Brook Emery: Uncommon Light

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2007, 72pp.

This is Brook Emery’s third book. The first two – and dug my fingers in the sand (2000) and Misplaced Heart (2003) – share what are, essentially, philosophico -poetic concerns. Emery is especially good, in these, at registering the sense of an observing self, simultaneously part of the normal processes of the world and apart from them. As the first poem of his first book – significantly about the sea – says:

I'm in the sea but not of it, neither fish
nor fisherman nor sailor with their understanding
of its distance and its depths . . . . .

He is also good at epistemological issues, such as the fact that, when part of the world momentarily makes some sense (“coheres” is the word he is inclined to use) we are uncertain as to whether that is a pattern we impose or whether we have uncovered an underlying law. Does knowing less make patterns easier to discern? That is, is there a tension between empirical data and generalisation? He is continuously intrigued by the status of thought and the fact that thoughts arise naturally in us and play over experiences. He is also highly sensitive to the way in which the future passes through the present and on into the past and the fact that these three time-states are decidedly different. The present is the world of immersion while the past – full of traces of the present – is a remembered and analysed construct.

This all might make Emery seem like a second-rate philosopher but the fact is that he is a first-rate poet. He manages to convince us that these are not only intellectual issues but intensely internalised ones, part of his visceral experience of the world. This is done by the deployment of a small but potent cast of symbols. Of these water – as the sea and as rain – is the most common. Yes, the sea seems to represent the incomprehensible world of the data of experience – swimming is never a simple act in Emery – but it is also part of a personal environment. Emery, like Slessor , is profoundly a Sydney poet. Many poems are set inside a car (often during a rainstorm) and the situation is exploited as a way of coming to terms with the artist’s sense of being simultaneously inside and outside the world. After the rain, so to speak, come the birds, often exploited as symbols of thought.

Uncommon Light builds on and extends these first books – a critical commonplace – but it also makes radical changes. It begins with a poem, “Very Like a Whale” which is, as its title suggests about imposed perception. This seems contiguous with the earlier books, but there are two elements here that I think are rarer than in the first two books and which are very important in this new one. One is an emphasis on the self:

. . . . .
        I am not what I imagined,
                       here I am the illusionist
                       and dupe of my illusions,
        making the angels disappear, wishing them back again.
. . . . .

And the second, only suggested here in the word “angels”, an interest in the possibility of transcendence of some kind. Later in the poem, the self is redescribed in an entirely materialist, evolutionary way as:

               one more clay figurine with beseeching hollows
                                           where the eyes should be,
                                           as different from the others
 as I am the same, no more evolved
                                           than a roach,
                                           no better than a rat,
                                           happy as a labrador in the sun.
                  This is grace, the rest is commentary
                  and I would let it go: in millennia

 I'll chatter metaphysics with a chimpanzee, now
                            my thoughts are the antlers of the Irish elk,
                                                     the wings of flightless birds . . . . .

Of course a word like “grace” leaps out at the reader in a passage such as this. To complicate matters, it is not easy to be entirely sure about its significance here. It could be saying that grace is the state of living entirely physically, at one with the natural and animal world. It could also be saying, of course, that “grace” is a theological nonsense, a sense of bodily rightness that has become encrusted with commentary.

So Uncommon Light extends the generally epistemological concerns of the first two books into questions of our material identity and the validity of the idea of transcendence. It is also obsessed (I don’t think it too strong a word) with the idea of evil. This is a theme sounded in a number of poems towards the end of Misplaced Heart . Poems like “Self-portrait with Exploding Device”, “Aubade and Evensong: New Year, 2003” and “Commentary: Two Days”, though corralled in a single section of the book, all address the idea of suffering in the contemporary world. This note is continued almost immediately in Uncommon Light . The second poem, “Spring”, recalls the book’s epigraph from Orwell:

. . . spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the  factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are  streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going around the  sun and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they  disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

“Spring” uses, as its central metaphor, the idea that we absorb time as sunlight and eventually let it show as cancers – “Our darker selves in and out of seasons”. And this bleak note is taken up in “Finches Perhaps” which deals first with the response of our thoughts when faced with a site of horror such as the Khmer Rouge torture centre of Tuol Sleng and then with the “tyrants” themselves:

Birds strip the hanging air, cut through it
between bars, through chinks, always at this

flit-flitting peak, this in and away as we say,
monstrous; as we say, how could anyone

have endured; thinking they, thinking if I were,
as birds dart in micro-moments through

our scant attention to how time corrodes
between denials then and now. It happened

and happened, normal really how helpless
rectify appears. Mind that thinks manacle

and bird and time cants to be a shrug. Tomorrow
the new tyrant's found in a spider hole, he has

a thick white web of beard, he has a gun
he doesn't fire. A torch shines in his open mouth,

the talk again of supervised elections. Distinctions
are this stark: Tuol Sleng – the poisoned mound -

used to be a school; its commandant
taught mathematics; its guards were adolescent.

Coherence only in the birds, what they have reclaimed.

It is a potent poem and, as far as I can see, gets double value out of the birds flitting in and out of the prison windows. They symbolise our thoughts – and thus connect the poem up to its author’s epistemological concerns – but they also symbolise a natural world that is, by definition, coherent.

The issue of the nature of evil gets a thorough working over in a four part poem called “Monster” whose parts are spread throughout the book. This poem impresses in the way it operates by statement and denial. Emery often puts both sides of a situation and lets the statements lie alongside each other – working by balancing possibilities rather than a potentially reductive assertion. The first “Monster” poem asserts unequivocally that the monster is present with us in the womb. Monstrosity is not a perversion or a freak sport of nature but an inherently human condition – we are all capable of running Auschwitz or Tuol Sleng . The second poem worries about the essentialism of this position: no monster, after all, produced the Lisbon earthquake – that is a product of some random and completely natural processes. It experiments with the idea of lived experience being made up of encounters between the good and the bad, the monsters and the saints:

. . . . .
I know saintliness exists. It's all around me.
My next door neighbours in their simple modesty,
the lady down the street who is always

helping someone older than herself. Even the slow
judicial process conceives it natural to be better
than we are. I'm trying to shoo the gloomy birds away

but crows repeat about me on the lawn; and the vulture
and the kite, the cuckoo and the owl: should I have given up the ghost 
when I was drawn from the womb? 

The third and fourth “Monster” poems censor the first two by overlaying an epistemological rigorousness:

. . . . .
                                            I'm embarrassed

by the flimsiness of my resolve, the silliness of saints and monsters,
conversations with a being who can't plausibly exist,
this mockery of flagellation . . . . .

and a return to issues of coherence: are observations of order “true but trivial” or a window into profound underlying laws? At any rate, the final result is bleak:

Against the livid orange sunset, consolation
(Is it a wing? A fuselage?) dips behind the hill,
out of the debris: fragments, disconnected things,
suffering that makes nothing holy.

Others have noted that Emery is a master of extended – usually multi-part – poetic meditations. At the core of Uncommon Light are a number of these. They make a very impressive achievement. The first of them is “That Beat Against the Cage” another poem to work over the bird/thought connection. The essential question that it asks is: where is life primary and where is it secondary? Its eight poems come down against the idea (shared by Buddhists and twentieth century metaphysicians) that life is an observed process and that what matters is not essences but field and flow:

. . . . .
Life lopes away as we dally in sub-plot, or worse
in a stream of consciousness; these thoughts,
sometimes like chirping birds, more often
like the incidental murmur of the sea, or wind
that gusts down evening streets. They never stop.

And yet, despite this confident rejection, there is still an intellectual openness: “I think it is. I think it isn’t”:

Yet there is confinement when all is in its place ,
the mind becomes eye's slave, scribe of boundaries,
reporter of coherence.
. . . . .

What complicates – or adds a third perspective – is a sense of a kind of non-transcendent transcendence which can be found in many places in this book, not least in its title – a quotation, we are told, from Augustine speaking of God’s view from an omniscient perspective. Some of the best poetry in Uncommon Light is that describing this sense that “The world holds back / a secret for itself, puts up a lattice work / of truth and lies.” Ideas are difficult to do in poetry but an almost queasy sensation is something even more challenging. One of the poems from “That Beat Against the Cage” makes an impressive attempt to speak of a transcendence that can be sensed but not really argued for:

I would see the outline of the world sufficient
had there not been an unconcealment ,
as though the wind were taking off its clothes,
a folding and unfolding of bird and tree and light
all the time back to swirling fire, emergent seas.

It's as if I'm deep inside the world, gripped
and almost capable of understanding
the mystery that is no mystery, that yields
but in yielding withdraws behind the clouds.

This seems an alias of beautiful, an inkling
that is in the moment but escapes the present.
Nothing here's sublime, nothing fixed and final ,
nothing artful: this records confusion and the mind's existence.

I know that many will find this kind of meditative beating out of ideas and positions unattractive, but I am greatly taken by this poem and the way it tries in words to get towards the edges of a profound but non-religious experience – a profound philosophical sensation. “That Beats Against the Cage” finishes with an unequivocal rejection of that version of the-world-as-process which leads to an idea of art as the solipsistic recording of the transient:

It's untenable, this drifting that sees the world as drift.
The fantasy should ebb, become the half-recalled
calling of the sea, or else lifetimes will be spent meandering
self-consciously through the matter of the day,
shuttling back and forth as if transience
could be a domicile . . . . .

Other poems record this sensation of approaching a transcendent which is not located above or even, really, within: it is more that it is underlying. “Nevertheless Also There” is an example. Beginning “The ordinary, it seems, is something more”, it goes on to describe the bodily sensation of seeming removed:

                       a kind of separation where my body
was an empty overcoat given form by air
and the something that was absent, too physical
to be a thought, too stark and inessential
to be a soul, was also there without a shade
or outline though it looked to float above me
and to occupy an equal space. This division
outlasts the waking moment so a day or life
or lives are spent in mist and expectation
or the purblind clarity left by rain when the everyday
is edged and charged and hardly changed at all.

And “Making a Presence” takes up the same theme, speaking of the unseen which makes

                 a presence here, a passing that takes us
even as we hold together harder. Hours blow by
and the stranger remains, making fans of trees ,
sharpening the sand, whispering and hissing till we
hear the vacancy it sings, this way, this way, it lies.
Wind whistles beyond us and my voice is the sea
torn to snow, cattle beneath a hill, an empty room ,
something promised and just beyond my reach.

Finally there is the title poem itself. Thirty-eight one line statements, questions and imperatives. Like another poem, “Tourism: What the I Sees”, “Uncommon Light” is an attempt to move into a poetic mode quite different to the usual meditations of Emery’s work. It is about the eye and its responses to what it sees. One line “An edge we share: it makes conspirators of us all” is about the involvement of subject with object while another “Starlight becomes us: no, really; divinity adapts as it descends” while looking neoplatonic is probably a statement of human- centredness so that all things become human size when we process them. That would make it the inverse of Blake’s “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite”. Finally there is the mysterious question “Common and uncommon light: who patrols the border?” which could be interpreted in many ways including as a rhetorical question. The significance of “Uncommon Light” though, is not so much what its gnomic sentences add to the complicated concerns of the book but rather in its move to a different mode. Of course this Delphic mode is not necessarily more intensely “poetic”. Philosophers from Heracleitus to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein have enjoyed the way cryptic propositions engage with discursive thought.

