Simon West: Prickly Moses

Princeton & Oxford: Princeton Uni Press, 2023, 60pp.

I think of Simon West as one of a number of Australian poets who could be described as trying to make a possible contemporary lyric poetry. And this, his fifth book, continues the slow and intriguing evolution of his poetry in this direction. It builds on themes, obsessions and motifs familiar from early books but takes them in rather new directions. The homeland of the country around the Murray at Echuca has always been present both as a distinctively Australian environment – redgums and their filtered light, overflow channels, leaf litter and winding tracks – and an emotional home: what they call “a ground”. To balance this, there has always been West’s experience as an Italianist, inhabiting a very different physical and poetic environment. There has always, too, been an interest in the status of words – seen sometimes almost as though they were objects in themselves – and especially in the way they interact with the natural objects that they try to describe, a sense that the reality of a leaf or small piece of bark is almost infinitely complex and that language, even at a poetic pitch deploying all the techniques of tactility and available metaphor, can only really gesture in the direction of full description. This would result in a lyric poetry which, though falling short of the hypothetical goal of complete description, can also offer (or hope for) expansion, a fuller interaction with the world resulting in a fuller inner life for poet and reader. It’s a direction that the poems of Prickly Moses clearly want to explore.

And the exploring is done, not in the cryptic, compressed mode that often appears in earlier books, but rather in more extended pieces. This was a development that I noticed in reviewing Carol and Ahoy and here it’s taken farther. There is, to be brief, a lot of movement in these poems: one of the central propositions might be that the reality of one’s environment is best examined by moving through it. An obvious example from Prickly Moses is “Paddlesteaming” a three and a half page description of a trip on the PS Alexander Arbuthnot along the Murray from Echuca (there’s a Youtube video of exactly this sort of trip for readers who want to get even closer to the poem). It’s a deliberately unpretentious piece – about as far from an intense lyric mode as it is possible to be – and is replete with humble half-rhyme couplets and deliberate “Aussieisms” that almost create a sense of benevolent gormlessness, the poetic equivalent of a labrador dog, perhaps. In contrast to the elliptical lyrics of, say, First Names, The Yellow Gum’s Conversion and The Ladder, this seems to want to take a journey through the magical home country and extend it in exactly the opposite direction of these earlier poems: towards the demotic, even towards chat and casual asides. This even includes self-referential comments on the poet’s own themes – “Red gums still? You’d think I’d done that trope to death! / But why be coy about obsessions?”.

Yet, despite this tone, it’s still very much a poetry of the sacred, or at least, what is sacred to a particular individual. Since, a short distance beyond the gums that line the river, there is nothing but “sand / and plains of saltbush scrub” as far as the horizon, the boat is moving along a kind of stream of meaning, a magical bright ribbon:

. . . . .
                                    So we cling to the cortege
of reflected light, this baptist whose largesse
speaks for an ampler religion than the human heart,
harder too, and not one from which you can part,
though acolytes of speed and noise still try.
Like the nave of a church that has doffed its roof to the sky
when it empties, quiet follows the speedboat’s water-quake . . .

It’s also interesting that in this utterly Australian (well, northern Victorian) environment, the classical Italian world still has its place. When West recalls his father – “who brought us here as kids” – he does so “by way of Aeneas in Dis”, referring to “The Twofold Tree” in Carol and Ahoy which is a translation of a passage in The Aeneid dedicated to his father’s memory. And we are told that the largest of the red gums along the river can be dated as being older than Dante whose “selva oscura” always seems to be an allegory lurking behind earlier West poems involving trees.

Before I look more closely at the emerging, overt autobiographical element in these poems, I want to continue for a while, to think about this idea of a poetry of movement. The poem preceding “Paddlesteaming”, “Elemental Song – Yarra Bend Park”, seems, at first, to be a “rendering” or “catching” poem, trying to convey the immense complexity of the way water moves on the surface and below, the way it shapes land. It’s the sort of task that brings out the best of a certain kind of imaginatively intense language-use that poetry has always held the rights to:

I wonder at the windways water carves,
has always carved in loam,
river’s running vein, glossed glass

that gives back bush cross-sectioned from those mud-packed joints
down to her threadbare baldachin. Water taut in a flute,
the top brushed silk whose shine

is bent around each fold or, under wind,
will ripple through riddles forged
faster than starlings on the wing.

Current works a slower change. Surface plots
of shadow pulse for it,
and pulse for what

rides roughshod down below . . .

It’s lightyears in tone from “Paddlesteaming” and seems to be a meditation frozen in time as though the observer were sitting on the side of the creek. But we learn at the deliberately bathetic end – “though I’m pulled up short now by Heidelberg Road” – that it’s actually observations made while moving. There are a lot of possible ways of engaging with this that may or may not have been intended. Does understanding require a kind of physical alignment of observer and observed? Does he movement of the poet alongside the movement of the stream suggests the movement of a human life in a kind of parallel to the movement of the water?

