Rereadings IV: Richard Packer: Being Out of Order

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1972, 73pp

This “Rereading”, like that of Norman Talbot’s Son of a Female Universe, takes its impetus not from the desire to investigate an entire book so much as to celebrate a much loved poem. In this case it is Richard Packer’s “The American Age” which I first saw in Tom Shapcott’s 1970 anthology Australian Poetry Now and then again, in its more natural habitat as part of a poet’s consistent output, in Being Out of Order, published two years later. I’ve known it, in other words, for just about half a century and I could still, if pressed, quote most of it from memory. Here it is:

In smoky weather Mal and I strolled the south sector,
past the crumbling husks of yesterday’s children,
and the gardeners watering the wasted bulletins
from eyes like squashed bullets.
                           “Mal,” I said. “Mal, old battler,
I’ve noticed a petrol flavour in the fountain,
and only this morning, only this morning, Mal,
a flaming prophet bent like a croquet hoop across
my coffee, while thrushes mourned;
and I emptied a stranger’s blood from my gloves.
I think it’s our time, brother pilgrim,
to summon our creatures, and take an ecstatic trip
somewhere beyond this cruelled horizon.”

Sadness crimped his mouth like a slip of string,
and we paused in a grove of broken flagpoles.
One more monument melted in screams,
and the gardeners shook. “Listen,”
said Mal. “On Mars the trivial sun creeps up
faint as my fingernail. Nothing sings unless
the lonely grains of ice -
their tinny dribble in those bankrupt pockets.
No harvest ripples there, and nothing sings.
                               Louden your transistor. And
pluck away that evergreen ear of yours for angelic trumpets.
Too late, too late for such election.
We have all fallen to living in our feet
and the American age. We must picnic here
on the plastic grass forever, and admire the many skulls.[“]

Face after face died of no rice, as we sat quite broken,
watching Christ shave his armpits for movie dollars,
and munching our TV dinner.
                                                    Overhead,
the steely locusts foamed and whined: the gardeners
begged an early shower of paper-clips.
It was true!
                    It was true!
We were parked for good in the American age.

It’s not difficult to sketch in some of its virtues. Not the least is the fact that American domination of Australian popular culture – usually dated as beginning in the postwar period and thus only in its infancy in the early seventies – has grown to be all-dominating in the way the poem suggests to the point where it is unravellable. We really are stuck though the locus of power has changed from Hollywood and Washington to Silicon Valley. More important in the poetic dimension is the way in which the surreal imaginative leaps match the fact that American culture has always been a home for the wilder reaches of the apocalyptic world view. This view, invented by Jewish writers more than two millennia ago to explain what their god was doing in allowing a series of other empires to trample over his covenanted people, has a well-established place in the “religions of the book” (intriguingly “The American Age” was translated and included in Dimitris Tsaloumas’ anthology of Australian poetry in Greek. You feel that it may have made a lot of sense in the poetic culture of that country). “The American Age” is, to summarise, a poem of contemporary comment that creates a style which embodies the situation – odd happenings in the pre-apocalyptic phase matched with personal impasse – that it wants to talk about.

Reading the rest of Packer’s work, one wants to say, initially, that this is an unusual poem for him. There is certainly nothing else stylistically like it in his three books of poems and his condemnations of contemporary life never, as far as I can recall, specifically blame it on the impositions of an alien culture; the villains are much closer to home. But it does fit neatly into the arc of his obsessions.

Packer’s output is hardly voluminous. There are three books of poetry and a stand-alone verse radio play, The Powerhouse, over a period of twenty-two years. But two of the books of poetry themselves include radio plays (assuming the twenty-two part “The Great Food Animal” from Serpentine Futures is a radio play rather than an extended suite of poems designed for radio performance) and this, by my counting, leaves a total of eighty-seven poems. And “The American Age”, coincidentally no doubt, appears exactly in the middle and so, though other poems don’t mimic its surreal flights, it does have a thematic centrality. And this isn’t in blaming imported American culture for the woes of the world but in describing a state in which there is no escape. In fact the arc of Packer’s three books of poetry – Prince of the Plague Country, Being Out of Order and Serpentine Futures – could be said to move from struggles to escape a bad world to explorations of possibilities of flight. It’s no accident that the first poem of Serpentine Futures – a complex piece with something of the grotesque imaginative intensity of “The American Age” – is called “The History of Flight”, the final word appearing, of course, in its two meanings of, first, taking off into a higher plane and, second, shamefully attempting to escape.

In general, in Packer’s poetry, there is a fury with the world – mercantile, military and soulless – which is matched by a fury with himself and his inability to escape or transcend or rectify that world. He is a being out of order in a plague country. There is a dynamic balance here which serves the poetry well. As I’ve said before on this site, Australian readers are likely to be wary of traditional satire – the ridiculing of contemporary vices and foibles – because it implies a stance of superiority on the part of the poet, something that infringes our sense of egalitarianism. Packer’s gaze is just as hostile when directed towards himself as it is when directed at the world – though for different reasons. He rarely castigates himself for being complicit with the mercantile world that he writes so much about, but castigates himself for being unable to move beyond it. As with Rimbaud, the alchemical, transformational power of art fails and leaves nothing more than an experience of a season in hell.

