Peter Bakowski: Our Ways on Earth

Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2022, 73pp.

Contemporary poetry, at least for the last two centuries, has often been accused of obscurity and difficulty. True, this may be a result of woolly thinking or bad writing, but it can also come from a desire to push into unknown territories: territories of language, of the inside of human minds and emotions, and, more recently, of texts themselves. It’s rare to find a poet who is simultaneously comprehensible at a single reading and also poetically and thematically sophisticated. Peter Bakowski has always seemed someone with his hand in the air offering to step into this breach. And there is nothing accidental or unconscious about this. Many of his poems have statements to make about both the function and mechanisms of his poetry. “Fire, fire, in the mouth of many things”, the first poem of his second book, In the Human Night, uses images bordering on the surrealist to require a transformative power for poetry:

I want your poem to
turn my train ticket into a canary,
I want your poem to be like
a gunshot in a convent,
I want your poem to cure
the forlorn man who can’t see any further 
than the horizon of his beer,
I want your poem to 
turn his eyebrows into ants
that will bring him a tambourine . . .

Of course this is distanced in a way that something beginning “I want my poems to . . .” would not be, but I’m sure it is designed to be read as an expression of a desired power for poetry rather than, say, as a pastiche of a rejection slip by an over-excited editor, or the encouraging remarks of a fellow-poet.

By the time we reach this most recent book, the opening poem has become “Driving Instructions” conceived as an extended metaphor whereby writing a poem is imagined to be analogous to driving:

Start the poem with a verb,
release the handbrake that’s a comma,
but slow for the intersection of two thoughts
.  . . . .
Upon reaching the destination, try to accept that it may not be
the destination which you had in mind,
but that’s poetry for you.
Check that your licence for it
hasn’t expired.

And between these two there are a host of poems speaking about what he wants his poetry to do, about the effect of reading other poets and where poetry stands (perhaps shakily) in what is really a fully-expressed humanist vision. Running throughout the books are a series of self-portraits, a sub-section of the portrait poems that I’ll speak about in a moment. One of the first of these, “Self-portrait in East Melbourne Flat, 22 June 1994” from In the Human Night finishes:

. . . . . 
In the meantime there are
more poems to write.
I like to try to put
a small truth in each one.
Say, about the size
of a mouse or a matchbox.

And in the same book is a poem for Charles Bukowski – another writer of “say it simply like it is” poems and a poet with probably the same Slavic surname as Bakowski – which says:

. . . . . 
You’ve taught me
to be lean in the poem,
to say the thing
the way the hammer
says things
to the nail. . .

You can detect the slight scent of a danger here in that the plain-speaking model often derives its strength from the intensity of experience and sometimes that experience is based on a fantasy of a kind of pared-down, vagabond, hard-drinking, peripatetic life that is generically American, not Australian. No doubt this has its origins in the Depression but a century later it seems a distinctly American fantasy. In another country an equivalent fantasy might be of staying in one’s village, growing gracefully old, smiling at one’s grandchildren and killing pigs. And, as readers of this site will know, I don’t like the idea that these fantasise are transferable across cultures, even if they come from a country which has had, especially in the last seventy-five years, an overwhelming influence on our popular culture. Bakowski writes a number of poems on this theme, crediting the model of the Americans as something that, in his earlier life, encouraged him to travel, virtually penniless, and thus escape the dreariness of factory work. But as the books have gone on, this model has rather faded and the poet of the later books is one who has his own view of poetry, people and places and doesn’t attempt to tap into a foreign fantasy.

I described Bakowski’s stance as humanist and it’s a comment that deserves both expanding and defending. The core of it involves focus: that four-centuries-old shift away from cosmic and god-based perspectives to a human position. “Man as the measure of all things” doesn’t mean the abandonment of the transcendental but rather the notion that the human is the standpoint from which perspectives can move out into cosmic proportions or down into sub-atomic ones. There is very little of God or the cosmos in Bakowski, or, for that matter, of quantum mechanics. A “human” perspective is also, though, a double one: it involves looking into the mystery of the self but at the same time it involves looking at the mysteries of one’s fellow humans. There is nothing, in other words, necessarily narcissistic about the perspective that replaced the God-centred one of the high European middle-ages: plumbing the characteristics of one’s fellows can be as daunting as speculating about the attributes of the deity. As another of Bakowski’s self-portraits, “Self-Portrait with Beliefs, 19 October 1997”, says:

. . . . . 
I’m trying to write about
what it is like
to be
a human being,
but without fail,
each one I encounter
causes me
to tear up
my latest definition. . .

It’s difficult for a critic not to move into a classificatory approach when faced with the substantial number of poems contained in Bakowski’s books. Perhaps the most important category are the portraits but it’s a category that you have immediately to subdivide. There are the self-portraits, the portraits of the creative greats (and less greats), fictional portraits, and the portraits of fellow citizens. This last group, and the author’s benevolent stance towards them, is well introduced by an early poem:

. . . . .
The streets, of course
are full of poems,
rushing off to work,
fretting at each kerb,
waiting for the hiccup
of each cursed traffic-light. . . .

This poem, “The Dictionary is Just a Beautiful Menu” adopts a tone of note-to-self – “Tsk at their velocity / and bad taste in footwear, / but write of your love for them still, / write of your love for them still. / Undress them carefully . . .” – but the opening poem of Personal Weather, looking at a similar scene of “City workers during morning rush hour”, is less self-admonitory and more aspirational:

. . . . . 
There’s the story of each person, on the trains, trams and street corners.
How vulnerable you are, how strong you are. I want to reveal your
Essence via the camera of this poem, as you swarm and 
Rush in the business district, glancing at your wristwatches.

