John Hawke: Aurelia; Jillian Pattinson: Babel Fish

Aurelia (Carlton: Cordite Press, 2015), 41pp.
Babel Fish (Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014), 75pp.

Although, with the exception of one poem, “Lignent”, the poems of John Hawke’s first, long-awaited book, Aurelia, are similar in verbal style – they have a relaxed, sensuous long-breathed eloquence – what they are as poems in themselves varies widely. More than in most books one can sense a struggle between a desire for creative unity and a desire to explore possibilities. Some poems are dreams, others are portraits, the title poem is a kind of dream-vision which must be intended to recall Nerval’s Aurelia but which also has a touch of Shelley or even early Browning about it and two, “Mountain Train” and “The Night Air” can (with all the usual hermeneutic reservations taken on board) be read as straightforward portraits of the poet as a very young man.

Perhaps made uneasy by this appearance of a variety which might suggest lack of focus, Hawke includes a brief preface locating the poetry in the French theoretical landscape obsessed by the relationship between words and loss. To desire is to instigate a life of loss:

. . .  When Nerval writes that dreams are a second life, he not only refers to the dreams we experience in sleep, but also to the dreams that arise as a consequence of lost desires, dreams perhaps thwarted by chance: of lives once meant, but never lived . . . These lives often coexist with our own as lost alternatives, counter-experiences or impossible possibilities; they lie within the everyday like a subtext or a haunting . . .

I don’t want to sound too much of a Francophobe empiricist here, but this seems to be one of those large statements which evade the difficult and more precise question: in this case, what is a poet’s personal stake in a particular character or situation; why did this one rather than innumerable others get the creative act going and give it the energy to continue. It is a question that looms large (and is often avoided) in responses to the great monologues of Browning. If Dramatic Romances had had, as a preface, a general statement of this kind we wouldn’t really be greatly enlightened about masterpieces like “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”.

At any rate, I like the mysterious varieties of Aurelia to the point of being tempted to ignore its author’s honestly offered help. The title poem is a recreation of the high Romantic mode, moving between reality and dream and back to dream-influenced reality. It details the arrival and loss of either a woman or creativity or Coleridge’s Joy or all three. Although she is a distilled and thus abstract phenomenon – “I first fell in love with Aurelia / in the face of that woman painted by Giovanni Bellini / with her serene yet introverted eyes . . .” – there is a fine, very un-abstract passage detailing the goddess’s arrival:

The presence arrives with the faintest percussion 
of bells approaching from a distance.
It hovers over this winter sea
and leaves no footfall on the sand.
I discover myself at last in its solitude,
contemplating the glitter in a midnight wave.
I feel a smothering weight:
. . . . .
                             Then, ever so faintly,
emanating from silence
like a figure outlined in smoke,
a shadow of sound that brushes the walls
with the softest presence - 
the footfall of her sigh in even night . . .

This calm extended blank verse style, here suggesting something of a pastiched updating of nineteenth century visionary narratives, is very much typical of the other poems of the book. At any rate, the arrival of the idealised loved one results in the achievement, or gift, of a vison of the universe in which “every ordinary phrase / is suddenly charged, the signals of daily life / transformed, and we enter that forest / of symbols where everything coincides”. The protagonist enters, in other words, the world of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” though it is significant that the phrase “smothering weight” is borrowed from Coleridge’s great “Dejection: An Ode”.

The other poems of the book, with the exception of the two childhood poems I have already mentioned and “Early Spring” and “Emily Street”, seem more inclined to dwell in bleaker landscapes rather than the ecstatic world where all the objects are resonant and connectedly meaningful. Hawke is terrific at providing images of the normal processes of loss – the loss of objects and experiences rather than loved ones. They form the basis of the book’s first poem, “Reliquary”, and “What Was There” a poem about revisiting a childhood home in the country, moves out to consider the perspective of the spaces between the stars:

Behind the town Parnassus with its water-tower is outlined
by a crown of stars; there is a gap below the Southern Cross

darker than the night itself, an unfillable nothingness
into which all this will be drawn in time:

the rotting house, the detailed shadows in the children’s faces,
the scraps of old iron and broken chimney-bricks among the weeds . . .

There are two interesting poems about intellectuals who become frightening activists: Saint-Just (Robespierre’s supporter) and Avimael Guzman (a professor of philosophy who became the leader of the Maoist army of Peru called the Shining Path). In a sense they form a diptych, working away at similar themes. Saint-Just’s poem focusses entirely on the metaphorical landscape of a mountain top:

Climbing this hill you suddenly
can’t keep your breath, it has gone
with the breeze that lifts your arms
and catches you like that,
leaning away from the familiar road.
All that matters is your surrender
to the red wind . . .