“Heading North through the Goulburn Valley” and “Variations on the Walk Back from Bushrangers Bay” declare, in their titles, that they are poems of movement. But, taken together with the sequence that follows them, “Exeat”, they might be better seen as openly autobiographical poems. (Interestingly the Latin title is a subjunctive which means “Let him leave”, a chit given to students to permit them to leave school or, in the olden days, university. Thus, in a sense, it refers to movement as well. It’s certainly more apposite than, say, “Memories of My old School”!). “Heading North through the Goulburn Valley” is about the train journey north at the beginning of a school holiday – “It’s summer’s end and you’re led back home / down tracks as plumb as higher laws”. The railway tracks contrast with the “meander routes” of tracks in the bush and, interestingly, it’s a poem celebrating the moment when the line of gums along the river appears. In other words, you could see it as a poem about the moment when you intersect the kind of environment that the PS Alexander Arbuthnot is going to be traversing. Like “Heading North . . .”, “Variations on the Walk Back from Bushranger’s Bay” lures readers into thinking that the movement described – “From headland rock / we’d watched up close how water can charm its own weight . . .” – takes place in the immediate past whereas it is, in fact, set in the distant past of childhood. “Variations . . .” concludes with the moment when, as a thirteen year old boy, West commits himself to poetry:

To reach the car
in fifty steps
will mean I’m meant
by fate to be a poet.

That was the lot
you dealt yourself . . .

There’s a sense in which all poetry that can be called “lyric” – even the stoniest imagist productions – involve the self and the autobiography of its development. “Exeat” is a set of interesting perspectives on school experience, for example, but there is something especially intimate about a poet’s first commitment to poetry: it’s something usually glossed over in the most I-based of poets.

“The Campanile” is another poem of movement but one that takes place far away from the northern plains of Victoria. It is a reminder of the second component of West’s poetic self – the Italian. The poem describes not linear but vertical movement, ascending the stairs of an old bell-tower:

Old stairs pitched steeply round an open heart, 
rigged to walls by worm-holed traves,
girders and joists as thin as stilts, and landings
like the platform an acrobat might use. Trusting
to each hung step as though we trod on unlit
yards of air, we climbed alone, with hunched
and blinkered gaze set on the rung
below our feet . . .

This is not only vertical movement, it is also a spiral. Many of West’s earlier poems, even those set in Australia, have, underlying them, a Dantean allegory: gum trees can also make up a “dark wood”. So I’m inclined to read this ascent in allegorical terms as parallelling the climb up the Mount of Purgatory and it’s intriguing now to think of the journey through the dark wood as being horizontal and the descents and two ascents of the rest of the Commedia as stressing vertical movement. At any rate, there’s no Beatrice at the top of this spiral, only the bell, the symbol of poetry itself “from where / song breaks and expands / evening and morning and at noon”. The Italianist component of West’s self isn’t simply a matter of different landscapes and cultures. It isn’t even to be limited to the sharper perspective on language and the quality of individual words that being bilingual makes possible. It can be a matter of poetic technique itself, especially the drive towards Dantean allegory.

“Notes on Clouds” – the book’s first poem – is, at one level, a poem challenging words to “capture” what is said (along with moving water) to be the most uncapturable of phenomena, but it also establishes this “culturally-double” self. The first two stanzas fix us firmly in the North of Victoria:

. . . . . 
I used to watch that mirrored ocean foam
          float in slow motion over plains vast and rambling
as a pelagic vista, the crickets’ metronome
          set largo fortissimo, the Goulburn untangling
north to the Murray – the valley’s one clear border.
          The clouds moved east and drew your eye in their flanged
wake like a lure in whose shine you saw Dookie, Benalla,
          and a sweep of land to the Dividing Range . . .

But the next stanza moves to Italy:

Later I loved the high-rise fleece in old
          Venetian oils: your gaze drawn up tiers
of rough-hewn fog that angels scale
          like go-betweens. They bridge the stratosphere,
freeing the bounded eye to rise like Dante
          when he glimpsed the whorls of the empyrean . . .

It’s interesting that a poem which seems resolutely to be about a single topic can convey so much that harmonises with other poems. The contrast is strong between the prosaic (though, admittedly, exotic) names of the towns east of Echuca and the rich imaginative possibilities of the clouds in Italy. There is also an oblique touch of unexpected autobiography in the poem in that it might signify childhood years being followed by student years in Italy, and perhaps it isn’t an accident that, as in “Heading North . . .” and “Variations . . .” the exact time is left, at least initially, vague: we have to work out when the individual stanzas are “set”.

Finally, on this subject of a culturally doubled personality, there are the first two stanzas of “The Sun in the Door”:

As gum trees seen through morning fog
dispute for us the fate of Job

so Roman ruins stay the sky
and animate our inner eye . . .

In mode it has a touch of Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” to it and seems to hope that “riddles and linked rhymes set free / reason’s hounds to chase a key” but that initial pair of couplets nicely combines the Australian and Romance environments.

As I’ve said, one of the underlying issues in this kind of lyricism is of words and the way they cannot adequately convey even the smallest fragment of reality. This is best seen perhaps in “Writing Sounds” where a terrific poem is made out of the doomed attempt to “capture” not a piece of bark or a leaf but the sound a pencil makes when it’s drawn over paper in the act of writing:

First the sound graphite makes drawn across paper:
a rustle like a dog circling in to nestle, or a tight-lipped
whisper as trance-like a child traces her name. The pencil labours
onwards but keeps manically crossing itself, as it plots its pitching

tracks in snow, or shuffles insect antennae into drift lines.
Then the bristles-sweeping sound, the rub-of-rosin sound, as the side
of the hand jumps like a wren in dead foliage, frightened
by the apparition of each new word. And finally
the swish of fingers tugging or run through hair. . .

It’s a different kind of poetry to the poems of movement that I have focussed on but that is part of the richness of Prickly Moses. It is a handsome book in a distinguished series but it certainly deserves its place.

