Brook Emery: Uncommon Light

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2007, 72pp.

This is Brook Emery’s third book. The first two – and dug my fingers in the sand (2000) and Misplaced Heart (2003) – share what are, essentially, philosophico -poetic concerns. Emery is especially good, in these, at registering the sense of an observing self, simultaneously part of the normal processes of the world and apart from them. As the first poem of his first book – significantly about the sea – says:

I'm in the sea but not of it, neither fish
nor fisherman nor sailor with their understanding
of its distance and its depths . . . . .

He is also good at epistemological issues, such as the fact that, when part of the world momentarily makes some sense (“coheres” is the word he is inclined to use) we are uncertain as to whether that is a pattern we impose or whether we have uncovered an underlying law. Does knowing less make patterns easier to discern? That is, is there a tension between empirical data and generalisation? He is continuously intrigued by the status of thought and the fact that thoughts arise naturally in us and play over experiences. He is also highly sensitive to the way in which the future passes through the present and on into the past and the fact that these three time-states are decidedly different. The present is the world of immersion while the past – full of traces of the present – is a remembered and analysed construct.

This all might make Emery seem like a second-rate philosopher but the fact is that he is a first-rate poet. He manages to convince us that these are not only intellectual issues but intensely internalised ones, part of his visceral experience of the world. This is done by the deployment of a small but potent cast of symbols. Of these water – as the sea and as rain – is the most common. Yes, the sea seems to represent the incomprehensible world of the data of experience – swimming is never a simple act in Emery – but it is also part of a personal environment. Emery, like Slessor , is profoundly a Sydney poet. Many poems are set inside a car (often during a rainstorm) and the situation is exploited as a way of coming to terms with the artist’s sense of being simultaneously inside and outside the world. After the rain, so to speak, come the birds, often exploited as symbols of thought.

Uncommon Light builds on and extends these first books – a critical commonplace – but it also makes radical changes. It begins with a poem, “Very Like a Whale” which is, as its title suggests about imposed perception. This seems contiguous with the earlier books, but there are two elements here that I think are rarer than in the first two books and which are very important in this new one. One is an emphasis on the self:

. . . . .
        I am not what I imagined,
                       here I am the illusionist
                       and dupe of my illusions,
        making the angels disappear, wishing them back again.
. . . . .

And the second, only suggested here in the word “angels”, an interest in the possibility of transcendence of some kind. Later in the poem, the self is redescribed in an entirely materialist, evolutionary way as:

               one more clay figurine with beseeching hollows
                                           where the eyes should be,
                                           as different from the others
 as I am the same, no more evolved
                                           than a roach,
                                           no better than a rat,
                                           happy as a labrador in the sun.
                  This is grace, the rest is commentary
                  and I would let it go: in millennia

 I'll chatter metaphysics with a chimpanzee, now
                            my thoughts are the antlers of the Irish elk,
                                                     the wings of flightless birds . . . . .

Of course a word like “grace” leaps out at the reader in a passage such as this. To complicate matters, it is not easy to be entirely sure about its significance here. It could be saying that grace is the state of living entirely physically, at one with the natural and animal world. It could also be saying, of course, that “grace” is a theological nonsense, a sense of bodily rightness that has become encrusted with commentary.

So Uncommon Light extends the generally epistemological concerns of the first two books into questions of our material identity and the validity of the idea of transcendence. It is also obsessed (I don’t think it too strong a word) with the idea of evil. This is a theme sounded in a number of poems towards the end of Misplaced Heart . Poems like “Self-portrait with Exploding Device”, “Aubade and Evensong: New Year, 2003” and “Commentary: Two Days”, though corralled in a single section of the book, all address the idea of suffering in the contemporary world. This note is continued almost immediately in Uncommon Light . The second poem, “Spring”, recalls the book’s epigraph from Orwell:

. . . spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the  factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are  streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going around the  sun and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they  disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