At lot of this can be seen in the first poem of the first book, “Prelude”, where a saxophone is heard playing in what can be recognised as a fairly standard allegorical depiction of the world as being made up of a prison – for all those implicated as victims or oppressors – and a set of equally imprisoning, loveless relationships for those who are, ostensibly, free:

. . . . . 
     It called against the windows
to husbands fuddled by their spawning debts,
     to odourless, lacquered wives,
urging them dance beneath the bruised sky
     with the jailbirds, their fellows,
for dead Orpheus, whose gay flesh they’d ripped
     for sandwiches on desks,
     and whose sweet blood they’d thieved
to guzzle from thermos flasks inside
     air-conditioned crypts.

     No-one became Eurydice
for that pain serenading from the slum
     built even in the tallest mind.
The tough wall stood. The townfolk drowsed
     on their pillows of nonentity.
I cried in my turn for a millennium
     beyond the sleep of flesh,
     for a faithful torch to lead
my soul’s long exile to its bride
     and faultless home.

Yes, it’s all a bit overwrought but it should be remembered that it’s an early poem from a long time ago. But it is, interestingly, about the way art stands apart from contemporary life and also about the way in which it fails. The melody (the song of the dismembered Orpheus) wants to transform the world by summoning it to a millennium in which lions lie down with lambs or, as the second stanza says, “warders would tear off their uniforms / and their bought importance / as prisoners clasped each other / each forgiving his brothers’ fall / and the long arm”. And at the end there is a return to the fantasy of the apocalypse which will introduce a millennium in which the soul is reunited with its bride – Orpheus, through his creativity, is reunited with Eurydice. Significantly for an essay involving “The American Age”, the book’s second poem is called “No Way Out”. This poem is an extended attack on the self, though there is an element of blaming external matters in it. Wanting to “ditch / the carcass of my life”, the speaker goes over the features of that life. Religions (and Packer has a developed interest in a broad variety of religions) fail him: “I’ve found no creed to be / the needed trainer for / the squabbling, lusting snouts / in my menagerie” as do the attractions of a socialised state which has “a master plan / to make all brothers” yet “can only fill your guts”. Ultimately the three possible releases that the poem deals with – “girls, states or prophets” – fail the task of finding “a cure / for being my disease”. Another poem, “Warning to the Rider”, provides a new perspective on this characteristic impasse by suggesting the image of a remorseless Hindu cycle of rebirth: “Rider of the poisoned wheel, / remember when your breath retreats / you must accept each cell again” and this odd conjunction of a Jewish apocalyptic sense with the Law of Karma seems to be the seed behind “Reborn Babylon” where the modern urban world, so much a source of loathing to Packer, is a modern version of ancient Babylon – not the real Babylon of course, but the symbolic Babylon of apocalyptic texts:

. . . . . 
For Babylon fallen as the seed
of yet another Babylon,
with only darkness in between,
is something you have always known.

And finally, added to this odd mix is a dash of Kabbalah. “The Night After Wormwood” is an extended dialogue between Everyman, the last survivor of mankind after a comet strike (the star, Wormwood, of the “Book of Revelation”), and the idealised figure of Adam Kadmon. Everyman takes on himself the guilt of allowing the world to become a soulless place:

. . . . . 
I now confess that I
unleashed the judgement hail
by sitting deaf and small,
and was the criminal
cursed by those dying lips. . .

And the poem finishes with Adam Kadmon invoking cycles of rebirth: “Sleep now, and wait the wheel’s next spin. / It is my peace in which you drown”.

Prince of the Plague Country has a couple of features then that save it from being nothing more than a grumpy poet’s assault on the obvious faults of his community. There is the odd synthesis of religious/philosophical interests for a start but, above all, you get a sense of poems motivated by a profound irritation directed both outwardly and inwardly. Irritation seems to be the trigger that wakes up Packer’s muse and, if the poems are angry and condemnatory, they still seem to derive from internal irritations. Packer began as a New Zealand poet – this first book was published there – and by the time of Being Out of Order had moved to Australia (interestingly his third book was published while he was living in England, thus making a nicely patterned triptych). Being Out of Order is a far superior book though it is based on the same irritations and frustrations. Whereas Prince of the Plague Country began with a poem about the inadequacy of poetry in a blighted environment, Being Out of Order begins with “Madam” a piece from White Goddess-land in which women – or Woman – has the double role of seducer/lover and destroyer. It’s a fitting introduction since the poems of this book do tend to focus on the infinite complexities of the relations between the sexes. And the dominant mode is dramatic monologue from a carefully chosen, oblique perspective. And so, for example, the Pygmalion/Galatea story is seen from the perspective of Pygmalion’s vulgar (ans invented) agent. And the story is given a deliberately bleak twist – the intensity of Galatea’s love kills Pygmalion and she ends up being shipped off as makeweight in a deal with a Cretan trader. Like all good oblique dramatic monologues we look into a complex and important situation – here about the idea that men fall in love with an idealised image rather than a real woman with bad results for both – through a not especially insightful or sympathetic narrator. One of the best, and funniest, of them is “The Wrong Beach” in which a naked, Venus Anadyomene kind of character, complete with shell, appears off the coast of some bleak northern beach:

. . . . . 
Our king was there before us. His iron toes awash,
he leaned that lonely, willed asperity of his
upon the pommel of his sword. The constant mountain wind
changed spray to diamonds in his steely beard.
“Get back,” he shouted, while we set our useless mutters
at him, moths at armour. “Get back, you warming slut.
This is no beach for you. Go south at once, Go south.”

She turned her peachy breasts away, and south she went
without complaint . . .

The poem finishes with the narrator – a minor figure in the king’s comitatus – being sensitive to what this rejection costs:

Not that I blame him too hard, since he is our leader
who brought us here for saving by rough elements,
and dines himself off granite as his law requires.
There’s time enough, he says, for chasing nymphs in heaven,
when we’ve proven heat can’t steam away our wills.
This rings fair enough: and if he stared too sadly on
that dimpled backside, well – it helps to know he too is human.

