Johnson to the Mirror” and “Sketches for a Death-Mask” are fine poems in 2015 as they were in 1960 but many of the other poems in that first book are hard to admire. “Lines at Nightfall”, for example, is an eighteen page terza rima meditation which begins:

Lady, in all sincerity I turn -
     Not in belief, and not with disbelief,
     But burning as the altar-candles burn,

A slow consuming, without joy or grief
     (Though in my heart remembering much of both) -
     And proffer you this poem. Should the thief

Who tore your ancient tapestry in wrath
     Make no small reparation; should the trees
     Which crown with blossom all their winter growth . . .

It was probably intended to sound like a cross between Wallace Stevens and Coleridge’s great ode but finishes up sounding more like Dornford Yates. If you read the whole of Inside the Whale after reading this selected, you will find it hard believe they are the productions of the same poet. It isn’t so much a matter of method, of formal obsessions, but rather that many of the poems aspire to a kind of chorale-like ecstatic stasis: far from any wry defeatism. Should a selected poems represent the whole range of an output that covers more than fifty years or should it select from the poems that present the best face for a contemporary audience? Perhaps the answer is to be found in the issue of how “high-profile” the poet is. In Jones’s case it is probably fair to say that he will be a scarcely known poet to most people picking up this book in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century and there would be little benefit in loyally including poems from a volume published fifty-five years ago that are so different from the overall image of a poet which the book is establishing. In these terms and with these qualifications, this Selected Poems is a fine introduction to the work of a long and fruitful, albeit slightly quirky, poetic career.

L.K. Holt: Keeps (with Patience, Mutiny and Man Wolf Man)

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2014, 162pp.

L.K. Holt’s Keeps – her third book – is saturated with images and themes drawn from the visual arts but it is more significant that it leaves one with the sense that something of the “art-object” lies behind the existence and construction of the poems themselves. Of course there’s plenty of the visual arts in her other two books, Man Wolf Man and Patience, Mutiny, including a series of “long” sonnets about Goya, spoken by his housekeeper/mistress, Leocadia, but it’s in no way as overwhelming as it is here. The result is interesting and not only thematically. Much contemporary poetry looks like slices of material from the upper end of a vast slab of communal discourse called perhaps “discussions” or “conversations” and so the sense of poems as individual, engineered, free-standing constructions can come as welcome relief. One of the benefits of the highly formal poetry of the postwar period was that it did create a sense of a poem as a thing, a construction existing with various degrees of comfort in the world. Those, fifty years ago, who disliked this kind of poetry – a poetry whose features the New Critics were inclined to devote a lot of attention to – wanted a poetry of process, of immersion in reality rather than extruded droppings. But the wheel turns and, earlyish in the twenty-first century, there seems a lot of value in the experience of a poem as an object, rather than one which sends us running to other poems for contexts of explication. And poetry like that of L.K. Holt, camped along the borders of the visual art-world, seems to encourage this. Indeed it’s a measure of the extant of this that a comparatively conventional, personal work like “Poem for Brigid” should stand out in Keeps as something of an oddity.

The poetry of Wallace Stevens is a reference point for explorations of the nature of the “reality” of a poem, a “supreme fiction”, and of the way in which it interacts with the world and so it’s perhaps no accident that one of the poems of Keeps, “The Indigo Banjo, or Methodologies for Outcomes”, plays with Stevens’s “The Blue Guitar” – a poem that uses a work of the visual arts as its starting point. Like most of Holt’s poems, “The Indigo Banjo” isn’t easy and the free-standing features I’ve spoken of tend to mean that feeling comfortable with one poem isn’t going to guarantee that you can deal with any of the others with any confidence. “The Indigo Banjo” is made up of six sections each of which seems to deal with a different issue involved in the creative act: it begins with a poem about various preparatory acts, situations and stances long before the act of making a poem, goes on to a poem about the way a phrase lodges in the mind as irritant before being “pushed / out of the nest . . . not as a bird but / disembodied wing / unbalancing the wind” and finishes with a final preparatory state, “the plunge / just before it is a poem or just / before the plunge”:

. . . . . 
          We bathed in a deep natural pool at the top of the falls,
we were in the air on a ledge of water,
where the car-keys sank to the bottom.
It was too narrow for head-first - 
she took my hand and I held her under
and she searched by toe, my muse,

and found them: the method
I will replicate here.

The third, fourth and fifth poems introduce a really important theme in this book: that of the hinge (of a diptych), or inner margin (of a text) or mid-point (of rope, film, time). In the third poem of “The Indigo Banjo” the ego is positioned at this hinge

of vestige and prospect,
of sermon and snowstorm,
of verdant-verged cliff and

brown churned ocean,
of vestige-and-prospect
and sermon-and-snowstorm,

of corner-cutting housewives
and the type that leave behind
“papers”. . .

It begins by dividing the past from the future (vestige from prospect) as well as raw experience (snowstorm) from experience processed as text (sermon) but then, really interestingly (as can happen with any binaries) unites opposed states so that they become one side of yet another binary (which is my rather clumsy attempt to explain what lies behind “vestige-and-prospect” and “sermon-and-snowstorm”). In the fourth poem, the apparently unmotivated decision to roll over in bed is explored and, interestingly in terms of the previous poem, produces “a little dicky dialectic . . . be / irresponsible medium / or own your accidents, god-provoke. / Or go to sleep. Or be the mother.” By the time we get to the fifth poem, “Soliloquy”, the first and fundamental question is about a hinged binary: “May I start twice / at once, from memory and sensation?”

Holt explores this notion of a hinge in many of the poems which reflect on perspective and the structure of paintings. In “The Etching” a representation of the five arches on a bridge, hung next to a window, seems like a frame through which the world outside is presented but, as with all doors the process can be reversed so that the viewer, the woman who lives in the room, can also be the object that the external world sees through the five arches. In “Last Outcome”, about resurrection and perhaps based on something like “The Cookham Resurrection”, it isn’t the theological complexities that come first but the position of the observer in time and place: “You must be one of them, if you’re here / to wonder”. The final section of the poem begins with a pun on “lying” but is really based on a pun on “plot”:

Whichever soul you are, you can’t keep lying

in full moulderment - 
studying the backs of your long gone eyelids

intricately dark,
the last plot of dark, the last plot

of who did what and what became of them - 
it’s quite time for eternity.

Although this makes the unexceptionable point that narrative needs to evolve in time and eternity is the end of narrative, it has important results in something like Dante’s Commedia – a recurring source of allusions in poems other than “Late Outcome””“ where the narrative of one’s crimes and virtues is replicated out of time in the afterlife. Finally, a series of poems taking off from works of Dane Lovett contains – as a kind of interloper – a poem devoted to the third panel of Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano”. The binary here is “a love of surface” and “one-point perspective”:

                                         Both claim each line
for its masculine cause or feminine upkeep.
Peace is surface decoration. Sex is a horse haunch
turned to face. War is a one-point perspective.
The problem with allegory, it longs
for a one-to-one with reality, a true romancing . . .

But although this seems a poem about perspective points which focus the world (like the arches in “The Etching”) there is another element. Holt sees, as we do in those trompe l’oeil Jesus-in-the-clouds illusions, a face in the right-hand part of the painting made out of elements of horses and knights: “It takes / for its eyes the slight openings / of soldiers’ helms, its red mandrill nose bridge / a length of painted lance, its bared teeth the bronze discs strung / along a horse’s browband”. “I see it”, she says, “because I’m averse / through tiredness, modernity, / to making any sense of the action” but it’s a face which is not amenable to allegorisation: it has presence but no meaning.

If viewing through perspectives can make a point into a hinge, there is also the issue of midpoints. Near the centre of the book is a poem, “Maas River Filmreel”, whose difficulites are perhaps increased by the fact that the actual film is something I’ve never seen, unlike the paintings of John Brack, Picasso, Goya, Dane Lovett, Uccello et al, which are easily available to readers with access to the internet. The film is of a scene in Rotterdam in 1948 and lasts for seven minutes and forty-six seconds. But the poem is about what happens at the halfway point when an old woman appears: “the fold / is where something collects” and it engages that disconcerting sensation that historical film creates of looking at past time in the present. It’s a challenging poem honourably working away at its own thematic obsession but its construction is what interests me at the moment. It is built out of two contrasting elements. The first is a reasonably clear retelling of the events of the film and the second is a free version of part of Inferno so that the old lady is imagined as descending into the circles of Hell. Thematically one can see the logic of this since Dante’s journey is, famously, made at the midpoint of his particular life straddling the turn of the fourteenth century. But you feel that the real value of this conjunction is the contrast of styles between the expository mode of “the fold / is where something collects” or “the river knows its midpoint / by the holding from mountain / to mouth of a constant thawthought” and the denser Dantesque pastiche of passages like “Crow/owl amalgams, moans like a gland leak”.

In other words – and I suppose it’s a minor, laboured point – there is an assemblage quality about many of these poems that seems to belong to the satisfactions of visual art rather than those of poetic discourse. If the thing has enough tensions to stand alone then it “works”. This isn’t to say that Holt’s poetry isn’t full of the usual suspects when it comes to poetic discourse: there are a lot of verbal jokes like “it’s quite time for eternity”. A poem about the statue of a crouching Aphrodite which raises issues that will now seem consistent in Holt’s poetry – a statue is frozen in time and yet the interpretation of the meaning of the statue is a cultural phenomenon in time – finishes with two puns in two lines: “There is a time which statues won’t stand for – / we should let them tire”. Holt’s style also involves a lot of neologisms or, at least, odd uses of language: “moulderment” from “Last Outcome”, already quoted, will serve as an example but there a many others. You feel that this is part of the visual-art approach: a rough but interesting surface. From the conventional standpoint of poetic rhetoric it is something that most editors would want removed but here it seems appropriate enough.

The last part of Keeps is an extended (sixteen page) poem based on Bresson’s marvellous film about the life of a donkey, Au Hasard Balthazar. The sequence is imagined as a kind of Greek tragedy with a poetic chorus accompanying the text, and the dynamics of the thing – which goes on innocently in chronological sequence, much like Bresson’s film – is built on the interaction between the elevated language of the elders and the basic poetry of the narrative. This recalls the interaction of the Dantesque and the denotative in “Maas River Filmreel”. When Balthazar’s mother “strikes him over the head with / a teat” just after his birth, the chorus spin off into elevated metaphysics:

be ahead of all partings,
as long gone already
like winter in spring;
. . . . . 
be – yet know
of its antipode,
nothing-source of your trembled ontology . . .

At the film’s great final scene of Balthazar’s death when the tinkling herd of sheep “parts gently round him”, the chorus celebrates the inevitable joining with the vast numbers of the already dead, those who inhabit Dante’s afterlife:

is death your ownmost, Balthazar?
if not: to all that carbon, all the done creatures
in the earth, unthinkable sums,
add yourself happily and cancel the count.

“Unthinkable sums” of all that carbon but designed to be thought about. Rereading this sequence it is one of the prefatory quotations which catches the eye: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick says: “It is possible to use one’s resources to assemble or repair the murderous part-objects into something like a whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available to be identified with and to offer comfort”. Assembling parts into a whole of one’s own specifications seems like a perfect description of the poem-object direction the poems of this book want to take.

Does this relate to the book’s title – which doesn’t derive from any of the poems it contains? Possibly it does refer to the comfort that something stable made out of “murderous part-objects” can convey. It also suggests phrases like “playing for keeps”. But it may also derive from a poet’s sense that certain poems, as they are written, are “keepers”. The book in which Keeps appears also contains Holt’s previous books. It’s a nice idea – already essayed by the publisher (John Leonard Press) in the case of the three books of Petra White – and it enables earlier work to be kept in print – hopefully for keeps.

Mark Tredinnick: Bluewren Cantos

Sydney: Pitt St Poetry, 2013, 137pp.

This is Mark Tredinninck’s second book of poetry: he is probably better known for his superb memoir, The Blue Plateau, detailing the geology, history, ecology and people of parts of the Blue Mountains. Bluewren Cantos is in the same intense and engaging mode as his first book of poetry, Fire Diary (2010) and can make a claim to be the kind of poetry which might redefine a reader’s interest in the natural world and the way human beings relate to it. It’s a poetry which is simultaneously rhapsodic and highly intelligent and one of its impressive features is the way in which it balances a long-lined rhapsodic tone – the natural world is routinely described, sufi-fashion, as “the Beloved” – with a registering of reality which, if not exactly gritty, still has a wry perspective on the self and its predicaments.

A short poem from Fire Diary, “What I Fear”, is a good doorway through which to step into the Tredinnick world:

Is that I’ll die with the world unread
on my bedside table and you
                                                    a mystery beside me in my bed
and my own intended life an item too far down the list
                                                                                                 ever to have got done.

But today I wake at the moment of dawn and hear the world
catch her breath and see the crimson sun
                                                                         undone in the yawning elm,
and I feel my child’s sleeping breath,
                                                                  and I stop.

The drive behind this poem is the drive to understand: the fear is just that this might never happen. Understanding, for which almost all the poems strive, is a complex epistemological relationship between the self and others and the self and nature and in this poem the metaphor used is one of reading. It’s a metaphor shared by another, more complex Fire Diary poem, “Reading the Entrails” where, on election day – and political issues as well as broadacre social ones hover in the background of a number of poems – two hens are killed by a fox. Is this an “unhappy augury”?

. . . . . 
Well, it turns out the fox just got lucky
                                                                        and the chooks were just dead
and none of this was a metaphor for anything. It turns out
we didn’t put the fox back in charge of the chookhouse.
. . . . . 
It turns out this is just the way
                                                          the syntax of the real world runs,
implying one thing, meaning at once another. Meaning everything
ends, the good with the bad. The whole world, it turns out, is a metaphor,
and nature is a blind god’s prophecy. The hens were innocents; they were also
the regime and they were our better selves.
                                                         The last thing we have to lose.

This is a poetry, in other words, whose task is to work out both the general desirable relationship between humans and the world (a kind of ecological/ethical perspective) and the specifically intellectual relationship between the two. Poems – metaphorised as many things in these two books – are vehicles of this understanding. Metaphor has the function of relating the world to the self (the world is like a lover, a dream etc) and the self to the world (my self is like a landscape, a tree etc) but it also has the capacity to continuously shift the terms and produce, over an entire book, an ever-changing, kaleidoscopic view of the issues involved in understanding the world and what it means – if it can be said to “mean”. It’s this metaphor-induced instability of the sides of the relationship that leaves one with one of the distinctive impressions of Tredinnick’s poetry: that it is full of eloquent assertions on these issues but that none represents a finally arrived-at understanding – the search is a continuous one.

Bluewren Cantos is very much a book of birds – so much so that it might be thought of as “Tredinnick’s Book of Birds” – and the functions they play in the shifting relationship between the human and the natural world. Although the third section, “Stray Birds”, is ostensibly devoted to them, they play a crucial role in the other parts of the book as well: so much so that it might be handy to have a field guide to Australian birds alongside you as you read it! Often the descriptions are wonderfully accurate. Sandhill Cranes (a non-native bird encountered in North America), for example, “carry their legs / Behind them like music stands they never learned / To fold” and there are some acute observations of the mysterious stillnesses of kingfishers:

Nothing sits so still so long as
The bluest bird in the world. In pairs
They work their lives alone, one
On each bank of the same matrimonial
Stream . . .

Birds can act as “messengers of the gods” trafficking information between the two worlds as they do in an early poem, “A Day at Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven” (“All day birdsong / Went off like stars going out or emails / Coming in, some of it spam, all of it pressing”). They can be visitants from the sacred as they are in the book’s first poem where they are described, rather wonderfully, as “harbingers of themselves, of all / Our selves, peeled pieces of eternity’s paint” or as they are in a later one, “Faith” where “Two gang gangs fly over, / Closing behind them the gate / I hadn’t heard them open between the worlds”. They can be incarnations of the gods in a sequence like “The Wombat Vedas” which, as its title suggests, rather playfully lets Hindu mythology and cosmology set the tone of the piece.

No matter what the theme of a poem, it’s likely that birds are going to appear in some symbolic form or other. In “Resistance”, a poem about how humans and the natural world resist the depredations of “dictators / and outcomes-oriented cabalists” by taking back the moment from “everyone who cannot begin to know / the beauty it bestows; / to return it to everyone who just might” we are told “this is why the gang gangs are up there, / Even now, running repairs on reality, / as if it were an old gramophone”. In “Sulphur-crested Sonnet” the tendency of cockatoos to fly theatrically towards their human observer before veering away sets the stage for the idea that “The world works best when it misses // Its mark” and in a fine, comparatively “stand-alone” poem, “Frogmouth on the Wire”, that mysterious bird, revealed by her silence and stillness amidst “a bedlam of possum / Croak and corella backchat” becomes the bearer of the absolutely other, the inexpressible:

She looks like that thing for which
There never was one name – love,
Truth, emptiness, grace – only
Form and metaphor.
                                 She burns
With her self. Half hunger, half
Ease; as ready for sleep as
For death. She is everything
The night is not; everything
It is . . .

And sometimes, though rarely, just as cigars are sometimes only cigars, so the birds are only birds.

Birds are only one component of an attempt to correctly read the world but they are the most memorable component. But, as “What I Fear” suggests, other people and our love for them is something that needs to be read correctly too. Though Bluewren Cantos reveals a self that communes with the natural world best in solitude (the book’s first section, “A River at Dusk” arises from a solitary spell at Bundanon on the Shoalhaven) there is a good deal about individual loved ones. In fact the strength of these poems about children, partners, parents and grandparent may lie not so much in their individual excellence but in the way in which they are so firmly grounded in actual people and thus provide something of a counterbalance to a style which often runs the risk of a certain rhapsodic cloudiness. One of the things about the prose work, The Blue Plateau, that makes it so successful is the way in which the larger perspectives of geology and history and the individual meditations about self, country and place are grounded by the actual speech patterns of the author’s local acquaintances. This isn’t available in poetry – I can’t imagine the stories of the Maxwells and the Commens being worked up into an Alan Wearne-like narrative, or even, for that matter, into a Les Murray-like verse narrative though the characters might find a friendly welcome in that poetic – and the ability of such poems as the portrait of the author’s grandfather, a hardline protestant minister discovering the pleasures (and horrors) of American-style jive preaching make a valuable counterweight. There is a fine poem about the birth of a daughter – alluding to Yeats’s great poem – and a particularly moving poem about the nature of fatherhood, dedicated to the author’s father on his eightieth birthday:

In the teeming and intimate foreground families are,
Fathers are for silence and distance, and there’s a lot
Of both to keep.
                        If a father does not sit to dinner, say,
His mind elsewhere, where will a child learn that love
Is a far-flung cosmos, growing farther by the second; that
There’s a whole universe of elsewhere, none of which
Lies closer than the father at your side?
                                                                 Fathers are for carrying
You beyond the present tense and moment. They are to family
What weather is to country – in it, not of it.
. . . . . 
Like most children, for whom what’s real is as young as they are,
I paid my father’s past too little attention until it was too late,
So that the life that made him, and made me, is a silence 
That’s going to have to keep.
. . . . . 
                                                                    A father’s job 
Is to keep his secrets, and in keeping them, tell you
Your own . . . 

It’s an eloquent and moving poem built out of generalities but based firmly on an individual (and, of course, based also on that “father/farther” homophonic pun).

The poems of Bluewren Cantos also have a lot to say about the poet’s own self and its growth – and, by extension, about all our selves. It is one of the things Tredinnick does particularly well and it’s part of the interaction between the natural world and the human worlds that the former should induce change and development in the latter. At one point, “The Burning House”, this has Buddhist colourings – “And let all you thought sheltered you fall to the ground. / Who you are, and always were, is what’s left of whoever walks out of there” – but at others, such as “Encrypted Sculpture”, they are simply well-observed aspects of how we live.

And finally – though it doesn’t figure as one of the fears in “What I Fear” there is the issue of death. Its significance in this book is highlighted by the fact that the first poem, “With Emily in the Garden”, is built around the news of a friend’s death and the final poem, “It Matters How We Go”, which includes a reference to the death of Seamus Heaney, is not only about how we walk the earth and how we might conceive of ourselves as it is about how we leave the world. And “how we leave the world” itself has, of course, the double meaning of the state it is in when we go and the way in which we die.

Bluewren Cantos is a most affecting book although it is not going to affect everybody. As I began by saying, it is one of those books which can make us experience the world more intensely simply by the recurring ways in which its poems celebrate our existence within the natural world. It’s that effect which helps to stave off potential problems. If parts can, when quoted out of context, occasionally sound like excerpts from a self-help book this is balanced by the sophistication of the poems which are always tense and alive as poems. My profoundest reservations – which are probably more specific to me than they would be to most readers – involve the cultural references which range from the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, to Rumi, to the Buddha, to Japanese poets and so on – all the usual suspects, as they say. These aren’t vague or trivial references – I’m happy to believe that Tredinnick is deeply well read in all these works and that he might well want to mount the argument that there has been a religious response to the natural world which is probably coterminous with the human race itself and that he wants to tap into this response wherever possible. It’s just that they are so entirely conventional that they look like a cliché and references to them more like gestures than intellectual engagements. As I say, this might be a jaundiced response peculiar to me. Wordsworth – whose project wasn’t entirely dissimilar – made do without any such references and other poets (for example, Olson among his imaginary Mayans, Pound with his obscure medieval exemplars of good economic behaviour) have chosen specific, non-clichéd cultures to draw sustenance from. A poem from Fire Diary contains a scene in which the poet’s daughter sitting in a yogic posture says to her brother,

Look at me, I’m praying, No
he says, having none of this
new age cant; you’re doing Kung-Fu.

I’m on the side of the boy here, and it’s comforting that Tredinnick knows how much the vague gestural cant of the new age needs to be avoided.

Rob Wilson: Free Will and the Clouds

Wollongong: Grand Parade Poets, 2014, 84pp.

One’s initial description of Free Will and the Clouds might be that it is made up of seventy-two poems in the surreal narrative/scenario mode. But that might be a dangerous pigeonholing since it suggests that surreal narrative is a consistent, predictable genre when in fact it is as various as any other. One of the issues of this mode, as with any poetic mode which eschews making a connection with its readers at the level of common human experience (so-called “humanist” lyrics, for example) is whether the resulting poems are in any sense engaging. Rob Wilson’s poems work for me at this level – where many don’t – though I might be hard-pressed to analyse why they make a connection with the reader. Wittiness might be one reason but I think that that turns out to be a symptom rather than a cause. If poems don’t connect first, what might be wittiness turns out to be mere smart-arsery.

Surreal poetry can often engage intellectually when it sends the reader in a search for its generative elements. We ask, almost instinctively, “What connects the disparate parts of this poem? Does it spin out of an underlying and often unspoken image or phrase – Riffaterre’s hypogram – and, if it does, along what axes does it spin?” Although such an intellectual engagement can be compelling, as compelling as the solution to a maths problem or a detective novel, it also begs a lot of questions. The most important of these is that it assumes that there is a generative unity that can be uncovered by really good readers and so the act of reading might run counter to the intentions of a really hard-line surrealist who wants his or her poems to be absolutely beyond the realm of something so trite as paraphrasable meaning. Or perhaps meaning may be there and may be there to be discovered but the meaning derives either from the reader or from the juxtaposition of elements. In this situation, any two lines chosen in the most aleatory way possible and run together will contain a meaning but it will not be an ”intended” one in the sense of being intended by the author – though it is quite possible to argue that it derives from the cultural, or even linguistic, matrix from which the two lines are chosen.

This is, in other words, a complicated area with all kinds of difficulties for the reader – especially any reader who wants to write about the poems – and my introduction to this review is partly designed to build an admittedly porous defensive wall around what I have to say about these poems. The possible relationship between the writer of surreal texts and the texts themselves can span an entire spectrum from, at one end, “These come like dreams and like dreams I know they are meaningful and that I do not understand the meaning. As a reader, help me” to “What you call meaning and find as meaning in these poems is just a soft-centred readerly fantasy. My poems are successful abstract constructions which work ”˜poetically’ without recourse to such fantasies”. A reader of poems in this mode has to try to intuit how their author is positioned when it comes to these issues. Readers have only the text whereas the author (and, probably, his or her friends) have the additional knowledge of what lies behind the poems, ranging from general theories to specific poetic positions and, even, complex generative schemes which could never be deduced by any but a hypothetically perfect reader and which can, like Roussel’s, be detonated later to the humiliation of incompetent readers. As “Save Our Souls” from Free Will and the Clouds says:

There are codes in everything.
If you look hard enough,
I’ll be sitting here
trying to make this joke I’ve been tinkering with . . .

One of the first things one can say about Free Will and the Clouds is that there is a lot of verbal activity driving the poems. This is a feature of surrealism but it is also a feature of fairly conventional, Freudian, dream analysis. The difference is that in the latter the function of the puns and slips is to cloak whereas in the former it is often to drive the poem as it develops in its own weird and unpredictable way: the best quick example of this might be John Forbes’s “Stalin’s Holidays” in which two lines – “Does form follow / function? Well after lunch we hear a speech . . .” – develop in this way. In Free Will and the Clouds there is a certain level of this sort of punning language: “The Speed of Gossip”, for example, begins “Few are satisfied with their lot in life / till someone turns their wife into Eritrea salt” thus connecting Lot’s wife of Genesis 19 with “lot” meaning “portion” – a not uncommon pun – and allowing the internal rhyme of “life” with “wife” to strengthen the connection. In “Tried to Go to Heaven” a boy’s yelling “Extra! Extra” generates the phrase “extraneous information”. The same poem speaks of “mouthy games of chess” which might be an example of that enjoyment of the sound (rather than meaning) of odd conjunctions: the next poem speaks of “a slouchy perch / on the side of a green hill”. Two lines from “Save Our Souls” – “Out at the heart farm, / vile waterways cackle over rocks” – have quite a few things going on at this level. To say that waterways cackle is the kind of image one might find in a fairly conventional lyric, interestingly contrasting a first word where soft continuants are dominant with a second where it’s all a matter of hard stops; to call the waterways “vile” is to allow mood to irrupt into the poem in a way that recalls many surreal lyrics; and to speak of a “heart farm” is to make a nice assonantal pairing within a thematically intriguing concept. Finally there are a few examples of deliberately playing not with double meanings of words but with double readings of syntax. “I Saw Esau” – whose title suggests verbal play – has as its first line, “All he was after was” with its ambiguous “after. “Camera Farm Mishaps” has the clause, “Drag out the death / penalty box now we can all / share in the joy of the state . . .” where either “death” and “penalty” can be connected (and the box might be a place one can tick on a form) or “penalty” and “box” can be connected (and suddenly we’re in the world of very sinister football matches!) The same trick is played in the next poem, “Cobwebs on the Anvil”, which says, “Jack / in the box office will fill you in for half the original price”.

Some of these poems yield more easily to our “irritable search after meaning” than others and one is inclined to hang grimly onto these in one’s first few readings of the book. Take “November Tango”, for example:

He tiptoes everywhere these days
figuring they’re on their way by now.

All I could do was scream into the air
as the sky darkened with cloud.

A snowdrift.
A heavy overcoat and glasses
and a scarf buffeting the chin.
But on those cicada-hot birthdays,
you would spring to life,
hopping barefoot over
molten bitumen to catch the milkman.

The railway line
stretches in both directions.

People always think they can start again.
The suburbs,
the parks and dirty streams.

The title suggests one of the images of the poem, people skipping over hot roads in summer, and thus has the quality of phrases like “the toilet queue shuffle”, but it also uses two words from the Civil Aviation alphabet and thus represents NT (perhaps the Northern Territory?) At its heart I think it’s a poem about the circularity of the seasons as opposed to the illusion of linear development which encourages people to think “they can start again”. And it begins with an example of the kind of linguistic play I’ve already spoken of. In the first line we read “these days” as a minor, cliched adverbial phrase modifying “tiptoes” but it is also the referent of the “they” in the second line which, before we realise this, we will read as a sinister, if not paranoid, reference to unnamed individuals.

Among these more “approachable” poems is “Puberty Blacks” (whose title suggests that it is about an intensified version of puberty blues), “Dream Staggers” (whose title and some later, significant lines – “Now you are headed for that maze, / with the black dream staggers” – locates us in the images of dreams, their emotional potency and their problematic interpretations, “Vinegar and Brown Paper” (a comic/nightmare version of “Jack and Jill”), and “Look at the Camera!”:

I think I’m a window.

When that thought first occurred,
it sat comfortably with me.
“That’s it,” I said. “I’m done for,”
and squeezed the wood of the doorframe.

Individuals stand wide in the park
then move toward the fountain,
barely looking at each other.

Here’s the part of the poem where
I try to impress you
like the first time you
heard about ghosts.

I am slightly concerned that you are a camera
and that your memories sit coiled inside you
gelatine thick.

Like “November Tango” it’s a poem built on oppositions: the self as a window and the other’s self as a camera, the former transmitting reality undistorted as in the fourth wall of realist drama or the methods of realist prose and the latter brooding on experience before allowing it to hatch into something possibly monstrous. The poem’s oppositional structure is stressed by its symmetries: there are four- then three-line stanzas after the opening statement and the poem begins and ends with different metaphorical readings of the idea of sitting. At the same time the entire poem either develops or plays with or mocks the title of the play (and film) based on Isherwood’s novel. And yet another perspective might be the context of the poems seen in toto where images of cameras (and looking, recording and being seen) regularly recur, especially later in the book.

Perhaps the most conventionally surrealist poem (I’m aware that that can be seen as a paradox) is “The Battle and the War”:

Like closing a dead man’s eyes
is considered priceless,
the smoke outside your skin is directly related
to the fire in your gizzards.

Chess and physics.
My father is paying my sister to follow you around.
You’ve been dead for weeks and weeks
and nobody sang,
stood on a stool
or drafted a petition.

Sit around and listen to Chopin
and flip that fucking coin for once.

Whatever the overall “meaning” (and one can think of a few possibilities though they would need to incorporate the opposition of individual battle and larger war as well as that of chess versus physics), the structure of the poem is held together by the idea of a coin which is, at first, placed on a dead man’s eyes to pay the ferryman over the Styx, secondly, used to pay someone and thirdly used for determining chance.

Surreal scenarios or narratives thrive on disjunctions either, as I said at the beginning, to encourage the search for a unifying element or to try to thwart that search. From this point of view, Free Will and the Clouds isn’t especially forbidding. True, a poem like “He’s Just Gonna Do Nothin’” is a bit of a challenge as is “Everything He Owns”:

The room is old and will burn
to the ground minutes from now.

You and your dad on the side
of the highway with a big bag
of spuds,
Universal dyed black
into the hessian.

He stayed up all night shaving
the morning air of orange peel.
Currawongs whinge loudly from the gum.

The central stanza may be a memory (or photograph) and thus something the poet “owns” and the last conceivably might be also; but the first can hardly be. But then the desire to read the three elements as consistent is part of a reading’s inevitable search for meaning.

As often in surreal poems, the consistent element is one of tone and mood. Rereading Free Will and the Clouds is likely to leave you with a strong aftertaste of bitterness and distress combined with a jauntiness that is often expressed in the wonderful titles. Such a combination makes one think of the blues which often mix a lugubrious musical tone with some indications of personal resolve. “The Harpo Marx Blues” is a poem that expresses this well. The poet’s dog has run away, his “baby” has left him (though the next line mitigates the conventional misery of this by continuing “sitting at a train station”), he has dropped his watch and “dreamt of you again”. The last stanza makes a nice surprise by moving from lament to observation:

. . . . . 
mouth-blown free reed instruments
appeared in the United States, South America,
the United  Kingdom and in Europe
at roughly the same time.

In “Pet Idiot” we meet a psychic rupture that outlives the dream in which it appeared:

. . . . . 
Love poems? God only wrote war songs!
Sat in a tree young and thought up guns.

Doctor, the gash is still there
despite the dream clearly being over.

Something seems ruptured
                          to put a finger on it
like a Tennessee Williams illness. . . .

The very first poem of the book, “Moon on a Stick” finishes with “The part of your heartbeat will be played by / a smooth grey stone / high on a dark shelf” and a later poem, “Backyard with Marquee” has a very downbeat (if mildly humorous) conclusion:

. . . . . 
I read a book that said
the universe is simply a tunnel,
dark at either end.

There is a small museum,
behind the clock you pass on your way home.
You’re there, mislabelled
on a black shelf, struggling to move.

Ultimately the way most readers will get some sort of handle on this impressive (and, as I’ve said, very engaging) book will by reading it as the impressions of a mislabelled poet, struggling to move in a psychologically oppressive atmosphere. In the book’s last poem, a slightly untypical piece dedicated to the late Benjamin Frater, that poet’s afterlife is to be celebrated – “you’re Johnny Cash / living in a flat full of burned rubber, / singing underwater, / falling in love / with the Earth and its birdlife” – whereas the fate of those still alive and writing on the planet is a bit bleaker: “and I’m sitting in some room / in the world / trying to make sense of senselessness”.

Zenobia Frost: Salt and Bone; Phillip Gijindarraji Hall: Sweetened in Coals

Salt and Bone, North Hobart: Walleah, 2014, 63pp.
Sweetened in Coals, Port Adelaide: Ginninderra, 2014, 77pp.

Two likeable first books with completely different orientations: the one inner-suburban and concerned with the contemporary, the other set in places as far afield as the Blue Mountains, Gordonvale and Borroloola and, though dealing with the present, keeping an eye on the perspectives of geological time.

Much of Zenobia Frost’s Salt and Bone is concerned with the inner, older suburbs of Brisbane an area to which, as a long-time resident of Paddington and Auchenflower, I’m always attracted. It is the world of possums, VJ walls and apocalyptic summer storms. The book has a handsome cover: a line drawing by Bettina Marson of the steps and verandah of a “Queenslander”. But one wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is all the book is about, or its most important contribution or even where its best poems congregate. Salt and Bone is organised so that the poems about these suburbs are framed by poems which are quite different – though they reflect consistent interests. Also not all of the poems based in inner-suburban Brisbane are overtly about an attempt to “capture” the quality of suburbs like Toowong – they are a long way from Laurie Duggan’s poetic anthropology – but, in their detailing of personal experiences that take place there, capture it they do.

“Civic Duty”, dedicated to the Civic Video Store in the suburb of Rosalie, is about the phenomenon of video stores, something that already seems no more than a brief flicker in historical time, like sound cassettes and VHS:

. . . . .
But one day Civic Video
will close and on that day
there will be nothing:
neon-gone – a glowing
museum set piece.
Whatever killed the dinosaurs
is killing Civics. Already paleozoic,
Blockbuster never saw Rosalie
craft an ark of empty video cases . . .

The four poems of “Belonging Quartet” are exactly about the complex ways of “belonging” to a city, and begin with the tradition of housesitting, here in the older, stumped suburbs: “I lie in the clawfoot, / reading the ceiling’s pine calligraphy. // I eat, I sleep, I talk to possums / who won’t talk back”. And another poem, “This is the House”, while not specifically located in the inner suburbs – it might well be semi-rural – identifies these wonderful houses perfectly:

by a trellis with runner beans
ochre hens and guinea fowl
. . .
see shelves of books and post-it notes
that climb the walls like cubist vines . . .

“After Midnight: Toowong” is a classic piece of portraiture that will resonate with anyone who knows the suburb in summer:

The night’s swelter
cut with lemon myrtle,

we slink
between ibis-legged houses
and wakeful graveyard.

Possums troupe feats – wire
to teeming wire, with tails
                          inking the sky.

At night these dark hills
are waves to carry us. We belong

To the hour of the curlew -
to the blues of its determined song.

Of course, Toowong is the site of inner Brisbane’s major cemetery, a fact that helps to unite these suburb poems with the more morbid poems that introduce the book. I say morbid but the issue that needs examination is the extent to which the concern with graveyards, death and black magic is a lifestyle issue (and hence trivial) or an obsessive theme (and hence, for any poet, crucial).

It’s certainly a consistent theme and appears most openly in poems like “The Hobby” dedicated to a Russian whose particular obsession was exhuming bodies and taking them home as companions:

. . . . . 
my bevy, twenty-nine exotic birds
there’s barely room for me against my desk
there’s barely room anymore at home . . .

He is described as “a cemetery archaeologist” which might be no more than an attempt to dignify a very quirky fetish but which adds a consistent perspective to the poems which are in one way or another about death. The dead lie in cemeteries, they can be visited and they can also be uncovered: and they have secrets to tell. Two of the inhabitants of Toowong cemetery are the McKenzies a tragic couple of the twenties. When her husband was questioned by police over a suspected business scam, the wife suicided – sending a letter to the police before doing so. Later, the husband shot himself by her grave. The pair are celebrated in a two part poem, “The McKenzie Pair”, written in a three-line, unrhymed version of the pantoum. Less tragic but nonetheless quirkily powerful is the story told in “Cimetière des Innocents, 1786” of the breakdown and closure of that famous Parisian cemetery, and the fate of the recently decomposing dead who had formed enough fat to be “carted off / to make pure soap”. In death, the poem says, there is an inversion of ranks “and thus a lord / may come to scrub / a floor or else / a peasant’s pants” and, it concludes, “the end of us / is slow and strange, / forgettable – / and wet”.

Others among these framing poems are not at all morbid and reflect other interests. “Auf Wiedersehen Spiegeltent”, for example, is about that strange, nineteenth century, magisterium-style object that appeals to the contemporary with its old-fashioned mirror-perspectives. It gets a suitably fragmented poem to celebrate its dismantlement. And the final poem celebrates the poet’s “Christian” name by being a monologue addressed by the historical Queen Zenobia to her great enemy – the Romans. In it she warns that it will be the sweet herbs and spices of the east which will both enliven and corrupt Roman blood. It’s hard not to think of this farewell piece as something of a “poem-poem”.

Phillip Gijindarraji Hall’s book, Sweetened in Coals, is made up of three sections and the best poems come at the beginning in the section called “Dwelling”. Unlike the words “Praise” and “Home” – titles and subjects of the other sections – “dwelling” is a participle as well as noun and thus simultaneously expresses a sense of process as well as a more static, abstract state. In fact the poems of this book are interestingly strung between the poles of process and state. The former are poems on the move, documenting a range of experience from canoeing in the Katherine River (the book’s second poem), following “Darwin’s Walk” in the Blue Mountains (in the first poem of the second section) to taking a group of students on a two-week hike from Katoomba to Mittagong (the second-last) and a group of children from “the Borroloola Mob” into “country” in “Concourse” (the final poem). One can imagine postcolonial theorists making a lot of this, contrasting a poetry of movement with a poetry of static vistas: the former in some sense indigenous (or at least in harmony with some of the Aboriginal song cycles) the latter the perspective of empire.

Hall’s poetry isn’t quite as schematic as this, however, and it does make some play out of the way in which, on bush-walks, sites with spectacular and revealing vistas appear. The interaction between land, native inhabitant, settler, cedar-getter and colonisers is a complex one resistant to simple moralising. In “Raising the Colours”, set in a school in Gordonvale, one of the students

              throws stones at fruit bats:
No Mr Phil, I’m not gammin,
they’re good to eat, kill cancer too.
Well, a migaloo in black country, Mr Phil’s pissed off . . .

and we can feel him wince in “Concourse” “pondering my eco spiel as they cut down / a three-metre cypress pine no mista, he burns bright / smokes them mozzies too . . . / you dig turtles with us mob / in ”˜im dry swamp”. But focussing on the abrasive moments of inter-cultural contact is always more honest and, ultimately rewarding, than rhapsodising.

One poem which explores some of the complexities of land, naming, possession and engagement is “Promised Land” about the Erskine River and the Erskine Gorge in the southern Blue Mountains. It begins with the kind of natural description Hall does well but as the poem progresses the names of the places inevitably mentioned build up a kind of momentum of alienness in that they are all biblical (Pisgah, Nebo Point, The Land of Gad) or classical (Attic Cave). To thicken the mix even more, Nebo Point and Pisgah Rock are described as being like “lammasu” – those Assyrian winged guardian statues – a further dimension of alienness which the poem itself is responsible for introducing. At any rate, you feel, the poem moves towards accommodating this growing complexity of cultures by speaking of the namers, the Warrigal Bushwalking Club of the thirties:

. . . . . 
Continuing down the yabby line,
          from creek junction to creek junction
The Erskine Gorge opens to a sandstone escarpment,
          its vast precipice consumed
By the water of this promised land
          taken by the Warrigals, land-lopers
Who came after the timber getters, and hauled
          packs and crafted mud maps intimately
Measured. Amidst the profusion of tracks and scats
          the Warrigals lived from their packs, surveying
Their wilderness – a canvas yearning pitched
          over the Dharug’s stone hearth glow.

The imported names – Mt Pisgah from which Moses sees the promised land – are, if you come to think of it, as alien to British culture as they are to indigenous Australian. And there is an irony that the first Anglo-Saxon explorers of this area take an Aboriginal name for a wild dog as the name of their club just as there is an irony that, before them, come one of the most ecologically destructive groups, the cedar fellers.

The process of continuous rewriting whose paradoxes are detailed here is called a palimpsest and this is the title of another, quite different poem that precedes “Promised Land”. Here, instead of the strange movement of following the land until the alien names alter the poem’s direction – which I think is how “Promised Land” works – we have a straightforward, contemporary Australian poem with a “position”:

. . . . . 
once bora grounds
- illuminated tors - 
their eminence now fractured
and made to bear transported gatherings:
Sturgiss, Nibelung, Donjon;
whilst the Budawang’s signature,
Dithol – woman’s breast - 
coyly named Pigeon House
from the Endeavour’s helm - 
a clear sailing,
white washed over
and over -

It’s a poem which looks at Cook’s voyage with a vista-like perspective on the past. And, although there is a lot going on to keep the poem afloat – the settlement that Cook’s voyage heralds is a “white wash” – it seems to me a far less successful poem than “Promised Land” exactly because it is such a static piece, based on a worked-out understanding which it then exemplifies. “Promised Land” is a sinuous process because it gives the impression of discovering itself as it goes along.

Another poem worthy of a brief comment in this opening section is “Dystopian Empire” which records two old women fighting in Borroloola, to the amazement of gawking miners and grey nomads. What is odd about this poem is that it is written to recall Les Murray’s “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”, in which – students of Australian poetry will know – bypassers gather to stare at a man weeping in Martin Place. Murray’s fifth stanza: “Some will say, in the years to come, a halo / or force stood around him. There is no such thing. / Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him / but they will not have been there . . .” becomes:

Some will say, in the years to come, that the young
blackfullas lit up their ganja, or sniffed,
at the spectacle; the expectant mums pissed
as coconuts fermenting in sand:
but that soapbox’s bent boss-eyed.

The poem finishes on a note of cultural conflict: of the ignorance of white outsiders of the influence of spirits amongst the dispossessed:

What do munanga know of salutarily singing Country?
Of the numinous mischievously stirring strife
amongst already sabotaged custodians whose kujika’s scorched?
Who will tearfully sing him, big business, with millad mob
in the dirt, pressing forwards, hoping for peace?

This makes sense but the question remains of why the thing is written over, Murray’s poem palimpsest-style. Is it a homage or a mocking comment that to experience the uncanny you just have to get out of Sydney’s Martin Place?

The poems of the second and third sections of Hall’s book don’t live up to the best of those of the opening one. The poems of “Praise” are inclined to be a little one-dimensional and those poems of the third section which are about his own rich domestic life are in a well-known conventional mode. It’s good that poetry can document the domestic component of our lives (and it should go on doing so) but it isn’t a mode which will excite other poets by its possibilities. That’s not to say that there aren’t many good pieces here. I have a soft spot for “This Creation” in the second section: it is a celebration of the way in which the activities of flying-foxes (mainly, I presume, shitting out the seeds of fruit they have eaten elsewhere) help to reseed the Daintree:

          I hear them at dusk,
                    those spectacled flying-foxes wheeling,
streaming into pockets of remaindered rainforest;
          an archipelago paradise
                                        where hardwoods are flowering
          with syrup, easing pollination, and musky
                              squabbling camps for those black
          leathered angels seeding
a Daintree, gallantly reclaiming
                                                        the Garden. 