“Spring” uses, as its central metaphor, the idea that we absorb time as sunlight and eventually let it show as cancers – “Our darker selves in and out of seasons”. And this bleak note is taken up in “Finches Perhaps” which deals first with the response of our thoughts when faced with a site of horror such as the Khmer Rouge torture centre of Tuol Sleng and then with the “tyrants” themselves:

Birds strip the hanging air, cut through it
between bars, through chinks, always at this

flit-flitting peak, this in and away as we say,
monstrous; as we say, how could anyone

have endured; thinking they, thinking if I were,
as birds dart in micro-moments through

our scant attention to how time corrodes
between denials then and now. It happened

and happened, normal really how helpless
rectify appears. Mind that thinks manacle

and bird and time cants to be a shrug. Tomorrow
the new tyrant's found in a spider hole, he has

a thick white web of beard, he has a gun
he doesn't fire. A torch shines in his open mouth,

the talk again of supervised elections. Distinctions
are this stark: Tuol Sleng – the poisoned mound -

used to be a school; its commandant
taught mathematics; its guards were adolescent.

Coherence only in the birds, what they have reclaimed.

It is a potent poem and, as far as I can see, gets double value out of the birds flitting in and out of the prison windows. They symbolise our thoughts – and thus connect the poem up to its author’s epistemological concerns – but they also symbolise a natural world that is, by definition, coherent.

The issue of the nature of evil gets a thorough working over in a four part poem called “Monster” whose parts are spread throughout the book. This poem impresses in the way it operates by statement and denial. Emery often puts both sides of a situation and lets the statements lie alongside each other – working by balancing possibilities rather than a potentially reductive assertion. The first “Monster” poem asserts unequivocally that the monster is present with us in the womb. Monstrosity is not a perversion or a freak sport of nature but an inherently human condition – we are all capable of running Auschwitz or Tuol Sleng . The second poem worries about the essentialism of this position: no monster, after all, produced the Lisbon earthquake – that is a product of some random and completely natural processes. It experiments with the idea of lived experience being made up of encounters between the good and the bad, the monsters and the saints:

. . . . .
I know saintliness exists. It's all around me.
My next door neighbours in their simple modesty,
the lady down the street who is always

helping someone older than herself. Even the slow
judicial process conceives it natural to be better
than we are. I'm trying to shoo the gloomy birds away

but crows repeat about me on the lawn; and the vulture
and the kite, the cuckoo and the owl: should I have given up the ghost 
when I was drawn from the womb? 

The third and fourth “Monster” poems censor the first two by overlaying an epistemological rigorousness:

. . . . .
                                            I'm embarrassed

by the flimsiness of my resolve, the silliness of saints and monsters,
conversations with a being who can't plausibly exist,
this mockery of flagellation . . . . .

and a return to issues of coherence: are observations of order “true but trivial” or a window into profound underlying laws? At any rate, the final result is bleak:

Against the livid orange sunset, consolation
(Is it a wing? A fuselage?) dips behind the hill,
out of the debris: fragments, disconnected things,
suffering that makes nothing holy.

Others have noted that Emery is a master of extended – usually multi-part – poetic meditations. At the core of Uncommon Light are a number of these. They make a very impressive achievement. The first of them is “That Beat Against the Cage” another poem to work over the bird/thought connection. The essential question that it asks is: where is life primary and where is it secondary? Its eight poems come down against the idea (shared by Buddhists and twentieth century metaphysicians) that life is an observed process and that what matters is not essences but field and flow:

. . . . .
Life lopes away as we dally in sub-plot, or worse
in a stream of consciousness; these thoughts,
sometimes like chirping birds, more often
like the incidental murmur of the sea, or wind
that gusts down evening streets. They never stop.

And yet, despite this confident rejection, there is still an intellectual openness: “I think it is. I think it isn’t”:

Yet there is confinement when all is in its place ,
the mind becomes eye's slave, scribe of boundaries,
reporter of coherence.
. . . . .

