Tom Shapcott: The City of Empty Rooms

Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2006, 125pp.

Every decade or so I get the chance to reread the poetry of Tom Shapcott in order to try once again to make some sense of its shape. There is a productive stretch of forty-five years between the first book, Time on Fire, and this most recent one, The City of Empty Rooms, and that amounts to a lot of poems. The shapes we see in a writer’s career are always provisional, of course, and always likely to be inflected by one’s current concerns, but on this read-through I find myself wanting to account for the reasons why Shapcott’s last three books seem so successful compared with their predecessors.

One pattern within the body of work, obvious to all, is the way poems continually return to Shapcott’s Ipswich origins. There is a movement backwards that seems to grow more pronounced as time passes. In a way it is a kind of reciprocal movement because movements outwards – in travel or the acquisition of high-cultural stock – seem to induce their own need to return to base. It will come as no surprise to readers of Shapcott that this new book contains a series of poems called “Beginnings and Endings” and that the first of these are set in Ipswich mentioning, in the first line of the first poem, that shabby icon, Denmark Hill. It will also come as no surprise that it is a series of sonnets with the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, tricky because there are only two rhymes in the octet. (Shapcott’s skill in the sonnet form is something that goes uncommented on since his career generally has taken place in a non-formal phase of our poetic culture but it ought to be given some attention. It may be that a sense of craft status – easily measured by the ability to produce cleverly rhymed sonnets without the desperate enjambments and twisted syntax of most writers’ attempts – gives a kind of poetic confidence that allows the poet to run the risk of seeming to fill up poems with material of a personal and often uninteresting kind – what one of the poems calls “this utter / Concern with trivia”).

The first poem of the “Beginnings and Endings” section finishes very denotatively:

Dad was a lieutenant in the VDC. They climbed
The shaky ladder to the top of the water tower
To signal messages from Brisbane over
To Amberley Air Base. The camouflage convinced us but we named
Our dugout air-raid shelter "The Spider's Lair."
We stored blankets and comics and first-aid dressings there.

But things are not quite as contingent as they seem here. The last poem of this sequence takes the image of the spider and expands it into a symbolic figure of the poet:

I have become a spider living in dry places.
A huntsman behind the lavatory door
Among stale smells and in the shadows of a poor
Attempt at secretiveness. My meals are pieces
Of forgotten fragments, dust-mites and the minute carcass
Of something once animal. I need nothing more.
I have a terrible patience. But you may be sure
That when I move, the action is an abrupt process.

I have many eyes and I live in no real past
Or in an eternal present - I am not lovely
But that does not mean I am withdrawn. I am not overly
Gregarious. I wait and I watch. I keep a decent
Silence. But there are some skills where I have power.
At times I have spun a silk web strong as wire.

If we are tempted to see this as a fairly stylized symbol celebrating the ability of one who feeds on trivia and detritus but who can spin from his body a strong poem, it is worth looking at the first poem in the book, “Totems”. The point is made here that, if it were possible for the poet to choose his own totem (and thus choose an image for himself) he would have chosen the noble Red Cedar or the Black Bean tree. But, as the poem says, you don’t choose your totem, it is always there and eventually recognizes you. The final section of “Totems” leaves us again with spiders.

Yes, a tree,
I thought.
The bark spiders waited.
I shuddered
Perhaps sensing
Even then
Their time would come.
Feet soft as the undersides of leaves
And a quickness like bird-shadow
They remain
Not to be understood
Even when they are predictable.
They return
In my dreams
And I come home
To them
- as befits a true Totem.

There are a number of issues raised here, not entirely relevant to the review of a book but not irrelevant either. One relates to this idea of totems: it is the issue of the history of Shapcott’s conception of the self, something tied in with the history of his conception of poetry. Another is this theme of recognition and its counterpart, annunciation.

To begin with the self. Time on Fire, published in 1961, is a very mixed book and I feel confident in saying, with the wisdom of hindsight, that the faultline that runs through it to make it shaky is the idea of the self. We meet a newly in-love man, full of the kind of rhapsodic inanities that (cynicism tells us) comprise a very dangerous hubris. We also meet a kind of over-inflated haranguer lecturing about time and cities. Shapcott won’t thank me for quoting any of this but something like

Blind city! Blind world again! denying all
the true discovering joys, grown stale and gross
even here, in this new land! Yes, yes, this is
Man’s metaphor, this is ourselves . . .

has a morbid – almost pathological – fascination. It comes out of a stance which is ultimately, perhaps, derived from the Jindyworobaks (though you would have to know a lot about Australian poetry in the fifties to work out the full etiology) but which simply doesn’t suit the deeper personality of the poet. It looks like empty bluff. This is nothing but praise because it means that Shapcott lacks the kind of proto-megalomaniac absolute certainty that you need when you set yourself up in this way. Later we meet other Shapcotts. Some – the world-weary documenter of urban life with small children and marriage problems – are less effective than others. In two of his best books, A Taste of Saltwater (1967) and Inwards to the Sun (1969) we meet a poet developing his dramatic powers and becoming involved in historical narratives and lyrics. Whether this hides the self or enables someone to express it allegorically depends on the poet’s stake in the poem. In “Macquarie, as Father”, the last poem of A Taste of Saltwater, Macquarie is conducting business and meditating on the colony while his wife is going through a difficult birth. It is tricky to work out why Shapcott is writing this poem (good, as it is). As a father himself, is he finding a connection with a generally rather remote but immensely important colonial governor, a connection that enables the poem to come alive? Is it an allegory about the birth of the country? Or is it a poet moving from the hectoring style of the bad public poems of the first books into a way of annexing Australia as his true ground by imaginatively entering its history as dramatist? It’s hard to be sure.

And then there are those poems, beginning with a dramatic portrait, “Medea of the Salt Swamp” from The Mankind Thing of 1964, which harness the power of myth. This can be done allusively (as in “A Country Marduk”, which is predominantly one of Shapcott’s portraits of a disaffected city-dweller) or directly (as in the dramatic sequence, “Minotaur”). I think these are the best of Shapcott’s early poems and so I can’t go along with the obvious objection that myth is merely a way of shoring up a poet’s shaky sense of who he is. The theory must be that poetry draws power from great archetypes when they are embodied in individuals. It is a theory that poetry, in actuality, ought to rebut. But in Shapcott’s poetry it usually works very well. If that seems a subjective summation, look at the second poem of the “Minotaur” sequence:

Before anything else, my hands – strong
and obedient as weapons, the meaning of power.
But then these only as extensions of my stature,
corridors of the palace, my body. To belong
to the immediate creatures, to feel in my deep chest
lungs claim tribute from the subservient air,
and to know in my dark bloodstream where
all chemistry comes kneeling – there is no last
reward of consciousness. Proud, and in awe,
like the upthrust messenger of my naked thighs,
I move beyond animal. Everything in me is praise:
blood to seed-time, thought to power, fear
to knowledge, and the beast made marvelous.
It is my tongue, only, falters. Language remains monstrous.

There is a lot of energy here, some generated, probably, by a mastery over the form of the thing – I love the way that the crucial line “there is no last / reward of consciousness” straddles the conventionally important conclusion of the octet and beginning of the sestet. But a lot of the energy must come from the identification of poet with minotaur. The exact nature of this is something I’m not entirely certain of: the minotaur represents the animal world celebrated, in different ways, in Rilke’s eighth Duino Elegy and in that entire American tradition of desiring an immediate, preverbal apprehension of reality. But language remains beyond his achievement and, as a result, when he dies (in the fifth poem) he is nothing more than divided-up and disappearing flesh. The best I can do, interpretively, is to suggest that the minotaur represents a kind of critique of a drive towards poetry of immediate experience coupled with energy that derives from a frustration on the poet’s part that he has trouble finding a balance between poetry and experience. As the first poem after the introductory “Totems” of The City of Empty Rooms says, “Language is alienation / But it’s what we have.” As is so often the case, this painful stake in the poem, helps to produce a terrific result.

The middle books are Shapcott’s least successful. We meet Shapcott the experimenter, Shapcott the poet open to contemporary influences, especially those trying to solve the issue of how to be “immediate” and Shapcott the traveler. All of these seem provisional. To take the last, for example, it seems to me an almost insoluble problem how a poet should deal with travel experiences. Almost by definition they are some of the most profound things that happen to us. They can change people into poets (Byron, for example) when the experiences need clarification and expression. But, since the advent of mass air travel, they are experiences open to virtually all Australians. So a poet is likely to get caught up in the dreary “I am a traveler not a tourist” game and poems of travel begin by looking portentous. It would take an exceptional poet – or a poet exceptionally lucky in his or her experiences – to alter this default setting. Some of Shapcott’s travel poems are good ones in that they are momentary solutions to the problem of this mode, and he is never an arrogant or self-satisfied traveler. But it seems to me to be an uncomfortably, though necessarily, adopted self.

The poet of the books that date from The City of Home (1995), seems on much surer ground. All these patterns seen by looking over a poet’s career are, as I have said, provisional, but in these most recent books the self seems a really stable entity: stable and complex. I think it comes from life-experiences having gained sufficient momentum that they are now worth contemplation in their full complexity. I think it has taken Shapcott a long time to establish a stable poetic self, longer than most. Some poets, even while young, seem to have an astonishingly precocious grasp of the complexities of life (Auden is the first example that comes to my mind) while others, Michael Dransfield, for example, early on write out of their particular life situation. In The City of Home, Chekhov’s Mongoose (2000) and, now, The City of Empty Rooms we meet the same kind of exploration of the self’s experiences so that poems of Ipswich oscillate with poems of travel, poems of personal experience oscillate with poems that explore the genetic inheritance that has its role in the way experience is shaped. All in all, the structure of Shapcott’s work can be said to be about the structure and interrelations of the sum total of our experience.

It is not only in the poems of the section “Beginnings and Endings” where the characteristic move is backwards. That gesture is shared by the poems of the first section. My favourite poem in the entire book is “Cape Lilacs for Elizabeth”, a poem about many things including Perth and the Western Australian writer, Elizabeth Jolley:

“Cape Lilac, we call these.” In South Perth
Elizabeth pointed to the massive crown of blooms
That made the modest trees a great posy
So delicate no Kodak film could pin them.
“In Queensland,” I said, “we call those White Cedar;
It is a rainforest native.”
I learned, later,
It is ubiquitous. It thrives in the Balkans,
in Asia, in warm Africa. The rainforest examples
of my youth proved birds were the first migrants.
Late spring, Adelaide. I am taken back
with a sudden pain to that park in the West,
and our day together. Cape Lilac.
I hear your voice in that name, Elizabeth,
and again its flowering canopy forces abundance
from a delicate framework, like ghosts in the flower shadows,
and like your voice, re-naming for me
a whole new territory from things
I had assumed I knew unerringly.

This is the kind of poem that deserves to be well-known, especially to people learning something about the immense capacities of a seemingly simple work. Yes, it is an elegy for Jolley, the flowering canopy of whose prose arose from a very delicate framework – both intellectually and physically, but it is a lot more. It is also, for example, about the way the name is preserved in the other’s voice and the way it preserves that voice. A later poem for Bruce Beaver (fittingly conceived as a letter) emphasizes the way text can be a miniature score for the voice, more important even that its generalized information-carrying capacity. So, like poetry, names can enable the dead to continue speaking to us.

Shapcott’s imagination has also turned the White Cedar in a species indigenous to his own environment but, as we know, the appeal to indigenous purities (“He is a true Serb”, “Ich bin echt deutsch”) is a chimera. Everything is begun by migrants. This is true of the ideas in our head – which turn out to be imported – and it is true of our inner selves – which are compounded of our genetic heritage. This is the kind of material that the best poems of Shapcott’s most recent books have worried about. In “Looking for Ancestors in Limerick”, Shapcott makes it clear that he took not documents but his own self – actually a highly distinctive genetic document – when he went searching for his grandmother’s family. In another poem with the same setting, “Reclaim”, we see the poet beginning by rejecting angrily the kind of genetic determinism that leads people to assume resonances but being lead, at the end, to accept that no individual is utterly self-contained when it comes to physical and psychological features:

. . . . .
I felt anger.
No, I felt drawn in
I was who I was and it had nothing to do
With them.
. . . . .
My life had been discovery and the truth
Though it seemed everything was sudden
And unfamiliar.
. . . . .
We hear your genes, they said.
The rocks in my mouth
Had grown huge as volcanoes. Mountains
Were remembering rainforest
And the ancestral voices were as foreign
And familiar as each part I sought to disown.

But to return to “Cape Lilacs for Elizabeth” for a moment, there is also the issue – interesting to me – of what might be called annunciation. What prompts the poet to make the movement backward to an experience in Perth a movement that is a sort of temporary reverse migration? Why is it that in late spring in Adelaide he is “taken back”? We might guess that it is news of Jolley’s death, but it is not made explicit. It could be a similarity in air temperature or another element that resonates with the poet’s current position. It is not a question that I can answer here, but one day I would like to look at the body of Shapcott’s poetry and examine these – for want of a better word – triggers. The issue emerges again in one of the poems in this first section of The City of Empty Rooms. “Rain in the Courtyard” begins, like “Cape Lilacs for Elizabeth”, with the poet in Adelaide. It is a rainy day and, after two stanzas, we are in the past, in Tuscany, where crucial experiences occur “Tuscany / Altered everything”. But the transition is made very abruptly and without explanation:

Looking through thick walls of my window
In Tuscany I had the courtyard
The well in the centre with its twisted iron scrolls
And its small core of darkness
Where sound was a dropped stone.

This issue ties in with the idea of recognition, common in this book. In a very early poem “River Scene” (it is the second poem of Shapcott’s first book) kingfishers are used as a symbol of the heralds of annunciation. It is a clearly set up symbolic scenario with the poet’s friends focusing on the river shallows where water plays over pebbles that are what time (or Time as it conceived abstractly in this book) does to mountains. Only the poet sees the kingfishers whose startling blue appears and disappears within trees:

. . . . .
Their sudden snap
and whip of air and sunset-blue glass was sharp
and feather soft; and brief, was brief; too small the cymbal-
tapped time of their flight through the unknowing trees. I only
saw them between the seared and vanishing branches harp
and glitter away. And only I saw, for the others still
talked and stoned the shallows. “That magic 
of Kingfishers – did you see? Again. There! Again – and a shower
of turquoise remoulded the trees. . . .

I like this poem (though I suppose it has an uncomfortably and probably Vitalist touch of the-artist-as-privileged-being staring at the trees while the common herd play in the shallows) but the fact remains that the kingfishers are external agents. In the poems of these recent books, annunciation is replaced by recognition and resonance. It is as though the self’s submersion in reality creates pathways that are not generally recognized. And these pathways lead to connections between elements that are surprising to those prosily constructed of us who are not so sensitive or aware. It is natural to move from Adelaide to Elizabeth Jolley, for example, because Shapcott and Jolley are connected by their individual responses to the same tree. These are the “intangible resonances” spoken of in another poem, “Returning to Looe”.