Though it might at one level be about men’s devotion to various causes and the way these require a controlling of normal sensual instincts (in other words the kind of processes required by, say, monasticism) it is also about the comic cultural differences between North and South. The thought of a Botticelli goddess being stared at by people used to, say, the abstracted interlaced art of medieval Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians paints a very funny picture.

The last poems of Being Out of Order contain what are for Packer comparatively positive impulses if we interpret positive to mean seeing glimpses of how the frustrating impasse of the situation focussed on in the early work can be escaped – how we can release the parking brake of “The American Age”. “Where One Goes From Here” returns in its setting to the poems of Prince of the Plague Country: life is imagined to be a prison in which one is at the mercy of the warders. The speaker provides a list of pieces of advice to those wanting to plan their escape and these suggestions have as their common theme deceit and subterfuge. One should, for example, always speak loudly “of your intent / to seek a nectared atoll in some warmer sea” because the guards will be working on the assumption “that talkers never try the wall”. One should “endure the fists of discipline, insisting only that / your punishment’s by regulations not by whim” and you should “avoid heroics. No successful saboteur / leaped openly at throats”. Eventually when the guards have been “mirrored . . . / into the sleep of trust”, you can make your escape:

                                 Good luck, then.
Exercise the muscles of your faith
by studying the messages of those who’ve fled
before you, and now drink from individual springs.
They are brothers by consent
                                                    and more than kin to you.
Strangling one’s own hope’s the deepest danger;
the hope of fruitful islands where the heart is free.

“Rocks” is a celebration of those ordinary stones that can be said to be in order rather than out of it – “They are being what they ought / and where. // Which is more than can be said for humans, / who seem always to be nipping / each other’s rumps” – and they serve as symbols not of a desired transcendence but rather as seeds of what just possibly might produce some future blossoming:

. . . . .
What I see most to be envied in rocks is
the cool with which they make walls for us,
keeping us from the chirpy neighbour
and other beasts
                             while knowing all the time
they enclose the green shoot of a future  
that will dismiss us
                                   like the pterodactyl.
Rocks are truly the eggs of our impossible,
this being why we are driven to employ them
as bodies for cathedrals
                                           and gods.
They hold the voices of the sweeter unborn
we sense
                 and work to elevate them so
they may plead for us
                                        at altars we’re denied.

This of course looks to a long term future but the next poem, “Good Mornings”, is about the immediate present and its very occasional felicities that reside inside us “warming like your seed”. And the final poem, “Homecoming”, is a kind of elegy in what is, for Packer, a decidedly rhapsodic mode. It’s core concept is to identify the freed state, the “fruitful islands” dreamed of in “Where One Goes From Here” (which precedes it in the book), not as an imaginary place to be discovered but as a home always carried within:

There will be a homecoming. There will.
       Our cavern is not forever.
Roar of sunlight on the naked eye,
the snapped chain, the dance,
the unexpected bride and the absolute honey
in the restored garden,
these will be yours, will be mine, and together.

. . . . . 
The green 
shoot will break the rock. It will flower;
our tombs of loss will shatter,
and there will be a homecoming.
There will.
               There will.
                                  There will.

It’s not a positive vision that Packer invokes very often. It balances the sense of being mired in social and personal failure that dominates the poems of the first book but, as always with poems of assertion, a reader is never sure how much it is a triumphant achievement and how much it is the putting on of a brave and hopeful face, a result of an “evergreen ear . . . for angelic trumpets”. While Packer’s final book, Serpentine Futures (published with his Christian name altered to Lewis) is a bit beyond the ambit of this review it might be worth pointing out that if we treat the long sequence “The Great Food Animal” as a radio piece, like “The Uncommercial Traveller” which concludes Being Out of Order, then the last poems in Packer’s last book concern a visit to Auschwitz. Packer’s own comment on the book’s cover says:

. . . concentration camp facts always downwardly transcend creative values. It is probably impossible to write a successful poem about the holocaust, or any other apocalypse for that matter. One tries to fail as honourably as one can.

Packer died in 1989, three years after the publication of Serpentine Futures, at the age of fifty-four. His intense, irritated poetry which seemed to be derived from a dissatisfaction with himself as much as with the wider world was matched by his personality: he was notoriously quarrelsome. Bruce Beaver, who shared New Zealand origins with Packer, and was a good long-term friend, wrote a poem about him after his death:

Dear man, like me you were quite awful while you lived.
But then, we were half-dead for most of the time
and in these times of semi-thanatopsis we came closer
to life than most of those we knew; the partly-living
who did not acknowledge death in any of its varied
manifestations, a friend to some, a friendly enemy
to all, my alter-ego, your conscious shadow self,
certainly no stranger.

. . . . .
 
                                                            But
the big white bird took you away beyond all day-
and night-life once upon a last time of an apocalyptic
hyper-tensive seizure when your heart couldn’t cope
any longer with your already out-dated
attempt at a new self, half a new name, skinhead hairdo
or the like, leather gear and an improbable
turnover of new words minted too late in your last days. . .

Jean Kent: Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks

Sydney: Pitt St Poetry, 2012, 86pp.