“Black leathered angels” is a lovely image – though it might be said to be an Old Testament one, itself derived from Babylonian myth, and thus implying a whole history of cultural borrowings and seedings – and shows Hall at his best.

In Sweetened in Coals the methods and movements of the verse itself is varied in a way which might also reflect the opposition between static observation of vistas and movement. In the preliminary poem, “Carpentaria Running the Flag”, we get a full-scale rehearsal of precise observation fed into strongly tactile consonants and a very intense syntactic movement. At least we do in the beginning: the poem finishes by tailing off into limp abstractions:

Heat radiates off the back-broken
bullish escarpment where lost cities rise
as columns of silica crusted in iron
above pocketed zinc seams, gouged cattle plains
and salt flats; a back-country driven bony
even as floods flush north to the Gulf
and I cast bait, slipping past crocs and luring barra
on bloodied lines; a channelled
shimmering verdancy as those caught thrash
on sand before being parcelled in paperbark
and sweetened in coals amidst bunched
golden beard grass and cathedral mounds; the Savannah Way
a graded fence line vanishing into the rusted
landscape where a charged sphere percolates
                                                         Indigenous space.

Somehow this seems to encapsulate the strongest and weakest elements of the poetry. If “Dystopian Empire” recalled Les Murray, this recalls Anthony Lawrence. And it is hard not to feel that Lawrence is a better model for the “I move through the landscape” poems that Hall wants to write.

Bonny Cassidy: Final Theory

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2014, 81pp.

It’s tempting to connect Bonny Cassidy’s work with that of other poets trying to approach landscape, humans, and the interactions between the two in a generally post-poundian poetics. It’s a revisiting of an issue that, more than half a century ago, in another hemisphere, produced the poetics of the Black Mountain school. Two recent anthologies, one English, one Australian, are good showcases for such poets: Harriet Tarlo’s The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry and Black Rider’s Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land. Both, in their titles, use the word “radical”, an adjective that might better be applied to the differences between the work of the poets included. But it’s part of the interest of this approach that, although there are major theoretical figures – John Kinsella comes to mind – there are no overarching aesthetic positions, and no individual with Charles Olson’s influence: just some assumptions and a spectrum of possibilities. Cassidy, too, though she makes a lot of connections with other contemporary poets in her work, seems very much her own poet with her own voice and her own avenues of approach to some of the vital issues. Final Theory is her second book. The first was Certain Fathoms which was preceded by a chapbook, Said to Be Standing.

One of the impulses behind the poetic context I’ve sketched in is the fear of an unproblematic, experiencing self at the heart of lyric poems leading, at its worst to a sort of bland “Georgianism”. Getting the conventional lyric self out of the poetry becomes an imperative, buttressed by later notions of the self as, psychologically, an illusion even, in a kind of no-holds-barred leftism, a “bourgeois fantasy”. It isn’t an issue I want to pursue beyond making the point that both sides of this divide rely strongly on fairly grotesque demonisations of the other. Fine poetry comes from all parts of the spectrum of post-poundian beliefs and, at the same time, a “conventional”, humanist lyricism works well especially when the self behind the poems is recognised as something complex and problematic. Bonny Cassidy’s first book, and the preceding chapbook, are, by her own admission (according to the accompanying publicity material for Final Theory), “exercises in removing the subjective lyric voice”. Final Theory seems to be an attempt to get the self back into the poetry by using different tactics.

Using the word “exercises” of the poems of Certain Fathoms may suggest something rather programmatic but there is a lot in that book to admire. Often the emphasis is visual and related to the graphic arts and it’s no accident that the book begins with a poem about botanical drawings. Sometimes poems later in the book have that frozen-in-time visual quality that recalls the Imagists – the first of Pound’s many attacks on the humanist lyric of his day. “Confidence”, for example:

A stalk of light arrives
to grasp the roof’s peak ”“

not a sigh from beneath, where a crowd
crosses the pale forum, snibbing purses.

The light folds itself up, a last ripple clears.

As often in the case of such poems, the situation is only sketched in and the result can be either that readers have the sensation of “take it or leave it” or the entire thing is too delphic to unravel. A set of fine imagist pieces about New Zealand significantly called “Autoptics” (which means simultaneously “seen by myself” and “seen from a car”) contains one, “Titirangi”, whose opening line presents quite a challenge:

Break, glass, daughter.
                                Kauri don’t shade.

The roundabout chosen by a finger slanting from the sky -
visitors go into the light

streets bend tighter and tighter -
lining up wheels with poles.

It’s a reminder that the book’s title can be read as a hermeneutic comment as well – the fathoming of poems can be as big an issue for readers as the fathoming of reality is for a poet. And then there is the self: the first poem, “Figure”, exploring the act of making botanical drawings, is very much about the complicated way such “scientific” drawings, mere “figures” in a text are personal: “First a thickness then / a happy signature. // I thought to go without”.

But deep down, in all her work, you feel that Cassidy is more obsessed with process than visual images frozen in time and their issues of interpretability and the implied self. The five-part “Range” seems something of a statement-poem. It contains a bird, its location in space and its location in time. Its method relates to the act of drawing (“Always begin with a bird, like ruling a line / that stretches into angles”) but through a series of puns the idea of a duck, a continuous ducking line, takes us into the range which is the bird’s environment and the subject of the poem and which is dealt with as though the task were to outline banks, slips, trees and sandstone without having a pencil leave the paper. The process here occurs in the natural world (“Night’s shadow settles in the carpet of the range”) but also in the creative world of the line.

One of the poems of Certain Fathoms, “En Abyme (Northland)”, is a stepping stone to the poems of Final Theory. It is set in the north of New Zealand and is dedicated to Tim, the partner and photographer of the poems of the first and third section of Final Theory. It’s about the self seen in terms of a relationship (in the major sections of the book the self is always twinned with another and rarely alone) and the way in which in such a situation talk is the essential interaction. Also a couple have a different perspective on their history to that of a solitary individual and this is how the poem begins: “Talk is breaking, breaking. In these minutes you / and I seem to be history without lineage”. By the end of the poem there is a move (I think) to geological time which (I think) is induced by the shift in perspective:

Before you leave again I hear you say, just once,
perhaps the vulture eats itself
and your words in delay finally settle into me, then you -
years away and oceans parting.

Of course, to be honest, this might be no more than a reference to being separated by the width of a sea. “En Abyme (Northland)” looks back to the poems of Certain Fathoms by its reference to the processes of visual arts (“There is no line to draw from there to here”) and by, as its title suggests, having three little imagist pieces embedded in the texture of the poem. The first of these is rather good, “We cross the flats that sign the Narrows. // A thumbnail church is lodged / under the cloud-marsh. As we hover past, / kauri bellow in the harbour” but I still think that the poem is a farewell to such methods.

In Final Theory the tactic is to plunge the poet and partner into a kind of tour of sites of change in New Zealand, Australia and Antarctica – the remnants of Gondwana. This is done in the two major sections of the book (the odd-numbered ones) and these sections are interspersed with a science-fiction-like tale of a girl born in the ocean. There is a touch of sci-fi in the “tour of the sites” section as well, adding a hint of genre narrative that prevents these poems being merely a po-faced expression of experiences at geologically and ecologically significant sites. At every point the tight personal perspective and the massively broader geological one are sandwiched together. A poem beginning with mining exploration which penetrates “layers staked on time’s dart like a Valentine” finishes “Above it all: / me in your apartment, shimmying / rocksteady.” That is: moving but trustably firm. Waking in a hotel (I think in New Zealand) to the sound of cars moves immediately to a description of the “acid sea” ballooning up. Thinking about life before they met moves immediately to an image of proto-life as “rafts of seed . . . flecks of pace” in “that other age of loneliness”. At all points the scale of human time is contrasted with the vast span of earth’s history, always a disorienting experience. It is also worth remembering that this is, in its own way, a love poem, but one in which the personal is not so much political as geological.

And the personal is not only singular but part of a relationship. Cassidy’s partner, a photographer, figures largely in these poems and one’s mind begins to circulate around the significance of the conjunction of a photographer and a poet especially a poet who seems to want to move away from frozen-in-time imagist pieces to some kind of mode able to deal with process. What is a photograph, a visually underdeveloped reader like myself is likely to ask, but a frozen moment? Perhaps it catches process but it hardly embodies it. Perhaps the poems of Final Theory deal with this but if they do it is at a level where it isn’t immediately apparent although one poem does describe a comical double-exposure:

Your finger squinting the aperture
and the flint of your lens raised

have imposed a double: lichen and hub cap
printed across one another

like two hands braced against the light, a herald for the

Not only is the self part of a relationship it is also doubled itself. At one point Cassidy looks into the rear view mirror of the car, searching “for a final perspective” but finds instead her own image, “my heartless twin; useless thing / pulsing behind the paper in my hands”. And in the next poem everything is doubled in a mirror behind the pair drinking in a motel: at this point a lot of complicated things happen visually. I’ve worked on the assumption that the twinning is the conventional one of artist and person, each watching the other slightly suspiciously. More may have been intended but if that’s the case I’ve missed the clues.

The even sections of Final Theory tell the story of a girl conceived in water and existing in water surrounded by a raft of plastic rubbish. It’s an elliptical, and hence cryptic, narrative. The girl – as far as I can tell – comes ashore, climbs a cliff, descends into a sinkhole, finds an entrance into the ocean, descends onto the abyssal plain where she sits in a wrecked Toyota that has finished up there, ascends to find herself in Antarctica on an iceberg, and is finally thrown ashore in a busy port. If this outline makes the entire narrative seem slightly silly, recalling Tolstoy’s summaries of Shakespeare and Wagner in What is Art, my excuse is that it takes quite a bit of work to get to. It’s a sequence that clearly wants to locate the current human world of mining, trade, manufacture, decay and waste within the wider perspective of geological processes which, in some ways, mimic them. Structurally its function in the book, highlighted by the way in which it is broken up into two parts and placed alongside the other narrative of a couple visiting various geologically and humanly active sites (also divided into two), seems to be to add a colouring of non-realism to the other narrative. It might also suggest that there are different kinds of narrative available to someone wanting to avoid any sort of conventional lyric poetry.

Whereas I warm to Cassidy’s project, I don’t think there can be much doubt that the sections devoted to the narrative of the ocean-girl are not as successful as those in which a poet and a photographer explore the geologically unstable world and its history. But this book is an attempt to do very difficult, admirable things. If there is a problem with Final Theory it is that it is probably an unrepeatable experiment and though it shows one way of solving a lot of the interesting issues that Cassidy’s work is engaged with, it doesn’t really shine a torch on an poetic road ahead. Will she attempt another, large-scale unified composition or revert to individual pieces? Somehow I think that the latter is more likely but we will have to wait for her next book to see.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe: My Feet Are Hungry

Sydney: Pitt St Poetry, 2014, 98pp.

This new volume of Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s in the handsome Pitt Street Poetry series is, according to the author’s biography accompanying the photograph inside the back cover, his twenty-fourth. It is also the second collection this year which can be said to mark a poet’s eightieth birthday. It’s a reminder to me that the generation which I think of as the one before me – those born in the thirties like David Malouf, Wallace-Crabbe, Evan Jones, Les Murray, Judith Rodriguez, Tom Shapcott and Rodney Hall – are now in what, a hundred years ago, would have seemed an almost impossibly advanced old age. Not only that but they are still creatively productive, spinning out inner lives in new and fruitfully unexpected directions. When I was young, Tolstoy always seemed a figure of titanic, superhuman old age but he died just after his eighty-second birthday and his creative years were really well behind him by then.

For most of his career, Wallace-Crabbe has been a poet of what might be called metaphysical immersion. The poems continually worry about the so-called “larger issues” – the “meaning of life, the universe and everything: the meaning of meaning” – but never in an abstracted sense. In an odd way Wallace-Crabbe can be put forward as a poet of life as a lived process, it’s just that for him living involves continuous ratiocination. It’s a case of a poetry not of “I do this, I do that: but more “I think this, I think that”. It’s tempting to see him in the light of Eliot’s characterisation of the Metaphysical poets (without accepting the accuracy of that description in literary-historical terms) as poets for whom ideas were sensuous experiences. It’s an essentially humanist perspective with precious little patience for the postmodernist perspectives of the late twentieth century. And just as the sense of immersion leads away from abstraction so too does the specificity of accent. Wallace-Crabbe always retains enough demotic Australian touches (“my slang aubade”) to keep the poems tensioned and to prevent a bland, mandarin tone from entering the poetry. This can, occasionally, have a fake naivete about it (“Fancy a boy from Victoria having these metaphysical issues”) but it’s usually done so skilfully that the poems are cross-braced by the tensions of linguistic register within them.

The first three poems of My Feet Are Hungry can be said to set out Wallace-Crabbe’s principal concerns and methods. The first, “After Bede”, is very brief:

Our lives are built upon unlikelihood,
their poignancy oddly fragile
at the best of times
like snow that falls softly
into a ravaging bushfire.

At heart it’s an expression of the bleak fact that all the immense complexities of our inner and outer lives eventually dissolve into nothing. A poem from the seventies, “Meditation with Memories”, speaks of our sense of our lives as a kind of collection of snaps, “Random and miniature its family-album, / Brilliant the slides but dim the prophecy” and “After Bede” focusses on the bleakness of the future, its steady and inevitable progression down towards darkness. As in so many of Wallace-Crabbe’s poems there is a fruitful tension between the scholarly reference – to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (although that isn’t, admittedly, too arcane a scholarly reference) – and an Australianness which is expressed overtly when the snowflake falls into a bushfire and covertly when the poem evokes the phrase “a snowflake’s chance in hell” but leaves it unexpressed.

The reference to Bede is worth exploring a little further, though, apart from its role as a creator of tonal tensions. The reference must be to one of the best known passages in Bede in which Northumbria is converted when its king takes advice from his egocentric high priest (Coifi) and a frustratingly unnamed councillor who, in a wonderful speech, describes pagan life as being like the brief moment in which a sparrow, flying through a hall – such as the one in which the meeting is taking place – experiences transitory warmth and security but flies out into a bleak unknown future. Christianity, says the councillor, offers the hope of a known and benevolent future after our lives and therefore is worth adopting. Any scholar of the early Germanic Middle Ages could, I’ve always thought, have stood up and refuted this by arguing that not only does the pagan world offer the possibility of κλέος άφϑιτον (“imperishable fame”) but Christianity brings with it the unattractive possibility of eternal damnation: but no-one appears to make that case. At any rate, the reference to Bede reminds us that Wallace-Crabbe doesn’t always have a brutally materialistic view of death and dissolution. Just as Bede’s councillor stresses the hope of a bright, even if incomprehensible, world after death, so a wonderful poem from the 1990 volume, For Crying Out Loud, called “They”, holds out hopes:

Where have they gone? Somewhere ahead of us
in a meadow like the square root of minus one - 
infinite pastoral; pure interstice - 
where two objects can browse in the same space
and history leaves not even a snowflake’s print.
They have passed through darkness into a radiance
which we cannot know and they can’t comprehend
but which does not remember the griefs of our world.
The pain is cauterized,
                                          the atoms dispersed.
Body is no more body, nor is it soul.
They are now at one with a nearer face of the All.
Lamenting them, we weep for ourselves.

In a way the glow of this poem probably derives from its – in truth, unsupported – hopes, and it expresses the spirit of one of the squibs from The Amorous Cannibal: “Approving mystery / with all my heart / I practise disenchantment”. But it’s no accident that the image of the snowflake appears here. It appears also in a later poem in My Feet Are Hungry called “Snowfall”. True, in this poem the emphasis is not on the beautiful – though quickly dissolved – phenomenon of a human self, although the opening:

The white behaviour of snow looks
weirdly indecisive, maybe wayward;
yet its general drift keeps dawdling down,
friendly to gravity . . .

recalls snowflakes from poems past. The real subject of “Snowfall” turns out, I think, to be the fascinating issue of cultural borrowing – it’s no accident that it appears in a section of the book pretty much devoted to places and views. Snow somehow remains outside of the automatic responses of an Australian – it can’t “be there for us” as the poem’s final line says. But in this sense snow is only a single example of a colonial inheritance that includes folktales, books, art:

. . . . . 
One fragment sits on my overcoat shoulder,
then pisses off. The chilly roadscape
sends back whiteness and light
this Anglophone afternoon. But then
Snow White and the eponymous
goose long struck me as goofy, being
a son of dry gumleaves and gravel. . .

The second line has a demotic phrase and, while it mightn’t necessarily be the sole property of Australians, its use here in a complex meditation invokes the no-intellectual-nonsense stance that Australians like to think is Australian. Interestingly the poem’s next stanza begins “As a wee girl, my daughter declared / she’d have preferred to have it pink” thus using a Scots/New Zealand adjective. (This issue of cultural borrowings and the echoes they bring with them are the subject of “The Big Bad” a short poem making the point that Australian children dream of wolves, “sleek antetypes of anyone’s puppy dog”, though they aren’t part of the Australian environment.)

So much for snow. The second poem of My Feet Are Hungry, “And the Cross”, is a retelling of the gospel story in deliberately flat quatrains. The overall tone is bathetic:

. . . . . 
Three exotic astrologers
Had picked up good tidings, it appeared;
Out of the east they rode with their camels,
Each man sporting a different beard

And bringing presents for the baby,
Sweet-smelling frankincense and gold,
Also some other stuff called myrrh - 
Whatever it is, you’ll have to be told.

Shepherds guarding their flocks by night
Had seen a ruddy enormous star . . .

and, at first, you think it is just a matter of choosing the right tone for a post-enlightenment intellectual’s debunking of this important but unlikely narrative. But it isn’t really a debunking poem: it keeps its mind open, for example, as to the possibility of materialist and spiritual readings of the events – “A junction in eastern history, say, / Or transcendental epiphany”. I think this is a poem which needs to be read in the context of one of Wallace-Crabbe’s obsessive themes: the question of whether our lives have meaning and what on earth meaning in our lives would look like. “Stardust” from I’m Deadly Serious (1988) explores the issue

. . . . . 
But how could the universe have meaning?
Would the stars be patterned differently?
The seasons vanish, or come on faster?
Would there be an End?
Perhaps we wouldn’t require any sleep;
Maybe we’d no longer have to shit;
Or one radiant mathematics
Would show up trimly in everything . . . 

but one could choose any number of poems going back as far perhaps as “A Wintry Manifesto” from Wallace-Crabbe’s second book in which the death of Satan stands for the loss of a kind of Zoroastrian purpose and hence meaning in the universe. Admittedly “A Wintry Manifesto” finishes on the reasonably positive note that, lacking a cosmic order, we can, at least, focus on knowing “the piece of earth on which we stand”. At other times poetry makes an appearance as something which is a small patch of order in an either unordered or imperceptibly-ordered universe, “a drug that endures / Riding atop the bubbles of evanescence”. But ultimately, as “Eating the Future (I)” from The Amorous Cannibal says:

. . . . . 
The city that I thread through is a flower,
the clouds are escapades of cottonwool

which give aesthetic cuddles but we hurt,
knocked rotten by the blues of random power.

Without god the upshot turns out worse
but with his aid it cannot make much sense . . .

What is happening in “And the Cross”, I think, is an investigation into what a meaningful life would look like, a way of focussing on a problem concretely rather than abstractly. The life of Jesus of Nazareth is, conventionally in European Christianity, a life of cosmic significance, a turning point in the existence of the entire universe and so it must, even in miniature, express a meaning for the universe. Of course, as the poem suggests in its tone, what you get in a narrative of this life is something really weird. Not contemptibly myth-riddled, just weird even though it is “a story of absolute good”.

The third poem, “Fragrantly Here All Day”, is a complex piece that focusses – or, more correctly, spins out from – broad social issues, broad because they involve how humans are going to live on a planet where “Some processes just happen, willy-nilly. / Hungry millions come trudging into cities / faster than any asphalt can understand”. It’s about what might be called the “NIMBY paradox” a kind of modern mutation of the “tragedy of the commons”. We want a morally acceptable existence and are prepared to pay for it but only up to a point. Beyond that point coercion is necessary and coercion involves the application of force in a way that is morally unacceptable. It’s an insoluble problem that this poem doesn’t pretend to solve but what intrigues me is its emphasis on point of view and perspective since they are issues found in Wallace-Crabbe’s other books and they percolate through this new one. “Looking Down on Cambodia”, for example, from the 1993 book, Rungs of Time, points out that, from an aeroplane,

You can’t see the blood;
you can’t hear the dying
or mounded skulls rubbing faintly together . . .

and you see only the aesthetically attractive image of “a silver delta threading its liquid gush / beyond those matted islands”. Rungs of Time, has, as an epigraph, a statement by the English philosopher (and translator of Wittgenstein), Frank Ramsey: “My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as threepenny bits . . .”. From a more abstract, scientific perspective there is the difference between physical description at the quantum level and at the human level – a barely comprehensible disjunction with an indistinct boundary. “Moments of Being” from My Feet Are Hungry has a short poem about this:

When I bump into the kitchen table
I am not kicking
galaxies of unseeables
in waves or in orbit
but grazing my shin.

The issues of “Fragrantly Here All Day” are really issues of perspective. Morality and its enforcement are, at the personal level, very different from morality at the macro level. At the latter level you are in the world of Plato’s unattractive republic in which poets are banned:

. . . . .
But what if we stand back from it awhile,
was the move I asked before, given
lucidity entailing prophecy somehow;
this calls for Plato’s bald philosopher kings
who’d have to make it all enforceable. . .

Even “Firestorm”, a poem eloquent about the horrors of the 2009 bushfires and the experience of violent extinction (which recalls the fate of the snowflake in “After Bede”), concludes with the dry comment that if you alter the point of view, the scene becomes very different:

Nature must lack the chivalry we could sniff
as brotherly tribute: something has turned out worse
with Plato’s cave become a blazing cliff;

pain is the knot-hole in our universe
and yet the black calligraphy of trees
can make this long view elegantly Chinese.

And “Remnants” shifts perspective in two directions. Beginning as one of many poems in this collection which are about moving house and renovating, it notes that the “odd little / wodges of blackish clay” that the restumpers leave behind will, seen from the perspective of the future, be the “future stuff / of archaeology – remnants / from this mobile phone age”. At the same time, from a natural perspective, the plum tree prepares for spring although, from a moral perspective, at the same time Baghdad is in flames. There is a comic poem, “The Shards of Then”, which actually attempts to describe what a future team of archeologists will make of Australia as they try to piece together scattered fragments:

. . . . . 
Let’s look at what we have;
                                               an early scribe called Clark
suggesting a culture of tautology,
as in their army settlement,
Townsville . . .

Finally, one of the late poems, “The Absent Self”, which might be included as a poem of extinction, of the “fears that I may cease to be”, might also be seen as essentially about perspective – in this case the perspective that occurs when one’s self is no longer the viewpoint:

What will the world do when I am completely gone,
without me to observe things, will it simply blow away
like the milky mist above midwinter footy grounds
just after breakfast,
. . . . .
The mystical survives. It is not bound by my life,
nor even dependent on quanta.
                                                         It merely expands
like the unseen, epiphanic ether
which we have already abolished.

The final section of My Feet Are Hungry is devoted to a translation of the twenty-eighth canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. It’s a well-made translation with a nicely balanced tone – flexible without any folksy touches – and done in unrhymed, three line stanzas. But since Wallace-Crabbe is not a serial translator – I think this is the only example in his published books of poetry – the crucial issue is not how good the translation is but why this passage was chosen. Canto XXVIII is that strange transitional moment where Dante leaves his poetic guides Virgil and Statius and comes under the guidance of Beatrice for the heavenly stage of his tour (he meets Beatrice in the next canto as part of what must be one of the weirdest processions the human imagination has ever concocted). Canto XXVIII finds Dante in the Earthly Paradise which a lady, Matilda, explains is the original garden of Eden and which, according to Dante’s botany, is a kind of genetic seedbank holding seeds of all the plants on earth and, under the pressure of the rotation of the mount of Purgatory, scattering them over the planet. Its appeal to Wallace-Crabbe might lie in the way this stanza is a farewell to fellow poets (there is an elegy for Seamus Heaney in My Feet Are Hungry) but I think it is more likely that he is extending a long held interest in the first garden. An early poem, “Genesis”, from The Emotions Are Not Skilled Workers speaks about the edenic myth and its special attractions:

. . . . . 
I hate the story and love it,
detesting death, a vast stupidity,
but glorying that Eden
could be smeared with, flashing with, energized
by the first colours of love . . .

Here it’s a site illuminated by love, the very first love, but it can also stand for the state of being ecstatically in reality, all irritable searching after meaning suspended, that turns up regularly in Wallace-Crabbe’s poetry.

A final possibility is that it may be an image of that longed-for afterlife where the inevitably descending snowflake of “After Bede”, representing all lost loved ones and things, swerves away at the last moment into the world described in “They”: “a meadow like the square root of minus one – / infinite pastoral”.

Judith Beveridge: Devadatta’s Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2014, 65pp.

To someone picking the book up in a bookshop, Judith Beveridge’s Devadatta’s Poems is a set of forty-eight dramatic monologues spoken by the Buddha’s cousin, a disruptive and discordant voice in the years after the awakening when the membership and rules of the Buddha’s mendicant order, the sangha, are being worked out. Dedicated readers of Australian poetry will respond to it as what looks like part of an ongoing project by one of Australia’s great poets which begins with “The Buddha Cycle” at the end of Accidental Grace, published nearly twenty years ago, and continues in the long sequence “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” in Wolf Notes, published just over ten years ago.

The relationships between these three works need a bit of teasing out and I don’t want to back myself into the familiar corner of being an outsider puzzling over literary issues that have a single, simple answer. My guess is that “The Buddha Cycle” is an early attempt to engage this material. It wants to deal with sanctity rather than, say, the idea of the Buddha as a model of poetic perception, and sanctity is a very difficult state to incarnate in poetry. The tactic Beveridge uses is to focus on its effects rather than its essence by dealing with the lives of a group of characters who are influenced by the Buddha. It works well and reminds me that Ashvaghosha’s very long poem, The Life of the Buddha, written a good six centuries after the event but an important document nevertheless, seems to flicker briefly into life in the tenth canto when the same tactic is used. The Buddha is about to enter Rajagriha:

Whoever was going by another way stood still,
whoever was standing on that road followed him,
whoever was going fast began to walk slowly,
whoever was seated sprang up, upon seeing him.

Some venerated him with folded hands,
some in honouring him bent down their heads,
some greeted him with affectionate words,
no one went by without worshipping him.

Those who were pompously dressed felt ashamed,
those chattering on the road fell silent upon seeing him.
No one had an improper thought,
as if they were in the presence of dharma in visible form.
                                 (trans. Patrick Olivelle, Clay Sanskrit Library edition)

The evidence that “The Buddha Cycle” is not to be seen as a failed, initial attempt to deal with this sort of material, sidetracked into trying to express sanctity rather than the acute awareness of a poet, is that the characters of “The Buddha Cycle” turn up briefly in one of the poems of this new book – “The Buddha at Uruvela” – where Devadatta is infuriated by the expressions on the faces of the cast from “The Buddha Cycle”:

. . . . . 
And look at Sunita, the street-sweeper, smiling
as if the Buddha has offered him a life above

the scorn of insects, a life of refinements
other than dust. Look how Suppaya, the corpse bearer,
beams, as if from now on he’ll make compassion
the stretcher for any – light or heavy – dispersal

of death. . .

The poem finishes with Devadatta’s perfectly reasonable protest that “what shackles them to suffering / is not desire . . . but the hard-set, / iron-fisted system of caste”.

And the reasonableness of this non-metaphysical (or, perhaps, non-conceptual/psychological) approach to human misery leads one to think about the issue of choosing Devadatta as the voice of these poems. He describes himself as someone continually plotting “backyard empires” and his position is, perhaps, best expressed topographically in “Vulture’s Peak” where he says that he rejects both the heights – from where you get a view of the valley – and the “small damp caves” recommended by the Buddha as a place where, alone, one can meditate on suffering “and its causes in desire”. His position, he says, is “on the level where the farm / women scythe and rick, scythe and rick, or pick // tithes of yellow samphire near the ponds”. Are his poems a kind of counter-text to “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” spoken not out of incipient enlightenment but out of the profoundly human responses of love, jealousy and the desire for secular power? We are certainly more likely to relate to this as a position than we are to post-awakening sanctity, and the result is a lot of poems which crackle with the energy of frustration, disgust and envy. It’s possible, in other words, that Beveridge has chosen Devadatta because she wants to write poems which are, chronologically, a sequel to “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” and she doesn’t want to be tied to the same speaker as in that sequence. This isn’t to adopt the view that the last forty-odd years of the Buddha’s life are seen in the literature as a period of bland, sanctified, otherworldly meditation: he seems to have had to spend a lot of time sorting out the rules for his mendicant order and solving disputes among members: all very this-worldly, even political activities.

At a slight tangent to the issue of Beveridge’s choice of speaker is the issue of why religious mythology felt the need to invent a figure like Devadatta anyway. We know that it invents female figures (even in Eastern versions of Buddhism) to counteract religions that tend to be stonily male-dominated but, for a less obvious reason, it often seems to invent figures who are inside the magical circle of close adherents but who are treacherous. I won’t be the only one to think of the strange role of Judas Iscariot plays in the gospels: somebody who is a betrayer though, as everybody says, it’s hard to work out why you would pay someone thirty pieces of silver to identify a well-known activist in public. Certainly such figures show the human (in its less desirable aspects) in fruitful close contact with the divine – or awakened – and give the latter a kind of traction to operate against. But there is something odd about the way such figures are not expelled: they are free to operate within the cohort of close followers as though their presence is necessary. I suspect students of cults and other social groupings know some of the answers to this but it’s really a sociological area in which I’m ignorant.

In the context of Judith Beveridge’s work, one is reminded, when thinking of the choice of Devadatta, of the importance she places on the idea of dissonance. The title of the book in which “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” appears is Wolf Notes and a note in the book’s preliminary pages defines these as “a discordant or false vibration in a string due to a defect in structure or adjustment of the instrument”. The function of dissonance for Beveridge is a complicated question but it can be said, firstly, that it appears in different guises. There has always been, in her poetry, a sizeable component of what is now called the abject. Obviously the cast of “The Buddha Cycle” are a pretty abject lot but it isn’t just a matter of class or caste. In the extended sequence “Driftgrounds: Three Fisherman” from Storm and Honey, her previous book, readers and poet spend a fair amount of the time saturated in fish guts and blood (significantly the characters we meet apart from the central three, are fairly desperate outsiders). Wallowing in filth isn’t something we expect the Buddha himself to do and it may be significant that, when that is exactly what is recommended in “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” – “To find the layers you must live in the litter, / live like the flea, the louse, the botfly; / don’t live by the flower, live by the fetor” – the speaker is not the Buddha but an overheard ascetic.

I think the function of this social and sensory embracing of the abject has a technical/poetic cause rather than being a matter of content. In other words it is not that Beveridge’s sensibility is especially drawn in this direction but rather that the abject sharpens the texture of the poems and gives them the tense, more vibrant structure that is such a wonderful feature of her poetry. Contemporary lyric poetry does, as one of its underlying dangers, have a slight tendency towards being bland: piercingly insightful and expressive, consciousness-expanding it may be but it does tend to be tonally uniform and elevated: the brilliant “Herons at Dusk” from Beveridge’s previous book is an example. The kind of dissonances I’ve spoken of briefly ensure that there is always a degree of tension at this level in Beveridge’s poems. Needless to say, a figure like Devadatta can embrace the expressive possibilities of the disgusting with brio, as he does in “Alms Round, Sarnath”:

. . . . . 
I want to tell Buddha to chew his rules about patience
and frugality into a sloppy cud. I want to hold my bowl out
as boldly as a symbol and clang it loudly with my spoon.

I want to tell these miserable, skinflint, pinch-fisted folk
to stop tossing us husks, rinds, cores, thorns, rats’ tails,
roosters’ claws and – oh! – so many stinking lepers’ thumbs!

A more interesting kind of dissonance is verbal. One of Beveridge’s poetic strengths is a love of tactile, expressive words and a fascination with unusual ones. One could cite endless examples but, to choose at random, the subject of the poem, “Rain”, from Storm and Honey, “drumbles” across awnings, gutters and windows in “gluteous loops”. The verbal extravagance of such words is justified because of their expressive capacity and their tactile reality. But Beveridge often wants to go beyond such justifiable poetic use of language, to be dissonant by being what one might call, linguistically inappropriate. There are always examples of a kind of linguistic excess expressed as tissues of synonyms or an obsessive tactility as in “Ground Swell”:

. . . . .
     So many mouths dressing the flax,
the scutch, quitch and barley, wheat and sesame;
                 so many mouths
                         in a chirl and chirm . . .

Les Murray in his poem, “Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver” describes how being inside the closed world of a car encourages a poet to let language romp and produce phrases like “orotate parafundities”. This kind of punning distortion turns up in Beveridge’s work as do more conventional puns. The passage I have just quoted from “Alms Round: Sarnath” contains an unspoken homophone whereby “symbol” becomes “cymbal” and leads on to the idea of clanging and in “Riders” the word “carousel” becomes, two lines later, “carousal”; in “Rules” Devadatta dreams of getting the Buddha out of his “tidy squat” punning on a newish word for a run-down, inhabited building and the physical position of the chairless monks of the sangha. Puns and other sorts of verbal play are part of the linguistic texture of poems, of course, but when they are made deliberately groan-inducing they disrupt the niceties of tone and become part of the dissonances. Take, for example, “The Bone Artisan” from Wolf Notes:

. . . . . Wait till you see
what I can do with a humerus; how

a simple patella makes a dish (oh,
yes say it) – for paella. This store is
full of sacral talismans, knick-knacks

I nick every day from the knackery.
I love all the bijouterie you can make
from the spine. Shall I advertise?

          Backbone bric-a-brac
          for altars and shrines.

In “Rocks, Vultures Peak” from Devadatta’s Poems, this verbal indecorousness reaches (oh, yes say it) a peak when Devadatta attempts to kill the Buddha by rolling a rock down on him. I don’t know what the narrative tone of this story is wherever it appears in the Pali Canon – presumably it is a celebration of a divinely engineered escape – but to us it inevitably recalls Wily Coyote and the Roadrunner. And Beveridge’s poem reflects this by joyously abandoning any attempt at a po-faced historical dramatic monologue and having Devadatta imagine how the killing will be reported newspaper-headline style:

. . . . .
Ah, one day Siddhattha, I’ll pick the right spot,
I’ll pick the right rock and I won’t baulk the timing.
I know how the story will go: ”˜Slipping schist kills
local altruist.’ ”˜Leader of cult, brained by basalt.’
”˜Religious moderate, crushed by conglomerate.’

It’s significant – on this subject of dissonance – that, in Devadatta’s Poems, we are introduced to the idea of both protagonists playing the flute. The Buddha plays more beautifully and can use his pure tones to dispel grief but in “A Memory: Snake Charming, Kapilavatthu” Devadatta triumphantly recalls the Buddha’s puzzlement at not being able to persuade the snake to rise from its basket no matter how intensely he played. He didn’t know – as we and Devadatta (and watchers of QI) know – that the snake responds to the movement of the instrument, not the music:

. . . . .
He’d pipe until he was out of breath, baffled because
he always reached perfect notes, perfect pitch.

I swore I wouldn’t tell him it didn’t matter
if he played melodic notes, discordant notes, or no notes
at all, that just by swinging his flute-tip in the air
his snakes would rise like fluent rope . . .

This complex play with levels of accepted verbal usage which can be found throughout all of Beveridge’s books apart, perhaps, from the first, raises the issue of the extent to which the poems of this book, together with the extensive dramatic monologues of the other books, are to be seen in a dramatic context: after all, in drama it is differences in the voice which mark out characters, not a consistency of idiom wherein the tartly dissonant braces the elevated desire to capture and express individual creatures as well as the complex web of being in which they are all enmeshed. Are these poems in any sense dramatic or are the speakers merely mouthpieces whereby a poet can develop and explore a complex vision? I know this is setting the bar rather high but a great dramatic piece like the first part of Henry IV exhibits an amazing capacity for making each of the many characters speak in a distinctive personal idiom (and actually, in the case of Glendower, brings the issue of verbal excess into the themes of the play). Presumably this occurred because Shakespeare was working with and writing for an ensemble, knew who would play which role, and conceived the speeches with the actor’s existing voices in mind. Or conceivably a lot of subtle changes were made in rehearsal. I can’t detect that kind of dramatic individuation in Beveridge’s work. It’s true that Devadatta is a carefully thought-out character – Beveridge admits in her Introduction that she has taken a lot of liberties with the existing legends – and his poems could hardly appear in “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” but that is because his situation as a grasping, frustrated rival is different, not because his voice is different. In Wolf Notes there is a longish sequence, “The Courtesan”, exploring a woman’s position and experiences. I’m not sure that she sounds very different to the Buddha of “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” though her situation is entirely different:

. . . . . 
These ascetics with their vainglorious celibacy.
They come to my door with their alms bowls.
At first they have downcast eyes. I like to

play a game: I fill their bowls not with food - 
but with water’s mirror. When they see
my face reflected, then they thirst. And
as I turn to go, they beckon me, sated by
so much sun, begging me to stay, before
some icy penitence reseeds their ground. . .

It seems recognisably Beveridge’s voice – down to the little pun on “reseeds” which induces the word “recedes” in the context of the woman’s leaving – rather than that of an individualised character. Like the question of the function of “wolf notes”, it’s a tricky issue. If I had to guess – with the current state of my knowledge about Beveridge’s poetry – I’d lean towards the idea that all her characters are really mouthpieces, poets or potential poets which can be inhabited momentarily. They are chosen because of the potential of their situations. Devadatta is an ideal counterpart to his cousin and a way of introducing a tart and dissonant voice. Of course there may be subtle differences which make this a dramatic rather than lyrical work and the problem may merely be that, as a reader, I have a tin ear.

In worrying about these general issues, I realise that I haven’t said as much as I usually do – by way of description – about the poems themselves. It’s enough to say that they are – almost without exception – marvellous.

[As everybody knows the World Cup begins in June and I’m going to interrupt these reviews for a month. Watching six hours of football every day is inimical to reading poetry though not necessarily unrelated. True, football may lack poetry’s ability to expand our minds into unimaginable dimensions but great matches (Brazil vs Italy and West Germany vs France in 1982; Brazil vs Russia and Romania vs Argentina in 1994; etc etc) are as wonderful as great poems and I’ve always thought they should be “read” using some of the same skills. At any rate, I’ll post a new review on August 1st.]

Todd Turner: Woodsmoke

North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2014, 56pp.

Todd Turner’s first book is a very handsome object and an excellent collection of varied but essentially lyric poems. And, like all good lyrics, these poems are sensitive but tough and intelligent at the same time. Woodsmoke’s title poem is not only one of the best poems in the book but it is also important in helping readers make some sense of the other poems. The smoke of the title (significantly “woodsmoke” is compressed into a single, iconic word) is a kind of inversion of rain, another element which figures largely in the poems and is often associated with smoke. But the smoke is described in such a way that it isn’t simply the result of a natural process – the coal, timber or wet grass which is burning has its own history so that the smoke is that history making itself manifest:

It plumes from the fire’s red hearth,
sends up its flag of stored aeons
and multifarious resins in a surly

blue charred haze. Rain-cloud dark
and featherweight, it leaks from any
pooled heat or gone-to-ground tinder

along the craquelure of lost leaves,
rising tightly at first in a single plait
before shaking out its winter hair . . .

Not only is it the inverse of rain and an expression of the history of one of the earth’s forms of life, it is also described as “what // passes for benediction” and the end of the poem describes it as being “set / amid the downy blueprint of allegory”. History, grace and meaning are abstractions which bulk very large in Woodsmoke.

This title poem is so central and so strong that, initially, you wonder why it is the third poem in the book rather than the first. The answer may be that that would make the rest of the book seem no more than a programmatic extension of a single poem. But I’m inclined to see other possibilities in the arrangement of the first three poems. The first, “Shelling Peas”, is one of a group of poems which deal with family life in the poet’s past, with history in other words, the history of his family. It is an odd piece with a refrain – “Snap off the ends, tear open a strip, / split the hull and with a run of the thumb / rake the peas into the pot. Repeat.” – which stresses the repetitive nature of the activity. Its own “blueprint of allegory” might be no more than the conventional trope of the artist finding the valuable fruit inside the dry shell but I think the emphasis is rather on the poet’s use of his hands “intent / and nimble as a lace maker’s”. Turner is, in professional life, a maker of jewellery (I’m not sure of the correct noun for this art) and may want to stress at the outset that his engagement with the natural world is not always of the passive, meditative type of the title poem. “Shelling Peas” has a counterpart, late in the book, called “Apprentice”, about the jeweller’s trade and which focusses very much on the doings of the hands. “Apprentice” might – in its “blueprint of allegory” – be about making poems:

. . . . .
                          The last link in the chain, 
he combed through lost lemel for a glint.

Given tools, his hands were engaged
with implements of improbable need;
wedlocked in the grips of some dogged
perfection, jigged epiphanies, theorems

in the crux of being stubbornly made . . .

but I think the emphasis is on a profoundly manual engagement with the world.

Between “Shelling Peas” and “Woodsmoke” is “Heading West to Koorawatha” a formally organised lyric in two five line stanzas of diminishing line length which focusses on the visual (“the last of the light / falls onto the canola fields, and onto the hillsides / full of Paterson’s curse”) and introduces the speaker simply as observer at the end. My sense of the idea behind this opening is that the three poems canvas different ways of approaching the natural world and, by juxtaposition, critique each other. The second and third are compromised by the first because they don’t detail the writer’s physical interactions with the world. The third is compromised by the first and second because they make it seem wordily interpretive and densely packed with meditative meaning whereas the third compromises the first two by showing how, in their suggestiveness, they can be coyly gestural. And so on. None of this may have been intended but those three poems together, rather than “Woodsmoke” on its own, prepare us for most of what happens in this book.

Family history is the subject of many of the poems in the first half of the book and Turner is one of a number of recent poets to focus on (in Gary Catalano’s phrase) remembering the rural life. It’s not an easy thing to do well but there is a nice balance here between remembered sensations from a time of sensitivity and an appreciation of the way family members are both separate individuals and also parts of a genetic chain that includes the author. Thus a poem which begins with the father quickly modulates to an uncle’s memory of the grandfather – “could ride a wild horse to a standstill, // round penned horses all his life” – and imagines the grandfather looking sceptically at his sons before the poet, the most recent “link in the chain” (to continue the jewellery motif of “Apprentice”) looks at the fresh crops emerging year after year. There’s also a sensitivity here to responsibilities to previous generations and, perhaps, the thought that a man who has dedicated his life to poetry and making jewellery might appear an oddity, and even a disappointment, to the ancestors who produced him. It’s not an uncommon experience for Australian poets with a rural background since Australia is not, after all, one of those cultures where a family’s proudest achievement would be to produce a poet.

We meet the proto-poet in a number of these poems, perhaps most interestingly in “Lot” which seems, at first, to be a poem about growing plants at a domestic level (the title refers to both a rural address and a rural fate) but quickly turns into a poem about burning the refuse and thus generating woodsmoke:

. . . . . 
I can remember my mother jamming the rose

thorns and summer-end weeds in the fire
with the back end of a hoe, my brothers

and I spying into the flames, watching the cinders
spray up over the fence, while the uprooted

green stems crackled in the heat.
. . . 
When there was nothing to do, I’d kick off
a charred end of a branch from the fire bin

and draw circles or birds on the pavement. Other
times, I’d scratch my name in the dirt with a stick.

