Andrew Taylor: Shore Lines

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”.

Andrew Taylor: Impossible Preludes: Poems 2008-2014

Witchcliffe, WA: Margaret River Press, 2016, 86pp.

Andrew Taylor can be a hard poet to write about. Although he has never seemed especially prolific (in contrast, say, to John Kinsella, who contributes a brief introduction to this new book) his cumulated work is very substantial – another two books will see it cross the thousand page barrier. It’s also very consistent without being at all the same and a reviewer, aiming for any kind of conspectus, will be torn between the opposed tasks of mapping out changes of manner and documenting the recurrent themes that give his work a strong sense of unity. There are changes of mode but they are not really radical. If we compare the title poem of his first book with the title poem of this new one (a cheap tactic, I know, but one which can have some value):

The Cool Change

We say: After a hot day the cool change
is like a fresh shower and the spirit stands
renewed and alert despite the summer thunder.
Despite the summer thunder and despite
the jagged fulgurations of dry rage
over the Brighton Yacht Club and beyond
the enclosed alerted small boat anchorage,
despite the ominous clashings in the trees,
after a hot day and a sea like slate
the cool change comes like mother with light skirts
sweeping the torpid gulls from their malaise.
Like mother with cool drinks the cool change gathers
families out of the tea-tree and the water,
moving with her urgency among hampers
caressing, hurrying, to her mysterious ends . . .
The cool change sweeps us back into Sunday night,
the long drive home, the children to be fed,
bathed, put to bed. It makes us parents again.
Later we think of the sullen sea, the obtuse
and adolescent arrogance of the sun,
the dominant zero, pointless, tyrannous.


Impossible Preludes

A leaf floating up
memory drifting along a line
of music
whump of bass from a car
beside you at the lights
goldfish –
                         have you ever
tried to count the shifting
of goldfish?
of light across a river
that phonecall
you never made
or received

all impossible
all possible
all preludes

True, the subject matter here is very different but that is just a matter of accident: I might have matched “The Cool Change” with “Two Dates” or “How Much Better Can It Get?” from Impossible Preludes, just as I might have matched “Impossible Preludes” with “Exemplary Poem” or “A Vision of Myself in the Window” from The Cool Change. But, stylistically and conceptually there are marked differences. “The Cool Change” obviously sees itself as a free-standing poem, an object where enough is going on internally – by way of echo, repetition and extension – for it to have a strong presence as a thing despite its apparently lightweight material, material that resists a reader’s search to allegorise it into something more challenging and profound than parenthood and weather. The heavyweight language of the last two lines is definitely a conventional way to achieve some sort of climax. I used to read this poem (before I knew how sensitive Taylor is to ambient conditions like weather) thinking that perhaps it was a kind of critique of the “well-made” poem (as Waiting for Godot can be read as a critique of the well-made play) where the content is trivialised or evacuated but the form remains predictably the same.

By the time we reach “Impossible Preludes” (more than forty years later) we can see a more gestural quality. The gestures are not images but ideas, ideas, in this case, about what might instigate the writing of a poem. Though this poem has its own elegant shape (a list, the last item of which contains mutually exclusive possibilities followed by three propositions about the contents of the list which share the mutually exclusive structure of the final item) it suggests intellectual reverie rather than the sturdy, stand-alone quality of poems like “The Cool Change” or “Developing a Wife”. You feel that, as a reader, you are not so much being presented with an object as lured into a universe of speculation involving paradox and unresolvability. If there is an overall change in the mode of Taylor’s poetry over the years, I think it has been the rise of such poems at the expense of sturdy, well-made pieces like “The Cool Change”.