Jean Kent’s Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is an immensely likable collection, so likable that readers may miss some of its sophistication, thinking it no more than a set of poems about travels in France and Lithuania. It is actually a good deal more than that. Travel poetry, once it gets beyond the basic level of “I’ve written a poem about my trip to the Grand Canyon”, is usually about the self and the way in which aspects of the self, surprising even to the poet, are revealed when that self is faced by an experience of the alien. It is fine to have poems which come from a continual renewing of contact with some personal sacred ground but the self only develops (or “only reveals itself” – depending on your ideology) by moving into the unfamiliar. Even a poetry resolutely opposed to being based on a lyrically conceived self learns about (and expresses) the observing self when faced with an experience of the foreign: see, as an example, Laurie Duggan’s sequence, “Onati Notebook” from his The Pursuit of Happiness, reviewed on this site in May.

For the Jean Kent of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks , travel is a linguistic experience as much as anything else and the poems harbour a lot of a poet’s deliberately bad cross-language puns: pain/pain, les Loups/loops, “Aah oui”/”Are we”, rues/ruse and many more. It is also, as its title suggests, an experience of linguistic dislocation. But linguistic dislocation isn’t simply a matter of being in a country and not speaking the language, what we might call the abrasion of travel at a domestic level. There are, for a start, more languages than spoken languages: the languages of the senses, of bodily movement, even the weird syntax of foreign customs – both informal and those formalised in laws and institutions. And, to complicate matters, just as a famous episode of Dr Who contains the observation that “A door, once opened, may be crossed in either direction” so travellers, instead of being passive victims of linguistic confusion, bring their own languages with them to disorient the natives. You get some sense of the complexities involved here in the book’s opening, a triptych called “’Le Weekend’ in Paris”, the first poem of which begins:

Sundays in Paris unsettle us with silence.
The grumble of traffic stays dream-distant,
an argument with air in a language
we apprehend with our senses, its light fur
the only foreignness against our skins
when we wake. With the curtains closed
we could be anywhere.
Doodling dialogues of slow shoes
under our windows; in the distance, bells. . . .

Significantly the title of this poem is a “borrowing” from English, much objected to by purists, and the fourth word of the poem, and thus of the book, is “unsettle” that odd word that simultaneously describes translocation and merely jangled nerves. The vision of Paris in the final poem of this group of three, “The Language of Light”, is one not of unsettling linguistic foreignness but of a city partly transformed by its visitors. And these visitors are traced back to grandparents who, as soldiers, passed through Paris in the First World War. Sitting on park chairs (significantly the poem says “we settle briefly / on these wrought-iron chairs”), Kent describes an experience whereby all visitors across languages and across times harmonise with the language of Paris itself:

. . . . . 
Poles and Italians, Australians and Africans,
small boys and motorised boats all blend into a buzz
swarming from under the acid-yellow horse-chestnut leaves
. . . . .
                                                  The light,
as it negotiates peace settlements
within this temporary country
of cold shoulders,
is speaking everyone’s ancestral tongue.

But if dislocation seems the immediate, primary experience of the poems of this book, the search for the sort of harmonies spoken of here is what gives them both drive and shape. It is no surprise, then, that the figure of Rilke (a great poet of harmonising) looms large and “Following Rilke to the Paris Zoo”, also a sequence of three poems, is probably the core of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks. These are poems structured by a process which encourages the inclusion of the most disparate material and then shows that this can be harmonised into an aesthetic whole. I don’t want to bore readers but it is hard to explain how this works without looking briefly at the structures of the poems themselves.

“The Path of the Panther” begins with an epigraph from Rilke’s poem, setting up the expectation that the poem itself will begin with an expedition to the Jardin des Plantes. So the first pleasant dissonant shock is that it begins with the Penguin Book of German Verse, read in another country and in another time (this opening chimes with my own experience since I used this book as a school text myself, a few years before Jean Kent, and I too have kept my copy):

The margins of my Penguin Book of German Verse
are shadowy with beasts. There was no panther
in that schoolgirl text – I found him later, alone -
but still around each captured poem, voices snarl.
“Over all the hilltops,” Goethe promised “Ruh” -
. . . . .

The second dissonance allowed into the poem is the endless, mechanical annotations demanded of students and embarrassing to read forty years later. Metaphorically they are like the bars on the panther’s cage, although the teacher, whom we meet at greater length in other poems, “rose like a flamingo / from our flock of galahs”, dealing with Rilke’s “Liebes Lied” with its statement that everything that touches us (“alles, was uns anruehrt”) is material from which a single harmonious note can be drawn. The poem then goes on to deal not only with our inability to erase the past but with the way in which the past writes on us. The cover is:

a calligraphy as hypnotic and alien as the so-fashionable
white lace pantyhose I wore then. They disfigured my legs,
my mother said with shudders of distaste. They reminded her
of the ritual scarrings of primitive tribes. And why
would a young Queensland girl want to look like that?

No likelihood of that now, as middle-age inscribes
my thighs, slowing me into a macrame of veins no mini-skirt
could hope to happily skim. I have been written over 
as much as this book . . .
. . . . . 
I can only will the spaces of my world to widen
as I settle for such chaos, the bars of my bones growing shadow-light
round their own zoo of wild and gentle beasts.

All told, I think this is a rather wonderful poem. It also links up with other Australian poems. It has, for example, a touch of Gwen Harwood’s “Midwinter” about it in that it deals with a text from the past which turns up to speak to us in a future which that past could not have predicted. And, like the other poems in this sequence, there is a touch of the structure of Jennifer Maiden’s longer poems where the onward drive pulls more and more disparate items into the field of the poem, only to transform them into a surprising whole. And, at the end, it even recall’s Beaver’s image of his tortured self as a zoo in Letters to Live Poets. In “The Path of the Panther” the “whole” of the poem is summarised in the wish to entertain and finally harmonise the most widely disparate elements both in the outside world, in the world of the poem and in the inner world, her own internal zoo. The poem says you have to “settle for such chaos” but you also have to settle such chaos.