The emphasis is on the nightmare attraction of perfect systems to intellectual activists whereby a world is constructed whose architecture matches the visions of their minds. In the case of Saint-Just, this triumph is inhabitable only by himself and comes at the cost of countless other lives. And he will be the lone inhabitant of this perfect world: if there are others they will be only versions of himself:

Then at last you have arrived
outside a landscape which could only belong to you,
the way the long grass hoists and sways
perfectly in tune with the colours of the season,
an architecture meshing precisely above you,
building you a home. And was that another
figure moving with you beyond that window,
cut from your own soft shape, 
quiet as a ripple in the swimming glass?

Of course, Saint-Just’s execution occurred quickly and unexpectedly and his courage and contempt on the scaffold is that of a man whose dying is a kind of triumph. Guzman has been in prison since the early nineties, something guaranteed to sap the self-confidence of even the purest ideologues. His poem, even longer than the title poem, is a detailed exploration of an ideologue’s inherent solipsism. It begins – and continues for much of its length – with the act of strangling a female peasant who had called him, entirely accurately, a fascist. Guzman inhabits the same metaphorical uplands as Saint-Just but in his case they are also real: the mountains of rural Peru:

. . . . . 
Because there is no longer any guilty internal world
your private thoughts lead you to a plain
where huge figures stand frozen, towers and monuments
shuttling messages into the air, light patterns
and gaudy over-obvious symbols . . .

The perfect world envisaged by the internal mental apparatuses of dogmatic intellectual activists is one in which only they and pale reflections of themselves can live. But at about this point the reader realises that there must be a connection between the world of infinitely meaningful symbols celebrated in “Aurelia” and this sterile solipsistic universe. Is the point simply that megalomaniac demagogues are failed artists or is there something sinister in all successful acts of artistic creation, the creator expressing him- or herself in a perfect and perfectly controlled universe?

Whatever Hawke’s feelings about this, these two poems might represent not so much as a venture into a public poetry so much as a bleaker and more depressed inflection of the ideas present in other poems. Two bleak personal poems show themselves obsessed by place and the abstract response to place – mapping. “Intersection” is about loss – “When lovers part for separate cities . . .” – and about the way in which the experience of loss is outside the normal processes of time. The “circle of dreams” continues while in the outside world “stories are resolving time, // endings are written, the long curtains / swing together”. As Proust says, we love not people but images and, when lovers part, there is no reason for these images to change. The physical location of the poem is Sydney’s Washaway Beach which looks out from the harbour and the poem begins with the geometrical observation that “two ferries cross / at the exact radius of the heads”. The obsession with mapping and geometry dominates the poem as, presumably, the speaker struggles to get his bearings. At the end, as I read it, we are left with a symbol of erosion – the tides washing away the beach – from which can be seen the circular motion of yachts rounding a buoy:

Washaway. When the tide rises the beach is drowned.
Here, at the centre of this dancing-ground
littered with leaves, and clawed by sharp banksia,
I search for circumference in the geometry of the gliding water

as a line of yachts circles the bell of the buoy.

Although there are no specific allusions it is hard not to place this “Intersection” alongside that great poem set in Sydney harbour which worries about time and the nature of loss and how to deal with it: Slessor’s “Five Bells”.

“The Point” – with its pointed title – is about the speaker’s making a trip to the point of land at Thirroul where Lawrence stayed during his visit to Australia. A temporary Aboriginal embassy has been set up and the narrator comes across the scene of a man lying in front of a bulldozer “protecting the invisible bones / of a forgotten ancestor”:

I did not stay long at this turning point:
there were no good omens to be discovered.
Without reflection or further thought, I started
the engine and took the road back into town.

These closing lines will give some clue about what makes this poem weirdly memorable. It is the unremitting bleakness of the narration which occasionally sounds like a parody of a dreary guide book, “The green strip of land projecting low from the bay / is signalled by the figures of four tall pines . . .” The verse moves on in this petty pace throughout the hundred or so lines of the entire poem. My reading of this is that it is a poem where depression (another word, like “point”, with a geographical second meaning), signalled in the sound and movement of the verse, extends to political action: the narrator is unable to intervene in any way and is left with only an image.

Finally, as examples of this bleaker world of most of these poems, there are “On Woodbridge Hill” and the final poem significantly called “Black Highway”. The former seems to be a dream poem in which, in the second part, the narrator shoots his father and flees. The poetry lights up at this moment:

The gun bucked in my hand, and somehow I felt the charge
smack his slow head, but I never went back there.
I was already running for the silver hills, as the moon
faded to water behind me, sinking into weedy darkness.
. . . . . 
A strange energy was growing in me, so that I knew
I need never stop running, and I could go on forever,
speeding across the surface of this white earth.