It makes the point, fairly subtly, that the first expressions of childish creativity, probably common to all, are here made with a fire-burned stick which, as the title poem pointed out, had released its history to the air.

As an isolated subject, benediction figures mainly in poems later in the book but one of these early poems is significantly called “A Penance”. It’s not an easy poem to speak confidently about as a reader but the early description of the situation – “I gathered pips from its / edges, back-burned and heaped smoke with / sodden leaves. I was given pods to split, straw / to pull and a grove of sticks to whittle a field” – is so impregnated with images that are significant in this book that one is forced to return to it and look at it carefully. It is about the processes of cutting out the dead wood and remains of the crop and burning it on granite outcrops (a word that one suddenly realises connects rocks with plants). But instead of allegorising this out into a statement about war – as Murray’s “A New England Farm, August 1914” does – it focusses on the ethical implications of tilling the land, calling it, somewhat mysteriously, “a reckoning”, and finishing up by making an offering:

                   Late harvest, when the wheat
bloomed, I made a wreath of roots and intricate
weeds, hung it with a nail on a deadwood tree.
I knelt beneath it shredding strips of sackcloth

and rough threaded jute that had stored the seed
of the harvest grain. The wind blew hard across
the furrows, and ash from the outcrops plumed
in the air. I stayed kneeling, and struck a match.

It’s a complex holocaust containing none of the scent of animal fats to appease hungry sky-gods but instead the remains of what needs to be destroyed so that new life can prosper. There are complicated responsibilities being negotiated here and perhaps it is significant that the last of the poems about family is devoted to an Aunt Leila whose house was incinerated in the Black Saturday bushfires.

At other places, benediction is approached more gesturally. “Nocturne” is a celebration of domestic bliss where, after putting his daughter to sleep, the poet makes her next day’s lunch and sees how the “servant moonlight falls faithfully / now, into the earthen pots”, and “A Gift” celebrates an ineffable moment of “stinging grace” when “everything that seemed distant / or unnoticed was drawn near”. “Grace” celebrates such moments but, instead of being open-ended, concludes by putting them in an ethical context:

There was something in the rain, in the way it fell.
Something in the way of the birds. And in
the way of the river. Something in the way it fell.
Something about how the river rose, and
about the stillness of the birds on the banks
in the rain
and about the way the air made it feel possible
to forgive -
and be forgiven.

Perhaps the poem that most intensely addresses these issues of history, the interrelation of life and death, and how we are engaged with both in an ethical sense, is the final poem of Woodsmoke, “Fieldwork”. There must be a glance at Seamus Heaney here though the title, like “woodsmoke”, is made into a single word whereas in Heaney the terms are separated, maximising the allegorical possibilities. The situation involves finding a dead magpie and burying it so that the natural processes of decay, reduction and at least some form of new life can occur:

. . . . .
I left her there to the hide beetles
and the flesh-boring burying beetles,
who would come to grapple through seed-cone,
stick and leaf, mud, and at last, by way
of orifice, would sheath her, nosh on her

ripe tissue and fleshy muck, before leaving
eggs in a crypt scraped under her remains.
Larvae would move into beetledom, into
the birthwing of the hutted carcass . . .

When he revisits the remains of the grave and finds a skull and a clump of feathers and wing we are provided with questions and an open-ended conclusion:

                        I know what the cycle
serves, but what is being served by 
the cycle? It’s arguable, I know – best
to just walk and fall in love with the field,
the beloved range of the ubiquitous grass.

It takes some work at first to prise two meanings out of what seems a simple repetition of meaning in both active and passive voices – what the cycle serves should be the same as what is being served by the cycle. One way is to split the meaning of the word “serve” so that the active means, “I know what the cycle does – it serves Life” and the passive means, “Why is the cycle as brutally cruel and wasteful as this? Why must life be built on death?” Ubiquitous grass may be one kind of benediction (and a painless provider, when burnt in the family incinerator, of woodsmoke) but this is a poetry that wants to pursue questions about how we are engaged in the natural world as much as it wants to celebrate the blessings that world provides. As “Shelling Peas” suggests, it will be a “hands-on” approach.

David Malouf: Earth Hour

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2014, 86pp.

There is much in David Malouf’s new book, Earth Hour, which is continuous with Typewriter Music published seven years ago. The ambit of the poems, compared with large, middle period pieces like “Ode”, “Ode One”, “An Die Musik”, “Ode: Stravinsky’s Grave” or of a complex sequence like “A Little Panopticon”, is small and the mode is best described as lyrical rather than expansively meditative. Reading them we enter again that distinctively Maloufian world of hypersensitivity to the presence of alternative worlds within (and on the borders of) our own world and of readiness to celebrate the movement from one world to another in a universe where all the usual defining boundaries seem suddenly porous. Malouf always gives us the weird experience of feeling that the firmly-established boundaries which we use to navigate our way through life (social vs personal, logical vs irrational, human vs animal, day-world vs dream-world, etc etc) are actually not as stable as we would like to think they are. At the same time, the poetry doesn’t exploit this as a predictable position: one of the wonders of Malouf’s poetry is the way in which, no matter how well-acquainted we make ourselves with the vision it encapsulates and expresses, the individual poems are always little surprises, catching us out by revealling unexpected corners and consequences of that vision or with unexpected strategies for expressing it.

Take, for example, “Dog Park”, one of a sequence of eleven poems called “A Green Miscellany”. The “situation” is the homely one of taking one’s pet (and highly domesticated) dog for a walk in the park. Almost immediately we are made aware that Malouf’s interest is in the evolutionary development of the dog and of the growing relationship between ex-wolf and humans. Typically of Malouf the past is imagined as a ghost world interpenetrating the present so that the dogs, when they “heel and prance”, are “ghost-dancers on the feet of sleeping wolves”, sleeping because, in the Malouf world, these wolves of the past are dreaming their futures just as much as inhabitants of the present can dream or see their own pasts. The poem continues:

                    We have all come a long way
to get here, the memory
of meadow-shine a green
reminder of what we were, what they
were, how we have lived and learned from
each other, and who it was that emerged
as the namers and keepers. Long-sighted stargazers, herders

of space into viable chunks, moody diviners
of closeness and the degrees
of melancholy distance, with all
that ensued as entailment:
dog-tag, poop-scoop,
dog-whistle; the angel gate
of exile. Beginning with our own.

This is very much in keeping with the interests of recent Malouf and also with the tone which is full of jokey little enjambments (designed not so much to kick the movement of the verse along as to change the syntax and thus momentarily disorient and surprise the reader) and puns: it’s no accident that a poem about dogs speaks of what ensued as “entailment”. But there is also the habitual use of an inclusive “we”, here marking not only all of the human cultures since the Mesolithic but also all animal life. A poem which begins with entering a park concludes with a reference to leaving a park – the expulsion from Eden. We are in exile because we are, in Freud’s model of what civilisation costs us, immersed in a world of rules “dog-tag, poop-scoop / dog-whistle” that means that a past of immediate experience of the world is cut-off from us.

The first poem of this sequence is also about the past within the present. “Good Friday, Flying West” has, as its point of departure, the experience of travelling west from Australia by plane, usually over an extended night and through an extended, slow-motion dawn, towards Europe (one wonders how often this has made the list of distinctive Australian experiences, joining that iconic group that begins with lonely shepherding, moves on to mateship and thence to experiences of surf and improbably empty spaces):

    . . .  the pluck and flow of the planet takes us
back, half a day
or centuries; driftways

descend from Mt Ararat. Unrisen
ahead the dazzling dinning bee-hive cities.
Museums not yet open . . .

While it’s possible that the first line I have quoted is a nod to Auden’s “pluck and knock of the tide”, the whole poem is built on a very elegant and aesthetically satisfying sleight of hand whereby the journey west is also the journey back in time. The cities of Europe will gradually appear over the horizon, too early in their morning for the museums to be open. But seen as a journey back five thousand years or so, the first cities of Mesopotamia and, later, Europe, are still waiting to be built. It will take a long time and a long development of self-consciousness about their own existence through time for them to open their first museums. Eventually the poem (I think) concludes by moving back beyond what we now call the Anthropocene to a time when there were no humans to dream the future changes to clay that will make the very artefacts that might survive in a museum:

          . . . the pitcher swelling

in shadow on a shelf, the bowl
of wheatgrains on its altar still unbroken
Eocene clay, undreamed of in the earth.

Earth Hour is, as we would expect, full of visitors from other worlds such as the wolves and cities of the past. And many of the poems think a lot about the nature of visitation. In Malouf’s world there is a good deal of emphasis on the reciprocity of visitation: if you want to widen your perspectives by entering doors into other worlds, you must expect those worlds to send visitors to you through the same door. You won’t be unchanged. The book’s first poem, “Aquarius”, describes the moment when a “sovereign” day – through which we stroll as if we were immortal – suddenly induces a change in us so that we see that, alongside this world, is a “counterworld” of mortality and physicality which is just as wonderful:

                             . . . loved animal
forms, shy otherlings our bodies turn to
when we turn towards sleep; like us the backward
children of a green original anti
-Eden from which we’ve never been expelled.

The book’s next poem takes up the idea of visitation, focussing on some people’s sense of another world within this one – “Not all come to it / but some do, and serenely” – but goes on to focus on the spirits of such people after they have joined “the Grateful Dead”, and how their silence becomes a companionable presence which might be called an angel. The idea of a reverse world in “Aquarius”, as well as the spirits of the dead in “Radiance”, is taken up in Earth Hour’s third poem, “Retrospect”, where a memory of walking into Sèvres many, many years ago, lagging behind a friend (one who has “the look of one already gone, already gone / too far into the forest”) is juxtaposed with a dream of seeing the same friend in a movie queue. But here the roles are reversed – or a mirror-image – and the poet is ahead of his friend. A later poem, “The Deluge”, is fascinated by the way in which urban floodwaters reflect the sky to produce a “universe / turned upside down and backwards, below / above, above, and far-off under / foot”. People ferrying goods and the trapped across the water seem like angels who have taken on “a second job as porters”.

“Seven Faces of the Die” introduces the notion of chance in what I think, is a departure in Malouf’s thinking. It appears as a theme in his most recent novel, Ransom, and is, perhaps, a response to his own feeling that the continuous processes of evolution and interpenetration of worlds might be a little too mechanistic and positivist. At any rate, it forms a significant part of the idea of visitation since visitations should have an element of numinous surprise. The third poem puts it best:

At hazard, whether or not
we know it and wherever
we go. Without it no
surprise, no enchantment.
There is law enough all about us
 . . .
                                        as giddy
happenstance leads us
this way into
a lost one’s arms, or that way
deeper into the maze.

Often in the poems of Earth Hour it is not so much a matter of sudden visitations which prove that the boundaries between worlds are porous – although there are plenty of those – so much as a distinctive and unusual perspective. In the poem, “A Green Miscellany”, food is seen as part of a continuous pattern whereby fruits and grains, developed over centuries of “mute Georgics”, spread to all corners of the world and even in Australia – about as far away from the original Mesopotamian Eden as it is possible to get – “orchard blossom out of Asia / melts on the tongue as flakes of cherry strudel; the New World crams / our mouths with kartoffelsalat.” It is, as the poem says, the opposite of diaspora because it makes the whole world a homeland, “Our Earthly Paradise”. It’s a Maloufian perspective: unusual but intellectually and emotionally irresistible. Significantly, the poem doesn’t stop there, happy with its repositioning of food, Nature, evolution and migration. The second part of the poem moves from the grand view to the intimate, prefaced by “Even New South Wales “, and considers practices in the suburbs of Sydney (named as re-creations if not of Eden then certainly of parts of London) where smart newly-weds remove the old gardens to replace them by “native” plantings and in doing so “unlock” another garden.

And perspective often involves angle of view as well as dimension. “The Worm’s-eye View” imagines the perspective of a bookworm (a literal, not metaphorical bookworm, though we might be being asked to explore the possibilities of the latter) chewing its way through a magisterial scholarly work making its own “thwart commentary on the sacred text”. “An Aside on the Sublime” and “Australia Day at Pennyroyal” both show the macro fitting comfortably with the micro. In the former the poet stands aside to allow a thrush to have centre stage, singing its song which is a kind of accompaniment to the bigger business going on as the sun makes its “descent into the dark / to bring back / tomorrow” and in the latter a chorus of tiny noises in the grass prepares for the arrival of night bringing in its wake:

. . . the satiny milk-white bridal
train of infinity. Or this dazzling

hand-fling and scruple
of it, the slow shower of the galaxies.

Angle of view and the juxtaposition of dimensions is a complex issue in Malouf but I’m content here to point out that both are examples of crossing of borders: the partitions that separate the perspective of the human from other angles and other sizes.

In retrospect, I think it is the complexity and shape of the poems rather than the consistency of the vision of reality which makes Malouf one of our greatest poets. There have been poets for whom, once one works out how they see the world, there isn’t really much else to do. Visionaries – and visionary poets – are often like this. Malouf, a poet at the deepest level, wants all the poems to be self-sustaining rather than expressions of a corner of a vision. Thus the previously mentioned “Radiance”, for example, which begins as a list of the different ways in which vision comes to people, moves on to deal with the way these people come to us after death; “Ladybird” begins by seeming to be a poem about visitations in the form of benevolent insects but the poem takes off from the nursery rhyme and finishes up being about playing with matches and nearly burning down one’s home. “Entreaty” which looks as though it will be a poem where the past (in the form of a small corner shop visited by the poet as a boy) will appear as a ghost in the present turns out, via the question that the old lady behind the counter asks of her young customers – “what’s your poison?”, to be a poem about how the poet has lived the next three quarters of a century blessedly free of the horrors that can be visited on humans young and old:

                   . . .  only now, a lifetime
later, [I] find my tongue:

If luck is with me
today, on my long walk home, may no
black cat cross my path, no sweet-talking stranger,
no thief, no mischief-maker,
no trafficker in last words waylay me.

Thinking about the sinuous and surprising shapes of the Malouf poems makes one want to unite content with form here and say that just as Malouf dissolves the usually firm boundaries to different levels of reality, encouraging porosity and visitation, so he also wants to dissolve the conventional shape of a poem whereby it should stick to its subject and get it out as clearly as it can, displaying a good, honest sense of unity. Malouf’s poetry always introduces “the situation” in subtle and oblique ways, making, in passing, most other Australian poems look very wordy, if not prosy. And the unexpected directions that individual poems take – which become, after several readings, perfectly expected, of course – parallel Malouf’s vision whereby things are never exactly as they seem on the surface. There is much more going on if you look and listen or, in our case, read carefully. Nothing, as the first poem of “Seven Faces of the Die” says “is mere or only”.

Anthony Lawrence: Signal Flare

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 100pp.

The fact that Signal Flare is Anthony Lawrence’s fourteenth book of poems not only gives some idea of how productive a poet he is but also reminds readers that we don’t really have any excuse for being unfamiliar with his fierce and distinctive poetic world. It’s always bracing and mind- and body- expanding to lower yourself into that world again. I’m intrigued that this book’s cover describes it as extending the “lyrical work” that began with The Sleep of a Learning Man, suggesting that that book, his tenth, marks some kind of new development. I can’t see this myself, finding more continuities in Lawrence than departures. At least on a superficial rereading of his work it seems remarkably of a piece, exploring the same themes and developing the possibilities of his powerful poetic technique. It’s true that The Welfare of My Enemy, his previous book, is rather different in that it explores the single theme of disappearance and perhaps readers of Signal Flare need to be reminded of the way in which it reconnects to books like Bark and The Sleep of a Learning Man but it seems indisputable that Lawrence’s is a poetry of consistent obsessions and consistent exploratory methods.

One of the obsessions of Lawrence’s poetry is with extreme states, and a category of such states (which include a great deal ranging from loss to a passionate engagement with the objects and animals of the world) are those which lead to extreme actions. And one of these extreme actions is suicide. It is something we meet in his first book, Dreaming in Stone, in a piece called “Poem for John”, about someone who tried (and failed) to walk “out from his life” and in “John Berryman’s Death” where suicide is combined with the themes of addiction and poetry. Again, though the act is successful, Berryman, landing on the ground rather than the river, fails to step “out from his life” with style or dignity. At any rate, although one doesn’t want to claim continuities when more evidence is needed, it will come as no surprise that the first poem of the first of Signal Flare’s four sections is a lengthy and powerful threnody for a suicide. It’s written in Lawrence’s full high-style – as a threnody should be – and is a formally made thing: forty-nine stanzas of four lines. The long, winding sentences are shared with poets like Thomas (“A Refusal to Mourn”) and the harbour and ferry setting, together with the idea of “crossing” from life to death, recall Slessor’s “Five Bells” but this isn’t really like either of those poems, a reminder that “high-style” comes in more kinds than one might think. Much of its power derives from an incantatory quality in the syntax – heightened by supressing all stops apart from commas – crossed with the kind of brilliantly observed and “captured” incidental details that are a hallmark of Lawrence’s poetry:

. . . . . 
your faith not enough

to keep you from harm
from the end of harm
the Sydney rock oysters
like ceramic fuse plates

sparking and shorting-out in the wash
a ferry disengaging its drive shaft
as it broadsided waves
into the wharf, and then

you were gone, leaving
a pair of sandals unlaced on a stone
while below the hydraulic hiss . . .

This first section of Signal Flare is introduced by a quotation from August Kleinzahler – “And a moon is never so pretty as in a poisoned sky” – and is generally devoted to poems of distress based on loss of one kind or another: there is a second elegy, for example. But the drive of the poems is to make, and live, a life in the context of loss. And so “Nocturne”, focussing on love against the backdrop of a mechanically conceived body with its inevitable physical decline, still concludes positively, deploying a characteristic Lawrence fishing metaphor in an unusual way:

. . . . . 
                    and we leave the future to itself
          if not caring for a likely loss
of memory and skin
          then at least resigned
                    to the way love works
          in the deep and on the flats
sight-casting to shadows
          on the heart or lung . . .

And “Ripple” deals with the problem – of fundamental importance to any kind of poetry whose energy comes from distress – that overcoming the pain of loss is not actually an unmitigated good. It is typical of the never-cliched quality of Lawrence’s poetry that this is couched in two unusual metaphors so that healing “makes a local history from distance” and an unhealed wound means that “sayings like A rip is easy to read / are not meant to be commentaries on coastal conditions”. There is also a significant poem, “The Art of the Eye”, intriguingly positioned in this first section, which is about the extent to which we can trust the senses, those responses which “marry each other / to make of complexity a wild, accessible form”. It’s a sceptical poem: perhaps it celebrates the “art” of its title which is a skill based on such scepticism but perhaps its position here means we should read it as a lament for another kind of loss, the loss of an immediate and trustworthy response by the senses.

This first section – which I am, perhaps, following a little too mechanically – concludes with two poems , “Moth Orchid” and “Eating Mussels” which are celebrations and not, in any sense that I can see, poems of loss. They focus on two senses: the first is devoted to sound and the second to taste. They have that wonderful tactility which seems inborn in Lawrence’s work so that while the first has a strange quality of being simultaneously aerial and heavy, the second (beginning, “Out from the tidal lowering and raising / of a whitewater scrim over shore stones / rinsed by moonlight”) has a sharp, tangy, “brackish” quality.

The second section of Signal Flare – true to its epigraph, “A hen stares at nothing with one eye, / then picks it up” – could be seen as a collection of signatures, visions, appellations and gifts, all words which make up the titles of some of the poems. “Signatures” is a collection, or assemblage, of twenty-one brief, tight poems focussing on traces, sometimes scars, sometimes tracks, which are left in the physical world. The range of these traces is impressive, ranging from “The tannin marbling of dribble stains on your pillow / one of deep sleep’s autographs . . .” to “a fox / making its mark – / an infringement, a wet cough on baited ground”, and they are likely to involve the inner physical world as much as the outer. In a sense these brief poems could be said to belong to an important thread through Lawrence’s work: those poems which deal with the processes by which poetry is made. Although “Signatures” never speaks about poetry, it is tempting to see it as being concerned with the way in which the outer becomes part of the inner awaiting some kind of transformation into poetry.

This may be drawing a longish interpretive bow but there is no doubt that two other poems from this section, “Vision” and “The Pines”, are about the strange processes that make poems. The former, though it begins and ends with what animals see when they are in that nervous, vulnerable state of drinking is really about drinking whisky as a metaphor for processing the natural world into poetry in a state where “as any visionary worth / the length and duration of their gaze will confirm / the spells of darkness and tradition have begun . . .” “The Pines”, on the other hand, enters fully into the crucial issue of how precise observation can be squared with a poet’s imaginative apprehension which registers the wonder and draws other experience in to illuminating it. The poem begins with one of those brilliant observational passages which are simultaneously accurate and evocative – “The pines are dark, with a bleed of sea mist coming through / the brush-worked texture of the air . . .” – then moves on, interestingly, to a burial and finally settles into a meditation the first part of which I will quote at length here, because it is likely to figure in the future when the sluggish freight train of Australian poetry criticism gets moving in Lawrence’s direction:

And while I don’t always look for wonder
in what I see, as I know it’s often best to walk
to let that line of cloud be cloud
not the memory of what I saw in Naples -
Christ under a veil of Carrara marble – I understand
that observation can be just another word
for full immersion, or for skimming the tight skin
of a thought, that it’s transformative, or passive
and when I try to choose between
          taking the air and taking what I need
                    to use for later, for working the rhythms
of breath and blood flow into verse, I mostly fail
in my resolve to leave a scene alone
          knowing what a glance takes in
                    will be changing already as I think of it
the way coastal air unspools . . .

It’s rare for a poet to dwell so overtly on the issues that lie behind his or her craft and, though these are often passed off as difficult to define “spells of darkness and tradition”, write about them so lucidly, exploratively and essayistically.

In the third section of Signal Flare we are in the world of birds though there are also spiders, butterflies and rabbits. The after-effect of “The Pines” is so strong that one wants to read a poem like “Orb Spiders” as some kind of allegory for poets who “harvest blown pollen / which they keep in a sling below the sleeves / that house their fangs” and “What the Koel Wants” – a poem about cuckoos – as being about plagiarism, perhaps, or about the competitive relationship of one poet to another, or even the relationship of poet to publisher! Just as reading the earlier “Signatures” as being about poetic processes may have overstepped interpretive boundaries, so would these readings. But there is no doubt that the last two poems of this section, “Cattle Egret” and “Sightings” are, largely, about poetry.

The former focusses on the symbiotic relationship between bird and cattle, registering the way

     when one
creature moves on
another steps in

to consider or disregard
what stirs within
or rises from the grass . . .

A mild state of over-interpretive critical paranoia might tempt one to see this as about poets (slow-moving bovine creatures) and their parasitic critics but the complex interactions are described in this poem as benevolent and extending to the observer: “we leave // changed ourselves / having been where / things are companionable and alive // with possibilities”. Ultimately “Cattle Egret” seems to be about the drive to understand and interpret – to “consult a text / on wetlands birds // or a guide // to animal husbandry” – versus the way in which, by being engaged in a scene of interaction an observer can, himself, be changed by the enriched possibilities.

“Sightings”, on the other hand, is about authenticity and the complexities of both defining it and the role it plays in poetry. The poem begins with a highly symbolic scene – a rabbit on its hind legs in a Cootamundra wattle as though trying “to sample the last dregs / of light from the trees golden strings / or to investigate the sky / from a different perspective”. But since the scene was viewed from a car travelling at speed, the “authenticity” of the poet’s observation can be challenged. The poem settles into a dialogue about the real and the imagined and asks which of the two is the more expansive:

knowing, as you do, how I live
for the imagination, at the expense
you say, of the here and now
or the expanse, I say, in response
of each rare sighting and its afterglow
of each against-the-odds moment that intersects
with the commonplace . . .

an aesthetically insoluble issue which gets resolved, at the end of the poem, in “make-up sex”.

Although the first three sections of Signal Flare exhibit a clear thematic structure (even though the poems’ tones may be quite different) it’s less easy to be confident about how the final section, prefaced by an extract from Michael Donaghy’s “Haunts”, is organised. The opening poems are about fish, fishing and water but the rest involve personal crises. “Domestic Emergencies” is, like “Signatures”, a collage piece and is made up of short poems about problems “in the house”, ranging from an accident with a knife to relationship issues. There is a narrative poem about a saved suicide, another (comic, I think) about a Legionnaire’s Disease “scare”. And just as Signal Flare opened with a poem exploring the state of mind of a suicide, so it finishes with a poem, “Winging It”, exploring the state of a person with an incurable disease: “you can’t shake this sense / that it’s all about to be explained, if not forever / then for good”. Of all these poems, the one that most stays with me is the first, “Klaxon”. It’s worth quoting in full:

At the end of the breakwall I waited
for a tanker – some long labouring shadow
in from Singapore or Taiwan
its decks lit up like a townhouse
in the stacked, unballasted dark.

A maritime pilot had been choppered out
to take the wheel
five storeys over the swell.
The tugs had arrived
and were idling under gulls, smoke and spray.
When a tanker arrived
I could see the pilot’s face, pale and green
in the glow of instruments, his expression
intense and otherworldly.

I caught a crab and held it
as I’d once held the brooch of a Cooktown orchid – tenderly -
an offering to myself.

The crab was glazed and red
from the lamp of a marker buoy
and was changing in shape and colour.
It reminded me of the night
I saw crabs on the wharf at Circular Quay -
I was exhausted, and because my darling
had walked off from where we’d been, unhappily
they looked like spiders
laying snares at the base of a capstan.

When I released the crab it helmeted away
as the tanker sounded its horn
which went on and on
like my incorrect use of, and enduring love for
the word klaxon.

There’s a lot one would want to say about this poem. Of course, much is speculative but that’s the fate of criticism which is, after all, no more than intense and committed reading. The first thing to enjoy is the restless focus, not of the poet but of the poem itself: this isn’t going to be a poem unified by its object. The first line, introducing the protagonist in the scene, announces that it isn’t going to be a poem about oil tankers, despite the fact that their weird physicality, their fate (to move oil over water), their function in global economies etc, all make them lively candidates for a poet’s sharp vision or for allegorisation into various meanings. The existence of an “I” waiting at the end of a breakwall leads us to think – especially in Lawrence’s case – that behind the opening there will be a crisis of some kind, most likely “domestic”. So you feel that the poem’s move from quickly introducing the protagonist to speaking about the tanker and then moving to focus on a pilot’s face above the ships instruments (something which, like the vision of the rabbit in “Sightings”, seems hardly possible and more an imaginative expansion than an “I-was-there” piece of authenticity) is actually a shying away from emotional pain. And I think this is the essence of the poem’s magic. Structurally it looks at first like a set of unpredictable modulations, almost a challenge to the poem to hold them together into some kind of unity. But the unity is an expressive one. The way I read the poem is that its constant shifts – finishing with that memorable comment about misuse of the word “klaxon” – are the self’s protective shyings away from the pain at the centre.

Whether or not this is what “Klaxon” tries to do, it is hard not to register the complexity and sophistication of its form. Lawrence’s poems almost always have an exciting shape to them, beginning at an angle that makes us think ahead to the way in which the poem will play out its shape, something that is rarely predictable and which holds quite a few surprises. But “Klaxon” wouldn’t be the powerful poem that it is if its formal pleasures were not matched with the accuracy and physicality of its images. A labouring shadow in the unballasted dark is a sharp and accurate description which argues that it has come from a magical interaction of the world and the word. The poem which follows it, “The Trawler”, has, apart from an interesting and complex shape, a similar visual acuity, describing a trawler coming upriver as being “like an old shed / held together by wires and light / blue wood”. This visual intensity is only part of the compound intensities that make up Lawrence’s poetry, but it ensures that the poems like these fix themselves limpet-like in any reader’s mind.

Peter Boyle: Towns in the Great Desert: New and Selected Poems

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 237pp.

Peter Boyle is one of the best and most fascinating of Australian poets not least because he is so unlike all of the others. His poetic origins – and continuing influences – lie mainly in the twentieth century poetry of the Romance languages, especially the distinctive surrealisms of the French and the Spanish and he has an abiding interest in the postcolonial poetries of the Caribbean and South America. Towns in the Great Desert is a new book with an appended selected poems. Though Boyle’s first book, Coming Home From the World, was published in 1994, the selected poems here is dated 1988 – 2009 and you feel that in 1988, the bicentennial year, one might have described Boyle’s work as profoundly, and interestingly, un-Australian. Things have changed in the last quarter of a century. The internet means that the default set of influences for a new poet is no longer necessarily the local. All poetries are available to everybody though, poetry being what it is, it is hard to think that the influence will be a profoundly shaping one unless the poet is (or makes him- or herself) fluent in the language of the original. Boyle’s biography suggests that his initial interests were linguistic and the new languages brought with them new poetries which animated his own poetic talents.

Towns in the Great Desert is a wonderful opportunity to immerse oneself, once more, in the Boyle world. For a critic though, it’s a very difficult world to describe since a surreal approach means that poems tend to set out on a voyage of their own rather than one in obedience to thematic imperatives that can be worked out by a bit of careful attention. I have often wondered whether the first poem of Boyle’s first book, and of the selected poems here, “From Instructions Given to the Royal Examiners in the State of Chi”, shouldn’t be read as a little parable about both Boyle’s writing principles and the readers’ experience of reading the poems. This poem is a set of ways of, in a sense, missing the point or, at least, the formally required point of evaluating the correctness or otherwise of the answers of a candidate for China’s imperial examinations to enter the bureaucracy. “Examine the candidate’s state of mind” it begins, going on through “Assess the longevity of his nails”, “Calculate . . . the expression of his face” until these swervings become more and more extreme:

Identify the direction of the wind
as it hurries the leaves of all the provinces
away from everything known,
brushing them with the fragrance
of unnamed creatures waiting to be born.
Remember for what purpose
you are setting down these dreams
under such limited starlight.
Remember the waves which are forcing you
further and further off all courses into the terrible wilderness of death.
Then forget all of yourself and all your hopes
and write your mark and comments in the correct space
for the perusal of a higher order.

Whether it’s a poetic credo or an “advice to my readers” this catalogue of indirections is about abandoning precise tasks and foci (beautifully conveyed by the phrase, “limited starlight”) in favour of an imaginative widening of focus even though the mechanism behind the widening appears illogical: what significance can the direction of the wind have to an examinee’s answers, after all? But it’s worth noting that the examiner doesn’t drift off into a set of solipsistic fantasies: the examination paper gets marked at the end of the poem.

It’s always dangerous to focus on the first poem of a poet’s selected poems – partly because it looks a lazy and obvious critical tactic – but thinking about Boyle’s poetry often leads me back to it. There are, of course, plenty of other poems which hint at Boyle’s poetic principles and methods. “Poet Visiting a High School” from the second collection, The Blue Cloud of Crying, speaks of writing poems in terms of extreme concentration and a concurrent loss of self:

. . . . . 
For a moment the room before her
is as empty as the sky is empty.
How to tell them
what their bodies crave most -
that look of selfless devastating attention -
is the listening and the seeing her mind gives
to absent things
. . . . .

We seem to be in the world of Simone Weill here but the poem finishes by speaking about almost technical matters: the way, for example, a metaphor, brought it to illuminate, can grow a life of its own, pulling the poem away from its intended theme:

and how to speak
of all she herself would call failure -
the poems where what was there seemed too obvious
too given
till an ungainly metaphor interposed itself
and the more she struggled
the more it grew
strangling all else . . .

It’s not entirely clear where the failure lies here – in the obvious “givennness” of the material the world has provided or the metaphor which, like Laocoon’s sea-serpent, rises up and strangles it – but the focus on imaginative expansion and the effect it has on writing poetry is clear.

There is also, from the next book, What the Painter Saw in Our Faces, a poem called “The Gardener”. Typically of Boyle, the way the poem approaches its issues – What is poetry? What is it worth? How does it relate to the real and unreal, the macro and micro, the external and internal? – involves an initially unexpected tactic. Where we might have expected a personal lyric – “I sit in the garden and think about poetry” – what we get is a monologue spoken by a spirit induced by poetry. She’s a muse figure but also a sympathetic fellow-practitioner, perhaps, or even a reader:

“You practise the silent art”, she said 
looking into the narrow garden where a bird
passed rapidly. “You move in isolation
from recognition or audience.
And what you place on the page
is mostly read by no one and
what you value in the way the words fall
or run together,
pointing outwards to the world
and inwards to a private reticence,
is something not explicable to others.
Your silent unwanted art draws me.
I have been dead long enough to hear
the cadences you hum under your breath at midnight . . .”

Finally, in this little sampling of Boyle poems which cast light on his principles and practices, there is a prose poem, “In Response to a Critic’s Call for Tighter Editing” from The Museum of Space. Its title tells us that it is going to be about reactions to his poetry which find it all too free: if imaginative transformations are encouraged because they replace the limited starlight by wider perspectives then what is to stop a poem simply spinning endlessly out of itself into infinite possibility? What kind of shaping process – form – can be imposed which is not a reductive imposition? What is interesting about this poem is that it doesn’t set out to justify Boyle’s poetry so much as to enact its principles:

A poet should be able to write outside of the human in all sorts of directions. The moon is one of them. Water that has just bubbled out of the earth is another. Of course they are distant cousins as intimately related as the wind and a sandgrain.

If I was the moon I couldn’t practise what I would say. I would have to be empty and desolate. Everything would happen by instinct like tides responding to my slow ballet. I would be ignorant as a worn shoe condemned to dance forever over subterranean waters. My cratered eyes would guide me through space and my children would say, Look, he comes from forever, he’s on his way to forever. He’s the one blind man whose walking stick is the glide of small fish over sand, the waterfall that flows simultaneously in both directions.

I think there’s a lot of comedy here underpinning the basic point that it should be possible, by empathy, to make oneself into something non-human. But structurally it also seems to me to be deliberately linear, rejecting the circularity that can give a sense of enclosed form. After the statement that, imaginatively, we can become something else the poet becomes the moon but instead of making a lyrical conclusion at that point (the kind of thing that says “I brood on the world beneath” only a lot better) we are hurried on to the moon’s “children” and finish up with a paradoxical metaphor that presents us settling comfortably.

Of the four poems I have chosen for this little anthology of poems about poetry – and I could have chosen excerpts from many of the other poems – only the first appears in the selection made in Towns in the Great Desert. But Boyle’s poetics are everywhere so apparent in the poems themselves that they don’t really need “poem-poems” to make them clear. The first principle of this practice is the drive to expand experience imaginatively by using the various tropes as a way not of defining with increasing precision but of bringing hitherto unconnected worlds of experience to bear on existence: as an early poem, “Robert Frost at Eighty”, says, “I think there are poems greater and stranger than any I have known. / I would like to find them”. The tension here will be with conventional notions of form because these usually, as I have said above, involve some kind of return to the beginning – with varying degrees of subtlety and sophistication – that produces a circularity that is pleasing to most poets and readers but not to Boyle. “Robert Frost at Eighty” – in one sense about a poet who can be described as an arch-formalist and, at the same time, as someone with a barely acknowledged surreal sensibility – is unequivocal about technique and form:

I have done with craft.
How can I front ghosts with cleverness,
the slick glide of paradox and rhyme
that transforms prejudice
to brittle gems of seeming wisdom . . .

And a poem from The Museum of Space, “Of Poetry”, connects the limited, descriptive function of metaphor with the world of politics and, inevitably, suffering:

Great poems are often extraordinarily simple.
They carry their openness
with both hands.
If there is a metaphor lounging in a doorway
they step briskly past.
The boom of generals
and presidents with their rhetoric manuals
will go on sowing the wind . . .

One way in which this expansive and expanding imaginative drive emerges in Boyle’s poems is in images of passages, cracks and doorways which open from a narrow and confined world into a larger one. In “On Reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Memoirs” a child on a sickbed, with only a single small window above him “constructs the universe” inside that narrow space: “I do not need the great game of having lived. / Fantasies wide as the Amazon / merge and spin in the river of clouds”. Similarly there are, as might be expected, poems that speak of journeys outward into larger perspectives. One of the most appealing of these is “Journeys” from What the Painter Saw in Our Faces in which the imagined voyage away from “every known formality: / work, income, house, family” takes place on a rickety local bus somewhere where everything is incomprehensible and mildly – though comically – dangerous:

. . . . . 
and seated beside me old women and their grandchildren
bumping along in the same bus,
speaking only village dialect I can’t recognise,
and smoking and flicking lighted cigarette stubs about
in back of the bus that rolls around with spilt petrol
and when I try in some patois of the islands
to warn “hati hati benzin”
they all break out giggling and toss
little sparklers at me
as we lurch forward,
the first stars above the coastline
winking at my elbow.

If doorways open onto wider imaginative worlds it makes some sense that Boyle’s poetry should so often be concerned with dimensions: not only the inner space of the mind and outer of the world but also the simple matter of the opposition between great and small. “Homage to Federico Mompou”, celebrating music’s great minusculist, begins “The holy city should have a name so small / there is almost none of it left to grace a grave with” and another homage – to Cesar Vallejo, an important poet for Boyle’s poetry – says “A poem or a life / ripples between such trivial and such portentous matter . . .”

If imaginative expansion is one pole of Boyle’s poetics, the other is an obsession with worldly suffering. In fact the first three books could be seen as a continuing, and rarely entirely successful, attempt to bring these two themes together. In Boyle’s world there is nothing of the self-obsessed cult of self-improvement or “self-realisation” and empowerment about the drive to widen the skies that we live under – it is essentially an ethical matter. But getting the dispossessed, the oppressed the tortured into the poetry poses a lot of questions. I know this to be true because Boyle’s first three books twist and turn in the heroic attempt to manage it. If the first poem of the first book, “From Instructions Given to the Royal Examiners in the State of Chi”, is, tonally, relaxedly surreal and elegantly inhabits an imagined reality, the second poem, “Never Again”, which takes its title from a report into the “Disappeared” of Argentina’s Dirty War, is about human suffering (in South America, Spain and Manilla) and the way, for example, that conquerors, the wealthy, evolve ways of growing “protective layers of moss / to block humanity out”. These two poems establish a kind of binary which is pursued throughout the first books.

But the suffering of “Never Again” is marred by its abstractness and its tendency to use individuals, when that strategy is possible, as symbols of mass suffering – something that seems inadequate and a diminution of the pain of the individual anyway. At various points in the first three books these portraits appear, notably in “On Sydney’s South-West Line” which details the lives of refugees who have made “the long journey / from Saigon or Bucharest or El Salvador” to finish up in Australia’s largest city. Perhaps the best expression of the difficulties and tensions between poetry and the theme of human misery is to be found in “Japanese Poet on the Train to Medellin” where a Japanese woman poet, about to visit the world of “the rapist and the murderer / and the crack dealer” wonders “what can her singing / bring to them?” The solution, at least of this poem, is that the poet:

. . . . .
will sit – she sees it now – on the bare floor
. . . 
and she will sing whatever she can sing
in the darkness of the single cell
obliterated by the light
in all the heat and all the misery and all the evil
that is our earth.

You can begin to see the problems involved here and the issues are far larger than the work of one poet. A preliminary sketch might look like this. The art which best expresses suffering seems to be born out of the suffering community – the blues of the deep south is a good example, as are the gypsy songs which inspired Lorca – though one wouldn’t want to be naively organicist about this. At any rate, Australian poetry (probably English language poetry generally) despite its variety is a poetry that seems comfortable with a sense of groundedness and “comment-from-the-sideline” when it comes to large social experiences. At its best, of course, it can be very good at the inner world, at registering the complex topographies of feeling but it doesn’t really have the tools to deal with suffering as a human phenomenon – perhaps the cultures have simple been too spoilt by the tides of history. The poetry of South America speaks beautifully about suffering, for example, but when you import that style it doesn’t mean that that ability will be imported as well – there is a kind of species barrier between Spanish language surrealism and the Germanic poetic world which ultimately cannot be crossed. And that suffering is, itself, complex – an anatomy of human suffering would have a lot of sub-sections. One of the things that makes the poetry of the first half of Boyle’s career so important is its attempt to solve some of these problems.

Perhaps the largest single attempt is the final poem of the third book. “What the Painter Saw in Our Faces” (substantial selections of which are included in the selected poems section of Towns in the Great Desert) begins with an iconic experience of suffering, one that recurs in Boyle’s poetry, of people being ejected from their homes and driven onto the road in a war:

The lightning in the sky
and everything taken from us.
The three days’ walk to the frontier,
the burning villages,
police coming suddenly to tell us to get out . . .

But the poem’s strategy is not to make an anthology of suffering, a description of “the undifferentiated scrapheap of loss” but to do something much more daring, something which runs the risk of seeming ridiculous. It imagines a minor painter in another galaxy some dozen years in the future, receiving light from earth (it’s taken a while to get the requisite distance across the universe) painting a still life not of the suffering but of the instant before the suffering begins – though there are “frontier villages already smoking”. This idea of the moment before catastrophe begins – in which the catastrophe is, in some sense, present – is embodied in Poussin’s painting of the moment before Eurydice is bitten by the snake (the painting forms the cover of the book). And the central question is:

What kind of animal are we?
The animal that wounds its own kind.
The animal that only loves through wounding.
 . . . . .
So we trade our life for a falsehood - 
so we line up people against a wall in the name of dead stone,
so we excise a lover
suddenly after breakfast because that’s what you do.

It’s a remarkable, major, poem and if it isn’t entirely successful that is because of the scale of its ambition and the difficulties it is trying to solve. One of these is the position of the observer, the poet: sometimes a sufferer in the nightmare, sometimes an outsider, sometimes the observer from outer space. But the inner world is always implicated in the outer world and so a description of suffering at the macro-level either induces or demands a matching inner state on the part of the poet. While it’s never possible to tell what parts of poems are “personal” in the sense of based on the poet’s actual experience and what parts are dramatic projections, one can say that the mode in which Boyle deals with interiority is essentially elegiac. The world inside the poet himself is never celebrated in an exuberant, Whitmanian way.

If there is a pattern to the books after these first three, it seems to be that the unresolvable paradoxes of the poetic portrayal of suffering are pushed to one side. Suffering remains a major – perhaps the major – theme but the way of “treating” it seems to have settled into a far more abstract mode – the mode of the poem about the examiners of Chi, rather than that of Sydney’s South-West Line. A good example might be the first poem included from The Museum of Space, a book which, in my mapping, marks the beginning of the second half of Boyle’s career. The “Parable of the Two Boxes” – the first, the smaller, holds “Self-righteous evil” and the latter, the larger, holds “A great emptiness” – is not reducible to the simple binary that its title suggests and I don’t want to devote a lot of space to trying to understand it here. But it is important to show that the issue of suffering and oppression hasn’t been abandoned and so statements such as that in the small box you can sometimes hear “the small clink of power” and that large box (full of earth and the cities which have bled into it and the glass and bones which have dissolved there) is the box of “what is done to us” are significant. As is the final couplet, “What can you do then? / Yes, what can you do?” wherein the first question is a genuine ethical one and the second question makes the mistake of reading the first as a mere rhetorical question of barely concerned helplessness.

The book after The Museum of Space is Apocrypha, a brilliant work – to my mind one of the pinnacles of recent Australian poetry – which I have written about previously on this site. Conceived as a kind of anthology of alternative literatures from the Homeric period into the middle ages (alternative because embodying the sort of imaginative expansions of experience which, as I’ve said, underlie Boyle’s poetics) it strikes a new balance between parabolic abstraction and the presentation of experience. It also contains more humour than most of Boyle’s earlier poetry especially in its descriptions of the United States under the name of Eusebius, a culture “renowned for its ferocious greed and the savage destruction it dealt to others”, where corporations take out rights to individual words and things like the present tense, and punish and enslave anyone “transgressing” those rights and which has, as its mantra, “Male me narrow, narrow, narrow.”