Simon West: Carol and Ahoy

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 59pp.

Simon West’s fourth book begins with two poems which, in a way, embody the major themes of the work. The first, “River Tracks”, is a kind of celebration of the Goulburn River working its way north-west through Victoria to its meeting with the Murray just before Echuca. It’s a free-flowing meditative poem (recalling someone like Coleridge) and one’s first response is that this kind of poetry is a long way from the Italian influenced lyrics of West’s other books but the word “free-flowing” is slightly and importantly inaccurate. Inland Australian rivers aren’t free-flowing, they are muddy, rainfall-affected, often broken streams and “River Tracks” wants to exploit this quality. It isn’t just a matter of making a poem which mimics its subject: the rest of West’s poems show us that it is more likely that he sees an unavoidable harmony between what he wants his poems to do and the landscape that he inhabits. And it is a very distinctive landscape of river red gums standing in the channels, overflows and sandbanks of the Murray and its tributaries. The poetry, to match this, wants to move not by logical or imagistic assertion towards a triumphal conclusion but by surprising shifts and disjunctions. The significances which poetry seeks won’t be found here in a steady flood flowing majestically out to meet the sea but in oddities and surprises symbolised in the isolated pools left behind near the river after a flood event. So the poem ends with the poet, walking around a park in Shepparton made on the site of a place where the river has scoured out a track which it will fill at the next flood “letting us bide for a bit in common reflection”. These words, the poem’s end, are designed to be read in a number of ways. The first would stress the word “common” with its double sense of ordinary, unpretentious, far from the conventional Romantic sublime but also of communal, social, far from an incipient Romantic solipsism. Another would focus on the word “reflection” – also a crucial term in Romantic epistemology – with its double meaning of thought and physical reflection: the water will cover the complexities of the muddy, detritus-filled ground that West is very interested in and reflect the sky.

True to its plan of being more like a Murray-Darling river than, say, one of the east coast “Northern Rivers” like the Tweed or the Clarence, “River Tracks” spends its second stanza in a slightly unexpected investigation of the original names for the Goulburn:

Round Murchison it’s said the Ngooraialum
called you Bayungun, but Mitchell
might have got this wrong. Waaring
was also recorded, while downstream you were Kialla
and Goopna, deep waterhole,
living on in Congupna and Tallygaroopna.
Tongue sounds taken for runs, then stations
and finally the towns that drank you . . .

It seems a detour with a double purpose, at one level recording the processes by which original names were transmuted into the names of properties and towns and thus venturing into the territory of the study of the function of naming in landtaking. But this respectable and conventional interest is balanced against the very distinctive interest West always has in languages and their sounds. “Climbing the Tower of Babel” from The Ladder speaks of the complex emotional experience of language learning – “and doubt echoed, / ‘This isn’t yours to call your own’. / It was love kept me going . . .” – and it’s a theme traceable to the title poem of his first book.

And then there is the first stanza of “River Tracks”:

Never a straight line or a single course,
never blue. Most maps mistell you.
Eager to find where you finish,
they mistake your daydreaming, your loops
and faux pas and odd sidesteps,
your misgivings and floods of largesse . . .

On the surface (an appropriate cliché when speaking of rivers) this says that the complexities of the Goulburn’s course can’t be mapped (ie represented) without considerable abstraction and stylisation – that is, reduction. But it’s also a poem about poetry of course (another appropriate phrase), and may well want to make the point that various descriptions of poetry, especially those found in end-oriented disciplines such as literary history and literary theory, are always reductive, missing the point that the richnesses of poetry are often to be uncovered in unexpected twists, turns and seeming dead ends. It might also be read not as a general statement about poetry but as a specific description of West’s own poetry and thus a warning to anyone writing about it, saying something like, “In my work it’s not so much the big picture that counts as the surprises to be found in lesser things: bear this in mind when you write about it!”.

This all makes “River Tracks” a significant, even pointed, opening poem and raises the paradox that it might be a pointed poem about how poems aren’t pointed in the same way that Coleridge’s Dejection ode is partly a poem about not being able to write a poem. “Hans Heysen” also has a specific point to make. It is a poem about a painter’s problems in representing a gum tree and it uses material from Heysen’s own letters. The difficulty – as the poem begins – is “to keep the gum tree solid” given the way in which the distinctive morning light is echoed in the tree’s bark and thus tends to etherialise what should be a solid, earth-bound lump of timber. I read this as an example of the tension in any art between significance and “thinginess”. The Romantic tendency is inclined to favour the former and there is a swing to the latter embodied in movements like Chosisme and Neusachlichkeit. This might be a lot of weight for a comparatively small poem to carry and the last two lines – “as truth, world’s truth, not absolute, is blent / and filters through our pulsing temperament” – seem to locate significance not as universal, undeniable meaning but as a subjective, Romantic experience in itself.

