Rae Desmond Jones: A Caterpillar On a Leaf

Glebe: Puncher & Wattman, 2016, 57pp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         what causes her to hate me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

galleons loaded down with silver
          in a rising storm.

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

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

          lord or demon of my brain,

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

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

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

. . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

through broken sewers under sunken roads
          our waste returns,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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