The issue of the individual and his or her double status as genetically determined object and free-floating self is carried over into the third section of the book which deals with artists, most especially musicians. In an intriguing poem like “Mozart, Mahler, Those Russians” this double-status is worked out as a meditation on the old literary-historical issue of art’s relationship to its times. Is Mozart a function of his period or a free-formed genius? Both and neither, the poem seems to say. Though “I hear the tumbrels / Beyond the next allee / In Mozart”, the balanced structures of Viennese classical music are balancing between surface and an understood and registered deeper reality, here symbolized by the stubble and the head rash under the aristocracy’s wigs. The temptation to read music as a response to the horrors of its period (the emerging determinism of psychology in the Vienna of Mahler’s day, the mad Stalinist regime overlooking Prokofiev and Shostakovich) tells a lot of the truth but not, it seems, all of it. The poem concludes:

Music has been weighed in the balance
Like any other object. It is as if
We might hold the scales.
This is why only we can agree
They are all right,
Allowing us to decode the music as symptomatic
Or in sympathy with each very decade.
Yet somehow things are not right.
Something’s omitted. There is the squint
Of the specific man, there is the convention
Or the breaking of convention.
But how do we fit the silences
In our Balance sheet?
We are restricted
By the very idea of balance.

This section on music is followed by what one has to call a section on travel though it is not a victim of the failings of this mode that I spoke of earlier. The denseness of the book’s obsessions means that travel experiences know exactly where they belong. The first poem, “London 1972”, is not a list of Australian writers met in London but rather a reflection on the perversity of those meetings and of the situations of the writers. This is because, as the poem says in its conclusion, “everyone I met in London came from elsewhere”, all are migrants and the resonances with the place they are living in are not predictable. Another poem from this section deals with seeing Chekhov’s Ivanov performed in Montenegro and what is this but art migrating to another language and culture? It is not a big move from Chekhov’s Russian to Montenegro’s Serbian but it is a big move for an Anglophone poet to enter “the other world” of such a performance. Interestingly the poem is about another “move” or, I suppose, migration: this time from the metaphorical to the actual.

. . . . .
This performance, under the olive trees and the night sky
Was clearly designed for the climax of the Second Act:
Instead of the offstage fireworks display, in fact
We are given the real thing. Rockets fly
And crumble above us. What were the words again?
A card game, dull neighbours, desperation. The gun.

As in “Cape Lilacs for Elizabeth” there is more going on in this apparently simple poem than immediately catches the eye. When the curtain falls on the climax of the second act – where the wife discovers her husband kissing another woman – we expect “fireworks” to occur offstage between the acts. But in fact, through a mysterious but accidental “rightness of things”, there is a real fireworks display taking place in the area. So the event moves from metaphor to reality. But it also moves in the opposite direction because, of course, a performance in the former Yugoslavia that ends in suicide must be, unintentionally, a metaphor for the events in that area in the 1990s.

So The City of Empty Rooms is built on a stable and very complex view of the self and the relationships between the self and the complexly structured world it inhabits. The self floats much more than in Shapcott’s early books but continually makes connections, makes movements or has connections made with it – as when the self is “recognized” by its totem. It is a book obsessed with migration conceived metaphorically and also literally. It has a section, which I have ignored so far, which is made up of angry poems. I don’t think these are very successful but much of that may be a prejudice on my part against polemical poetry. Each works hard to have a complex enough rhetorical strategy to retain our interest. The first of them, “The Ballad of Razor Wire”, pretends to focus on the manufacture of the wire which seals people in camps:

Once it was simply ore in the ground
Out in the lonely places
Then heavy equipment gouged it out
And put it through its paces.

Heat and pressure and good hard cash
Make it a solid investment
And ingots grew from the furnace mouth
To quantify what the rest meant.

Spin rock to wire and make it sharp:
Skill is a marvellous weapon.
Razor wire is iron rock
In its ultimate concentration.

Here is a concentration camp
Stuck like a harsh outstation.
Do not think of the people inside
Who appealed to our generous nation 

Remember the steel and remember the money
Remember that God is a liar
Remember the key is “misinformation”
And remember strong razor wire.

The only point I am going to make about this poem, indeed all the angry poems, is the obvious one that the event which lies behind them and generates the anger (and which, for the first time in at least my life, made me ashamed of being Australian) is related to migration. Thus this section, so unlike the others in tone, is part of a deep unity which The City of Empty Rooms possesses. Is it an accident that Shapcott is outraged by this particular event or are there resonances between the complicated theme of the sensitivities of the self in this book and the events of the Tampa? It is hard to be sure but it is a question worth asking and one which, itself, chimes in with the questions that the poems of this book ask. It also makes some sense of the book’s title. At first, The City of Empty Rooms seems mainly designed to recall the title of The City of Home two books earlier. The poem called “The City of Empty Rooms”, which comes at the end of this second section, is not about an allegorical city (as “The City of Home” was) but about the Gold Coast. But as we read its description of virtually empty high-rise towers, where “if one figure moves it is an event: / Like a spouting whale, or like a lone sea eagle”, it reminds us, intentionally or otherwise, that we inhabit a country in which it ought to be possible for us to be generous about space – if Australians were just more generous, that is, than we actually are.

Simon West: First Names

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2006, 58pp.

This impressive first book is marked by an elegant lyricism and is accurately described by Chris Wallace-Crabbe on the cover as containing poems which are “intensely observant, gravely acute”. There are poems about place (usually a very cold Italy), about relationships and about, well, metaphysics. It is also a very tightly organized book deriving from a consistent and complex poetic personality so that readers feel confident in allowing each of the poems to provide a context for others.

Take, for example, “Mountain Pass”, from the middle of the book:

Cloud veils sweep up a gully towards us.
In the rivalling currents of open air they flounder
like small birds. There is nothing to hold but wind.

Our bearings are scenes snatched from a slow procession.
A broken string of peaks and ridges, sheer
faces, fragments that continue to disappear.

Stones click beneath our feet. Rawness
of rock or in pockets and dips, the flesh
of soil or snow. Inhuman realm. Inconstant.

One lone larch tree has grown to the height
of a man. But already down to its torso
it is worn by wind, clean as driftwood or bone.

Our guide says anything that rises above the level
of winter snows - snow that spreads its blanket
of white life - anything at all is punished.

Learn to grow low, we think, grip rock,
trust to a single limb
or a handful of day-long flowers.

Read in isolation this seems a fairly straightforward poem with the only worrying surprise being that the snow is described as a blanket of “white life” rather than something less positive. It invites, certainly, being read as a “poem-poem”, one of those pieces, common in first books which, allegorically or otherwise, give us clues about the poet’s sense of what his or her poetry is. This poem seems to say, in its conclusion, that the flowers of poems come from keeping one’s head down, relying on the earth, and not expecting to produce anything epic or earth-shattering but rather small, evanescent lyric poems. But in the context of other poems in the book it becomes a little more complex.

One of the reasons for this is that the poems are very sensitive to the idea of a vertical axis. There is a down-below, there is an up-above and there is a half-way between. In other words, you don’t innocently find yourself positioned between sky and land. It is also a book full of its author’s Italian influences and Dante figures prominently: so below, halfway and above allegorizes out not only as soil/origins, culture and sky/transcendence but also as hell, purgatory and heaven. For me, at least, this adds a dimension to “Mountain Pass” since the word “guide”, used in conjunction with Dante, inevitably recalls Virgil, Dante’s guide in the first two parts of the Commedia, and the fourth line strongly suggests that we should be thinking of the weird procession at the end of Purgatorio.

First Name’s key word – it is repeated four or five times – is “humus”, that generative material produced by the movement of living material downwards towards darkness. West’s poetry is clearly obsessed by this basic material which seems resistant to the pressures of the surface-world. An important, if not entirely successful, poem, “And Your Insistent Need”, is about the vertical scale at the bottom of which humus lies. Here the “need” is the drive towards transcendence, towards the blue of the sky. We are lifted up “by the eye” in a way that recalls Eckhart’s “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me”. It concludes:

Mind, demented blow-fly,
you who won’t renounce your want of the source,
the sex of stars beyond the sky-light,
you who butt the glass of meaning’s window,
ignoring the cataract and downpour of
dust and weather, the tug of gravity.
Your green fingers make a humus balm, aid
the spread of mushrooms full of moisture.

An interesting poem, “The Halfway Garden”, gives us more clues about this axis. The garden contains both upper and lower (its higher, fruiting plants are aligned with the sky so that “your jewels hang like stars and planets”) despite being positioned between them. The final stanza reads:

The air thickens, strands
 darken and turn,
 like vespers the wind whispers above
 the fosse of no man’s land. Here I’ll continue
 to fathom the workings of your eyes.

“Fosse” is a Dantesque word but my inherently dirty mind focuses on its sexual meanings. Yes this is Dante first meeting up with Beatrice in the last cantos of the Purgatorio and thence being able to ascend to paradise but it also suggests the endless, horizontally human world of sexual activity and exploration as well as the other activities of mundane social life. There are not a lot of love poems in First Names but they are charming and not simply cute, in this respect like the poems about children.

I don’t know whether the model for the structure of this book is the Commedia or La Vita Nuova but it begins with bleak poems about the world that could equally well suggest either hell or a life before one meets one’s Beatrice. The best of these is “I giorni della merla” (wrongly acknowledged in the book’s prelims as appearing in The Best Australian Poems of 2006 when in fact it appeared in The Best Australian Poetry of that year, though I suppose only an editor of one of the series would be concerned about this, given the irritating closeness of the names of the two series of annual anthologies). Here we meet an Italian town in the dog-days of January, the very bleakest season of the year. “Winter: Prali” is not only located in the same season, but also includes a burial:

. . . . .
Someone had dug those months down to the earth:
a humus balm, dark and gleaming with ice,
a sinister fecundity from which the line
of people stretched across the bridge to town.
. . . . .

Whether the structure comes from the Commedia or not, the last poems of the book – beginning with “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarara Tjapaltjarri” are decidedly “philosophical”, concerning themselves, especially, with the interaction between the three levels that I have already spoken of. Although they conclude with two poems, “Higher Elements” and “Flower-Echo” where the references, pace the Paradiso, are suitably celestial, the overwhelming sensation of reading them is the surprising one of fear of the dark. This fear permeates the world just above the warm and productive humus. It is after all, the world in which we live, but it is conceived here as a world of almost motiveless threat. I’m not sure what kind of cosmic perspective generates this. Certainly Dante can help because he invented the idea of a “selva oscura” that needs to be woken up from but it is unlikely that a twenty-first century Australian writer is going to take on board the full ramifications of early fourteenth century Catholic theology. At any rate, these final poems are full of sinister thickets.

Even the humble Banksia in “Seed Eyes” becomes sinister:

. . . . .
Mute spirits locked in wood and all
anguish, all wordless knowledge. See it
in the quicks of their eyes, eyes that seem
                    to accuse        us?
                    to judge         us?
seed eyes that germinate fear over
here here in the thick of the mind,
flashing as if we had something to hide.

I notice, as I write this, that on my first or second reading of the book I’ve written “Why?” in the margin at this point. No doubt I assumed that I’d eventually be able to answer this question but I’m as far from being able to do this now as I was then. In the final part of “Seed Eyes”, the trees become associated with postcolonial guilts and paranoias:

Did it gleam like the tip of a spear
or a wordless thought, that fear, for Banks
who pinned them under his name, and took them
in under the shadow of his tongue,
. . . . .

and in the second section, which I have already quoted, they recall the wood of the suicides in Inferno xiii. But what, ultimately, generates such an intense response in the poems of this book (suicide and settler-angst seem only two unlikely possibilities) I am not sure.

So far I have spoken of First Name’s structure and the dominant image of the vertical axis between earth and sky. The other dominant theme of the book is the experience of language. Though this is predictable enough in poetry, West’s engagement with it is quite surprising. There is a genuine fascination with the word, its sound, almost its taste in the mouth that fascination continually alters the path of what might be, otherwise, predictable poems. The first poem in the book, “Mushrooms”, really comes from later obsessions but is put first because not only is it a stronger poem than those set in Italy, it also demonstrates this theme of the tactility of language:

This morning by the path I saw them.
Bold heads clean as paper
had butted aside the earth, and rose
like probes all about my feet,
capsules eager to outgrow
the dark grounds of their birth,
to join at last the light of day.
The soft-fleshed name, mushroom,
of humus and moss, tugged at me
as if it had something to say,
as if it too could be prodded
 nd wielded by the tongue, turned
over to expose an under-
belly’s hidden treasure of gills.
And the bloom of meaning when thought
breaks from such pods, then spreads outward
like the scattering of spawn?
Shhh . . .This tissuey fruit is all
syllable, is already
bowing to the moisture of the earth.
Mushrooms fulfil their word, and then some.

I quote this poem in full because, as well as being a fine poem in itself, it encapsulates the best of this book. The mushrooms grow in the humus and reach into the middle world of air. In other words the poem begins with the theme of the vertical levels, a dominant obsession in First Names. But at the point where we might want to plod on with a fairly predictable allegory the poem changes direction entirely to speak of the word “mushroom”, its textual quality and the near puns it generates (not to mention near anagrams – you can nearly find the letters of “humus” in the word). It is this change of direction to something which is, in itself, less predictable but which is, in the context of the book’s themes, entirely predictable, that makes “Mushrooms” such a strong poem (despite the spinelessness of its subject). “Seed Eyes” – the Banksia poem – is prefaced by Dante’s “Nomina sunt consequentia rerum”: “Things determine their names”. This is a long way from the arbitrary nature of the sign but it does express a partial truth about language that poets are sensitive to. Somehow connections keep emerging between, on the one hand, sound and even the visual shape of a word, and, on the other, the object that the word refers to. The lover of Beatrice is likely to find the meaning of her name entirely fitting.

The fine poem, “Persimmon”, works a little like “Mushrooms” in that it makes a similar shift. Two stanzas describe the fruit, and the fact that it must be eaten at the point of rottenness (like the more familar monstera deliciosa here in tropical and sub-tropical Australia). Again the essential allegorical significance is clear – we ingest this stuff only at the moment when it has almost slipped over the edge into humus – but the poem’s final stanza, instead of exploiting this, shifts gear to speak of the fact that Italian has, apparently, a word for that indescribably precise experience of eating a not-yet-rotten-enough persimmon. And this, in turn, recalls the person who taught him this – lover or teacher, perhaps dead.

But to wait until it is almost too late,
to have to handle and break open that decay,
to scoop out the flesh with a spoon, to risk
the sudden coat of fur on one’s tongue.
I wonder how you would have described that taste,
and imagine your mouth flexing each of its muscles
to accommodate the vowels of allappare.
No English verb is ever likely to do it justice.
Mind the gap, you might have said, pleased to
span it with such an agile leap of the tongue,
relishing the sweet existence a lack can have.
Allappi. Allappa. And already my mouth has roughened
to roll these words out in memory of you.

Poems with a strong sense of hierarchically ordered levels of space as well as the tactility of words are going to both embody and, occasionally, speak about, a poetics. The best of the comic poems, “All or Nothing”, begins with two stanzas of elegant play with the letter “O” – the zero behind things, the marker of the vocative, the groan of love and war, the exit from the womb, etc etc. But its conclusion suggests what poetry is and where it “lies”:

O naught, I want you.
What I want is to lie with you
and reach your source, know
all there is to know,
though thought will twist away from there,
play its echo games, its word games.
I want to overcome these
and silence everywhere,
and fill your void with words.

This suggests two poetries: that which frenziedly reaches the source of generation (“the humus theory of poetry”, or, to mix metaphors, “the salmon theory”) and that which is produced by the mind’s swerving away from this generative nothingness (“the baroquely decorated doorway theory”). We meet the latter in the last two poems of the book. “Higher Elements” is, of all the poems in First Names, the one done in the most high of high styles, and it sustains this elevated level remarkably well. In my tentative reading, the poem is a group of “loving syllables” cast upwards “like a die”:

. . . . .
parched northerlies crying wolf,
the bowels of insects feeding on the sun,
trees fawning before it with green fingers
charged with photosynthesis,
water curled at the edges into
a liquid echolalia.
And this baby talk, this babble
you give voice to, rising high from spheres
of life, this bold cry, binary of vowels,
takes its place among the elements.

