Graeme Miles: Phosphorescence

Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2006, 80pp.

This is an attractive and intriguing debut collection whose strengths are sensitivity, openness and intelligence. Like many such collections it has, at its heart, an important poem which gives a lot of clues about its author’s attitude to poetry and prepares a little for what we might find in the rest of the poems of the book. In the case of Phosphorescence, the poem is “Circle and Line” an ambitious sequence based on the story of Aristeus in Virgil, Georgics IV. Typically of such cases it is not the best poem in the book and its extended mode (it is six pages long) is not something that Miles seems to do superlatively well, but there is no doubting its significance.

It’s essentially a contrasting of two different kinds of poetry: respectively the straight line and the circle. Virgil’s story gives an account of how bees can be produced when all the breeding stock have been destroyed. A bull is suffocated, its orifices sealed and it is virtually buried underground. Bees spontaneously generate inside the dead and semi-liquefied animal. Don’t try this at home. The fourth Georgic provides a mythological origin for this process: the bees of Aristeus have been destroyed and seeking the source of this curse he approaches his mother (a nymph) who tells him how to extract information from the shape-changing Proteus. Proteus reveals that Aristeus has been cursed because it was while fleeing from him that Eurydice was bitten by a serpent and the poem goes on to give one of the many ancient versions of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld and eventual death. The curse is lifted by the correct sacrifice of bulls, at the end of which bees are found emerging miraculously from the rotted blood of the slain animals.

In Miles’s poem, Aristeus is associated with the “straight” and Orpheus with the “circular” in poetry. The totemic animal of the latter is the tortoise who rolls the eggs of her future offspring, whose shell provides the basis of the first stringed instruments and who inhabits the circular world of water. The totemic animal of the former is the cicada:

the cicadas speak straight lines.  Their uncurved poems
move forward restlessly.  Their bodies
are age-shrivelled, film-winged,
wrapped around their metrics.
Their song, like the music of machines,
claims to live forever.

When Aristeus is associated with the cicada we are told that he is:

A singer of cicada songs, endlessly
repetitive, songs where no verse
can be allowed to fall away,
where nothing can easily come in
or out . . .

This seems to refer to the idea that in oral cultures the function of strictly metrical verse is to record events and genealogies and preserve them over the coming years by having such a strong matrix of formal features that any corruption of the text is minimized. Later on “Circle and Line” connects “straight” poetry with the epic (“bronze-throated: tongues a hundred / throats a hundred”) though as far as I know the classical epics were fairly free semi-improvised narratives and not at all the same as the poems of record.

The problem with “Circle and Line” is really twofold. We have to work out what the exact nature of the binary is and then we have to work out what kind of poetry the book is recommending. The first could be, for example, an opposition between formal and free verse (the cicadas are “wrapped around their metrics”), ultimately favouring the latter as an instrument flexible enough to record life in its various and unpredictable movements and transformations and also allowing the alternative realities (“alternative daylights” one poem calls them) of dream and myth to interpenetrate with the everyday. It could be an opposition between quiet and loud verse (Shaw Neilson’s “Let Your Song Be Delicate” is a kind of answer to the “noisy”, public poetry of empire, embodied in Kipling). Or it could be an opposition between the elegant, thoughtful relaxed poetry possible in free verse and the driving, male, consonant-based poetry of rhetoric – “A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket”. It could even, conceivably, be an opposition played out in the poetic self of Virgil himself, marketed (and marketing himself) as an epic poet of the Roman empire (“Imperium sine fine dedi”) but in reality more on the supersensitive side (“sunt lachrimae rerum”).

At any rate, the book’s other poems want to be sensitive to the body, to the way the individual consciousness interacts with the world, and to be sensitive especially to the dream world and the way in which sensation is processed. The opening stanza of “Circle and Line” seems unequivocal here:

A voice that can speak about the circle and the line,
the straight march forward and the curved unwind.
One that carries with it the shape of lips,
tongue and throat, and where saying
and singing are not divided, the border-stones
between them ground down to roll
in undertones. It carries with it
how its owner feels in dreaming, in envy,
and in eating with friends, when it tastes endlessness.
One to listen to in private or the dark.

This is a wonderful stanza not the least because it is saved from any hint of being an elegantly vapid way of stating something many poets would endorse by the wonderful specific image of the border stones. It establishes that there is a poet behind this with a distinctive intellectual apparatus.