What complicates – or adds a third perspective – is a sense of a kind of non-transcendent transcendence which can be found in many places in this book, not least in its title – a quotation, we are told, from Augustine speaking of God’s view from an omniscient perspective. Some of the best poetry in Uncommon Light is that describing this sense that “The world holds back / a secret for itself, puts up a lattice work / of truth and lies.” Ideas are difficult to do in poetry but an almost queasy sensation is something even more challenging. One of the poems from “That Beat Against the Cage” makes an impressive attempt to speak of a transcendence that can be sensed but not really argued for:

I would see the outline of the world sufficient
had there not been an unconcealment ,
as though the wind were taking off its clothes,
a folding and unfolding of bird and tree and light
all the time back to swirling fire, emergent seas.

It's as if I'm deep inside the world, gripped
and almost capable of understanding
the mystery that is no mystery, that yields
but in yielding withdraws behind the clouds.

This seems an alias of beautiful, an inkling
that is in the moment but escapes the present.
Nothing here's sublime, nothing fixed and final ,
nothing artful: this records confusion and the mind's existence.

I know that many will find this kind of meditative beating out of ideas and positions unattractive, but I am greatly taken by this poem and the way it tries in words to get towards the edges of a profound but non-religious experience – a profound philosophical sensation. “That Beats Against the Cage” finishes with an unequivocal rejection of that version of the-world-as-process which leads to an idea of art as the solipsistic recording of the transient:

It's untenable, this drifting that sees the world as drift.
The fantasy should ebb, become the half-recalled
calling of the sea, or else lifetimes will be spent meandering
self-consciously through the matter of the day,
shuttling back and forth as if transience
could be a domicile . . . . .

Other poems record this sensation of approaching a transcendent which is not located above or even, really, within: it is more that it is underlying. “Nevertheless Also There” is an example. Beginning “The ordinary, it seems, is something more”, it goes on to describe the bodily sensation of seeming removed:

                       a kind of separation where my body
was an empty overcoat given form by air
and the something that was absent, too physical
to be a thought, too stark and inessential
to be a soul, was also there without a shade
or outline though it looked to float above me
and to occupy an equal space. This division
outlasts the waking moment so a day or life
or lives are spent in mist and expectation
or the purblind clarity left by rain when the everyday
is edged and charged and hardly changed at all.

And “Making a Presence” takes up the same theme, speaking of the unseen which makes

                 a presence here, a passing that takes us
even as we hold together harder. Hours blow by
and the stranger remains, making fans of trees ,
sharpening the sand, whispering and hissing till we
hear the vacancy it sings, this way, this way, it lies.
Wind whistles beyond us and my voice is the sea
torn to snow, cattle beneath a hill, an empty room ,
something promised and just beyond my reach.

Finally there is the title poem itself. Thirty-eight one line statements, questions and imperatives. Like another poem, “Tourism: What the I Sees”, “Uncommon Light” is an attempt to move into a poetic mode quite different to the usual meditations of Emery’s work. It is about the eye and its responses to what it sees. One line “An edge we share: it makes conspirators of us all” is about the involvement of subject with object while another “Starlight becomes us: no, really; divinity adapts as it descends” while looking neoplatonic is probably a statement of human- centredness so that all things become human size when we process them. That would make it the inverse of Blake’s “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite”. Finally there is the mysterious question “Common and uncommon light: who patrols the border?” which could be interpreted in many ways including as a rhetorical question. The significance of “Uncommon Light” though, is not so much what its gnomic sentences add to the complicated concerns of the book but rather in its move to a different mode. Of course this Delphic mode is not necessarily more intensely “poetic”. Philosophers from Heracleitus to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein have enjoyed the way cryptic propositions engage with discursive thought.

Looking at Emery’s work so far we can see a clear pattern of movement from a poetry almost entirely concerned with issues of reality, essence and knowledge to a poetry that almost is forced to face some of the mass horrors of the world. In Uncommon Light it tries to find ways of doing this that do not sacrifice the epistemological rigour of the earlier work. At the same time it quietly, and often in the interstices, asks painful questions about the value of poetry. The prospects – for the world, for knowledge and for poetry – might said to be bleak but bracing.

Michael Sharkey: The Sweeping Plain

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2007, 84pp.