Here the words “babble” and “echolalia” are the ones which connect this poem to the conclusion of “All or Nothing” and the same image is continued in “Flower-Echo”. Rather daringly, this poem is written not in high-style but in a way that recalls the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. But the message – a version of “as above, so below” – is that the flowers of the natural world are echoes of the generative capacities of the cosmos and, since “Mountain Pass” used flowers as an image for poems, poems too have their place among the elements:

Twinkling logo, little word,
made flesh
and fallible by tongues;
ephemeral thought, wee
how I wonder what you are.
Re-sounded here, now,
from past springs,
echoing on in us, into
bright with atoms.
. . . . .
Tiny star and insubstantial
up above
the world so high,
radiating across the ages
and over
galaxies of black,
your thin light
is beautiful,
takes its part in makeshift
Resound then,
here, now.

Philip Hammial: Sugar Hits

Woodford: Island Press, 2006, 79pp.

Philip Hammial’s first collection, Foot Falls & Notes, was published in 1976 and Sugar Hits, thirty years later, is his nineteenth. He still has the capacity to polarize audiences but one senses that he has more admirers than detractors among serious readers of Australian poetry. I have always thought he was an exhilarating poet and I have no doubt that he is a very major one. He is also fantastically enjoyable to read – and I always approach each new book with an anticipatory thrill. The keynote to his work is energy. On the crudest level it takes a lot of energy to sustain a nineteen book career in a generally blase literary culture like Australia’s. But at a more significant level, energy is what animates the poems. They have a life and intensity that makes them crackle for the reader despite the inevitable frustrations of our “irritable search after meaning”.

Where this energy comes from is a matter of theory. Arguments derived from non-representational art say that once the poem is forced to sustain itself, rather than draw energy (usually considered to be inauthentic energy, or at least, non-poetic) from the event it records or the scene or experience it conveys, the standards are cranked up considerably and weaker, flabbier works are more easily seen for what they are. Related to this is the idea that language is the true source of the energy of poetry. And then there is the entire conspectus of the literary history of surrealism. Unfortunately there are so many kinds of surrealism that the category is as unhelpful, in its way, as a term like “non-surreal” or “mimetic” would be when considering other kinds of poetry.

Hammial’s career begins with a number of different kinds of poem. At one extreme is something like “A True Story”, the final poem of Foot Falls & Notes:

1. quoit, soporific: you’d rather
2. Chez Vous, hide what you want, each other
3. the you in seeming, the flat one
4. of mixed conclusion, like bibles
5. you contain, others purloin, such
6. always follows, on paper
7. good heart, bad blood, moving
8. in recognition/resignation
9. never clear: the boons, the duets
10. you’d romance, make them heady, like blue streaks

and so on, as far a line number 20. It’s hard to say much about it since it resists any teasing out of meaning and retains only the status of an experience, albeit an intriguing one, for the reader. “Oel”, from Chemical Cart (1977), is a different sort of thing, however:

you’re stuck
use the mouth.

be gentle
with the unconfessed mouth. never use
the shoulder, the knee, the
bruised limelight
of the snowballing knuckle.

the surly vaudevillian
hath no application.

nor the mute seamstress
who closes things.

any small
caterwaul, dancer’s
nibble, fairy’s foraging
is a good start.

go on
with the arabesque
of a fledgling war whoop.

This is the kind of poem that other poems by the same author teach us how to read. It’s subject is the mouth, the organ of ingestion and expression both of which play a large part in Hammial’s poems. The mood is imperative, another favourite Hammial mode of address and the poem is a set of injunctions. The fifth and six stanzas want to be read as a memo to the poet himself – find a way to begin your poem by “any small caterwaul” and let it develop into (at least) a “fledgling war whoop”. What makes a small caterwaul, of course, is a complex issue. Sometimes it is simply an odd and exciting collocation of words – the kind of thing you find in the first lines of early poems by John Forbes. “Rabid Thrashing // has its advocate & a pink / prodigious trunk . . .” or “I’m crannied, I’ve got / the sorrow . . .” or “Your itch, Adabble, / is peristaltic . . .” are examples, though it would take a lot of time to tease out whether the interest derives from the image or the sound. Most often in Hammial, however, the start is likely to be some trick played on an existing structure in the language, often a cliche. Thus “Strangle the Projectionist” from Swarm (1979) begins “if moles / are mountains; if the sun wants / a good killing; if the sentry / is opposed to the eagle . . .” so that the initial reference to mountains and molehills leads us to believe that cliches underlie the next lines. A poem from Chemical Cart, “Roses For Fourtille”, is made up of delphic utterances, one sentence per stanza (a form common in Hammial), many of which, like my favourite “Goose, but greece is grandeur”, are distortions or blending of cliches while others take a familiar syntactic shape and fill it with unexpected words.

This brief look at what generates a poem verbally is a bit of a digression. I want to contrast a poem like “Oel” with a poem like “A True Story” in terms of the ways in which one absolutely rejects any attempts to prise a conventional, paraphrasable meaning from it while the other, perhaps coyly, suggests that our instinctive efforts to make sense of it are not entirely misplaced. If we read enough of Hammial, these seem to say, we will learn how to unlock the meanings hidden inside their distinctive exteriors. Is this nothing more than the familiar heresy whereby unskilled readers of the various kinds of surreal poetry attempt to impose conventional interpretations on the uninterpretable, thus making fools of themselves and showing how little they understand of the poetics and hermeneutics of surrealism?

Well not in Hammial’s case because there are poems far more “accessible” than “Oel”. To take an extreme example: pretty much in the centre of Hammial’s career as it now stands is a book called Travel published in 1989. It is made up of prose poems which are not remotely surreal. They are stories of harum-scarum adolescent adventures (burning down deserted farmhouses seems a common experience in post-war Detroit) and of travel – Hammial is an indefatigable traveller. Though the mode of writing is simple the material is pretty outrageous. In fact one is tempted to call this (a la Marquez) the realistic description of a surreal reality. One of Hammial’s early jobs was as a warder in the Athens State Hospital and this weird environment is surely responsible for the references to asylums which form a kind of ground bass to his poems. Not many other poems in Hammial are autobiographical and denotative like these but there are autobiographical elements that poke through and Travel enables readers to identify many of these elements.

The first poem of Travel, incidentally, is as clear a statement of poetics as one could hope for. It is called “The Owl”:

Always the youthful experimenter and already convinced that true  poetry doesn’t come from the conscious mind, I’m looking for ways to  project myself into “altered states of consciousness”. I have a  brainstorm. Under a full moon I follow the railroad tracks out into the  country. When I hear the whistle of an approaching freight train, I  place my pen and notebook on the cinders and lie down on my stomach  beside a rail, about six inches from it. Moments later the huge cars are  roaring and shaking and screeching and thundering over me, around me,  through me. My experiment is more than successful. I rise shakily to my  feet and begin hooting, over and over at the top of my lungs. I’ve  discovered my totem bird, the bird that will give me my poems.

“The Owl” locates Hammial, within the many-doored mansion of surreal verse, as what I would call a “totemic surrealist”. Derangement of the logical mind allows uncensored images of a state of being which is possessed of great power. It is no accident that Hammial has long been interested in Art Brut (or Outsider Art), works produced by disturbed people with no access to artistic “training”.

Finally, in this list of Hammial modes (with digressions) are the surreal narratives. These are almost always expressed as prose poems and are reasonably denotative. Unlike the poems of Travel, however, they are not at all mimetic. The earliest is “No One Knows I Do This” in Foot Falls & Notes:

I send the string (every Thursday) to a sick girl. I coil it in  the bottom of a small box & wrap it in brown paper & mail it . .  . It’s Friday, & the now-opened box sits in the palm of her left  hand & (1) she pinches the end of the string between the fingernails  of her index & second fingers (right hand) &, while she pulls  it up slowly, she whispers hush; (2) she wets her thumb with her tongue,  places it (thumb, right hand) on the coiled string & pushes it out  through the bottom of the box while she says very matter-of-factly cup  of tea; (3) she tosses the box (the string is still inside) into the  waste-basket shouting brew; (4) a pencil is a good flute, & it  charms the white snake from its basket; but now the nurse is here &  she’s taking the pencil away; (5)

There is a strong sense here of a tremendously important ritual which is logically quite meaningless and this is both a theme of these prose poems and a mode – because the language in which the ritual is conveyed has to be as simple and unequivocal as possible. This seems dreamlike and suggests that this and others of the prose poems are based in dreams, a suspicion confirmed by two from Chemical Cart which begin, “I call the scape like I see it” and “The dream is pure kitsch”. Many of these poems involve contraptions with wheels and their interaction with humans. Vehicles (1985) is a collection of these but “Automobiles of the Asylum”, the first poem of Chemical Cart, is the best example:

I pull the huge book down from the bookcase. Rich, full-color  photographs of the cars & their drivers, page after page. But first  the text: it seems the inmates have races in these vehicles; they start  on the roof & roll down a spiraling ramp to the ground floor. No one  knows when or how these races originated.

Each vintage car is a true work of art: magnificent chrome-plated  radiators through which (so one of the captions says) only the rarest  blood can circulate; huge highly-polished brass head & tail lamps,  their wicks trimmed by special attendants; brass horns that curl to  animal & vegetable bulbs with the scaled reality of the mermaid;  spoked wheels with the shimmering complexity of fire-rimmed, god-filled  mandalas . . .

And the bodies of these small vehicles - no larger than go-carts -  each one is shaped like the torso of its creator-driver, a fur or  silk-lined outer skin into which the limbless inmate may be comfortably  placed for his or her one-way roll at dazzling speeds down, always down  the ever-narrowing ramp to the shock-rooms.

This is an interesting example because instead of simply describing the dream or vision (“I call the scape like I see it”) it includes the processes of transformation from picture of vintage cars to a progressively more manic metaphor for life.

And so to Sugar Hits. It is hard not to think of Hammial’s career as being in two parts and Sugar Hits is an example of the kind of poetry he has written since With One Skin Less (1994). If I had to characterize this poetry of the last fifteen years or so, I would say that although the familiar modes remain (Swan Song of 2004 is entirely prose poems, for example) the status of meaning has relaxed somewhat. We meet surreal poems but ones which clearly want to allow the world (especially that part of the world – such as injustice, cruelty and political stupidity – which arouses anger) into their text. One of the poems, “Flag”, is clearly about these new poems and how they relate to reality. It’s opening, especially, is revealing.

Significance to the fore
as we come of age: you count
to red & I’ll to blue & between us,
if it’s posterity, we’ll offer it up
to Uncle. Uncle 
of the stick that never fails 
to fiddle! Uncle 
of the seven-tiered absence! May his star 
always twinkle. May what we read 
into his book be in the style to which 
he’s accustomed. What
claptrap! Any significance here
will be beaten just the way we like it, have always
liked it, no change at this late date, thanks
all the same, & as for Uncle, what
I’ll read him back if he rings, if
he dares to, is a round of righteous belief hot enough
to confuse his death with someone else’s, Ms
Nightingale’s, say, by
natural causes, hers, & up
in smoke, his.
the flowers on the table, thanks, &
piss off - pieces of poetry gathered while we may
no longer on our agenda, the star-spangled series
an abject failure. Fatuous formalities 
foraging for a fault according to the only reviewer
who condescended to read them. So why
did we bother? Just to let the bastards know
that we’re still here, I suppose, & certainly not, as some
might suppose, for the sake of some posterity, red, blue
or white.

What seems like a furious assault on someone who (as I am about to do) has suggested that with age the more unyielding elements of surrealism have lost their charm and the author has found a pressing need to say things about the world and his experience of it is here mixed up with (in ways I don’t really understand, though the lack of understanding derives simply from ignorance of autobiographical factors) references to nationalism. The Uncle (of the “stick that never fails / to fiddle”) is Uncle Sam and the flag is the US flag.

But despite the aggression of this poem (it’s energy clearly derives from anger and frustration), I want to stick with my sense that these are more engaged, less “pure” poems. A number deal with poetry itself. “Swap”, for example, engages with comments by Martin Langford and continually revises a poem so that it submits to the idea that whatever pleasure poetry gives lies in its meaning and the way that meaning “dances”:

. . . . .
So let’s be brave
and try again: “The mace gun in her handbag for
the flag of a defeated army rescued from the mud
& given a good scrub, as good as new.” Now
we’re getting somewhere. But is Martin ready
to come to the party yet? Who would want to live 
in a country where meaning did not dance? He’s
right of course. So one last try, fingers crossed: “That
voice he found in Potsdamer Platz just after the war for
from top gun to philanthropist in less than a week, what
in Christ’s name is going on?” What in Christ’s name
is going on? Have I missed something? Is there
meaning here? And if there is is it dancing? It seems
to me (& no doubt would to Martin too) that it’s
stomping on the Queen’s toes & she, poor thing,
is too well bred to say anything to this king-pretending
stumblebum. Alas. The hands at the keyboard 
still dream of the touch they evolved for. 

This is a lot of fun especially as it metamorphoses what is probably more anger and frustration into humour. Above all we know where we, as readers, are positioned: reading a poem which is about the status of meaning in a poem. Confusing and paradoxical but full of fun and energy.

“Muse” is about that problematic character – the surrealist muse. I think (and there is a lot of tentativeness about this reading) that two muses are contrasted. One is a kind of nature spirit embodied in Asian rain “a timely strafing / or a soothing voice, a ubiquitous crooning / that dilutes the toxins” and the other, representing, I suppose, the meaning-centred western tradition, is a widow whose “practiced smile / in the oval mirror in the vestibule” is an antidote to the poet’s “perpetual frown”. The poem concludes with the widow absconding with the kind of poet she prefers: a “conceited crooner / with a carpet bag”.

Other poems recycle autobiographical elements that we have met in Travel or in other, less surreal, poems. “Uncle Stan”, for example, describes the lawyer uncle who prescribed for the young Hammial a spell in the navy. And “Pearls” is a poem made up of memories, most of which we can trust. It is called “Pearls” because the story has no pearls of wisdom, only goatskins:

A truck full of goatskins - no
pearls here - brakes to a halt
while she hobbles across - an old woman
with a huge key. Key
to a house in Detroit . . .

and so on through memories of a long life punctuated by the refrain “no pearls here”. But despite all the lurid details it is still the life of a poet and has to end with the poetry:

pearls here: pretty books all in a row - 1, 2, 3, 4 . . .
9, 10 pins bowled over by peers with friends
in the right places. O pomp
& circumstance, this getting of wisdom
a sorry affair, poetry with its tar, feathers

Finally, there are a number of brilliant poems that seem to belong together. They are in the mode I have been speaking about, the mode more directly engaged with the world and perhaps drawing energy from anger and frustration. In a sense they seem like a cross between the earlier surreal poems and the narratives. They are marked by the sorts of unusual transitions and transformations that we expect in surreal poetry but they have a very strong sense of form in that they conclude by some kind of return – like a return to an original key. “Water” is one of the best of them and will also serve as a good example:

Die as much as you want. An inch at a time
or all at once, it doesn’t matter. Your conviction
that the new Human Tissue Bill will somehow
protect you is a delusion. Take it from me, I know. It’s
not for nothing that I’ve been an envoy to the Mahdi
for the past two years. Here to save us
from ourselves, his army’s contribution
to our once-beautiful city is, according
to a recent poll, extremely disappointing, that
contribution having been, to date, one point two
million black parasols, one
for every male citizen. If only
it would rain. What a sight for sore eyes
it would be to watch those parasols blossoming
up & down the length of the Avenue Foch. Fat
chance. The drought
is here to stay. It’s only a matter of time
before we pack our bags & head inland
to the great fresh water sea that supposedly covers
the heart of our continent. A rumour? Do you
know anyone who has actually seen it? I don’t. Harry
Kline in his seminal work, Paradise Now, describes
that sea in detail - abundant with fish, barges poled
by djinns who are delighted to attend to your every need,
etc. But is Harry to be believed? What if he’s sold out,
become another of the mahdi’s innumerable stooges?
Considering how quickly his book rose (was pushed)
to the top of the best-seller list, I’d say he probably is.
All things considered, if I were you
I’d do it all at once.