And so to the first half of Towns in the Great Desert, a completely new book, essentially Boyle’s sixth full book of poetry. This seems undeniably in the parabolic mode I’ve been describing. It’s made up of four sections and the first and last share something in common. The first section – which gives its name to the whole book – is a catalogue of eleven imagined towns, recalling perhaps, Calvino’s Invisible Cities. What strikes me about this sequence is its lack of the more obvious and available unifying structures, things like the frame narrative of the reports to the Great Khan that Calvino’s book deploys. In other words, we might say that Boyle’s imperative to imaginative expansion spins this sequence out in such a way and into such areas that it seems more like an anthology of dreams than a sequence. Even the Great Desert, which one might have expected to form a unifying location for the eleven cities, is inconsistent. In the first poem, for example, it is traversed by a frozen river while in the second it is next to the sea and the desert seems to be, in the manner of the ancient mariner, a wilderness of salt sea. Some of the poems announce themselves as dreams while others (the fourth and sixth, for example) are elegant inventions in the Calvino mode. The ninth poem describes a not too subtly disguised Las Vegas where “Hard-wired to adolescence, / at thirty the people of this town return / to being aged twelve”.

When the theme of suffering appears in this series it can do so in a surreal way – as in the first poem. Here one female character “wakes from a dream of pounding doors”, recalling the way in which the victims of ethnic cleansing are driven out in one of Boyle’s iconic images of suffering, and another woman “arrives with two children asleep in a matchbox”. In the fourth poem, the suffering of the poor appears in the kind of elegant, abstracted parable that – I’ve tried to argue – is the more common mode as Boyle’s poetry develops. The whole poem has the quality of the imagined worlds of Apocrypha: a town suspended (in the style of Swift’s Laputa) above the river bed is set up so that the rich occupy the best-positioned levels to “harvest potential raindrops”:

“In the Sleep of the Riverbed” is the book’s final section. Again, it has a very unpredictable strategy, imagining a riverbed (significantly not the river itself, the “vast mirror I ferry helpless / beyond the autumn sun”) altering its course to speak with the “raw shadow” of the ghost of Lorca. It’s an extended, nine-part poem and not at all straightforward. Its core image, the winding river, is a significant one in Boyle’s poetry where rivers seem to divide the world into two banks variously related to each other and, at the same time, provide a moving mirror in which the underwater reflection of the world in the air provides a dreamlike experience of a related world in water. The riverbed of this poem marks the sinuous border between the humanly occupied, cultivated plains and the stony, dry mountains. This isn’t the place to try to tease out some of this poem’s complexities – exactly where the speaker is the riverbed and where it is Lorca’s ghost would be one of the first issues a reader would bring to the poem – but I’m interested in its approach to the issue of suffering. We meet pain, almost as an abstraction, in the third section:

Pain begins its heavy surgical intervention
in the diseased bark of a sapling,
in the tortured frame of a cypress
compulsively vomiting green oxygen.
Pain continues its journey
as the fish hook snagged in the eye of the penis,
as the speck of blue and crimson glass
travelling the infinite hour
between night and dawn.
Pain inscribes its trajectory from
the roots of the oldest elm
to the bud of the opening flower
releasing its prayer to the sky.

And then, of course, there is Lorca himself – an iconic poetic victim of politically inspired brutality.

The twenty poems of the second section of Towns in the Great Desert would make an ideal introduction to the more positive side of Boyle’s poetry. “Calendulas” is a list of possible, extreme transformations organised (by a pun on the name of the flower in the title) according to stations of the calendar:

In winter I am an old man, naked and in socks,
sprinting through the birches of Scandinavia.

In spring I am a young girl watching wisteria blossom at the edge of a well:
dark water is breaking through fissures in the earth . . .

As the examples of transformation progress they become more extreme though they still obey laws of association. Just as Winter can be connected with an old man and Spring with a young girl so Easter Monday can associate with a sister rising from the grave and the Equinox with a fish holding a golden balance. The core of the poem, under its baroque examples, is the notion of the miracle of the humble plant flowering through cracks and thus this poem can serve as an example of that movement of the imagination up and outwards which is so important to Boyle’s poetry at all levels:

A crack in a vase,
a break in a wall
that opens on spinning silence,
a whirlwind of dust . . .

These poems provide many examples of such cracks. In “New Year, 2009”, for example, there is “a narrow break in the unending cloudbank” and “To a Day in October”, a poem framed as a set of prayers, asks the “darkening wall of a collapsing body” to “let light stream through every ragged chink”. Celebration of the experience of imaginative expansion is the keynote. There is a fine poem, “The Small Grey and Brown Birds That Recite the Lost Books of Dante”, which imagines that the birds of the Blue Mountains, little creatures with “diffident chittering” are actually carolling “their canticles of bliss upon this earth” a bliss that Dante was able to find only in his extra-worldly Paradise. Finally one would want to mention two other fine poems. “(an afternoon with you)” is an example of a surreal celebration of (presumably, based on the title) the erotic drive of which John Forbes’s “Rrose Selavy” is another example. The metaphors explode into the extreme so that the afternoon “unites reindeer into passionate prayer circles” and “humbles your average ninety-course banquet on the slopes of Mt Everest” but it also has the power to mess with dimensions since it “minimalises all maximalists / maximises all minimalists”. And then there is a two part prose poem, “Crow”, in which a phenomenon is explained in alternative ways. Someone surprising a group of crows hears not the mournful sound we associate with that bird but a rhapsodic birdsong (the poem puts it rather more elegantly). The issue is whether the crows have been surprised speaking their natural speech and the hearer has been granted the experience of hearing what the birds say when they think they are free of expectations about how they should sound or whether she has short-circuited an expectation in her brain that crows should be mournful and by cleansing the doors of perception has heard things as they actually are. It’s ultimately about the inside and the outside and is quite an epistemological and conceptual issue. It reminds one of the discussions of Heraclitus’ famous dictum that you can’t enter the same river twice which asks whether that is because the river has changed or because you have.

The third section of the book is another set of twenty poems, made up of ten night poems, “Nocturnes”, interspersed with ten other poems sharing similar themes. The nocturnes are all built around a dreamscape of a house in a valley at the edge of a lake and seem to exploit the different transformative possibilities of the situation: in the first, the view can be transformed into that of an Asian village – “stupas with their prayer flags, / the white rooftops where clothing / beats out its own life-story against / the freezing knives of the dark goddess”; in the second the strata of time can be breached so that “A young boy from a century ago stands there waiting for someone to turn up with a crate of beer”; in the third the house is imagined to enter the lake – and so on. But the theme of these poems is not so much transformation and imaginative extension so much as writing itself – “I write in darkness across illegible paper”, says the first poem – and the way in which the act of writing is involved in these processes: does it simply notate transformation, for example, or actively create it? The sixth nocturne seems to equate writing with a way of navigating through life while following the suggestions of the imagination:

. . . . . Walking tentatively on air, I travel with eyes closed, knowing how my pen (with some errors) travels the way of the dark, trusting in its free-fall, cut loose from light’s security and all ruled margins. Truly in the white flesh of the eucalypt’s bark I have come down to earth.

I’m not sure how confidently one can add this to the anthology of poems in which Boyle speaks of his practices and poetics but the idea of a pen travelling the ways of the dark and, in a sense, leading on its trusting author, is an attractive one. The dark, here, of course, is the fertile ground of dream which is a form of imaginative freeing and expansion, but it also, conventionally, suggests to readers the “darker” side of the world, the spectre of oppression and suffering and acts as a perhaps unintended reminder that, although the suffering world, in the later Boyle collections, is less awkwardly and insistently present, it is still there.

Sarah Day: Tempo

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 74pp.

Since Sarah Day’s new volume shows an almost Roman interest in boundaries, it’s no surprise that its opening poem – about the founding of Alexandria – focusses on the equivocal moment when a flock of birds eats the flour used to mark out the new capital’s city limits and that its third poem – about Pompeii – concludes with the poet, enmeshed in temporal continuities, walking towards a modern farmer tilling a field, “He will not meet my eye / as I skirt his tilled boundary to the station”. Deploying the word “skirt” here might lead us to expect that gender may be going to play an important part in the issue of borders and their crossability or otherwise but Day’s poems are humanist in the broad sense of viewing humankind as a group rather than focussing on its quarrelsome divisions.

Tempo is, like all good books of lyric poetry, founded on a coherent and consistent view of things which finds expression and, sometimes exploration, in the poems. The same spirit and interests inform almost all the poems, radically different though they might be. If one tried to be specific about this underlying nexus of concerns one might isolate the following: borders and crossings, the dimensions of time, stasis and movement, the near and the far (an issue of perspective), and outline (abstraction) and substance. All of these, even the interest in time, express themselves as binaries and the structure and life of the poems (which are made with an apparent though light formal element) is almost always derived from the tensions of oppositions.

To return to the first poem, “El Iskandaria”, we can see that what it is interested in is the way in which the marking out of the city’s outline (an innocent enough thing in itself) is really an act of exclusion whereas the intellectual and mercantile glories of Alexandria (the home of the Library and the Septuagint, among much else) will come from the ships and ideas which flood in from outside:

. . . . . 
In the flurry of wing and hungry beak
though, the soothsayers saw no travesty
but a message in the darkened air
the future city would be blessed with plenty.

It makes one remember the importance of that originary Roman myth where the ill-fated Remus jumps over his brother’s walls but it also makes us think of our own country’s recent history. Living as we do in a state of media-inspired xenophobia and its obsession with secure borders, it’s hard not to believe that there is a sharp contemporary and local point to this poem. The issue of borders has a personal, or at least, familial, perspective in another poem, “Outsiders”, which focusses on the history of the poet’s family in Tasmania – “An immigrant family, / ours was a small island / on the island we had moved to”. This group of exiles sets about documenting difference (there must be a touch of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl” when Day says “Childhood was a taxonomy / of binary difference. / The youngest, I grew up taking notes”) but is, perhaps, saved from complete xenophobia by the ability to alter perspective:

my father, scorned in the machine shop
for his white shirt and tie,
clung for dear life to his reference points,
gravitated to migrants like himself
and discovered, from this antipodean angle,
he had more than a little in common
with wartime Germans.

Although the issue of time in Tempo might be seen as a matter of a discrete theme, in a sense the movement from the past to the present is also an example of crossing borders. We need to be reminded that the past can be seen as irrecoverable in its essentials. “Anachronisms” is a set of examples of changes occurring in the small space of a single lifetime which remind us how different the past was when handwritten envelopes appeared in your letterbox and milk and newspapers were actually delivered to your door. The comfortable bringing of the past into the present, such as is found in popular “historical” fiction, is an act of appropriation full of dangerous potential misunderstandings. But sometimes the past, as in the dead bodies in “In Time, Pompeii”, thrusts itself at us, seeming to declare how “readable” and comprehensible it is. This is the subject of a fine poem, “Fayoum”, which is about the wonderful paintings accompanying the mummified bodies in Hellenistic Egypt two millennia ago. They seem so immediately realistic and relatable-to that, as the poem says, they are like “missives from another age” which make a sieve of time by slipping through into our present. The right attitude to the past, the poems seem to say, is one of balance: we should respect the border of unrecoverable difference while celebrating those odd moments in which these borders are breached.

Many of the poems of Tempo involve, in one way or another and at one level or another, the idea of movement versus stasis. “Northern Window” is a poem about the classic North/South opposition that Auden’s “Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno” explores so well. Amsterdam is seen in mid-winter and everything is chilled into a static composition. This includes even the pilgrims in the mosaic in the Rijksmuseum – though the poem, perhaps thankfully, doesn’t call this a “frieze”. The only thing moving is a crane which looks like a Christ figure with open arms. But “on the sill” – presumably of the poet’s room – is a Venezuelan statuette of Mary with her back to the window, “disturbed perhaps / by Anglo-Saxon interiority”, facing the Latin-American world of sunlight, movement but also – and it is the poem’s final word – “evanescence”. “River Fisher” uses this binary in a quite different way. Describing the experience of fishing by wading (I presume it’s about fly-fishing) the poem is interested in the flow of the river which is strong and remorseless as opposed to both its apparent surface stillness and the fact that there are pockets of still water inside the stream itself: “In flowing water, still ponds reside: / a trout, suspended in a boulder’s vacuum / might watch a line of bubbles / slip downstream like an elver”. There are a lot of allegorical possibilities here and it’s tempting to see it as an expression of the oppositions I have spoken about so far. Water, we are told, “resists an interloper” – that is, it resents having its borders crossed – but it is possible to see the still ponds as analogous to those moments when the flood of time (a very Slessorian image and obsession) allows a momentary connection with objects from the past such as the Fayoum portraits. One is tempted to do this because another poem, “Hay Load”, which is interested in the opposition between the flow of oncoming, speeding traffic and the stately progress of a carefully balanced truck of hay specifically says that the hay truck and its load are timeless and not only in the sense that people have always mown and moved grass.

A more complex and often puzzling interest in the poems of Tempo is the idea of outline. In my introduction I constructed it, in the interests of neatness, as an opposition between abstracted outline and filled out completeness. Whether this is accurate or not, it’s an issue that recurs so frequently in this book that it needs some consideration. It first appears in villanelle form, in the fifth poem, “Afterimage”. Since I’ve long ago fallen out of love with this repetitive verse form, I may be forgiven for finding “Afterimage” not really very clear. It seems to focus on negative images, rather than outlines, but clearly wants to make a case for the occasionally superior truthfulness of inversion, of the space between things. Less abstract is “Lightning in a Portuguese Garden” where a flash of lightning provides an image – again in a Slessorian way – “outside time”. The essence of this is, of course, that the portrait presented, having avoided the flux of process, has become, perhaps like a work of art, something that can “disclose more than day” – though if there is a pun there on the poet’s name, then perhaps I shouldn’t equate the lightning picture with art. At any rate, it’s an issue taken up in “Shadow Trees”, complete with reference to Plato in its epigraph, where the City Council (which “seems to have / a policy on chiaroscuro”) delivers shadow trees. Day thinks of the way in which her life of perception is focussed on such outlines:

. . . . . 
Some silhouettes I find I have
always been walking through
like numinous fig leaves on a sandstone wall;
the three-D geometry of banksia in the porch;
a winter oak projected on a public lawn,
twin ashes breathing intricate as lungs
across a busy street . . .

wondering whether this is a result of the fact that with age comes an increasing familiarity with the dead (“Like the dead, / They stand among us on the streets”) or whether it’s a matter of the quality of light becoming sharper (perhaps as a result of climate change).

That subject – climate change – is at the heart of another poem, “The New World Book of Detail”, but the context of the book’s complex oppositions makes it a much more sophisticated and difficult one than this simple thematic description suggests. Here the atlas (found on a beekeeper’s bureau) represents “a false blue present / of fixed littorals and politics”, that is it shows borders and outlines fixed for one time by one perspective. But the world is in constant flux, and climate, though it dominates the poem, may really be only one fairly obvious example of that flux. The bees are vulnerable to that change (spring has come so early that there seems to have been no winter) and the beekeeper will move them to higher altitudes in search of true winter. The bees are a model of the collective, immensely richly productive of the “collective energy which is sweet, aromatic order” and contrast with the beekeeper himself who is an individual. The drive of the poem seems to be to cross the perspective border of the generalised as opposed to the detailed so that although ”˜the language of wide-range weather systems / is mostly generality” yet “a taxonomy of the particular might emerge”.

Which leads me to the final issue: that of perspective, something which, in an earlier review, I wanted to make out was an essential component of Day’s lyricism. The second poem of Tempo, “New Year’s Eve” seems, on the surface, not much more than a celebration of continuities even if the larger context of the book shows that continuity is to be seen as something which is in opposition to borders. But the poem is just as much about perspective, the non-humancentric image of the cosmos which now enables us to imagine seeing ourselves from another vantage point in space and rethinking the borders and oppositions which seem so pressing from our own standpoint. There is a good poem about ageing called “Far and Near” which explores the way perspective ultimately implicates ethics. It begins simply enough with a first stanza that details the changes that acquiring a pair of reading glasses brings – a grey cat’s fur turns out, for example, to be full of colours – but, in the other two stanzas this moves from a matter of visual acuity to a far wider, ethical perspective. And it does it with a very striking, certainly surprising, shift:

. . . . . 
Somehow the distant has moved near:
the black-faced cuckoo shrike against the farthest tree;
once inaccessible lines of poetry. . .

Once the poem has made the movement out from a visual perspective to the act of reading poetry, a host of altered perspectives flood in (if hosts can flood):

I want to know how people thought and slept
and lived in Rome and china and Egypt
a hundred or two thousand years ago.
Sappho, Rousseau, Michelangelo,
stone-age men, before words, how did they see
it all? And television’s importunity
invites contemporary comparison ”“

the father sheltering his son from gun-
shot, old people ousted from their home:
they all become your uncles, parents, nieces,
or your cousins . . .

These empathic, ethical identifications are a result of altering perspectives but they can also be framed in terms of the crossing of the usual borders of opposition.

I hope that this rather remorseless search for underlying concerns and for generative oppositions doesn’t give the impression that Tempo is a programmatic book in any way. On first acquaintance it is likely to be the variety which makes an impression because this is a book made up of poems which are lists (“Anachronisms”), vignettes (“Hens at the Water Bowl”), celebrations (“Family Tree”, “Luck”), compressed and Delphic lyrics (“Rowan”), staged oppositions (“Plantation”) as well as essayistic pieces like “Far and Near” which always move more imaginatively and subtly than a review like this, for example, does. But it’s the underlying consistency – thematic and structural – that makes entering the world of Sarah Day’s poetry so satisfying. And its concerns, as I said in the beginning, are classically humanist. The best expression might be in “Tanker” a poem about the way in which a supertanker negotiates its own oppositions: the fresh water of the Tagus meets the salt Atlantic and produces monstrous waves which the ship rocks between. While it is tempting to read this situation as symbolising all of the oppositions which Day deploys in her poetry, it’s significant that the final statement is about the crew and the way they are dealing with this: “are they afraid, or are they playing cards / as the pendulum swings?’

B.R. Dionysius: Weranga

North Hobart: Walleah Press, 2013, 67pp.

Weranga – a town west of Dalby in Queensland – shows up on Google Earth but, interestingly, there are no accompanying photos. What it gets in B.R. Dionysius’ book is a sixty-seven sonnet sequence perhaps as a sort of compensation for being one of the few towns on earth which haven’t attracted the attention of photographically inclined tourists. But though the book takes its title from the town, its real subject is its author’s rural upbringing and you can’t help but feel that in a sense what is valuable about its material is that it is typical rather than uniquely of its region. To some extent it must stand for all rural, or at least semi-rural, boyhoods – it certainly chimes with mine spent on the outskirts of Bundaberg twenty years before that of Dionysus.

Weranga is Dionysius’ fifth book of poems, seventh if you count two chapbooks. The previous book, Bowra, is also titled after a place (a bird sanctuary in Western Queensland) and is also a collection of sonnets but the closest connection that Weranga makes is probably with Dionysius’ first book, Fatherlands, published in the first year of this millenium. This book also dealt with rural upbringings and its poems, like those of Weranga, circled around issues of fathering and fatherhood though the degree to which they embodied their author’s personal experience wasn’t always easily detectable and the first poem, “Wilhelmine Schluter at Fourteen”, dealing with first infatuations among migrant families and workers, was a dramatic monologue. Weranga is a lot more overtly personal.

Seen purely in terms of its content, its representation rural life, Weranga is a memorable book. In style it is the opposite of a realistic novel’s detailed but dry portrayal of rural upbringing using the full extent of the wide imaginative range that poetry can deploy as well as the capacities of a sonnet sequence to interweave motifs. There is also a marked difference in the authorial perspective: the early poems are full of a young boy’s immersion in the experience but in the later poems there is the more elegiac perspective of the adult who – now a father himself – comes back to revisit the places of his childhood. And the experiences of the author as a child are full of the conflict between a sensitive boy (“a soft boy who trained hard in the art of gentleness”) and a pretty tough environment. The early poems recreate a number of the mild traumas of sensitivity: night terrors, a fear of being asphyxiated in a dream of passing through a huge hour-glass and a fear of being left alone at night that persists even when he is of an age for his parents to drive into Toowoomba for a fortnightly dose of late-night shopping and leave him in charge of the chickens and the house. At the same time this is a place of brown snakes, trapdoor spiders, viciously territorial tomcats and thuggish children as well as those endemic threats of drought and flood which have always been part of the Australian rural tradition.

By the time we get to the later poems, beginning perhaps with “Firesale” (because it has a kind of wider perspective in response to the “three hundred lots of a life / Laid out on the trampled winter grass . . .” and including the last six poems which are poems of revisiting, we are in the world of the documentation of loss. A visit to where he played tennis in a couple of the earlier poems produces only a sight of “waving heads of grass” and wattle trees:

Some outbuildings survive where children drank Milo,
& the hooting of the train made hide & seek ethereal.
Who keeps the score on what rites are collectively lost?
Billabongs are revered, but not the Sunday tennis ghost.

I like this focus on the loss of unfashionable rituals rather than icons. The last poem focusses on the people themselves, explicitly at the expense of the land:

They’ve all gone the way of the Thessalians
Remembered for the landscapes they inhabited
More than the rhetoric they bled. Guardianships
Of the soil come & go; they are winter rains
That never sired . . .

In this respect, Weranga belongs to that tradition of recreation of rural experience which moves into a sort of pastoral lament. But it’s a genuine contribution rather than a merely genre performance. Like all experience, Dionysius’ life in Weranga/Dalby is simultaneously unique and typical.

So much for the content: there are also formal aspects to be looked at in the way the individual poems are organised and in the way the sequence itself is structured. It’s useful to look at the first two poems here. The first, “Minoan”, deals (I think) with the moment of his father’s meeting his mother and falling in love, the central ab origine moment that often preoccupies children having their own first thoughts about their lives. And “falling” is the operative word since the event takes place in the context of bull-riding at a rodeo: “He fell at Dayboro once, in / The fifties but won a different trophy . . .”The poem looks ahead to his father’s death by cancer, dealt with in later poems – “One day it was his own black bull that bucked & threw / Him, as darkness leapt over his body’s oracle . . . “ and, as the title suggests, the bull-leaping rituals of bronze-age Crete are co-opted to give perspective. All in all, it’s a complexly structured poem, not at all clear on the first couple of readings, and it’s a warning that the overall structure which it introduces won’t be a simple diaristic recording of major events in someone’s early life.

The second poem, “Moon”, is set at another important moment when his mother is pregnant. It is worth quoting in full as a representative of what Dionysius’ poems are like:

When the men came in for lunch, his mother
Switched on the television. As the Astor’s black
Faceplate warmed up, its inner tubes flaring like
Gas giants, she would carve the corn beef, piling
Layers of salty meat across moon-coloured plates,
The pinkish flesh steaming like a rim of sunrise.
As she eased herself into the tubular steel hull
Of the couch, her body, marooned by its own
Elliptical orbit, bent with spacesuit clumsiness.
As men stepped off their metal ladders, workboots
Scraping the dusty soil, the weightlessness of fatigue
Hit her. In the flicker of shadow, an invisible foot
Kicked out, brushing the spongy ground beneath;
Imprinting the new face growing in front of her.

There are so many connections here and they are done with what almost seems like a baroque relish in manic detail. Working men coming in for lunch at the time of the moon landing connect with the astronauts stepping off their ladder; the television’s inner workings are described in cosmic terms and his mother’s pregnancy is spoken of in terms of weightlessness while her couch’s steel frame is connected to the lunar module. Even the plates are moon-coloured. The moon landing context of the poet’s own growth in the womb produces the poem’s close when his own foot kicks out inside his mother, an act connected to the famous footprints in the lunar dust.

There are so many connections here that, if the poem failed (which I don’t think it does since I find it oddly memorable) it would be because it worked so hard to load every rift with ore that there was no room for poet, poem or reader to breathe. One of the things that helps its success is that, because it’s a sonnet, you can see all the metaphoric connections as being bracing inside a single limited structure. If this had been an open-ended poem, free to roam to any length it wished, the connections might have seemed more gratuitous and the result might have been a more bathetic one. In fact the different way in which metaphoric bridges like these are articulated in the poems becomes one of the main ways in which the poems play on variation in the sonnet form.

But not all of the poems are as strongly cross-braced as “Moon”. At the other end of the scale is a poem like “Scorpion” which describes his mother’s being stung by a scorpion. In a way the poem is structured as a contest between two metaphors for the event. The mother, at first, thinks she has “jagged / Her finger on a bit of lost tackle, / A fishing hook still impaled . . .” but when the source of the pain is revealed, the metaphor switches to that of a gun “there it / Sat, cocked black as a trigger . . . Its tail loaded like some primitive gun”. And then there is “Funeral” which is made up of a series of sentences beginning, “This is . . .” all of which say something about the way the memories of his father’s funeral are stored faultily: “This is where memory’s spool of film unwound”, “This one’s all fiction . . .” The structural climax is reached by the sudden shift to the figure of his father’s father. It’s a movement outside of the boy’s mind but the poem finishes back with the boy in the most satisfying way, like a “classical” sonata getting itself back to its home key only to find everything is slightly different:

                              This one’s about what the
Old father thought about burying his middle-
Aged boy, & where amidst all these relations
& anti-celebrations, was his little boy’s son?

And then there are the larger structural issues of a sonnet sequence. The first of these is variation: in fact early sequences in English like Spenser’s Amoretti and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella play with formal variations as well as architectonic ones within the slightly obsessive repetitiveness that seems fitting for love poems. In Weranga you notice, first, that there really aren’t any tonal variations: almost all the poems, even those dealing with the most personal, buried experiences, come out in the relentless assertiveness that can be seen in “Moon”. We are a long way in this poetry from a free verse which responds to, and resonates with, subtle alterations in perception or sensation and one feels that it is a poetry that should be described as complex rather than subtle. The variations that stop the poems of Weranga being endlessly repetitive markers on the road through a rural childhood, adolescence and revisiting adulthood tend to come in the way in which the individual poems are built and the way they use their metaphoric connections both as bracing and as a way of building towards closure. There is also a lot of structuring going on at the macro level. There are many repeated motifs, for example. The references to space exploration in “Moon” recur regularly to the point where one might guess that the origins for the sequence might have been in a shorter sequence of poems like “Moon”, “Mighty Mouse”, “Skylab”, “Columbia”, “Challenger” and “Halley’s Comet” with a title something like “Space Exploration: My Role in its History”, but this is only one of a series of interwoven concerns.

I think Weranga is by some distance B.R. Dionysius’ best book. Both Fatherlands and Bacchanalia are, like many poets’ early books, uneven and full of poetic directions which don’t ultimately exploit their author’s strengths. Universal Andalusia is a lot of fun and taps into a talent for humour. It bills itself as a verse novel but is really a set of humorous travel poems documenting a voyage through Turkey, Greece, Spain and India undertaken by an overweight Australian channelling Alexander the Great and his no-nonsense wife (inevitably Roxanne) who is described as “an ex-kick boxer”. Bowra, like Weranga, is built out of sonnets and you can pick up many of the themes of Weranga there: the poems, for example, dealing with the death of seventeen miners at Box Flat in Ipswich in 1972 recall the boy’s fear of asphyxiation in the poems of Weranga, but there are simply too many poems in Bowra that seem misconceived: not least the ones in which the speaking voice is that of the Bremer River. Weranga avoids all these faults and seems to have worked best, so far, in harnessing the strengths of its author’s talents.

Liam Ferney: Boom

Wollongong: Grand Parade Poets, 2013, 82pp.

The best overall description of the central quality of Liam Ferney’s second book, Boom (his first, Popular Mechanics, was published in 2004) might well lie in the last sentence of this book’s “About the Author” note where it says, “His passion is life”. It would be hard to disagree based on the poems themselves. The tone of voice is intense, insistent and, on first acquaintance at least, gives the impression of very little tonal modulation, almost as though the poems were conceived with one eye firmly on how they would perform when read. But the energy that sustains them undoubtedly comes from the material, a passionate engagement with life itself. The issue, of course, is “Which life?” since we all live multiple lives: physical, social, cultural, intellectual, creative (let alone the issues when life is considered apart from the individual – evolution, biology, cosmic life).

One’s first impression is that the dominant kind of life which the poems of Boom are interested in is cultural life. They are enmeshed in popular culture in a series of different ways. It’s no accident that they begin in Korea during the 2002 World Cup (football) and finish on a train in China at the time of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 though, as I’ll explore later, there are other significances to this patterning. The way Ferney’s poems operate is always to bring cultural references into a poem by way of simile so that connections in cultural life are being continuously made and the ambit of the poem is being continuously opened to these aspects of the world. Ferney’s similes are a long way from the po-faced “explanation-theory” of traditional rhetoric and they serve to shake the poems out of the cosy set of references that the subjects might come with and into new, equally meaningful contexts.

This all sounds very abstract so some examples will make things clearer. “Push Kick Dreaming” is a poem from late in the book:

From Old St. to doorway
in a fug of hip hop and
hacked morning smoke.
The two goons fumbled
with a pane of oval glass.
Their half-furnished office,
as empty as the new divorcée’s
social coterie; and for an instant
I am Daewon Song meets
Jackie Chan chase cliché
360Ëš flipping to manual
a miraculous obstacle
dodge before the tepid
consolation of burnt milk
in a tube station latté.

I think this is a rather marvellous little poem. It belongs to a small group in Boom which lean towards the lyric in that it captures a single moment in a fluid, fairly unified, three-sentence syntactic gesture. Often Ferney’s poems are staccato utterances but here there is a fair degree of elegance. And the poem, of course, celebrates a moment of elegance, of skilfully dodging two workmen suddenly struggling with a pane of glass. We might have expected that the poet would say that he had discovered something like his inner Dennis Bergkamp (or, more likely, his inner Zlatan Ibrahimovitch) but the comparison is with skateboarding and movie chases: both Asian. Against this, at the cultural, imaginative level, is the fact that the half-empty office for which the glass is destined is compared to the social circle of a newly divorced woman, all done in language whose connotations are French. The title is a martial arts manoeuvre in an Australian Aboriginal structure and the setting is London’s Liverpool St tube station. In other words, the poem is centrifugal at its core, closing down on a single revelatory (and suitably humble) experience while at the referential level opening out into a very wide set of imaginative references. At least, very wide on a cultural level.

All of this inclines a reader towards seeing Ferney’s poems as being essentially “about” cultural immersion. They are, in this view, not so much surrealist as realist representations of the processes of experience (ie of life) focussing on the way culture provides us with a set of references for experience and even how contemporary popular culture bombards us with such references at a pace and density that other centuries never knew. Another poem in which the similes connect us to popular culture is “AM”. It too might well be, at heart, an autobiographically based lyric dealing with a relationship’s breakdown though the evidence that this is the direction a reading should take is, characteristically, expressed as a popular song, “Breaking up is hard to do”. At the centre of the poem – a poet’s moment of lament for the limited way he has approached experience – we’re told, “i’ve tackled this world like a hapless defender / wrongfooted by chicka ferguson // his emerald raiders pomp”, an invocation of a definitively eighties footballer.

Also on the issue of similes and cultural reference there is the first poem in the book, “Think Act”:

Still a prima donna maradona soars
the hand of god seems as unlikely as hess
the sick swan descends sans plan and
it’s easy to get marooned behind the lines
say goodnight to itaewon’s bum fluff gis
tumble down hooker hill bright lights fried mandu
wankered in a cab through the window
the mantra of apartments and pork signs
across the han seoul is cyberpunk memories
in the fugitive drizzle a thoroughbred gallops
across the cabbie’s fake timber dash
. . . 
at home on the telly Korean newlyweds
roadtripping through the alice a eurobeat
skinny tie b-grade with ponytail
a getaway in a stolen souped-up xu-1
that was the eighties nobody stayed for the dailies

My reading of this – not entirely confident – is that the style of the Korea of Ferney’s time there (2002) is being seen as an embalmed version of the eighties in the western world. The Maradona reference is to the great footballer’s hand-balled goal in Argentina’s match against England in the Mexico World Cup of 1986, a metonymic symbol of the eighties on many possible levels. I’m not sure about the reference to “hess”. At all points before writing this I assumed it was a reference to Rudolph Hess who, famously, flew to England in 1941 to try to broker a peace between Germany and England. I had intended to go on to speak about the way in which the centripetal drive of the similes takes the poem out of its decade into the forties. Now I am nervous that everybody might start telling me that there was an eighties band called Hess or that it might be an acronym for a government department or industrial process (Ferney’s references are full of acronyms). On the other hand, Spandau Ballet – named after the prison where Hess served his life sentence – is, of course, a famous eighties band.

What intrigues me about this poem, and Boom in general, is its underlying autobiography or, rather, the nature of its underlying autobiography. These poems aren’t just about registering the experience of cultural immersion, they also want to stand outside the flood and observe and comment about what is happening. The comparison of Korea with the west in the eighties, for example, is an objective observation. It also has an autobiographical basis in that, because he was born in 1979, the eighties are the first decade that Ferney could be said to be a participant in. And so to say that contemporary Korea can give you a sense of what the eighties were like is also to say that by going there you can relive and evaluate your cultural past (as though someone like myself could experience the fifties with an adult’s intelligence and perception).

Compulsive simile-making (a key feature of the style) is a way of bringing popular culture to bear in these poems but it also has, inevitably, a throw-away quality – there simply isn’t time to explore exactly the relationship between, say, traffic chaos in Hong Kong and “half / tracked leggies // dispatched / to the / outfield”. Just as “Think Act” is built around a more detailed comparison, “Farewell Dick Whittington” is built on a comparison between the Pakistan cricketer Inzamam ul Haq (brilliantly described as “the Oliver Hardy Bradman”) and Ferney himself. It’s a comic comparison rather than an act of inflation. I read it to be, structurally, an expansion of a typically Ferney image, something like, “Ultimately a failure I return home like Inzamam ul Haq trudging back to the pavilion”, but it might also derive from the observation that these occurred at the same time, “Inzy and I take our bows: different stages, same week”.

Once you begin to look for it, you realise that this book is full of judgements about contemporary life that require something more distanced than the registration of immersion – of seeing your life, as one poem says, as “your own cinéma vérité soap opera”. The sequence “Millenium Redux Lite” is an example. And it has a conclusion in which Ferney is distanced to the point where he can observe and evaluate himself:

. . . . . 
who says the naughties cant be fun
just get the rules down:
it’s mob life
once you’re in the pocket
you  pay

i float off
into the universe
a sceptical astronaut
only ever in it for the uniform.

Obviously I am reading this fairly “straight” as having the same kind of reasonably uncomplicated presentation of the self as a lyrical poem like “Push Kick Dreaming”. There’s a fruitful tension between a poet’s judgement on the vapidity of the modern world, a time when “a million ipod headphones bloom” and the energising quality that comes from being as au fait with its rules, references and languages as Ferney is. This leads to a tone of excitement that is, simultaneously, contemptuous. Again, the move towards reading these poems more autobiographically leads one to think that the soured view of much of the contemporary cultural context is often a kind of imposition of personal disappointment. Things obviously go wrong in Korea, for example, and two poems, “Seoul Survivor” and “Expecting Turbulence” reflect this, the former beginning “my saison en enfer & get rich schemes / evaporate like colonial best intentions / or foraging all over town for vegemite”.

Some poems and poetic modes in Boom do force the reader to resist the temptation to read them in this conventionally “lyric” way. “The September Project”, “Andy Hardy goes to College” (a sestina), “That Thin Mercury Sound”, “Bad News for Good People” and “Frontier Lands” are a group of long poems which appear close to each other. Some of them have underlying fictional narratives. “Frontier Lands” is a collection of five poems which, though given the titles of recognisable Westerns, display a surreal mode that is hard to describe with any confidence. The second, for example, begins:

the trickster / form guide believer / takes counsel from his viziers /
born to circumstances king tide / no parade of elephants /
can ease the emptiness within / what is now amiss / that Caesar and his senate
must redress / scorned benefactors / the fourth string donkey work toiler /
the great unbequeathed / dazzle drunk on topaz mosaics . . . . .

The best I can do with poems like these is look for those processes of suggestion and transformation that many surrealist poems are obsessed by. Doing that you could see how “believer” might (just) suggest “vizier” (through some connotation of ancient history) which would in turn suggest “king” which would, in turn, produce “tide”, and so on. But it’s a reading practice I wouldn’t want to place much reliance on here. “That Thin Mercury Sound”, on the other hand, exploits grammatical ambiguities in a way that recalls John Forbes. In this poem almost every verb can be read as a noun so that the opening line, “after the fire escapes and the security guards”, invites, if only momentarily, a completely different reading to the obvious one.

But, for the rest of the book, the autobiographical element is very strong. The first poem, which I have already quoted from, is set in Korea and the last is set on a train in China in 2008. Significantly, the key fact is one of motion. In “Think Act” Ferney makes his observations about Korea from inside a taxi and in “K61: Beijing – Kunming” he is in motion in a train. The arc of narrative between these two poems is also the arc of his own life in the “noughties” and the final poem gives the places and dates of composition (“Hanam-si – West End – Brixton – Da Gindi: 2002-2008”) in a way which is conventional but here, especially meaningful. As in the first line of this poem. Whereas there is quite a complex variation in the book between first, second and third person stances (and a fuller analysis of how these poems are often simultaneously immersion and distanced judgement would have to come to grips with this), this last poem is a letter beginning, “dear paul: my itinerary is still being scripted”. A poem from Popular Mechanics concludes:

         i write in a flux
but to my justification

these things, like everything else,
happen very quickly.

A passion for life is a passion for a bewilderingly fast and fast-changing process.

Lisa Gorton: Hotel Hyperion

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2013, 50pp.

Lisa Gorton’s Hotel Hyperion is about as tightly organised as it is possible for a book of poetry to be. In a sense, with the exception of a couple of poems in the last section, the whole (small) book can be read as one long poem whereby what seem like the author’s obsessive themes are worked at from different angles in different sequences. To make the book even tighter, the movement from one sequence to the next enacts one of these obsessive themes: the way in which, Chinese box fashion, rooms open onto other rooms which are eventually seen to contain images of the first.

In the book’s first poem – part of a short sequence about the exhibition of artefacts from the Titanic – we meet a replica of the Titanic’s hull “half- / sailed out of the foyer wall”. I say “we” as though we were static observers in the poem but in fact the audience itself is moving, tickets in hand, into the fake ship. There is a lot of emblematic staging here, both in the exhibition and in the poem. The subject of the poem is those objects retrieved from the wreck of the ship, each now cocooned, museum-style, in a perspex case illuminated by a single light. But the poem’s interest is not so much in the objects themselves – ie as icons of a past time, or past tragedy or past culture – so much as in the way they serve to symbolise how items can be retrieved from the world of dream or the world of memory. It is as though they each are examples of Coleridge’s flower – dreamed of in a trip through Paradise – which, on waking, the dreamer finds in his hand. The emphasis is, in other words, on the movement from one world to another: past to present, dream to reality, memory to consciousness.

This initial sequence also lays out the crucial axes of the poems of this book. The ship’s fake hull “moves” horizontally into the room of the exhibition but the objects have been moved vertically up from the “solitude of the sea” (to quote Hardy’s great poem). In the last poem of this sequence there is a reference to rain, something shared by the concluding poems of the book’s other sequences:

It is raining as I leave  - 
long rain breaking itself onto the footpath,
breaking easily into the surface of itself
like a dream without emblems, an in-drawn shine.
Overhead, clouds build and ruin imaginary cities,
slow-mo historical epics with the sound down,
                         playing to no one.

Whatever this ultimately means – is the cloudworld the world of the larger, determined, processes of history? – for the moment I’m interested in the fact that this is an image on a vertical axis depicting the world in which we live as a fluid horizontal plane, intersected at right angles by water. Rather than being a world of grittily real and retrievable objects it seems a world of fluid and temporary formations, a “dream without emblems”. I’m always interested in how poets figure the way other worlds break into our own especially whether they come from beneath, above or from the side and there is a lot going on in the intersection of the horizontal and vertical in these poems. There are the staircases: the middle two poems of the sequence deal with the Titanic’s actual staircase under the water whose iron curlicues are mimicked by the festoons of sea growth which slowly accrete, but there is also a reconstructed staircase in one of the exhibition’s rooms. The latter is an oddly unreal reification, based on a photograph and, of course, leads nowhere though the poem suggests that it might lead to “the house of images”. On its landing is a clock stopped at the moment of the sinking, “that minute / history pours through”.

This first little sequence is a kind of vestibule for the book itself positioning us, if we read it carefully, in a kind of endless museum or exhibition which will contain objects stripped of context and drawn from worlds of dream, memory and perhaps others. The rooms housing these objects are themselves subject to irruptions (as in the case of the ship’s fake hull) but these will be on a horizontal axis. Above the museum is the world of macro-reality which rains its processes down.

The second sequence of Hyperion Hotel or, in the way the book is conceptualised, the second room which we enter, is a set of poems devoted to an eighteenth century device for determining (actually, for guessing) weather at sea: the storm glass. The idea behind this object is that external weather (air pressure or temperature or presence of lightning) acts in an unknown way on a solution sealed inside a glass jar to produce patterns of crystallisation which can be interpreted and thus provide some sort of forecast, especially important for shipping. Even by this stage of familiarising ourselves with Gorton’s interests, the significance of this machine is obvious. The storm glass is a kind of miniature site in which the external is captured, though the process by which the external erupts into the sealed world of the storm glass is unknown (much as, I suppose, the way reality enters dreams, and vice versa, is not understood, despite many, by now venerable, theories).

The first poems of this sequence describe the glass and answer the obvious question – what is the inside/outside to be allegorised as: reality and the poem, macro political life and the individual, the world and the soul, etc? – in a slightly surprising way by invoking ethical life. Thus the “clear spirit” develops a crystalline pattern that recalls “a Jamesian / treasury of scruples, or that more formal vaulting of remorse”; another poem speaks of “fantastical ambition”, “colours of obduracy” and “a structure of feeling / in place of thought”. Finally the sequence steps into a literal room:

A Storm Glass belongs to winter rooms,
to where a reader, like the picture of a reader,
comes to the last page and looks up ”“

Inside this room the weather makes patterns through the window, there is an antique clock in a glass dome (stopped, of course) and a child looking at a book containing reproductions of Mantegna’s “Triumph of Caesar” which serves, in Hotel Hyperion, as a recurring symbol of objects torn from their context and presented as in an exhibition and, because Mantegna’s paintings are in a sequence, they represent the way a continuous experience is reduced to a set of still images, to “animation stills”, as this poem says of the way a storm glass represents weather.

The title sequence is a piece of science fiction. It seems likely that part of the way this book is organised is as a set of refractions of its themes and it might well be intended that we are to see the Titanic exhibition as representing the way objects from the past are retrieved and displayed, the storm glass sequence as representing the way the present is continuously turned into crystal structures and the “Hotel Hyperion” as being about the way future objects become displayed. In a book as ferociously organised as this one, this wouldn’t be unexpected. There is another attractive structuring device in this third sequence as well because the first poem appeared in Gorton’s first book, Press Release, as one of three “Sci-Fi” poems. In other words, an item from a different context is injected into a new book and encouraged to develop its own sequence just as the undersea staircase in the Titanic accreted living festoons in keeping with the pattern of the original iron curlicues.