Looking at Emery’s work so far we can see a clear pattern of movement from a poetry almost entirely concerned with issues of reality, essence and knowledge to a poetry that almost is forced to face some of the mass horrors of the world. In Uncommon Light it tries to find ways of doing this that do not sacrifice the epistemological rigour of the earlier work. At the same time it quietly, and often in the interstices, asks painful questions about the value of poetry. The prospects – for the world, for knowledge and for poetry – might said to be bleak but bracing.

Petra White: The Incoming Tide

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2007, 52pp.

One of the difficulties with first books – and this superb debut by Petra White is no exception – is the lack of a host of previous publications to act as a kind of context for the reader. That makes a critic’s life hard and you are always nervous that you are going to get something terribly wrong. My sense of the poems of The Incoming Tide, however – accurate or not – is that they locate the self of the poet in three different ways: as member of a family, as worker and as inhabitant of a number of littoral areas, but particularly that between shore and sea.

Of these the third is the most important and I would describe White’s principal concerns as involving this macro-perspective and using work and the family as ways of anchoring it in the homelier, domestic world. This can make for some surprising and pleasurable shifts. The long sequence of poems, “Highway”, for example, describes a trip with a convoy (or perhaps putative “family”) of hippies made along the Eyre Highway through South Australia. This is littoral territory with a vengeance as Nullarbor Plain meets the Great Australian Bight providing cliff edge and horizon as horizontal limits. And the poetry rises to meet this challenge, especially in “Bunda Cliffs”:

The shelved-in sea hived with diagonals,
verticals, horizontals, slabs of sleek water
ferrying hazes of air in its crystal,

vapouring the desert’s tongue.
We funnel blue glimmers, personless gases,
far-outness pouring into the breath,

our own power just enough to keep us
from billowing out like kites. The cliff
props itself up, its piles of age and buried faces.
. . . . .

When, in the final poem, people run into the sea at Cactus Beach, a clever switch in perspective describes the land as though it were the sea:

When he tore off his rags and ran into the sea, we all ran in after him.

Beyond us was the jetty, a shark net, milky still water
that remembered the blood of a young boy.
Further out, the alpine peaks of whitest sand dunes.

The desert looked on, changed nothing.

But even a sequence with as cosmic a perspective as this carefully anchors it among people. The first two poems describe members of the expedition – a semi-demented misfit who is “our fool, our thing / of darkness” and a small boy who is, for a brief period, lost in the dunes – and the third poem, “Eucla Beach”, takes time out to describe the poet’s grandparents for no more obvious reason than that, on the trip from England, their boat would have passed this beach on its way to Adelaide and that the grandmother “would have loved it here”. Always a sucker for radical disjunctions, I find the appearance of the grandparents to be deeply satisfying and, of course, the poem encourages us to make order out of their inclusion. The grandmother’s walks, we are told, connected her to herself by unjoining “the joined-up dots” of the familiar, mapped world; emigrating to Australia was a spur-of-the-moment thing which was like “leaving the planet” but it results in the locating of the future poet:

. . . . .
Sea laps towards me like the breath of another,
and draws itself back to wherever I might have been.
. . . . .

And, finally, in Adelaide they were in a kind of desert “free of the crimes of a nation not-quite-really-theirs” and at Eucla “a past buries as easily / as sand moves”. We seem to be in an inverse of the Judith Wright world here: the essence of this family is not the discovery of indissoluble genetic bonds which mean that the poet is guilty because of the actions of her forebears, but rather – in the desert – the obliteration of such joined up dots leads to the discovery of self through making a new patter. That self is implicated in family, but not in any way determined by it. That, at least is my reading of “Highway”. It is a considerable sequence which, I think, is at the heart of where this poetry really wants to go. But I could be wrong.

The cosmic positioning also moves into the essentially philosophical area of the relationship between human self and natural world. I think that The Incoming Tide is bookended by poems that recall Wallace Stevens: the final poem, “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale”, does this overtly of course. The book’s first poem, “Planting” is a sonnet that has that Stevens-ish quality of fairly simple, abrupt documentation coupled with a refusal to help the reader as to significance:

So he gave you the tobacco plants, seedlings,
and you planted them behind the house
you half-lived in. He was nobody,
friend of a stranger’s friend. But he
gave you the seedlings and you pressed them
just lightly in the soil, before night
fell into rain, heavier, darker, greener
than the tiny sound or hair-line root
that might have flared into a moment’s light
as you lay still. When the rain
stopped, the eves and over-burdened gums
let fall their water, a long, unbounded echo
that welled into morning. The garden gurgled,
the plants drowned, the sound was yours all night.

An absolutely self-confident poem but not one that it is easy to feel comfortable with. Again, one searches desperately for context. A gift – a human, though remote, act – is drowned by the natural world. The frail threads of the roots of the seedlings are entirely subsumed by water. So far, so good, but the final clause “the sound was yours all night” is, of course, entirely equivocal. The “you” both possesses the sound of the water and makes the sound: thus, in the latter reading, becoming aligned to the heavy, dark and green natural world. It recalls Stevens’ great poem which begins as a simple assertion of the separation between the brute world of the sea and the singer but goes on further and further to enmesh the two.

In “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale” it is the continuous interaction between the world of the sea, the world of the sky, and the human which is stressed. The scene is set on a pier, projecting out into the sea (which is, at Point Lonsdale, a channel entering Port Philip Bay). The sea and air are connected (raising a hooked fish is described as “fish / after fish seeps through the cloudy / eye of its brother”) while humans occupy a kind of interzone. There is nothing of the sublime or even vaguely creative in the world of these humans, however: they are no more than children fishing although there is an older fisherman who “shivers like a hatchling” and whose “dilate eye is blazing with / outward-seeking light”. I’m aware that both of these readings – of “Planting” and “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale” – are no more than inadequate gestures, of course, and we’ll have to wait for White’s next books to feel more comfortable with these poems.

Family is the central theme of three poems devoted to two grandmothers and a sister. “Munich”, dedicated to the grandmother who appears in “Eucla Beach”, is striking in that so much of what it does – ie what the poet finds important – is surprising. It begins, for example, with a description of Munich, the city that White is in when the bad news comes. But it doesn’t go on to conventionally lament absence; rather, it celebrates presence:

. . . . .
She didn’t entirely want to be remembered,
no grave, no plaque.
Her memories, freed from her head,
swarming in mine, or some of them:
the child I was who sat on her knee
and the child she was in blackout Stoke-on-Trent
step awake, two slippered ghosts,
past houses blasted to rubble and bones
. . . . .

As in “Eucla Beach” experiences are freed from their conventional and determined patterns and can be made into new and unusual ones, including fine poems. The second grandmother poem, “For Dorothy”, is unusual in that it portrays the woman, not in terms of her relationship to her granddaughter, but in terms of her surrounding children. And, finally, “Sister”, is a lovely, almost comically surprising poem whose essential structure is that it is about sisterhood only in its title and its last two lines. The bulk of the poem is devoted to a long and loving description of an axolotl “his polite uneraseable smile swanning / him upwards”. As the poem progresses through four eight-line stanzas the gap between the title and the content of the poem grows more and more intense so that the conclusion is that much more satisfying:

Descendant of the Aztec dog-god
Xolotl, who with mangled hands and feet
guided the dead to heaven, his once trans-
lucent form refuses catastrophe; more
than the ailing tabby, the timorous
and watchful high-heeled dog, or the rented
fireprone house, he guards our dangerous
childhood pledge to never change.

It is one of those rare poems which is simultaneously sophisticated and easy to grasp: it should be immediately anthologized.

Finally there is the world of work. Again it is a slightly surprising to find such a context-for-a-self in a first book but the tone is ideal: never outright contemptuous but open-minded, engaged and prepared to mock when necessary. One of the balancing techniques these poems explore is to let business speak for itself and so the sequence, “Southbank”, alternates meditations by the poet:

Our time is sold not hired,
our names as simulacra
show us up in our absence
on semi-partitions, brass-plated.
We forget, like monks, and serve
an abstract we must
not care too much for.

with monologues from management:

I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy
          joins the Networks & 
Infrastructure Team to give cover
          until Jill returns
from maternity leave. . . .

“One Wall Painted Yellow for Calm” is a full-scale dramatic monologue done by a worker in a Job Network office. I am not sure how “found” it is but it captures a voice and person so brilliantly that The Incoming Tide becomes one of those rare books where you would say that this is a technique worth persevering with:

                              I know you’re probably thinking
          I’m just some geezer
who’d be like totally unemployed, if not
          for the unemployed -
so we’re all in this together. I always say,
          we are each of us
individuals, to whom anything can happen.
          Last week I had a chap . . . . .

What makes these work-centred poems work is the tone of balanced and involved observation: harder to do than it might seem on the surface.

As I’ve said, most of the poems in this book rotate around these issues of Family, Work and what might be called Cosmic Position. I’ve omitted “Grave” an ambitious and lengthy poem which moves beyond Cosmic Position into theology or at least religious ethics. It is built around the grave of a young girl and has several of those surprising shifts that mark out the poetry of this book, eventually working its way towards the problematic flood of Noah’s Ark, worrying, as many poems have done, why we focus on the few survivors and ignore the horror of the devastation under the water. But I’m not sure it is a successful work; for once the transitions seem too complex to follow and, although it makes sense logically, it is, perhaps, the one poem in the book where the surprises are not especially pleasurable. but if it is a failure, it is a rare one. This is a very accomplished and very complex first book by a poet who can be said to be, already, of considerable importance.

Michael Sharkey: The Sweeping Plain

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2007, 84pp.

Almost nothing in Michael Sharkey’s previous work – and it is voluminous – prepares us for the shock of how good, how sheerly enjoyable, The Sweeping Plain is. As his previous volume, History (Five Islands, 2002), was a kind of selected, it enables us to trace more clearly what earlier books like The Way It Is (Darling Downs Institute Press, 1984), Alive in Difficult Times (Kardoorair, 1991), Look, He Said (Kardoorair, 1994) and a host of pamphlets were doing. And we can search inside it for the seeds of this recent outstanding work.

History begins with a poem in which an RAAF F111 crashes at Guyra and it devotes the whole body of the text to recounting what is happening “on the ground” in a world that has precious little interest in what is happening in the sky. In fact the crash of the fighter-bomber is an opportunity to sketch in the local geography, physical and human.

. . . . .
The day the Air Force came unstuck was quiet;
from Guy Fawkes you couldn’t see a thing,

except cleared paddocks. Down by Bielsdown, no one heard,
and Whittakers by Styx was undisturbed:

the falls went under,
to Jeogla, where a man died on a tractor.

Two bricklayers left a dozen empty beercans
underneath the bridge, at Copper Rocks.
. . . . .

And so on. You can read it as writing back to Les Murray’s “The Burning Truck” where the results of a violent visitation from the sky cause the locals to follow it like disciples, or you can read it as an antipodean rewriting of Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” where everybody goes on with the processes of living and working and is unable to see “a boy falling out of the sky”. Whatever the intention in this regard, “Plane Crash, Guyra” sets a tone of remorseless anti-transcendence. In the Sharkey universe there are no higher orders, no angels peeking into our world, no rewards in another life: everything is on the plain of the here and now. When “high-culture” references are made they are butted up against the ordinary of life in Armidale, Sydney or Wellington. Ophelia in “Fall of a Flapper” is stripped of any exoticism:

. . . . .
Later, she went for a swim, as she used to do
after a few tall sloe gins - and of course
some damn fool at the school had said
she had some style. Free-style, of course,
wasn’t what she did well, and the weather
was nippy: result - there were flowers
all around the chinoiserie. . . . .