This is, of course, a meaningful poem, and one could imagine lengthy po-faced analyses of its contribution to (or dependence on) the colonial experience. The invaders always bring what they want us to want – parasols instead of water – and always impose their own visions etc etc. But the real pleasure is the way the tight (and tightly enjambed) syntactic structure holds together sudden and unexpected narrative shifts. I couldn’t think of a better example of meaning dancing than “Water”. In the same mode is “Merchandise”. Here the shifts are even more unexpected as a “waltz / of merry widows” is disturbed by a frantic search for merchandise:

Common graves pan out
in a felicitous escapade - a waltz
of merry widows, their gigolos done up
as clockwork thugs. Six bells
& all is Not well. There’s this little matter
of the merchandise. One would have thought
that at your age you’d know enough to keep
your hands to yourself, but there you go. Down
with all hands, your mates making digging motions
on the tablecloth while you, on your hands & knees
under the table, can’t
come up with the goods - the lost ring
that you found in a cereal box & had the gall to give
to your third wife . . .

And so on through transformations involving Louis Quinze , an image of a “new, safe family” and a new messiah whose ride into town on a white stallion the poet has mimicked. These and their like – “Invited”, “Air Raid”, “Books”, “Djinns”, “Protocol” etc – are exhilarating poems in a mode one looks forward to enjoying for a good time yet.

Fay Zwicky: Picnic

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2006, 79pp.

The floor plan of Fay Zwicky’s poetic house was described brilliantly by Ivor Indyk in an article in Southerly published nearly thirteen years ago (54:3. 33-50). Her position as poet derives from her position in a moral universe and Indyk quotes an essay from her collection, The Lyre in the Pawnshop:

There is a whole way of being at home in the world that is best described by the word “reverence” which accords life meaning in terms of  debt to something. One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as rightful obligation, what one feels about the taking of responsibility for oneself and for others.

She inhabits what students of religion would call a Levantine culture as distinguished from Greek or Oriental. It is a hierarchical universe dominated by a grotesque old father-God who is so powerful and so demanding that even in his absence he is a demonic presence – in other words, he is not diminished by absence. He is manifest in all transactions in which one person wields power over another but the universe he has set up is one in which obligations move up and down the hierarchical scale: even the god of the Old Testament made contractual commitments to his people. Little wonder that reverence (whose model is surely submission to the father) and obligation are the crucial terms.

But, as Indyk points out, there is nothing demurely accepting about Zwicky’s attitude to obligation and reverence. She is quarrelsome and the drama of her poetry is to be found in the chafing that the bonds of duty cause. More interestingly, she is adept at those strategies which remind God (or his relevant manifestation) of the situation (and rights) of the servant while accepting the servant’s obligation to serve. The central text here is “Ark Voices” from Zwicky’s second collection, Kaddish, especially in the dramatic monologue of Noah’s wife who has a wonderful way of accepting her lowly role in the great drama of the Lord’s destruction of the world while at the same time reminding God that he may not be behaving towards his tiny creatures with quite the required sensitivity to obligation:

Noah is incorruptible and good, a large
sweet soul.
Sir, I have tried to be!
But does the frog whose home was in a well
assail an ocean?
How does the summer gnat approach the ice?

It’s an old, probably pre-Deuteronomistic, Jewish position – you can hear it in Abraham’s arguing with God about how many righteous men it would require for him to spare the cities of the plain.

Is this a common or even familiar Australian world-view? I’m not so sure (coming from the Germanic inflected Greek end of the religious/philosophical spectrum, myself) and it is always difficult and dangerous to make generalizations about a culture’s perspective on the cosmos. But it is a perspective that makes for a good kind of poetry because it shuttles between the small and the ever-looming large. Individual things are always simultaneously dead particulars and part of a divine creation. And there is room for a lot of drama that can be expressed in the human – ie poet’s – voice, adrift in this cosmos. There is less doubt than in the Greek-based tradition and a lot more than in the oriental. You can hear it, in a very different form to Zwicky’s poetry, in Islamic mystical poetry where God is continually upbraided (in a properly cloaked allegorical way of course) for being absent, or at least for being unprepared to show his face. As a quatrain from Baba Taher, a contemporary of Omar Khayyam, says: “Separation made me like a bird without feathers or wings / You say to me: Be patient, be patient / But patience is like dirt thrown on my head.”

We meet this world of mutual obligation in Picnic in a fine and moving poem, “The Young Men”. At one level it is one of those poems in which the dead rise up in dreams and demand to be heard, to enter our lives. But it is a more complex and challenging poem than that suggests. The dead, when they speak, are positively hostile to the poet’s infantile world of book, candle and night light. I think the suggestion here is that, while they were dying in the Second World War, the poet, born in 1933, was living a happily protected innocent life of reading. This literary life has continued and retained its otherworldliness. The poem’s conclusion is both an admission of this and a promise to change:

“You’ll sleep all right with us
and never never wake. Night lights,
books and candles lost the war against our
childhood, growing, long ago, their power
to charm away the everlasting dark a myth:
silence lasts forever. Listen, while you can,
to unseen saplings somewhere falling.”
Young men, you dear young men, I’m listening.

Another poem, “No Return”, perhaps more clever than moving, deals with the paradoxes of loyalties to grandparents and parents – those “once-/huge troubling presences”:

Standing on the stump
of the self I might have been,
I crane to catch
call back those once-
huge troubling presences
receding down the road
of memory, the dearest
and the worst for whose
going I was never ready
whose end I hastened
as a child forever
waving them off, ready
to leave, always leaving
whose every footfall
kicked off avalanches
of grief in the place
I have stood upon,
am still standing,

There is a large sequence in Picnic devoted to the psychotic Chinese founding emperor, Qin, he of the wall, the tomb, the terracotta army and the burnt books and butchered scholars. It belongs to that usually unpromising genre where a group of dramatic monologues allow all levels of an organization to speak and be heard. But in “The Terracotta Army at Xi’an”, Zwicky is so aware of the mutual obligation that stretches across all levels that the sequence is never mechanical. In fact the China of just over two thousand years ago is a pretty good metaphor for the contemporary universe, ruled by a god who greedily devours the devotion of others but who is the only being capable of appreciating the lives and skills of those others. Of the six figures it is the potter who is most important in this sequence. As a creator (though he describes himself as “more artisan than artist”) his role in this mini-universe is one that the poet responds to. It will come as no surprise that he is the most quarrelsome of Qin’s subjects:

                                   Qinshihuang just happened by
as I was casting a horse’s rump,
history’s enemy arrested by an old man’s fragment.
I assumed – wrong again – my audience would detect
the rippling tremor of irony behind my stance,
refused to bow. He laughed to show how deep his tolerance,
how insatiable his curiosity for what is commonly
passed by: the common touch indeed . . .

My rage touched off a burning energy,
muscles bulging over the mould, enough to
make him start.

What we have here is a poem about that strange relationship between the artist and the great-in-the-world. It is Napoleon and Goethe; Tamberlane and Hafez. They recognize themselves in the other – they are both creators of worlds – and also recognize that, though they need each other (artists created both Qin’s tomb and his army), they are also opposed to each other.

Picnic is full of poems about poetry, or about the role of the artist in the universe that Zwicky inhabits. A long poem, “Makassar, 1956”, chosen in Peter Porter’s Best Australian Poetry 2005 (I mention this because it is not included in the book’s acknowledgements), seems like a fragment of autobiography but is really a portrait of the artist as a young woman and it concludes, as such things should, with the first intimations of vocation. It begins with severance from the world of obligation:

. . . . .
Parents, relatives and friends cried and waved,
the streamers strained, snapped, collapsed
in lollypop tangles on the wharf. Pulling away
from the tumbled web, we didn’t care about
falling behind, getting ahead, dry-eyed and
guiltless went as everything was happening
somewhere else. I wouldn’t have seen the signs.

and concludes with a wedding and three veiled women seen from a shop in Jakarta:

                                                                      Their burning eyes
arrested me, speaking soundless of an older, fiercer order
of things. Haunted eyes that followed me in dreams – I see
them still – their black concealment hinting how
it’s possible to be in one place, also somewhere else,
possible to let things happen over and over, possible
to stick in silence to pain’s colours and, if it’s in you,
transmit poems: . . .

It shouldn’t surprise that this sounds not unlike Qin’s potter for Picnic’s obsession is with the position of the artist inside the strange universe Zwicky describes. True, this was a dominating issue in the previous book, The Gatekeeper’s Wife, but there was a touch of the theatrical in poems like “Triple Exposure & Epilogue” and “Banksia Blechifolia” that the poems of Picnic avoid. I think this was a wise decision as lines like

              Neither daffodil nor
delphinium, poets project
no soft transports from

my fire-forged speech.
Barely exotic since I’m born here,
bearer of crueller histories

than your burning fields recall.
Seeded by typhoons, I’ve waited
years to raise my barbed and desperate

flower, colourless, odourless
and armoured. But reaching
reaching always skyward. My way

you might say, of letting you know
death’s around and ready.
. . . . .

just seem too over the top – though I admit that it is a shrub not a poet who is supposed to be speaking.

Picnic’s final two poems are both about poetry. The first, “Genesis” is about where it comes from whereas the second, “Poetry Promenaded”, is about how it is incarnated and situated in the modern world. As with “The Young Men”, “Genesis” is not quite so simple as it appears on first reading when it seems to be asserting, unremarkably enough, that phrases and images are kickstarted not by a “fixed notion” but

Rather something stumbled on at night
(the dark is best for stumbling),
chancing it blind, spoiling for a fall.

Will it be one more bulletin from the zone
of dread? Another bleat of unbelonging?
Or some grim soot-faced riff on the long-dead,
the incantatory singsong of nostalgia 
serial murders, violated wombs, decay,
the foot-in-mouth neuralgia of our days?

This stresses that the poem’s beginning will be in something which is stumbled on but which is also cliched. That is interesting in itself, and a countervoice to all the other poets’ predictable obeisances to the unconscious, but the poem goes on to speak in more detail about the “stumbling”:

The ground can cave in anywhere, undreamt-of
mystifying shifts and gaps, like waking up
one day without your face to say
I cannot recognise this life as mine.

and then tell an Irish joke – admittedly apposite! The conclusion takes the idea of genesis by stumble into much more uncomfortable territory than we might have expected:

                                                  It’s what
you can’t trim down to the manageable that
seeds the poem, keeps the poet sparked
awake to what could be, to what might
fan him into flight. Better not to know
but stumble unawares on randomness,
like walking mapless in an unknown town,
get recklessly resiliently lost without
your face or life you thought you knew.
The poem will either find
or find you out.

“Talking Mermaid”, whose subject is poetry, seems in a quite different style to the other poems of the book. To begin with it is a symbolic narrative where the speaker, a mermaid, watches a man swim out to sea with dolphins, “They tease and lollop close in chorus file: his path’s / presumptuous, chancey, stretching things beyond / his lineage. There is no lyric in the human stride.” The lyric voice is, in other words, pitched between the natural and the human. The mermaid speaks of two “natural” people, a man and a woman: “they lit my life” but “were they ever trouble!” and how she now inhabits both sea and land. This poem is intriguing because the poem that precedes it, “Push or Knock”, a comic but significant tale about being visited by a Chinese translator, contains a critique of “Talking Mermaid”, whose drafts are dragged out when the visitor wants to see the poet at work:

I tell him that the poem’s fighting decorative
scrolls, rhetoric’s fancy needlework,
the sequinned tale. Does he know what memaids are?
He says he does.
Seduced by metaphor, I wither into pedagogic prose:
“The lyric voice is struggling with the ordinary,
seams are showing, do you understand?” He does
he says.

I like this idea of what can be read as a two-part poem: proleptic and oblique critique followed by the poem itself.

Two of the book’s early poems, both about poetry, can be read in a similar way. “Close-up” is about Lowell’s “Epilogue” written shortly before his death and brutally criticizing his own early poems and asks “If this comes from the best / of us, what future for the rest of us?” The answer is

Burn-out blues for big note orphics,
small-pond croakers brought to heel;
batteries out of juice, that’s what.

But, like so many of Zwicky’s poems, this poem moves in unpredictable directions. If poetry’s pretensions are easily exposed, surely it can provide an ideology-free account of its world. Not so:

So “why not say what happened?”
What makes you think we’d know?
Know thyself? A bad Socratic joke
from bearded know-alls handy with
the blanket rules. Like God,
A CEO without the common touch,
not one can help at crunch-time,
tell you how to pass for decent,
tell you why your life is skewed,
why your poems stall in scavenged diction,
stick contraptions held by string and glue.
. . . . .

“Hokusai on the Shore” is not so much an answer to this as a counterpart. It is not an answer because it doesn’t remove the pain of “Close-up” but it does provide a bleak but comforting counter. Hokusai’s great wave paintings came after the age of seventy “old, ill, destitute / your money gambled away by your / grandson, your name forgotten / by the world you’d survived.” Hokusai’s comment ends the poem:

“Until I was seventy, nothing I drew
was worthy of notice. When I’m eighty,
I hope to have made progress.”/pre>
Written by a poet turning seventy, this is a heartening realization that what you know is your craft and that this is the last (in both senses) that you need to stick to. It is also tempting to allegorise out the wave simultaneously into one of god’s random acts of brutality (of the kind that caused the flood that left Mrs Noah in her predicament) and into the tsunami of 2004.

But finally, in this consideration of the poems about poetry in the book, I need to look briefly at a strange poem, "World Cup Spell, 1998". It interests because it is a mock magician's spell (perhaps based on lurid accounts of the kinds of questionable befeathered shamans that African national football teams are inclined to bring with them so that they can perform curses between the goal posts before matches) designed to secure victory for the Brazilians (Taffarel et al) over the French (Lizerazu, Barthez et al) in the World Cup Final of 1998. Because it is a spell, even though it is only a comic parody, it raises the spectre of another kind of poetry altogether - much more primitive, pre-literate and chthonic - and not, generally, Fay Zwicky territory. Judith Rodriguez's wonderful "Eskimo Occasion" does something very similar. The problem of course is that, as everyone knows, not only were the Brazilians defeated but they played with such a bemused, frustrated air that it appeared to all observers as though they were under some sort of spell. The awful possibility is that charms uttered by Australian poets with a Jewish perspective and an allegiance, however tentative, to the angry great father in the sky, always work in a counter way. I would think very hard before I allowed this poem to be printed in Brazil.

Jennifer Harrison: Folly&Grief

Melbourne: Black Pepper, 2006, 133pp.

One of the features of Jennifer Harrison’s work is the way that the themes are consistent and the styles change. Folly&Grief is, quite simply, a brilliant book. To get a sense of what it is doing and where it is positioned, though, it is more than helpful to look at her previous work. Her first book, Michelangelo’s Prisoners (published in 1994), began with a group of poems about the body which position the author both as external analyser and participant ; that is as body-owner.