The series begins with a mother farewelling a child setting off, in hibernation, to begin a colony on Titan (the moon of Saturn whose name, interestingly, recalls that of another ill-fated ship which has already made an appearance). The story that develops quickly leaves this near-future narrative behind to leap centuries and focus on a collector of objects from failed colonising expeditions, such as the Titan one. The collector’s objects – which include the frozen ship of the Titan expedition, complete with its crew – are fated to appear, like everything in this book, in an exhibition, here in the sinisterly named “Futures Museum”. There is a great deal of emphasis on the sealed rooms in which the collector lives – the second poem begins with “In truth, the history of space travel / is a history of rooms” – and the way in which reality is transmitted through fake windows which are actually screens “fed from outboard cameras on delay” making reality (in an allusion to the lovers of Midsummer Night’s Dream) “my own, and not my own”. The final long poem of this sequence moves from the collector even farther into the future and focusses on a guard in the Futures Museum and performs that modulation present in the first two sequences of moving the poem into areas of memory and personal experience. The guard thinks of the objects on display as being like the “animated stills” that one sees when watching a train fly past on a level crossing and this connects with actual, remembered experience – “I am waiting at the crossing gate / in rain so soft it is an easing of the dark . . .” The second of the three sections of this poem moves from the guard watching a film of a rocket taking off, shown on a continuous loop, to the experiences of childhood itself, as though what was a gesture in the first poem becomes a definite movement in the second. He (or, more likely, she) speaks of the land around the crossing for trains as

                   . . . the dispossessed place -
along the side of the house, in the dusty underness
of a jasmine arch, wherever sour ground was
netted with dank weeds – where I called things mine
                   because they haunted me.

The entire sequence ends, Chinese box fashion, with an exhibit which is a diorama (“because out-of-date technology / endears lost futures to us”) of the Titan colony and includes a tiny figure of the Collector going about her business. She is carrying what will become a relic not of the settlement but of her own life: a snow-dome of a ship at sea.

With “Room and Bell”, a sequence of six prose poems, we enter, as Paul Hetherington notes in a review of this book in the Sydney Review of Books, the world of Bachelard’s influential Poetics of Space. The room, a site of childhood illness, has now been removed in a process of renovating but it can be recaptured if the speaker closes her eyes when walking into her mother’s house. The way childhood orientations form the co-ordinates of our later way of interpreting the world, forming an “architecture of memory”, is the basic text these poems explore but they work hard to integrate into themselves the obsessions of the object-collecting, context-investigating poems of the earlier parts. Thus the room is inhabited, as it was at the end of the storm glass sequence by someone reading a book and the collector’s snow-dome of the “Hotel Hyperion” sequence also reappears:

. . . . . I hear again the stream which ran once where now the garden is. That imaginary sound underran all my hours in that room just as, now, the memory of that room underruns alike my images of home and my desire to collect things closed in glass – For, holding a Snow Dome in my hand, watching the last glitter settle on its plastic ship and backdrop waves, I recover the experience of that hour when, folding down a corner of my book, I watched the leaf-shadows turning over on the ceiling and claimed as my own those freedoms founded on retreat.

The central issue here is whether the “Room and Bell” sequence is an autobiographical core which the three preceding sets of poems have refracted into different genres – respectively exhibition theory, exposition of a technological oddity, and science-fiction narrative – or whether it is simply another formation of this group of obsessive concerns and images.

I’m not sure what the answer to this is but the book’s final section might give some clues. This seems at first to be a group of refreshingly discrete poems but the themes of the earlier four sections do re-emerge. In “Freeways”, for example, we can see the interest in the child’s perception of spatial arrangements “I remember freeways, / from the back seat of my parent’s car”. In “Homesickness”, a poem about an English artist’s saturating an entire flat with copper sulphate solution so that all surfaces are impregnated and crystals grow over the entire “house” we can see not only the growths on the Titanic’s staircase but also that process of transformation that inevitably recalls “Full fathom five” from The Tempest (quotations from which introduce all of the sections of this book in yet another level of intense organisation). “The Triumph of Caesar”, the last poem in the book, allows Mantegna’s work (significantly a series, designed for a passageway, and focussing on objects of Caesar’s spoils on their way to a new context) which has recurred steadily throughout Hotel Hyperion, to have a poem of its own. And, first poem of this last section, “The Humanity of Abstract Painting” is a more compressed meditation on many of the images which the book develops elsewhere at length:

                              Afternoon rain on the windows,
bare rooms stilled with light – an idea of the house
                     that had always haunted your life in it,
          as if to say This is the machine of the present.
                    It reinvents experience as a daydream . . .

What, finally, is one to make of this intriguing book? One could point to it as an example of the way in which themes are likely, nowadays, to be treated in a poetic sequence rather than a single complex lyric. Cynics might see this trend as the result of poets’ producing longer poems to act as entries in the various poetry prizes but I like the way in which a group of obsessions can be approached, probed and incarnated from a series of perspectives. It seems a technique which has the virtue of retaining the complexity of the material while giving the reader a better chance of working out what it means to the poet. Yeats’s “Byzantium” is a wonderful work but it requires a lot of background information before it can begin to make any sense at all. Today it would be written as a series of related pieces about historical processes, the second Rome, rebirths, spiritualism, dolphins . . .

Another issue with Hotel Hyperion is the “readerly” experience. Not only are the poems so ferociously organised and so tightly held in position that it is a wonder they can breathe at all, but sometimes you feel that it is a wonder that the reader can breathe. I suppose this is the experience of all highly formal works of art: one part of one’s brain is registering the material and responding to it while another part is looking at its formal complexities. It is wonderful to explore the elegant complexities of the “Room and Bell” poems or to follow the complicated plot of the title sequence but the reader never has any doubt that this reading is a precisely defined quest. There isn’t much opportunity, as there is in some kinds of poetry, to relax and inhabit suggestive images and eventually reconfigure them inside one’s own experiences. Just as the “Hotel Hyperion” sequence ends with the Collector leaving a room, snow-dome in pocket, when you luxuriate in the complexities of a book like this, you know that, at the end, the author will have been there before you.

John Kinsella: The Jaguar’s Dream

Richmond, UK: Herla Publishing, 2012, 251pp.

The subtitle of this book is “Translations, Adaptations, Versions, Extrapolations, Interpolations, Afters, Takes and Departures” and, although it has a throwaway quality it isn’t a bad description of the contents since these represent almost the entire range of how poets respond to other texts, specifically those in foreign languages. Although it exemplifies the whole range of what the word “translation” can mean, the book itself has a strict chronological structure, beginning with Alkman 58 (from sometime in the seventh century BCE), working through poetry in the classical languages and then providing an anthology of European poetry from Villon to Celan and finishing with two poems by the Australian/Chinese poet, Ouyang Yu.

The major component in The Jaguar’s Dream is a “response” to the sixth book of the Aeneid. At forty-three poems and fifty-five pages it is a book-length work that could well have been published separately. It describes itself, in deliberately vulgar Hollywood-speak, as a “prequel” to Kinsella’s earlier response to Dante, Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography and works in a similar way to that strange book by choosing a base text and then writing poems set mainly in the West Australian wheatbelt which “respond” to moments in that text. Sometimes these moments are single lines, sometimes short passages and sometimes – in Divine Comedy ”“ whole cantos and the word “respond” covers a multitude of things. The response to Aeneid VI is called a “version” while the three canticles of Divine Comedy are called “distractions”. It is an odd and intriguing procedure with just a touch of postmodern parody about it as though it simultaneously stressed the connection with high European culture while making the point that in contemporary Western Australia, on the brink of ecological disaster, this would need a good deal of rejigging. To take a couple of examples from the earlier book at random: the fate of Judas at the bottom of hell – being chewed by one of Satan’s three heads – produces a poem in which the narrative drive pauses for a portrait (in the best Dantesque way though without the magnificent drama whereby the characters speak for themselves). We meet the “nicest-kid-at-school” whose mother works in the abattoir:

. . . . . 
He is sensitive. He hangs
with the girls. He reads books.

He loves his mum. She is deft
with a knife. She cuts fat
for health. She is reliable.

First in line, she trims
the Judas sheep. This sheep
is killed recurrently.

Customers won’t know
they’re eating the pick
of the bunch. “My son

is keeping something back.
Boys at school give him
a hard time.” She doesn’t

cut herself as she thinks.
A leader among sheep. . . .

This poem about betrayal and cutting finishes with the abattoir cutting back the woman’s hours. Another, rather different, example comes from a conversion of one of the particularly abstruse theological/scientific passages of Paradiso (XIII: 97-101) into a “Canto of the Movers and Shakers”, a really interesting and complex piece that, although it contains portraits of the earthly equivalent of the movers of Dante’s primum mobile, contains a lot more:

The compunction of angels
to turn the spheres – sporty types,
or maybe engineers. Obsessive

compulsives. Hanging
about the flightpaths of jets,
turbulent in their wake . . .

Ripples of insects propelling
across a dam, the almost enclosed
world of a rainwater tank,

urge towards right-angled
triangles . . . sail, take-off . . . 
stress tensor, motion

without cause . . .trail
of knickers issuing
from the bachelors’ and spinsters’

ball – it’s seasonal.
Parthenogenesis. Zoology.
Komodo dragons:

travel goes with the job.
CEOs squabble over
the quantity of angels

it takes to counteract
the utility of insider
trading: ultrasound. They

pray in their own way:
Dick and Dora, their phantasmagoria,
Dr Frankenstein and The Team,

cleared by ethics committees.
Productivity. Making the fat lean.
New trees, new fruit, new contracts.

This is a really complex poem with a lot going on, only some of the details of which (the right-angled triangles, for example) derive from the Dante. Of course it remains, at heart, satirical.

There is a lot more that happens in Divine Comedy than these two sample passages suggest but I’ve never been sure that is very successful, though it is full of interesting positions, interesting poems and interesting relations between source text and poem. At times you are inclined to think to yourself, “What has Dante done to deserve this? Why not work through the Shakespeare canon? Or Milton?” The tension between Dante’s voyage through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven on the one hand and a series of poems about life in the Western Australian wheatbelt on the other are so acute that they often aren’t productive. The adjustments required, in other words, tend to stand out as much as the connections made: not least being the altering of the starting point so that the structure of Kinsella’s book begins with Purgatory, and then goes through Heaven then Hell. The central critical question for both it and the Virgil “version” seems to me to be whether the role of the base text is to generate poems (ungeneratable otherwise) or to structure and give some kind of shape to a host of poems built around life lived on the land (though in opposition – on ethical and ecological grounds – to most of the practices of the area).

But if Divine Comedy is, after a couple of readings, at best provisionally successful, the collection based on Aeneid VI seems, at least to me, something worth celebrating. Kinsella’s introduction to The Jaguar’s Dream, gives a clue as to why he has chosen Virgil and Dante instead of any other canonical text when he speaks of being “fascinated by different configurations of the worlds of the dead”. Virgil’s text is the true precursor to Dante and, when Dante makes him his guide through Hell and all of Purgatory up to the Earthly Paradise, he is acknowledging a debt greater than that of inheriting something that would eventually produce a “new sweet style”. The debt is to the author who – in Dante’s knowledge of poetry – was the first to present a detailed image of the afterlife in which an individual’s moral status in his or her life is reflected in the punishments after death. Book VI of Virgil is, in other words, a long way from the dreary, undifferentiated Hades that Odysseus visits in the Odyssey even though that visit may have been responsible for a belief, held by Virgil, that a necessary epic trope was its hero’s visit to the underworld. Virgil’s conclusion in which the dead Anchises reveals the future of Rome as far as the time of writing may also well be what gave Dante the license to let his characters predict so much of the “future” of Florence.

At any rate there seems less strain between the values of the source text and Kinsella’s poems here than in Divine Comedy. The poems roam quite widely as well and don’t seem to try to limit themselves to the experience of living on a particular block of land quite as much as those of Divine Comedy and the poems of the recent Jam Tree Gully do. The Sibyl’s cave can be one of the caves at Yanchep (as in “Crystal Cave”), it can also be those parts of the Nullarbor coast where the sea has undercut the cliffs to form blowholes inland and it can also be (in “Ellendale (Sibyl’s Behest)”) the pool at Ellendale near Geraldton: or at least, if it is not the place of the beginning of the descent, it is the place where the golden bough – here a “dream-leaf” clinging to a red river gum – is found. This last poem is followed by “Madura Pass Resolve” a fine, complex piece set at the point of transition on the Nullarbor from plains into upland country. I’ll quote it in full, long as it is, because it will give some sense of what the poems of this section feel like at their best and also because, set just before Aeneas enters the cave for his descent, it’s an important poem about art, thresholds and transitions.

Climbing to the tablelands,
mallee and limestone, shocks of snail shells
always empty, you feel like a period piece,
or evolution suddenly becoming interested
in this style, this “landscape” as artwork.
The few locals know it as a place of snakes,
and warn you of their bites and the heat.
But it’s the water place, where horses were bred
to ship out to India, mounts for imperial
cavalry, bore dragging water up in conquest.
The roadhouse and motel cling to their
swimming pool. A mockery or just survival?
Orb weaver spiders climbing the face
of the tableland are massive, surprised:
you might celebrate them, mesmerized
by the exquisitely swollen and grotesque.
But why, when air travels in tunnels from coast
further than the eye might wrest false horizons,
limestone conglomerate swirls, fractures
and rattling pods of myalls and the weary
desert oak. Transition never belonged to art,
and its style struggles and resists as long
as possible. Can we say it knows no other way?
There is no value of the Madura Pass present
overtly or even disguised in this rectangle,
but there is the moment blowholes are encountered:
a cool breath in the heat, the rustling of wild oats
influxed as they are at brief points of habitation
on these great canvases, a southerly riding the scarp
and countering blowhole exhalations at intervals,
caprices and interludes, subterranean and surface
air meeting to make sea a mirage inland, nostrils
in stone, navels and eyes emerging where tableland
and plain contest, confer, incline to incline, ice-
age sea-level shifts ocean floor distends. Gallery
is an old refrigerator, dumped sub-glistening
in bluebush and old colours, as much the heart
of Virgil’s after-deaths, underworld of surface,
pronunciation out of blowholes and declarations
of rusty iron, the brevity of visits, fencing that climbs
between states, harsh roots cleaving limestone,
making an old gearbox the trauma of travel
in long dry stretches (my father broke down here
in his utility, once); swallows crossing furtive
and cautious, secretive to us – “welcome welcome” -
we’d like to imagine they say. We’re here, taking photos,
relishing kinship and air and light in isolation,
though down on the highway great road trains
pass at high speed, intermittently, tickling galls
on the mallee, interstices of fixed eternity. Ownership
is not cartography, nor our lines to take.

It’s not an easy poem though it is written in a relaxed discursive way, probing at the issues which arise. If it reconfigures, or springs off from, a classic text, it is probably better to think in terms of Keats’s Grecian Urn than Vigil’s epic. The first third explores ways of relating to this transitional environment. The poet is inclined to see it visually as landscape as though it were a piece of art placed before his eyes. But the poem sketches in alternative perspectives: as a supplier of horses it is enmeshed in imperial histories (a perspective that would have pleased Edward Said) and as a habitat for the locals who turn out to be more interested in immediate environmental issues like the poisonous local snakes. A poet might use a narrow focus and celebrate the orb spiders but this is compromised by a wider perspective that registers that there are massive elements in play as air travels underground to emerge in blowholes. The middle third worries about how art deals with environment. When we are told that art is essentially conservative, clinging to its evolved style rather than registering a new way of looking, it’s difficult to know whether this is a comment about all arts or only the visual arts. It’s true that changes in all the arts – think of the appearance of Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”, for example – come suddenly and irrevocably and show us that a new way of looking arises (metaphorically from underground, through a blowhole) almost fully formed, and rendering past ways immediately out of date. At any rate, a collection of paintings (or an anthology?) the poem says, is a collection of dead ways of looking in much the same way that Virgil’s underworld is a collection of dead people. The rest of the poem is more problematical although it clearly wants to remind us that liminality is a state, the state the poet and family are in, standing at this transitional location, and that fixed styles are an inappropriate way of rendering such a state. I take this to be something of an apologia for what might, on the surface, seem a disorienting feature of this version of Virgil (as it is in Divine Comedy’s version of Dante), and that is the mixing of styles. Apart from an extended discursive poem, like “Madura Pass Resolve”, the poems based on Aeneid VI range from the haiku-like suggestiveness of “Gifts” (“Sprigs of rosemary; / A poem on wheat paper; / Viewed from your photo”) to an old-fashioned symbolic set-piece like “Zoo Ferry”.

If I had to guess about Kinsella’s thought processes here, I would say that the principle behind these “distractions” is continually to widen the poetic base, to prevent his poetry sinking into a monotone. The kind of radical ecology he wants to live must entail a danger of reducing his poetic voice to the registers of exhortation, anger and frustration. The distractions may well be a way to accommodate the processes of accretion and non-logical connection – the more deeply “poetic” in other words. I think that this is what is happening in another interesting poem, “Crystal Cave”:

I have been reading Aquatic Root Mat Community
of Caves of the Swan Coastal Plain, and The Crystal
Cave Crangonyctoid Interim Recovery Plan 2003-2008
by Val English, Edyta Jasinska and John Blyth
on behalf of the Aquatic Root Mat Community
of Caves of the Swan Coastal Plain; what lured
me to this was revisiting Crystal Cave at Yanchep
over the weekend and being traumatized by the glare
of extinction. I could twist this into a lyric, but line
length becomes the gauge of rendering, root hairs
sniffing out water deeper, deeper, until the ghost
flits, crosses over: the underworld is never truly
deeply under. There’s no mystery or intangible
extraction to illuminate an ontology. But personal
history is part of the stimulus to delve deep,
. . . . .

Those opening six lines have their own magic, and show once again that what should be drearily denotative scientific language has its own mad, poetic music – something Auden knew how to exploit. But the rest of this opening is very much about poetry’s desire to extend feelers searching for the nourishment of underlying meanings, especially the meanings buried in those personal experiences which seem, on the surface, to be contingent but always, with deeper analysis, reveal themselves to be strangely patterned. It’s long been known that Aeneas’s taking a golden bow down into the underworld can be read as a metaphor for a descent into levels of meaning that are profounder than those of the sunlit world above and “Crystal Cave” examines the implications of this opportunity.

Of the other poems in The Jaguar’s Dream there are a number which are “free” in the sense of ranging from the extremes of Aeneid VI to “variations”. Three poems based on phrases of Celan are compressed wheatbelt pieces which are suggested by their originals. The version of Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Trousers” is a treatment of Kinsella’s earlier life in, as he nicely puts it, “the ecology of Mayakovsky’s poem” and the version of Apollinaire’s “Zone” shares with its original a hectic engagement with the cultural life of the moment but is really another wheatbelt poem. A number of poems are based on Villon’s “Jargon” poems but the freedom here seems licensed by the obscurity and marginality of the originals (are they even by Villon?) and, as the short introduction explains, “What has attracted me to Villon’s jargon poems is both this [the way they exploit the language of a subculture] and also the fact that the language is contestable now just as it was by those outside “the crew” back in Villon’s time”.

There are two translations from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”: the first is a clear rendition of the fourth poem of the second book but the second is an interesting “extreme variation” of the first poem of the first book:

The cold front bands across materiality!
Oh Orpheus rages! The tree blows down and swipes an ear!
The silence of an eye. And that vacuum stuffed
with potential, played out over the year.

Only the edges of forests nurture birds
and beasts, hiding places compiled like follies;
those hanging-in-there go-getters courageous
though inward-looking, as each sallies

forth to let us know they’re there. Roars, shouts, tweets
held close to chests. A jolt to their hearts
impacts his building, a shower of notes

extracting darkness from greatest fears,
migrating into the anemometer’s cups -
Temple of Ear dulls with passing years.

The famous Rilkean original, probably a more difficult poem, might be translated (free of all graces) as something like: “A tree rose there. O pure transcendence! O Orpheus sings! O high tree in the ear. And everything was quiet. Yet in the silence there were new beginnings, beckonings and change. Animals from the stillness pressed out from the clear loosed forest from lair and nest; and then it happened that they were not so quiet out of cunning or out of fear, but out of listening. Growling, crying, uproar appeared small in their hearts. And where once there was scarcely a hut to receive this, a shelter [made] of darkest desires, with an entrance whose posts trembled, – there you created for them a temple of hearing.” (Much of the difficulty of this poem derives from its prepositions – there is enormous weight and ambiguity in simple words like “aus” and “im”. I used to think that it was simply a problem of my undergraduate level German and that native speakers would understand them completely, just as we understand the subtle differences between “in the corner”, “at the corner” and “on the corner”, but looking at the various translations made by sophisticated speakers of German leads me to think that the vagueness of the prepositions is part of the fabric of the poetry.) I’m not entirely sure what is going on in the Kinsella version. At one level it’s a wheatbelt poem about the birds that appear after the storm has passed; but you feel that it must also be a sour little allegory about minor poets, the plucky “go-getters”, who sally forth after a major poet, with their “Roars, shouts, tweets” – criticisms and outrage expressed over social media – held close to their chests.

This leaves me, in this survey of types of translation in The Jaguar’s Dream, with what should be the least problematic: the conventional, accurate verse translations. These actually form the bulk of the book and heavily favour French poetry. But conventional verse translations turn out to be the most troublesome because, whereas the various versions, take-offs, distractions, extrapolations and so on are judged by the creative result they produce, conventional verse translations are judged by a much more exacting standard: how much of the magic of the original they can convey?

I should say, straight away, that I don’t believe in verse translation of lyric poetry in the way it is done here or in the way it is done by almost all translators of poetry. Translating expository and even narrative prose is a different matter entirely and, though it has a lot of problems, they aren’t the ones that cripple the translation of lyric. Even translation of narrative poetry, such as the Homeric epics, has to face fewer problems. Worries about the validity of verse versions of lyric poems aren’t new, they appear in most prefaces to translation work. The usual comment is that though verse translation is unsatisfactory it is a necessary evil and has its uses. It can be argued, for example, that a verse version gives readers some sense that they have read a foreign language poem and thus it should be seen as a sort of crude introduction after which a reader might decide that he or she would like to explore a particular poem and then move on to finding a version of the original with a prose paraphrase and notes and thus begin a more satisfactory and intimate engagement with the poem. But the truth is that even good verse versions leave out so much of what would make you love a poem and go on to visit it in its own language (even, eventually, being so in love with it that you would try to learn the source language) that they hardly represent an introduction at all.

These depressing thoughts come from looking at translations of one of my favourite German poems, Hölderlin’s “Hyperions Schicksalslied” (“Hyperion’s Song of Fate”), first encountered in school. On the surface it has everything going for it in terms of translatability: German is a language close to English; German culture is interwoven with English so the sentiments of the poem won’t be as alien as if it were translated from, say, an Australian Aboriginal language; Hölderlin himself is an almost exact coeval of Wordsworth and so his Romanticism, different though it is, does relate to something we are familiar with; the structure and thematic layout of the poem (unlike that of Rilke’s sonnet) are very straightforward and the verse form is free with a mimetic conclusion that should be easy to approximate. The poem describes the world of the gods (“You wander up there in light . . .”) and then contrasts it to the situation of mortals (“But to us is given to have no place of rest . . .”). It is the wonderful conclusion that worries me:

Es schwinden, es fallen
     Die leidenden Menschen
          Blindlings von einer
               Stunde zur andern,
                   Wie Wasser von Klippe
                         Zu Klippe geworfen,
                              Jahr lang ins Ungewisse hinab.

Very roughly and unidiomatically: “They dwindle, they fall / – the suffering humans – / blindly from one / hour to another, / like water from cliff / to cliff thrown, / year-long [forever] into uncertainty down.” The problem is small but insoluble and relates to two minor features of German syntax. Firstly past participles like “geworfen” are placed finally and secondly the adverb “hinab” (at least I think it’s an adverb rather than part of a verb, “hinabwerfen”) can appear finally. That means that, as anyone can see, there is a wonderful mimetic sense of falling in the last lines and the passion and intensity of the utterance is expressed by this. I won’t go into a comparison of the various verse versions of this in English (although I do want to say something about the value of multiple versions later) but instead, working a fortiori, I will quote what is usually thought of as the best available translation: that of Michael Hamburger from the Penguin edition of Hölderlin’s Selected Poems and Fragments:

But we are fated
     To find no foothold, no rest
         And suffering mortals
              dwindle and fall
                    Headlong from one
                         Hour to the next,
                              Hurled like water
                                   From ledge to ledge
                                       Downward for years to the vague abyss.

It’s sophisticated and accurate enough but, ultimately, inert, unlike the original which is alive and intense, so intense that you are likely to find yourself repeating it at odd times as though it were a popular tune. If I first came across “Hyperions Schicksalslied” in this translation I would form the opinion that the poem is a kind of dispassionate (perhaps, if anything, wry) comparison of the lives of the gods and mankind rather than an intense embodiment of the fate of the latter. I would probably shrug my shoulders, feel that I could now say I knew something about Hölderlin’s poetry and pass comfortably onto the next, having no idea that I’d missed such a firecracker.

If minor facts of German word order can be so damaging, they are nothing compared to the formal complexities that most lyric poetries enjoy using not as graces (of secondary – and hence sacrificeable – importance to ”meaning”) but as essential components of the expression, what makes the verse “live”. Since it is almost impossible to convey these formal structures, verse translations are almost always unrhymed and come with a sort of unspoken apology: “It isn’t like this in the original. Please imagine it in tightly rhymed quatrains”. Or in sonnet form, or whatever. This situation is made even worse by the fact that for the last half-century the dominant form in English language poetry has been American free verse and, as a result, tightly organised and complex poems like the sonnets of the nineteenth century French poets (many of which are translated in The Jaguar’s Dream) come out sounding like slightly exotic versions of American poems rather than the interestingly alien things they are. W.S Merwin’s book of selected translations seems to me a perfect example of this whereby poems ranging from Ancient Egyptian to contemporary European finish up sounding pretty much the same.

It’s an unconscious act of appropriation but it is appropriation nevertheless. At the risk of boring readers with another anecdote, I’ll return to Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” – like the French poems, highly formal and highly formally accomplished. I was reading them in translation with a friend a few years ago and suddenly realised that I knew the original (from either schooldays or undergraduate days) of at least the first four lines of one of them. Suddenly “Only he whose bright lyre / has sounded in shadows / may, looking onward, restore / his infinite praise” became “Nur wer die Leier schon hob / auch unter Schatten / darf das unendliche Lob / ahnend erstatten.” The difference is miraculous, showing that the tight rhymes are not graces but are built into the entire experience of a poem. Stephen Mitchell’s translation – again, much admired – turns Rilke into American free verse, something that it definitely isn’t. This is not to be read as an argument for various old-fashioned formalisms – I’m an admirer of the subtle possibilities and great achievements of American free verse – but you can’t turn a hieratic, rhymed quatrain into a piece of free verse without killing it.

And then there are the ethical issues involved in translation. Kinsella is, pleasingly, sensitive to these, saying in his introduction:

There is a politics to any “translation”, and I am fully aware that issues of appropriation and respect surround any text. Whatever I have done with the source texts I have done with such respect in mind.

You feel here that he is mainly concerned with the more radical transformations such as his “distractions” and “takes”, arguing that though they may appear to be based on a contempt for the originals, they actually aren’t. But it seems to me that such extreme treatment doesn’t require too much in the way of apology: Dante’s text is hardly compromised by the poems of Kinsella’s Divine Comedy nor Virgil’s by Kinsella’s version of Aeneid VI. The ethical dangers really arise in conventional verse translation which, outrageously, suggests that in some ways it stands in for – represents in a foreign language – the original. This certainly worries me far more, at any rate. If I have read, for example, Elaine Feinstein’s translations of Tsvetaeva, I still haven’t read Tsvetaeva and should never live under the illusion that I have. There is a solution to this particular conundrum: we should always print the original alongside any verse translation. This, of course, doubles the bulk of a book and increases costs by adding what, to a publisher, must look like no more than a stack of left-hand pages that nobody will ever read. And it presents a lot of extra difficulties in the case of languages with non-Latin scripts, like Chinese, Sanskrit, Urdu and Arabic, though it is possible to gloss the original presentation with a phonetic or even Latin version. But, despite these difficulties, printing originals does have the advantage of protecting a verse translation from the charge of fraudulent representation.

The ideal “translation”, strongly argued for in Stanley Burnshaw’s The Poem Itself – still a valuable book despite being more than half a century old – is not “verse translation” at all. It prints the original with a sentence by sentence English rendition (preferably in prose, in small type at the bottom of the page!). Perhaps this is no more than a higher, more forbidding stage of translation, suitable for those who are already converts. And perhaps those converts were made by reading conventional verse translations (though, as I’ve said, the inadequacy of verse translations means that they rarely make good introductions).

It is also possible that both technical and ethical issues are alleviated by multiple translations. Some texts, usually classics, have attracted so many attempts at translation that the sum of these might be said to “point towards” the original – rather in the way differential calculus points towards its solutions. I certainly have this feeling with biographies. A single biography is a very dangerous thing since its inaccuracies, prejudices and unconscious reflections of the obsessions of the age in which it was written, can be mistaken for the “truth”, whereas a host of conflicting accounts and interpretations of the life of someone famous could be argued to smooth away many of these partialities. Perhaps multiple translations may work the same way. I’m not sure, though I can remember a comparison of seven or eight English versions of the end of Pericles’ funeral oration from Thucydides (difficult and ambitious enough prose to be loosely thought of as “poetic”) which certainly, in bringing out the difficulties, gave some sense of the original that lay behind them.

Those who want to argue for the possibility that, at least in the right poet’s hands, verse translations can be successful, often point to Pound who provided brilliant translations of Chinese, Provencal, Latin and Old English poems. His translations are always alive as poems. But it is worth pointing out that his proselytising personality meant that the originals he chose were usually obscure and this licensed him to make radical choices in idiom. For his Chinese translations he invented an entirely new poetic mode of phrasing by sense unit. The results are magnificent and went on (with the translations of Arthur Waley) to become the default language for rendering oriental poetry in English but the poems would not have been recognisable to their authors if they had been translated back into Chinese. They work as poems and they also work as introductions, since many students of oriental languages must have begun their studies because of the translations of Pound and Waley, but I’m sure these students were surprised at the differences between their starting points and what actually awaited them when their competence meant that they could read Li Bai or Du Fu, for example.

And finally, before I stop beating at the battered head of verse translation, appropriation is not only an ethical issue in that we wrong the translated original. You could argue that it also does us harm in that it domesticates the foreign – to our loss. Although students of translation theory can no doubt speak of the delicate pas de deux whereby the self reaches out to the responding Other, I can’t help but feel that to read verse translations is to sit at home and invite foreign cultures to drop in and speak to us for a while in our own language. Ideally we should get up and travel abroad and meet the foreign on its own terms, relishing its alienness and the way it interacts with and conflicts with our verities and our image of ourselves. Lyric poetry is defended with the argument that it broadens our sense of ourselves, widens our psychic possibilities and enables us better to map the “rich territory” of our inner lives. How can this be done if we content ourselves with reading practices which inevitably filter out most of what is distinctive, alien and challenging about a poem in a foreign language?

Jean Kent: Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks

Sydney: Pitt St Poetry, 2012, 86pp.

Jean Kent’s Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is an immensely likable collection, so likable that readers may miss some of its sophistication, thinking it no more than a set of poems about travels in France and Lithuania. It is actually a good deal more than that. Travel poetry, once it gets beyond the basic level of “I’ve written a poem about my trip to the Grand Canyon”, is usually about the self and the way in which aspects of the self, surprising even to the poet, are revealed when that self is faced by an experience of the alien. It is fine to have poems which come from a continual renewing of contact with some personal sacred ground but the self only develops (or “only reveals itself” – depending on your ideology) by moving into the unfamiliar. Even a poetry resolutely opposed to being based on a lyrically conceived self learns about (and expresses) the observing self when faced with an experience of the foreign: see, as an example, Laurie Duggan’s sequence, “Oňati Notebook” from his The Pursuit of Happiness, reviewed on this site in May.

For the Jean Kent of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks , travel is a linguistic experience as much as anything else and the poems harbour a lot of a poet’s deliberately bad cross-language puns: pain/pain, les Loups/loops, “Aah oui”/”Are we”, rues/ruse and many more. It is also, as its title suggests, an experience of linguistic dislocation. But linguistic dislocation isn’t simply a matter of being in a country and not speaking the language, what we might call the abrasion of travel at a domestic level. There are, for a start, more languages than spoken languages: the languages of the senses, of bodily movement, even the weird syntax of foreign customs – both informal and those formalised in laws and institutions. And, to complicate matters, just as a famous episode of Dr Who contains the observation that “A door, once opened, may be crossed in either direction” so travellers, instead of being passive victims of linguistic confusion, bring their own languages with them to disorient the natives. You get some sense of the complexities involved here in the book’s opening, a triptych called “’Le Weekend’ in Paris”, the first poem of which begins:

Sundays in Paris unsettle us with silence.
The grumble of traffic stays dream-distant,
an argument with air in a language
we apprehend with our senses, its light fur
the only foreignness against our skins
when we wake. With the curtains closed
we could be anywhere.
Doodling dialogues of slow shoes
under our windows; in the distance, bells. . . .

Significantly the title of this poem is a “borrowing” from English, much objected to by purists, and the fourth word of the poem, and thus of the book, is “unsettle” that odd word that simultaneously describes translocation and merely jangled nerves. The vision of Paris in the final poem of this group of three, “The Language of Light”, is one not of unsettling linguistic foreignness but of a city partly transformed by its visitors. And these visitors are traced back to grandparents who, as soldiers, passed through Paris in the First World War. Sitting on park chairs (significantly the poem says “we settle briefly / on these wrought-iron chairs”), Kent describes an experience whereby all visitors across languages and across times harmonise with the language of Paris itself:

. . . . . 
Poles and Italians, Australians and Africans,
small boys and motorised boats all blend into a buzz
swarming from under the acid-yellow horse-chestnut leaves
. . . . .
                                                  The light,
as it negotiates peace settlements
within this temporary country
of cold shoulders,
is speaking everyone’s ancestral tongue.

But if dislocation seems the immediate, primary experience of the poems of this book, the search for the sort of harmonies spoken of here is what gives them both drive and shape. It is no surprise, then, that the figure of Rilke (a great poet of harmonising) looms large and “Following Rilke to the Paris Zoo”, also a sequence of three poems, is probably the core of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks. These are poems structured by a process which encourages the inclusion of the most disparate material and then shows that this can be harmonised into an aesthetic whole. I don’t want to bore readers but it is hard to explain how this works without looking briefly at the structures of the poems themselves.

“The Path of the Panther” begins with an epigraph from Rilke’s poem, setting up the expectation that the poem itself will begin with an expedition to the Jardin des Plantes. So the first pleasant dissonant shock is that it begins with the Penguin Book of German Verse, read in another country and in another time (this opening chimes with my own experience since I used this book as a school text myself, a few years before Jean Kent, and I too have kept my copy):

The margins of my Penguin Book of German Verse
are shadowy with beasts. There was no panther
in that schoolgirl text – I found him later, alone -
but still around each captured poem, voices snarl.
“Over all the hilltops,” Goethe promised “Ruh” -
. . . . .

The second dissonance allowed into the poem is the endless, mechanical annotations demanded of students and embarrassing to read forty years later. Metaphorically they are like the bars on the panther’s cage, although the teacher, whom we meet at greater length in other poems, “rose like a flamingo / from our flock of galahs”, dealing with Rilke’s “Liebes Lied” with its statement that everything that touches us (“alles, was uns anrührt”) is material from which a single harmonious note can be drawn. The poem then goes on to deal not only with our inability to erase the past but with the way in which the past writes on us. The cover is:

a calligraphy as hypnotic and alien as the so-fashionable
white lace pantyhose I wore then. They disfigured my legs,
my mother said with shudders of distaste. They reminded her
of the ritual scarrings of primitive tribes. And why
would a young Queensland girl want to look like that?

No likelihood of that now, as middle-age inscribes
my thighs, slowing me into a macramé of veins no mini-skirt
could hope to happily skim. I have been written over 
as much as this book . . .
. . . . . 
I can only will the spaces of my world to widen
as I settle for such chaos, the bars of my bones growing shadow-light
round their own zoo of wild and gentle beasts.

All told, I think this is a rather wonderful poem. It also links up with other Australian poems. It has, for example, a touch of Gwen Harwood’s “Midwinter” about it in that it deals with a text from the past which turns up to speak to us in a future which that past could not have predicted. And, like the other poems in this sequence, there is a touch of the structure of Jennifer Maiden’s longer poems where the onward drive pulls more and more disparate items into the field of the poem, only to transform them into a surprising whole. And, at the end, it even recall’s Beaver’s image of his tortured self as a zoo in Letters to Live Poets. In “The Path of the Panther” the “whole” of the poem is summarised in the wish to entertain and finally harmonise the most widely disparate elements both in the outside world, in the world of the poem and in the inner world, her own internal zoo. The poem says you have to “settle for such chaos” but you also have to settle such chaos.

In the third poem of this group, “In the Jardin des Plantes”, we actually get to the home of Rilke’s panther. I presume, though I can’t be confident, that the roundabout path to the place itself in the three poems is yet another dissonance requiring to be absorbed and harmonised. It reminds me of the principle of the labyrinth whereby the harder our logical, meaning-seeking brains try to get us to the centre – in the labyrinth of reading and writing it becomes the central significance – the more we are thrown towards the outside. At any rate this poem makes a feature of its accretive structure. Once again the disparate worlds brought into the jardin involve youth, school and German lessons. When the poet is in the garden she sees children shouting “Les Loups! Les Loups!” when they see the models of wolves circling the hill. And this visual pun, of “looping”, is the primary motif of the poem. Memory “loops” over her and she recalls reading Anna Karenina under the desk at school. A Russian novel recalls Russian wolves and school recalls the pop group of the time, The Animals. The German teacher, the flamingo among galahs of the earlier poem, reappears. A victim of invasion, imprisonment and expulsion in the war – ultimate experiences of dislocation – she “encircles us / with futures doomed to rot”:

. . . . . 
A quarter of a century later, still I feel the sting
of her voice after she stops. Vibrated between
raw throated flowers and silvery circlings of wolves
. . . 
I almost forgive her for her love of sidling round us, hackling
our bare young necks between pigtails
with promises of suffering.

“O susses Lied! O sweet song!” Equivocal as history,
under Rilke’s bow her disparate voices chime.
. . . . .

Another sequence introduces, if not chaos then at least disjunctiveness, by being built around postcards from sunny Australia, sent by family and friends as if these “have suddenly become tourists in their own foreign land”. Here the principle that draws a single note from things like the conjunction of “Bellingen butterflies and rainforest trunks” with the reflected arches of the Pont Neuf or of Margaret Preston with Utrillo is often a motif drawn from the postcard. So a friend’s comment on seeing a black snake at home in Queensland echoes as an image for a snakelike queue for visas. In “Crocodiles in the Marais”, a card from Lake Macquarie with a picture of a crocodile moves the poem onto memories of the scaly skin of the Monstera Deliciosa which allegorises out into a statement about the frustrations of both living and reading with experiences that reveal themselves only at their own pace – like the slowly progressing, sweet semi-rotting of the Monstera fruit:

                                                       So much sweetness
in each fruit-salad phrase, no wonder we longed for our tongues
to be treated to whole poems, instantly. The monster, though,
was wiser. After the first ravishing: threats of razor blades.
When the skin resists, we learned, let it rest . . .

Now, in much longed-for Paris at an age when she should have a tough enough skin to be resistant to any stripping she finds herself ill with shingles, resulting in an intense surface pain in her neck. Confined to bed (“I imitate Proust”) she has a sense that the city has peeled her.

Though most of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is built around a stay in Paris – something that might be a strain for any readers who are mildly Francophobic – there is one section, the second, devoted to a visit to in-laws (“the family my father-in-law left fifty years ago”) in Lithuania. In these poems we meet the same linguistic sensitivity:

Ruta’s favourite word is “maybe”.
The dictionary on her lap
is heavy as another passenger
as she strokes and cossets it, dropping
the juicy apple crystals of Lithuanian
and hauling back the slow
chewing gum of English. . . .

but the historical realities of the country as it emerges from the Soviet Bloc, the traumatic translocations of the poet’s husband’s parents, the sinister remains of a past that is not spoken about, all mean that these poems are more straightforwardly built on content rather than the challenges of a harmonising form such as we meet in the Paris poems.

This excellent book is the first I have read from the publisher, Pitt Street Poetry, so it is an opportunity to say what a physical pleasure (as well – as will be obvious from what I have written – as an intellectual one) it was to read. The physical component of the pleasure derives from good typography on beautiful, cream paper. Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks does have some awkward page breaks but this isn’t a problem with the other two books – by John Foulcher and Luke Davies – that I have from the same publisher. Though screened titles for the poems themselves may not be to every poetry reader’s taste – they suggest graphic design rather than book design – these three small books set a standard in Australian poetry publishing.

Stephen Edgar: Eldershaw

Melbourne: Black Pepper, 2013, 109pp.

The title poem of Stephen Edgar’s Eldershaw is a three-part verse narrative which, nearly eighty pages long, makes up more than two-thirds of the book. The final twenty-five pages is a collection of poems described, on the back cover, as being “in Edgar’s more characteristic manner”. The narrative, “Eldershaw”, is a brilliant piece of “uncanny” fiction focussed on the Tasmanian home of the grandparents of the central character, Helen. She and her husband – a successful lawyer – rebuy it in the mid-fifties and, almost immediately, become prey to disturbing events the most affecting of which is finding their two little daughters dancing naked in the backyard singing, mysteriously, “Dep-pites! a-Darra-dan!”. Both partners end up behaving badly (certainly madly) and divorce messily. Helen later takes up with the much younger Luke whose family history forms the basis of the second part. Luke’s father is one of those victims of war (he flew Mosquitoes in raids over Germany) whose later life is a process of denial and almost self-willed deadness interspersed by eruptions of traumatic memory. The final section of “Eldershaw” deals with Luke’s responses to Helen’s death and records instances of the way her presence asserts itself: he finds a tape on which she had, unwittingly, recorded herself while drunk; he reads her extensive diaries; clearing out her things he finds, among her make-up, a tissue imprinted with her lipstick kiss; and, most importantly, wakes in the night with a clear vision of her sleeping alongside him only to find that she disappears the moment he tries to touch her.

Described like this, “Eldershaw” seems not much more than a melange of topoi from the genre of uncanny fiction, even down to alluding to the sinister and equivocal children of The Turn of the Screw and having a central character (in this case, Luke) who is resistant to any suggestion of the occult. But the whole poem works alarmingly well. Unlike a conventional genre piece, it is alive and convincing at every point, crackling with engagement and intensity. Working out why this should be the case is a tricky critical issue.

It can’t be put down to superlative narrative skills on Edgar’s part since there isn’t much in his seven earlier collections to prepare us for this movement into narrative. True, there is an early “Bluebeard’s Castle” and there is also “King Pepi’s Treasure” from the 1995 volume, Corrupted Treasures. Written in the same brisk blank verse as “Eldershaw”, this latter poem also visits the familiar landscapes of the uncanny in that it is a search for a missing text – in this case a Victorian short story referred to in the footnote of a scholarly book. The “rules of the labyrinth” apply: the harder the narrator searches using correct bibliographic procedures, the more the book in which the story appears recedes – even the British Library has mislaid it. Eventually, when all desire to find it has been leached away, the narrator stumbles on it in a secondhand bookshop in London only to find that the short story has been physically cut from the volume. Like much of the uncanny it can be read as an allegory of the search for textual meaning: so much is promised ultimately to be endlessly deferred, the text continually slipping out of reach. And there is much about “King Pepi’s Treasure” which is obsessed by text: the narrator as a child is fascinated by his first experience of cursive script – “the ”˜running writing’ he could never catch” – and fills pages with imitation scripts which he hopes will, one day, have a meaning. After his father’s death, he reads, in a late letter, not an act of communication from the father but a textual substitute for emotions:

An offering of uninformative,
Embarrassed platitudes which gestured at
Some more remote sense of what might be said,
For which the act of writing in itself
Would have to be the formal substitute,
So touching, so profoundly not himself.
Just like the face presented by his coffin,
Expressionless, uncoloured . . .