This seems like one of those rare moments when the impressions of a dream, far from being vague and inconsistent, are actually more intensely felt and remembered than the impressions of ordinary life. And something of this can be felt in “Black Highway” which leaves readers with a concluding image of a nightmare journey that is neverending:

. . . . . 
Together we climbed a black mountain
barefoot in the wind. A hard moon
shone naked, and even the stones
glared at us. That was the worst of it:
walking on and never waking.

Variety is an important issue in another first book, Jillian Pattinson’s Babel Fish which is divided into four parts, each with a recognisable emphasis. The first section is made up of poems about the natural world conceived with the widest perspective. The opening poem is a brilliant sonnet about the eruption of massive colony of the weird algae emiliania huxleyi:

Fifty billion Ehux algae converge at the surface
of the Southern Ocean, their brilliance a mirror,
a mayday, that might well be mistaken
for the second coming . . .

The view here is from space and the poem bypasses the human to move quickly down to the narrowest of perspectives: a lone algae inside the gut of a cuttlefish. Although most of the other poems of this section don’t really follow the lead of this poem, it sets both the tone and the material. The second section, about which I’ll say more later, is a seven part invention on a single photograph. The third section is high-powered abstraction in the Borgesian mode, full of poems about infinite libraries and imaginary books while the final section contains poems of the sort that are familiar to any reader of contemporary poetry: their perspective is narrow, local and ethical, and some are lyric poems describing personal experience (I rather like the one about sitting in an abandoned EH Holden as a child).

This division into four is a sensible move because it increases the ability of any poem to illuminate one in its immediate area. The book’s second poem, for example, following the miraculous algae bloom, is about the build-up of plastics in the “horse latitudes” in the South Pacific. Being placed next to “Communion” makes us see it as a ghastly negative image of the behaviour of the algae. But fighting against these processes of thematic division is the unified sensibility of the poet and so the compartments allow a lot of metaphorical water to pass through. The “social” poems of the final section, for example, often have a rather abstract edge as though the style of the third section had infiltrated them. “Emigre”, a poem that wants to speak about the difficulties of the economic immigrant is conceived as a semi-surreal drama:

. . . . . 
One morning, Ali fails to arrive
but Sam turns up on time, wearing
Ali’s suit. No one mentions it.
Named for his mother’s father, Jahan
arrives late: every other morning he fears
he’s lost his way; tries retracing his steps;
ends up confused; whispers a prayer
to any god who’s listening; sets out again.

And in the very conception of this poem we can see the sort of swirling that the environmental poems of the first section focus on. “Asylum (Gk.) sans (Fr.) Guano (Esp.)” appears in the first section because it is about the common Mynah, a bird that has been irritating Australians for a century and a half. But of course the poem is really about asylum seekers and thus might well have been slotted in the book’s final section.

Also in this first section of Babel Fish is a poem which is, as its title, “Oblique”, suggests, about poetic method, about how poetry comes at things:

Best not to come at the thing
head on – the glass is hard,
the wooden frame sturdy.

Instead, let your eyes follow
the flight path of the swamp hawk
at first light, or her ally,

the early morning shadow, leaning well aslant . . .

Fittingly it ends with thinking about how to end: “How then, to end a poem / about a bird you can’t quite name, / but sings beautifully?”

A number of the poems in the first section and one, “Nocturne”, in the final section, make an important move towards trying to evolve some sort of poetic style which will be more able to express the swirling interactions of the world. So we get continuously recurring though modified groupings as in the opening lines of “Nocturne”:

The cats. The crickets. The moon
speaking in tides. The caged bird,
wings fluttering against the dark.
The dark the cage the fluttering,
grace notes scratching an invisible
skin. The tidal echolalia, moon
turning and returning ocean
to coastline. The tide the moon
the ocean, the long slow haulage
of the stars . . .

I’m not sure how successful these sorts of poems are but I want to celebrate the attempt to stretch the rigid rules of syntax in such a way that sentence structure and subject are brought closer together. Conventional syntax tends to emphasise a human perspective and represents the movement of the mind whereby the agent is always privileged. It’s hard in English, without using endless passives, to get rid of the interpreting power of the poet’s consciousness and try to let the world speak for itself for once.

This focus on method brings me to the book’s second section by way of conclusion. Written to accompany an exhibition of photographs by the poet’s brother, it is seven responses to one of the photographs. This photograph of a line of six dead foxes and a single cat strung up on a fence is included in the book which means that we are spared the distracting problem of trying to recreate it from the poems themselves. The seven poems are unashamedly in the style of Hughes’s Crow poems – “Cocking his head one way / then another, Crow ponders / Death’s neat arrangement” – but conceptually they do their own thing, the seven poems all working around the number seven. What works here, I think, that makes me more impressed by these poems than I am by, say, “Nocturne”, is that structure and style are a specific solution to a specific problem. Perhaps that’s how all new styles in poetry begin.