Almost nothing in Michael Sharkey’s previous work – and it is voluminous – prepares us for the shock of how good, how sheerly enjoyable, The Sweeping Plain is. As his previous volume, History (Five Islands, 2002), was a kind of selected, it enables us to trace more clearly what earlier books like The Way It Is (Darling Downs Institute Press, 1984), Alive in Difficult Times (Kardoorair, 1991), Look, He Said (Kardoorair, 1994) and a host of pamphlets were doing. And we can search inside it for the seeds of this recent outstanding work.

History begins with a poem in which an RAAF F111 crashes at Guyra and it devotes the whole body of the text to recounting what is happening “on the ground” in a world that has precious little interest in what is happening in the sky. In fact the crash of the fighter-bomber is an opportunity to sketch in the local geography, physical and human.

. . . . .
The day the Air Force came unstuck was quiet;
from Guy Fawkes you couldn’t see a thing,

except cleared paddocks. Down by Bielsdown, no one heard,
and Whittakers by Styx was undisturbed:

the falls went under,
to Jeogla, where a man died on a tractor.

Two bricklayers left a dozen empty beercans
underneath the bridge, at Copper Rocks.
. . . . .

And so on. You can read it as writing back to Les Murray’s “The Burning Truck” where the results of a violent visitation from the sky cause the locals to follow it like disciples, or you can read it as an antipodean rewriting of Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” where everybody goes on with the processes of living and working and is unable to see “a boy falling out of the sky”. Whatever the intention in this regard, “Plane Crash, Guyra” sets a tone of remorseless anti-transcendence. In the Sharkey universe there are no higher orders, no angels peeking into our world, no rewards in another life: everything is on the plain of the here and now. When “high-culture” references are made they are butted up against the ordinary of life in Armidale, Sydney or Wellington. Ophelia in “Fall of a Flapper” is stripped of any exoticism:

. . . . .
Later, she went for a swim, as she used to do
after a few tall sloe gins - and of course
some damn fool at the school had said
she had some style. Free-style, of course,
wasn’t what she did well, and the weather
was nippy: result - there were flowers
all around the chinoiserie. . . . .

And in the long series “Pictures at an Exhibition” characters in the painting are imagined to be talking (rather as the dead do in Master’s Spoon River Anthology), but talking in a way that focuses on their own lives rather than the privileged act of finishing up in a painting that is remembered. So a character in McCubbin’s “A Bush Burial” says:

It’s always been like this.
At picnics Grand-dad reads
his famous cousin’s wretched verse
while the hangi’s cooking,
the kid wants to know
when the ice-cream’s arriving,
and Mum’s had enough.
Sis reckoned Granpa went on
for an hour this time
till the family shot through,
and the dog got the pig.

The message, then, is: no transcendence either in religion or art. Nor even in love because the many love poems in the Sharkey corpus tend to end in frustration and despair – though never frustration and despair raised to a high enough pitch to escape the ordinary. It is always wry-mouthed. This makes for a fairly bleak appraisal of life and it is nicely captured in “Anything Goes” a poem whose opening seems to recall the first poem of the book:

The truth is life is mostly very dull,
and peace and war are ordinary things.
Most jumbo jets don’t fall out of the sky,
most bills get paid. Most people do not die
by firing squad. Most houses are not full
of revolutionaries: their occupants
are born into a class they did not choose,
. . . . .
The quick familiar things revolve like days
that idle or rush on in retrospect
and hurry us toward what we expect:
no stunning glory, or outstanding grief,
but lights on in a daytime cavalcade:
the only time we lead the big parade.

Only by dying to get to raise our heads momentarily above the great, predictable ordinary.