And in the long series “Pictures at an Exhibition” characters in the painting are imagined to be talking (rather as the dead do in Master’s Spoon River Anthology), but talking in a way that focuses on their own lives rather than the privileged act of finishing up in a painting that is remembered. So a character in McCubbin’s “A Bush Burial” says:

It’s always been like this.
At picnics Grand-dad reads
his famous cousin’s wretched verse
while the hangi’s cooking,
the kid wants to know
when the ice-cream’s arriving,
and Mum’s had enough.
Sis reckoned Granpa went on
for an hour this time
till the family shot through,
and the dog got the pig.

The message, then, is: no transcendence either in religion or art. Nor even in love because the many love poems in the Sharkey corpus tend to end in frustration and despair – though never frustration and despair raised to a high enough pitch to escape the ordinary. It is always wry-mouthed. This makes for a fairly bleak appraisal of life and it is nicely captured in “Anything Goes” a poem whose opening seems to recall the first poem of the book:

The truth is life is mostly very dull,
and peace and war are ordinary things.
Most jumbo jets don’t fall out of the sky,
most bills get paid. Most people do not die
by firing squad. Most houses are not full
of revolutionaries: their occupants
are born into a class they did not choose,
. . . . .
The quick familiar things revolve like days
that idle or rush on in retrospect
and hurry us toward what we expect:
no stunning glory, or outstanding grief,
but lights on in a daytime cavalcade:
the only time we lead the big parade.

Only by dying to get to raise our heads momentarily above the great, predictable ordinary.

This is all very bracing and Australian but it has the problem that it neatly knocks out many of poetry’s traditional props. In “Look, He Said”, a writer who is able to get published only in the local literary journal complains about things to the poem’s speaker who, in turn, suggests that poetry’s material should lie not in the stars but in waking up to the ordinary horrors of life round about:

. . . . .
How come if I hear this story from the lady’s sister
& I hardly even know here, this guy opposite
can’t see what’s going on outside his window?
And the beating that guy gave his family last month
just before he went & shot himself
except he messed his eye up so it hung down like stiff jelly
from his face & he was wondering how come he didn’t have
another bullet left while everyone was screaming
and the jacks lobbed that his missus sent the kid for on a bike.
I hear about this stuff, how come he doesn’t.
. . . . .

But nothing in Sharkey’s work lives up to this credo and one suspects that that way lies predictability and boredom. Poetry, through the entire historical spectrum that we have of it, has never appeared at places where it is told by either governments or ethicists that it should appear. Much of the history of Sharkey’s poetry deals with the problems of a materialist but social-justice ethos and getting the thing to work in poetry. Generally it has been a story of honorable failure but things begin to look up at the end of History, perhaps fittingly in those poems that follow “The Triumph of the Takeaway: A Threnody for John Forbes”. I say fittingly because Forbes, more than anyone, wrestled with the problems of a materialist poetics and, generally, refused to let his poetry sink into a kind of “Cultural Studies in Verse” a fate that would be, in its way, no better than “Journalism in Verse” – which he described as “the poet on the site of the significant”.

The final poem of this selected, “Park”, shows one useful technique. It takes what might be called a cultural phenomenon – the park – and approaches it from every imaginable angle (it’s a thirteen page poem) in a highly disjunctive set of short stanzas. You can appreciate what is going on. Anything more coherent is immediately describable as a method involving assumptions. To begin with material about the park’s Persian origins might be historicist or, even worse, positivist. To investigate its changing relevance would be anthropological or, conceivably, political. To focus on the poet’s experience of parks would be lyric-poetical, and so on. The poem delicately skips from perspective to perspective preventing the reader too easily pigeonholing it while, at the same time, suggesting that its subject escapes all of these limited perspectives.

Another poem, “Floors”, uses a technique which will prove fruitful in The Sweeping Plain. Firstly it personifies the subject:

With no pretentiousness they bear us.
It is no concern of theirs what we propose to do,

or do. They stand us,
mimic earth’s pull, hold us to it.

Flat rejections do not trouble them;
indifference cuts no ice.
. . . . .

Secondly it provides a kind of perspective that is logical but disorienting, as though it were that of a man from Mars. It is the effect familiar to us from childhood in sayings like “A chicken is an egg’s way of producing another egg.” This is really an inversion of the age-old fellow-traveller of poetry, the riddle. One could, in fact, rewrite “Floors” as a riddle: “What am I? I carry you but do not concern myself with what you do or propose to do . . .” In History “Past” and “Juice” operate this way and another poem, “More Characters of Jokes” extends the technique. Here a world is built out of texts:

. . . . .
World of Make Believe,
where blondes and turtles
are both screwed on their backs;
where Essex girls with half a brain are gifted;
Polish goldfish always drown;
the Reverend Spooner counts his phoney bucks,
. . . . .

And like the world of “Floors”, “Past” and “Juice” it is a world we recognize but which is not the ordinary world. This is a breakthrough for Sharkey and sets The Sweeping Plain up as a book which will have a far higher number of successful poems than any of his previous ones.

To return to the first poem of History for a moment – the one in which the fighter-bomber crashes in a generally uninterested landscape – it is worth noting that, in its last lines, it humorously misquotes Paterson: “There was movement all along the railway station / at Uralla, when the afternoon train came”. Similarly the title of this new book is a slight misquoting of Dorothea Mackellar’s much misunderstood “My Country”. It is hard not to suspect that “the sweeping plain” refers not so much to landscape as to poetic method and there are a host of ways of construing it. Perhaps the sweeping (noun) will be plain (adjective) (a construction that recalls “And the rough places plain” from The Messiah) or, equally, all transcendent gestures will fall before the sweeping (adjective) ordinary – the plain (noun). Whatever is intended, the book is also accompanied by a noteworthy cover which contains the entry which one second prize in the 1911 competition to design Australia’s capital city. I hope I don’t seem overheated when I say that this design – by the Finn, Eliel Saarinen – looks to me like an Art Deco expansion of Auschwitz. The function of this cover is, I assume, multilevel – like that of the title. It provides us with a nightmare image of the site of our government (and social engineering) but it also reminds us that one way of looking at the poems in this book is to see them as providing an unexpected perspective on the familiar, to turn the ordinary into a vision of itself seen from an unexpected angle – though always, of course, in the same plane.

The title poem sets out to do this – in the way I have been describing for the last poems of History.

War is what they do well, whether winning,
when the fresh-baked teenage veterans’ toothy grins
appear in snaps beside guess who,
between his photo-ops in stadiums,

or making sure that corners of some country
far away are full of heroes:
they are magic at such moments.
When they’re choosing to ignore the bleeding obvious,

they do that well, as well, and blame some other
who has let the whole team down.
. . . . .

and so on through fourteen brilliant and very funny four-line stanzas. One of the problems of this faux-riddle structure is, of course, that there is only one answer and this, if not handled by the author with a strong sense of how much the reader will understand, can lead to readerly anxiety. For most of this poem, the subject could be Americans as much as Australians and, even by the end, I have the slightly nagging doubt that the subject may not be “Australians” but “Australian men”. Most of the poems in The Sweeping Plain handle this issue (wherein the poet has to trust the reader) well. When we get to the five-poem sequence called “The Nations”, there is not too much doubt as to which country is which: first Germany

These people, as we know, admire music.
Their composers are required to drink coffee,

steal each other’s wives, turn fairy tales to operas,
and provide the world with clichés.

They’re renowned for spending all their lives just thinking.
Once, they worshipped spirits of the forests;

now, they keep the trees in line.
. . . . .

then France (“These people plant reactors on the borders / of their neighbours and consider this esprit”); then England (“The native population is one thousand, all descended from / Somebody. Nobody is all the other fauna”); then Australia (“Apology is next to apoplectic in their word-book. // Little of the country past the beach is known by heart: / the centre’s stone”) and finally, America, where the inhabitants are described as pursuing an ideal existence that can be found only in bad television:

. . . . .
They attempt to be as beautiful as humans,
but are dogged by rotten luck, bad hair and headaches.

They drive cars into a desert, conjure dust,

They take up sport and hurt their feet.

It is a rich mode if it is done well – as here. Or in “The Travellers in the Teach Yourself Books” where a world is made up out of the phrases used in the Teach Yourself language learning series. This world is familiar (if virtual) and reflects our needs and concerns, though often with unusual and comic emphases:

. . . . .
At first they’re well, until they lose their luggage
and have difficulty buying masks and telegrams,
umbrellas, two more pens, a handsome fish,
a pair of swimming trunks,
suspenders and a can of gasoline.
. . . . .

When they don’t work so well the failure, I think, revolves around the issue of solvability. So in “Wine”:

I was in my late teens when I met you,
Though I’d seen you at the edge of things before.

You were Claret then, in casual dress
In a two-quart flagon.
. . . . .

the jokes are just too easy and obvious and the whole poem seems to be a working out of a rhetorical strategy that doesn’t sustain our engagement with it. In “Sleep” however, the opposite occurs. It is worth quoting in full:

Better in here than the fantasy realm
Of interest, output, demand.

Sudden things happen and pass, and are no way connected:
Silent doors open and shut upon rooms with more doors.

People give chase or are hunted by strange moving shapes.
Here to act is to think.

Sex is a play where no guilt or remorse ever darkens the script.
People converse in the tones of a Nielsen quartet.

Everyone plays at behaving
Like people who never have dreams.

There’s no Larousse for each dish that is served in this trance:
A café sign announces Cordon Blur. And so it is.

Children have toys that can talk, and they watch
As black columns of smoke embrace towns.

When people die they are beautifully slain with their loves
And entombed face to face.

I hope it isn’t my stupidity that finds this a difficult poem. Difficulty is usually bracing and something to be expected in poetry but I’m not sure it can be sustained too easily in the kind of poems that this book is experimenting with. It begins by saying that the waking world (“of interest, output, demand”) is a fantasy world, unlike the world of sleep. The next three stanzas seem the describe the world of dreams (not at all the same as sleep) but their sinister language of doors and pursuit looks as though it could apply (or be intended to apply) to the corporate world. So instead of being given a description of the world of dreams (in the manner of the world of the Teach Yourself books’ dialogues), we are given a description of the “real” world which makes it seem the same as the world of dreams. I think. The issue I suppose is whether the doubt we have about the exact nature of the world of discourse – something that usually attracts us in poetry – is deliberate here and, if it is, is it tenable?

My favourite poem in the book is “The Advantages of Daughters” which appeared three years ago in The Best Australian Poetry 2003 (wrongly titled, in the acknowledgments of this book, as The Best Australian Poems 2003). Here the familiar world of parents and daughters is made constantly funny by sharply different perspectives. The essential standpoint is, again, that of the of the man from Mars (a realistic description of most parents as seen by their children) but the generalizations shift like a kaleidoscope:

. . . . .
And in their charity they help their parents comprehend
Postmodern sex, when parents come home early and discover daughters

Deep in exploration of their sexual orientation with the local pastor’s help,
Undressed and tantric on the lounge room floor. Don’t ask.