If “King Pepi’s Treasure” could be about deferred textual meanings, we also learn enough about the central character’s love-life to see that desire, too, is about receding and ultimately unreachable goals: touching his lover’s body he is visited by the image of a babushka doll hiding ever smaller dolls within:

Continually deferring the embrace,
Continually receding from his hold
Towards the central space in the final doll
Still moulded by its absence in her shape.

There are other related readings as well. Perhaps this is not so much about text generally as about poetic text. Perhaps, even, bearing in mind the sceptical protagonist of “Eldershaw”, it is about the occult (or any religion which harnesses the miraculous) which continually leads would-be adepts on with promises of revelation only to present them in the end, when the curtains are finally whisked aside, with an empty temple.

Another reason for approaching “Eldershaw” by this roundabout path is that “King Pepi’s Treasure” connects with “The Secret Life of Books”, a “more characteristic” poem which immediately precedes it. It is a poem which turns text from being a controlled human tool into a dimension with its own agenda:

. . . . .
         The time comes when you pick one up,
You who scoff
At determinism, the selfish gene.
Why this one? Look already the blurb
Is drawing in
Some further text. The second paragraph

Calls for an atlas or a gazetteer;
That poem, spare
As a dead leaf’s skeleton, coaxes
Your lexicon. Through you they speak
As through the sexes
A script is passed that lovers never hear.

They have you. In the end they have written you,
By the intrusion
Of their account of the world, so when
You come to think, to tell, to do,
You’re caught between
Quotation marks, your heart’s beat an allusion.

I dwell on this at length because it encapsulates in a small ambit what might be one way of approaching Edgar’s work as a whole. In other words, there is an entire corpus of poems in Edgar’s previous books which stand in the same relationship to “Eldershaw” that “The Secret Life of Books” might be said to have to “King Pepi’s Treasure”.

We have met Luke’s father, for example, as early as Edgar’s first book, Queuing for the Mudd Club, published in 1985. “Dawn at Bateman’s Bay with Two Figures” is an early example of a characteristic shift in Edgar whereby reality is frozen or illuminated into art: that is – land becomes landscape. But the landscape here is an expressionist one, encapsulating the deadness of the relationship between father and son in an imagined painting of “Grey road and river, grey / Sky gumming the interstices of trees, / The buildings pasted flatly like screens . . .”. When we are told:

                              Those fingers now are fused
Beyond prising. He’ll not be reached through them.
The rigours that made him are emptied and set
By. That expression is closed to appeal
And the closed eyes are focussed in a different
. . . . .

I’m not absolutely sure whether this is because the father is emotionally dead inside or actually, physically dead, but the fact that “Dawn at Bateman’s Bay with Two Figures” is followed immediately by “Patrimony: Four Poems on my Father’s Death” suggests that it may well be the latter. The first poem of Edgar’s second book, Ancient Music (1988) dwells on his father’s old 78s, accumulated before the war but never played after: “All secrets were quite safe / In our technology of silence”, it says, “He couldn’t speak to me, nor I / To him.”

Above all we have met Helen continually throughout Edgar’s poetry and a great number of the events of “Eldershaw” have found their way into earlier lyric expression. She is clearly based on Edgar’s late former partner, Ann Jennings, known to all readers of Australian poetry from Gwen Harwood’s much-loved “An Impromptu for Ann Jennings”. She is the dedicatee of the first book and the posthumous dedicatee of Edgar’s fifth book, Lost in the Foreground, published the year after her death in 2002. The first poems of the first book, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Boobook Owl” and “Home Comforts”, might well be about their life together but after 2002 she becomes increasingly the focus – at least the emotional focus – of Edgar’s poetry moving it from a set of elegantly formal meditations about art, life, time, the future, our genes (and so on) into a poetry which seems – to me at least – to be trying to deal with an oppressive and disturbing subject that continually demands consideration, rather like the house’s protests in “Eldershaw”. Lost in the Foreground concludes with a comparatively conventional elegy, “Elemental”:

The body’s graces which you graced
Are irretrievably effaced,
And all you were that now is not,
And will no more, resolves to what
These gathered memories can make
From shreds of pleasure and heartache.
The lines around your eyes and lips,
The gestures of your fingertips,
Those limbs that love moved and desire
Are disembodied now like fire.
 . . . . .

By the time of Other Summers (2006) she (or, more precisely, her absence) is a major recurring theme. There is an extended suite of ten disparate poems, “Consume My Heart Away”, which seems likely to derive from the same experience. At any rate, it is devoted to getting to grips with loss from different angles. It carries as an epigraph Francesca’s famous comment that there is nothing so bleak as recalling times of happiness in a time of woe, coupled with a comment from Durrell’s Justine: “I saw that pain itself was the only food for memory”. Two of these poems are especially fine. “History of the House” – again the title specifically recalls “Eldershaw” – deals with ghostly presences and the way that while the central character needs to be free of them in general (“Switch off the radio, / Enough of ghosts . . .”) he cannot be free of her, specifically (“She will not be denied. / The ghost of her is too much to ignore, / More stubborn to remain since she is gone”). “Man on the Moon” is a magnificent piece of poetic indirection where the sight of the moon recalls the experience of seeing the moon landing which itself moves, with the obsessive logic of love, to thinking about the way the lover was “in the world then and alive” and how love makes an accidental crossing of paths seem a destined meeting. The conclusion:

The crescent moon, to quote myself, lies back,
A radiotelescope propped to receive
The signals of the circling zodiac.
I send my thoughts up, wishing to believe

That they might strike the moon and be transferred
To where you are and find or join your own.
Don’t smile. I know the notion is absurd,
And everything I think, I think alone.

brings us back to Dante, I think, in recalling the circle of the moon in Paradiso. And there is also a wonderful ambiguity in that “Don’t smile” which might, in its defence, be addressed to the reader but, as we all know, is really addressed to the dead lover (since we never stop speaking to those we have truly loved) and thus is a neat and wry contradiction of the last line.

Visitations and memories continue. In “Her Smile” (from later in Other Summers) an old video is recovered showing her in “the years before you met / When you were not alive to her, / Nor she to you”, a story retold in “Eldershaw”. “2.00” from History of the Day (2009) tells the story of awaking to the sensation that she is lying next to him, the “visitation” with which “Eldershaw” concludes, and “Nocturnal” from the same book is based on the experience of hearing her voice accidentally recorded on tape. It also includes the story of Jenning’s being disturbed by a sinister presence not long after buying the house. This poem is thickened by the fact that the tape itself is a recording of Gwen Harwood, a dead friend of both Jennings and Edgar, reciting “Suburban Sonnet”. In other words it has a frame that doubles the experience of being visited by the voice of the dead. It’s the closest that these more conventional poems get to the world of “Eldershaw”:

. . . . . 
Who ever thought they would not hear the dead?
Who ever thought that they could quarantine
          Those who are not, who once had been?
          At that old station on North Head
                    Inmates still tread the boards,
Or something does; equipment there records
The voices in the dormitories and wards,
Although it’s years abandoned. Undeleted,
What happened is embedded and repeated,

Or so they say. And that would not faze you
Who always claimed events could not escape
          Their scenes, recorded as on tape
          In matter and played back anew
                    To anyone attuned
To that stored energy, that psychic wound.
You said you heard the presence which oppugned
Your trespass on its lasting sole occasion
In your lost house. I scarcely need persuasion,

So simple is this case. Here in the dark
I listen, tensing in distress, to each
          Uncertain fragment of your speech,
          Each desolate, half-drunk remark
                    You uttered unaware
That this cassette was running and would share
Far in the useless future your despair
With one who can do nothing but avow
You spoke from midnight, and it’s midnight now.

What does all this mean? It is hard to resist the conclusion that this life/love experience is so powerful that it has, cumulatively, put a lot of strain on Edgar’s usual poetic methods. In other words “Eldershaw” is not merely a successful narrative which mines personal experience to lift it above being a mere genre piece. Nor is it a sort of roman à clef – the kind of fiction that gets its drive from coded references to a known story that is, in itself, for various reasons, unsayable. “Eldershaw” is, I think, an attempt to deal with a profound experience by exploiting poetry’s protean possibilities and constructing a verse narrative to both air and attempt to control the material. I think it is more successful than the “lyric/dramatic” poems – like “Nocturnal” – largely because it is a mode where complexity of expository detail, far from being the awkward drag it can be in a lyric poem (for how can any poet calculate how much contextual detail is necessary before an innocent reader can make sense of such a central and repeatedly visited experience?) forms the substance of the text. The main question about “Eldershaw” – which a reader cannot answer – is whether this is a final, freeingly successful engagement with this intense material or simply another approach, admittedly successful, from a new angle. Time – as they so often say ”“ will tell.


The advantage of having quoted “The Secret Life of Books” and “Nocturnal” at some length is that they give readers new to Edgar’s poetry some idea of what makes up his “characteristic manner”, a mode that dates back to the first poems of his first book. It is almost always stanzaic, usually intricately rhymed, and exploits a truly prodigious technique to make long sentences articulate themselves within the stanzas. There is rarely any end-stopping and the rhymes are almost always half-rhymes (I usually find myself rereading the first stanza with an eye to working out its rhyme scheme before I go on with an Edgar poem). Those who dislike it will claim that it is stodgy and old-fashioned but it seems to have served Edgar well and choices in poetry should be judged by the extent to which they enable a poet to do what he or she wants and needs to do, rather than by any abstract standard such as whether they are “in keeping with recent developments”. And getting the syntax of longish sentences into a predesigned stanzaic shape produces a distinctive quality of voice: the three stanzas I have quoted from “Nocturnal” will give some idea of how brilliantly Edgar does this. Another component of this voice is the presence of lexical density – there are quite a few words beyond most people’s competence. “Streeling”, “obtunded” and “stravaiging” occur within a few pages of each other in Edgar’s first book and “planish” turns up in one of the last poems of Eldershaw. Odd lexical items can create different effects. On the crudest level they can just be there to raise the level of the style so that the poem establishes and sustains a slightly hieratic quality. But they also have an estranging effect and in Edgar’s style they sometimes seem like (to risk mixing metaphors) little knots in the stately, brahmsian flow of the verse.

Apart from the fact that it isn’t in one of Edgar’s favoured six or eight line stanzas and is, rather, in syllable-counted couplets, the first poem of the sixteen that fill out Eldershaw, “Nothing But”, is in touch with Edgar obsessions that go back to some of his earliest poems. It begins with the sun illuminating a domestic coastal scene:

Like wind and spray, the first sun hits the coast
And paints it into being, strikes the face

Of the sleeper who awakes, in character,
Convinced she is herself and yesterday

Woke also in this room, who, rising, gazes
At waves like travellers in time which bring

Reports back from tomorrow. Even so,
How frail an artifice the pigface seems,

Streaming in purple down the quarry wall;
The empty laundromat, this Monday morning,

Its window like an exercise to render
Transparency from plain day, a collage

Of this and that . . . . .

The work of art which the woman sees through the laundromat window is one in which the objects of the day are revealed for what they are – “Nothing but this, nothing if not this” – rather as components of a painted scene with a predetermined meaning.

But this transmutation of reality into one kind of artwork or another is a theme (if that is the correct word) that seems to recur so commonly in Edgar’s earlier poetry that it is almost an obsession. Just as the poems of Gwen Harwood – another poet who moved to Tasmania – often touch base with the poetic equivalent of a primal scene (wandering at sunset on the edge of water, receptive to the otherworld of dream etc) so a scenario peculiar to Edgar is often repeated in which the poet is looking at the landscape of estuary and hills through a window. Probably there is a gull flying, either at random or pursuing goals quite different to the rest of the landscape. Some event of light then transmutes this scene into art with the window acting as a plane. “Ulysses Burning” (another Dante allusion) from Corrupted Treasures, expresses this perfectly:

This room is the darkened theatre. Through the glass
The white veranda frames the stage
Like a proscenium. Garden, street and beach,
River and mountain, layer on layer, reach
Out to the backdrop of the sky
Before which all must pass that has to pass.

The river with its diamond-crusted gloss;
A Petri dish of gel in which
A culture of the sun is flourishing.
On the mountain, which aspires to Monet, cling
Veiled glares, some squeegee smears of cloud.
. . . . .

And so on. In its own way it is a mode full of possibilities especially for dealing with endless variations on the opposition of life and art. (In “Nothing But” and another poem from Eldershaw, “Auspices”, you have the feeling that the later Edgar wants the result to be an art that will be more about things-in-themselves rather than, say, interpretable allegories.) But it is also a mode that suits Edgar’s style perfectly because this steady progression of sentences through stanzas has an oddly viscous effect which mimics the transitions that the poems deal with. It is a case of an odd music finding its theme perfectly. If I had to locate a word within the poetry that might act as a totem, I would choose “frieze” (with its homophonic second meaning as well).

“Nothing But” also recalls – in its notion that the waves bring reports from tomorrow – those earlier poems interested in the future. One of these, “In Search of Time to Come”, belongs to that large poetic genre devoted to how we can suddenly be exposed to other dimensions either by the destruction of what another early Edgar poem calls “that golden stock / Of certainties” or by being exposed to other orders of existence, such as animal consciousness. “In Search of Time to Come” describes an imagined prehistoric community in a cave, turned inward – “Always back / On itself” – rehearsing familiar tasks. Outside the sun is setting and the threat of the external dark is beginning to loom. The individuals feel that someone is out there but, as the poem concludes, what is out there is us, their genetic and cultural future.

Given time one could also write a great deal about the way that the past is dealt with. Often it emerges in poems that are about genetic determinism and this colours many of the poems about the father like, for example, “His Father’s Voice” from Where the Trees Were and those about the family. In fact poems about the family form an interesting counterpoint to the poems of loss about which I’ve spoken. In Other Summers there are three different versions of a poem called “Im Sommerwind” in which late adolescence is revisited. In each poem the scene is, essentially, frozen but the three versions look like three different snapshots. In the same book there is a wonderful piece, perhaps my favourite Edgar poem, “Eighth Heaven”, in which the poet wanders through a frozen image of his family home:

. . . . .
                              And there is my father

Standing in the lounge room, half-turned away.
I summon up some greeting and can feel
The words unbodied, though not a sound disturbs

The house’s depth. I walk in and am baffled
To find, however much I move about him,
That that one aspect is still turned to me,

Unmoving, a one-sided hologram.
. . . . .

I’m sure that much of the magic of this poem lies in the fact that so many of the Edgar themes are focussed in this bizarre scenario. The family is frozen in time in the same way that it is in memory and in photographs but it is a benevolent freezing into an enabling art rather than into the horrors of the later cantos of Inferno where the lack of movement symbolises a moral deadness. One of the most significant moments in “Eldershaw” occurs when Luke’s father, returned from the war, goes with his new wife on a delayed honeymoon in the country:

But some particulation of the light
Applied across, or rather through the miles
Between here and the faint blue hazy sky,
In which the sun, a smouldering orange disc
Behind a screen, was sinking gradually
As though the air resisted its decline.
How beautiful she thought it. “I don’t know,”
He said at last, “it all looks dead to me.”

What we get here – in compressed form – are the two different results of freezing (or “friezing”): the enabling beauties of art or deadness.

Many of the other poems at the end of Eldershaw reflect on the painful material that the long narrative deals with and are thus a part of the dynamic of how Edgar’s poetry is to deal with this issue. We are left with the book’s final poem, “Lost World”, which describes how a Tasmanian bushfire burns down a shed which contains a lover’s photograph in a gardener’s old jacket. The picture is lost but in a sense, the poem reminds us, much more was lost since the picture only captured one instant out of many instants:

A little earlier, or in a while,
And a quite other face or pose
Might have been taken than this shadowed smile,
Which no one may have seen except
These two, the nameless and the dead, or kept
The curling memory of. And now, who knows? . . .

All life is loss, even (or especially) life frozen into art. Narrative may be a solution but it, despite its commitment to a fuller depiction of process and change, is also only a sketch of reality. “Lost World” concludes with the hope that everything on earth (crushed fossils, drowned Minoan combs, experiences of love at its most intense) survives somewhere as a “print in space . . . coded like a chromosome / With lost millennia and multitudes” – but, at best, it’s a desperate and very faint hope.

Laurie Duggan: The Pursuit of Happiness; Leaving Here

The Pursuit of Happiness (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2012)
Leaving Here (Maleny: light-trap, 2012)

The final poem of Laurie Duggan’s new book is a long set of diary-like entries made while based at Griffith University (it’s called “The Nathan Papers”) and it concludes with Duggan’s arriving in Kent. This pivotal event took place in August, 2006, and produces the title of the second book under review, Leaving Here. Despite visits back to Australia, England has been Duggan’s home since then. Someone who seemed to have such an ability to see Australia whole and dispassionately looked as though he might be headed for a period of disorienting exile (often defined as the quintessential condition for a contemporary poet). It says a lot about Duggan’s poetics that this hasn’t occurred at all and the years since his leaving have been poetic anni mirabiles for him. His reputation is, justifiably, higher than it has ever been and all would expect him to be one of the first chosen in any anthology of post-war Australian poetry. His publishing output seems also to have blossomed: The Collected Blue Hills was published in Australia last year and a small volume of the first of their English equivalents, Allotments, has also been released; Shearsman Press, in England, have brought out a selected poems (Compared to What), a reissue of The Ash Range, the important Crab & Winkle, (reviewed on this site in February, 2010) and now this new collection, The Pursuit of Happiness. Reading Duggan’s weblog, Graveney Marsh, gives you some sense of the reasons for this comparatively smooth adjustment to England, beyond a new, supportive publisher. You get a sense of the vitality and openness of the Post-Poundians in England (Duggan has always been an admirer of Bunting and Roy Fisher); poets searching for a way in which to register the real – the actuality of landscape and cityscape as well as the complex social situations that the English have a reputation for being especially sensitive to. It seems, to an outsider looking at the blog, to be a “scene” full of fertile discussion and possibilities, far richer than one might meet in Australia.

The Pursuit of Happiness has, on its cover, a reproduction of a painting by Stella Bowen called Flight From Reason, showing the statue of a periwigged man of the Enlightenment among houses bombed-out in the Blitz. This, together with the book’s title, suggests that it will join in the critique of the “Age of Reason” and its projects. But, although this may underlie many of Duggan’s attitudes (especially towards all-embracing cultural and intellectual perspectives) you still feel that this is a poetry of detail and the frameworks of placing that detail. Significantly, it begins with a wonderful poem whose main aim seems to be to position the poet himself. “Letter to John Forbes” is Janus-faced in that it is, at its beginning, addressed back to Australia (and backwards in time) and, at its conclusion, forwards to something which will, in at least a small way, celebrate poetry: “the buses all head north / to Clapton Pond, / but I’m southbound / for The Cut, Southwark, // poetry, spotlit / on a tiny stage”. The opening of the poem is all about placement:

lit up in a window
with a burger & glass
of African chenin blanc

I’m reading the later Creeley
on Charing Cross Road

you, ten years back
in limbo (Melbourne)
of which you made the best

I inhabit an England
you mightn’t recognize
though you would have read
the fine print that led here . . .

We might, initially, think that the “fine print” of that last quoted line could refer to a personal knowledge of Duggan and the intimate details of those features of his situation which have meant that he has finished up in a London cafe. It may well do so, but it also refers to the cultural currents that have produced contemporary England. The more you are familiar with Duggan’s poetry which, though it does introduce the poet’s self, tends to do so in a casual way as though he were no more than an (admittedly important) detail among details, the more you are likely to see the second implications as the important ones (although later Creeley is very personal, it still resists making the history and experiences of the “lyric ego” central). At any rate, I prefer to keep both readings present especially, as I’ll explore later, because Duggan is present in The Pursuit of Happiness in ways that are untypical for him.

In a sense “Letter to John Forbes” could be described as an elegy, though it certainly isn’t in the “Lycidas”, “Adonais” mode. A more overt elegy is “Written in a Kentish Pub on Hearing of the Death of Jonathan Williams” but though it is more overtly an elegy it isn’t in any sense formulaic. The title itself (like the book’s title) has a deliberately archaic, almost eighteenth century, quality and the poem reflects how memories of Williams (an American from the south who lived in England) interact with the pub environment and with Duggan’s response to it: “this Thatcherite / province, its // councils / comprised of / Tory / stayputs // the idiots / of small business?”. It’s a poem that wants to know how an elegy for a friend might be made, asking “for J.W. / what?”. And at least part of the answer is to take those elements of Williams’s verbal playfulness that Duggan himself has responded to over the years and highlight them in the poem.

Duggan’s obsession with place isn’t entirely confined, in The Pursuit of Happiness, to the place where much happiness is usually sought – English pubs. “Oxenhope Revisited” – another very English title, this time sounding more Georgian than eighteenth century – is ten short views of Bronte territory; “Exeter Book” – a medieval title this time – is a poem devoted to Exeter and “The London Road” is devoted, I think, to his “home” town of Faversham, in Kent at the end of Watling Street. There are short poems about Granada (“Grenadines” – “Baroque is / ”˜shock and awe’ // you see the virtues / of Rococo”), Milan and Cyprus (“Paphos”). What strikes me about these is how flexible Duggan’s sense of observation is. I probably have developed a tendency, over the years, to see it as composed of two elements. The first is a painterly registration of sights and lights – “the sun at an angle / manages the northern window”, “Darkness across the water, before which / lightning, hail against windows”, “after the Great Storm a broken crown / wild anemonies under the lip of the hill”, are examples though dozens of others could have been chosen. This kind of observation seems to be dominant in the two sets of “Angles” included in this book, all thirty-two of which a quick and accurate “views” though they are sometimes sociologically slanted.

The second component is a sensitivity to signs, especially those where, as I have said in other places, aspects of the world being observed are revealed. Thus the letter to John Forbes with which the book begins cannot help recording the shop sign, “BUDWEISER, / ENGLISH BREAKFAST / ”˜OPEN’” and there is something satisfying about a dry-cleaning shop (in “Angles 4”) being called VOLTAIRE as there is of CHRIS HOLIDAY RENT A CAR in Paphos . But there are other elements. There is, for example, throughout Duggan’s work, an interest in verbal signs. “Looney Tunes” and “Bin Ends” in The Pursuit of Happiness are made up of these. Sometimes they are just puns – “Old Speckled Hen / (for old speckled men?) – but in a poem like “An Italian Lake” the visual registration of the place which opens it and the tart social comment which derives from this and concludes it, bracket what would have to be called an “aural sign”. It’s odd the way sound appears in what would otherwise be a visual setpiece:

one side shaded
for months; the other
plentiful olives, a house
on a steep hillside.
this is “a speechless place”
says the guide: meaning
neither incomparable
nor unspeakable;
“sightless” perhaps;
a wall of shuttered villas
owned by footballers
and movie stars

This is only one example of the way in which the elements of Duggan’s poetry might be more varied than at first appears. It may be that the real energy in this poetry comes not from observation but from the placing of those in a poem. The tensions that make a Duggan poem “work” as some kind of aesthetic entity (I’m aware that this might beg questions) may well lie not only in the way observations are placed next to each other but also in the way different sorts of observations impinge on each other.

“Oňati Notebook” is the only example in The Pursuit of Happiness of Duggan in his more extended “anthropological poetic” mode – “”Milan” and “Paphos” are more compressed, condensed and allusive examples. And yet, at the same time, it still has its origins in personal diary-keeping and the author is very much a presence. In fact read singly, rather than as part of a set (including, say, “British Columbia Field Notes” from The Passenger), “Oňati Notebook” is full of intimations of a tense, uncomfortable observer. The tour of Oňati in the Spanish Pyrenees (Basque territory) is interrupted by “intermittent heavy rain” and the forced spells of interior living bring out doubts and fears, as in the second poem:

Coats dance on the coat rack
noises off from a billiard room

a rip in the table’s baize,
a warp towards one pocket.

is all you need to do”
says Pam

and, I guess,
“It’s my job”

Euskadian rhythms,

the mysteries
of 2009

Much of this discomfort can be put down to the experience of the signs of an alien culture, but Duggan has always thrived on the notation (and, sometimes, exploration) of such signs. My reading of the poem stresses that it is the unease that the poet has brought with him, rather than anything specific to Basque culture, which produces this tenseness:

. . . . .
My hands, the hands of a very old person,
rest on the arms of an ergonomic chair
(of Bauhaus design: Marcel Breuer?).

All this takes me away from what’s out there:
a black square (homage to Ad Reinhardt)
inflected by pointillisme

The end of “Oňati Notebook” brings a lot of this together. It finishes not with any kind of summation of the culture but with the bewilderment of the poet. And this bewilderment is visual and linguistic (and, thus, aural):

Is it? could it be (the peak)?
Landurratzko Punta,
with Klabeliňaitz (or Marizelaieta)
a little to the left?

the contours are about right

it would have to be

right on the border of this province/region


It might be going too far to see “Oňati Notebook” as being the closest Duggan’s poetics can take him to confessional poetry but it is consonant with the elegiac elements of the letter to John Forbes and the elegy for Jonathan Williams. The final sequence of The Pursuit of Happiness, “The Nathan Papers” is also full of an uneasy self. Since this is really a set of diary entries made in the period leading up to leaving Australia for England, this dis-ease might be understandable. On first reading it seems less consequential than the other poems of the book but rereadings alter this judgement. The first page, in particular, is one you would want to see in any selection of Duggan poems because it deals with so many of the issues crucial to his poetry. It begins with a view of the eucalypts – in which the Nathan campus is set – seen after rain. I think this is an iconic image for Australians. Winding paths full of the litter of stripped gumbark among the great trees themselves have always seemed symbolic of Australia, opposed to the carefully defined edges of European privet hedges. Needless to say, Duggan’s view is rather less essentialist than my own and he quickly moves a seemingly natural environment into a created one:

eucalyptus after rain, even this, trunks straight or sinuous, reminds of Sydney Long. art has made this environment, its pathways, marked, curve toward the dormitories
red mahogany (not “real” mahogany, just a variety of eucalypt). and in the low-lying areas stringybark and needlebark, the path goes up the ridge. underbrush. a side track revegetating
forest on a hill
small brush turkey with undeveloped tail
furiously running
the science of this?               mound building?
I never wanted to be a poet. not like some people want to be one now. it just happened. and then it was too late to do otherwise
the template is buried (or burned), the elsewhere to this this for which I function (among others) as an as if. “imagine that all these things you’ve been taught are meaningless”. or slide into pure consumerism

And so forth until the final section which is actually set in England. It’s a poem with a lot of important material in it, prompted by the imminent fact of leaving (“We will be leaving all this behind”) that brings a new perspective to landscapes and objects.

This tone of a distinctive, almost confessional air in some of the poems of The Pursuit of Happiness extends into Leaving Here, a beautiful, large format, thirty page, limited edition book produced by Light-trap press with a cover by Angela Gardner. There are three poems: “Thirty Pieces”, “One-Way Ticket” and “The London Road” – the latter also appearing in The Pursuit of Happiness. The outside poems are about locations – Brisbane and Faversham – and the central poem is, like “The Nathan Papers”, about the process of leaving, especially that of going through one’s property to see what should be kept. For a poet that means revisiting a lot of writing and documentation about writing:

what I have written
I have lost

what’s recorded
so much paper and celluloid

the 1974 of desire moves
through its lack of movement

a moment
a memento

a memory stick

a stack
of disks

a pile
of maps . . .

Many of the parts of this poem detail objects and scenes (“circular paths / a wrought-iron gate . . . / distant apartments / pipes, wind-vanes / funnels // walking figures / backwash / along the rocks // old military medals / account books / chess pieces . . .”) in a way which Duggan’s poetry of place has made us familiar with. But, unusually in this poem, they are places and objects left behind and are thus imbued with an emotional burden that the other recorded items do not have.

The way the self appears in the poetic traditions to which Duggan adheres always seems problematic. This is largely because these traditions reject the possibility of the revelation of the self being the central act of poetry. In this they betray their origins both in time and place. But the self is always there, perhaps the more so the more it is hidden or suppressed, and in the case of these two books we feel are engaging with something new in Duggan’s now extensive output: a different, rather uneasy self.

Brook Emery: Collusion

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2012, 58pp.

Brook Emery’s previous book, the excellent Uncommon Light, explored with great subtlety and precision questions which are usually considered to be the provenance of philosophers of the mind: What is consciousness? How does it relate to the body? What is memory? And a host of other implicated issues: What is thought and how does it relate to meaning? It considered these by bringing to them a poet’s skill, an ability to speak about difficult-to-describe states in a tactile way (while always being aware of the paradoxes of “poetic” methods such as metaphor). The essential movement of the poetry is to undermine whatever solutions or certainties emerge as a result of meditation and when one thinks of Emery’s poetry and the way it is almost always “grounded” at the sea’s edge on the west coast of Australia, it is hard not to think in terms of the way sand shifts continuously beneath our feet, seeming to be both supporting and unstable. This position seems, at first, quite conventional for our time in that it rejects any transcendental ground of being and is highly sensitive to observed processes and interactions but I think it also rejects the Buddhism that might offer it a comfortable home since the virtues of those beliefs and practices are, after all, tied to a baroque theology involving vast imagined cycles of history and processes of rebirth. “That Beat Against the Cage” is a multipart poem from Uncommon Light that hammers away at such issues and its final stanza concludes on a note of dissatisfaction:

It’s untenable, this drifting that sees the world as drift.
The fantasy should ebb, become the half-recalled
calling of the sea, or else lifetimes will be spent meandering
self-consciously through the matter of the day,
shuttling back and forth as if transience
could be a domicile, fearful that to stray too far,
stay too long, is to change the story
for an understory, the agreed accepted world
for a thesis of perplexity: a conclusion there is 
no evidence to decide, or that the evidence
leads to thoughts the thought cannot sustain.

I’ve read this as a rejection of Buddhism but it might also be simply a rejection of a poetically convenient way of living in a liminal state, exploiting borders and uncertainties and using uncertainty as a stable ground on which to erect poetic structures full of the gestures that arise from certainty. At any rate, the poem seems to be saying that although uncertainty is a state, it isn’t one to feel comfortable about: transience can’t be a domicile.

But the book isn’t entirely about such matters: woven throughout Uncommon Light were a group of poems addressing a question that usually derives from the philosophical vectors of ethics and religion rather than from those of the nature of consciousness: what is the nature of evil and whence does it come? They weren’t the best poems in the book but their attempts to deal with the issue – significantly they were strongest when they dealt with the poet’s inability to deal with the issue! – were a welcome widening of perspective. This direction isn’t continued in Emery’s new book Collusion, but if it seems to abandon the question of evil it does have some poems about personal guilt.

Above all things, one’s first sense of Collusion is how organised a book it is, how little like a conventional collection of poems. If it keeps a narrower focus than Uncommon Light, it also experiments with a variety of tones, even of types of poems, and places them carefully. The first, last and central poems (they are all untitled) are done in epistolary style, addressed to K. At the moment we think of Kafka and start to explore the possibilities involved in writing to such a figure (or perhaps his protagonist), the middle poem carefully corrects our course:

. . . . . 
Dear K, I tire of the apparatus of my brain.
I fear that you (my interlocutor, my will,
my conscience) may also tire. The thoughts I think
have passed their use-by dates, are petals tossed
in Burnt Norton’s dusty wind. We could,
we probably do, lead many lives even as
an inoffensive clerk or as a monstrous insect
squirming on its back, feet and feelers wildly
seeking purchase on the air. We stand accused.
We answer allegations we make against ourselves.
Someone finding this will think I’m corresponding
with Franz Kafka (it could be Kierkegaard
or Krazy Kat). I’m not that mad, and besides,
Kafka had too many problems of his own (migraines, boils,
constipation, tuberculosis, a certain paranoia). . . .

Although this invokes Eliot (twice) as well as Kafka, a book containing poems as imaginary letters, or letters to imaginary recipients (“corresponding” is an interesting pun) recalls the work of Bruce Beaver, especially his Letters to Live Poets, and reminds one that that poet, too, was an inhabitant of a Sydney beach surrounded by an environment which both thrust particulars at you while at the same time reminding you of their essential instability all in a sharp, crystal clear light. I can’t remember any earlier poems by Emery which are homages to Beaver but one of the groups of poems which are carefully interspersed throughout Collusion are clearly done in one of Beaver’s styles, probably that of the “Days” sequence of Odes and Days, the third of Beaver’s great central triptych of books. I’ll quote the first of them in full (it’s the fifth poem of Collusion):

It’s almost spring in our neglected hemisphere.
As yet no indication we’ve tilted far enough
to receive the annual, waited-for reward.
The sea and sky volley what there is of dusk
and a peevish wind plays nip and tuck
to irritate the waves. In its own good time
the sun will be here and the sea all aquamarine
as if, overnight, spirit could manifest as light
and just this startling colour. Then morning warmth,
leaves on imported trees, poems (God help us!),
and mothballs for our heavy winter clothes.
And are we lighter too. Do we deserve it?
No. But the punishing and forgiving world
will give it to us anyway and I’ll give thanks
though to whom or what it’s useless to inquire.

This is such a good approximation of a Beaver poem that it could actually be one and if I had had my Beaver collections at hand while writing this I would have nervously checked through them to make sure that it isn’t a quotation, perhaps from a late book like The Long Game. At any rate it catches the Beaver tone perfectly with its sudden unusual perspective (“our neglected hemisphere”), its sense of the world as a place to be lamented and celebrated, its tremendous drive that spills across into (and weirdly animates) a bathetic conclusion. The only thing that doesn’t seem Beaverish is the pun on “lighter” in the twelfth line. There are another six poems in this mode. If I had to guess the impetus behind them I would say that they experiment with inhabiting Beaver’s approach to living in the world. They temporarily eschew the elegant and subtle exploration of mind, thought and the real (and the balanced states of their inter-relationship) which mark most of the Emery poems, for an attitude of sudden brusque involvement resulting in a short, sharp lyric poem but one in which wider perspectives are included, not in a solemn, gestural way (as though a profundity were being offered, gift-wrapped, to the reader) but in a casual, tossed-off one.

There is another group of poems spaced through the book which identify themselves not only in that they are all ten lines long but in that all begin with ellipsis points and an indented first line – a clear indication that these are to be read as snapshots of process, though they might also be rescued fragments of one single long poem. The first two are memorable for their presentation of differing but equally symbolic scenes. In the first the author and (presumably) partner are placed between “the receding arcs of sea and sky” in front and “the green and terrible forest” behind. The two exist, of course, on the liminal sand (described here, with a nice example of that distinctive kind of pun which I think is called paronomasia, as “the intervening sleight of sand”) but they aren’t static: “our feet / lifted and set down, lifted and set down . . .”. In the second poem, examples of hard-nosed industry “three men in hardhats / and orange coveralls” on a bridge (already established in the book’s first poem as being in opposition to the flowing element beneath) are contrasted with a mannequin “forty feet below in a pink gown / and imitation pearls”.

The other poems of Collusion continue to recall Beaver in that they seem to be diary-like meditations, occasioned by living in the world: “All morning it’s been difficult to settle, difficult to harness / energy or purpose for all the things / I have to do.” Their distinctive movement is to be strung between relentless denial and tentative affirmation. A couple of them describe dreams and three, late in the book, deal with memories. One of these latter is prompted by a bicycle ride (and contains the clause “We can’t go back” which is surely an allusion to Beaver’s novel) another by an old photo and the third by recurrent domestic guilts induced by the humming monotony of an aeroplane flight. Compared with the issue of the monstrous evils explored in Uncommon Light, these guilts seem very minor: burying a younger brother up to his neck in the back yard, losing him at the Show, having a near disaster with his children in the surf. As the poem’s last stanza says: “This light-weight guilt is carried on the wind, along with doubt, / longing, nothing more than dust, clouds, rain, squall after squall, / as if wind intended to drag the whole Antarctic north . . .” But despite visits to the worlds of dream and guilt, these poems seem, essentially metaphysical in their obsessions.

One late poem works hard to describe a state of what might be called “significance”, experienced physically:

I almost understand this resonance, this hum
or echo which I can only picture as a frequency,
oscillations expanding and diminishing
from a single source. And the sometime static
which crackles and interrupts, which implies
another source, another thought or possibility. . . .

There is a central statement, “It’s not persistent but too here and now / to be dismissed as fleeting”, and then life returns to the commonplace – a grandchild sleeps in the back of the car and the poet reads Mark Strand. Fittingly, exactly as many stanzas are devoted to the everyday as to the definition of the barely describable state.

And this state, or something like it, is familiar from many of Emery’s poems. In one of them it appears at dawn in hypnagogic and liminal guise and demands consideration despite the cruder intrusion of early-morning sexual desire: “No. Not here. Not now. There’s so much to consider. The sequence of sounds, the unknowable and what it means, the time it takes // to cross an interval between two spots or states . . .” One of the best poems is an extended attempt at description culminating in metaphors deployed as expression of both difference and similarity:

. . . . . 
                                        My mind is silent too
and still. I can’t describe it. Not empty
like some vessel, not grey and wispy
like a fog: something more substantial,
not set and settled but curiously serene,
like breathing starlight . . .

Perhaps, ultimately, a metaphor like this final one is the most powerfully descriptive mode though it is hedged about with problems.

Above all, throughout Emery’s poetry and repeatedly here in Collusion, there is a refusal to locate in this state some kind of transcendental ground. There is also a refusal of the next level of stasis whereby the refusal to accept a transcendental ground becomes a ground in itself. There isn’t any celebration of uncertainty here, more a process of living attuned to what is happening as one’s mind engages the manifold dimensions of reality. As the first poem in the book says:

. . . . .
                                        The glimmerings are flecks of time.
          I can’t decide whether they are truly in the moment or
          moments out of time, essence or deviation from the path.
There’s no conclusion here, no resolution myth. Things rise up
          and fall away as if they never were, rise up again. I like the
          dancing light,
the scattered cloud, the river that lies potentially between its banks,
          the speeding train. I reach for them. They reach for me.

Alan Wearne: Prepare the Cabin for Landing

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2012, 106pp.

Despite the increasing frequency of narrative poems, the work of Alan Wearne is unmatched. Nobody has even begun to approach the complexity of his portraits of life in post-war Australia and this most recent book adds another group of poems to the overall corpus. If, on the surface, it appears to be something of a miscellany, a closer look shows it to have a lot of internal coherence about it, both thematic and tonal. For one thing many of the poems – and especially the longer sequences – gravitate around school years in Melbourne in the late fifties and sixties. The second section of the book, for example, is the thirty-five page sequence “Operation Hendrikson” which charts the life of one friend met accidentally after ten years: “And then, this warmish winter day in mid July, / here at the corner of Orchard Grove and Canterbury Road / (territory I haven’t really known since school) / Wearney invites me to his thirtieth”. It is intriguing to see the author making a guest appearance in what is really somebody else’s poem (it is a first person narrative) and I think this is the first time that this has happened in Wearne’s extensive body of narrative. All we really learn about him from this brief appearance, by the way, is that he is the author of a school paper felicitously titled “Proper Gander” and has, as one might expect, a watching brief being simultaneously one of the group but also distanced: “In our concert he plays the butler, / who sees it (and I mean it) all”. Hendrickson recounts his history which is also the history of a large number of other friends and aquaintances at school. The result is a set of pretty lurid portraits: Hendrickson himself is in care with a foster family (“that two that five percent in cottages and homes”) and is chiefly remembered for having an underage girlfriend when he was twenty and being charged with “carnival knowledge”. A row of other “characters” is described and what is known of their fates – revealled when Hendrickson runs across them again in the dozen years after school – filled in.

It isn’t a very optimistic canvas: several are dead, a semi-psychotic minister’s son is stacking trolleys, a Vietnam-vet lives in a haze of drugs. But though the result is a set of portraits and thus might look like an attempt to portray one generation in one suburb you feel that Wearne is driven by an interest in character rather than environment. The fundamental question is: What became of these people, how did they evolve within the parameters of the school personalities? rather than: What kind of world are these people part of? In narrative terms everything is dependent on chance, the occasional flashes produced by chance meetings of which the most important is the meeting, in 1978, with the poet who is prepared, finally, to act as a kind of biographer. Wearne’s monologue technique has evolved, over the years since poems like “Out Here” in his second book, into a less doughy, far more flexible instrument, attuned to fragmentariness and accidental illuminations of character. This is evident in The Lovemakers and continued in poems like “Operation Hendrickson”.

The Blackburn South of Wearne’s own childhood and those of so many of his characters forms, as I have said, the focus of this book. It is introduced in a quite surprising way in a rather wonderful first poem which sketches in the generation before, “A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers”. This – as does the immensely sympathetic portrait of the Liberal Party matriarch, Elise McTaggart in The Nightmarkets – shows Wearne to be alert to older generations (just barely “older” in this case) and particularly to the world the women inhabit:

. . . . . 
And if like the nation this school seems
on better days almost miraculously do-it-yourself,
doubtless that's because who else is there to do it?
(Then, if you wish to appear old-fashioned
it's all like a "courtship", or what you're discovering re marriage.)

Whilst "This", waves forth your supercilious headmaster,
"all this is how we like our things round here . . ."
He reminds some of Raymond Huntley, pauses and nods
as he calls you by the collective "Mesdames"
and laughs, never at himself, only at his quips.

"Indeed," comes Ruth's later response, "how we like our things . . ."
"I'm sure we'll work around it," says Yvonne
. . . . .

The tone here is light and the conclusion is a tentatively optimistic one in which friendship forms the beginning of some sort of bulwark:

friendships can at least delay these dour, sour uncertainties
of annihilation and damnation, can't they?

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

This tonally delicate and yet precise poem is followed by “Dysfunction, North Carlton Style or, The Widow of Noosa” an example of Wearne working in his comic/crude mode: “Long-haired, even-featured, an absolute Ali / (is it any wonder she looked like MacGraw?). / On their sundeck each summer how Bob’s loins would rally / at the sight of his missus, spread out in the raw”. It is such a contrast to the first poem that it gets one thinking that perhaps this first of the book’s sections is organised in sonata form which in turn, of course, makes one want to read the entire book’s four parts in terms of the movements of a classical symphony. At any rate the third and fourth poems of the first section – which would be developments of the themes of the opening two poems – are “The God of Nope” and “‘All These Young Australianists . . .'” The former is a Wearne dramatic monologue about the Nugan Hand Bank scandal of the seventies though it is seen through the perspective of a young banker rather on the fringes of the affair (“One part vocation matching nine parts lurk”); the latter is a comic double monologue making fun of young academics at conferences overseas. The pattern isn’t perfect – it seems a long way from the poem about the teachers to the poem about the CIA’s money laundering, though Wearne’s interest in the way characters develop out of their schools, observed by the teachers of the previous generation, brings these two poems closer together than you might have thought initially – but the tone of the second and fourth poems is almost identical. “‘All These Young Australianists . . .'” exploits all the features of serious comic verse and you feel that the figure of Byron isn’t standing too far behind. This is especially true in the sort of poetic one-up-manship involved in the search for the most extreme of complex and bathetic rhymes and it climaxes in one most impressive stanza:

And though I call him Ted the Handful soon he was off delivering a paean
at some fortnight long colloquium on I believe Musil or Mahler;
whilst beside the Baltic or was it the Aegean,
I chanced upon these wonderful Finno-Ugrianists all dissecting the Kalevala!