This is all very bracing and Australian but it has the problem that it neatly knocks out many of poetry’s traditional props. In “Look, He Said”, a writer who is able to get published only in the local literary journal complains about things to the poem’s speaker who, in turn, suggests that poetry’s material should lie not in the stars but in waking up to the ordinary horrors of life round about:

. . . . .
How come if I hear this story from the lady’s sister
& I hardly even know here, this guy opposite
can’t see what’s going on outside his window?
And the beating that guy gave his family last month
just before he went & shot himself
except he messed his eye up so it hung down like stiff jelly
from his face & he was wondering how come he didn’t have
another bullet left while everyone was screaming
and the jacks lobbed that his missus sent the kid for on a bike.
I hear about this stuff, how come he doesn’t.
. . . . .

But nothing in Sharkey’s work lives up to this credo and one suspects that that way lies predictability and boredom. Poetry, through the entire historical spectrum that we have of it, has never appeared at places where it is told by either governments or ethicists that it should appear. Much of the history of Sharkey’s poetry deals with the problems of a materialist but social-justice ethos and getting the thing to work in poetry. Generally it has been a story of honorable failure but things begin to look up at the end of History, perhaps fittingly in those poems that follow “The Triumph of the Takeaway: A Threnody for John Forbes”. I say fittingly because Forbes, more than anyone, wrestled with the problems of a materialist poetics and, generally, refused to let his poetry sink into a kind of “Cultural Studies in Verse” a fate that would be, in its way, no better than “Journalism in Verse” – which he described as “the poet on the site of the significant”.

The final poem of this selected, “Park”, shows one useful technique. It takes what might be called a cultural phenomenon – the park – and approaches it from every imaginable angle (it’s a thirteen page poem) in a highly disjunctive set of short stanzas. You can appreciate what is going on. Anything more coherent is immediately describable as a method involving assumptions. To begin with material about the park’s Persian origins might be historicist or, even worse, positivist. To investigate its changing relevance would be anthropological or, conceivably, political. To focus on the poet’s experience of parks would be lyric-poetical, and so on. The poem delicately skips from perspective to perspective preventing the reader too easily pigeonholing it while, at the same time, suggesting that its subject escapes all of these limited perspectives.

Another poem, “Floors”, uses a technique which will prove fruitful in The Sweeping Plain. Firstly it personifies the subject:

With no pretentiousness they bear us.
It is no concern of theirs what we propose to do,

or do. They stand us,
mimic earth’s pull, hold us to it.

Flat rejections do not trouble them;
indifference cuts no ice.
. . . . .

Secondly it provides a kind of perspective that is logical but disorienting, as though it were that of a man from Mars. It is the effect familiar to us from childhood in sayings like “A chicken is an egg’s way of producing another egg.” This is really an inversion of the age-old fellow-traveller of poetry, the riddle. One could, in fact, rewrite “Floors” as a riddle: “What am I? I carry you but do not concern myself with what you do or propose to do . . .” In History “Past” and “Juice” operate this way and another poem, “More Characters of Jokes” extends the technique. Here a world is built out of texts:

. . . . .
World of Make Believe,
where blondes and turtles
are both screwed on their backs;
where Essex girls with half a brain are gifted;
Polish goldfish always drown;
the Reverend Spooner counts his phoney bucks,
. . . . .

And like the world of “Floors”, “Past” and “Juice” it is a world we recognize but which is not the ordinary world. This is a breakthrough for Sharkey and sets The Sweeping Plain up as a book which will have a far higher number of successful poems than any of his previous ones.

To return to the first poem of History for a moment – the one in which the fighter-bomber crashes in a generally uninterested landscape – it is worth noting that, in its last lines, it humorously misquotes Paterson: “There was movement all along the railway station / at Uralla, when the afternoon train came”. Similarly the title of this new book is a slight misquoting of Dorothea Mackellar’s much misunderstood “My Country”. It is hard not to suspect that “the sweeping plain” refers not so much to landscape as to poetic method and there are a host of ways of construing it. Perhaps the sweeping (noun) will be plain (adjective) (a construction that recalls “And the rough places plain” from The Messiah) or, equally, all transcendent gestures will fall before the sweeping (adjective) ordinary – the plain (noun). Whatever is intended, the book is also accompanied by a noteworthy cover which contains the entry which one second prize in the 1911 competition to design Australia’s capital city. I hope I don’t seem overheated when I say that this design – by the Finn, Eliel Saarinen – looks to me like an Art Deco expansion of Auschwitz. The function of this cover is, I assume, multilevel – like that of the title. It provides us with a nightmare image of the site of our government (and social engineering) but it also reminds us that one way of looking at the poems in this book is to see them as providing an unexpected perspective on the familiar, to turn the ordinary into a vision of itself seen from an unexpected angle – though always, of course, in the same plane.

