World Square, NSW: Pitt Street Poetry, 2023, 97pp.
Although it might not be a word that one would want to use too much in serious criticism, Andrew Taylor’s Shore Lines seems a more secure book that the previous Impossible Preludes. And part of that sense of secureness might derive from the opening two poems that are something of a coup. The first, “The Grave by the Sea Called ‘Granny’s Grave’” could be described as a retrieved poem about a retrieved history. Written in 1981, it is about a grave on the Warrnambool coast dating to 1848 and said to be that of the first white woman to die in the area. It was subsequently either misplaced or deliberately omitted from Taylor’s later books. As a stand-alone poem it would certainly have been worth including in its natural position in the “New Poems” section of his UQP Selected Poems and was only “rediscovered” by local historians researching the matter of this early grave. It’s a very “Taylorish” poem, stylishly literary – it is supported at either end by allusions to Valery’s great poem about the cemetery by the sea – and meshing in with Taylor’s poetic obsessions in that this is a grave on the coast, on the meeting place of sea and land. If you live in South Australia, the sea is the Great Southern Ocean and many of Taylor’s poems celebrate its erosive effect on the soft rocks of that coast. Mrs Raddleston, the name given on the basalt headstone, died in the same year as the great uprisings of Europe, a rather different sort of erosion. “Mrs Raddleston”, leaving Europe either forcibly or by free will, “came finally aground on this great wave of sand” which is itself unstable since the wind and the sea are always threatening to move or overwhelm the grave. Again, metaphors from the sea are used for the wind and the unstable land:
. . . . . Her freedom here was to live a life of the sea where the land’s edge rises in great waves in the punishing wind. I can hear it tonight the wind in the trees crashing down like surf . . . . . The black headstone poised like a solitary surfer rides the wave of approaching winter. A fine drift of sand is blowing and the marram inscribes inane circles of grief and panic about her grave where the wind is rising, and she tried to live.
“Revisiting, after Forty Years” is not so much about revisiting the grave as about revisiting the poem. Revisiting is a natural impulse associated with age and since large numbers of poets now live and write into their eighties and beyond, it’s inevitably going to be a growth genre of modern poetry: like all poetic genres capable of being done well – as here – or badly. Mrs Raddleston’s true name turns out to be Ruttelton and she died impoverished and her husband was a convict. The researches of the present correct the ignorances of the past although the present has its own set of unanswered questions which the second poem is built around. And the perspective of the contemporary poem is strikingly different from that of the old one. “Why is she buried here?” it asks, so far from the township. Was it fear of plague?
. . . . . Or was it some hope that her grave could be memorial to an effort they had made leaving their stony crofts or grimy slums crossing disastrous seas to conquer and subdue another people’s land? Where passing boats could dip their flag at such a sacrifice of lonely death? Or where the whales migrating as they pass here every year might raise their ghostly transient salutes?
Someone pointed out that Heracleitus’ statement that you can’t enter the same river twice not only implied that this was because the river had changed but because the individual entering the river has changed also. One of the features of “revisiting” is that it marks not only the changes in the place revisited – the processes ranging from the gentrification to the abandonment of childhood haunts – but in the individual doing the revisiting. How much an individual changes is always a matter of debate: people have for a long time been speaking of the self as an assortment of features that we cobble together under the impression that it has always been a coherent phenomenon. But there is no doubt about the changes that take place in society itself. Australia is a very different place in 2023 from the Australia of Taylor’s boyhood in the fifties. The last lines of the second poem remind us that the “whaling industry”, which we would now consider both cruel and environmentally destructive, was a major feature of the economy of South Australia into the sixties. The passing whales’ “salutes” are not only ghostly because the spray of their soundings is insubstantial but also because they might well represent the ghosts of their ancestors.
In the grander scheme of things where attitudes to homosexuality, the environment, Australia’s geopolitical situation, women’s rights, indigenous people’s rights, among many others, have altered in ways that somebody living in the fifties and sixties of last century would barely have believed possible, whaling could only represent a minor example. But the last poem of this first section, “Where are They?”, deals with the more major issue (at least, more major to most of us: balancing ethical positions is always fraught) of the indigenous inhabitants of the area, concluding, after a series of stanzas each of which asks “where are they?”.