The first poem, “Imaging the Brain”, looks at that unknowable entity in terms of the traces it leaves, one of which is the very poem we are reading:

. . . . . 
The scan declares a brain is free
Of tumour or haemorrhage
But doesn’t comment on the mind’s possibility.

Idle, industrious, the faint white streamers
Which streak the filmy cortex
Must be sentences.

Other poems (such as “Cancer Poem”, “Chemotherapy”, “Outrider” and the title poem) seem based on a personal experience of the body going wrong and so have a less-removed, occasionally nightmarish quality. Nevertheless they are still defiantly analytical in mode.

The second section of Michelangelo’s Prisoners is called “The Sea”. Here, especially in the last poems, it foreshadows the next book, Cabramatta/Cudmirrah. The central poem of this section is a sequence of seven sonnets called “Maturana Songs”. It is central because the biologist/epistemologist figure which it celebrates provides a philosophy which seems to underpin much of Harrison’s work. Since Maturana’s work gravitates towards the image of “drift” for the way in which human and non-human systems inhabit an environment, we can expect that seas in Harrison’s work will never be simply seas. Insofar as the sea is opposed to the body then it does inevitably symbolize the mind but the conventionality of this image (with its attendant symbols of fishing, drifting etc) is complicated by the addition of the idea that it also represents the medium that we inhabit and never control.

If each observation is a system
each thought an adaptation, then we drift
upon a spacious sea.
Slippery meanings flash through weeds . . . . .

So the sea poems at the end of Michelangelo’s Prisoners, like those in Cabramatta/Cudmirah, have a decidedly equivocal quality: they describe a medium which can represent the brain, the house of memories and creativity, but which can also represent a kind of primal medium out of which observers produce what they imagine to be solid “objects” and experiences but which don’t in fact have any “objective” status though they do serve to obscure the fact that they have been created. It recalls Tarkovsky’s Solaris though that wonderful film never appears in any Harrison poem that I know. To put it mildly, a lot of things are happening when this poet goes down to the sea.

Cabramatta/Cudmirah is a book of memories: the titular suburb and coastal town being the twin poles of the poet’s upbringing. But memory for Harrison is far more than the re-creation of old, loved places. The first section is obsessed by fast travel and roads, symbols of the passage of time, and makes no bones about its interest in the very act of observation:

but this isn’t how you remember it
now that the highway by-passes
everything that is ordinary
you see only the ordinary invisibility of speed
you are unsure which cows
are trees, which trees are people
the anabolic blur flattens the lot
until you are driving fast into your own history
and digging deep into the eye within
which is the only place you see it

The second section takes us back to the sea which is looked at through all the possible symbolic filters. It is the medium, it is also process, the natural world, the unconscious mind, the meaning-laden underside of a poem, and all human bodily fluids. There are two major human figures: a wise gypsy and a grandmother. Since the latter is suffering from Alzheimers she is a place where memory is slipping into the dark and her character is the reverse of the poet who pulls memories into the poems. Poetry is always responsive to this central human dilemma: the almost infinite details of life (the exact call of the local currawongs outside my study as I write this, for example) slip continuously into the irretrievable. Those things that are retrieved – chance items in a vast shipwreck – can be fixed in a poem but they do no more than remind us of the enormity of what has been lost. At any rate, one of poetry’s functions is to be aware of its power to fix: as Yeats says in “Easter 1916”, “I write it out in a verse” and that poem celebrates poetry’s transforming power while seeming to record a transformation wrought by political commitment. One of Harrison’s poems, “Thermocline”, sets up a three-layered sea. There is the surface (the world of phenomena), the deep ocean (the world of forgetting), and between them the thermocline where memories are preserved and have an influence on the waves and currents of the surface. It seems schematic but it is a good poem:

. . . . .
Lying between the eye’s horizon
and the eye’s blindness
the thermocline hoards memories that do not fade

for without light, without heat
the sea would be an infinite homogenous

Cudmirrah Shoalhaven Swan Lake Ulladulla.

Waves are never one colour -
they inhabit space not place -
they’re in the sea’s lung
then they’re out in the open
mouthing the smoke of Bherwherre -

then they curve to the shore
taking the ship’s dog with them.

Girls lie nearby
rubbing hot-noonday suns
into their skin’s cool echo.
I must think of the wave as a diary.
Scarcely daring to read
what I have written the day before
in case I edit what I mean.

There are enough surprises here to overcome the schematic quality. I like the unexpected ending and I really like the listing of the towns in the middle – it is as though a list will re-establish the power of the poem to fix particulars. Another poem, “Sea Eagles”, seems to suggest that a list of remembered items can have an incantatory quality as though each object became sacred:

. . . . .
See grandmother - we
are recording the swimmer
the cry, the unexplored X, coloured red

meaning this is where
we will go without finding
the village of strange implements and boasts.

There is a way of touching the dreams of another
of calling when you have no voice.
We make a tower from sticks
and hang it with feathers, funeral stones
rubber thongs, whelks, a wind-chime.

There is a lot that is relevant to Folly&Grief in that image.

Poets develop and change in their own ways and are not required to please their readers, but it is hard not to think of Dear B as a disappointing book. The bulk of the poems seem extremely gnomic and don’t – unlike the poems of the first two books – suggest approaches that a reader might take. What are we to make, for example, of “Husk”?

Your nervous heart insists
that lightness makes sense of grace
that boneless time weighs the seed and
spills its morse as choreography
now prisoner stammering
in the breathless crevice - fly fly
across flagstones: smooth
tumbling brief - pinned now
to the ragged branch
you disappear longing to see.

Yes it is about the seed which carries its plant’s DNA across cracks in stone and paving and ends up in a tree and it is also about the heart’s desire to approve of the weightlessness of the seed but it is hard to determine the poet’s stake in all this: what makes it a necessary poem instead of a merely incidental one. The same could be said of the bulk of the poems in the book although occasionally, in poems like “Local Astronomy” and “A Serious Case”, familiar themes (memory, system-identity) push through. And the poems are not necessarily bad. Everything I have said in a way applies to “Out of Body Experience” which is, in its own way, a tour de force:

Last night I lay above myself in the dark
looking down upon a stranger beside him.
Momentarily, in the moonlight, she was that person
I am no more, the one seen from far away
who cannot be regained or changed
and whom the dawn will not unite.
The two women who lie awake beside him
cannot speak or touch each other.
One is made of earth and blood, the other
of air and moon-frost. All the night between them
is past and future night
so that everything I have done, everything she watches
becomes a memory, now passing
as I sleep and wake outside her, inside myself, beside him.

The brilliant opening works by quickly and unexpectedly introducing a third person as a kind of marker point so that the spectral self looks down on “a stranger beside him”. But even this poem despite its personal theme has an impersonal quality, almost as though its ideal housing would be some kind of anthology where poems don’t need to be read through their individual author’s obsessions and thematic and stylistic quirks.

And so to Folly&Grief. At the simplest level we can see that, like the first two books it is in two parts. It is also a long book, each of the parts being as long as a conventional book of poetry. Each section ends with a diary-like poem that represents something that is, as far as I can see, new in Harrison’s work – though Dear B does contain a diary section in one of its longer sequences. But the overwhelming impression that a first reading of Folly&Grief makes is of the almost all-encompassing symbolic set-up built around commedia dell’arte, mime, clowning and funambulism. You can get the wrong initial impression – as I did – that this is a kind of got-up research project that a poet might put to an arts-funding body: promising to write a sequence about the circus world. In fact the obsessions of the earlier books are here and the magic of Folly&Grief is that these obsessions find a natural, logical home in the world of the clown and the mime. In fact the nature of these obsessions becomes so much clearer when they are opened out, so to speak, into a different symbolic realm.

When discussing the earlier books, I have already spoken about the features of memory and the way a poem can fix them. Sometimes these memories actually are embedded in objects inherited and kept. It is no accident that the word “heirloom” occurs so frequently in Harrison’s poetry. We meet these pregnant objects in the first poem of Folly&Grief, “Funambulist”.

Coins fill the busker’s hat;
it’s true, a thief will steal from the blind.
Satellites spin delicate journeys
in the woods above.Space

the guestroom we never had.
Malleable, down below,
in the mute neon between streets,
we’ve touched only the details of maps.

Believing ourselves beamed upon,
we script new mercy themes
and here are the things I carry:
a silver bell, a desk, a lock of hair,

some laurel flowers, a lantern,
a bonbonniere, three scarves,
a black cat, a peacock, a box of rain,
a streak of lightning,

a ladder, a pipe, a coffin, a fan,
a pumpkin, a skull, a book of law.
Believing myself beamed upon,
I carry one clap of thunder, some shrimps

and a globe, a bag of nails, a carton of crème,
a rolypoly of doves.
I carry the city, the cleft mirror,
the faked fight of the fist on the drum.

Part of the magic of this initially strange poem is its movement into list. Instead of fixing one item by focusing on it, it provides a list which suggests the infinite number of possible items for the character to carry and, at the same time, takes over the poem: a really fascinating structure. The list itself is an abbreviated version of the one provided in Kay Dick’s history, Pierrot, as an account of the property of the greatest of the Pierrots, Gaspard Deburau, who flourished in Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It is tempting to look back to the idealist position of Maturana and to begin to make symbolic connections. If the world of objects is essentially illusory then what better expression of this could be found than the world of fixed-role comedians and, above all, mime. I think it would be reductive to see this as the essential principle behind the poems of the book but at the least it can be said that the circus world is one whose thematic possibilities chime well with poet’s obsessions. “Ringmaster”, for example, is the monologue of a character reluctant to be a mere clown, one who wants to seize the key to Rimbaud’s “barbarous sideshow”:

. . . . .
But I went inside the rough sketch of a woman
to find the dice’s grace -

to find hail drubbing on an old Zephyr sedan
a ringmaster’s whip scything the air.

I went to the circus to take charge;
to remove blouse after blouse.

I went alone
because to master the sanded weights

a juggler first conquers clumsiness
then writes the same poem, over and over.

Sometimes it is possible for the power of memory-objects to be overwhelming. The first prose poem of “The Feminine Sublime: Two Briquettes” treats heirlooms as dangerous:

Should I open this pressed metal trunk with a surface like  crocodile skin - should I fall in - I might not return. Crocheted into  doilies, the dead wait with powdered faces, bleeding floral lips and  sometimes with kind, eccentric maps. However kind they may be, they lure  you into memory, there to tangle their perfumes through your own until  you cannot resist the past’s vigilance. And what you find is a caravel  treasure: satin pennants, third place, lace, the cigarette box your  father made from matchsticks . . .

But there is more going on in the book than an exploration of the theme of memory through the image of the clown and the collection of heirloom-objects. “Cochlear Implants”, a poem – obviously – about an operation that will stop the world being an experience of mime for the sufferer, focuses rather on the heightening of the visual sense over the auditory:

. . . . .
You believe the ear is Orphean -
I treat it as an appendix in the mirror.
Before I take the bee inside

give me time
to memorise the poem I’ve seen:
the red hibiscus in bloom

my street without shadow -
outside my window, men in mime digging
with their jackhammers at noon.

Another theme related to the idea of the world as shadow, playacting and illusion is the mirror. A fine and very complex poem, “Fauna of Mirrors”, explores this at length, using both the ancient Chinese idea that mirrors harbour their own creatures (not necessarily well-disposed to the watchers on the other side) and the idea that the mirror contains our entire past. The world of Cudmirrah recurs:

. . . . .
Starlight twists inside the mirror
and an old woman wades barefoot across the moon, later
washing towels of blood to hang between the fibro houses
clutched around a shore. Children there, too, shaking the sand
from polished bones - a bird’s skeleton, its stutter raked
by storms . . .

And it reminds us that the gypsy character from Cudmirrah, Moss Wickum, is celebrated in a poem in Michelangelo’s Prisoners as “a man who threw shadows / on a fibro wall: a rabbit, a parakeet, a balloon twisted / into a giraffe”: he too inhabited the world of illusion and a kind of mime. And it reminds us of an earlier poem in that book which concerned itself with sign-language: “and foam, rubber, snow and glycerine / seem softer in the fingering span / than spoken words falling short of what they are”.

“Fauna of Mirrors” concludes not with the French priest’s catalogue of the Chinese notions of what inhabits a mirror but with an allusion to Borges, that connoisseur of objects like books and mirrors which trouble us by suggesting the infinitely multipliable nature of reality. Borges’ “baldanders” – “soon something else” – in his Book of Imaginary Beings can teach us how to converse with objects and becomes the subject of a sequence in Folly&Grief in which the figure of the poet becomes his partner. This first section also contains two fine poems, “Glass Harmonica” and “Chinese Bowl” which seem (at least in my inadequate readings) to focus on the positive, creative aspects of objects and art. In the former the artist playing on the instrument conjures up images far beyond those imagined by the inventor and players of this exotic eighteenth century instrument and in the latter the artwork contains in itself, and makes available, the entire cultural history that went into its making.

References to the world of professional illusion become a little sparer in the book’s “Grief” section although there is a poem about Antonioni’s Blow-up (a film which includes a mime troupe as a framing symbol) as well as poems about dancers, musicians and statue-mimes. Overall these poems seem, true to their title, darker and, above all, obsessed by loss. In “The Steyne Hotel” it is a friend suffering from cancer and in “Birthday Poem” it is the poet herself accommodating herself (at least in my reading) to the stream of time symbolised in a strangely clarifying rainstorm and the fact that “more bark has fallen from the gum tree”. “Soiree at Black Lake” is a complex poem about the attempt to find a place outside of time:

. . . . .
A man stroked my hair
and said, memories are grasses; 
flax, hay, lawn - a little traffic 
a bicycle bell - all is at it was. 
There is nothing to fear.

But I didn’t believe that lullaby
. . . . .

And I knew, then,

that the cruel hours spring back
when the hay is cut, the lawn mowed.

And “Fathers” has one of the books finest treatments of memory – though also one of the darkest. The poet is reading the work of Li-Young Lee:

Tonight when I read your poems, I think
nothing in you grieves that should sleep, nothing
hungers that has not been fed, nothing glimpsed
through a door or feinted by a corner of light

has been lost. Memories corner us
into type - and the untidy ghosts are arriving
by later, less punctual trams. Outside ourselves,
then, are the essential moments

not here in these poems, these crowfolk
of the streets, each dressed in invisible black
each hurrying beside the traffic
bird-poised ahead, buoyed by life’s recompense.

Finally there are the two sequences, “Folly” and “Grief” which end each section – one of ten pages the other thirteen. It is difficult to know exactly what to make of them beyond saying that they are clearly movements into new territory. They have something of the cast of those psychological/autobiographical sequences of the seventies – Andrew Taylor’s “The Invention of Fire” and Jennifer Rankin’s “The Mud Hut” are two very different examples. They are odd sequences and it is hard to judge how successful they are. They certainly represent yet another kaleidoscopic retreatment of previously met themes and images and we know immediately that we are in familiar territory when the first poem of “Folly” speaks of the ability to

. . . dip my hook
over the side
and retrieve deletions
that have left my mind

this theatre more tawdry

than last year’s

. . . . .

and the second poem establishes a riverscape

where shallow swamps
are littered with memorabilia

as the sea hoarding its wrecks
art folds back on itself
. . . . .