According to the model of the classical symphony, the third section of the book would be its minuet and trio or its scherzo – at any rate, something lighter in tone. In Prepare the Cabin for Landing we get a return to the idea of basing poems on Australian songs, a process that produced many of the poems in the earlier The Australian Popular Songbook. These are all sonnets (including a Meredithian one) and come in various complex stanza divisions and rhymes. But they also relate to the poems of the first two sections. The first sonnet, for example, “Waiata Poi”, describes two young women, an Australian and a New Zealander who, immediately after the war, head to New Zealand by flying boat (“Let’s scoot across ‘the dutch'”) for a golfing and skiing holiday. It is hard not to think of the three teachers of the book’s first poem here, especially in the celebration of innocent friendship as something that can be counterposed to events at the macro level. The next sonnet is the monologue of a stoned, escort-accompanied businessman and, at least to some extent, is written in the crasser language of “Dysfunction, North Carlton Style . . .”. In other words the tonal juxtapositions here match those that can be found throughout the book, but especially in the first section. The themes match as well: in “Love is in the Air” a young woman, twenty-five years in the future looks at a photograph of her parents’ wedding, looks at our present, in fact, “Filled with our future, Red Bull and Champagne!“, and asks herself about the way in which she developed out of this. And the last of these sonnets, “My Home Among the Gum Trees” takes us back to the post-war period of the first sonnet and deals with the setting up of the Melbourne suburbs after the war from which Wearne (as well as Hendrickson) emerged. And just as the poet himself makes a guest appearance in “Operation Hendrickson” so here he is introduced at the end of the poem:

For later on the bus, seeing a copy of The Age or The Argus
          bordered in black, I'll be asking my mother "Why?"

Friday February 8 1952. "The King has died."

All of which prepares us for the book’s most ambitious and successful achievement, “The Vanity of Australian Wishes”, a thirty page reincarnation of Juvenal’s Tenth Satire with a nod to Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes”. (In a sense the second-last of the sonnets, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, is also a preparation in that it deals with developments in a second-hand, image-ridden Australian nationalism that is going to figure largely in “The Vanity of Australian Wishes”.) Unlike the poems of Juvenal and Johnson, Wearne’s poem contains a good deal of personal involvement, a personal involvement which, I’ve been arguing, the other poems of the book prepare us for. It begins with two deaths occurring almost simultaneously: that of John Forbes and that of Alphonse Gangitano. The chiming between these deaths is more than one of time, however. Gangitano’s death is described as that of “an over / underachieving Lygon St lulu, / whose killing kick-started a decade plus / of Melbournian mayhem, and ultimately its mini-series” and it’s the second of these two results that engages Wearne’s anger since it shows images spawning a kind of cut-price reality:

                                                  O Gangitano!
So needing us to pretend you were our De Niro:
no mere gangster but the movie star who,
on those occasions when paid to,
pretends he is one (though when one imitates
the imitations just how many deluded layers
is that?).

And this, of course, is John Forbes aesthetic territory, especially in his notion that images only ever drain creative energy rather than fuel it. And the poem introduces Forbes’s description of the new discipline of Cultural Studies – often driven by an infantile desire to walk large on the stage of those images which they are analysing – as “The Kids in Black”.

The evil of images is a long way from the comparatively simple evils of the worlds of Juvenal and Johnson – “those grand distillers of bemused despair”. And Wearne introduces a framework metaphor that makes the distance greater. Whereas Johnson spoke for a god’s-eye view that surveyed mankind “from China to Peru”, Wearne imagines us all sitting on a long-haul commercial flight imagining what other passengers are travelling towards:

          And maybe when an aircraft seems to distil
not merely time and space but where you're heading
and what you're heading to, the novelty, the romance,
the deal, the con, the climax, the start of it,
and end of it . . .

And in this symbolic world, the poet is the plane’s captain who, at the end, will tell the cabin crew to prepare for landing.

Juvenal and Johnson are careful to anchor their critiques in real people or, at least, imagined individuals. Wearne adopts the same approach using, as an epigraph, Pope’s comment that “General satire in times of general vice has no force . . . and ’tis only by hunting one or two from the herd that any exampes can be made”. His individuals are an unlovely and occasionally interrelated group:

Diggah, a multi-substanced sportzstar, V'roomv'room
some ex-ex would be-would be supermodel,
Annabel-Kate this very former CEO turned opinion-piecer,
and Chad: that bankrupted motivational speaker poised
at the edge of the slammer. Plus big-noter, small-timer
. . . 
our very own self-proclaimed King o' th' Rooters

The case of the first of these is a compressed and, it turns out (given recent revelations of the intimate involvement of the underworld in sport), prophetic study of the interaction of sport and crime:

It's just (big just) the lowlife they're required to befriend:
sniffed, swilled or shot maaaaate maaaaate
isn't it understood, the only guys that can
flog you this are criminals? They never get it.

The way these individuals inhabit their world of day-time and “reality” television forms the bulk of the poem but they are all portraits with very specific interests to the poet. An important early section describes the way Wearne’s own Grade Five and Six teachers – “those edgy-wise suburban prophets Mrs Samson / and Mr Kavanagh” – could have organised their ten-year-olds into a cruelly revealling hierarchy:

first, those kids (who'll always have the jump on anybody)
with Smarties in their play-lunch/
then those who want to be them/
who want to be their friends/
who want to beat them up/
who want to beat up those who want to beat them up/
and then the very worst, the theorists, the ideologues,
those who urge the beatings, all the beatings.

It’s a bleak picture but, as in “Operation Hendricksen” the reader gets a strong impression of Wearne’s interests being in development and the way this is a hierarchy of potentialities that will blossom in its own grotesque way. Everything, in other words, spins out of our socialisation in school.

The poem ends, as do the Juvenal and Johnson, on as positive a note as the poet can manage. For Juvenal it was the limited wish (which we all might share) for “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body in old age. For Johnson, himself pathologically afraid of the judgement of God, the way for a person to avoid swimming “darkling down the current of his fate” was to “leave to heaven the measure and the choice”. For Wearne there is clearly a comfort in those passengers who are not part of the insubstantial world of image, status and celebrity. They can be seen in the group of

                          smart-suited women and men
heading in easy phalanx towards the departure lounge,
that kind of quietly anonymous professionalism
plenty still retain, set to neither con nor big-note
nor indulge . . .

Analysis, too, has its virtues and to be able to say of one’s unnattractive passengers “We may not be them but they are surely us” is some kind of achievement. And it’s an achievement of poets like Wearne but especially John Forbes for whom this entire poem can be read as a memorial. Analysers and debunkers of those desires which arise out of television images are to be valued: “Ehrt eure deutschen Meister” – “honour your local poets” – is always a recipe for sanity in a mad world.

Graeme Miles: Recurrence

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2012, 61pp.

This book gives us an opportunity for a second look at the challenging and sophisticated work of Graeme Miles, his first book, Phosphorescence, having been published in 2006. In one sense nothing has changed: he remains a powerful lyric poet – his poems almost always have enough self-confidence to stay upright as well as walk with their own gait – the exact nature of whose poetic sensibility is very difficult to grasp. The first poem of that first book, “Nest”, is an introduction to at least part of the Miles method:

The wasps are making a nest on the weight
of the wind-chime, deaf, I think, to its sound,
and undisturbed by its sometimes swaying
for no reason. They build a paper house
as a launching pad for violence in a calm. 

I’m thinking of a final call, when waiting,
feeling like the luggage is packed, the phone
will ring, be answered. The house will be locked
already and it’ll be time to go.

The problem for a reader isn’t so much of guessing the intended (and thus structuring) meaning so much as choosing between all the possible meanings since the poem is dense with allegorical possibilities. Somewhere in here is a kind of Frostian poem about the nests that creatures make, usually in inappropriate places, and how humans have to leave such havens. By a further Frostian shift, the “final call” can be read not as the language of airlines but as the final summons of death. The fact that the wasps build “paper” nests suggests that the whole poem might be read as an allegory involving poetry since a poetic career is, in a sense, a “paper house”. The first stanza is full of noise and movement – both of which the wasps are insensitive to – whereas the second stanza, though it is about a noise (the telephone) and a movement (the leaving) is, as a stanza, full of a kind of calm stasis. And that is reading the poem as though it were anonymous; Miles’s poems tend to be full of houses, places stayed in and places left, not to mention places revisited just as they are full of movement.

When I reviewed Phosphorescence on this site I clung rather desperately to an extended poem, “Circle and Line”, which looked as though it might provide some clues about its author’s views as to what poetry was doing. In retrospect I’m not sure that that was the correct procedure; one ought to able to work out such things by looking carefully at the poems. In Recurrence Miles has gone some way towards mapping at least a part of his poetic by dividing the poems into three sections: “Down”, “Across” and “Up”. It is in the first of these where the significance of the titular direction is least obvious. True, a poem like “Libations”, traces the downward path of water, milk, honey and wine – conscious or unconscious offerings – through the earth to the point where “the only way to go on forever / is to become as small as nothing at all” and “Mineral Veins” explores the way that, in sleep, the self gravitates downwards towards its natural home:

. . . . .
                             Then sleep
is only half-sleep. Better to turn down,
find you can breathe easily under a world’s weight
of earth, and that air was no more your element
than the endless vacancy it fades to.

Gravity, the prevailing god of downwards, is in fact celebrated in a poem of the same name. A large part of the expressive side of Miles’s worldview is made up of mythologies, especially Classical, Norse and Indian, and so it isn’t especially surprising that such a poet should begin with Hesiod’s locating of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld on a vertical axis and then work through the idea of the gravity of an extreme mass as a “Samadhi of space”. The conclusion of the poem also makes a distinctive move, slipping effortlessly from the macro-physical to the inside of the brain: “she’s all herself / fixing and destroying, like the colourless dot / at the beginning of migraine / that grows to swallow the world.”

Down is allegorised out in other ways too. In “The Problem of Other Minds” (the second poem of a fine sequence with the ambiguous title “Causes”) the movement downwards appears as a pit into which our life experiences are thrown. Again the shifts of this poem are distinctive. The initial image is an interesting one and you can imagine most poets being happy to explore it. Each of us carries a kind of black hole which is being continually stocked by our experiences as they sink into the past:

. . . . .
All the toys I could find
didn’t fill it up. My thin books just lined the bottom.
Put in my friends and they were small 
down there, craning their necks up
to see what I’d done to them.

Put in all the houses I’d lived in, so I wouldn’t
have to see them again, then left my grave
with a last house-load of furniture . . .

But this poem goes on to ask about the pits of others, especially those who have disappeared into the author’s own pit. It is, as its title says, really a poem about the inter-relationship of the experience of subjectivities; we are experiences for others as they are for us. Continually meditating on what we are to others – apart from our usual egoistic obsession with what we are to ourselves – shakes our sense of our own identity. After returning to his own pit (he hears it “slurp as something else fell in”) he sees flecks on the surface spelling out a message, “’What’s it like / to be you?’ And when you looked closer, / ”˜Is it like anything?’”

The same sequence has a descent poem, “Forgetting to Laugh”, in which “When you’ve drunk the water to remember, / and the water to forget, they slide you down / into a dug-out cave”. What follows is a kind of cross between a Mithraic rebirth initiation, an MRI scan and the act of dreaming, followed by the everyday – but still mysterious – process of waking. What is typical here is the way in which mythical, allegorical and metaphorical meanings, distinctive to Miles’s cast of thought, are held in suspension.

The book’s final section (to proceed out of order) ought to be a simple inversion of the first but turns out to be rather different. Certainly, in Miles’s poetry, the view upwards doesn’t involve any simple-minded transcendence. When the eternal is considered, as in “Two Guesses at Immortality”, there is no superior, heavenly reality. The two possibilities are either a kind of eternal present containing all the past (“Everything is here and everyone. / You’re home once and for all / at the moment when it’s all new again.”) or a kind of Groundhog Day endless recurrence (“the one day repeats itself / with its long night to be slept through”.

In other poems, like “Dioscuri”, the emphasis is on the reciprocity between the upper and lower worlds though “Above, Below” contradicts the old relationship of as above so below to contrast the love of the immortals for mortals (“a gold-haired boy or girl . . . too squeamish to stay / for the squalid fact of your death”) for that of mortals for mortals – in this case parents for children:

But the ones who wait below
will only be as frightening as necessity,
quiet farmers keeping their kids
from the dangerous machines and the gun.

One of the metaphoric associations of downwards in the earlier poems is the idea of descent through the family line and so it is, in a kind of way, logical that a poem about the poet’s parents and grandparent should be associated with a look upwards. “Verandah” is a really fine poem, familiar from its appearance in John Leonard’s Young Poets: An Australian Anthology, and though verandahs – the quintessential Australian liminal space – might suggest movement across, there is a certain rightness in this poem’s appearing in the final, Up section. It is also, of course, an example of a modern version of a classical invocation, summoning mother and father out of the past into the present.

Ultimately the vision affirmed is a humanist one and two poems, “Shivery to Think of the Long Spaces” and “Ascesis” make this fairly clear. The former begins as a view upwards to the stars, recalling Pascal’s or perhaps Slessor’s poem ”˜s fear of the spaces between the stars, spaces which have become even more mindboggling vast since the twentieth century’s development of cosmological measurement. The result of this perspective is described as “shivery while it’s measured / by this piece of skin” but the poem goes on to imagine a perspective beyond humanism where there is “object with no subject” where “the suns flame silently” in their death throes “and don’t return from their last / going under, don’t care to”.

The book’s final poem, “Ascesis”, seems to have an unequivocally humanist perspective as it mocks the results of labouring to be released upwards into the cosmos, free of the earthbinding sins of the body:

They let go,
lift clear of weather,
soil’s vapours
that tint the mind like plot.
. . . . .
             Free of conversation,
the long dispute of history, language
is crisp as salt, and with no air
to talk through their words are flawless,
discrete and unanswerable.

Both of these poems casually mention orbits and straight lines and one can’t help feeling that this interest derives from “Circle and Line” in Phosphorescence. Miles’s poetic world, as readers who have got this far will register, is a complex one.

A reader who expected the Up poems to be about transcendence might well come to the book’s middle section expecting poems of narrative and Ovidian transformation and, it is true, there is a lot of that to be found there. It begins with “Photis”, a suite of poems (also familiar from Leonard’s anthology) that form a narrative about an artist inclined to bring out animal shapes in the bodies of those who sit for portraits. A lover whose self-image is that of a hawk finds through the process of art that his totemic animal is, instead, the ass (for those of us who missed it, the book’s blurb points out an allusion here to Apuleius). When a baby is born – going through its own metamorphoses in the womb and then outside – it becomes an anthology of animals:

Your soft skin is full of animals. There are
fishes in the movement of your sucking cheeks, reptiles
in the glaze of your eyes overtired, the stillness of a kangaroo
when you watch light slide
over the ceiling . . . . .

And the artist’s work undergoes an equally profound metamorphosis, focussing on the world her child might live in rather than the animals under its skin: “she paints the night as a newsreel of frightening things, / waters above and below”.

“Ariadne on Naxos”, based on the version of the story found in Plutarch’s life of Theseus, focusses on the way an individual can transform into a complicated set of rituals; “Aggregore” revisits the idea of a child’s evolution in the womb; “At the End of the Seventies – Streets in Marmion” reproduces the way in which a beachscape is transformed when it is seen by moonlight; “Chennai” looks at the way individuals (or families) are always the centre of their own universe and carry their own gods and experiences with them in environments that are utterly different and a related poem, “Diminuendo”, imagines, from the distant location of India, all of the houses previously lived in since birth as a concertina opened out into one of those medieval maps.

This threefold division of the book is useful, but I cannot help feeling that it isn’t much more than a guide, uncovering only a small portion of what is in these poems and what animates them and gives them their integrity. If I had to focus on a single poem as an entrance into the poems of this book I would choose one from the first section, “Purusha”, which links the Norse proto-god Ymir with a similar figure from Indian mythology:

Ymir, who is Purusha, the Person, is sacrificed
but goes on. Its skin is cinematic, the light
breaks through it. Endless eyes watch it
sliding by. Its body is standing waves
frozen, and it crinkles with crystals of ice,
empties into the roaring absorption, the nuclear
introspection of suns. Its sound is the crowd
roaring in Geiger-counters, it goes on forever
and mostly is invisible.
                                         Moves down
and down is the static blur of sandgrains, the place
that barters crops for corpses.
                                                    Moves across
inventing plot, walks on or runs
forever in Zeno’s physics.
                                              Moves up
spies out the thinning, the spinning direction
of vertigo.
                  It’s promiscuous and virginal, celibate
and incestuous. It’s family at war with itself.
When a standing ape looks up it sees
air catch fire, water
thicken with mud, harden to land.
Objects are smashed in the slow riot
and the prickling of skin when reading a poem
is each pore expecting a bruise
to cover it. And the poems fit together
like a dry-stone wall, jagged edge
to edge, just making do.
Perhaps this should be thought of not as poem-as-key but as poem-as-digest (or, anatomy) since one can hear nearly all of the poems in Recurrence in this single work. The central section is a compressed explanation of the three directions and the over-riding image of the fate of Ymir (whose blood becomes the sea, whose skull becomes the sky and whose bones and teeth become rocks) as a sacrifice whose body goes on changing and expressing itself in the activities of the humans who live on and within him echoes throughout the book, down even to the poem about the child’s cutting his first teeth. Even the interest in light in the second and third lines recalls a number of poems.

Recurrence certainly complicates the world of Phosphorescence (itself complicated enough) and it would take a review longer than this to go back to that first book and reread it in the light of this second one. Eventually it will have to be done but I will leave that for the appearance of Miles’s third book – something that admirers like myself will hope happens quickly.

Lachlan Brown: Limited Cities

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2012, 87pp.

One’s first impression of this first book is that it is devoted to (in both senses of the phrase) its poet’s home suburb, Macquarie Fields, situated to the west of the Holsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney’s south-west. It begins with a diptych, a portrait of this suburb in spring and in autumn: the former is rhapsodic (“Give me corrugated iron & grinning billboards . . .”) but the latter darker as the stain of the 2005 Cronulla riots spreads into neighbouring suburbs. Significantly Brown concludes by asking about his own position as suburb-dweller, observer and poet, and he decides that he is “somewhere / in between” the “hooded kids” who throw rocks and the “members of the gated community . . . on the other side of the tracks” – the pun in this cliche is significant. “Twenty Sestets” is an attempted portrait of the place largely constructed out of fragmented character studies. Although many of these are rather unsuccessful – you feel that people are not the items that Brown’s poetry is most comfortable with – those which yield to an inbuilt pressure toward abstraction do succeed in making a kind of composite picture. Number 5, for example:

The lawnmowers are calling from suburb to suburb
and fences click in the heat, 
                                                                     as though the sun
were a meter, slowly ticking
                                                   through the earth's final minutes.

He stops and considers all this,
                                                          the grass-stained afternoon,
the air thick as engine oil,

a complaint of dirtbikes skidding across the reserve.

Though it is not as good a poem as its avatar, Dawe’s “Homo Suburbiensis”, you do get the sense that the distinctive life of the suburb, if entered into fully, can generate a distinctive kind of poem, attuned to unusual but telling elements. “Petrol Stations, or Nine Vouchers Without the Optimism” is another composite portrait, this time of an iconic suburban feature, and “Poem for a Film” is a five-part meditation on aspects of life in “this weatherboard valley / . . . six degrees from the // city.” I like the last of these which, set at noon when “the eucalypts / point their leaves toward hard ground”, deals with stasis and change:

                                            . . . it's like a gate

that's been welded shut because you know
we're not in Vaucluse or near some beach

where they film iconic Australian TV. You
know that within these cul-de-sacs you

have to earn any hint of breath or change. You
have to pay with sweat, with grease on

a two-stroke, with teeth set like wire cutters,
ready to meet the fenced-edge of the landscape. 

It doesn’t take any great critical insight to register this book’s desire to celebrate and explore one particular suburb, but I can’t stop being interested in Brown’s obsession with the railway that connects Macquarie Fields to central Sydney (via, amongst other stops, Sydenham, Revesby, Glenfield) – I don’t know if it is called the “City Limited” but if it isn’t, it should be. It seems, at the poetic level, a profounder and more valuable image. A sceptical reader might think that the rhythmic rocking of the train on its daily journey to the city and back is the place where the author’s meditating and writing gets done and thus this writing is predisposed to celebrate the train, but I think the importance of the train is more than this. It is valuable partly because it enables contrast (still the best rhetorical trope for defining something) but mostly because of its possibilities as a metaphor for life as a lived process (rather than where it is lived).

The process of contrast can be seen in “” where the poet finds himself momentarily “citied” in an environment where the artificial replaces the natural (“cast brolgas gasp in their metallic / permanence”) in what ultimately becomes a perpetual and perpetualising loop symbolised in the city’s roadways. The central question, “What region is this?” is posed, punningly, in a DVD store where “recreations of immense television events / appear on shelves”. The secret of this world, whose mercantile imperatives hang over innocent suburbs like Macquarie Fields, is that “dumb permutations / engineer most details, like pokies / & genetics & search engines & / personalised plates on a fleet of / nissan skylines.” A later poem, “Evensong”, is essentially about this comparison, celebrating being “back in the suburbs at dusk”:

. . . . . 
Don't you know that winter means
passing houses during the family meal,
each hallway bathed in a television's blue?
Don't you know that we must live in the shadows
of great financial institutions? . . .

But the suburbs, with their expanses of low-level housing don’t obscure the night and the glories of the universe:

. . .  But this pinstriped night
where stars bleed into city lights,
where planes could be writing
the evening sky somehow,
here each constellation scaffolds the canopy,
allowing the universe to find its breath
in imperious and strange relations.

This is a loaded and slightly gestural comparison, placing city and suburb alongside each other, but in Brown’s poems there is more likely to be a focus on the act of transitioning from one to another: that is, the act of travelling by train with emphasis on departures and arrivals. I have a soft spot, among these train poems, for “Lullaby” though I would have to recognise that it is a poem that doesn’t exploit Brown’s distinctive perspective. In fact, in a way, it is yet another rewriting of Slessor’s “The Night-Ride”, focussing on contrasting the inner world of the train with the outer world of the dark, rather than concentrating on the termini. I think it is the only one of the poems to visualise the train in any way – here it is seen as “a string of lit / beads”. It emphasises the living human beings inside the train – the poet’s “companions” in the journey of life – all of whom are surrounded by a sinister cold darkness that has no interest in the human:

 . . . . .
          A palm is placed upon the 
glass, and the window speaks its warning.
There is a chill that threatens to pour into
all of life: your limbs, this carriage, the
tracks of steel that disappear behind us.
All of us know the evening is vast.
It stretches into the distance, claiming every
space that exists outside whispered words.
And now I must sink lower in my seat, and 
draw the sleeping world about my ears.

The train as an image of our human surroundings appears in the second of the “Twenty Sestets” in which a woman who “loves the commute” watches, together with her fellow-travellers, a boy spinning a plastic biro in his fingers. “And the universe is here”, the poem says as though “Lullaby”‘s sinister exterior had appeared inside. But, at least as I read it, it is the human universe, the counterpart or rival to the cosmos, which is present in the carriage and it is this which sustains her: “She tries to remain still, to focus, / but it won’t stop rocking, / the carriage, this world.”

Train journeys have a role to play in the larger, more abstracted sense of what this poetry is trying to do. Trains, after all, move horizontally and their imagery is that of a single plane. But this poetry is also interested in vertical perspectives: it is notable how often the suburbs are celebrated in terms of the sky above them whereas the buildings of the city seem to be engaged in an attempt to, if not blot out the sky, then at least to continuously frame it so that it appears within controlled and human dimensions. Sydney is not the only city in this book; there are a number of poems written about Paris, for example, and their tendency is to look upwards: “Numbering the Days” – a sequence of seven sestets counting down until returning home – speaks, for example, of lying on the grass in Place des Vosges, “where the rooftops frame / an empty blue canvas”. But, in abstract terms, the vertical is conventionally the axis from which intimations of the divine arrive, and this is an issue that I am not entirely confident about in Limited Cities: is there a transcendental perspective? how does it relate to the human and does it come from a God outside or from human beings living within their social context – huddled together on the brightly lit train of life, living in susburbs where the cosmos is more than a patch of sky framed by buildings? Answering this question is not made any easier when a poem with the important title of “Epiphany” – it is the sort of title which makes one seek it out immediately – turns out to be the slipperiest of all the poems and, though I’ve read it many times, I wouldn’t feel at all confident about making any sort of paraphrase.

More helpful might be the two sequences either side of a poem I have mentioned already, “Evensong”. They are called “Advent Poems” and “Lent Poems” respectively and have a Parisian setting. The latter group, in keeping with its title, seems inclined to focus of the mercantile and cultural aspects of the city but one turns to the former group to see if they contain any conception of a Christian transcendence and any conception of how this might be made manifest in the world. The results are suggestive even if they aren’t unequivocal – at least to my blunt reading abilities. Certainly there are examples of an almost continual disruption of surfaces, of contradictions one must “live within”: in an outer suburb “a burnt out apartment / becomes a gash of black against / a massive salvific block and as / you walk it flares again in mira- / culous afternoon light”, elsewhere a statue of the virgin “sits beneath a / spinning disco ball”. But surface contradictions are not the same as intimations of the divine or, even, intimations of the infernal: Antonioni’s Blowup treated the London of the 60s in exactly the same way and I don’t think it has any pretensions to a perspective involving transcendence. Perhaps the most suggestive of the sequence is the third in which one of two kids who are watching Piaf and Charles Dumont singing on TV “starts to echo / mon Dieu in a high-pitched / voice” and the poem ends with a reference to “all those in icy bus / shelters who stare into the dis- / tance awaiting an appearance”.

Despite my carping sense that something crucial might be being fudged or gestured towards or not developed fully here, there is a lot to admire in Limited Cities. I’m always attracted to intelligent rhapsodic celebration and the poems which are devoted to Macquarie Fields can have this quality. At the same time it would be unfair to see the book as in some way a study of the suburb and its inhabitants: that would make it look gestural in comparison to the poetry of Dawe and Wearne. I think the best way to read it is to see it as using the suburb-city axis as a kind of lyric focus or, at least, a framework for a lyric poetry. What happens, when you do that, is that you realise that there is something quite distinctive here and that Limited Cities announces a new, accomplished and confident voice.

Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow: Radar

North Hobart: Walleah Press, 2012, 115pp.

Most double-authored books of poetry have a contingent feel about them: two manuscripts, when edited down, are not long enough for a single volume and get yoked together, not necessarily by violence but not necessarily profitably either. Radar is distinguished by the fact that, no matter what the processes were which have produced this final result, there are interesting connections and oppositions between the two poets’ work and each makes a rather interesting background to the other. Kevin Brophy has a substantial publishing record – about which I have made comments in an earlier review – whereas Radar is Nathan Curnow’s third book if we include the thirty-two page No Other Life But This in Five Islands Press’s New Poets Series.

Curnow, whose fifty page collection appears first despite the order of the names on cover and title page, is probably best known for his The Ghost Poetry Project. In that book he writes seven or eight poems about the experience of staying overnight in each of ten of Australia’s most haunted locations: these include predictable places like Norfolk Island and Port Arthur but also a Cadillac hearse brought to retirement in Sydney from Pennsylvania and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Fremantle Arts Centre (which turns out to be a convict-built ex-lunatic asylum). On the surface Curnow’s first two books seem at odds. The title of the first, alone, suggests a perspective commitedly materialist with precious little tolerance of either religious views or the more downmarket otherworldly which appears in UFO sightings and experiences of the supernatural. And yet the obsession that seems to drive his verse revolves exactly around this issue of the status of the otherworlds that many people sense impinge on our more mundane experience of life. And this is approached with a pleasant openness that carefully avoids being naive or gullible on the one hand and closed-minded on the other: a sort of poetic equivalent of Louis Theroux.

The title of the first book, No Other Life But This, is so pointed that one goes to the title poem expecting a celebration of family life, perhaps – something that Curnow does well – or a polemic against various beliefs. The actual poem is rather a surprise:

The bird comes to ground at twilight,
thirsty for a drink. She hops across the grass,
staccato fashion, hops, stops, watches:
movement as a flash of fear. Caution
has a rhythm, she plays it precisely,
every two-legged jump potential take-off.
Eyes sharp, head tilting, her tiny, peanut brain
drawing angles into comprehension.

The children's containers are water collectors
that have littered the back lawn for days.
She springs to a lip, quizzes the threat,
surprises come with a puff of feathers.
Bowing to drink she considers again,
every twitch revealing her secret,
the hunch that fits inside her head:
there is no other life but this.

This takes a while to assimilate. On the one hand it could be an assertion that life is driven by instincts (especially fear-driven ones) rather than beliefs. It could be a celebration of the extraordinary grace of the natural world: a later poem, observing a baby daughter’s sliding off into sleep says, “Grace is found in such simple mechanics; / the way wings work a bird without it knowing”. But it might also be saying that there is “no other life” apart from the kind of open-minded attention to detail out of which the poem is constructed. However we read it, though, there is no lack of engagement with the problems of beliefs in the poems of this first book. The very first poem situates the author in conversation with a woman who has a child with a serious heart defect. The discussion revolves around “portals” – presumably a way in which more lurid notions of the supernatural are making their way into traditional Christian beliefs – and this, to any poet or reader of poetry, chimes with her son’s problem. In the second poem, a little daughter, wrapping herself in a bathtowel so that she seems to have angel’s wings, talks to her father about death:

. . . . . 
I tell her that I love her but she's heard it before.
She wants to know where we go after this.
She believes in Santa. I can't let her trust Jesus.
Yes, your heart stops working and your lungs.
I want to tell her that life gets busier
which means there is less time to worry. . . . . .

These two poems demonstrate that Curnow has discovered, early on, that the domestic is one of the best settings for the sorts of issues he wants to deal with, and he does write brilliantly about family life.

But the material of the visits to haunted sites in The Ghost Poetry Project is made from the uncanny. For this to work at all the poet has to have some degree of receptivity to the idea of haunting even though the the sum total of unnatural experiences attributed (by the eyes and ears of faith) amount to not much more than strange tappings and reported ghostly figures. (The cynic in me can’t help but feel that if the world of the “beyond” wants to make an impact that would be taken seriously it needs to do something radical at these sites – scare some people to death as in Ring, for example – just as those claiming to talk to God or to be incarnations of past lives need to tell us something about the cosmos or the past that we don’t already know.) The true impulse behind the book probably lies in the biographical note which says: “As a child Nathan Curnow suffered ‘night paralysis’ He could barely breathe due to an overwhelming sense of terror”. The “project”, lurid but trivial at first sight, is really an attempt to induce and thus cure (as an adult) the terrors of childhood. This is made clear in a group of poems, distributed among the visits, which deal with the mythical bunyip. Here his own childhood fears and those of one of his daughters are allayed by the mantra that “bunyips only eat avocadoes”. The final section of the introductory poem makes the aim of the project clear:

Because the night is an eight-ball eye of a cow,
dark as the sludge inside your bones, fear locking
your delicate limbs deep beneath a tent of blankets.
I am returning as if I conquered the Butcher, as if
he lost his grip at last, descending with language,
my only defence, the one shot to defuse myself.

Because the nights are long, I will find new words
to pluck the eyeball out, testing them like avocadoes,
light or a picture card of Jesus. Let us reach together,
touch the monster's face, decipher the walls of the cave.
I will be calling your name. Call back to me.
There is always space for courage.

Parenthood has many responsibilities but re-inducing and facing one’s own childhood terrors so that you can help a child overcome hers is an unusual and unusually difficult one. In the night-time experiences of the “haunted” places little important occurs beyond the experience of actually doing it and the poems make clear that in Curnow’s view hauntings begin inside our own brains and are then – in a phrase that makes one think again about the book’s apparently innocent title – projected into the outer world. The visit to Tasmania’s convict-built Richmond Bridge (where the ghosts of a vicious overseer, his dog, and an old man with a walking stick and straw boater, occasionally pushing a wheelbarrow, occasionally headless, have been seen) produces a moment of generalised scepticism in the poem “Introduced Species”:

Always these ghost stories of introduced species
a phantom dog, black cat, a spooky goat

Instead there should be tales of evil brush-turkeys
of posties swooped by ghoulish magpies

Sightings reflect the culture of the witness -
ghosts are no longer wearing chains

Mary only appears in Catholic countries . . . . .

At any rate, all this makes a kind of necessary introduction to Curnow’s poems in Radar. Here the aim, at least of the first poems, is to revisit not night-time childhood terrors but the experience of childhood itself. It takes place in Pinnaroo, a small town in South Australia near the Victorian border, and many of the poems focus on the parents – the father a minister in what seems like a pentecostal sect. The very first poem, “The Curtain”, has, as an epigraph, the address of the church in Pinnaroo on which the poem is based as an inviting Google Earth reference: I recommend following it. The poem itself justifies its pre-eminent position by being a complex meditation about the way in which we emerge from childhood into public life and the way in which the history of places can induce responses in us. In other words, I read this poem as a transition between the world of The Ghost Poetry Project – the internal horrors which make us receptive to suspicions of new, external horrors – and the world of being a public, performing writer who both exploits and exorcises these demons. At the conclusion of the poem, the curtain that the child is wrapped in (“I looked like a crimson bell, or a strange reminder / of my own breech birth . . .”) opens out:

I belonged to the boards, to the fabric that slipped
away from me once again, turning until it spread itself wide,
introducing me to the world. Who would be there?
What to say? A yearning I understood - the magic burn
of anticipation bound in faith, belief and trust - to convert
an audience, to be converted by the strength of a fallible dream,
hoping that what will be revealed is worthy
of the curtain opening.

Perhaps the perspective in these poems is that of revisiting the experience of one’s parents – something that is always prompted by the arrival of our own children. In “The Curtain”, Curnow discovers connections with his father the minister in his own need to perform and convert an audience. There is a fine poem, “Those Adamant Shapes”, that recognises the passed-on genetic material between the generations calling it, memorably, “the deep cargo that refuses to come unstuck”. And it seems fitting that the structure of Curnow’s contribution to Radar should be a movement from his parents to his children. There is an especially wonderful description of the moment when one of his daughters has an injection: “you turn away from your arm, the needle / coming, your shoulder bared for // the pinch, the plunge, a foreign wave tightens / the little face you held so bravely . . .” All parents will remember things like that and be glad they are so accurately and beautifully expressed.

If Nathan Curnow’s poems are committed to understanding the world we all know and inhabit – and thus have a sturdy, almost conventional poetic quality, deploying metaphors for their illuminative value, for example – Kevin Brophy’s contribution is a set of seventy prose poems. The prose poem is a much loved form in which the oppressive quality of the “real” can be left behind in favour of imaginative possibilities. It is the home of otherworlds. In Brophy’s poems we meet a family in which the busy father hires a replacement for himself and the replacement energises the wife and constructively puzzles the son; a man, newly dead, who remains suspicious that the odd place in which he finds himself is not really paradise; an Australian suburb in which the street-planting of scrubby natives eventually takes over, and re-australianises, houses and inhabitants; a man who decides to live a “less personal” more antlike life; a hole in the ground near the Fawkner Cemetery which grows by absorbing objects of guilt and so on. We also meet Robert O’Hara Burke whose attitude to life – as well as the events of that life – is so surreal that it only needs to be described objectively to seem like one of these otherworlds.

Why do this and run the risk of confirming ordinary innocent Australians in their suspicion that serious literature doesn’t engage with the pressing questions (about love-affairs, football teams or cars) that oppress them? The answer is usually that these sorts of meditations reveal the shape of the writer’s psyche rather as dreams might to those skilled enough to read them. It is as if, to borrow from Eliot’s Prufrock, “a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”. Some of Brophy’s narrative prose poems, “The Secret Theatre of Home”, for example, do seem to have their origins in dreams but more derive from exploring metaphors. Take “On Reading Virginia Woolf’s Sentence, ”˜Undoubtedly there is a dullness in great books’”, for example:

If it is true that dullness is what distinguishes lasting literature from the “bleak shorthand” of contemporary writing, then dullness is the freight we readers also bring to books, mental half-realms where every stone has been turned, and every stone has been beaten into agreement that it is a stone, and every stone has vowed silence, every stone has agreed roundness or sharpness will be its predictable gift. Handle this stone, then, every day, and offer its dullness to the sky, sense its vigilance. This is the only way.

Here the poem deals with a fossilised metaphor – “no stone unturned” – which introduces the idea that the creativity of metaphor is very close to the dullness of cliché. The poem which follows begins with a cliché, “taking a pig to market”, and goes on to use the lively and observant pig on its unknowing way to slaughter as a metaphor for our own voyage through life. “Anxiety” plays with the mysterious metaphor of “falling” asleep whereby in dreams the sleeper “actually” falls into water and “Against Falling” (were these originally conceived as an alphabetically organised group?) has the writer scaling an almost impossible mountain called syntax. A really satisfying poem follows a woman returning home with a plastic canister containing her mother’s ashes. Her mother was a master (or mistress – it depends on how alive the metaphor is) of the cliché:

. . . . . Her mother’s birthmark on her left shoulder, the small tattoo of a lily on her ankle, and those retorts of hers, those reminders that education did not come her way, that money never drops from the sky, that men are to be managed not trusted, that women can never be friends, that televisions, like all other inventions, will one day be quaint forgotten things, these are all there in the canister, locked in, burned into ash so that not one word will ever escape again. She is sure her tired mother would be pleased to be silenced. Words, she used to say, are never enough.

Once we accept that this eloquent style of meditation and narrative, surreal in the sense of not being limited by the ordinary, everyday, “real” is a projection of the poet’s psyche we are left with the issue of how this psyche is structured. Here it’s a matter of choosing your ideology. We could emphasise dreams, language, metaphor, creativity or culture and then relate the others to the dominant one. I’m not an expert on this issue, but I recognise that in last century’s great students of the structure of the mind – Freud, Jung, Lacan et al – there is an overwhelming preoccupation with this. I’m not sure what Brophy feels are more essential elements than others but if I had to guess I would expect them to be the language features.

Which brings me to the book’s structure. As I said in the introduction, what makes Radar so interesting is its conjunction of the two kinds of poetry. True, they are not two kinds of poem by a single poet: but then that is not uncommon and always seems rather stagey. At the same time if they were “unconnected” poets they would just be representatives of two different approaches to dealing with the world in poetry. There is something finely tuned and right about the fact that the two poets have a mentor/student relationship as well as a friendship one. Radar’s unusually valuable blurb expresses the book’s structure and achievement perfectly: Curnow says to Brophy. “My poems are (seemingly) conscious, direct confessions and yours are unconscious waking dreams” and Brophy replies, “This world always senses another world. Maybe your poems rescue mine while mine throw a life line to yours”. “Unconscious waking dreams” is a fine description of the seventy prose poems though it opts for seeing the dream as the dominant feature in the structure of the poet’s creativity. I would have felt it truer to say that Brophy’s poems were inclined to live in the otherworld of language and its strange, expressive offshoot, metaphor.

Peter Steele: Braiding the Voices: Essays in Poetry

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2012, 310pp.

Although it is always an unhappy task to be looking at a posthumous book, it is also a pleasure, after focussing on books of poetry for the first six years of these reviews, to be able to review a book of criticism. In point of fact the proportions are about right: somewhere between fifty and seventy-five books of poetry are published annually in Australia but one could probably count the books of poetry criticism in the last six years on one hand. In a healthy literary culture, of course, poetry is always recognised as far more important than the criticism which accompanies it but you don’t want too great an imbalance lest critical instincts atrophy irrevocably. The fact that this is, in a sense, a memorial volume is a painful reminder that one of the always small company of good critics has left us and a source of good critical judgement has disappeared. But one still wants to congratulate the John Leonard Press for publishing a book which will have, at best, a small readership and, through the quality of their design and materials, making such a fine job of it. It’s also a book that looks as though it might have some kind of extended physical life: my copy of Steele’s earlier critical book, Expatriates, though, admittedly, getting on for thirty years old, has pages that look like frames from early acetate silent films. Braiding the Voices is a physical pleasure, as well as an intellectual pleasure, to read and if readers of these reviews were to buy, annually, one of the books reviewed, I would probably hope that it would be this one.

Peter Steele’s critical instincts are finely honed and I have always found that reading him is an introduction to admirable and often surprising insights. So I want to celebrate his work as that of an elder statesman of criticism. If Australian poetry critics often seem to me like a small, hungry, cold band of outcasts huddling around a fitful campfire in the middle of a great and partially derelict cathedral, then Steele would, in recent years, have been voted first choice when it came to portioning out the scraps of food. But being a respected elder statesman doesn’t mean that your method and interests are in any way representative. Those of you who follow up Steele’s book after reading this review won’t find many similarities in our methods though that can always be interpreted as evidence of a desirable polyvocality in the way Australian critics look at Australia’s poetry.

And that reveals one of the distinctive features of Braiding the Voices almost immediately: it doesn’t limit itself to discussing Australian poets. There are important essays on Peter Porter (whose poetry is the subject of a small book by Steele in the Oxford Authors series), Les Murray and Vincent Buckley but also on the poetry of Anthony Hecht and Seamus Heaney (Steele favourites). Perhaps the Australian poet most likely to appear is Steele himself but this is a result not of self-centredness or self-promotion but rather, as I’ll explore later, of the very genre of the book. At any rate, Steele in his criticism was no critical nationalist and it is interesting to look at the ambit of his interests. The first surprise is the extent to which he focusses on poets who are of his generation, or close to it: he is most comfortable with the poems of people like Heaney, Porter, Buckley and Hecht. Expatriates was focussed around individual poems by Hecht, Merwin, Wilbur and others born in the twenties as well as poets like Bishop and Moore from slightly earlier. I don’t think I have read anything by him which is about poets markedly younger than he is. These poets of his generation form a kind of community – an essential word in the Steele ethos – that he is very good at exploring. When his critical mind goes back in time, uncovering or claiming traditions, it tends to go on recognisable stepping stones: Hopkins, Smart, Swift, Herbert, Donne and Milton all figure regularly. In terms of what is called “secondary material”, Steele is very widely read and one is as likely to find references to contemporary social analysis as to the church fathers. Overall one gets the impression of a man at home in an immensely rich European tradition with those descended from the Greek Orthodox imperium, Russia and Greece, making occasional appearances. There is an essay on Dante in Braiding the Voices but, usually, Steele confines himself to English language literature.

The role of art is important in both his poetry and criticism. In one sense, it provides something that I want to argue might be lacking in Steele’s approach: an external yardstick. Two of the essays in Braiding the Voices are about art and poetry and the value of this exploration, you feel, is that the visual arts represent an otherness as against the verbal ones: they serve as a way of measuring the generalisations we make about poetry as well as revealing surprising new aspects of it. This seems to me an essential balance in criticism: it has to bring the outside to bear as well as evolving a vision which comes, internally, from an empathic response to the works being considered. On the other hand, it could be argued that the visual art which fascinates Steele is, by and large, an expression of European culture, with an emphasis on late medieval religious experience, and thus stands in for an area where the literary arts are weak. All of this is by way of observation rather than objection; the same could be said of the critical writing of Auden, a better critic than either Steele or myself. But I can’t help but feel – and it may be a personal rather than a true epistemological objection – that the very best criticism would also be familiar (and intimate) with a completely different culture, literature and language – Mandarin, say, or Hindi, or even Inuit – in order to see one’s own tradition from the outside. How else will we see it clearly? In other words it is a moot, and important, point whether Steele’s engagement with European culture is minutely and thus preciously informed and or just cosily intimate.