. . . . . Where are they whom we hear in the plover’s lament in the wind’s whisper and the distant insistent rumour of surf on the empty beach?
There are difficulties here, of course. The issues facing a country at any moment in its history seem absolutely the right ones to most people at that time. But, as any revisiting shows, they can change alarmingly quickly and one of the dreary, predictable comments of the aged is something like: “How do you know this is what is important? I’m old enough to know that these things change rapidly.” At my most idealistic about poetry, I want it to be an art of either direct or indirect critique of all generally accepted notions at any given time. But it would be asking a lot of a poet to stand outside the current collection of “issues” that dominate Australians’ thinking about their world. Taylor has enough poetic dexterity to make a good poem like “Where are They?” to the point where we never feel that he is a mere spokesman for contemporary pieties. And the perspective of age and its ability to revisit means that he is able to accept the fact that the past has its own integrity even if that involves slaughtering whales, ignoring the fates of indigenous peoples, and so on.
The second section of the book opens with a poem that reminds us of one of the strongest features of Taylor’s poetry: his extreme sensitivity to what is ambient. His first book was, for example, called The Cool Change, and its title poem registered a sensitivity to weather, something most unusual at the time when on the social plane, issues like the war in Vietnam dominated, and when, on the poetic plane, there was a kind of multi-pronged attack on whatever looked like a kind of sensitive Georgian quality. As his poetry progressed to cope with its own Sturm und Drang – the death of his father while Taylor was in the northern hemisphere, marriage break-up – it retained this sensitivity. Swimming – immersing oneself in the waters of the ocean – is a continuous theme, as is the exact tonality of the weather, the current temperature and humidity and the likelihood of changes. “Weather”, the first poem of the second section of Shore Lines, is actually a complex meditation about the phenomenon itself, rather than a simple registering of the immediate surrounding air. It works by investigating the relationship of external to internal weather. Or, perhaps, it uses the notion of weather as an indicator of the sorts of interior states that affect how a poet lives and how he writes:
. . . . . But weather is inside us like sunrise it recalls us from our dreams of Japanese temples or the grief of what is perpetually lost or the absence of what was never really present to meals and conversations and waiting. So weather is a shape of waiting that’s forever on the move . . .
As I’ve said, it’s a complex meditation and it’s hard not to think of it as touching on crucial areas of Taylor’s long writing career. It certainly yokes the mundane – the ambient environment, social life, travels to places like Japan – with the more conventionally poetically stimulating – dreams, the griefs of loss, and a certain kind of unrealisable desire, “the absence of what was never really present”.
The rest of the poems grouped in this second section seem to be about events in the immediate environment. It’s tempting to say that the revisiting of the first section is balanced here by the experience of visitations. The most common of these visitants are the birds, the “morning visitors” who “alight on my balcony” but they can be a woman in a blue dress playing a violin in a time of bushfires that is soon to morph into a time of pandemic. One of them, Spanish Moss – which brings with it overtones of its exotic place of origin – lands “gangly and languid / on the back of a chair”, almost a definition of insubstantiality. Another poem, “Dead Trees”, is hardly about visitations but is definitely a little allegory made out of the immediate environment where dead trees in a park, unnoticed by “families on bikes, / women in raffia hats, one / or two very hot joggers”, wait to be visited by council arborists:
. . . . . One day a truck with chainsaws and maybe a loader tagged on behind will pay these trees the attention they deserve. After all they’re the park’s elders, the tallest and greyest, their fingers reach for the sky they’ll one day ascend to, as the fierce red crackle of their wisdom blackens into ash and a new beginning.
Whether the trees represent ordinary elderly people here, or whether they represent the fate of elder poets is a moot point and arguments could be made for either case.