In the third poem of this group, “In the Jardin des Plantes”, we actually get to the home of Rilke’s panther. I presume, though I can’t be confident, that the roundabout path to the place itself in the three poems is yet another dissonance requiring to be absorbed and harmonised. It reminds me of the principle of the labyrinth whereby the harder our logical, meaning-seeking brains try to get us to the centre – in the labyrinth of reading and writing it becomes the central significance – the more we are thrown towards the outside. At any rate this poem makes a feature of its accretive structure. Once again the disparate worlds brought into the jardin involve youth, school and German lessons. When the poet is in the garden she sees children shouting “Les Loups! Les Loups!” when they see the models of wolves circling the hill. And this visual pun, of “looping”, is the primary motif of the poem. Memory “loops” over her and she recalls reading Anna Karenina under the desk at school. A Russian novel recalls Russian wolves and school recalls the pop group of the time, The Animals. The German teacher, the flamingo among galahs of the earlier poem, reappears. A victim of invasion, imprisonment and expulsion in the war – ultimate experiences of dislocation – she “encircles us / with futures doomed to rot”:

. . . . . 
A quarter of a century later, still I feel the sting
of her voice after she stops. Vibrated between
raw throated flowers and silvery circlings of wolves
. . . 
I almost forgive her for her love of sidling round us, hackling
our bare young necks between pigtails
with promises of suffering.

“O susses Lied! O sweet song!” Equivocal as history,
under Rilke’s bow her disparate voices chime.
. . . . .

Another sequence introduces, if not chaos then at least disjunctiveness, by being built around postcards from sunny Australia, sent by family and friends as if these “have suddenly become tourists in their own foreign land” reflected arches of the Pont Neuf or of Margaret Preston with Utrillo is often a motif drawn from the postcard. So a friend’s comment on seeing a black snake at home in Queensland echoes as an image for a snakelike queue for visas. In “Crocodiles in the Marais”, a card from Lake Macquarie with a picture of a crocodile moves the poem onto memories of the scaly skin of the Monstera Deliciosa which allegorises out into a statement about the frustrations of both living and reading with experiences that reveal themselves only at their own pace – like the slowly progressing, sweet semi-rotting of the Monstera fruit:

                                                       So much sweetness
in each fruit-salad phrase, no wonder we longed for our tongues
to be treated to whole poems, instantly. The monster, though,
was wiser. After the first ravishing: threats of razor blades.
When the skin resists, we learned, let it rest . . .

Now, in much longed-for Paris at an age when she should have a tough enough skin to be resistant to any stripping she finds herself ill with shingles, resulting in an intense surface pain in her neck. Confined to bed (“I imitate Proust”) she has a sense that the city has peeled her.

Though most of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is built around a stay in Paris – something that might be a strain for any readers who are mildly Francophobic – there is one section, the second, devoted to a visit to in-laws (“the family my father-in-law left fifty years ago”) in Lithuania. In these poems we meet the same linguistic sensitivity:

Ruta’s favourite word is “maybe”.
The dictionary on her lap
is heavy as another passenger
as she strokes and cossets it, dropping
the juicy apple crystals of Lithuanian
and hauling back the slow
chewing gum of English. . . .

but the historical realities of the country as it emerges from the Soviet Bloc, the traumatic translocations of the poet’s husband’s parents, the sinister remains of a past that is not spoken about, all mean that these poems are more straightforwardly built on content rather than the challenges of a harmonising form such as we meet in the Paris poems.

This excellent book is the first I have read from the publisher, Pitt Street Poetry, so it is an opportunity to say what a physical pleasure (as well – as will be obvious from what I have written – as an intellectual one) it was to read. The physical component of the pleasure derives from good typography on beautiful, cream paper. Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks does have some awkward page breaks but this isn’t a problem with the other two books – by John Foulcher and Luke Davies – that I have from the same publisher. Though screened titles for the poems themselves may not be to every poetry reader’s taste – they suggest graphic design rather than book design – these three small books set a standard in Australian poetry publishing.

The Wagtail Series, Nos 62 – 72

Warners Bay: Picaro Press

Chris Wallace-Crabbe: The Thing Itself. Wagtail 62 (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro)
Robyn Rowland: This Road. Wagtail 63
Philip Salom: The Family Fig Trees. Wagtail 64
Anna Kerdijk Nicholson: What was lost. Wagtail 65
Michael Sariban: The Riddle of Perfection. Wagtail 66
Anne Edgeworth: Purdie’s Meditation. Wagtail 67
David Malouf: Guide to the Perplexed. Wagtail 68
Judith Rodriguez: Manatee. Wagtail 69
Bruce Beaver: The Flautist in the Laundry (selected by Craig Powell). Wagtail 70
Lee Knowles: Lucretia. Wagtail 71
Richard Deutch: Floating the Woman. Wagtail 72

The Wagtail series comprises monthly issues of a selection of a poets’ work. Each pamphlet is exactly sixteen pages, attractively designed and uses print-on-demand technology. Unlike your reviewer, the editors allow themselves one month a year off – so eleven issues are released annually. And this series is not the limit of Picaro’s activities: they do a chapbook series and are also beginning to release reprints of books of poetry which have, in that odd phrase, fallen out of print. The sixteen-page Wagtail series can be looked at in two different ways. At the atomistic level, each little pamphlet is an introduction, successful or not, to an individual poet’s work. At the holistic level, the series makes up a kind of giant, evolving anthology of contemporary Australian poetry where everybody gets sixteen pages in the spotlight.