(I once held a class that used this poem – amongst others – and found my students shocked because they had read “help” as “assistance” rather than “assistant” a misreading that might have provoked a long disquisition on intended meaning, misreadings and riddles and jokes in poetry. We were spared by the clock.) Some of “The Advantages of Daughters” is fairly standard humour – only a level or two above a comedian’s spiel – but, at its best, as in these closing lines, it transcends this suggesting perhaps that the nightmare vision it elaborates is not much more that the paranoid fantasy of the father of a young girl:

Their men are hopeless, always waiting
For the right job, as if anyone needs jobs, they say and grin at you,

While noting how your eyes say Go and die a long slow death,
But somewhere else. It isn’t that they love to torment women (and they do),

But that one day, when writs are flying (and they will be),
That sweet child the monster’s with now might imagine you approved.

At present, in the playground, where the child is eating ice-cream
And reflecting on the compliments the people in the Indian ice-cream

Shop serve with the ice-cream (seven flavours: mango, cardamom,
Pistachio . . . Banana best of all she says, definitive), the clouds come

Hauling shadows through the park, where pigeons glide
Among the nikau and a possum snores contentedly in daylight,

And the wind is in unequalled form, as fathers look abstracted,
Now and then observing how the arms and eyes etcetera make a daughter.

Are there any examples of a more conventional lyricism in The Sweeping Plain? Yes, there are, but as in the case of later Forbes it is a lyricism often driven by the absence of a loved one. Thus words and images, instead of making transcendental gestures, try and fail to make up for lack of presence.

The darkness of the house returns;
you’re gone;
the fire’s low.
The wattle blossoms hung with ice,
the snow-filled yard remain.
The bell that tolls across the city
tolls my best thoughts of you
far from me.

The only real exception to this is the final poem, “Ghosts”:

I come back,
a ghost of twenty years
to haunt these places
I have been in.

Ice hangs off my lips,
air’s thick with mist;
the brown earth
disappears in clouds.

In twenty years
the wind will move dead leaves,
the birds will sing,
their parents, ghosts.

This is a poem about presence but, of course, it is presence in the form of a revenant. It feels as though the concrete reality of the place (established in the poem which precedes it, “High Country”) diminishes the reality of the visitor who is, any way, meshed in the usual animal processes of breeding and then moving off stage. It is an odd poem to put last unless its message is that we should trust the sweeping plain of reality rather than the poets who haunt it in such a provisional way. Interestingly it also appears in a 1984 book, The Way It Is, (different only in that there the title is “I Come Back”) but is not included as one of the selected poems in History. Perhaps Sharkey intends to include it in cycles of twenty years and History (2002) came a little early. The Sweeping Plain, by this reckoning, is three years late.

David Malouf: Typewriter Music

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007, 82pp.

Reviewers of this new book of poems by David Malouf have spoken of the gap of twenty-seven years between it and the earlier First Things Last, as though Malouf had been in a kind of poetic wilderness and had, now an old man, returned to his first love. In doing so they have, of course, neatly omitted the thirty-odd poems that come at the end of the 1992 Selected Poems (UQP). But that doesn’t stop a reader still going looking for continuities between Typewriter Music and First Things Last. And we should expect continuities given Malouf’s insistence on seeing the phenomena of existence (including, presumably, poems) more as parts of a continuum than in self-contained species (or genres).

Initially we want to say, of course, that all these poems inhabit the same universe: the universe of dream-realities, music, breath, transformation and mysterious and often homely angels who slide from one world to the next with equivocal annunciations: a universe that we need, increasingly, to call Maloufian. We meet different aspects of it in almost all of Malouf’s poems, of course, but from this new book a little poem,“Ombrone”, will serve as an example:

Of trees their lucent shadow
on water, each leaf

remade, tumultuous drops
of light coalescing.

To be at once
in two minds and the crossing

made without breaking
borders, this

the one true baptism, flames
by water

undoused, and sound by silence,
each rinsed leaf stirred

by a giant’s
breathing, deep underground.

Watching the reflection of leaves in the river provokes a meditation about living in two worlds and the crossing is made by immersion (baptism) rather than opening a door. It is an effortless crossing that celebrates the act rather than focusing on the existence of a threshold. A magical state is reached in which the water does not douse the flames of the autumnal leaves and the underwater silence does not quiet the rustling that the air version of the leaves has. The work of a great many poets is built around two-world binaries: life and art, experiment and tradition, free verse and formal verse, and so on, but Malouf is consistently concerned with the interpenetration of these binaries, the kind of effect we get when we look out of a window and see our own image interpenetrate the landscape. “Ombrone” isn’t, however, an entirely comfortable poem (at least in my reading) because it goes on to ask what, in the reflected world, causes the movement of the leaves. The final stanza provides a kind of answer perhaps by deduction or even by intuition. This introduction isn’t really the place to go hammering out whether the giant is simply a more sinister inhabitant of the other world or whether he represents a kind of geological underlay for the culture of the region, seen in what Malouf calls “the long view” of history, a perspective that drastically foreshortens evolutionary time. I simply want to make the point that we ourselves, reading Malouf’s poetry, re-enter a familiar though mysterious world.

This raises the first of a series of questions that, regrettably, I’m not really able to answer. Is the Maloufian universe present in the first poems of his first book? If we asked the author this, I suspect he would say that the seed of this view of the world is present in “Interiors” and Bicycle and that the later books should be seen not as a detailing and exploiting this world but rather discovering what is happening as it evolves. At any rate, one possibly minor but still intriguing continuity between First Things Last and Typewriter Music can be found in a sense of syntactic play. For all the splendour of those late odes in First Things Last, (“Ode One”, “An Die Musik”, “Ode”) there is just the slightest touch of flaccidity about them. They give the impression that they draw the energy that sustains them from an implicit and friendly nod of agreement from the reader – they deploy the word, “we”, in a way that suggests this. But the final poem, “Ode: Stravinsky’s Grave”, is really rather different, not least in the way, when it speaks of “we”, it means two precise individuals: the poet and his companion. Above all, it is full of puns and sly jokes which rely on syntax and enjambment. Unlike the other odes, which seem to be aspiring to “the longer breath / of late works”, here the lines are short and choppy and hence play against the syntax in a quite dissonant way – recalling Stravinsky himself, I suppose, who is, musically, a long way from late Schubert. Take the poem’s middle section:

                    We stay among the dead,
observing how the twentieth century
favours the odd
conjunction and has made

strange bedfellows. (Not all of us
would rejoice at the last trump
to discover we’d been laid
by Diaghilev). The parting

bell tolls over us,
and those who can, and we
among them, re-embark.
The weather’s shifted

ground so many times
in minutes, it might be
magic or miracle and you the day’s
composer as you are

the century’s, though at home among
immortals. We go back
the long way via the dead
silence of the Arsenal, its boom

raised, its big guns open
-mouthed before the town
.       . . . . .

Of course there is nothing worse than explaining jokes but “laid” and “boom” are punned on and the line break after “dead” means we temporarily read the sentence wrongly but in a way that makes sense: we go back past the dead. Since a double meaning of sorts is created this too is a pun. You don’t meet much of this playfulness in the poems at the end of the two selected poems of 1991 (A&R) and 1992 (UQP), perhaps because they are very much poems about local places: Campagnatico and Brisbane, but you do meet some very odd syntax that would repay careful studying. How, for example, could a great poet like Malouf tolerate a piece of stuffy neo-classicism like “as a spyglass finds when sun with dry thatch meddles” – not apparently intended as comic pastiche? And what on earth do these lines from “A Place in Tuscany” mean:

                between deaths

the coffin-maker croons,
from the same plank fashions
beds; in time these few
unchanging things assume
a village street is peopled,
as year after year and down through
the same names called

as night comes on and planets
hang  . . . . .

Our knowledge of Malouf’s poetry enables us to see that the word “assume” is used not as a synonym for “presume” but in the meaning of “take on” so that the recurring bedrock experiences of Tuscan life are – when seen from that foreshortened perspective that Malouf loves – gradually covered in progressively more civilized forms. But it is not a sentence that I could parse with any confidence.

The first poem of Typewriter Music, “Revolving Days”, is playful but not especially unusual syntactically. Recalling a lover of his youth, Malouf hastens to assure him No, don’t worry, I won’t appear out of that old time to discomfort you. And no, at this distance, I’m not holding my breath for a reply. All readers of Malouf will know of his obsession with the contiguity between different worlds. In itself this is not an uncommon idea – it may well the basis of most modern science-fiction – but Malouf is distinctive in his attempts to reduce the significance of the threshold, to argue that a spectrum of worlds exists and the act of crossing is not in itself especially important. Generally he is not a “dramatic” writer in that he doesn’t exploit the uncanny effect of sudden appearances from another dimension – such as happens in the first book of the Iliad when Athene appears behind Achilles, unseen by everyone else, and grasps him by the hair (surely a reference to the spine-tingling effects either of the numinous or, in my reading, the existence of a creature from the different dimension). And yet there are great dramatic moments in An Imaginary Life, especially when the centaurs appear in a dream, demanding to be let into Ovid’s life. In “Revolving Days” Malouf is visited by an image of himself from the past and knows that his lover of that period must be in the next room. It is a wittier and much more sophisticated poem than it would be if the lover stepped through a door to the past and confronted him: instead Malouf assures the lover that he will not be making any sudden incursions into the lover’s current world “to discomfort you”, Malouf himself will not act the part of one of the homely angels that we meet so often in Malouf’s world. I think this is a quite brilliant and unexpected inversion.

Many of the poems in the first dozen pages of the book are about love. “Moonflowers” is a good example and could, conceivably be a gloss on “Revolving Doors”

Gone and not gone. Is this
garden the one
we walked in hand in hand
watching the moon
-flower at the gate

climb back into our lives
out of winter bones - decades
of round crimped candescent
origami satellite-dishes
all cocked towards Venus?

One garden opens
to let another through, the green
heart-shapes a new season holds
our hearts to like the old.
The moonflower lingers

in its fat scent. We move
in and in and out of
each other’s warmed spaces -
there is
no single narrative.

And we like it that way,
if we like it at all, this
tender conceptual
blue net that holds, and holds us
so lightly against fall.

It is a small, wonderful poem and very enjoyable to get to know. It is not at all portentous but says a lot. And one could speak at great length about the syntactical playfulness that is going on inside it. I don’t want to state the obvious here but at the end of the first stanza it is only the hyphen on the next line that prevents us reading that the moon (noun) flowered (verb) at the gate. Similarly the word “climb” at the opening of the second stanza shows us that “at the gate” is a prepositional phrase modifying the noun “moon-flower” rather than the verb “flower” ie is adjectival not adverbial. And then there is the third stanza which is, initially, quite disorienting because the syntactic shape is not immediately obvious: it is the new season which, like the old, holds our hearts to the green heart-shaped buds that come with the season’s new incarnation. And then there are the little games: in the first stanza the first “in” modifies “walked” and the second is part of the phrase “hand in hand” but, put together, it enables the writer to write “in hand” twice. You get the same effect in the fourth stanza were, although it is perfectly good English, Malouf can write a line made up of minuscule words: “in and in and out of”.