The title poem sets out to do this – in the way I have been describing for the last poems of History.

War is what they do well, whether winning,
when the fresh-baked teenage veterans’ toothy grins
appear in snaps beside guess who,
between his photo-ops in stadiums,

or making sure that corners of some country
far away are full of heroes:
they are magic at such moments.
When they’re choosing to ignore the bleeding obvious,

they do that well, as well, and blame some other
who has let the whole team down.
. . . . .

and so on through fourteen brilliant and very funny four-line stanzas. One of the problems of this faux-riddle structure is, of course, that there is only one answer and this, if not handled by the author with a strong sense of how much the reader will understand, can lead to readerly anxiety. For most of this poem, the subject could be Americans as much as Australians and, even by the end, I have the slightly nagging doubt that the subject may not be “Australians” but “Australian men”. Most of the poems in The Sweeping Plain handle this issue (wherein the poet has to trust the reader) well. When we get to the five-poem sequence called “The Nations”, there is not too much doubt as to which country is which: first Germany

These people, as we know, admire music.
Their composers are required to drink coffee,

steal each other’s wives, turn fairy tales to operas,
and provide the world with clichés.

They’re renowned for spending all their lives just thinking.
Once, they worshipped spirits of the forests;

now, they keep the trees in line.
. . . . .

then France (“These people plant reactors on the borders / of their neighbours and consider this esprit”); then England (“The native population is one thousand, all descended from / Somebody. Nobody is all the other fauna”); then Australia (“Apology is next to apoplectic in their word-book. // Little of the country past the beach is known by heart: / the centre’s stone”) and finally, America, where the inhabitants are described as pursuing an ideal existence that can be found only in bad television:

. . . . .
They attempt to be as beautiful as humans,
but are dogged by rotten luck, bad hair and headaches.

They drive cars into a desert, conjure dust,

They take up sport and hurt their feet.

It is a rich mode if it is done well – as here. Or in “The Travellers in the Teach Yourself Books” where a world is made up out of the phrases used in the Teach Yourself language learning series. This world is familiar (if virtual) and reflects our needs and concerns, though often with unusual and comic emphases:

. . . . .
At first they’re well, until they lose their luggage
and have difficulty buying masks and telegrams,
umbrellas, two more pens, a handsome fish,
a pair of swimming trunks,
suspenders and a can of gasoline.
. . . . .

When they don’t work so well the failure, I think, revolves around the issue of solvability. So in “Wine”:

I was in my late teens when I met you,
Though I’d seen you at the edge of things before.

You were Claret then, in casual dress
In a two-quart flagon.
. . . . .

the jokes are just too easy and obvious and the whole poem seems to be a working out of a rhetorical strategy that doesn’t sustain our engagement with it. In “Sleep” however, the opposite occurs. It is worth quoting in full:

Better in here than the fantasy realm
Of interest, output, demand.

Sudden things happen and pass, and are no way connected:
Silent doors open and shut upon rooms with more doors.

People give chase or are hunted by strange moving shapes.
Here to act is to think.

Sex is a play where no guilt or remorse ever darkens the script.
People converse in the tones of a Nielsen quartet.

Everyone plays at behaving
Like people who never have dreams.

There’s no Larousse for each dish that is served in this trance:
A café sign announces Cordon Blur. And so it is.

Children have toys that can talk, and they watch
As black columns of smoke embrace towns.

When people die they are beautifully slain with their loves
And entombed face to face.