To take the first, first. How good an introduction to these poet’s works are these little books? It’s not always an easy question to answer. Some poets are, for example, more easily introduced in sixteen pages than others. Generally, the more multifaceted your poetry is and the longer you have been writing then the less likely it is that sixteen pages is going to be enough. And there are different types of introduction: there are those that are a sort of sampler and there are those that aspire to be a “Greatest Hits” – though I can’t think of any living poets for whom that would be a good strategy – you need to wait till the band has broken up.

Take the case, first, of Bruce Beaver. This is poetry I know well so I feel fairly confident in my judgements though, it has to be admitted, Craig Powell – who selected these poems – knows the late poet’s life and work far better than I do. In The Flautist in the Laundry (70) I miss both Beaver’s brilliant portraiture and his sense of himself as enmeshed in the creative lives of others, as part of some overall human creativity. Powell’s selection is made up of:

“Harbour Sonnet V” (from Seawall and Shoreline)
“The Flautist in the Laundry” (from Open at Random)
Letters to Live Poets V
Lauds and Plaints I
Lauds and Plaints XII
Day 7 (from Odes and Days)
Death’s Directives II
“Lady Made for Love” (from Poets and Others)
“Quiet Companion” (from Poets and Others)
“Vespers” (from Poets and Others)

I’ve bitten the bullet and constructed my own counter Beaver collection, making sure that it will fit within the confines of the Wagtail booklet:

“Under the Bridge” (from Under the Bridge)
“’Remembering Golden Bells’ and Po Chu-i” (from Under the Bridge)
“Impresario” (from Open at Random)
Letters to Live Poets XII
Lauds and Plaints XII
Ode VII (from Odes and Days)
Day 38 (from Odes and Days)
“R.M.R. Muzot 1921-1926” (from Charmed Lives)
“Late Afternoon” (from The Long Game)

Photocopying these and making up my own imitation booklet and then reading it alongside the Powell selection was revealing. Of course I think mine is the better introduction (it would be perverse if I didn’t) but my Beaver comes across as a rather “heavier” figure and my collection does miss the light but serious charm of the title poem of the Wagtail collection. Also I see that I have shamefully omitted the poet’s wife who is the subject of the first and second-last poems. My group begins (well, nearly) and ends with Po Chu-i. All told it is less domestic, a bit less human, a bit more literary. And yet there is so much Beaver that both selections are forced to omit: above all the Beaver of As It Was – surely one of the great Australian autobiographies – but also the Beaver of sexual mythology and psychology.

Philip Salom and Chris Wallace-Crabbe are difficult poets to introduce in sixteen pages. In Salom’s case this is because the best of his poems occur in a distinctive matrix. An early book like Sky Poems, for example, was made up of poems that either existed in an alternative world of the sky or involved sky in some other, less radical way. When two poems are removed from this mesh, as “Smithy’s Dream” and “Being There Perhaps, Or Not Quite” are here, the reader is left without a lot of context to help in making sense of them. Even poems which make perfect sense on their own – like the one about finding a Buddha statue in Singapore:

. . . . .
Not the knot-haired door-knocker brassy kind
or the pissy-nosed, prefect and perfect.
And never the sleek reclining Buddhas like clones
dumb on opium in Penang, counting the tiles
on the walls opposite, each tile the wise
ceramic face – of Buddha.
. . . . .

lose a lot when they lose their context: in this case an enormous, multi-faceted poem about living in Singapore.

The same could be said of “Feng / Abundance (Fullness)” a tart political poem which concludes: “when / abundance is over, auditors arrive”. This is one of a sequence of brilliant poems in A Cretive Life based on the I Ching. Somehow it looks more whimsical alone than it does in context. Perhaps the most intriguing poem is the title poem, “The Family Fig Trees”. Salom has a powerful imaginative drive that almost needs a conceptualised matrix in order to express itself as something more than just hectic rhetoric and it is almost a disorienting shock to encounter as conventional a poem as this. Salom is brilliant with the dead – “Seeing Gallipoli From the Sky” is one of the best poems in Sky Poems – and in “The Family Fig Trees” dead ancestors make a dignified appearance prepared for by a long meditation deriving from the intersection of the fig trees of the farm of his boyhood and the metaphorical idea of “family trees”.

The difficulty in the case of Chris Wallace-Crabbe derives mainly from the extent of his writing life. His first book was published nearly fifty years ago and by the time of his Selected Poems of 1995 there is only room for a handful of poems from each book. The tactic here, faced with this fecundity (and a concomitant level of variety) is to select from late in the career. The earliest poem in The Thing Itself is “The Amorous Cannibal”, the title poem of a book published when its author was over fifty. But late Wallace-Crabbe can be an exhilarating country and a small selection could do worse than act as a guide for readers venturing into it for the first time. What you get here is a small, self-contained and self-consistent little group of poems. The themes are God (the first poem describes a mobile phone ringing in a cemetery and the second is a dramatic monologue in which God thinks about his creation), reality, the dead (“Trace Elements” is a wonderful poem from the early nineties beginning “. . . but surely the dead must walk again. / They stroll most oddly in and out of / small corners of your being, optical [b]lips.”), consciousness and language, love and the self. The final poem is not “Afternoon in the Central Nervous System” with its wonderful conclusion:

. . . . .
                                        The dumb gene
says nothing at all, but sits at home in my soul
writing me still across its illiterate plan:
a singular man chewing some general cabbage,
looking out across the second millennium
and feeling as fit as a trout.

but the much more circumscribed “At the Clothesline” which in a highly formal style (that recalls early Wallace-Crabbe) faces extinction with a slightly unconvincing image of hope:

What I’d thought a fallen shirt
Under the lines, flat on the grass
Was nothing but my shadow there,
Hinting that all things pass:

That many we loved or used to know
Are dragged already out of sight,
Vanished fast, though stepping slow,
Folded into remorseless night.