The issues raised in these first two poems appear in later ones in the book. “Floodplains on the Broken River” is a dip into personal history and place (as is the preceding poem, “On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land”) but is interested, as are many of West’s poems, in the richness of the subsoil: “I trod on litterfall and felt under foot / a stir of living things”. This takes us back just over a hundred poems to the first poem of West’s first book, “Mushrooms” – but it’s a recurring theme, a kind of alchemical change from decay to fruition that might – at a stretch – be made into a variation on Judith Wright’s “coral” approach to Australian culture whereby generations of the exiled and failed dead make a kind of base from which something might flower. And this idea of the riches underneath is the theme of “Walking in the Bush at Whroo” where the activity of the nineteenth century’s gold miners – digging downwards hoping to stumble on wealth is contrasted with that of the cicadas, “miners in reverse”, which move upward from the darkness to the light. I think this is connected with the question raised in the first poem of where significance is to be found and how it is to be found, suggesting that the answer is not as a random symbolisation but as a long-held loving development that sees, rather than makes, connections. At any rate these cicadas are not merely insects with a weird life-cycle:

. . . . .
But I listened and it seemed
those insects from the stones
were driven by a need
to avow old love with their own,
to fathom a dying branch
and the eggs left as a gift,
the spider-like nymphs that fell
to a course of katabasis
where, fostered by black roots,
the imago grew well-fed
as the living learn to bear
visions left by the dead . . .

This all rather makes Carol and Ahoy into an exploration of aesthetics, which is part of its interest but not the only one. There is, throughout the book, a strong personal theme. “On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land” is about the poet’s family history:

. . . . .
Death wiped a shipwrecked generation’s slate.
Their children seemed to spring from wind-tossed seed
and grew staked to the mores of English State.
My grandmother denied her convict breed,
kept corgies . . .

But the poem does end in a poet’s resolution, significantly flavoured with a Latin (ie early Italian) reference to Aeneas carrying his father.

In a sense this is a preparation for the last three poems of the book. “Swimming” is about the death of West’s father and, to a lesser extent, his paternal grandmother and grandfather, figures symbolically carried from the wreck of Troy by pious Aeneas. It’s a more sophisticated poem than perhaps I am making it sound, as interested in absence as in significant, if inexplicable, presence – “The thought bridged both your being / and not being and made no sense”. This is followed by a version of part of Book VI of The Aeneid, “The Twofold Tree”, dedicated to West’s father. One can see why this is being done, even though it seems at odds with the style of the other poems. Aeneas’s descent into the underworld (the mythical equivalent of the “litterfall” and productive humus of the earlier poems) is prefaced by an encounter with the Cumaean Sybil, the instruction to find a golden bough (in which he is assisted by doves sent by his muse/mother), and the correct filial behaviour towards a drowned friend. All of which sets out Aeneas as a symbol for the poet, above all as someone concerned to carry his predecessors and their household gods to safety, rather as the cicadas “bear / visions left by the dead”. The final poem continues this Virgilian theme by being an eclogue, a conversation between two farmers (but, in reality, two opposed positions inside the poet’s own head) in which the complaints of the younger – an inevitable catalogue of personal miseries derived from the social set-up in which he lives – are countered (or, at least, opposed) by the elder who argues for making the most of your luck and going on writing: “Such fears / are better sung than dwelt upon.”

Describing the concerns of Carol and Ahoy and showing that they are present in the earlier collections rather obscures the fact that this book feels utterly different to West’s earlier books. One superficial feature of this might be the comparative lack of Italian elements. The earlier books showed someone inhabiting two different cultures and two different languages – climbing the Tower of Babel. When such things do appear in this book it is only in the distant echoes of Virgil’s Latin. But a more important feature is the mode of the poems themselves. As I said earlier there is often a kind of Coleridgean quality to them (I am thinking of important pieces like “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode”). They meditate in sophisticated ways while working along in a mundane environment. They sometimes sound extraordinarily old-fashioned – a word I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to use in these reviews – recalling pieces like FitzGerald’s “The Wind at You Door”. At one moment – in the second stanza of “On Looking into a Chinese Scroll” – I think I actually winced. When a poet is as good a writer of lyric poetry as West proves himself to be in his earlier work, this is something of a surprise, and the impetus to change one’s mode of working from complex lyrics like “Mushrooms”, “Out of the Wood of Thoughts” or “Roman Bridges” to this sort of post-Romantic ambulatory meditation must be a powerful one. Perhaps he is looking for a way of thrashing out issues that might, in the future, form the basis for another kind of lyric. Perhaps he wants to recreate the meditative mode for a new century. At any rate, I’m contented with reminding myself of the truism that really good poets follow their own imperatives and it’s the job of critics to keep up.

Simon West: The Ladder

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, 57pp.

The Ladder is Simon West’s third book (after First Names of 2006 and The Yellow Gum’s Conversion of 2011) and it gives readers an opportunity to see more of the complex world its lyrics inhabit and explore. West is a very sophisticated poet who can be seen – now that we have a hundred or so poems – as rather more resistant to schematic plotting than my review of his first book, published on this site, might have suggested. But while we always speak of the way poets develop through their first books perhaps we should also speak of the way that our own responses as readers of that poetry develop as well. In that first review I wrote of two elements: an obsession with the tactility of language and a fascination with the vertical axis which moves from the under-soil – the word “humus” kept appearing as a kind of talisman – to the surface of the earth and on to the celestial view, re-enacting Dante’s three zones.