At the end of the book’s penultimate section, we revisit meditations about the distant personal past with three poems about family history. Family albums, lost aunts who died so young that the nephew in childhood barely knew of their existence, and grandfathers, are all fairly conventional subjects and it says something of Taylor’s genius that these poems are not at all clichéd. The photos in the album, for example, are ancestors from a distant past who have a lot to say to the present but who cannot speak. And the present would dearly like to speak to them as well: they are as likely to be able to answer questions we pose as we would be to answer their questions. Again, it is a reminder that, in a culture which seems for odd reasons anxious to pass judgement on the past, the past is, after all, a foreign country where they do things differently:
. . . . . Can we reach them after so much neglect from a world that would have them utterly confused should they enter it today? They are stranded in time, yet their silence has an old-fashioned eloquence that demands a reply. They’ll hear nothing of what I say, and I know little of their untold stories, heartbreaks, triumphs and bereavements . . .
The third section of Shore Lines has some poems with a rather more abstract meditative cast, a reminder, I suppose, that a poet who is so sensitive to ambience can at the same time be a distinguished intellectual. Both “The Book in the Fountain” and “Peregrine Falcon” want to explore the nature of a poet’s raw materials: words. In the former – a kind of stylised allegorical scene – the printed words of a book lying underwater are leached away and become part of the world of the goldfish and the pigeon, inhabitants of the elements of water and air:
. . . . . One day someone will fetch the book out and lay it on the fountain’s wall to dry. Ruined by the water it will be unreadable – unless you listen to the fountain’s quiet syllables and watch the pigeon’s thoughtful nodding in agreement.
This notion of words as being part of the natural world rather than expressions of a human consciousness is continued in “Peregrine Falcon” whose central metaphor imagines words as being like flotsam subject to the violent activity of the interface between water and rocky coast, one of Taylor’s distinctive topoi. Everything here derives from the metaphor of the opening lines – “Words don’t stand a chance against the surf / that picks them up like feathers in a storm” – suggesting that this is a poem about poetry in a time of relentless social upheaval. The feathers/words finish up as part of a nest which the falcon builds in the crevices produced in the rockface by the relentless action of the water. All this forces us to read the falcon as a rather noble image for the poet although in the poem, the bird is a small object indeed, operating at the point where a raging sea meets a rocky coast. Added to this is the fact that it is a peregrine falcon, a bird whose name means “traveller” so there might be an intended connection with Taylor himself who is an indefatigable traveller. Words retain their metaphorical status as independent, living things in “Visiting Peter” which describes a visit to Peter Porter imagined as happening while Porter is surrounded by words, “so many jostling verbs / outstretched adjectives / nervy adverbs all / rubbing shoulders with those little / ands and buts and ors etc”. Only when the social activity of hosting a guest is over can these words organise themselves so that they can “converse with him / and later, on the page / with us.”
Seeing Taylor in terms of his relationship to the immediate environment – immediate in time as well as physical proximity – counterbalanced by the perspectives that a long creative life gives to the relationship between present and past, makes a good background against which to read the fourth section of Shore Lines, a group of ten poems titled “At Coogee”. The first temporal perspective comes out of the difference between this current home and the earlier one of Warrnambool. This isn’t, as the first poem says, a “surf beach”. This is not
. . . . . my childhood beach – all Southern Ocean storms, blistering wind, adolescent sex and memories of my father’s persistent fishing. Yet at times as spent waves gnaw at my feet his voice reaches me in the night, as far and weak as the green ripple on the screen beside his bed, so many years away.
But, as the poem says, some guilts and traumas don’t change when the environment changes: as the Latin motto says, the stars may change but the mind remains the same. There is also an apocalyptic perspective in the way these poems deal with bushfires and the pandemic: together these provide a sense of time as linear and moving towards catastrophe. The message of the sea is, however, rather different and it is imagined as speaking of vast stretches of time and holding out hope of human survival:
. . . . . Be patient. I have been here millennia and am not going anywhere. I weather whatever Time throws at me. You too will endure, and defeat that tiny antagonist. Then you’ll come down to me again, where I’m waiting with open arms to embrace you.
It’s hard not to register that use of “weather” as significant, covering as it does both the immediate environment and the action of water on rock. It seems a satisfying bonding of the two issues.
Shore Lines, as though wanting to avoid any incipient pompousness, finishes with a semi-comic rehearsal of creation in three poems. God, having invented time and history wants to liven up the contrasts in his creation by adding a little depth and drama. There is no doubt about how this will be done and who will do it: into the Garden of Eden “He placed a man and a woman / and let them get on with the job”.