Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 289pp.
Geoff Page’s New Selected Poems makes a small, wry, Page-like joke in its title. The genre of ‘New and Selected Poems’ – a selected which contains a booklength collection of new work, usually at the beginning – is a burgeoning one, but Page’s book is a genuinely new selected poems, since it builds on the Angus and Robertson Selected Poems of 1991. And it really does ‘build on’ since there are only half a dozen changes to that original selection from his first seven books in the equivalent section of this new book – itself now selected from fifteen books.
Trying to describe Geoff Page’s output as a poet you are likely to begin with words like ‘prolific’ and ‘consistent’. But there is a clear trajectory to it which underlies the consistent stance towards his material. The earlier books seem dominated by a commitment to unrecorded lives, a desire to retrieve at least some individuals from the vast abyss of historical forgetting. These tend to be rural lives and there is a strong focus on experiences in the Great War. A number of these poems have had a long life and are still likely to appear in any contemporary anthology. ‘Cassandra Paddocks’ records a figure who resembles Theodora’s father in White’s Aunt’s Story, a character who spends his time reading and ordering books when he should have been looking after his ‘property’. And ‘Inscription at Villers-Bretonneux’ has a memorable conclusion where the poet, looking at the headstones in the war cemetery, notices that they:
speak a dry consensus. Just one breaks free: ‘Lives Lost, Hearts Broken - And for What?’ I think of the woman and those she saddened by insisting - the Melbourne clerk who must have let it through.
Whereas many Page poems dealing with loss, silence or some kind of injustice are built into structures which invite a wry conclusion, this manages to conclude by opening its sympathies out into unexpected areas at the same time as it makes a plain statement about how disruptive it can be to tell the truth when society has already settled on a comforting narrative.
In a sense the Page of poems like ‘Cassandra Paddocks’ and ‘Inscription at Villers-Brettoneux’ is the one that Australians are likely to carry with them: a public poet who reflects the social concerns of the time of the Bicentennial and into the first decade of the twenty-first century. A poet prepared to recover the lives of those soldiers, aboriginals, bush mothers, rural workers and others who have rather been omitted from previous histories. But rereading his work in bulk reminds you that there is another Page (I’ll resist calling it an obverse or reverse page) that travels quietly alongside the first one. Page is also, in complex ways, a personal rather than an official poet. Perhaps the first place we can see this is in the last poem of his fourth book, ‘Departure and Return’. Dedicated to his father and prompted by the experience of becoming a father for the first time himself, it is an affectionate portrait of two men’s attempts to understand each other and the way a son can frustrate a father’s assumptions. It would be too much to say that it is a poem with a dark undertone but it does introduce Page’s dominant image of himself as an outsider in a family he loves. The eldest son (and thus, at least metaphorically, the heir), he goes away to school and eventually pursues a creative and teaching career while the other brothers remain on the land: as he puts it, ‘and when at last I’d left completely / my brothers filled with one step sideways / a gap they’d hardly seen’. It’s a self-portrait revisited in ‘Three Akubras’, the first poem of The Secret, one of Page’s best books. The hats of the title have, underneath them, Page’s three younger brothers, seen at a cattle sale, and the poem asks what the smiles are for: is it the prosperity reflected in being able to sell good quality vealers, the exaggerations of the auctioneer, or
are they smiling there at me across the yard without Akubra bemused by what I might have been without my long refusal . . . More likely it’s the smile of three who’ve kept it all together the upstream and the downstream view the tensions sensed and settled . . . One smile under three Akubras . . . and perched there on the other side of both a saleyard and a life I wear a certain hatless pride.
‘The upstream and the downstream view’ is a recurrent image in Page’s work. We meet it as early as ‘Wartime Memory’ from his first book where he records, as a child, seeing fighter aircraft ‘banking in file / around the downstream bend’ before making an upstream turn. It is developed most fully in ‘The Clarence at Copmanhurst’ from Human Interest. Here the point at which an upstream, freshwater river meets its downstream, salt partner is set up as a symbolic site and it is possible, even with the poem’s specificness, to allegorise this out in a number of ways. At one level it is a poem about the point where rural life meets city-based, commercial life but it is also about how someone in middle life thinks of the pools of childhood as opposed to the salt waters of later life that carry us into the vast sea of death. And it also reflects Page’s own position as someone simultaneously of the urban and of the rural world. In a humble way, it’s a sacred site for Page and it’s no surprise that in ‘Codicil’, a poem imagining detailed instructions for the scattering of his ashes after death, this point on the Clarence is chosen as the place where,
one of you – my son, I think - will take the box, remove the lid and in a single, easy sweep disperse my body on the river. If done with grace it ought to make a long descending curve . . .
I think this conception of self is underestimated in responses to Page’s work. Of course, in another poet it might produce a litany of poems of alienation but the wry tonal imperatives of Page’s verse make this unacceptable. It positions him not as a permanent outsider – the exile view of poetic creativity – but rather as somebody both inside and outside who is not entirely comfortable with either state.
This border existence might be the subject of one of my favourite Page poems, ‘The Western Edge’ from The Secret. It is ostensibly about driving along the coast of Western Australia (though Western Edge does recall, probably unconsciously, that strange phrase, ‘the Western Front’) observing, to the west, the mysterious sea and, to the east, the land which, in its plethora of Aboriginal place-names ending in ‘–up’, reveals ‘a map which underlies the map’. I’m inclined to read this allegorically as showing a poet balanced between the extraordinary but inexpressible world of the sea and the land-world of history, injustice, historical forgetting.