The Ladder, as its title suggests, contains poems which do develop the second of these interests. In fact the book’s epigraph is taken from that moment at the end of Paradiso XXII when Dante and Beatrice are about to ascend to the eighth heaven, after Benedict’s discourse about Jacob’s ladder: “The little threshing-floor which makes us so fierce was all revealed to me from hills to river-mouths, as I circled with the eternal Twins. Then to the beauteous eyes I turned my eyes again”. (I’ve used the Singleton translation here and should point out that by rendering l’aiuola as “threshing-floor” rather than “little plot” it perpetuates what many feel to be an over-interpretive, liberty-taking translation. (If I sound knowledgeable about all of this it is entirely thanks to the resources of Google and Wikipedia!) This epigraph should be enough to alert us to the fact that vertical axes still operate at the basis of West’s poetic imagination. Of course the passage in Paradiso is about seeing our little world – the place of all merely human drives, including savagery – from the perspective of the cosmic and may be as much about perspectives as it is about those drives. It may, in other words, be a comparatively abstract view which reminds us that everything seen is seen from somewhere and thus fits in with a number of other poems (beginning with “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarara Tjapaltjarri” in First Names) which are about point of view – or its lack.

At any rate, this passage from Paradiso is the basis for one of the poems of The Ladder, “Speckled World”. The narrator, like an Astronaut in the space-station, finds himself sailing over “deserts and the lights / of towns clustered against the dark”:

. . . . . 
                                               But then
I was taken with fear at the thought of drifting so far
I might lose the smell of soil on a frosty morning
when the sun refracts through dew on grass blades
and the tops of hills float in a layer of fog.
With longing I looked down on the speckled world
and knew my betrayal of Gravity could not last.
She would tug me back once more from this mad flight,
and I would return to plot my Res Gestae thus -
in my thirty-fifth year, after a long struggle,
I conquered my mistrust of life. . . .

Although it’s difficult for a reader to orient him- or herself in this poem – is it a rewriting of Dante’s experience (which occurs in the fiction of the Commedia at the age of thirty-five), a dream of the poet’s who is, coincidentally of the same age, or is the narrator neither Dante or the poet but a separate, invented character? – the general point is the same. Ascending into the heavens is one thing but the loss of the feeling of earth and its tactility – the smell of its rich humus – is intolerable. The narrator, as I read the poem, is going to focus on the horizontal dimension of this world and, indeed, many of the poems of The Ladder, despite its title, develop into discussions of the possibilities and protocols of this “speckled world” as well as what occurs when we break free, or at least half-free, from it.

The first poem, for example, “Roman Bridges”, concentrates on one of the defining features of the horizontal world: the way we move into, through and across it. The bridges, whose arches make a kind of leap, show that there is

           grace in holding gravity at bay
and a certain poise in being in between.
My ideal landscape has room for bridges and hills,
spires, birds and echoes: halfway things.

A later poem, “The Go-Between”, tells of a bridge in northern Italy built across a gorge by a devil in exchange for the soul of its first user. As often in these folktales the devil is tricked when a dog rushes over in pursuit of a bone. But you can see the schema of the thing and the way it appeals to West. The context of the poem is one with a vertical axis – it is about a demon pulling, or trying to pull, a member of the human world down into hell. But what is left is a horizontal bridge which, as the poem says, is a “marvellous / go-between” that leads the rest of us “somewhere else”.

It’s also chastening to see that this interest in way a bridge makes a kind of horizontal step into space is present in First Names too. A poem there, “Flight”, was about a couple arriving in a new country (“a change both of money and language”) at an entirely new kind of house (“all narrow stairs, and doors of different sizes”). Nothing really happens except that, “with a cry of joy you jumped / forward and ran a few paces ahead”. Taken on its own, in a first book, it was difficult to see what sustained this poem, apart from its desire to represent a brief, important moment in a relationship. Read alongside “Roman Bridges” it can be seen as one of those moments of horizontal leap into a new world, like the arches of the bridges:

. . . . .
at last it seemed so easy to break
from that poise which had
borne the weight of times past.
And my heart jumped behind you, startled
at having to catch up, busy collecting
the slipstream of a new intent.

And there is a striking, autobiographical poem in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion, “Door-Sill” which is about a bare “slab of red gum” serving as a door step, a threshold between the inner world of the house and the outer world. Initially one read it – in a rather Maloufian way – as a poem about liminality, interested in the doorway between two worlds. Rereading it, one can see that it is the step forward, rather than the different worlds, which interests West:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes,
after a poise
that seemed about to come
when top-heavy we pitched,
and were too quickly seeking
peace with gravity . . .

In The Ladder, “Nothing Ventured” – the title exploits the many ways of reading that phrase, as part of a cliche and as complete in itself – is about, as a child, crossing the wire fence into an empty field for the first time. Again, the emphasis is a little unpredictable in that the poem is interested in the way the mind and the body are engaged in this crucial step – rather as they were in “Flight”:

. . . . . 
Something came of nothing, though, when first
I leapt that fence alone. Giddy with lag,
my head raced to catch where my feet now stood. And did,
and was pledged, like saying to a mirror, here I am.

And a poem about Tintoretto’s weird “Miracle of St Mark” in which the saint, seen from behind and rather below, floats through the air, about to save a slave due to have his legs broken for worshipping the Christian god, is interested in the way in which this odd pose is a matter of capturing the moment before the miracle, the step (if one can make a step in mid-air) from which “Everything / set in motion must occur”.

One of the features of this “halfway world” whose landscape is made up of bridges, spires, echoes, mountains and rivers – but also doorsills and birds – is that it is a place where boundaries are less clear than is usually assumed. There is a halfway state in which, say, under the effects of fog, shapes lose their precision. A longish poem late in the book, “Chimera”, is about the patron goddess of this state who sounds a little like Spenser’s Mutabilitie:

. . . . . 
Eagle-eyed when she surveys the land
each leaf is lucent as in Vermeer,
and all at once softens to take its place
in a patchwork of colours by Klee.
It is thought she is the patron saint of nay-sayers,
and easily consumed by spite, but when at twilight
the trees unmoor in winter fog
and, in a panic, you reach out as if they could be held,
don’t despise her clown hooting from the bank. . .