There are two issues here. The first is the question of whether this is new in Malouf’s work. I think it is, although it is possible that there are some less well-known poems from earlier books that do something similar. The second is the question of why it is being done. This is a bit harder but my own feeling is that this play is a way of generating energy for the poem. We are not in the mimetic free-verse tradition where the shape of the poem, in ways either sophisticated or banal, mimics something in the subject. I think we are in a world where the poem derives energy from this play – but it is a much more sophisticated energy than the kick-along given verse by regular enjambment. Conceivably there are more sophisticated answers: Perhaps the solution is a superior kind of mimesis in that in a universe where borders are less significant than a process of continuous transformation, the objects too should be slightly ambiguous, as though they were seen simultaneously from different perspectives or as though they could be verbs as well as nouns. Criticism of Malouf’s body of poetry will have to get a long way along before we can really be sure what is going on here.

In these first poems, “Typewriter Music” introduces us to the typewriter which, like the bicycle of Malouf’s first full book, is an angel in the form of a strange and spidery machine and “First Night” is a love poem about the morning after. It comes with a theatrical reference in the title and a strong focus on continuity:

. . . . .
                                                  It is always
                    a high room we climb to. The pears
might be garden tools, the laundry hay, the ironing board an angel
     disguised by birthday wrappings; the same
          breath goes out, not always visible,
to join them.

It also reminds us that the most commonly repeated significant word in this collection is “breath”, a concept that needs quite a bit of analysis. “First Night” is not unlike “Recalled” in that both deal with the moment of wakening with the lover in the morning – the middle ages devoted an entire genre, the aubade or morgenlied, to this. And there is an echo of Tristan here, and in an odd poem, “As It Comes”, in the sense that day is a rather brusque (oede) affair compared with the experiences (and perspectives) of the night. Again, there is a “joke” in the syntax of the last stanza of “Recalled”:

. . . . .
We move towards waking,
break clear of the spell
whose moonlit skin contained us
sleeping, love-making,
into stretch, into flow again,

reincarnate, as shy
by day, the rare night creatures
we turned to in each other’s
arms go padding
away in our blood.

That they turn “to in” is the inverse of what we want or expect to read – “into in”. One boundary has been broken – each turns into a night creature – but the poem is written so that the individuals experienced their new identity as they see it in the other. Not a funny joke but, like the inversion of “Revolving Days” an enriching and complexifying piece of play.

In my reading of Typewriter Days, this first section of the book concludes with two poems that are about flying. One, “Flights”, tells us as much in its title, and is made up of a poem about taking off, a poem about going for a joyflight and a poem about arriving. If one wanted to enter full, speculative hermeneutical mode, one might guess that the state of the joyflight, that of spinning but not necessarily getting anywhere spatially, is a symbol of the kind of playful elements in the poetry that I have been speaking of. Fittingly the poem is one sentence, full of syntactic swoops and swirls with a trick enjambment at the end of the second last stanza:

A light plane loop-the-looping
over sallow hills, all
its rivets snugged in

and singing; its beaten thin
quicksilver skin beaded
with cloud-lick, its hollow

spaces a brimful hum,
the pressure inside
and out in an equilibrium

true as the laws
of this world allow, a new
nature in the nerve-ends

reached or recovered, in
the shallows of the skull,
and the tilt, as they right themselves,

of road, fence, powerline,
horizon, a draft
of the way things are and were

to be, the long view still
breathtaking as earth
bumped in after the spin.

The second poem, “Millenium”, is about the planes launched into the twin towers and seeks to balance despair with “the ordinary comfort // of loaves / and a rising”. This public subject is coated in obliquity (including an allusion to Eliot’s “Little Gidding”) so dense that it takes the reader a while to orient himself, to realize that the “dusty text” is a copy of the Qur’an somewhere in a madrasseh in Pakistan and the shoe is that of the “shoe-bomber”:

The fire that starts in a dusty text in one part of the globe
is a shoe that flies to pieces in another

The angel’s song caught like a wish-bone in the throat

Unspooled and spilling
in the dark, quicksilver jump-cuts tilt and scurry

Hands folded in prayer

Wings of the metal dove that without preamble slides its thunder
into head after glassy head

Four of the next five poems, “Like Our First Paintbox”, “”˜Poetry Makes Nothing Happen’”, “Reading Late at Campagnatico” and “Making” are about creativity and the status of the created object, a thing “which Nature had not thought / to add but once / there cannot do without”. At the centre of this group is an odd poem, “At The Ferry”. The poet, accompanied by sinister voice comes to the end of the ramp to the ferry:

. . . . .
Close by, either
behind or close ahead,
damped in the dampened air,
music. “This is
the last thing you will hear,” the stranger
whispers. His last word.

I stand and listen.
approaches. A silence approaching music.

It is really hard to get a grip on the situation here. On the surface it reads like an invitation to suicide, a kind of rewriting of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. The point would then be that the refusal to suicide is based not on the call of “promises to keep”, that is, of the social world which words deal with, but of the world of artistic creativity. I think an early line “I come with empty pockets” could be read as a warning that this is not the intended meaning – “I don’t come, like Virginia Woolf, with pockets filled with stones.” And the poem’s setting amongst this group of poems about creativity suggests that we should read it as one of those liminal experiences – land projects into water, silence meets music – from which poems arise. But I can’t help being struck by the last two lines – they use the kind of playfulness I find throughout this book to do something sophisticated. “A silence approaching music” means, first, that there is a silence which is almost musical in its intensity (an echo of the opening of “Ode: Stravinsky’s Grave”), but since the silence also approaches the speaker, it can suggest that music (whose location the poem keeps deliberately vague) is present in the speaker. It is not unlike that clever ambiguity in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, where the “solemn imagery” of the mountains is received “into the bosom of the steady lake”. On the surface, “bosom” is metaphorical but there is an implied second meaning where “lake” is metaphorical: the landscape is taken in, simultaneously, by both boy and lake and thus, by implication, the location they share is each other.

The next six poems also make a little structured group. A translation from Latin is followed by a translation from Rimbaud and is followed by a poem with a medieval setting and then the trio is repeated. The first is a set of seven translations of Hadrian’s “Animula vagula blandula” called “Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian”. Of course it is seven versions of Hadrian’s last words (which is a nineteen word poem) rather than his seven last words. It is a small joke but it does make us look for the actual last word of Hadrian which turns out to be “iocus” – joke. The last of these poems, “Psalter”, is about the way in which a text has a complicated history – of invasion and then settlement – behind it. It represents a kind of door to an historical world but it also enables Malouf to do here what he does in the next poem – the eight part “The Long View” – which is to take a compressed view of history. Seen from an almost infinite distance, history gets squashed so that we can discern its outlines better. And these outlines can be patterns of repetition as well as evolution. The first of these is “Straw”:

To be spun out of gold
into gold. In summer fields
temples, pyramids,

in the swallow’s bill mud-makings
of empire. A flute
for the god’s mouth leading

bare feet down
from trampled light to chambers
centuries underground.

The process whereby seeds produce plants which produce more seeds as well as straw is, in the “long view” no more than straw producing straw, though the allusion to Rumpelstiltskin ensures that we find the connection between straw and gold to be not unexpected. And in these fields buildings blossom in fast motion as do religious beliefs.

This long view of history can produce evolutions which become so quick that they are not far from being doors in their own right. In “Moment: Dutch Interior” seven brief stanzas delineate that distinctive world of apparently solitary and absorbed subjects that marks out classic Dutch painting. It is full of “the specific / gravity of the moment” – that is both specificity and gravitas – and the

          radiance with which
she fills it.

The absence
of another. Of others.

But the final stanza, unusually dramatic for Malouf, reminds us that, in the long view, this quintessentially Western civilized interiority has evolved from a world of hunting:

Thin as
a sliver of glass
a shriek from an animal-trap sprung in the grass.

The long view may also be the perspective behind “Allemande” where civilization is represented as a dance but it is a dance in which the reflection of the dancers in the floor becomes an image of the “ghost legions / of the dead they will one day // augment”. So the present is seen as a version of the past from which it has evolved.

The last thirty or so pages of Typewriter Days is introduced by an imaginary eleven-page letter from Mozart to his librettist da Ponte. It is structured as a kind of cantata with three poems interspersed throughout the prose passages. The letter is a meditation on music and language cast as a defence of the music of Don Giovanni, Mozart and da Ponte’s “dramatic joke”, in which, at the climax, a semi-human angel of death appears to invite Giovanni to join him in his, the angel’s, world. Opera is a Maloufian obsession (he has been a librettist four times himself) and so the coat of an imaginary letter from Mozart to da Ponte is lightly worn: early on it speaks of the ordinary world as being made up of such distractions as “cats, clouds, cars, tears, opinions”. It begins by differentiating between music and words: the former an abstract, self-referential language but also an innocent one, the language of Eden before the fall; the latter the language of temporality and the world of things, events and narratives. But music, like the Gods, longs to enter the contingent world of humanity and out of this marriage of the two languages, opera is born. But Don Giovanni is not any old opera and Mozart’s letter goes on to speak of his desire to allow a third language to emerge, the language of a reality that pre-exists both music and words, the pitch “at which most of the universe exists, but I had to lower it a little, tease it out, translate it back into what is accessible to our human ears”. There is a wonderful description of Mozart’s pinching of the singer of Zerlina’s part (a moment in which this other “music” is heard) when the Don (a modern version of a roving-eyed Jupiter) is described as being shocked, as though a god “out of an older opera had cut in and stolen a march on him”. The work’s three poems are not easy but seem to represent, successively, the human desire to reach up to a transcendent world (our falling can be graceful); the desire of the natural world to become part of our “game”; and the way in which, in opera, the fictional and the real meet (or at least approach each other) on the stage leaving us with “news of transformation / – our own, and a tune to whistle / in the dark of the tomb.”

The other two poems of this last part of the book that call for some comment are the sequences “An Essay on Angels – the short version” and “Into the Blue”, the former made up of six poems and the latter, four. “An Essay on Angels” begins with first apprehensions and progresses chronologically from there. The first poem which begins:

Have never seen one but being
curious am always
on the lookout, as I was
in childhood for white horses. Those

I did see . . .

And logic tells us that the “those” can only refer to white horses while the poetic logic of the passage desperately wants us to equate it with angels. Even here we meet the playful syntax that is such a feature of this book when the third verse says:

Do I recall
the first, and having
before that none
to go by, how I knew it? Will I again?

This is a bit like Henry James with enjambments. But the crucial feature of this sequence is the way that these mystical annunciations of the ordinary extraordinary evoke sexuality. We begin to think, allowing our own thoughts to run along their rails, that you can’t really talk about other worlds, entering other universes, meeting angelic messengers and so on without talking about the erotic. The angel of the cryptic second poem could come from a renaissance painting but could also be a lover:

Restless. A haystack
of jubilant straws, muscle,
wingtip the fools

of flight. Restless. Eyelid
and nerve, all quick flame, curl,
ear-whorl, heel uplifted.

Stillness only
in the eye of this storm, as
subdued by gravity,

it weighs
the flesh and its surprises.
Attending on the world.

And the meeting with the angel in the fourth poem – no matter how uplifting the intention – is couched in the language of being picked-up:

half-kneeling to unlatch

his shoe, not even needing
to smile for you to get
the message, and no exchange
of names, just This

 is for you, I think . . .

Typewriter Music is disarmingly frank about love as experience (the fact that it opens with “Revolving Days” establishes this), but here eroticism is reduced to a kind of undercurrent as though it is yet another joke which po-faced readers may miss.