My dark trace now has quit the lawn.
Everything slips away too soon,
Yet something leaves its mark here like
A rainbow ring around the moon.

David Malouf’s Guide to the Perplexed (68) is a selection whose coherence indicates that it offers one view of the poet’s work. It is an introduction to one side which, perhaps at the moment, its author feels to be the most valuable side. Here, we are generally in the world of the domestic and the unflamboyant erotic. The wildest perspectives tend to end up with a solitary individual, or a couple, in bed. The book begins with “The Comforters” – a poem which announces the transition to the adult world in which dolls are replaced by partners who feel real pain, but which also records the tendency of the childhood world to remain. And it ends with “Stars”:

. . . . .
                    From centuries

off, out of the reign
of one of nineteen pharaohs,
a planet’s dust, metallic,

alive, is sifted down,
hovers in a bright
arc upon your cheek.

Miraculous! I lean
across the dark and touch it,
you smile in your sleep.

How far, how far we’ve come
together, tumbling like stars
in harness or alone.

What is omitted are examples of Malouf in the grand manner: “Bad Dreams in Vienna”, “Report from Champagne Country”, “ A Poet among others”, “At Ravenna”, the suite “A Little Panopticon” and so on. As a sampler it is not entirely satisfactory but it is a coherent collection and does give us some sense of what must be Malouf’s judgements on his own poetry. Significantly, his most recent book, Typewriter Music, is consistent with the poems of Guide to the Perplexed though no poems from it are included.

Robyn Rowland’s This Road seems to me to be an excellent introduction to her work though it may be that the reasons behind this response are not good ones. Taken in bulk, Rowland’s work can be oppressive with its endless fixation on the history of the poet’s self. This is just my reaction of course and there are, I know, readers who find this personal nakedness brave and stimulating. But I still feel that her second book, Perverse Serenity, is no more than poetry as soap-opera or, more generically accurately (since it involves two competing loves) poetry as romance. The best of her later poetry has been a climbing out of this pit and a looking at the world which is inflected by the self but never wholly and solipsistically dominated by it. I really like the title poem about a meaningless road built by the starving Irish during the famine so that the “frugal English” could “avoid feeding the starving for nothing”, though this liking probably comes from the stony impersonality of the poem. The fury is there, as it should be. So is the wry response to the symbolic potential of a directionless road. But they seem so much more potent when the poet isn’t standing in the picture as well. There is also a wonderful poem called “Young Men” where a whole set of generalisations are made about the creatures of the title. You read it, first amazed and then outraged that anyone should make such crass (even if benevolent) statements:

. . . . .
The hearts of young men are patient and calm
not furtive or selfish as the middle aged tell us,
they share, they say “wait for me to help
I’m here and not hurrying away,
with me the job takes half the time and is half as heavy”.
. . . . .

But you finally get the point that all this derives from one young man. The leap from one young man to the whole crowd of them is an example of benevolently judging the group by the best. I may have read this wrongly but it works by injecting the self into the poem in a puzzling and fascinating way. I know that this can look like bad criticism: judging a poet’s work by what is atypical rather than facing up to what the poet chooses to do (like preferring all the Yeats poems that don’t involve Ireland) but it derives from the immediate response that This Road is a really good little book and a really good way into the poetry of Robyn Rowland.

Judith Rodriguez’ Manatee is also a good introduction. You get examples of her in her distinctive riddling mode at the beginning and end in “Is it Poetry? They Ask” and “The Line Always There”. Poems like these (one could add dozens of others) remind one how underestimatedly difficult a poet Rodriguez is, but they work poetically because of the tension between their forthright, almost bluff, tone and the slippery possible meanings that make the reader bracingly unsure of his footing. There are two examples of her slyer indirections (what I call her “this poem is not about houses” style) in “The Mahogany Ship” and “Manatee” both of which are really about poetry despite the tug of their solid, significant “topics”. And there is the much admired “Eskimo Occasion” a cross-genre piece where bringing up children in Australia is conceived as an Eskimo poem. One of the reasons Manatee is a good introduction to Rodriguez’ poetry is that it reminds us that it is still there and still demands the kind of detailed critical engagement it has never received. I always go away from her work slightly breathless with the sense that this is far more difficult (because more complex) than I had imagined.

Michael Sariban probably deserves to be better-known than he is. The blurb of his most recent book, Luxuries, is written by Philip Salom and is, unlike most blurbs, really accurate. It speaks of the poems’ “surreal epiphanies” and the way that they tend to move from inquiry through perception to “a kind of acceptance”. His best book is probably Facing the Pacific whose three sections are, more or less, built out of encounters with the sea, with the land and with darkness. And these are distinctive encounters because the slightly bluff, confident tone of the poems is always being compromised by the outside world. So “Remembering the Southern Sky”, the last poem of this Wagtail and selected from the first section of Facing the Pacific, begins:

Of course, of course it’s not the same sky
I saw with the uncluttered eyes of the young
that midsummer night I decided to sleep

alone on an empty beach . . .

but concludes:

                    And ghosts of stars still hang
frozen like spray from a cosmic speedboat;
Republican gum trees fly the Cross with no

sign of a Union Jack; and the moon keeps
ageing at the same rate as us, though we
cannot be sure of the stars.