There are a number of these “portraits of ordinary people” in this most recent book and they all show a sensitive non-judgementalism and a blessed freedom from the various currently available ideologies. “Backwater Song” describes a potentially fraught situation in which a man’s partner has abandoned him and his meetings with an overweight sheriff who had slept with her. Both are profoundly unhappy and ill=placed men carrying a lot of bad things with them, but the poem focusses on the slow growth of their relationship:

. . . . .
This year Floyd and I have gone forwards - 
talk about favourite baseball pitchers and Dixieland tunes,
how both of us don’t always like to study ourselves in the mirror
first thing in the morning . . .

“Isolated Cottage off Gelantipy Road” also describes a relationship between two men who are a fair way down the social ladder but is is rather different in that it doesn’t suggest that there are any dark waters flowing underneath. Whereas there might have been symbolic significance in the fact that the men of “Backwater Song” at the end of the poem are playing chess, there isn’t the same symbolic potential at the end of this poem where at Christmas the two friends share lamb chops: “raw for Thommo, well-grilled for Ron”.

The ”creative” portraits of Our Ways on Earth include Joseph Cornell (the maker of box collages), Caetano Veloso (the Brazilian singer/activist) and Syd Barrett as well as an opening group of Lucian Freud, Philip Larkin and Graham Greene. None of these are of the titanic dimensions of the subjects of the odes of Beaver’s Odes and Days, but a reader is always interested in whether a poet like Bakowski is responding to similarities or exploring differences. The Freud-Larkin-Greene group focusses on the relationships between artists and people and thus investigates the issues involved in the act of portraiture itself: both technical and moral. The Freud poem, for example, looks at Freud’s confronting treatment of his subjects, a kind of extreme portraiture that can be damaging to both subject and artist. The Larkin poem catches him in the middle of a letter to Monica, also concerned about “injuring the recipient” as well as conveying himself as a writer who is “selfish, unfaithful, dutiful, supportive, morbid, witty”. And finally, Greene is seen in his character of traveller and visitor, something which makes a reader think not only of Bakowski’s portraiture but also of his own travels. Greene is described as melting into a foreign (Asian) city, picking up its method of operating while learning to “blend into an arcade’s protective shadow / or move surely through a barrage of peddlers”. The blending, though, involves dissolving one’s self and so it’s possible to read this poem as an exploration of the way in which the art of portraiture (which is, after all, no more than one of the attempts to understand something which is different) requires a loss of the self.

These various portrait types are only one of the kinds of poems that Bakowski produces and, as I’ve suggested, they are a complex enough group in themselves. I haven’t, for example, spoken about poems from earlier books which are titled as portraits but are of fictional characters: “Portrait of Edith Murtone: Fiction Writer”, for example, from Personal Weather or “Portrait of Leonard Drysdale, District Sales Manager, Birmingham, England, 1946” from Beneath Our Armour. And then there are those which have a first person point of view as opposed to those in the third person. One of the new developments in Our Ways on Earth is a series of poems spaced throughout the latter part of the book dedicated to the lives of a (presumably fictional) family. Whether these are portraits – they don’t announce themselves as such – or simply narrative character studies is a moot point but it’s a reminder of the way portraiture can overcome its status as a single penetrating snap-shot and move into something closer to continuous narrative.

But any catalogue of the types of poem which Bakowski writes would be very limited if it only dealt with portraits. He has a nice line in very short – often two-line – pieces which can be images or just witticisms. One, in this new book, called “Beneficiary” – “Far below the hairpin bend / a fox drinks rainwater / from an upturned hubcap” – nicely, with the help of its title, suggests how the human disaster of a crash can be reinterpreted in the natural world as something valuable. It demonstrates a sharp eye. Another of these, “At the Dentist” – “You may find out / that not every tooth likes its neighbour”- is what I have called a witticism and when these kind of ideas are gathered together you get another category of Bakowski poem. They could be called “list poems” I suppose and can be found in many of the earlier books: “Times for Drinking Tea in China” from Beneath Our Armour is one such poem: “When you’ve bargained well at the market // When you’ve cleared stones from a field . . .”. In Our Ways on Earth there is “Observations and Suggestions” mysteriously dedicated to the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke:

A puddle is water relaxing.

The middle rungs of ladders don’t get the credit they deserve.

It’s hard to get an octopus to try on a jacket.

The one-winged bird may peck the hardest.

Don’t get used to being used.

Look at what you do for a living and at what living you do.

Witticisms and images are all part of an attempt to describe “what it is like / to be / a human being”. In the former, language with its odd accidents and structures does the work while in the second the world reveals part of its mystery to the sharp-eyed observer. It seems right that such comparatively slight pieces should form part of Bakowski’s project.

Finally, of course, there is the issue of poetry itself, especially a poetry priding itself on caring for its reader even if it doesn’t always care for its poet by leading him (as the book’s first poem says) to destinations he hadn’t entirely expected. Wit and images are part of the fabric of the larger poems and do the work of sustaining them and preventing their being nothing more than prosy explorations. It’s somehow fitting that the last poem of the book should echo the first poem of “In the Human Night” in being a “list poem” focussing on the power and transformative possibilities of the art:

A poem is more jazz than recipe,
more breast milk than formula.

A poem is daily life
or an inky break from daily life.

A poem is the glad yellow of lemons.

A poem is an odd sock made into a hand puppet.

A poem is medicine which tastes better than you’d imagined.

Sometimes it’s a big breaking wave
effervescent around your driftwood bones.
Sometimes it’s a big blundering wave that flattens your sandcastle -
so you start another one.

An optimistic view of what poetry might be able to do – and what it might demand of its poet – as part of a simultaneously modest and wildly ambitious humanism.