There is not much eroticism in “Into the Blue”, but it is about undercurrents, being one of those Malouf poems set in Deception Bay. In fact it recalls “Asphodel” from Neighbours in a Thicket in it’s desire to enter the water and experience the other which eventually became us. When it says of the bay, “Our limbs / emerged out of its salt”, there is an important meaning beyond the superficial one of finishing one’s swim:

. . . . .
When the moon blazed a track
     across it we were tempted. Only
our breath, only our need

for the next breath constrained us.
     It was our other selves
that tried it,

in sleep. And arrived
     safely. And never did
get back.

The second poem is a beautiful description of the perception of distance (between the local and the stars) simultaneously established and then dissolved when the speaker stamps on the wet sand and produces galaxies and the third poem, about rock pools, speaks the same language of the effortless and non-destructive crossing of a threshold that recalls “Ombrone” when it describes the surface as “glass you could put a fist through / unbloodied”.

Malouf is a great poet and Typewriter Music is a book worthy of his genius. Reading him is a potent and distinctive experience which can, oddly enough – and I doubt that I am the first to say this – mimic the very experiences that Malouf describes. For example we feel ourselves to be in a world which is familiar and distinctive but we are not confident that we know it exhaustively. There are always areas that we don’t feel entirely comfortable about – I could construct, for example, a nightmare in which I was faced with an examination question which said: “Describe the role played by, and evaluate the significance of, breath in Typewriter Music”. Sorry – the best I could do would be some incoherent notes delivered with a false show of confidence. There are also plenty of doors that lead to logical extensions of the ground plan of this world. At the same time we feel that the author is such a friendly and inclusive voice that his arm is always around our shoulders and he can’t really understand our problems: like someone trying to show you the face of Christ in a drawing of the clouds: since your incomprehension is incomprehensible all he can do is keep saying “Look, look.” But, whatever the difficulties and uncertainties, learning how to walk, no matter how unsteadily, in the Maloufian world, is a vital and essential experience for any reader.

David Brooks: Urban Elegies

Woodford: Island Press, 2007, 75pp.

On the surface (always a dangerous place to stand when facing poetry) the shape of David Brooks’s poetic career thus far looks reasonably clear. His first book, The Cold Front, was published in 1983 and felt deeply North-American. It seemed, at the time, to be a fairly straightforward example of the influence of poets like Merwin, Bly and Kinnell. There was cold everywhere as though snow was necessary to produce the near-stasis in the physical world that made meaning possible. After more that twenty years of apparent poetic silence (occupied with prose fiction with a generally Borgesian cast as well as non-fictional work) he produced, in 2005, Walking to Point Clear. The subtitle, “Poems 1983-2002″, staked a claim that the output of poetry had been continuous. Walking to Point Clear was a surprise in terms of its achievement: it is light years beyond his first book in both technique and sophistication. The settings were Australian – often the southern coasts of NSW – but it was still a book in love with cold, preferring night settings which highlight solitariness and silence.

The first of the two sections of this new book, Urban Elegies, “Living in the World”, is not so far from the poems of Walking to Point Clear though its title suggests more engagement with ordinary living and the poems have a deliberately rougher edge. The second section of Urban Elegies is, however, something else again. This is living in the world with a vengeance and replaces the poetry of stillness with white hot energy deriving from an immersion in the daytime world of work and life in the suburbs of Sydney. Here the influence is an Australian one: Bruce Beaver. The first of these elegies, “A Curse”, gets its drive from hatred and transmutes itself into a curse, drawing on one of language’s most ancient capacities:

The incomprehensible bastards next door
have sprayed poison
from one end of our garden to the other.
Apparently half a gallon of some
as-yet-to-be-identified pesticide
has been found preferable to a phone call or a five-minute visit
to ask if we might trim a vine.

It is not “God knows what was done to you” but it is still pretty impressive. The poem goes on to list the lost before mounting its curse.

The dwarf conifer, the box-bush,
the laurel, the basil and parsley,
the thyme and tarragon and oregano,
the chili plants, the galangal, the lemongrass, the six
proud native irises are all
withering before our eyes
and we can only guess as yet
about the earthworms, caterpillars, skinks,
crickets, praying mantises, slugs, slaters, snails,
or the fate of any birds that might have eaten
from this treacherous buffet.

It’s a fine passage: the list suggests naming is a way we grope for the dead using all the powers of pre-literate language. The idea of cursing, or making a spell, also taps in to this. And lists inside angry prose or poetry also have the subtle rhetorical effect of implying that the writer is so angry that he can’t produce anything structurally more sophisticated. The poem concludes by protecting itself from the charge that, compared with lost lovers, dead children, Milton’s blindness, Swift’s madness, the Fall of Troy and Hell, Heaven and Purgatory, the loss of some plants in a small suburban garden is, poetically, pretty small beer. It does this by reminding us of the symbolic significance of the garden:

Let this then be a curse upon them:
Let them continue to be
self-exiled from the earthly heaven.
Let them never find
such a garden within themselves.
Let there at least be poetic justice.
Let them never understand such
fury, such sadness as this.

The sheer sophisticated animation of this poem is what makes it magical. It seems so far from the careful lyricism of the earlier books as to almost be written by a different poet. We finish Urban Elegies hungry for more of the same in this new, open, engaged and, above all, passionate, mode.

And yet, and yet. Since the new is always related to the old, one wants to look again at the earlier two books to see how accurate one’s first responses were. And when this is done, The Cold Front turns out to be a more individual work than it seemed at first blush. Yes it is built on a style deriving from Kinnell, Bly, Merwin et al and yes it does prefer the elemental symbolism of night, cold and darkness – as though meaning in poetry occurs as the material of the poem approaches stasis – but it is a book full of poems that can now be seen as very much in line with the later work: that is, as what we will have to call “Brooksian”. Many of the poems share a sense of trauma enacted against a backdrop of a forbidding world of darkness. The trauma though seems to be not so much psychic as domestic: the title poem, for example, speaks of “the long conversations / with pain in the final sentences”.

The most Kinnell-like of them, “One of the Last Nights”, begins in the darkness

On one of the last nights
I rise
from the bed where I have waited,
from the pillow where I have fled
. . . . .

but concludes with affirmation:

I come to the river
down the precipitous bank
and I kneel
and drink deeply, lifting
the dark water from its foil of stars.
It is all there: moments
rear in an emptiness,
light is wrung from the dying.

It is all there: the river
tearing itself to whiteness
over the snags.

Yes it is portentous and rather stagey but it embodies the essential stance of these poems: light from darkness. Sometimes the process is inverted. In “Wheatfield”, which begins “After the argument, the blood’s / blind clutch”, a bird of the night crosses the golden field:

Behind me a night-hawk
from a jack-pine, circles
and flaps westward
jagged under Orion

leaving how much
amidst the ripening,

how much
on this dry
stump, cracked to its roots, the rings
of all its years
burst open?

Again, it is a slightly creaky, staged symbolic scene but there is a lot to be said for these last lines which, instead of describing how the shadow of the Angel of Death touches odds and ends as it passes, asks ambiguously how much it leaves: that is – as I read it – how much death it leaves and how much it passes untouched.

These poems want to move towards affirmation. Affirmation only works when we feel, as readers, that it is hard won. The rest is just fakery. The Cold Front manages to convince me, at least, of its integrity though I am not sure that I can remember its having done so on first reading and I am not sure that many of the poems will appear in a Brooks Selected Poems. Affirmation here does not extend beyond the minimal opportunities offered a number of things: by poetry,

. . . . .
now by shardlight,
by rags of the song,
by spray
still clinging to the lifted thigh

by family, by recognizing mortality and by being connected. As one of the later poems says:

. . . . .
I go out
into the middle of a field
and the stars
like the old philosophers
are silent

I plunge my shovel
into the soil I stand upon
and the house of my life continues.

The final poem of the book, “The Swineflower”, offers us an interestingly grotesque image of the poet, as a pig-like devourer of experience producing out of his own mortality sufficiently fertilized ground to generate “the carnivore orchid”, the swineflower of poetry.

The best of the poems, “On Durras Beach”, contains all these features: a state of psychic disturbance, a glance at the domestic situation (which might or might not be related – the light of the lover’s eyes is, at any rate, not accessible to the speaker) and a powerful sense of mortality. Only the existence of a poem and the infinitesimally small light of the fire act as counterbalances:

Another night,
again the moon, self-hugged, self-eaten,
rolling imperceptibly deathward.

I stoke a small fire on the beach
with driftwood and the gnarled
roots of my sleeplessness

and watch the wind
weave through the flames
the dark tongues of the cosmos.

Night-long the waves
gnaw Durras sand, reaching
for the clump-grass, the lip of our yard, the house

where you lie sleeping, arms
furled in the emptiness, eyes clutching
their invisible parcels of light, and I

in vain here watching,
asking what light there is
from driftwood, knowing only

this poem, only this sound
of beachfire
as it burns on into the darkness

and that self-hugged, self-eaten,
binding what shore we can
we roll deathward, while the faint stars shine.

It is important to register that in this generally inward-turned book, there is a section – the fourth – devoted to what might be called poems of engagement. It is as though, this early, Brooks also desires an outward looking poetry. The tone of this section is established by the first poem, a translation of Milosz’s “Campo di Fiori” in which the writer thinks of the burning of Giordano Bruno in Rome (and the way the citizenry returned to the normal processes of pleasuring the flesh) on a beautiful day in Warsaw in 1943 when the sounds of the carnival drown out the shots from the ghetto.

This section contains “The Magi” a kind of inversion of, or answer to, Eliot’s poem. Here the magi return but find themselves out of sorts in a world where great changes are slowly happening. Again it is stagey, but that doesn’t reduce the sudden shock of the section where they come across a village completely frozen in mid-action (almost like Sleeping Beauty’s palace). The quality of this image, and its symbolic significance, could almost act as an introduction to Brooks’s prose fictions. Above all, what makes “The Magi” worth rereading is the certainty that, at the conclusion, the speaker is the poet himself, lamenting that, in a world which has undergone vast changes, he speaks only of himself:

It seems the air
lamenting in the empty traps.

It seems
the light
like manna on the fields.

Slowly, slowly
it is happening
the resistance
the rising
the cohesion of husks.

If only a firm, clear line
could enter from the nearest thing

or we could be
less like the cuckoo
in leafless vines
singing its own song regardless.

The final poem of this section, “The Horsemen” opens suitably apocalyptically:

From the far end of the bible
four men ride out
through the burdock
in the vacant lot off Phoebe Street.

and goes on to affirm the need for poetry to face up to its responsibilities:

we should have said
without action
there can be no true adoration

we should have explored
the full possibilities of language
which include responsibility

risking harshness
risking poetry
risking ultimate simplicity

but we had been sitting
too long by ourselves in the sunset
and a great distance was leaning from everything

as if
while we slept
the hooves could go without answer
. . . . .

Well this is harsh and simple but I resuscitate it to make the point that Brooks has these issues on his agenda as early as the poems of his first book.