I hope it isn’t my stupidity that finds this a difficult poem. Difficulty is usually bracing and something to be expected in poetry but I’m not sure it can be sustained too easily in the kind of poems that this book is experimenting with. It begins by saying that the waking world (“of interest, output, demand”) is a fantasy world, unlike the world of sleep. The next three stanzas seem the describe the world of dreams (not at all the same as sleep) but their sinister language of doors and pursuit looks as though it could apply (or be intended to apply) to the corporate world. So instead of being given a description of the world of dreams (in the manner of the world of the Teach Yourself books’ dialogues), we are given a description of the “real” world which makes it seem the same as the world of dreams. I think. The issue I suppose is whether the doubt we have about the exact nature of the world of discourse – something that usually attracts us in poetry – is deliberate here and, if it is, is it tenable?

My favourite poem in the book is “The Advantages of Daughters” which appeared three years ago in The Best Australian Poetry 2003 (wrongly titled, in the acknowledgments of this book, as The Best Australian Poems 2003). Here the familiar world of parents and daughters is made constantly funny by sharply different perspectives. The essential standpoint is, again, that of the of the man from Mars (a realistic description of most parents as seen by their children) but the generalizations shift like a kaleidoscope:

. . . . .
And in their charity they help their parents comprehend
Postmodern sex, when parents come home early and discover daughters

Deep in exploration of their sexual orientation with the local pastor’s help,
Undressed and tantric on the lounge room floor. Don’t ask.

(I once held a class that used this poem – amongst others – and found my students shocked because they had read “help” as “assistance” rather than “assistant” a misreading that might have provoked a long disquisition on intended meaning, misreadings and riddles and jokes in poetry. We were spared by the clock.) Some of “The Advantages of Daughters” is fairly standard humour – only a level or two above a comedian’s spiel – but, at its best, as in these closing lines, it transcends this suggesting perhaps that the nightmare vision it elaborates is not much more that the paranoid fantasy of the father of a young girl:

Their men are hopeless, always waiting
For the right job, as if anyone needs jobs, they say and grin at you,

While noting how your eyes say Go and die a long slow death,
But somewhere else. It isn’t that they love to torment women (and they do),

But that one day, when writs are flying (and they will be),
That sweet child the monster’s with now might imagine you approved.

At present, in the playground, where the child is eating ice-cream
And reflecting on the compliments the people in the Indian ice-cream

Shop serve with the ice-cream (seven flavours: mango, cardamom,
Pistachio . . . Banana best of all she says, definitive), the clouds come

Hauling shadows through the park, where pigeons glide
Among the nikau and a possum snores contentedly in daylight,

And the wind is in unequalled form, as fathers look abstracted,
Now and then observing how the arms and eyes etcetera make a daughter.

Are there any examples of a more conventional lyricism in The Sweeping Plain? Yes, there are, but as in the case of later Forbes it is a lyricism often driven by the absence of a loved one. Thus words and images, instead of making transcendental gestures, try and fail to make up for lack of presence.

The darkness of the house returns;
you’re gone;
the fire’s low.
The wattle blossoms hung with ice,
the snow-filled yard remain.
The bell that tolls across the city
tolls my best thoughts of you
far from me.

The only real exception to this is the final poem, “Ghosts”:

I come back,
a ghost of twenty years
to haunt these places
I have been in.

Ice hangs off my lips,
air’s thick with mist;
the brown earth
disappears in clouds.

In twenty years
the wind will move dead leaves,
the birds will sing,
their parents, ghosts.

This is a poem about presence but, of course, it is presence in the form of a revenant. It feels as though the concrete reality of the place (established in the poem which precedes it, “High Country”) diminishes the reality of the visitor who is, any way, meshed in the usual animal processes of breeding and then moving off stage. It is an odd poem to put last unless its message is that we should trust the sweeping plain of reality rather than the poets who haunt it in such a provisional way. Interestingly it also appears in a 1984 book, The Way It Is, (different only in that there the title is “I Come Back”) but is not included as one of the selected poems in History. Perhaps Sharkey intends to include it in cycles of twenty years and History (2002) came a little early. The Sweeping Plain, by this reckoning, is three years late.