The issue for readers is to discover how these two sides to Page – as recorder of lives and as equivocally positioned poet – are related. A number of Cold War Soviet Bloc composers made a clear distinction between public works and those destined ‘for the drawer’, perhaps to be performed in more liberal times. But if you look at Page’s work, what is striking is the interaction rather than the separateness. The lives recovered and recorded, for example, tend to be of people of the generation of Page’s grandparents. In other words, the pressure towards recording may not be simply a social one (‘Poets should try to speak for those who have been silenced by History’) but may be familial. It is significant that an early poem like ‘Far End’ which begins by looking like a portrait of an elderly, rather eccentric, woman – ‘nipping along / in lean black / dresses and flat / determined hats / skirmishing out / to jackhammer mornings . . .’ – turns out to be one of a series of poems about the poet’s grandmother. And ‘Yellowing Paper’, about researching and meeting images of forgotten ‘town clerks or / small-school headmasters’ in folk museums positions the same grandmother at the centre of the poem ’My grandmother, 99, / sat once in your parlours / and heard the pianos . . .’
One of the features of the more public poems is a degree of sensitivity to the turn of an epoch. ‘Bondi Afternoon 1915’ is an early account of a painting of ‘the last / clear afternoon’ before everything is changed by the war. A poem from the 2007 book, Seriatim, called ‘Nineteen One’ describes a bucolic early morning on one of the northern rivers and wonders why this should be such a recurrent image:
But mainly it’s this misty calm - and how, while rising from their beds with all those curlicues of brass, so few of them are troubled by the weight of what’s to come.
But it is possible to derive this perspective from personal experience since Page himself was born at the beginning of the Second World War another one of the twentieth century’s epochal events. And an early poem, ‘End of the Season’, which is about revisiting the chalet in which his parents spent their honeymoon, describes the refined appurtenances of such a place at such a time – ‘the long framed / View of the valley, / The inevitable and accomplished / Girl at the piano’ – before concluding ‘outside, thinning / Off into October, / The final snow / of 1939’.
In the later books the public issues tend to move away from the recovery of lost lives towards those of extremism, migration and contemporary notions of social and ethnic purity. But as personal mortality inevitably begins to bite, there are also a good number of personal poems in the expected mode of lament and fear at the way in which ‘the epic of your own five senses / is each day growing more complete’. An intriguing poem, ‘Acid Paper’, (whose title is, perhaps, an intensification of ‘Yellowing Paper’) revisits the issue of historical forgetting by focussing on the way in which even print, if it is on cheap paper, deteriorates within the writer’s lifetime so that ‘the voices of the dead are growing frailer’:
A poet may outlive his time, more recently his work also - and feel it crumble in the palm before his bones are in the furnace.
This poem, we might say, overtly sets out to bridge the gap between the personal experience of ageing and the public issue of historical forgetting.
There are also an increasing number of poems about Page’s essentially agnostic position in the matter of religious faith: a recent book is called Agnostic Skies. Agnosticism could be explained in terms of an iconic image of the Australian as being resistant to the extremes of faith and atheism. But, at a personal level, it is, of course, the expected position intellectually for someone like Page who is neither entirely in nor out of religious belief but uncomfortably, though productively, on the border. Again, the issue can be traced to personal background: ‘My Mother’s God’ is a wry meditation about the way in which believers tend to manufacture a God if not in their own image than certainly out of their own perspectives on life. On the other hand, the central theological issue of the so-called ‘problem of evil’ is dealt with early on in an entirely public poem, ‘Christ at Gallipoli’, in which the bizarre notion of the Anglican Synod of 1916 that, basically, God was on the side of the Allies produces a comic but no less disturbing picture of Jesus of Nazareth storming the cliffs at Gallipoli, slaughtering Turkish soldiers.
One way in which intensely personal poets can make themselves public poets – I’m thinking here of figures like Yeats and Lowell, and, at a more extreme level, Whitman – is by a kind of massive egoism which sees themselves, and their problems, pains and joys, as emblems of their nation’s culture and history: ‘L’État, c’est moi’. Such inflation seems a very un-Australian thing and no Australian poet has seriously tried it, though a number have come close. It is, after all, a kind of extremism which, we are told, the Australian psyche, at least up until the current century, has shied away from. Page deals with this in a way in an important poem, ‘I Think I Could Turn Awhile’, ostensibly about American poetry but really about poetic stance. The first stanza is a loose-breathed parody of an American poem – ‘I think I could turn awhile and write like the Americans, / they are so at ease in their syllables, irregular as eyelids, / various as the sea’ – but the second stanza, written in Page’s habitual short lines, rejects this:
That rhetoric is someone else’s; it works with very different vowels. I’d hear the clipped iambics calling, my template just below the line. I’d feel the need for tighter turns, . . . . . back to something lower-key: the chicken sheds of Wallabadah . . . a summer on the Clarence maybe . . .
That need for tighter turns sums up the Page style very beautifully. His final lines are almost always a sharp twist. At his best, as in ‘Inscription at Villers-Bretonneux’, the tight twist doesn’t prevent the poem opening out, as we usually want poems to, and as the Americans’ poems often do very brilliantly, into new worlds of experience. In other words there is a price to be paid for the way Page writes and perhaps it is a price that a public poet can’t afford: most readers want to be taken somewhere new but not somewhere incomprehensible.