The feeling that Steele is happiest when he is most “at home” emphasises how communal his readings are. One of the features of this is a kind of intimacy and the virtues of intimacy – as well as its problems – are present in the style and structure of these essays, too. The tone, for example, is always intimate, often even avuncular but it doesn’t invite disagreement. In fact a reader is inclined to feel that disagreement would be, in some way, rudely disruptive. I’m not suggesting that Steele’s prose contains a suasive or controlling element, even in disguise, and his discussion of Murray’s poetry shows how well he understands that, under the relaxed intimacy of a poem like “The Quality of Sprawl”, there is a very unrelaxed desire to command both poem and reader. It is more that you get the sense that in his work, the placing of observations against their very opposite (either in debate with others or in internal debate with oneself) in order to determine which is more accurate is not the essential method of moving forward. Steele’s critical mind (as opposed to his poetic one) seems to work by generalisation, association and the exploration of subtle differences. The essential subject, I always feel, is not a single work, a single writer’s works, a generation’s poems, or a national or linguistic tradition, but poetry itself, dignified almost to the extent of being capitalised.

Structurally, Steele’s essays are of a piece with his style. His most common method is to explore a particular facet of this subject – Poetry – by looking at a number of poems (usually three or four) that illuminate this in some way. One of the finest essays in Braiding the Voices is “Still Moving: Variations on a Theme”, and it’s a good example of his method. It begins by looking at the issue of whether poetry is more concerned with the particular than with the general and then modulates (through speaking of “primordial questions”) to the contrast between “what might be called the Still One and the Moving Many”. The essay goes on to look at some poems – by P.J. Kavanagh, Deborah Randall (in her mid-forties an exception to my comment that Steele doesn’t deal with poets younger than himself) and Peter Porter – not as overt discussions of the issue but as sites where the issue is given “imaginative play”. The reading of Kavanagh’s “Autumn” (which is based on the situation of “Gawain and the Green Knight” but with a strong element of Browning’s “Childe Roland”) is a brilliant analysis of that poem’s ”dramatic suspension”s and describes Kavanagh as a poet “of moments and situations waiting to discharge their often striking energies”. It is the kind of observation that comes from intimacies, intimacy with an individual poet’s work but also an intimacy with the subtler features to be found in poetry itself. The analysis of Deborah Randall’s “The Hare” begins by finding in the poem the double image of an animal which is all movement and must be described both as movement and as frozen movement “the palpable and the fugitive” and goes on to discuss the opposition in poetry between the spoken and the unspoken before finishing up with the Navajo’s Coyote which occupies several planes of reality at the same time.

The final poem discussed in the essay is an ekphrastic one, Peter Porter’s “The Lion of Antonello Da Messina” a more difficult poem and one which provokes a subtler analysis. Steele responds to Porter’s transmutations and by beginning with a discussion of this he develops the issue at the core of his essay into movement between states rather than simply stasis and movement. And that’s just the beginning. I’ll content myself with quoting a compressed version of what follows since trying to paraphrase it will probably produce only a wordier summary:

Whatever the theoretical fortunes of mimesis these days, Porter’s poetry is incessantly mimetic, insofar as energy itself is up for imitation. The disconcertment which some readers experience upon exposure to his work comes less, I think, from what they take, sometimes correctly, for esoterica, than from the leaps and plunges of Porter’s associative mind: it is as if the many hundreds of poems are tantamount to an advanced course in metaphorical intelligence. Canetti wrote that “A great many ideas want to remain like comets”; Porter’s ideas and images are more often than not comet-like, but “remain” does not seem to be the right word.

Not the right word in part because, in the midst of remarkable intellectual fertility, Porter is an impresario of loss. The medieval philosophical dictum, made over from Aristotle, that “the generation of one thing is the destruction of another”, has a kind of aching cogency in his imagination. One of his first instincts in the face of the given is to see that it can be taken away and probably will be. The predicament is handled, commonly, with a blend of unillusioned trenchancy and stoical finesse, but handled it is, pretty well unremittingly. . . . . The truly extraordinary thing is to see this combined with imaginative vitality, not by concession or exception, but as if that were the norm in such things. Every church or theatre in which Porter contemplates complexity, every field or bay, seems indeed to be part of the great Globe itself, an instant before evanescence: but at that terminal moment insight is profuse, association emphatic, and imaginative mobility heightened.

That is such good criticism, such a subtle teasing out of the intellectual fluidity of Porter’s poetry and its connection with what seems to cruder readers merely a morbid imagination, that – I’m ashamed to say – it makes me envious. Of course, one can console oneself with the observation that it’s going to be a pretty irritating essay for undergraduate readers who are looking for some help with essays of their own and who are not at all sure even who the speaker is in Porter’s poem: Steele tends to speak at what is – or should be – the level of his community.

Intimacy encourages, among other things, playfulness and Steele isn’t above enjoying the complex structures of his own essays which are often deliberate floutings of the academic template. In Expatriates, there is an essay on Robert Huff’s poem, “Blue”. It is an essay full of delightful, writerly jokes, beginning with the contrast between the four-letter title of the poem and the length of essay itself – some eight or nine thousand words. The short poem which forms the opening of the essay is itself a complex affair dealing with the Huff’s role in a bombing raid over Germany in the Second World War. It is so densely interwoven with allusions that the ethical issues underneath are obscured as they become made complex. The central figure is Faust whose pact with the Devil perhaps makes such high-tech warfare possible and the plane is, in a way, bringing this process back to its origins: “As though I had been turning through the stars / For ages on my way to Germany. / Down in the ashes that were Wittemberg / The blue flames cough up black geraniums.” And the entire poem – not only the inside of the bomber’s cockpit – is bathed in “blue”. It’s a poem that you would like to see teased out but Steele’s essay begins with a passage which I will quote:

Poetry is among other things language making a nuisance of itself. Some poets are applauded for their pellucidity, for giving tongue as though they were giving explanations; but even these poets are less likely to be delivering the goods than delivering the baby – things are off to a new start with them, and language is given the cross-hatching of the personal. The night comes when no man can work, but the words can play their way along quite as well then, better in fact. The marche militaire is a skater’s waltz in disguise, the uniform a camouflaged motley.

This is a nuisance for the preliterate, many of whom are not illiterate. Many indeed traffic much in books, cracking their codes, as they suppose, alembicating poetry into diurnal meanings: beyond the Hyades they find the Ephemerides. Of course such is not the Kingdom of Heaven, but they often suppose that it is, or at least that if that starry zone is not yet theirs for the having, they may sponsor, now, the Good, or the Good Life. Petulant moralists, soi-disant analysts, unfrocked legalists – these fragments of our usually fragmentary selves maraud around the poem, as around the arts at large, and proclaim with the tireless, heedless insistence of somnambulists what the poem means. “For every complex problem”, announces a poster, “there’s a simple solution. And it’s wrong.” The poet may forget his other words, but that one he knows.

Or knows after a fashion. It is in his hornbook, but only imperfectly in his heart. Bad company does odd things to our ideals, and we are in part all bad company to ourselves. There is a perverse streak in us which leads us to want to take wooden nickels, want to be snowed by the offer of Brooklyn Bridge. A human being is an angular thing, more like a question mark than an exclamation mark. . . . .

And so on for another twenty pages. It’s Steele at his most Delphic and inspissate. Most of it I don’t follow despite having reread it many times but I quote it to point out the extent that it is also a set of gags. Many of these derive from the method of obliqueness. There is a wonderful essay by Greg Dening, “Sharks that Walk on the Land: The Death Of Captain Cook” in which the reader has to face two pages of anthropological analysis (admittedly very lucid and not especially forbidding) until the curtain goes up, so to speak, and Captain Cook appears. Part of the fun of Steele’s essay is that the appearance of the poem itself is delayed for about fifteen hundred words and the first thousand words devoted to it are a long meditation on the colour blue. It has the same structure which underlies most of Steele’s essays (none in Braiding the Voices are as extreme as the essay on “Blue”) in that a poem is subsumed into a general theme which is then engaged obliquely. But the fact that the subject of the poem is a bombing raid (certainly not a “raid on the inarticulate” though that theme appears in the essay) and is treated in such a less than full frontal attack, is part of the joke, as is the fact that a poem with a four letter title is surrounded by such an extensive meditation. The fact that it begins with an attack on a certain kind of poetry analyst (with an asperity rare in Steele’s writing) is also something of a joke in the light of the poem under consideration. I’m sure there is a lot more subtle humour of this sort in this weird essay but it would take a lot of work to tease it out. At any rate my point is that Steele’s intimate, “at home” approach to criticism includes a playful element.

But, of course, Expatriates is not a series of scholarly analyses of poems: it is a set of meditations about poetry itself, roughly constellated about the idea of expatriation and exile. In a sense it is belletristic but it is also, obliquely perhaps, a challenge to scholarly analysis of poetry to match its quality and insight. Braiding the Voices is in a more recognisable mode: that of the collection of poet’s essays. Behind it (and often quoted) stand similar collections by people like Hollander, Jarrell, Merwin, Nemerov, Heaney, Auden and many others. In the absence, in Australia, of a strong tradition of literary journalism, it is a book genre that needs to be encouraged. As I said before, the genre is the reason that Steele and his own poems make so many appearances: in Expatriates he appears incognito as Michael Kent, the author of a sestina. Braiding the Voices concludes with six final poems. The first of these is set, sinisterly, in the oncology ward but you feel that rampant confessionalism was never going to be Steele’s way and so the final poems, about eating and proverbs, are about community.

Michelle Dicinoski: Electricity for Beginners

Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan, 2011, 50pp.

This book, together with Anthony Lynch’s excellent Night Train, comes from an imprint that I haven’t previously been familiar with but if someone new is entering poetry publishing in Australia then I wish them nothing but success. Both of them are first books and there is a lot to like about each, especially Electricity for Beginners which is likely to attract words like “charming”, “lively”, even, heaven forbid, “sparky”. In a sense they are all accurate: it must be one of the nicest of debut volumes and includes poems about youth, love, rural upbringing, urban young-adult life (Melbourne and Brisbane). But you would want to avoid being patronising. These poems are as tough-minded and intelligent as they are sensitive and winning. And the book itself is so tightly organised that it’s a moot point how best to open up a way of describing it. I’ll start by talking briefly about two extended “set piece” poems, “The City Gauge” and the significantly titled “Intimate not Monumental”. The former is set in a wooden house in Brisbane during the recent flood. As the waters rise at night, the poet and her partner are progressively cut off and, like everybody in that situation, pile their belongings ever higher to escape the rising waters:

.  . . . .
Why does the darkness make voices more likely
to win or break our hearts?

Soon it will be dawn, soon it will be
weirdly beautiful - the water a foot from the floorboards,
high-set verandahs kissing their reflections,
six-foot fences vanquished - and soon we'll realise
          we're trapped.

But for now, it's night, and there's just
the torchlight, and the radio voices
and the raising things up, the lifting that is like belief:
the best we can do
          but never high enough.

It is such a pregnant and suggestive experience that it is almost a kind of shell situation for a poet. As a result, it’s a poem type where a lot of themes, attitudes and interests are revealled, both conscious and unconscious. In Dicinoski’s version the piles of precious objects become “telling storeys of desire”, the loss of electricity to the house is balanced by an internal lighting up as “our nerves turn electric with news from the west” and the isolated being is not a poet driven to solipsism but a couple: this, like most of the poems in Electricity for Beginners, is, at heart, a poem of “we”. And speaking of “we”, this might be the right time to bring up this book’s exellent cover design. Covers of books of poetry (like football referees) are usually in what is called a “fail only” situation: if the cover is good we don’t notice it, if it is twee or inappropriate we do notice it. The cover of Electricity for Beginners has a wonderful photograph of two little girls in wellington boots, holding hands and standing on an insulated mat. The girl on the left has her other hand on a Wimshurst machine and the static electricity passing down and between the girls is starting to make their hair stand on end. It’s a perfect image for the book although it leads me to think that I should be able to answer the question, “Which of the two girls represents the poet?”

If  “The City Gauge” responds to a situation experienced by many at different times, “Intimate not Monumental”, certainly the most striking poem in the book, responds to one of those once-in-a-lifetime pieces of magic that the universe can grant us. The poet and partner are standing on the fourth storey of a city carpark looking down at a crowd watching a band. A girl throws confetti and the body heat of the crowd is enough to suspend the confetti in space:

. . . . . 
I know some things about gravity,
I know some things about bodies and heat
but I don't know this -
the confetti doesn't fall, but floats in space
in the air just beyond us.
Lit by streetlights or some
internal spark it's a star cluster
a confetti constellation
that hangs together for long fat seconds.
The crowd below points up
as we point down and grin
at this simple wonder, this one fixed thing:
a careless paper galaxy
a monumental fling.

There are some interesting connections and oppositions here. The crowd and the couple are separate with the galactic confetti floating between. The confetti, lit up as though by electricity, defies gravity but so, symbolically, do the couple. The body heat of the crowd is different to the body heat of the couple – and so on. Most important is the title which reminds us that this is a poem about love and people rather than about moments when the cosmos reveals itself. The book’s first poem, “Arterial”, focusses on the lover/world opposition. At night, in a Brisbane wooden house, everything moves either in response to the individual’s heartbeats, the settling of the house on the stumps, the vibrations of sex in a neighbouring room or even the vibrations of the “midnight trucks / that speed west two streets away”. The poet forms a kind of single self with her partner (it makes you think of the Symposium):

Beside me you sleep
moving only your breath, your blood,
your fierce heart. Beside me you sleep
as the dark house shifts around us.

Again, outer and inner electricities are invoked, as they are in “The City Gauge” and these consistent oppositions form the fabric of both the book and the poems. “Rounds” wouldn’t make much sense, or would at best seem superficial, if it wasn’t seen in the light of the other poems of the book. Poet and partner – “trivia savants” – earnestly “talk shit like it matters”. The list of facts moves towards “elite archers shoot between heartbeats” before the band strikes up and “we form a rowdy chorus / of toora loo rye, toora loo rye ayes”. The point is, I presume, that poet and partner inhabit a world of isolated intimacy (as they do in “The City Gauge”) as well as the raucously, crudely electric social world. In “the Heart of a Comet is Blacker than Tar” it is the people gathered to watch the comet, rather than the comet itself which interest the poet. Rather than being a messenger of the gods the comet’s splendours are merely reflections.

There are poems in which Dicinoski is shorn of her partner. Most of these involve earlier, life in rural Queensland and include “Turf” in which poet, brother, father and mother steal turf for their garden from a golf course on the coast. It’s a comic narrative but begins with a comment about her genetic inheritance, “Like my olive skin and my ring finger’s kink, / I got a knack for crazy schemes from him”. But the self at the heart of most of these poems is a double self, a tribute to love. It’s hard to forget “Prayer Flags” in which the “dafter butterflies” (a very beautiful adjective) mistake the flags for flowers while both the partner’s flags and the poet’s “tea-towels and undies” on the washing line are “a prayer and a flag”. And there is also “The Live Arts”, the book’s final poem, which recalls the great 1893 flood while describing the partner’s breathing

crazy but true, it sounds
               like anew, anew, anew
as though you're exhaling code
or gospel. . . .

There is so much to admire in Electricity for Beginners. It does that urban canniness well but is never mere gesture. The poems have their own complex understanding of their creator’s inner life and the oppositions that it is sensitive to are complex and generative. And finally, as all readers and reviewers of the book will recognise, they are full of that electricity that comes from the genuine as opposed to the posed or self-regarding. In a sense the heat might come somewhat from the compression of the focus. There are no poems here that are not wired in to personal experience: no poems about world events, no poems inspired by wide reading or even second and third hand anecdotes. In many ways that’s good: we’re spared lectures about the author’s understanding of public matters, for example. The important question is where Dicinoski might go next, because at some point, most of us feel, a good poet has to leave the known for the imaginatively apprehended.

A. Frances Johnson: The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2012, 80pp.

This second book by A. Frances Johnson (her first, The Pallbearer’s Garden, appeared in 2008) is as intricately designed as some of the strange mechanical birds with which it begins. Its three parts: “wind-up future”, “wind-up present” and “wind-up past” seem a more than satisfying way of grouping poems that are very different but which share the same voice and the same intellectual and ethical preoccupations. As its title suggests, it owes a lot to Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (a book I have never read but which I seem, by osmosis, to have accumulated a lot of knowledge about!) and one of the epigraphs “Why not write a poem about the wind-up bird?” seems almost to have been taken as a challenge.

And we meet wind-up birds immediately in “Microaviary”, the first poem of the first section. “Microaviary” is devoted to contemporary developments in the military science of unmanned surveillance and attack drones. In mode it hovers between the realistic and the surreal and thus nicely mimics the world of these technical developments where one is never sure where reality ends and dottiness begins: something which, come to think of it, is nicely in keeping with our attitudes towards the future generally. The whole sequence of poems ends up with a Raven drone gone AWOL through a computing glitch “attempting to build a nest out of nails in the forest of Odin”. It isn’t so much the military brutality that seems to worry Johnson (after all, drones, like “smart bombs”, can always be sold as a humanitarian development on the grounds that there is less “collateral damage”) or even the possibilities for unprecedentedly invasive urban surveillance but rather the perverse interaction with the natural world: the ethical issues are closer to those of Jurassic Park, in other words, than those of Avatar. But there is another theme running just underneath the surface of “Microaviary” and that is poetry itself. When the poet is struck by nostalgia for secret places which have been exposed by a world of surveillance drones, she includes in the list of what is lost a certain kind of poetry:

. . . . . 
Think of the kindness of dentists
in small, featureless rooms,
airports at 3am, half-remebered raves.
An old grief rises up:
in the absence of bird-egg blue, cubbyholes,
antiquated soaring lyrics
I must admire
new foxholes,
a terrifying ability to see.
. . . . .

This strikes me as an unusual and interesting development, the kind of thing that The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street is full of. When a PR man speaks of “unmanned drones” we are told he speaks in “unmanned couplets” and the poet finds herself missing even the “soldiers with guns, / the rat-a-tat-tat of older kinds of verse”. Song, she says, “is not part of the technology”. The status of poetry in a future world is taken up in an important poem, “Listen Century”, whose title might just be an inversion of “Speak Memory”. It’s written in four line stanzas which often have bathetic rhymes (in the manner of early Eliot) and recreates the experience of students of poetry listening to recordings of the great poets of the twentieth century, “intoning the images / of their lost century / to the next lost one in kind”. What the old know is that the weightless horrors produced by the scientific developments of their age - mustard gas, fall-out, napalm (a list in precise chronological order) – require “heavy lyric states” as a kind of human response. Modern, virtual wars, full of unmanned (it’s a powerful and suggestive pun) drones don’t “recruit words” and thus we are left with the question of the function and status of poetry in the twenty-first century. The students’ experience of the great modernists is a virtual one:

Meanwhile we sit in heated halls
straight-backed, well-fed and watered in row G
surviving or awaiting aftermath
listening to poetry

“Coal and Water” is another poem operating in the future of ecological disaster and a set of metaphors run through it, including a number of allusions to poetry. It is also sensitive to the fact that water provides a number of metaphors for “development”: “Meanwhile the press’s compound eye / hallucinates a Chinese-invested coal station / mid-stream, when mid-stream is simply an illusion / of a liquid past / something the doctor asks you to save / in a bottle”. This relates to that odd experience whereby the reality that provides the metaphors has disappeared leaving only dead or dying metaphors whose origins are incomprehensible. But “Coal and Water” also wants to talk about the responsibilities and torments of a culture’s poets:

Some poets have forgotten
to ask what it is
they are burning in the grate
On a cold night I am one of them
- the coal-fired heart
the pathetic revenge of the powerless
bringing paper fuel to the table
to burn and burn again
Is that all that's left?
The restive recitals
the pained nostalgia for trees and rivers . . . .

The book’s middle section is devoted to the present and includes many poems from Johnson’s Whitmore chapbook, The Pallbearer’s Garden. The poems are more personal in that they are likely to derive from experiences such as personal loss and intimate guilt. But these things are all woven tightly together throughout the book merely showing a different face in different sections. The totemic birds are omnispresent –  hawks, galahs, cockatoos and blackbirds – but the poems that impress include “Pallbearer” where, at a family funeral, the poet, watching the male pallbearers lift the coffin, instinctively raises her own arm to share the load in a fine and believable reaction which symbolizes the preparedness to take on the sort of responsibilities which the book’s first section worries about. There is also the very beautiful “Fontanelle” which deserves quoting in full, partly because the complexites of the poem’s structure, which are luminously clear, take longer to explain in critical paraphrase than they do in the poem itself:

Not a complicated rhyme scheme like a villanelle
nor a beautiful rural city in France famous for armistice signing
Not a small fountain, nor a lyrically high bogan name
whose owner dreams of it
as her own distinctive line of underwear
A fontanelle is the gentling seal
between two halves of a newborn cranium
a membraneous groove that accepts
a stroking or a crushing hand
The chance for either
before two hemispheres knit and fuse
Human hair seeks to camouflage it
in the most tender wars of concealment
(notice the onset of braids and curls and rigid hair parts)
And if this worlding is a form of closing
it is also an opening
The first wageless wager of the bones
that suddenly makes possible
complicated rhyme schemes
rural cities in France
the idea of peace and that which comes before
small fountains
lines of underwear
foolish and foolishly beautiful names
tender wars of concealment
stroking and crushing hands
the opening and closing of things

I’m not sure that this limpid lyricism is entirely natural to Johnson and I feel that she is more drawn to tense, complicated, wound-up poetic modes. But it doesn’t prevent “Fontanelle” lying close to her preoccupations,  suggesting as it does a host of binaries contained by the closing hemispheres, including the human and the world, the inner and the outer, war and peace, and even the first world and the third.

There are no birds in “Fontanelle” but they have the last word in this section which finishes with “Moonlight, Rental Farm”. The poet, looking for something calming, steps out into a moonlit night, hoping that the estranging light provided by the moon might “calm and touch us equally”. This works up to a point but the blackbird intervenes:

Only the blackbird's call centre note
chastises, as if to say
moonlit semaphores
from behind clouds
look much the same as artillery
flash-dancing on the rim
of any tired century
That there is no bright or easy clemency
only waning signals that you and I live on . . . .

And, unsurprisingly, it is a bird which announces the final section of The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street, when the Black Cockatoo is seen as a bird with a mythical past as a survivor of catastrophe, an animal which has demonstrated its tenacity by escaping extinction. Its message is a bleak one:

. . . . . 
Not for them to be the bird of Hope
to mourn the marshlands of Baghdad
A thousand seed-gutted cones bomb the dry earth
The stripped, cratered hills will be theirs
no matter how we foul them, no matter how we die.

Although this final section is devoted to the past, like the other sections it does not interpret its provenance in time in any predictable way. It does deal with a colonial past and a family past but it also deals with the mythical past (at least in the case of this opening, black cockatoo poem) and a geological past (including a poem about a letter from Darwin to Wallace which takes us into the world of the nineteeth century discovery the geological past in the sense at least of an evolutionary past). The twin themes are guilt and responsibility and you feel that the author will be very sympathetic to Judith Wright’s position since that poet was obsessed by her family’s mistreatment of native peoples, by ecological disasters and by the shadow of a new, nuclear, war. Wright provides one of the book’s two epigraphs and significantly she, together with her “shadow sister”, Oodgeroo, is invoked in a poem called “We are So Far South of ‘South of My Days'”. The distance spoken of in that poem is, superficially, geographical (the Wright poem dealt with New England) but has a number of symbolic possibilities, including, I think, “south” in the sense of “far worse off”. (The lines about Oodgeroo, “We are light years distant / from Noonucal fanning tinder phrases / in unseasonable island heat / to save blue-ringed Minjerribah / from the perfect orthodontal / bridge of progress” have a particular resonance since I write this review on the island only a few kilometres from what was once her home.) Guilt for the horrors of a colonial past is a complex phenomenon and I don’t think it makes for the best poetry in this book, though the poems that deal with it are as complex and many-faceted as the others. “Monument: To Isabella Dawson of Kangatong” celebrates a person and an act which are obviously close to the author’s heart: a white woman who insisted on erecting a monument in memory of the massacred aboriginal people of Victoria’s Western Districts. But even this poem concludes in a complex and elusive way, invoking the moon last met in “Moonlight, Rental Farm”:

. . . . . 
You stayed rocking there like a young ladies' metronome
until the moon, resentful of your pale grief
refused to loan its pitted light

And you saw that things were needlessly backwards
The moon told you so as it traded sides
eyeing your big skirts jealously
knowing that you could never wait the vandals out
for they were you, all of you

The poetic consciousness that lies behind The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street is a complex one and shuttles between the personal and the macro. It isn’t at any level a simple or simplifying book and rarely falls into gesture instead wanting to understand the immensely complicated mechanisms that underlie pasts, presents and futures especially when the futures seem so bleak. At heart I think the perspective is an ethical one: what part do we have in this and how can we make amends – does “making amends” have any meaning? But there is also a poetic component in that so many of the poems concern themselves with the question of how poetry is engaged with these processes and how it might address them. As a result this is a complex book, intricate like the mechanical birds which figure so largely in it, and one which is challenging in the best sense.

Eileen Chong: Burning Rice; Mathew Abbott: Wild Inaudible; Vanessa Page: Feeding Paper Tigers; Carmen Leigh Keates: One Broken Knife

Eileen Chong: Burning Rice (Little Lonsdale St, Vic.: Australian Poetry Ltd, 2012), 40pp.
Mathew Abbott: Wild Inaudible (Little Lonsdale St, Vic.: Australian Poetry Ltd, 2012), 39pp.
Vanessa Page: Feeding Paper Tigers (Brisbane New Poets III: np, [2012])
Carmen Leigh Keates: One Broken Knife (Brisbane New Poets III: np, [2012]).

Among all the new poets emerging at the moment I’ve chosen these four though I might have looked at others and, in fact, hope to do so in later reviews. Unfortunately the last two of this group are represented by “micro-collections” of only a few poems and thus resist any confident description but the same can’t be said of Eileen Chong and Mathew Abbott. The saddle-stitched books of Australian Poetry’s New Voices series look minuscule but they have the standard dimensions of, say, a Penguin paperback and run to thirty-five pages or so of poetry. They are, in other words, roughly two-thirds of a conventional volume and are thus quite long enough to get some kind of provisional sense of how the creative part of a poet’s mind is working. Among the four poets you can detect two fairly conventional poetic approaches and two that are, in some respects at least, unusual.

Eileen Chong’s book is “conventional” to the point where, on initial acquaintance, you are likely to miss its virtues. It does look, at first, as though a Creative Writing supervisor had said to a prospective student, “Look: you’ve had an interesting life with an interesting background that will be exotic to Australian readers. Why not write a series of family poems? And then you can fill out the MS with some monologue poems where you enter the characters of women in Chinese history. It can’t fail.” The great virtue and charm of this book is that its poems go far beyond these expectations and grow on the reader – well, this reader at least – with each successive reading. I’m not sure that I can specify with any exactitude why this is the case but it is worth the effort to try. To begin with, there is a level of certainty about both tone and technique: if they seem, initially, unadventurous poems then they are also fully-achieved. Secondly, they never give a sense of being exploitative, of focussing on the gap between the perspective of the writer and that of the Australian reader to the point where it can be used for effect – especially for melodramatic effects. So the poetic cast of mind seems calmly inward-turned and explorative rather than showily dramatic even though the poems have conventionally dramatic shapes. “My Hakka Grandmother”, celebrating a Chinese ethnicity noted for its migrations, its extraordinary domestic architecture, its separate language, and the comparative freedom of its women, can stand as an example of this poetry:

If time could unwind for you
yet be still for me, we would run
through the fields, feet unbound
and pummelling the ground towards

the earth-house. I read about it once:
its architecture unique to the Hakka people
in Fujian. Dwellings like wedding rings
stacked and interlinked. You would lead me

through the building's single gate
and show me where you slept, above
the communal granary. It would smell
of rice husks, like your dark hair

in the mornings before we'd braid it
long and sleek. I would speak
in your tongue, but we would not need
words. The lines on my palms mirror

yours almost perfectly. I wonder where
our bloodline begins. We are guest people
without land or name, moving south and south,
wild birds seeking a place to call home.

Thematically, like so many poems of Burning Rice, it focusses on links, especially generational links. This poem is, in those terms, mildly disruptive in that it wants to shortcircuit the generations and let the poet live alongside the grandmother as a coeval. The poem is strengthened and held taut by a subtext of images deriving from the idea of lines so that time is imagined unwinding, feet are unbound and identity is expressed in matching lines of the palm. This sets up a nice conclusion whereby it is lines of blood – bloodlines – which have put the poet where she is today, Sydney. Contrasted with this are the circular images: of the Hakka houses joined like rings and the symbolic braiding of hair.

All of this is predictable enough and doesn’t account for more than a well-made, thoughtful and successful modern lyric poem but somehow the poems of Burning Rice are a lot more than this. Asian sensitivities to family history and the loyalties and respect within the generations of those families is a familiar enough trope in twenty-first century Australian poetry (there is also Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s 2004 book, Against Certain Capture) for there to be no especial frisson of exotic otherness and so the answers must lie elsewhere. Perhaps it’s a matter of the tension between the calm of the poems and the blandness they would fall into if they were not as structurally animated and woven together as they are. Somehow they have to be perfectly achieved not to be faux-oriental banalities and they are perfect of their kind (though one might quibble at the last five words of “My Hakka Grandmother”). I’m not expressing this at all well but I’ll resort to the defence that it is a complex issue.

There are also poems in Burning Rice which are, in terms of lyrical tactics and disposition, more ambitious than the calm quatrains of these family poems. The book’s first poem – as though to demonstrate that there is more to the author than well-made Austral-S.E Asian poetic pieties – is a surrealist love poem influenced by Joseph Pintauro: “. . . . . You’ll simmer a cauldron / of silver stars and I, I will weave / you stories from gossamer / and dew. Wait now – the cat’s / coughed an elf. Wake now.”  And there are a group of poems in the middle of the book which deal with great personal pain and which evolve their own complex strategies for doing this. The best of these is “Chinese Ginseng” which fools us into thinking that it is a “memories of Singaporean life” poem activated by the smell of the ginseng before revealling that it is really about the inadequacies of the poet’s mother’s traditional medical suggetions in the face of an acute problem:

"Try ginseng," my mother says. "Must be Chinese,
not Korean or American." I remember the ginseng's
bulbous head, its desiccated torso, smaller roots

for arms and legs - bound with red string to cardboard backing,
displayed in boxes stacked for sale. Panacea, tonic, necessity.
The medicine man extols the virtues of each unique root,

then shaves the ginseng into slices so thin
I could melt them on my tongue. He weighs them
on a brass scale pinched between forefinger and thumb,

then wraps portions into paper packages. There is no point
in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear: polycystic ovaries,
endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen - I can almost taste

her soup: sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica and lilybulb,
but above all, the unmistakable bitter-sweetness of Chinese ginseng.

That’s a sophisticated poem because its structure is evolved to deal with a personal issue whose pain is increased by the emphasis, in the other poems, on family links. Finally there is the second last poem of the book, “Lunch”, which adopts what one would think of (I’m on shaky and potentially ethnic-essentialist grounds here) as a very un-South-East Asian referential structure. The poet and friend go shopping after lunch:

. . . . .
Your basket is half-full. We are mirrored
in the glass-walled fridges when I tell you
about the time a man tried to pick me up

by telling me how much he liked
the way I shopped. "Like an animal,"
he'd breathed, "smelling and touching."
Put that in a poem, you said. I have.

I’m always attracted to this kind of elegant self-referentiality which I think (although I’m not at all sure about this) occurs first in Western poetry in the wonderful Catullus VI. One problem is that, having used this structure, you really can’t repeat it.


Mathew Abbott’s poetry is a different phenomenon and poses entirely different questions for the reader. Even at its most concretely visual – in a set of comparatively approachable poems devoted to the western states of the USA – you want to say that it remains highly abstract. But “abstract” is a dangerous word with many subtle colourings and one wouldn’t want to give the wrong idea. “California” is different to conventional poems of place because it doesn’t seem to separate its interests (what the place is and “means”) from its conception. It certainly isn’t one of those poems that begins with some poetically concrete description and then moves onto understandings in the back half of the poem. It seems to be a poem trying to embody, rather than stand outside of, the Romantic question of the relationship between observer and observed:

the field out there
is that expanse

hazed in glary
tired light

          the field
          gone to yellow
          at the endings

birds are out in it
and too much with us

the passing of our train
indistinct to them

                    they know
          in the upwash
                    finding shapes
                              to split the flow fields

the towns
have the sense
of being paraded

          the life in them
          stripped back
          to glint

                              the turbines

                    turn the head

                    hum the skull
                    to juice the mind

          the field out there
          meets the field of the mind

at the horizontal

          the faked water
          of the heat
          the turbines cut

Here is a poem about the American state which is simultaneously the home of the “field theory” of postwar American poetry and the home of popular visual culture and an actual, non-metaphorical field is seen as a set of flickering images from the inside of a train carriage – as though the characters of a film were animated into observers. Although the idiom is difficult and its fractured quality foregoes the relaxed rhetorical sweep of philosophic meditation, it certainly has to be counted, at the very least, as an example of organic form!

Two poems of Wild Inaudible, perhaps the next most approachable after these “travel” poems, are list poems: “Twelve Surfaces” and “Ten Maladies”. Again, there is nothing new in this structure – it recalls Stevens, a poet who atttracts and explores the word “abstract” – but it is always an intriguing one. The individual examples cluster around the theme and lead us to wonder how exhaustive the catalogue is, whether they point towards a definition of the central term, what is the principle of ordering, and so on. The twelve surfaces of the former poem are: word, shrill, copper, bribery, kubrick, god, comedic, bad, gnomic, bug, doggy, and surface. There is no doubt about its reasons for beginning with the first, a call to reading, “look at this / word surface // gets you to look / at this word here” or for concluding with the last “surface surface is / all the way down surface”, which recalls the famous William James story and has its inevitable paradox, but I can’t proffer any reasons for the selection and ordering of the others: it might be thematic or aesthetic (in that it responds to internal juxtapositions which seem to “work well”) or it might be deliberately aleatory. At any event, it’s an engaging poem.

Other poems seem to focus on physicality, the status of our corporeal existence in the world. “Attenborough” concludes by speaking of the “wonky natural 2 / -step of the animal / human heart” while “Wetware” uses (I think) the physical situation of being caught in very heavy rain to play against the idea of the body as “wet”-ware (as opposed to “soft- ” or “hard-“). It is hard not to connect this with a later poem, “Rain”, which seems to be a meditation built around the linguistic phenomenon of our use of an impersonal verb (“it rains”) in this situation and to ask the question of what this “it” actually is, suggesting that it is, perhaps, the “rain” of events and experiences. At the same time, to read it in conjunction with “Wetware” is to invite the idea that it connects to our physical selves.

These rather ropey readings get even more provisional when Abbott takes as his subject liminal states of awareness. These seem often connected with poems about love and relationships so that the fine first poem, “Good Morning” is simultaneously about being next to a state of awakening and being next to the loved-one: 

 there's a plateau in the night
                  learnable in surfacing

          to wake is this one thing
          the arrival is peripheral

as i turn up
you move to speak

                   asleep to it
. . . . .

And the book’s final poem, “Cusp”, is, well, about cusps and rather beautifully and richly lyrically connects the loved-one with a liminal state that – though I can’t follow the philosophy of it exactly – is a highly significant one in terms of imaginative expressiveness:

i wake to the good
of the small of your back

                    heat at the skin's hand

          your breath
          is the fall
          of sleep in you

grace of arms
               and rift at heart

points of fact
               abstracting the line

the cusp of the world
curves at the touch of you

That is a very fine poem, very beautiful in structure, very intriguing in its meanings and in no way related to any existing formula. Wild Inaudible is a really impressive debut collection and, if I have made it out to be “difficult” intellectually, I should also point to the grace and attractiveness of individual poems. The New Voices format seems almost too humble for something as good as this.


The same, rather shaky distinction between a poet who explores and exploits conventional structures and one who seems, from the outset, to be doing things in his or her own way is re-enacted in miniature with the two poets of  Brisbane New Voices III. Vanessa Page’s poems tend to focus on emotional states: the first, “Five fifty-three am” is about happiness, and its structure – a set of rhapsodic metaphors (“It’s the morning rubbing the last of a dream from its eyes / as day-broken birds open their throats to the light”) – mimics the way the state lends itself to imaginative celebration rather than, say, sceptical analysis. A more common state in these poems is loss and separation from the loved-one. This seems a state more easily connected to exploration and one really fine poem, “Chrysalid”, does this within the metaphor established in the title:

This day is made for breaking.

I lie awake inside the shell of sleep.
Outside my window, agapanthus
heads invite deconstruction

There are only incidental details left.

I inhabit shadows like silk-sheen
resting my fingertips on your detritus . . . . .

The poems of Carmen Leigh Keates have an eerily individual quality which derives not so much from their subject matter – though that is often disturbing enough – as from their disjunctions. Some times these disjunctions are stylistic: in “Leaking Through” it seems as though the the world of dream (at least I think it’s a dream) dominates and the disjunctions are a mimetic way of conveying the weird logic of dreams. In “Out There By the Airport” which “tells the story” of the experiences of a Salvadorean hospital cleaner there is a disorienting and very unusual juxtaposition of direct and indirect speech.  But the title poem uses this technique in the most radical way. It begins with a domestic enough set of comments about the use of knives which modulates to:

It is the twin of a knife
found in the grave
of someone you used to be
in the fourth century.

before beginning the next stanza, even more radically:

Radio feels mysterious.
You walk about
listening with your eyes . . . . .

Disjunctions and unexpected movements such as this between the domestic, the sinister, and the analytical, give these poems a tremendous internal drive. It is not a rhetoric but a very distinctive way of exploring the different levels on which we live – domestic world, dream world and intellectual world – and their collisions and interactions. It’s full of possibilites and one wants to see a lot more of it.



Rosemary Dobson: Collected

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2012, 358pp.

This will not be the only review of this book which points out that Rosemary Dobson’s first acknowledged volume, In a Convex Mirror, was published in 1944 and that her writing spans an extraordinary seventy years, indeed seventy-five if we include a volume, Poems, published when she was a schoolgirl at Frensham. Are there any living Australian poets whose careers are longer? This is not entirely a rhetorical question for reasons I will return to later, but the publication of this book should be registered as a celebration of extended creativity as well as a collecting of a lifetime’s poems. It is not a large output, seen in terms of bulk: three hundred and fifty pages over seventy years produces (according to my rudimentary mathematics) an average of five poems a year and, very generally, her books have appeared at about the rate of one per decade. I think it is fair to say that, although she would never have been seen as one of the dominant poets of any of these decades (specifying who was a dominant poet leads to some interesting calculations: the forties might have belonged to Slessor and Stewart, the fifties to Wright, the sixties to Hope and McAuley, the seventies to Dawe, the eighties to Murray and the “generation of ’68”, and so on) taken as a whole her work seems to grow ever stronger, a really significant landmark that should figure prominently in future anthologies and surveys.

She also poses some intriguing critical questions. As readers of these reviews will know, I am inclined to seek out consistently generative images and themes: the obsessions that underlie a poet’s work and which make that poet distinctive. In the case of Collected, David McCooey’s introduction has pretty well done this for me. He describes her, very accurately, as a poet of light and lucidity whose poems are also haunted by “visitations, apparitions, omens, annunciations, prophecies and premonitions”. Since he associates the light-filled quality of the poems with rationality, this balance between the rational and the half-understood visitations of something altogether different becomes a powerfully generative tension. I think this is a good basis for a description of Dobson in terms of what makes her consistent though I might cavil that it is not necessarily an opposition and that the lucidly rational always seeks out the worlds that lie outside its core interests, outside those places where it operates most comfortably. McCooey goes on to speak about Dobson’s obsession with the past (which would, in critical discussion of the period in which she began writing, have been seen as an obsession with time – or Time) and points out that there is another generative paradox here: the voices of the past represent loss and discontinuity but, at the same time, their memory and their reappearance in poems represents continuity – one of the continuities of poetry in which, as a poem of John Tranter’s pointed out, the miracle is not that we speak to the dead but that the dead speak to us.

Since McCooey has done so well what I usually try to do, there may be space to focus on something which I rarely emphasise but which the length of Dobson’s career suggests is necessary: the changes in her work, its organic evolution over such a long period. A long career suggests the value of this in the same way that, by analogy, the Greek language (and Dobson’s experience of Greece as a country and a literature is a crucial part of her evolution), as the living language for which we have the longest span of documents, almost forces us to think about those diachronic issues which were, for a time, unfashionable in linguistics.

The most obvious framing pattern in Dobson’s career derives from the fact that, as for many of the poets of her generation, she began in a formalist era and had to accommodate the rise and eventual triumph of free verse. It is true that formalist poetics are re-appearing but today these forms are treated in a rather more playful way as opportunities for experiment rather than as the cornerstone of poetic expressiveness. Poetry has probably always attracted people with formal interests but there is a large difference between this approach to form and that of the forties and fifties where there is a positive righteousness about what we would now see as a very limited corner of form: that which manifests itself in metre and rhyme. A.D. Hope’s The New Cratylus is a crucial text here though it was already out of date when it appeared in 1979 and was thus not so much a statement of a dominant ideology but rather a defence of a position whose time had already passed. It took a long while, in the late sixties and seventies, for free verse to emerge as a powerful set of possibilities in its own right rather than as some kind of reaction to the formalisms of poets like Hope and McAuley whereby, in their terms, poetry itself was undermined by a trivial and skilless formlessness, little more than ranting and opportunities for confessional display. In fact, as we now know (since it is almost an historical event) free verse, so-called, is a set of complex possibilities whereby the shape of a poem can do many things in relation to its themes, including – at the more complex end – inducing meaning through various resonances. Its problem – if that is the right word – is that it is very suited to an American poetic sensibility of open exploration and may have imported ways of thinking about poetry that don’t really suit the Australian temperament. It is a large question but the fact remains that Hope and McAuley, fine poets as they were, chose the narrower and more limited, less expressive path and, probably, made a mistake. Rereading their weird pronouncements about form always reminds me of Shaw’s example of the man who wrote proving, from first principles, that the Herzeleide motif of Parsifal wasn’t music.

I write at some length about this – though it is, heaven knows, a very large subject – partly to declare my own prejudices against those endless poems of tetrameter quatrains whose only music seems to lie in wry conclusions, suggesting both power (“I observe this and express it elegantly”) and helplessness (“What can I do about it?”). But I also want to set the scene in which Dobson’s first poems were written. You would have had to be a very powerful and disruptive voice in the forties to triumph over the formal prejudices of figures like Stewart and Slessor; and Dobson certainly wasn’t the type of personality to mount a campaign of that sort. Her first four books echo the modes and the themes of her time. Take the first poem or her first book, “In a Convex Mirror”:

See, in the circle, how we stand,
As pictured angels touching wings
Inflame a Dutch interior
Bespeaking birth, foretelling kings.

The room is still and brushed with dusk;
Shall we not disregard the clock
Or let alone be eloquent
The silence between tick and tock?

Shall we be fixed within the frame,
This breathing light to clear-cold glass
Until our images are selves
And words to wiser silence pass?

But ruined Rostov falls in flame,
Cities crumble and are gone,
Time's still waters deeply flow
Through Here and Now as Babylon.

And swirling through this little frame
Will rive the two of us apart,
Engulfing with unnumbered floods
The hidden spaces of the heart.

I have quoted this in full, not only because it is a good poem but because it exemplifies so much of its period. In form it is in those inevitable quatrains and, to modern ears, demonstrates one of its weaknesses in that the form is tolerant of inversions and awkward grammatical structures that free verse isn’t. We have, nowadays, to read the second stanza