But familiarity with the poet’s thematic material only goes so far. Beyond saying that “Folly” is centred on a return home, or movement to another home (it concludes with another reference to the sea: “ . . . marshlands / reclaimed by the sea / leave no trace of nests”), and that “Grief” is about treatment for cancer and is built around the equation of the body with the land and recalls the poem “New Road In” as well as the much earlier “Cabramatta” in its interest in the metaphorical possibilities of the road, I am not sure I would trust myself much farther. This does not mean, though, that I think they are failures as poems or are modes that the poet will not profitably explore. In fact it may not be the case that Harrison’s future books work through this diaristic-imagistic-unconscious-oneiric quality. There are, however, a couple of other poems in Folly&Grief which are open, relaxed and celebratory. I am thinking especially of the second of “The Feminine Sublime” prose poems which is a celebration of the act of childbirth and of “Tamagotchi Gospel”. This poem is about experiences of childhood and the natural world and has an expansive, relaxed, long-breathed quality which is a long way from the delphic images of “Folly” or “Grief”:

It may be nothing more than a faded awning
tilting in oleander sun,
or the way someone rings on the mobile
at just the right time, someone
who might not have noticed
your regard for their humour,
or the way you admired the coral torque
against their skin last spring.
And see how happy you are
when alone in the bush,
the others ahead as mossed voices,
you arrive at the fern-lit pool
where the bird of long wings and hard eyes
dips to drink from the creek’s sigh?
. . . . .
There is no freedom from change
but it is quiet, words nowhere to be seen -
quiet as your father’s favourite silence:
the psh!psh! of waves softening the shore,
the silence of bush bees
chiming hard and bright
against the earlier time you were here
dressed in a costume of leaves.

I am easily entranced by this poem – by this kind of poem – but somehow so much intelligent analytical material has to be left out to say these simple things that I can’t think of it as a model for Harrison’s future poems.

Laurie Duggan: The Passenger

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006, 89pp.

Even a poetry as distinctive as Laurie Duggan’s is not easy to describe without being reductive. Crudely put, we are operating in a poetic world that is, to most readers of Australian poetry at least, surprisingly dispassionate. This is not the world of expressive effects running the usual danger of deteriorating into a rhetoric. Yes, the tone is wry but tone is not really what the poems are about: it is simply an adjunct. There is nothing confessional and in the occasional poem about the self (like the earlier “Adventures in Paradise”) the self seems to be examined as a kind of comic, almost fictional, device in a poetic experiment. Duggan’s poetry is not sui generis though and a lot of time and labour could be spent sketching in his poetic forebears, mentors and “classmates”: Jonathan Williams, Ed Dorn, Roy Fisher and an almost unlistable cast. Among Australian poets he is closest to Ken Bolton and Pam Brown but I have never felt that any of these three are at all interchangeable. And there is no secret about Duggan’s literary references: they appear constantly as references and dedicatees throughout the body of his work.

The Passenger is Duggan’s latest book. It is his second (after Mangroves) since an extended poetic silence although those wanting a sampling of early and new work might well consult the new selected poems wonderfully titled, Compared to What (Shearsman, 2005). The first poem is a good introduction to Duggan’s poetry though it should not be seen as typical since, as I will say later, the essential stance manifests itself as a wide variety of poems. It is a seven page, fourteen poem sequence, “British Columbia Field Notes”. The title is a useful cross-genre joke because it invokes anthropology, a discipline that Duggan’s poetics often brings him close to. The poem has that typical quality of “Here I am. This is what I see and hear. Why is it like this, what does it mean and what lies beneath it?” and it is the last question which usually produces the challenging part of the poem. The very first stanza derives from watching a Japanese wedding at the University of British Columbia:

Japanese brides drink red wine in the rose garden;
patches of snow (all the way from here to Hokkaido).

It seems at first no more than an odd conjunction that any culturally-oriented poet might use as symptomatic of the bricolage quality of an ex-colony. But more striking and less obvious is the fact that it points to a connection rather than a disjunction: Japan is just across the north Pacific and may well share much of the weather patterns of western Canada. From an Australian’s perspective, these places are comparatively close. Other parts of the sequence, such as the ninth, link history, ecology and a visual image to reflect on the way that a timber-based community destroyed its timber housing and reduced wood to comfort stations for the affluent:

Apartments date mainly from the 1950s,
an erasure of wooden housing from the city to Stanley Park.

Burrard Inlet is still a working harbour
(containers, sulphur and woodchips)

logs chained, floating downstream
the odd escapee beached and weathered

fit for sunbathers to shelter, leeward from ocean wind
or rest a bicycle against.

Another poem (the fourth) is museum-based placing events next to each other so that they go backwards in time: the suppression of potlatch in the 1890s, introduction of Christianity, the smallpox epidemics and, in the final line, the arrival of the whites. It will come as no surprise that the museum is a crucial site for Duggan and the assumptions behind its choice of exhibits and the patterning of the display is one of his obsessions. But he is equally obsessed by the art gallery. This can be because in a sense a gallery is a kind of museum reflecting the assumptions of its culture, but it is also likely to be because it houses the work of local artists (in the case of British Columbia, Emily Carr and Bill Reid) and Duggan generally trusts their view of things – they are the equivalents of the anthropologist’s trustable intepreters).

There are two poles to the various ways in which this poetic anthropology can work: the world can reveal itself or the poet can analyze. “British Columbia Field Notes” is balanced in the structure of the book by “Ten Days”, a record of Greece made before the Athens Olympics, and here the method is generally to allow the landscape to speak to the antipodean traveller:

                            40 degrees
a cool wind under the awning
and a late lunch

                       were cicadas the sirens?

Cape Sounion
plays over the beach
under the temple of Poseidon

One wouldn’t want to over-emphasise the difference between the poems though. The third section of “Ten Days” gets us into a museum and the kind of editorializing we meet in “British Columbia Field Notes” emerges almost immediately:

The English and the Germans
furnished a Greece of their own:
the eminence denuded by accretions
(Byzantine chapels, a small mosque)

Schliemann edited the layers,
Elgin robbed the grave
(a diagram shows which caryatids went where):

casts substituted keep the Erechtheion upright.

“Things to do in Perth” (recalling that wonderful title “Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead”) is largely made up of propositions (“aspects of natural vegetation may be the same as Sydney (ref. Seddon) but the foccacia are entirely different”) but it, too, has examples of those moments when the world reveals itself without any analytical help from the poet: as in the “stanza” “CHURCH OF CHRIS”.

Duggan has always been especially good at recording those moments when the world seems miraculously to reveal itself without anybody’s assistance. “Animal Farm” – itself a mixture of found statements and poet’s comments – contains a wonderful definition of poetry produced entirely accidentally:

A Near Perfect Definition Of Poetry Supplied by a Queensland Police Traffic Officer
Describing with a Double Negative a Major Cause of the Christmas Road Toll

"momentary lapses of inattention"

Two kinds of Duggan poem are extended exercises in letting the world speak for itself. The first of these is, rather surprisingly, those poems like “A Conscious Citizen” and “September Song” which are, in a way, autobiographical in that they have an “I do this: I do that” structure. But these poems use the self and its experiences as a way of focusing on the latter rather than the former. There is a sense that the poet, for all his strong tastes and opinions, is a vehicle whereby the truth of how we live in the world can be explored. Perhaps this derives from the fact that the self is seen as an unpretentious but complex phenomenon filled to the brim with knowledge about music, writing, friends, the visual arts etc but no more outstanding than any other self, filled to the brim with other things. This self is complex but not necessarily important or “poetic” because of this – the pleasantly egalitarian assumption may be that all selves are complex. The experiences, day to day, of this self are, thus, ordinarily unique and the task of the poetry is to record them. One could imagine Duggan being very impatient about poets with vatic assumptions. “A Conscious Citizen” is very much about poetry and how larger structures can be made out of the recording of material of a life lived. The great Americans from Pound to Ashbery are good here and a long passage deals with Williams’ Paterson:

I open the revised Paterson
for clues
                             (the older cover was better:
a painting by Earl Horter
of the Passaic falls,
                                                 but don't think
the river here is usable
as mythic connection.
                                                 It wasn't
for Williams either
                                the poem written in its spite
(what is the meaning of a route
between the University and the container docks?
not, certainly the "life of man".
Williams wanted to continue
beyond the frame Book 5
jumped out of.
                                                And that's just it.
We all want the poem to escape
from our lives
on the bathroom wall;
news on the radio
                                        or at least
our lives to escape from the poem

(Help! I'm trapped . . .
                                                          in a barrel
passing over the Prosaic falls
butcher birds, resonant
all morning
                                     the bougainvillea
bursting out.

The second kind of poem which eschews editorializing in favour of allowing the world to speak for itself are the Blue Hills poems. This series began as long ago as 1980 and the current volume contains numbers 52 to 60. One way of describing them would be to say that they are largely visual and usually impersonal and are often almost verbal sketches for imaginary paintings. A better way, though, might be to think of them in terms of the structural issues of recording the world. These are self-contained “capturings”, part of an infinitely extendable series. They are one stage up from the kind of brief squibs to be found in this book in the “Animal Farm” sequence. They are not blocks which will require a complex structure to support them. But if they are treated as imaginary paintings, then the Blue Hills poems in The Passenger are decidedly minimalist with an oriental quality – as can be seen in No. 54:

lit clouds
electrical storm
over Moreton Bay
later, the moon
yellow on
Bulimba reach

Duggan is a fascinating poet and by now has clearly joined the ranks of major Australian poets (a crude working definition of which might be “people a serious poetry reader has to read whether you like what they do or not”). His (in Australia) unusual poetic practice raises a lot of questions. He makes you think carefully about the pretensions that often come as a necessary part of being a poet: pretensions about the relative significance of what poets do and the status of their notion of the self. But the same applies to Duggan in reverse. If we ask “Why is this stuff so good? What exact pleasure does it give me?” the answers can become very complicated. For minor poets, it is enough to say that they do something other poets don’t do and thus challenge us to widen our notion of the possibilities of poetry. But a major poet has a kind of stand-alone capacity. Why, in Duggan’s case, does a dispassionate intelligence, hyper-aware of the visual and of cultural implications make for such a compelling poet? Would one want all poets to be like this? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do note that there is no nationalist dimension to Duggan though his landscapes are often wonderfully Australian – especially from the South-East corner. Perhaps he represents an Australian implementation of ideas of poetry generated elsewhere, perhaps overseas readers can detect something uniquely Australian in his responses to environments (both Australian and non-Australian). Perhaps it doesn’t matter: perhaps poets should be a caste of individuals sensitive to environment and its cultural underpinnings and should be part of a pan-nationalist project.

These issues will concern writers about poetry in the future. For the present it is enough to affirm that The Passenger is a wonderful book profound and entertaining in equal parts. It is graced by a stunning cover reproducing a photograph by Jack Cato in which a vaguely sinister 1930s car pulls away from the curb in front of a formal colonnaded building. Without wanting to play with the core of the picture in a trivial way, it is tempting to read the slight angle which the car makes with the curb as a reference to Duggan’s own slight angle to Australian poetic practice.

Graeme Miles: Phosphorescence

Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2006, 80pp.

This is an attractive and intriguing debut collection whose strengths are sensitivity, openness and intelligence. Like many such collections it has, at its heart, an important poem which gives a lot of clues about its author’s attitude to poetry and prepares a little for what we might find in the rest of the poems of the book. In the case of Phosphorescence, the poem is “Circle and Line” an ambitious sequence based on the story of Aristeus in Virgil, Georgics IV. Typically of such cases it is not the best poem in the book and its extended mode (it is six pages long) is not something that Miles seems to do superlatively well, but there is no doubting its significance.

It’s essentially a contrasting of two different kinds of poetry: respectively the straight line and the circle. Virgil’s story gives an account of how bees can be produced when all the breeding stock have been destroyed. A bull is suffocated, its orifices sealed and it is virtually buried underground. Bees spontaneously generate inside the dead and semi-liquefied animal. Don’t try this at home. The fourth Georgic provides a mythological origin for this process: the bees of Aristeus have been destroyed and seeking the source of this curse he approaches his mother (a nymph) who tells him how to extract information from the shape-changing Proteus. Proteus reveals that Aristeus has been cursed because it was while fleeing from him that Eurydice was bitten by a serpent and the poem goes on to give one of the many ancient versions of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld and eventual death. The curse is lifted by the correct sacrifice of bulls, at the end of which bees are found emerging miraculously from the rotted blood of the slain animals.

In Miles’s poem, Aristeus is associated with the “straight” and Orpheus with the “circular” in poetry. The totemic animal of the latter is the tortoise who rolls the eggs of her future offspring, whose shell provides the basis of the first stringed instruments and who inhabits the circular world of water. The totemic animal of the former is the cicada:

the cicadas speak straight lines.  Their uncurved poems
move forward restlessly.  Their bodies
are age-shrivelled, film-winged,
wrapped around their metrics.
Their song, like the music of machines,
claims to live forever.

When Aristeus is associated with the cicada we are told that he is:

A singer of cicada songs, endlessly
repetitive, songs where no verse
can be allowed to fall away,
where nothing can easily come in
or out . . .

This seems to refer to the idea that in oral cultures the function of strictly metrical verse is to record events and genealogies and preserve them over the coming years by having such a strong matrix of formal features that any corruption of the text is minimized. Later on “Circle and Line” connects “straight” poetry with the epic (“bronze-throated: tongues a hundred / throats a hundred”) though as far as I know the classical epics were fairly free semi-improvised narratives and not at all the same as the poems of record.

The problem with “Circle and Line” is really twofold. We have to work out what the exact nature of the binary is and then we have to work out what kind of poetry the book is recommending. The first could be, for example, an opposition between formal and free verse (the cicadas are “wrapped around their metrics”), ultimately favouring the latter as an instrument flexible enough to record life in its various and unpredictable movements and transformations and also allowing the alternative realities (“alternative daylights” one poem calls them) of dream and myth to interpenetrate with the everyday. It could be an opposition between quiet and loud verse (Shaw Neilson’s “Let Your Song Be Delicate” is a kind of answer to the “noisy”, public poetry of empire, embodied in Kipling). Or it could be an opposition between the elegant, thoughtful relaxed poetry possible in free verse and the driving, male, consonant-based poetry of rhetoric – “A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket”. It could even, conceivably, be an opposition played out in the poetic self of Virgil himself, marketed (and marketing himself) as an epic poet of the Roman empire (“Imperium sine fine dedi”) but in reality more on the supersensitive side (“sunt lachrimae rerum”).

At any rate, the book’s other poems want to be sensitive to the body, to the way the individual consciousness interacts with the world, and to be sensitive especially to the dream world and the way in which sensation is processed. The opening stanza of “Circle and Line” seems unequivocal here:

A voice that can speak about the circle and the line,
the straight march forward and the curved unwind.
One that carries with it the shape of lips,
tongue and throat, and where saying
and singing are not divided, the border-stones
between them ground down to roll
in undertones. It carries with it
how its owner feels in dreaming, in envy,
and in eating with friends, when it tastes endlessness.
One to listen to in private or the dark.

This is a wonderful stanza not the least because it is saved from any hint of being an elegantly vapid way of stating something many poets would endorse by the wonderful specific image of the border stones. It establishes that there is a poet behind this with a distinctive intellectual apparatus.

There are a couple of other poems “about poetry” in the collection. One, which I am not sure that I understand, is called “Ars Poetica”. On the surface it seems to use a kind of biological evolutionary metaphor for the development of poetry “A cell split / and poems began / in even stanzas” but it may not be metaphorical: it may actually be trying to hammer out an origin for poetry in the biological (in much the same way that people whose sense of form never gets beyond English language poetry metrics claim that the iambic is the beat of the mother’s heart heard by the child in the womb). At any rate, “Ars Poetica” stresses poetry’s ability to bridge and connect all dimensions of reality:

The polished dark embraces image
like bringing down the moon
into a glass of water,
reflecting its cellular face.