And “The Perfection of Apollo”, about Ribera’s painting of the flaying of Marsyas, contains a stanza which, quoting Pico della Mirandola, claims an ethical virtue, deeply humanist, for the race of humans who live in the halfway world of continuous change:

. . . . .
          our dignity resides in having
no fixed seat and no form of our own,
in being placed halfway; not wholly mortal,
rather free to mould and make ourselves. . .

Another poem, with the faux Chinese title “Outside on a Warm Evening I Consider My Confused Ideas about Poetry. For Now I Offer This Brief Account” (a title that ensures all critics will return to it to read it carefully) revisits the same idea. It begins with something of an assault on the idea that poetry (together with the other arts) is a way of expanding our inner lives:

The poets of my youth spoke of dwelling
in themselves, as if they meant a secret
cavern of emotions where an essence
might be found purring like a cat. . .

It’s the defined stability of this model of the inner life which is being criticised though West doesn’t invoke the usual philosophical and psychological arguments of the last half-century. For him it seems more an issue of poetic temperament:

Too restless to abide, I’ve mostly lingered
round the threshold which the senses keep.
Outside there is so much to contemplate.
Some talk of depth and things as they are. Others
see layered surfaces alive with light. 
. . . . . 
In the poetry of mountains and waters
a path meanders through vast landscapes. Sometimes
it is hard to distinguish a man from a cloud or a tree . . . 

And it’s important to have not only the correct perceptual perspective but also the correct ethical protocols in this halfway landscape: “Here too, I imagine, before crossing a stream / it is wise to wash one’s hands and offer a prayer / while gazing into the flood”.

It’s a distinctive poetic perspective and West is a distinctive and, already, powerful presence in Australian poetry. My own perspectives on poetry are not much interested in national or ethnic distinctivenesses but one could imagine readers of First Names thinking that much that was distinctive about this new poet came from an acquired Italian component of his creativity. If so, well and good. But the second and third books have enough of Australia in them – especially at an autobiographical level – to make readers feel that this issue of Australianness, however murky and unhelpful the debates about it might generally be, is one of the issues raised by West’s poetry. There is a poem in The Ladder, “The Mallee Singer”, which is a tribute to Shaw Neilson. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect from this poet but the poem contrasts Shaw Neilson’s sensitivity – “you sought quieter weightings in your line / for the balm of green and flight of water birds, / for children in the sunlight in the spring” – with the louder, cruder music of his contemporary world, “Salvation drums, and blokes’ ballads / thudding over the black flats”. This aligns Shaw Neilson not just with sensitivity but with a sensitivity to the fluid boundaries of West’s halfway world where outlines are not so rigidly maintained as they are in Salvation Army hymns and in bush ballads.

The gum trees that begin to turn up in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion play an important role here and perhaps they do add a precision and specificity to what in First Names was inclined to be a generic “dark wood”. They are celebrated, in a way, in the first of twelve poems about Rome in which the author sees a gum tree among the Roman ilexes. The eucalypt has a particular quality that the poem wants to celebrate. Because, when we look at one we also look through its slim, falcate, downturned leaves, it is obviously very much a halfway tree:

Unreal city, still. By default. And then
the jolt of recognition hitting home - 
a gum broke the shade of holm oaks.
Its exhortation – remember, make known.

It was how light sifted through those swinging leaves - 
you looked at it and beyond it all in one.
. . . . . 
Intimate, drab and tragic, the branches curved
like Christ’s limbs in a deposition scene. . .

I think it is this odd quality of the gum that appeals to West – the poem doesn’t want to celebrate nostalgia. And after all, it’s a moot point how “Australian” the gum trees are nowadays. They are grown throughout South East Asia, for example, as a source of quick-growing hardwood impervious to local diseases and predators, and are common in North America and around the Mediterranean. I myself once saw a stand of them on the road between Kashan and Qom in Iran.

Simon West: First Names

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2006, 58pp.

This impressive first book is marked by an elegant lyricism and is accurately described by Chris Wallace-Crabbe on the cover as containing poems which are “intensely observant, gravely acute”. There are poems about place (usually a very cold Italy), about relationships and about, well, metaphysics. It is also a very tightly organized book deriving from a consistent and complex poetic personality so that readers feel confident in allowing each of the poems to provide a context for others.

Take, for example, “Mountain Pass”, from the middle of the book:

Cloud veils sweep up a gully towards us.
In the rivalling currents of open air they flounder
like small birds. There is nothing to hold but wind.

Our bearings are scenes snatched from a slow procession.
A broken string of peaks and ridges, sheer
faces, fragments that continue to disappear.

Stones click beneath our feet. Rawness
of rock or in pockets and dips, the flesh
of soil or snow. Inhuman realm. Inconstant.

One lone larch tree has grown to the height
of a man. But already down to its torso
it is worn by wind, clean as driftwood or bone.

Our guide says anything that rises above the level
of winter snows - snow that spreads its blanket
of white life - anything at all is punished.

Learn to grow low, we think, grip rock,
trust to a single limb
or a handful of day-long flowers.