Walking to Point Clear is, as I said, light years beyond The Cold Front in terms of poetic sophistication. It, too, has five sections though I suspect the poems are generally arranged chronologically. It begins in strict lyrical mode, relying on luminous yet open conclusions. But, since the poems are written with a gorgeous responsiveness to syntax we meet the effect – familiar in good lyrics – of the shape of the sentence closing down at the very instant that the meaning opens out. “Waking, Lumeah Street” is a good example:


the sound
of traffic
on the far margins
a high, thin wind
herding the night clouds

as I move about the house
I can hear a tap dripping,
passing through a neighbour’s pipes

and if I stand
stock still
the soft sound
of my daughter’s breathing

with my eyes closed
the sound of the blood
flowing down its ancient corridors

oceans without end.

One sentence (or conceivably two: there is a syntactic break at the end of “clouds” in the second stanza), a single comma to prevent an ambiguity, and a lovely shape that descends through the pattern of its own meaning. And that meaning moves from the carefully noted particulars (in Brooks’s poetry the senses become more acute as the scene moves towards stasis) out in a double direction so that the individual’s blood is both part of the huge salt water world of all the oceans past and present and, at the same time, all the genetic history contained in any individual.

This kind of accomplished lyricism is at the heart of Walking to Point Clear (whose title nicely suggests that each poem moves in its syntax towards a point of clarity) and one could cite any number of examples. In “Possum” the creature introduced in the title is never mentioned but is a solution to a kind of riddle:

. . . . .

beating a huge
                              cyclone fence
coming closer

no such fence for miles

It’s a homely and unambitious sort of poem but then so is its subject. So, for that matter, is the subject of “Bush-Mouse”:

raider of cupboards and open drawers,
skater across polished floorboards, relentless
worrier of barricades, gnawing itself bloody
for the skerricks of humans, the bush-mouse
likes Easter eggs, pistachio nuts, tubes
of Deadant, the cardboard and plastic
of tack-packets, parcels of screws,
but, most of all - true
bastard of Irish
convict stock - potatoes, new
potatoes, small
and round
and hard enough
to hold in its determined paws
and crunch as, intently, passionately, ears
cocked wide for a movement from the bedroom,
it stares out of the window at the giant moon.

The opening at the end here is visual. One could allegorize it out as affirming that this small creature engaged in a continuous assault on the human world belongs to the class of natural phenomena – as does the moon. One could even, stretching things a bit, see the animal as the poet’s comic totemic beast (an inversion of the book’s first poem which establishes the owl as the poet’s totem), engaged in ordinary consumption but staring at the moon. But I think, without any evidence, that this is an attempt at an oriental lyric. The poem’s true tension is that between the conclusion and the finicky particularities of the mouse’s activities. These are expressed as a list (and a very homely list at that). There is also the tension of tones: something like “true / bastard of Irish / convict stock” is unlikely to turn up in a poem by Li Bei or Basho.

Walking to Point Clear is full of satisfying poems of this type. The tensions that make the poems live are rarely repeated and can be quite complex – “Mangoes” and “People Sleeping Beside Each Other in Their Beds” are good examples. And yet, running throughout the book is a note of worry about poetry itself and about what kinds of poetry should be written. In “The Sawmill” the idea is floated that poetry relates to living by being a daily activity much like cutting and stacking firewood:

. . . . .
I’ve done the same
in Vermont
twenty years ago
and here before with Bob, and Frank,
or by myself
in Westgarth or Lumeah Street
more times than I can remember
and will not say
that writing isn’t something like it
sawing each day
into different lengths
carrying them from one place to another
stacking them up
when people’s backs are turned

This might be called the Snyder-solution to the act of writing though it is significant that the poem still wants to exploit the possibilities of a surprise (and, in terms of meaning, fairly open) ending. Related to this are those poems which see words as objects – things to be handled in the normal processes of living. In “Back after Eight Months Away” two stanzas of living (moving back to a damp holiday house on the NSW southern coast) are followed by two stanzas which affirm that speaking is one of the acts of living and that the words used are objects and, like objects, have their own (albeit slightly solipsistic) sense of existence:

no point
in saying this - only
to say,
the cold syllables
as they pause at the mind’s tip

rain, silt
turning solid
as beach-pebbles, polished
and flawless,
dreaming only of themselves.

The poem most connected with these thoughts about the status of words and poetry is “The Cormorant / Elegy for R.F. Brissenden”. Elegies for poets always have an especial piquancy for writers since one of your own has gone before you into the darkness and been silenced. Brooks’s poem begins with a sly joke and an affirmation that words are objects and do not produce resurrections:

Words fail
or drown in darkness,
so much
goes without saying

here is grass
with the black showing through
here is mutton bird
with a cold wind
ruffling its wings
out of the mind’s reaches.

And it ends, five sections later, with the idea that the use of words is not so much a part of the dailiness of living with objects, but rather a defensive song in the dark as we hug ourselves to ourselves:

. . . . .
As if there were anything other
than being what we are

other than uttering
over and over
the sounds we make out of love for our being

saying bird, grass, night
as if they could actually be those things

saying here, saying now, saying this
in its thousand forms,
its hundred thousand forms,

“The Cormorant” is not an easy poem to get to grips with but, at least in my tentative reading, it connects the twentieth century’s old obsession of the gap between signifier and signified with death and with a depressed sense of the self as alone, as “singing the one-sided song”. But if words are not conduits to transcendence, this throws a lot of doubt over the status of those luminous endings of the conventional lyric model. Walking to Point Clear, in other words, worries about its own methods and the question of whether poetry points us down to our irreducible, inner selves or up towards the stars.

One solution is that of this new book, Urban Elegies. And that is to embrace the public sphere of poetry and leave the sensitive inner world (and its tendency towards a static solipsism) to shift for itself. It is worth noting that the first elegy occurs not in Urban Elegies but in Walking to Point Clear. “Depot Elegy” has all the features of the poems of the second half of Urban Elegies, including an opening line that infringes notions of linguistic decorum:

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

The poem goes on to become a meditation on extinction “devoured by such sudden parasites / (and I am one”). As with “A Curse” the energizing force is fury and just as in that poem fury produced a spat-out list, so in this poem it fractures style. In the first sentence the final word, “it” can only refer to a non-existent word “forest” – it should have been replaced by “them”. Deliberate or otherwise, it’s a good technique because it signals the anger of someone whose poetry is always shapely and whose prose is “lucid and elaborate”.

The first section of Urban Elegies is very much about visitations. Visitations play their part in the poems of Walking to Point Clear but they are often subsumed there into the canny structure of the lyric. Here the visitations are framed in rougher poems and there is no doubt that Brooks is experimenting with the idea of opening the poems to the force of the world rather than reducing the world to the point where it can provide a shapely conclusion for a poem. Does this strategy work? Generally yes. Although, in a sense, all of these poems (all poems) are about poetry, there are three here which are quite overt about it. One of them, “Golden Tongues”, deals with visitation in the form of poetry:

come and go like a once-
or twice-a-year season

four or five
in a rush
and then nothing

you think
they’re easy
and get careless

but then
you turn around
and the words aren’t there

as if you’ve had your chance at Pentecost
and blown it
and the golden tongues are gone

out of the blue
it happens again

rising out of nowhere
needing you for something - an errand - urgently

The second of these poems, “Ars Poetica”, opens the book and is a much more slippery affair. The visitants are birds, initially exuberantly misidentified by the poet:

When I woke first I imagined it was starlings
mid-demonstration on the galvanised roof,
a thick forest of chirpings,
claws like the scratching
of a thousand sharp pencils

then, waking again, thought
. . . . .

eventually they are fixed as rainbow lorikeets, significantly from Beaver’s suburb of Manly “covering the gum with raucous blossom / like a sudden daylight phosphorous, / turning the morning to a drunken boat”. The poem concludes with a student asking “What is poetry?” and the poet’s response is “I think of all the old things”. There are many ways of reading this conclusion: the old things might be anything from old theories rehashed for students to old poems by the same poet. Conceivably they are the old techniques of intense metaphor – something the poem is full of. I like to think, admittedly because it suits my argument, that the poem wants to distinguish between a scholar’s mechanical discussing of the nature of poetry with the violent, raucous visitation that represents poetry itself. In other words this is a poem that wants to experience visitation without thinking too much about it.

The final of this group of poems is the comic “Barnyard Revelation Poem”. The poet meets another poet (significantly described as “an academic poetician”) who objects to poems of revelation with a rural setting – “barnyard revelation poems”. The poem then launches into a pretty accomplished parody of the post-modern before asserting the essential basis of human experience:

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

Sometimes the visitations are unwanted or at least unpleasant. In a fine poem, “Head Lice”, the poet searches his school-age daughter’s scalp for lice when, with some very complex syntactic shifts, memories of the past intrude as well as an understanding of the central tragedy of parenthood that lurks as though in ambush:

. . . . .
     I run my fingers
through her fine, soft hair, searching it
strand by strand
to find nothing
but the occasional abandoned egg-case
clinging to the root,
or freckle
on the snow-white scalp
amongst my own sudden memories
of childhood on the Cotter River
or birch-trees in a Cleveland winter,
or, waiting in ambush, the fought-
back, un-
thinkable certainty
that such moments must end
all too soon now
and will never come again.

Sometimes the visitations are ecstatic and in “Continuance” they are recalled as arguments in defence of the world against the charge that the stretch of living ahead of us will be just as dreary and uncomfortable as the traversed plain of already-lived life behind us:

wasn’t it in February
that a great moon filled the garden half the night
with light so strong you could read by it?
wasn’t it September when the honeyeater
built in the vine outside the window
and the strange birds came
singing all day in the fig trees
and all the night also?
wasn’t it only a week ago, for reasons
you could not explain at the time
or even remember,
you turned, and smiled a particular
smile as you entered, and your face
and your hair smelt of rain?

There are plenty of visitations, too, in the “Urban Elegies” section of the book. “No Angel” deals with the doubled nature of visitations. An “I do this I do that” poem, it details the events of 11 September, 2003 – exactly two years after the best-known visitation from the air in modern times and eleven days into a new spring. In the central section the poet returns to his office

to face the usual menagerie
of thoughts and emails, visits
to my door: a few
gnats, some
beasts of burden, one
storm-damaged petrel,
no angel, no
panther yet.

This stresses the absence of Rilkean incursions but the poem concludes at night

A glass of wine, a meal, some
conversation - all in all
a good day, quiet enough: no
accident or injury, no
illness, no
phone-call in the heart of night, no
flood or
fire this time,
no death.

This is a reminder that the angel of inspiration, the angel that carries the message of the world and the angel of death all share the same celestial apartment.

The final elegy of Urban Elegies is also a visitation poem concerning itself with accidentally touching a live powerline. When a poet does it it might feel as though he had

     grasped a tendril of his Al-
mighty God
or at the very least connected, as
a television connects to the evening news,
to the entire seven-suburb grid of
sub-station 40C . . . . .

But when a flying fox does the same thing, the poem asks what kind of transcendent reality it connects with momentarily, what

grids and
networkings of night, what
chittering labyrinths of
tree and
air, what
soundless shrieks of
pain or
joy or
prophecy are

It is not an empty question because it asks whether this sort of transcendental visitation is a uniquely human experience. Flying foxes, as part of the natural world, are usually, in Brooks’s poems, visitors themselves disturbing humans in the case of the possums and bush-mice of earlier poems. In “Rat Theses” and “A Dog at Fifty” from this section of Urban Elegies, rats and dogs create a kind of modus vivendi with humans when we see parallels between them and us. But this poem, in asking about the consciousness of animals, does move away from the slight tendency to see the world as a grand abstraction whose function, from our point of view, is to inspire or crush us with its vast otherness. You get the feeling that this book may lead to a perspective whereby we are seen as animals among other animals.