It also stresses the importance of gaps and absences, as does “Silt and Green” which begins by telling us that

Poems resist explaining
since they’re dipped in void,
nothing that isn’t nothing.

It goes on to investigate the personality of the writer of these things that are dipped in void and, as in “Ars Poetica”, uses an image which is simultaneously cosmic (black holes), biological (inside the eye) and evolutionary:

All of them are dipped in void
and the one who writes is no one,
mind fading down from daylight
through layers of silt and green
to the pupil-black places
light can’t reach.

The final poem in the book revisits this notion of absence and the nature of the poet. It is simultaneously a found poem and a really clever restatement of Keats’s negative capability. I laughed out loud when I read it (an event – the laughing while reading, not the laughing – so rare it is worth recording).

“More skilled vacancies on offer”

And I aspire to be a skilled vacancy,
always to know the right thing not to do,
just how to side-step a problem
or guide it over my shoulder
like a well-mannered boy practising ju-jitsu.
A skilled vacancy will reply to
“Occupation?” that it’s a “black
hole” and that even that is two words
too many.

The rest of the poems in the book work on the materials that we might expect from the author of “Circle and Line”: dream and waking consciousnesses, the body, perception, memory and sensation. One of the best is a two part poem called “Some Things the Body Knows” and there is a sequence, “Alternative Daylights” that explores yawning, sneezing, falling asleep and orgasm as states of reality, or perhaps doors to different and valuable realities. The fourth poem sounds like one of those marvellous Les Murray meditations which penetrate and define a state while simultaneously coating it with deliciously baroque images.

Orgasm floats in taboo and consequence
though Sex Ed. likened it to a sneeze.
Like falling asleep and waking at once,
both entry and exit,
a slow motion flash
that’s separate from the merciless attraction,
separate even from bodily art and love.
The quiet moment after two buildings fall together
with nobody hurt, another luminous object, perishable thing.

At the same time there are plenty of more outward looking, almost social and certainly sociable, poems. What makes these poems striking is that they are so often concerned with the interlacing of their themes. This is reflected in the high degree of formal organization of the book. It is in two parts and the poems are often grouped in pairs so that we are invited to consider the interaction of the poems themselves.

So Phosphoresence is a book of fine poems that has thought a lot about what it is doing. If I have a reservation about it, it is that delicateness and sensitivity can undo themselves by closing off the rougher, cruder areas of human experience and just might not be a good approach for the long-term. One thing that traditionally protects this kind of hypersensitive free-verse from vapidity is a touch of angst inside a generally autobiographical cast. I’d like to feel that this lies behind the interesting opening poem, “Nest”. Here, after a stanza describing wasps building a nest on the weight of a wind-chime, there is a massive disjunction to:

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.

As with any such disjunction, our brains are challenged to make a connection with the world of the wasps on the wind-chime who “build a paper house / as a launching pad for violence in a calm” and this second stanza. But it seems, more importantly, a poem in which the self is suffering (even scarred) rather than being simply sensitive and this will always help to give this sort of poetry the edgy, committed quality that it might otherwise lack. It takes the poet away from the role of sensitive experiencer, recorder and builder of subtle organic structures and gives him a true, even desperate, stake in what he is writing. When someone in a P.G. Wodehouse novel gets sacked or, in some other way, tossed out, the person doing the sacking invariably utters the cliche, “I shall watch your future career with great interest”. In the case of the poetry of Graeme Miles this will be true for me – and without any sarcastic overtones.

Luke Beesley: Lemon Shark

Brisbane: papertiger Media Inc., 2006, 80pp.

This first book by Luke Beesley is the product of a deeply unusual poetic sensibility and it says something about the power of the book that it leaves a reader wondering what, if such an approach to poetry were to become endemic, Australian poetry would look like and whether or not it would be a good thing. If I wanted to describe it crudely I would say that it is a hyper-sensitive poetry that does not seem especially neurasthenic. The sensitivities are sometimes in conventional areas: lovers, films, weather, coffee-cafe life etc. Sometimes they are in less conventional areas: colour, the appearance of the dustjackets of books, the shape of letters and the tactile quality of individual sounds. All in all, the latter redeems the former, I think.

Lemon Shark is really a book of registration and placement. It is not strong on either intellectual analysis or its friend, syntax. You just aren’t going to find the tensions between sentence-construction and the displacement of lines that can give such exquisite pleasure in conventional lyric poetry both formal and free-verse. Lemon Shark simply does things in its own way. Take, for example, “Ink on Your Ankles”:

The angel architect made
you a kaleidoscope of pretty fame

Now arching over harmony
widening the canopy of the room
 the way you stand apart I thought

with a laugh that enters
like breeze to spinnaker. Suddenly a hug.

You walked through a rainbow you said
and a butterfly landed on your nose. Fancy

the depth of field
your exquisite world.

(Let’s not try to be truthful anymore. Make it all up.

Collapse all night.
Never faint again.)

This seems one of the less ambitious poems, a “couple” poem which is conceived almost entirely visually. Although the title recalls tattoos, most likely it is there because of the way it sounds or, even, looks: “ink” and “ankles” rhyme mysteriously visually as well as aurally. The girl is a kaleidoscopic and multicoloured intervention in an harmoniously shaded room and enters like someone who has walked through a rainbow and found pieces of colour sticking to her. She also seems three-dimensional in otherwise two-dimensional space – her “exquisite world” requires good depth of focus.

The poem next to “Ink on Your Ankles” is one of a series of prose-poems that are, by comparison, reasonably straightforward. It describes an architect who, in response to a storm darkening outside sets up his tools of trade under his desk. There he focuses on the patterns in the carpet –

Also little things in the carpet. A grain of sugar. A fraction of a leaf. The smell of owls, he thought.

His  eyes fell again on the bookshelf. The nurse-blues and nativity greens  of the spines. Poetry and a collection and fictions. A book Black Sea  and he imagined the sky splitting form the window and falling in a shard  of blue pool to the carpet.

Although this is not one of the major poems in the book, it is tempting to make it into a programmatic one. It moves from some sort of engagement with (or at least an irritable response to) the outside world to a disengagement whereby the arrival of the outside world is imagined. It seems to be saying that the creative concentration can (or should) be transferred to things within the immediate visual vicinity. More significantly these things have their conventional meaning stripped away – a process that is the dominant feature of Beesley’s poetry – so that books are reduced, not to their paraphrased meaning, or even effect on the reader, but rather to the colours of their spines and (though it is not specified in this poem) the shape of the letters on their cover. Even more worryingly, though this may not be deliberate, there is a sense of this process being one of infantilization since the colours of the spines recall nurses and nativities.

There is no excuse not to be prepared for this experience because Lemon Shark’s epigraph is a quotation from Clement Greenberg that recalls “The Architect”:

The  intuition that gives you the colour of the sky turns into an aesthetic  intuition when it stops telling you what the weather is like and becomes  purely an experience of colour.

This method removes meaning from the poems and making them essentially visual or, sometimes, aural experiences. I’m not sure about this as a long-term aesthetic program. Stripping out prose-meaning may be a good thing but the history of poetry teaches us that there are many kinds of poetic meanings, or ways in which poems can mean in a non-prose way. At any rate, the aestheticization of words to the point where it is their shape, and the colour of the covers of the books they arrive in, that matters is, it has to be admitted, a very unusual poetic.

What kind of visual experiences are we dealing with here? The cover suggests that we should be alert for trompe l’oeil effects since what appears to be the rump of a dalmation turns out to be a woman’s shoulder from a Gerhard Richter painting. In practice the poems seem to focus on shapes and surfaces. “My Compliment is not a Tulip” seems to be about the interaction between shapes and other, more practical, calls on the attention.

The taper of a cup
sitting pretty in a circle -

there are shapes everywhere

The shape of sunlight cutting up your arm
The shape of stone
The shape of things to come
an owl’s rug-coloured call

One of the most attractive poems in the book “Happy Together (16 Poems)” is a response to the Wong Kar-Wai film, In the Mood for Love. It does not repeat many of the images of that film but does rejoice in its intensely visual approach to the couple’s relationship. In its obsession with the shapes of the woman’s body, with rising smoke and patterned walls, I read this poem as a mimicking of the film’s method: what might be sixteen scenes become sixteen poems though, interestingly, we are never quite sure where the dividing lines between the poems are. I hope this is deliberate and not just a result of the processes of typesetting the book because uncertainty about the beginnings and endings of scenes is one of the features of In the Mood for Love. The poem’s emphasis is on surfaces:

A red sheen trickles across
your shoulders as you move

your waist
it spills

It is no accident that a review of this film speaks of “a near constant state of ellipsis” and of how “a great deal is felt but very little is said” – that might itself be a description of Lemon Shark.

Finally there are aural shapes. A high degree of sensitivity to shape and surface is allied to a similar sensitivity to sound – and what is the sound of a word but the experience of it stripped of meaning. The book’s first poem speaks of “the noticeable twist / of sunlight in resist” and both “Fell” and “Eulila” are sound-driven poems. Probably the poem which addresses this issue most is “Juice”:


- Je ne peax pas me faire comprendre

I have no idea what that means
but the important thing is to pronounce it perfectly.
This is all poetry is for me:
vague lessons in the pronunciation of a beautiful language,
and then a run into town to meet with the native tongue,
hoping to fluke conversations with everyone.

But that sounds superficial, almost.
It’s the opposite, actually.

Without spoiling it I want to know no French
but dress the absence, spray it with the tongue’s recipes
and let history emerge in the mind

like the swell of colour
happening in a fresh Polaroid.

“It sounds superficial, almost” is a brave admission and the idea that the meaning of events, “history” can emerge from this is an optimistic one but, as Auden said, perhaps we have to learn that surfaces need not be superficial nor gestures vulgar. Luke Beesley’s book may well turn out to be, in retrospect, one of the most ambitious books of recent Australian poetry

At any rate, as an object, Lemon Shark is, like the other books in this new series by papertiger (Brett Dionysius’ Universal Andalusia and Billy Jones’ Wren Lines), a thing of beauty in itself and all congratulations go to the team which has produced them. There is nothing superficial about the beauty of a well-made book.

MTC Cronin: The Flower, The Thing

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006, 122pp.

At first sight a book of one hundred and twenty poems each devoted to a single flower and each exactly the same length looks like an attempt to expand (by half), or even to answer, Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. At second view however The Flower, The Thing is a long way from inhabiting Zukofsky’s weirdly hermetic universe being, in most respects, a talkative and engaging book.

The book’s final poem – a kind of addendum – suggests, at least on a superficial reading, that the book might be an attempt to capture the “thisness” of each individual flower:

Urgently, now,  before us, the flower, the thing,
entered before any window would allow it,
always living, always posthumous, breached
by the world and unabstracted.

Again, this seems an error. Many of the poems glance only superficially at their flower which acts as little more than a host. Of course the poetic function of “capturing” essences is one that involves complex questions about the status of the world, the status of the mind and the status of poetry and these turn out to be major Cronin themes throughout her extensive and prolific career.

Complicating the issue is the fact that this is a book of dedications as much as it is a book of flowers. Each poem has a dedicatee: some are dead poets, some currently alive poets, some family members, some friends, one is a fictional character (Peter Henry Lepus) and one is the kind of philosopher (Descartes) who might have been alarmed to find himself in a book of poems. Indeed the essential structure of this book, as so often is the case in highly formal constructions, is the variety of the ways poems of the same length can be constructed bringing in both title-flower and dedicatee. It is a great pleasure to read it in this way and it reveals much of its undeniable charm but it does mean, of course, that a review of it is likely to be taxonomic. Bear with me.

Some poems are fairly straightforward narratives, very often based on stories which, one presumes, the dedicatees have provided. “Strawberry”, dedicated to Christine Hearty, tells the story of children in Ireland thinking that they were picking strawberries only to discover, after the uncle’s death, that he bought the fruit and, during the night, scattered it over the ground for them to “find” the next day. Yes, it is about the unexpected and often inauthentic origins of revelation (it would have appealed to Patrick White) but the pleasure of reading it arises to a large extent from the often much more intractable meditations in which it nestles. “Leis”, dedicated to Stuart and Vivian Saunders, describes a lei-decorated pair of octogenarians falling backwards into a flower patch while having their photographs taken and, essentially, laughing until their death and burial:

and what a wonderful way
to die on a day completely
devoid of good sense (thrown into the water &
goodbye ha ha hello drifting back to land)

Some of these narratives are family based anecdotes. In “Stone Flower” the breaking of a stone ball during a game (I think this is what happens) provokes the poem to deal with the theme of worlds inside worlds (flowers hidden inside the stone matching flowers in the outside world) and the image of stone which regularly recurs in this book:

Their game has caused
the flower to bloom
at the heart of the stone

. . . . .

But the stone cracks and releases
a world to orbit the sun
The green grass grows greener
and rushes to the drop of rain
that contains the day
The jeroboam tips night to the lawn

Other family-based poems like “Blackberry”, Sweet Violet”, and “Calendula, Like Cleopatra” tend to focus on the child-parent bond and the inevitable and necessary future separations. The last of these (dedicated to the poet’s daughter, Agnes Mohan) is interesting in that, in recalling Cleopatra’s dissolving of the pearl for Mark Antony, it repeats the image of “Stone Flower” in that the frozen world of the pearl is released:

Like Cleopatra,
I dissolve my pearl for you.
I take the flower
from the earth
and make it happy
in your hair.
Everything has a life.
The rock wakes from darkness
and turns its heart
to fire.
Colliding planets
enter a new age of faith.
I hold the serpent
daily to my breast and daily
I die.
Life is a wound
made by your love
tunnelling to my heart . . .

Sometimes the interactions of narrative, flower and dedicatee get quite complex. Following “Calendula, Like Cleopatra”, for example, is “Calla Lily” dedicated to the Cuban poet, Dionisio D Martinez. On the surface it is a simple enough poem about a friend suffering from breast cancer and the complex effect of this on their relationship:

. . . it is not your teeth I fear
when you part your lips but that you
might speak a fact we would be
demanded by instinct to dispute
past midnight to four a.m. and then fall
asleep upon as if it’s both death
and life that support the breathing
unconscious head for the eternal
moment of its vulnerability.
then at tomorrow there will be a point
like a small smile where the mouth
does not open where unspokenly
we choose to go on with the cancer
between us like a new garden
we have stumbled into and must tend.

This is a terrific poem as it is but why the Cuban poet and why Calla lilies? It turns out that Martinez is the author of a poem, “In a Duplex Near the San Andreas Fault”, in which a woman tells her partner that she has a lump in her breast and, in the background ,“Calla lilies bloom / like some glorious, abandoned music out on the lawn” (this knowledge derives not from my own wide reading but from Google, I’m afraid!). The poem either alludes to this in its title and dedicatee or, conceivably (though it is unlikely), invents a scenario which is an extension of the Cuban poem.

A number of the poems whose dedicatees are poets could be described as homages. Even within such a tight subgroup, however, there is a lot of variety. “Afton Blommor” is dedicated to the Swedish poet, Par Lagerkvist, and praises the man who

. . . asked our questions
When we could not have asked them
Because we did not know what would fulfil us
Because we did not know what to ask . . .

“Reed” recalls Rumi’s great poem but is not an imitation of it and “Midsummer Flowers”, while very Rilkean in its interests, is not at all a poem one could imagine Rilke writing with its assertive opening:

I am too young to die
yet have set my foot
on the journey that goes
deep in the soil of fact
and condition to find
the jewel to arrest me!