Read in isolation this seems a fairly straightforward poem with the only worrying surprise being that the snow is described as a blanket of “white life” rather than something less positive. It invites, certainly, being read as a “poem-poem”, one of those pieces, common in first books which, allegorically or otherwise, give us clues about the poet’s sense of what his or her poetry is. This poem seems to say, in its conclusion, that the flowers of poems come from keeping one’s head down, relying on the earth, and not expecting to produce anything epic or earth-shattering but rather small, evanescent lyric poems. But in the context of other poems in the book it becomes a little more complex.

One of the reasons for this is that the poems are very sensitive to the idea of a vertical axis. There is a down-below, there is an up-above and there is a half-way between. In other words, you don’t innocently find yourself positioned between sky and land. It is also a book full of its author’s Italian influences and Dante figures prominently: so below, halfway and above allegorizes out not only as soil/origins, culture and sky/transcendence but also as hell, purgatory and heaven. For me, at least, this adds a dimension to “Mountain Pass” since the word “guide”, used in conjunction with Dante, inevitably recalls Virgil, Dante’s guide in the first two parts of the Commedia, and the fourth line strongly suggests that we should be thinking of the weird procession at the end of Purgatorio.

First Name’s key word – it is repeated four or five times – is “humus”, that generative material produced by the movement of living material downwards towards darkness. West’s poetry is clearly obsessed by this basic material which seems resistant to the pressures of the surface-world. An important, if not entirely successful, poem, “And Your Insistent Need”, is about the vertical scale at the bottom of which humus lies. Here the “need” is the drive towards transcendence, towards the blue of the sky. We are lifted up “by the eye” in a way that recalls Eckhart’s “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me”. It concludes:

Mind, demented blow-fly,
you who won’t renounce your want of the source,
the sex of stars beyond the sky-light,
you who butt the glass of meaning’s window,
ignoring the cataract and downpour of
dust and weather, the tug of gravity.
Your green fingers make a humus balm, aid
the spread of mushrooms full of moisture.

An interesting poem, “The Halfway Garden”, gives us more clues about this axis. The garden contains both upper and lower (its higher, fruiting plants are aligned with the sky so that “your jewels hang like stars and planets”) despite being positioned between them. The final stanza reads:

The air thickens, strands
 darken and turn,
 like vespers the wind whispers above
 the fosse of no man’s land. Here I’ll continue
 to fathom the workings of your eyes.

“Fosse” is a Dantesque word but my inherently dirty mind focuses on its sexual meanings. Yes this is Dante first meeting up with Beatrice in the last cantos of the Purgatorio and thence being able to ascend to paradise but it also suggests the endless, horizontally human world of sexual activity and exploration as well as the other activities of mundane social life. There are not a lot of love poems in First Names but they are charming and not simply cute, in this respect like the poems about children.

I don’t know whether the model for the structure of this book is the Commedia or La Vita Nuova but it begins with bleak poems about the world that could equally well suggest either hell or a life before one meets one’s Beatrice. The best of these is “I giorni della merla” (wrongly acknowledged in the book’s prelims as appearing in The Best Australian Poems of 2006 when in fact it appeared in The Best Australian Poetry of that year, though I suppose only an editor of one of the series would be concerned about this, given the irritating closeness of the names of the two series of annual anthologies). Here we meet an Italian town in the dog-days of January, the very bleakest season of the year. “Winter: Prali” is not only located in the same season, but also includes a burial:

. . . . .
Someone had dug those months down to the earth:
a humus balm, dark and gleaming with ice,
a sinister fecundity from which the line
of people stretched across the bridge to town.
. . . . .

Whether the structure comes from the Commedia or not, the last poems of the book – beginning with “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarara Tjapaltjarri” are decidedly “philosophical”, concerning themselves, especially, with the interaction between the three levels that I have already spoken of. Although they conclude with two poems, “Higher Elements” and “Flower-Echo” where the references, pace the Paradiso, are suitably celestial, the overwhelming sensation of reading them is the surprising one of fear of the dark. This fear permeates the world just above the warm and productive humus. It is after all, the world in which we live, but it is conceived here as a world of almost motiveless threat. I’m not sure what kind of cosmic perspective generates this. Certainly Dante can help because he invented the idea of a “selva oscura” that needs to be woken up from but it is unlikely that a twenty-first century Australian writer is going to take on board the full ramifications of early fourteenth century Catholic theology. At any rate, these final poems are full of sinister thickets.

Even the humble Banksia in “Seed Eyes” becomes sinister:

. . . . .
Mute spirits locked in wood and all
anguish, all wordless knowledge. See it
in the quicks of their eyes, eyes that seem
                    to accuse        us?
                    to judge         us?
seed eyes that germinate fear over
here here in the thick of the mind,
flashing as if we had something to hide.

I notice, as I write this, that on my first or second reading of the book I’ve written “Why?” in the margin at this point. No doubt I assumed that I’d eventually be able to answer this question but I’m as far from being able to do this now as I was then. In the final part of “Seed Eyes”, the trees become associated with postcolonial guilts and paranoias:

Did it gleam like the tip of a spear
or a wordless thought, that fear, for Banks
who pinned them under his name, and took them
in under the shadow of his tongue,
. . . . .

and in the second section, which I have already quoted, they recall the wood of the suicides in Inferno xiii. But what, ultimately, generates such an intense response in the poems of this book (suicide and settler-angst seem only two unlikely possibilities) I am not sure.