That is a wonderful finish and exactly captures the movement from certainty to a kind of nervous acceptance that is common in Sariban.

Although many Sariban poems begin with a meeting between the poet and some aspect of the natural world, there are, in The Riddle of Perfection, two wonderful poems about the animal world. Here the confrontation is (literally) of a different order. In “Close Encounters” we are the devils in the lives of the animals who “hurl / their whatever package of fur / across our dazzling path”. In “I Hate to See Their Eyes” there are three stanzas of a kind of superior, pitying lament for the apes whose eyes express their anxiety “the brows / knitted as if over a crossword”. It is all caused by a “tiny shortfall of DNA”

that has them leaping from tree
to tree, a leopard at their heels,
falling at times like Lucifer,
but never into our dim
enlightenment.

There is a lot of complexity here in the comparison with Lucifer and in the word “dim”. Sariban deserves, as I have said, to be better-known and he certainly deserves to be carefully read. The Riddle of Perfection contains only one poem written since the 2001 publication of Luxuries and one wishes there were more. He is the kind of poet who might well benefit from a New and Selected poems.

I have left the other booklets of this year – those by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson, Anne Edgeworth, Lee Knowles and Richard Deutch – till last not to belittle their authors but because they are poets whose work I do not know. Thus these are introductions of a quite different kind (at least for me). I had never read a word of the late Richard Deutch and I’m mildly disappointed that all the poems from his Floating the Woman come from only one of his four books – I would have liked to have had the chance to see a more representative overview. The energy of these poems seems to come out of autobiographical reminiscence – shoring fragments against ruins, perhaps. There are poems about what seems to have been a generally dysfunctional childhood in country USA and others about a cast of equally dysfunctional characters. But all this is prefaced by the fine title poem which uses the metaphor of a conjuror’s act to talk about poetry:

. . . . .
Trying to do one thing, I usually
end up doing something utterly
different, like floating a woman

or making the sentence as simple
as I can, pretending insouciance
later . . .

One would like to know more about how this plays out in the poems of this book which seem to know exactly where they are going and, though powerful, don’t have any obvious surprises either for reader or poet.

Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s What Was Lost is made up of poems from two sequences. The first are from The Bundanon Cantos and the second from a manuscript about Cook’s voyage in the Endeavour. It is a nice balance: poems about a creative couple (even a creative site) juxtaposed with poems about a great public figure: the great navigator of the south. The cantos devoted to the Boyds are part of a complex matrix – they are introduced by pungent little statements which are put together to form the classic, thirty-six verse renga that is the opening poem. The world of art weighs heavily on this set of poems and you feel a sense of making, constructing, collaging seeping through into the poems in a way which is rare in poetry. James Cook is an altogether more difficult subject for poetry because he exists as icon of human seeking (or cipher of colonialist rapaciousness, depending on your position) and icons can only ever be seen from the outside. This leads to an inert poetry: the history of Australia’s voyager poems is an attempt to overcome this (Slessor’s “Five Visions of Captain Cook” explicitly announces that its character is an object and only the responses of others can be recorded). Cook’s interior is especially hard to penetrate both because we lack contemporary biographical material and the man himself has a bluff, none of your business, Yorkshire quality about him. Nicholson makes a good attempt, in these few poems at least, to allow the interior of Cook to be what lights up the verse, but I’m nervous about the hearty tone and the fact that the poems are written to Cook, “You feel you’re falling and jolt awake . . .”

Anne Edgeworth’s Purdie’s Meditation begins and ends with poems of travel but the real subject is the passage of time – something which, if you are (as this poet is) so old that you were a child in the depression, you would be especially sensitive to. But passing through time is a form of travelling and as the end of “Nomad” (a comic recital of the rooms the poet has slept in) says “Although journeying / continue when one can raise energy and the fare / I suspect I’m there”. Lee Knowles is also an inveterate traveller and the poems of Lucretia contain poems about the places and about the experience, especially of travel by sea. Much of this is hard-won wisdom: “it’s sometimes worthwhile going too far, too late” and “Leave / your old ways behind. / Not your old self, / you’ll need that”, but I really like the poem which contrasts the world of starched white clothes above the waterline and the more relaxed goings on that happen below the waist lines of the yachts and their owners:

. . . . .
The pens of control have the wind
by the collar tucked away
in official notes. But below
jetties these yachts tug as
they please and their owners
sleep long and late in and out
of dreaming. Their stories go
uncensored. No one can stop
too much love or murder in these
all too human vessels . . .

As I’ve said, these comprise eleven interesting introductions to a suite of very different poets. And as I’ve also said, the entire series can also be looked at as a kind of egalitarian, continually-growing portrait of what is happening in Australian poetry. Looked at from this perspective, there are, however, some notable omissions: Murray, Tranter, Adamson, Maiden, Kinsella, Wearne to list the first that come to mind. It may be that some of these poets don’t want to be part of the project or it may be that the series editors want to space the larger-calibre cannons out a little. And what about periodicity? When is it safe (and desirable) to “redo” certain poets. Eleven poets a year makes well over a hundred poets every ten years and that seems about the right number for the kind of virtual anthology I am thinking of. Perhaps after ten years, poets can be revisited and their number of poems, consequently, doubled. But by then, if everything goes well in Australian poetry, there will be so many young poets anxious to get elbow-room among what they consider to be their dreary elders that there won’t be any chance of repeat visits to these individual poets.