The only time these homage poems seem to come close to the style of the dedicatee is in “Mayflowers, Hyacinth & Dead Anemone” which is very much in the mode of Gatsos’ “Amorgos”. I think this is because the style of that poem is closest to Cronin’s own preferred utterance. It is a kind of rhapsodic, Spanish (as opposed to French) surrealism focussing either on love or on social justice. We can see this style at its best in a section from “Late Rose 2″ the second poem dedicated to Judith Beveridge (each of which, by the way, has a very difficult tone to grasp – I’m not at all sure what the poetic and personal relationship between these poets is):

There are new words for happiness.
Have you heard them?
They sound like the snapping of a stem
or the silences here and there
in crowds which have become too great
for even the cities’ shoulders.

We also hear this style in the single-sentence-per-line poems like “Dead Fuchsia” (for the Lithuanian writer, Oscar Milosz), “Fifteen Chrysanthemums” (Proust), “Three Pear Trees” (John Berger) and, perhaps best of all, in “Blue Flower Second Version” (for Trakl):

Landscapes occur as if they were limits.
Repentance seeps from the body in breath.
Winds have speech with shadows.
Paths break into infinity along their sides.
Autumn again after the last autumn.
Beyond, a man’s back.
He is always walking away.
He turns many times to glimpse his executions.

Essentially the structure of this book involves a continuous set of variations playing with flower, dedicatee, tone and theme. The Cronin themes are not so different from those of her earlier work. The first of these is the sense of there being a language of muteness in which the great truths (necessary for true justice) can be spoken. Parallel to this is a distrust of conventional poetic styles and a preference for surreal utterance. This extends to narrative and when, in “Impatiens”, she says:

But do not search in what this story
is about for what it is about, for those
thoughts that slip cleanly and smoothly
from one to the next are for stories
themselves. Life is not a novel; life is like poetry!
Tight and ready, like the ripe capsules of the impatiens,
to burst at a touch. Completed and completely
out of practise with time!

she is echoing sentiments found in most of her books but especially in Bestseller – which still remains, in its focus on the nature of language and poetry – the most accessible of her earlier books. It is also there in the opening poems of Beautiful, Unfinished:

There is not one thing I will say
outside of parable
For in the mind is another mind
one as far back
as you have not yet reached
It chuckles like the one who
invented laughter

and in a little poem, “Searching” from Bestseller:

Too many times
I find myself searching my poems
To see if they make sense

When will I learn
That joy has its own logic
Shaped like a sunburst!

Combined with this view that language and narrative must be disguised and apparently meaningless to speak true meaning is the sense of the true world as a closed phenomenon which it is very difficult to break open. The dominant images here are of irruption and breaking into. The flowers of stone need to be released to match the flowers of the world and “Saxifrage” begins by asking:

What breaks the rock
with such delicate insistence,
moves the stone to open its silent dwelling
to the universe of melodious worlds?

Perhaps a recent poem says it most clearly:

The Law of Wine

Is not in the grape
or the earth
in the nose or time
or beauty of words
unable to describe the wine
but in cracking the heart loose
at its edges
just enough to let sunlight
beneath its serious face
to illuminate the smile within
the glass’s umbrous curve
the little bit of rest
that moves us towards chaos
and acceptance
towards the slight opening
in the clenched world.

In this poetry, the inner world, though infinite in its possibilities, needs to have its heart cracked if it too is to effect a similar breach in the hard, permanently “clenched” external world. This is probably the significance of the conclusion of the final poem, “The Flower, the Thing”, in which the world asks us for commitment before it reveals itself as a seemingly endless set of individual items:

. . . The flower says
I have believed enormously, have you? And so,
the vulture, the hat, the hand, the cobra, the dog,
the sand, the arm, the trail, the reed, the two reeds,
the foot, the bone, the leaving, the basket, the back,
the folded cloth, the jar, the stand, the gold, the rope,
the tether, the sound, the viper with horns and the
sound of these like pins in the throat which are eased
by water . . . and always now, before us, the thing . . .

Les Murray: The Biplane Houses

Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006, 90pp.

Les Murray’s total-poems-thus-far has an elephantine size and is a collection rich beyond normal readerly expectations. Future critics will need to work hard to follow and to try to describe its exact shape though already a basic pattern seems to have been laid down, one which culminates in Fredy Neptune and the bitterer poems of Subhuman Redneck Poems as a kind of catharsis. Whatever the accuracy of this, there is no doubt that The Biplane Houses forms a group with the previous Conscious and Verbal (1999) and Poems the Size of Postcards (2002). They inhabit the same corner of Murray-land and speak the same language. Perhaps it might be better to say that they inhabit the same micro-climate. There is a relaxed quality about the poetry though the themes and abstractions are recognizably those of Murray. They all post-date Murray’s catastrophic mental and physical illnesses and – what reader can say? – may reflect a kind of convalescent, “I really shouldn’t be here” calm.

There are great pleasures to be had reading Murray’s poems. Just as he has been in the past the most combative of poets he is also one of those who gives most pleasure. And the pleasures come in recognizable modes, modes which circulate throughout Conscious and Verbal and Poems the Size of Postcards as well as this new volume. I’d like to focus on these poetic modes rather than the evolving panorama of Murray’s complex views on Australia, religion, the human race etc. After all, the modes form the arsenal for the poet’s multi-pronged response to existence.

There are the cryptic squibs, for example. The Biplane Houses is framed by two of them, “The Averted” (“The one whose eyes / do not meet yours / is alone at heart / and looks where the dead look / for an ally in his cause” and “Industrial Relations” (“Said the conjuror Could I have afforded / to resign on the spot when you ordered / me to saw the Fat Lady / in half before payday / I would have. I find wage cuts sordid.”) Neither of these is quite as simple as it appears on the surface or as expectations based on a previous experience of this genre in the work of other poets might lead us to expect. Usually the pleasure comes immediately from the recognition of a deep truth placed in a beautiful syntactic shape. Think of Auden’s “Private faces in public places / are wiser and nicer / than public faces in private places”. Murray’s two squibs are predicated on his complex analysis of the world (that is, they are not derived from a widely-held but perhaps not understood or rarely expressed view of things) and, I have to say, really resist interpretation. Is sawing the fat lady in half to be seen as a punning example of a “wage-cut” – ie an operation paid for? I can’t help feeling that the resistance to interpretation is deliberate and that Murray’s squibs are half riddle though I could be being particularly interpretively obtuse here. There is nothing cryptic about “The Test”, however, and “Blueprint II” makes sense to anyone who has ever thought about what a Christian heaven might actually be like “Life after death / with all the difficult people / away in a separate felicity”. Here everything depends on the last word’s unspoken chiming with that coldly bureaucratic word “facility” and might well open out into a comment on the current government’s movement of people it considers difficult out to an off-shore “facility”. At any rate, the meanings here open out rather than try to close themselves off.

“The Statistics of Good” is a kind of extended version of “The Test”. A very beautiful sentence extended over two stanzas recalls Archbishop Mannix’s successful attempts to defeat the conscription campaign in the first world war. Then the final stanza returns to the proposition that Mannix saved the lives of perhaps half “the fit men of a generation”:

How many men? Half a million? Who knows?
Goodness counts each and theirs.
Politics and Death chase the numbers.

Even here, however, it is not immediately obvious why “theirs” is included.

Murray’s witticisms are thus unusual in demanding that we are familiar with the Murray interpretation of the world. We can follow the rest of the book through by looking at the kinds of poems Murray deploys and the relationships between them. The second poem, “Early Summer Hail with Rhymes in O” begins:

Suddenly the bush was America:
dark woods, and in them like snow.
The highway was miles of bath house,
bulk steam off ice shovelled over blue.

If one of Murray’s signatures is his invention, and special use, of abstractions, another is his distinctive syntactic shifts. The prose version of this opening might run “Suddenly the bush looked like something you might find in the north-east of the United States and being in the bush was like being in a snow storm in those woods”. In the first line the shift from simile to metaphor twists the meaning rather than simply intensifies it and the second line works by intense and distorting compression to produce “and in them like snow”. It looks back to an early poem “Once in a Lifetime, Snow” and thus connects up with other Murray poems and it also of course pulls Dante and Frost into the picture. The tone, though, is light and celebratory more than anything and concludes in a typically Murray way by associating delight with exhaled breath (as well as punning on “hail”):

Hills west of hills, twigs, hail to Dubbo,
all dunes of pursed constraint exhaling Ohh.

I think of this poem as being, if not exactly in a celebratory mode, at least in a mode which is open to the amazingness of the world. In this kind of poem the issue is not of language “capturing’ reality so much as dancing at fever pitch to keep up with the natural world. “Airscapes” is a good example as are “An Acrophobe’s Dragon” and the extraordinary “A Levitation of Land”. It is perhaps significant that two of these poems deal with the sky. This mode is both intense syntactically and also disjunctive – as though a set of verses were being thrown at a subject. Three stanzas from “Airscapes” for example:

The bubble-column of a desert whirlwind
fails, and plastic-bag ghosts
stay ascended, pallid and rare.

Over simmering wheat land,
over tree oils, scrub growing in rust
and way out to the storeyed forties.

Here be carbons, screamed up
by the djinn of blue kohl highways
that have the whish of the world
for this scorch of A.D.

These poems submit to reality rather than interpret it, or map it against a pre-existing interpretation. Other, less elevated poems, like “Travelling the British Roads”, “The Domain of the Octopus”, “Melbourne Pavement Coffee” (“Storeys over storeys without narrative / an estuarine vertical imperative / plugged into vast salt-pans of pavement”) and “Sunday on a Country River” share this disjunctive approach to their subjects. Perhaps the aim is a kind of cubist multi-perspectival view, perhaps it is a desire to write short poems and connect them into a buzzing whole. If it is the latter then a collection poem like “Twelve Poems” may be closer to Murray’s essential methods than it seems on the surface. Certainly “Lateral Dimensions” is a group of separate poems made into a whole:

haunted house -
one room the cattle
never would go in

mowing done -
each thing’s a ship again
on a wide green harbour

and so on through fourteen similar poem/sentences.

A little poem, “Winter Winds”, shows how good Murray can be at the virtues of a traditional lyric where syntax falls beautifully through line breaks:

Like applique on nothingness
like adjectives in hype
fallen bracts of the bougain-
eddy round the lee verandah
like flowers still partying
when their dress has gone home.

Yes it is slight but lyric poems of this kind always are – they don’t rely on the support of allegory or ideas to keep them upright – and there is something appealing about a very large poet with very large ideas treading so light-footedly.

Other poems do want to be interpreted as allegories, especially a number of the narratives. In “Upright Clear Across” children recall acting as guides on the old Pacific Highway when it flooded. They walked across the submerged road to show that it was still there and that its depth was something the waiting cars could cope with. In exchange, “every landing brought us two bobs and silver”. The situation here, children sure-footed in a flood, must have a symbolic significance: the flood is the weight of the world or of experience or it could be the pressure of the conformity demanded by the adult world. At any rate it is an ability that the passage of time renders irrelevant:

and then bridges came, high level,
and ant-logs sailed on beneath affluence.

“The Shining Slopes and Planes” describes a carpenter fixing up the Murrays’ tin roof. In a way it is a hymn to the stylish simplicity of anyone who is an expert in their field – in this case a tradesman: “Peter the carpenter walks straight up / the ladder, no hands, / and buttons down lapels of the roof”. But it is also clearly a poem about living on the ground and living in the sky – the roof is full of grass and miniature trees which have grown in the gutter. The fact that its last line produces the book’s title is also a clue to its significance.

If there is a stylistic feature that unites these modes it is Murray’s love of the pun. The title of the poem I have just mentioned refers to slopes and planes and perhaps generates the final image of “the biplane houses of Australia” through a pun on “planes”. This punning drive is not just a matter of verbal over-excitement, it is more a case of the poet seeing connections at a verbal as well as a visual level. We know this because “Black Belt in Marital Arts” faces up to the issue. It looks at first a minor, joke poem, but turns out to be crucial:

Pork hock and jellyfish. Poor cock.
King Henry had a marital block.
A dog in the manager? Don’t mock!
denial flows past Cairo.

A rhyme is a pun that knows where
to stop. Puns pique us with the glare
of worlds too coherent to bear
by any groan person.

Nothing moved him like her before.
It was like hymn and herbivore,
Serbs some are too acerbic for -
punning move toward music.

A rhyme is a pun that knows where to stop because it connects words (through sound) that otherwise have no connections (“stars”, “cars”, “jars”) but to someone seeing connections everywhere a rhyme is just a reminder of some of the less obvious ones. Puns reveal these connections to a greater extent thus creating a world of overwhelming coherence, far too much to bear for “any groan person”.

Thus the Murray world is full of symbolic correspondences. As a result riddling and punning are more than stylistic tics. There is a Murray mode though where meaning remains elusive though it is not at all like the riddling and punning modes I have been writing about. This might be described as the formal, “panel”, lyric. In a way they recall the early poem, “The Princes’ Land”, which was a formal, allegorical narrative in a very faux-medieval mode. These too look medieval in their appearance in blocks with refrain. “On the Central Coast Line” is one of these, its refrain mutating from a simple “a head ahead” (presumably to recall the sound of the train lines) but concluding, cryptically:

We knock inside a tunnel
and are released to wide chrome
to jelly-sting wharf towns -
if that head turned 
to show one certain face 
this would not be now 

It is as though a fairly standard Murray poem has been crossbred with a poem about what occurs inside someone’s mind as they look at other passengers in the train.

And what are we to make of “Leaf Brims”?

A clerk looks again at a photo,
decides, puts it into a file box
which he then ties shut with string
and the truth is years away.

A Naval longboat is rowed upstream
where jellied mirrors fracture light
all over sandstone river walls
and the truth is years away.

A one-inch baby clings to glass
on the rain side of a window as
a man halts, being led from office
but the truth is years away.

Our youngest were still child-size when
starched brims of the red lotus last
nodded over this pond in a sunny breeze
and the truth was years away.

I won’t bore readers with my cogitations about this – plainly a poem in which justice occurs in the sacral future – but its difficulties lie not in the ideas which form its context (the sort in which a smiling author seems to say, “You need a course in Murray”) but in its internalness. It is almost a very private poem.

Finally in The Biplane Houses are the narratives. These cover a wide variety of modes ranging from allegory (“Upright Clear Across”) to family experience (“Me and Je Reviens”) to personal experience (“The Succession”). But the one which is most intriguing is one which doesn’t deal with narrative meaning in a way which we are familiar with in Murray’s work. This is “Through the Lattice Door”:

This house, in lattice to the eaves,
diagonals tacked across diagonals,

is cool as a bottle in wicker.
The sun, through stiff lozenge leaves,

prints verandahs in yellow Argyle.
Under human weight, the aged floorboards

are subtly joined, and walk with you;
French windows along them flicker.

In this former hospital’s painted wards
lamplit crises have powdered to grief.

Inner walling, worn back to lead-blue,
stays moveless as the one person still

living here stands up from reading,
the one who returned here from her life,

up steps, inside the guesswork walls,
since in there love for her had persisted.

Though this has the familiar Murray graces (the floorboards, creaking, “walk with you”) it is hard to determine the author’s exact stake in the poem. It doesn’t seem to be making a point, in other words. As a result there is a kind of luminous quality about it as though Murray had given up his position as controlling author (almost always, in Murray’s poetry, tenaciously held on to) and allowed the poem to speak for itself as the poem of this woman’s life. I like it, though, of course, there is no way of knowing whether it will be a one-off of the harbinger of a new, relaxed mode where the authorial control over meaning and significance is loosened a little.