So far I have spoken of First Name’s structure and the dominant image of the vertical axis between earth and sky. The other dominant theme of the book is the experience of language. Though this is predictable enough in poetry, West’s engagement with it is quite surprising. There is a genuine fascination with the word, its sound, almost its taste in the mouth that fascination continually alters the path of what might be, otherwise, predictable poems. The first poem in the book, “Mushrooms”, really comes from later obsessions but is put first because not only is it a stronger poem than those set in Italy, it also demonstrates this theme of the tactility of language:

This morning by the path I saw them.
Bold heads clean as paper
had butted aside the earth, and rose
like probes all about my feet,
capsules eager to outgrow
the dark grounds of their birth,
to join at last the light of day.
The soft-fleshed name, mushroom,
of humus and moss, tugged at me
as if it had something to say,
as if it too could be prodded
 nd wielded by the tongue, turned
over to expose an under-
belly’s hidden treasure of gills.
And the bloom of meaning when thought
breaks from such pods, then spreads outward
like the scattering of spawn?
Shhh . . .This tissuey fruit is all
syllable, is already
bowing to the moisture of the earth.
Mushrooms fulfil their word, and then some.

I quote this poem in full because, as well as being a fine poem in itself, it encapsulates the best of this book. The mushrooms grow in the humus and reach into the middle world of air. In other words the poem begins with the theme of the vertical levels, a dominant obsession in First Names. But at the point where we might want to plod on with a fairly predictable allegory the poem changes direction entirely to speak of the word “mushroom”, its textual quality and the near puns it generates (not to mention near anagrams – you can nearly find the letters of “humus” in the word). It is this change of direction to something which is, in itself, less predictable but which is, in the context of the book’s themes, entirely predictable, that makes “Mushrooms” such a strong poem (despite the spinelessness of its subject). “Seed Eyes” – the Banksia poem – is prefaced by Dante’s “Nomina sunt consequentia rerum”: “Things determine their names”. This is a long way from the arbitrary nature of the sign but it does express a partial truth about language that poets are sensitive to. Somehow connections keep emerging between, on the one hand, sound and even the visual shape of a word, and, on the other, the object that the word refers to. The lover of Beatrice is likely to find the meaning of her name entirely fitting.

The fine poem, “Persimmon”, works a little like “Mushrooms” in that it makes a similar shift. Two stanzas describe the fruit, and the fact that it must be eaten at the point of rottenness (like the more familar monstera deliciosa here in tropical and sub-tropical Australia). Again the essential allegorical significance is clear – we ingest this stuff only at the moment when it has almost slipped over the edge into humus – but the poem’s final stanza, instead of exploiting this, shifts gear to speak of the fact that Italian has, apparently, a word for that indescribably precise experience of eating a not-yet-rotten-enough persimmon. And this, in turn, recalls the person who taught him this – lover or teacher, perhaps dead.

But to wait until it is almost too late,
to have to handle and break open that decay,
to scoop out the flesh with a spoon, to risk
the sudden coat of fur on one’s tongue.
I wonder how you would have described that taste,
and imagine your mouth flexing each of its muscles
to accommodate the vowels of allappare.
No English verb is ever likely to do it justice.
Mind the gap, you might have said, pleased to
span it with such an agile leap of the tongue,
relishing the sweet existence a lack can have.
Allappi. Allappa. And already my mouth has roughened
to roll these words out in memory of you.

Poems with a strong sense of hierarchically ordered levels of space as well as the tactility of words are going to both embody and, occasionally, speak about, a poetics. The best of the comic poems, “All or Nothing”, begins with two stanzas of elegant play with the letter “O” – the zero behind things, the marker of the vocative, the groan of love and war, the exit from the womb, etc etc. But its conclusion suggests what poetry is and where it “lies”:

O naught, I want you.
What I want is to lie with you
and reach your source, know
all there is to know,
though thought will twist away from there,
play its echo games, its word games.
I want to overcome these
and silence everywhere,
and fill your void with words.

This suggests two poetries: that which frenziedly reaches the source of generation (“the humus theory of poetry”, or, to mix metaphors, “the salmon theory”) and that which is produced by the mind’s swerving away from this generative nothingness (“the baroquely decorated doorway theory”). We meet the latter in the last two poems of the book. “Higher Elements” is, of all the poems in First Names, the one done in the most high of high styles, and it sustains this elevated level remarkably well. In my tentative reading, the poem is a group of “loving syllables” cast upwards “like a die”:

. . . . .
parched northerlies crying wolf,
the bowels of insects feeding on the sun,
trees fawning before it with green fingers
charged with photosynthesis,
water curled at the edges into
a liquid echolalia.
And this baby talk, this babble
you give voice to, rising high from spheres
of life, this bold cry, binary of vowels,
takes its place among the elements.

Here the words “babble” and “echolalia” are the ones which connect this poem to the conclusion of “All or Nothing” and the same image is continued in “Flower-Echo”. Rather daringly, this poem is written not in high-style but in a way that recalls the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. But the message – a version of “as above, so below” – is that the flowers of the natural world are echoes of the generative capacities of the cosmos and, since “Mountain Pass” used flowers as an image for poems, poems too have their place among the elements:

Twinkling logo, little word,
made flesh
and fallible by tongues;
ephemeral thought, wee
how I wonder what you are.
Re-sounded here, now,
from past springs,
echoing on in us, into
bright with atoms.
. . . . .
Tiny star and insubstantial
up above
the world so high,
radiating across the ages
and over
galaxies of black,
your thin light
is beautiful,
takes its part in makeshift
Resound then,
here, now.