A love of paradox and paradoxical meditation, taken as a theme rather than a structural method, has probably always been a component of Taylor’s poetic sensibility. The much anthologised “Developing a Wife” is quite straightforward but it rejoices in the way the metaphor of photographic developing endlessly draws towards itself images of violence (“he held her face two inches under the water”) and of domestic “education” (so that developing might mean “changing to suit” or, more likely, “changing oneself to match an existing wifely personality”). There is nothing paradoxical in the nub of the poem which is, after all, about nothing more than the now archaic technique of developing a photograph, but paradoxes are suggested by the metaphors. One of the most potent pieces of Impossible Preludes works in this way and recalls that earlier poem: “Dark Employments” deals with interactions between the dreamer and the characters of his dreams but it does so under the metaphor of business meetings, the “clandestine meetings in the small hours”.

One of Taylor’s central paradoxes is the idea of absence as a presence. It’s not anything new and is a topos beloved of composers but absence is a powerful presence in Taylor’s work at an emotional level. Early in his career there are three books which move away from notions of a stand-alone poem in different ways as though experimenting with possibilities. These are The Invention of Fire (a kind of psychodrama where the poems are fragmentary expressions of the inner self), Parabolas (a series of prose poems, very much focussed on paradox and elegant meditation) and The Crystal Absences, The Trout. This last book is a series of meditations marking off the days to the lover’s return. It is, in other words, generated out of absence.

In Impossible Preludes we have “Shells” whose complex structure – “as complex and better designed / than a legal system . . .” – speak of “oceans lost to their memory”. And a series of poems lamenting the death, during the poet’s absence, of a loved cat, Maxi (a companion piece to the early poem, “The Old Colonist”, which celebrated the passing of an earlier cat) finishes up by moving beyond grieving to think about how we might carry favourite ghosts with us:

It’s fine having a cat
but having a cat haunt you
is something else. Maxi’s ghost
waits at the back door as we bundle in
at 2 a.m. from Frankfurt
three years now and I greet him
with the ghost of a grin
an ethereal hug. Can I
shift him with us when we move
to Sydney? After all
he’s silent and weighs nothing.
I could take him as hand baggage
or – more to the point – heart baggage.

It’s all more complex than the light surface might lead us to think: a loved ghost is an absence that is a powerful presence even if it is just a cat. One of Taylor’s gifts (and markers of style) is to be serious but never portentous. The title of this group of poems – “The Maxi Poems” – is designed to recall Olson’s Maximus Poems a sequence which, whatever can be said about its virtues and vices, is extremely self-important.

The force of absence is, in a way, recorded in a number of poems in the book which deal with writing. “Lament for the Makars” (another allusion-by-title, this time to Dunbar’s great poem about the deaths of his contemporary poets) is a mildly comic piece about the way, as we age, the number of “predeceased / contemporaries” rises. The dead are all categorised and given – Dante-like – fitting afterlives: I like the fate of the Rationalists who are “undoubtedly / scrutinising the bill” in their “immaculately designed / resort (their last)”. But the poem finishes with the poet: “I’ll be forever revising / that poem, you know, the one / I said I’d read to you / when it was finished” suggesting not only an inevitable incompleteness but, further, an inability of poetry to make a final comprehensive judgement on experience. Perhaps this is not so much an absence as an incompleteness and endless chasing after the powers to express a changing reality. Impossible Preludes carries an introductory poem, “Writing”, which begins by describing the act as “tracing a spider’s footprints / across a web” and concludes by saying that writing is “leaving oneself behind / as a spider does // as it spins its web”. Given this is the case, perhaps the best introduction to Impossible Preludes might be the “The Impossible Poem”, last poem of The Unhaunting, Taylor’s previous book:

There are only two poems -
the one you write
and the one always undoing
your words

and as you get older
that impossible poem
stretches its fingers toward you
and you can – maybe – just

feel what it might be -
as Adam might have felt it
when God leaned across the Sistine ceiling
toward his touch

or as a cat waking
on warm stones reminds you
or as alone
in a language you don’t understand.

you know a stranger’s smile
is a word even or a phrase.