Urban Elegies is a terrific book but it does need to be seen in the context of Brooks’s other work rather than as a breakthrough volume that renders the earlier poetry irrelevant. The question of the nature of poetry, its relation to our humanness and to speech, whether its correct stance towards the world should be passive or active, are issues that go back to Brooks’s earliest poems. I would rather see these new poems as exciting experiments in a productive mode rather than as a finally achieved style. They certainly experiment within the mode: “America: A Cigarette Ode” is in the style of comic exaltation just as “Andre Agassi Bows Out of the French open, 4th June, 2003″ is in the tone of comic despair. But, most of all, they manage to harness anger to make poetry while remaining receptive. It is no coincidence that the author’s portraits on the covers of the three books – an intelligent student, a thoughtful and sensitive scholar and a shaven-headed, angry man – while radically different are still recognizably the same person.

Dimitris Tsaloumas: Helen of Troy

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007, 99pp.

In Falcon Drinking (1988) and The Barge (1993), Dimitris Tsaloumas produced two of the most remarkable books in Australian poetry. He had arrived in Australia in 1952 at the age of thirty-one and settled in Melbourne. After a career as a Greek-Australian poet writing in Australia in Greek and publishing in Athens, he switched languages and began to write in his second language, Australian. The full effect of these first two books is hard to detail but has at least two components. Firstly there is a sensibility that is simply not Australian (at least not in any normative sense: since Tsaloumas is an Australian how can his sensibility be anything but Australian?).

It is not merely a matter of cultural references, or of the density and allusiveness of the Greek literary tradition that stands behind Tsaloumas and is imported willy-nilly into the poems, it is also a certain personal stance towards the world that seems if not “unAustralian” at least very unusual in Australia. Prickly, aristocratic (in the looser, not “class” sense), exiled, inclined to nostalgia (though resistant to it), contemptuous of much of the present, often unremittingly bleak, sometimes lavish – especially when celebrating the erotic or the onset of creativity – hieratic, formal etc etc are all valid components of this stance and yet don’t describe it fully.

The second component relates to language. Tsaloumas’ English has the sensitivity and fluency that is needed before anyone can write in a second language. That goes without saying – his work is that of a major poet. But it is a slightly unusual English as is, I suppose, that of Conrad and Nabokov. Take, for example, the opening of the first poem in the final section of this new book, Helen of Troy:

In childhood’s long-drawn days
I conceived ambitious schemes
soon lost, meshed with the night’s
general dreaming.

I love this idiom, but it is the slight strangeness of it that gives it much of its magic. What are “long-drawn” days? Are they days which are “long drawn out” or days in which the child spent his time drawing rather than making boats or days that the poet has often returned to and hence “drawn” regularly in his art? It is probably the first of these, at least as the initial meaning, but “long-drawn-out” is a pretty grotesque phrase ending in an unsatisfactory preposition and I like the verbal adjustment that most English language poets would not make – not because they don’t dare but because it would never have occurred to them. And then there are the ordinary ho-hum dreams that fill much of the theatre of our heads at night. Who would have thought of referring to this as “the night’s / general dreaming” where the power is not in the expressiveness or vividness of a metaphor so much as the unexpected quality of simple words? Tsaloumas’ English poetry is full of such surprises. The effect is like seeing one’s language from a slight angle and the results – if you are open-minded enough – are exciting.

Helen of Troy is Tsaloumas’ seventh book in English. It has much of the character of the earlier books, though I don’t think it reaches their heights. Falcon Drinking and The Barge were animated by two quite separate modes: the celebratory (lush) and the bleak (stony). In the poems the latter probably worked best because it seemed to fit into English language idioms more easily. After all

Winter was late in coming this year
but now he’s here, for good.

He’s settled in the lounge and rocks
like a Talmud scholar in his chair

legs wrapped in a blanket, stern.

was easier for someone new to Tsaloumas’ poetry to assimilate than was

Swan-tough, like a ship’s bow-scroll
heaving through saga mists
she came this autumn morning.

These two modes (and it would take a lot of work to determine exactly how themes were divided between them) no longer seems the generative core by the time of Helen of Troy. In the earlier books the lush was generally used in moments of genuine celebration of everything enjoyed in God’s creation. It was also used in the important Tsaloumas trope of the entrance (as in the three lines quoted above) but though there are plenty of entrances in Helen of Troy they are rarely unequivocally joyous events. True “A Song of Welcome” celebrates a new season but it is significant that the season is not spring but autumn. “Hung-Over” is more typical. Here we have a typical Tsaloumas entrance complete with inverted syntax so that the simile precedes the announcement of the identity of the visitor:

Walking gingerly like a girl
barefoot along the stony path
of vaulting withies and rank weeds,
I saw from my kitchen window
Hope coming.

But, as the title suggests, there is no epiphany that will result from this visitation and the poem ends in bathos by returning to the dreary and corrupt world of the everyday:

Buttering toast, I scanned
the day’s black-banner news and spread
the purple plum jam.

In this book the entrances are often made by the dead. I suppose that when you have reached your mid-eighties it is the dead who, by their number and insistence, you are most likely to find talking to you. In “A Noonday Visit” the old man coming to sip coffee and seek advice from Tsaloumas’ father is, like the father himself, long dead. In “In the Well” a voice “like a father’s”, (perhaps, but probably not, that of Tsaloumas’ actual father) penetrates a siesta with interesting advice:

“There’s no point in reaching out
for a horizon that shifts with you.

Nor is it profitable to sit
under the vine in the cicada’s noon

and wait for the breeze to stir,
up from the sea below.

Go down and clean the well.
It’s cool down there and not so dark.”

The descent into the well in Tsaloumas is either a descent into the stored memories of the past or into the unconscious world of dreams (in this poetry the two are not so different and the complex idea of “nostalgia” could be seen as a way in which these two, usually very different activities of the mind, can become very close). In “Solicitude” the poet’s fair-weather friends continually advise him to “stop going down to the mine” and wells, like the spring of the title poem of Falcon Drinking, are also symbolic sources of inspiration. “In the Well”, however, ends in nothing but despair for irretrievable rhythms:

                                   The other day,
maybe long ago, I heard a lute there,

a tune sprung like a rose from fat soil -
the death fields of holy wars,

and a sob rises in my throat as I grope
seeking the plucking hand,

the old nostalgic tune sunk since
in the stormy dimness of the mind.

In “Incubus” it is the dead mother’s voice that oppresses the sleeper like the weight of a stone when it speaks from what she calls “this side of the dark river” and in “The Unrepentant Dead” (translated by the author from one of his much earlier Greek poems) a dead neighbour confronts the speaker, presumably in a dream.

The two most interesting visitation poems are “Watching the Rain” and “An April Night’s Progress”. The former begins with the distinctive Tsaloumas inversion:

Swaying drunkenly in water-haze
like stormy cypress shadows
over a country churchyard’s flags
on wintry full-moon nights, they came.

The “they” of course are the dead and the poet watches through a window as they sit in the rain, thus emphasizing that the living and the dead inhabit different, even if contiguous, worlds. We don’t know how specific the identity of these five dead are but, since one of them is “very young”, one suspects that the poet is thinking of family or close friends rather than a more generalized group of representative dead. This is significant as the poem concludes not on the bathetic note we have come to expect from the poems of Helen of Troy, but with a joyous transformation:

I tap again. But they rise
and go, not as they came, but shaped,
bodied in recognition.
And I see our lemon tree now shine
with golden fruit by the steps
as they go, the vine with grapes.

Playful screams and words
struggle to my ears from the shore
through a cicada noonday storm -
the hiss of rain on our terrace flags,
on the waterlogged garden.

Recognition (if I read the poem correctly) is a way we can speak to the dead through the impenetrable windows and it not only transforms them but us as well. The way the sound of rain transmutes into the sound of summer cicadas is a subtle and clever one because we are not exactly sure which one is reality and which is dream-metaphor. Did all this take place as a siesta dream by the seaside with the sound of the cicadas prompting a dream involving rain?

Finally, in this survey of “visitation-poems”, there is “An April Night’s Progress”. Here the full panoply of Tsaloumas’ “lush” effects are deployed to introduce Night herself. She walks

into the garden
where the Persian rose blooms
and nightingales wait polishing their song.

The ambience is Middle-Eastern because the poem goes on to arrive at the Gulf War in which

two ancient rivers, she lends majesty
to a righteous thunder of guns
and vast illuminations where pyres consume
a city of tale.

Here is a Tsaloumas poem which is about the contemporary political events that he is so scornful of but which is couched in the mode of one of his romantic visitation poems. The picture of Night, trapped between “latticed balconies by raging flames” is the poet’s contribution to the Thousand and One Nights. Technically it is an example of bathos, but is not a verbal or tonal bathos so much as a modal one.

The overwhelming tone of Helen of Troy is valedictory and the characteristic move is one of making final journeys. There is no doubt that we are to read “Old Man’s Last Pilgrimage” as, if not precisely point-to-point allegorical, at least a transposition of the poet’s own experience:

On this my last pilgrimage
I travel by what light and signs
the sky affords. I do no penance
seek no remission of sins.
. . . . .
On this my last pilgrimage
I seek no evidence of fact
but firmer certainties, not hope
but truth of nobler substance
where, in secret folds, the mind
still dreams of wings.

This movement forwards counteracts the way in which memory and its partner, nostalgia, move backwards. It is significant, though, that “Old Man’s Last Pilgrimage” is not the last but the second-last poem in the book. The final poem, “Objection”, is entirely one of summation and justification. Don’t advise me as to how I should live, it says, unless you have heard the boots of the occupying forces coming to your house to arrest you and don’t tell me how to die unless you are one of those

who knew no excess of happiness
when on the crest of fortune
nor bitter grief in its deep troughs;
who from the crow’s-nest
spied the last meridian and tacked about
lest he should rob of its dark fire
the truth of his living.

These final words are not entirely unequivocal but I read the description of tacking in the face of the last meridian as being a refusal to suicide in the deepest “troughs” of despair.

The most ambitious poem in Helen of Troy is the fourteen part narrative, “A Winter Journey”. It is an account of an allegorical pilgrimage, against the speaker’s will, summoned by “unknown spirits” to a place “beyond the range / of my tutelar gods”. Interestingly the sequence describes the wait for the kind of visitation that so many of the book’s other poems are structured around. In this wait for a message from the spirits, the speaker is visited instead by wolves (who wait for spring to reveal where the dead bodies are buried so that they can be eaten). He is also visited by his dead mother and others “from albums / of yellowing years” – an experience I take to be essentially nostalgic. In the thirteenth poem the spirits eventually speak to the solitary and their message is that “the wolves won’t have their dead / the spring shall fail for ever”. It is a very difficult, spare sequence which I might be guilty of misreading but I see the spring as the arrival of that poetic ability which enables the figures of the past to be buried properly, by being “dealt with” (an unpleasant metaphor) in poetry. In Tsaloumas’ earlier poetry the arrival of spring and creativity was celebrated in a lush and rather exotic poetic idiom. Here, in a much stonier poem, the protagonist learns that, eventually, such renewals will cease.