There are a couple of other poems “about poetry” in the collection. One, which I am not sure that I understand, is called “Ars Poetica”. On the surface it seems to use a kind of biological evolutionary metaphor for the development of poetry “A cell split / and poems began / in even stanzas” but it may not be metaphorical: it may actually be trying to hammer out an origin for poetry in the biological (in much the same way that people whose sense of form never gets beyond English language poetry metrics claim that the iambic is the beat of the mother’s heart heard by the child in the womb). At any rate, “Ars Poetica” stresses poetry’s ability to bridge and connect all dimensions of reality:

The polished dark embraces image
like bringing down the moon
into a glass of water,
reflecting its cellular face.

It also stresses the importance of gaps and absences, as does “Silt and Green” which begins by telling us that

Poems resist explaining
since they’re dipped in void,
nothing that isn’t nothing.

It goes on to investigate the personality of the writer of these things that are dipped in void and, as in “Ars Poetica”, uses an image which is simultaneously cosmic (black holes), biological (inside the eye) and evolutionary:

All of them are dipped in void
and the one who writes is no one,
mind fading down from daylight
through layers of silt and green
to the pupil-black places
light can’t reach.

The final poem in the book revisits this notion of absence and the nature of the poet. It is simultaneously a found poem and a really clever restatement of Keats’s negative capability. I laughed out loud when I read it (an event – the laughing while reading, not the laughing – so rare it is worth recording).

“More skilled vacancies on offer”

And I aspire to be a skilled vacancy,
always to know the right thing not to do,
just how to side-step a problem
or guide it over my shoulder
like a well-mannered boy practising ju-jitsu.
A skilled vacancy will reply to
“Occupation?” that it’s a “black
hole” and that even that is two words
too many.

The rest of the poems in the book work on the materials that we might expect from the author of “Circle and Line”: dream and waking consciousnesses, the body, perception, memory and sensation. One of the best is a two part poem called “Some Things the Body Knows” and there is a sequence, “Alternative Daylights” that explores yawning, sneezing, falling asleep and orgasm as states of reality, or perhaps doors to different and valuable realities. The fourth poem sounds like one of those marvellous Les Murray meditations which penetrate and define a state while simultaneously coating it with deliciously baroque images.

Orgasm floats in taboo and consequence
though Sex Ed. likened it to a sneeze.
Like falling asleep and waking at once,
both entry and exit,
a slow motion flash
that’s separate from the merciless attraction,
separate even from bodily art and love.
The quiet moment after two buildings fall together
with nobody hurt, another luminous object, perishable thing.

At the same time there are plenty of more outward looking, almost social and certainly sociable, poems. What makes these poems striking is that they are so often concerned with the interlacing of their themes. This is reflected in the high degree of formal organization of the book. It is in two parts and the poems are often grouped in pairs so that we are invited to consider the interaction of the poems themselves.

So Phosphoresence is a book of fine poems that has thought a lot about what it is doing. If I have a reservation about it, it is that delicateness and sensitivity can undo themselves by closing off the rougher, cruder areas of human experience and just might not be a good approach for the long-term. One thing that traditionally protects this kind of hypersensitive free-verse from vapidity is a touch of angst inside a generally autobiographical cast. I’d like to feel that this lies behind the interesting opening poem, “Nest”. Here, after a stanza describing wasps building a nest on the weight of a wind-chime, there is a massive disjunction to:

I’m thinking of a final call, when waiting,
feeling like the luggage is packed, the phone
will ring, be answered. The house will be locked
already, and it’ll be time to go.

As with any such disjunction, our brains are challenged to make a connection with the world of the wasps on the wind-chime who “build a paper house / as a launching pad for violence in a calm” and this second stanza. But it seems, more importantly, a poem in which the self is suffering (even scarred) rather than being simply sensitive and this will always help to give this sort of poetry the edgy, committed quality that it might otherwise lack. It takes the poet away from the role of sensitive experiencer, recorder and builder of subtle organic structures and gives him a true, even desperate, stake in what he is writing. When someone in a P.G. Wodehouse novel gets sacked or, in some other way, tossed out, the person doing the sacking invariably utters the cliche, “I shall watch your future career with great interest”. In the case of the poetry of Graeme Miles this will be true for me – and without any sarcastic overtones.