Here poetry’s ultimate inability to “grasp” the world is configured as the existence of a kind of anti-poem that matches each existing poem and whose presence becomes slightly more detectable as we age. The fact that the poem refers to cats and to the Sistine Chapel (which an early poem associates with spiders) is a sign that several of Taylor’s distinguishing topics have accreted here. Just as a poem here has an antipoem, so in “This is the Empty Page” from Impossible Preludes, every printed page has an anti-page that, if looked at correctly, peeps out behind the various words that are trying to conceal it:

. . . . . 
I’ve tried to disguise it 
with writing 
my printer hums and buzzes 
across it
but if you look closely
you’ll see the empty page
peering out at you
from behind the letters

In a way, here, we are being returned to the paradox of the doorway that one of the prose poems in Parabolas deals with: “Because a doorway is nothing, this fact is often disguised by tremendous decoration. For example, the portals of Chartres, or the Sphinx couching around the tiny doorway in its breast”.

There are also other poems here which, if not necessarily invoking the presence/absence paradox, also want to speak about poetry and perception. One of the recurring motifs of Taylor’s poetry is swimming. It is the basis of many poems about growing up in southern Australia but it is also always likely to touch on issues that relate to poetry. Swimmers (and kayakers) move on the surface of an element which has a lot of things going on underneath. In “Beginnings” the canoeist watches a dolphin explode out of the depths through masses of ordinary rubbish which it feeds on in a way which, you feel, is designed to refer to a certain kind of experience-hungry poet. Taylor modestly contrasts this with himself:

. . . . . 
                      While I
skimming the surface in my kayak
might have brought a glint of query
even pity, to its inquisitive eye.

I don’t think we should take the self-deprecating tone too literally here. In the following poem, “The Sea Eagle”, the observing animal is the opposite – “aloof and interested / he charts my splashy transit / from the high branch of his / detachment”. Two poems, “River” and “Where the Track Ends” focus on these watery issues. The former speaks of the kayak’s inscribing patterns on the “universe’s mirror” and the latter is a symbolic scene of poet and lover arriving by track to the “almost / limitless expansion of sea” – expansion of consciousness, of course, as much as physical dimensions. Intriguingly the partner is described as a “river / person” while the poet belongs to the sea: “I / scanned for rips, stripped off / my clothes, carefully / walked to the surf and plunged in”. Again any hint of ecstatic symbolic triumphalism is undercut by that little word, “carefully”.

One theme which has developed in its own way as Taylor’s life has gone on is that of our perspectives on our own lives. What appear at the time as moments of trauma – separations, divorces, deaths of friends, of parents – get fitted into a retrospectively viewed pattern. Taylor writes well about this. He clearly enjoys the paradox that what seems at the time, when looking forward, to be host of possible directions becomes, when looking back, the only path that could have brought you to the state you are in now:

There are many paths 
through a childhood that offers
when you look back
only the one you took. 
. . . . . 
That’s where you find
if you’re not too traumatised
there was no other way
inexorably to you.

One of the poems about childhood, “Vanishing Species 3”, exploits, structurally, the same sort of tensions that animate poems like “Developing a Wife” and “Dark Employments”. It begins, “I went back to my old school” and, by the time it begins to speak of talking to “my old teachers” we begin to start doing those calculations of age that the elderly always do. Since Taylor was born in 1940 his youngest teachers must have been born in the teens of the twentieth century and that would make them etc etc. The poem quickly resolves this:

. . . . . 
had died or retired to their own
pastures or coasts. But they had not

I remember Gunner Owen
I remember Chesty Bond . . .

It’s not that the teachers were entirely icons of popular culture which can always outlive the normal lifespan of a real person, it’s that these and the actual teachers “Mr Ingwersen who heroically / tried to teach me French” are present absences in the poet’s mind.

As I said at the beginning, Taylor can quite hard to describe as a poet. Some features are not difficult to talk about: the love of certain paradoxes, for example, and the way the poems are anchored in an entirely distinctive Taylorian(?) world of homely realities (made up of weather, cats, spiders as well as more complex experiences such as a double life lived on two continents). But I always feel that the deepest, most essential component of his poetic personality – made open as it seems to be to readers – somehow resists really accurate description.