Graeme Miles: Recurrence

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2012, 61pp.

This book gives us an opportunity for a second look at the challenging and sophisticated work of Graeme Miles, his first book, Phosphorescence, having been published in 2006. In one sense nothing has changed: he remains a powerful lyric poet – his poems almost always have enough self-confidence to stay upright as well as walk with their own gait – the exact nature of whose poetic sensibility is very difficult to grasp. The first poem of that first book, “Nest”, is an introduction to at least part of the Miles method:

The wasps are making a nest on the weight
of the wind-chime, deaf, I think, to its sound,
and undisturbed by its sometimes swaying
for no reason. They build a paper house
as a launching pad for violence in a calm. 

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.

The problem for a reader isn’t so much of guessing the intended (and thus structuring) meaning so much as choosing between all the possible meanings since the poem is dense with allegorical possibilities. Somewhere in here is a kind of Frostian poem about the nests that creatures make, usually in inappropriate places, and how humans have to leave such havens. By a further Frostian shift, the “final call” can be read not as the language of airlines but as the final summons of death. The fact that the wasps build “paper” nests suggests that the whole poem might be read as an allegory involving poetry since a poetic career is, in a sense, a “paper house”. The first stanza is full of noise and movement – both of which the wasps are insensitive to – whereas the second stanza, though it is about a noise (the telephone) and a movement (the leaving) is, as a stanza, full of a kind of calm stasis. And that is reading the poem as though it were anonymous; Miles’s poems tend to be full of houses, places stayed in and places left, not to mention places revisited just as they are full of movement.

When I reviewed Phosphorescence on this site I clung rather desperately to an extended poem, “Circle and Line”, which looked as though it might provide some clues about its author’s views as to what poetry was doing. In retrospect I’m not sure that that was the correct procedure; one ought to able to work out such things by looking carefully at the poems. In Recurrence Miles has gone some way towards mapping at least a part of his poetic by dividing the poems into three sections: “Down”, “Across” and “Up”. It is in the first of these where the significance of the titular direction is least obvious. True, a poem like “Libations”, traces the downward path of water, milk, honey and wine – conscious or unconscious offerings – through the earth to the point where “the only way to go on forever / is to become as small as nothing at all” and “Mineral Veins” explores the way that, in sleep, the self gravitates downwards towards its natural home:

. . . . .
                             Then sleep
is only half-sleep. Better to turn down,
find you can breathe easily under a world’s weight
of earth, and that air was no more your element
than the endless vacancy it fades to.

Gravity, the prevailing god of downwards, is in fact celebrated in a poem of the same name. A large part of the expressive side of Miles’s worldview is made up of mythologies, especially Classical, Norse and Indian, and so it isn’t especially surprising that such a poet should begin with Hesiod’s locating of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld on a vertical axis and then work through the idea of the gravity of an extreme mass as a “Samadhi of space”. The conclusion of the poem also makes a distinctive move, slipping effortlessly from the macro-physical to the inside of the brain: “she’s all herself / fixing and destroying, like the colourless dot / at the beginning of migraine / that grows to swallow the world.”

Down is allegorised out in other ways too. In “The Problem of Other Minds” (the second poem of a fine sequence with the ambiguous title “Causes”) the movement downwards appears as a pit into which our life experiences are thrown. Again the shifts of this poem are distinctive. The initial image is an interesting one and you can imagine most poets being happy to explore it. Each of us carries a kind of black hole which is being continually stocked by our experiences as they sink into the past:

. . . . .
All the toys I could find
didn’t fill it up. My thin books just lined the bottom.
Put in my friends and they were small 
down there, craning their necks up
to see what I’d done to them.

Put in all the houses I’d lived in, so I wouldn’t
have to see them again, then left my grave
with a last house-load of furniture . . .

But this poem goes on to ask about the pits of others, especially those who have disappeared into the author’s own pit. It is, as its title says, really a poem about the inter-relationship of the experience of subjectivities; we are experiences for others as they are for us. Continually meditating on what we are to others – apart from our usual egoistic obsession with what we are to ourselves – shakes our sense of our own identity. After returning to his own pit (he hears it “slurp as something else fell in”) he sees flecks on the surface spelling out a message, “’What’s it like / to be you?’ And when you looked closer, / ‘Is it like anything?’”

The same sequence has a descent poem, “Forgetting to Laugh”, in which “When you’ve drunk the water to remember, / and the water to forget, they slide you down / into a dug-out cave”. What follows is a kind of cross between a Mithraic rebirth initiation, an MRI scan and the act of dreaming, followed by the everyday – but still mysterious – process of waking. What is typical here is the way in which mythical, allegorical and metaphorical meanings, distinctive to Miles’s cast of thought, are held in suspension.

The book’s final section (to proceed out of order) ought to be a simple inversion of the first but turns out to be rather different. Certainly, in Miles’s poetry, the view upwards doesn’t involve any simple-minded transcendence. When the eternal is considered, as in “Two Guesses at Immortality”, there is no superior, heavenly reality. The two possibilities are either a kind of eternal present containing all the past (“Everything is here and everyone. / You’re home once and for all / at the moment when it’s all new again.”) or a kind of Groundhog Day endless recurrence (“the one day repeats itself / with its long night to be slept through”.

In other poems, like “Dioscuri”, the emphasis is on the reciprocity between the upper and lower worlds though “Above, Below” contradicts the old relationship of as above so below to contrast the love of the immortals for mortals (“a gold-haired boy or girl . . . too squeamish to stay / for the squalid fact of your death”) for that of mortals for mortals – in this case parents for children:

But the ones who wait below
will only be as frightening as necessity,
quiet farmers keeping their kids
from the dangerous machines and the gun.

One of the metaphoric associations of downwards in the earlier poems is the idea of descent through the family line and so it is, in a kind of way, logical that a poem about the poet’s parents and grandparent should be associated with a look upwards. “Verandah” is a really fine poem, familiar from its appearance in John Leonard’s Young Poets: An Australian Anthology, and though verandahs – the quintessential Australian liminal space – might suggest movement across, there is a certain rightness in this poem’s appearing in the final, Up section. It is also, of course, an example of a modern version of a classical invocation, summoning mother and father out of the past into the present.

Ultimately the vision affirmed is a humanist one and two poems, “Shivery to Think of the Long Spaces” and “Ascesis” make this fairly clear. The former begins as a view upwards to the stars, recalling Pascal’s or perhaps Slessor’s poem’s fear of the spaces between the stars, spaces which have become even more mindboggling vast since the twentieth century’s development of cosmological measurement. The result of this perspective is described as “shivery while it’s measured / by this piece of skin” but the poem goes on to imagine a perspective beyond humanism where there is “object with no subject” where “the suns flame silently” in their death throes “and don’t return from their last / going under, don’t care to”.

The book’s final poem, “Ascesis”, seems to have an unequivocally humanist perspective as it mocks the results of labouring to be released upwards into the cosmos, free of the earthbinding sins of the body:

They let go,
lift clear of weather,
soil’s vapours
that tint the mind like plot.
. . . . .
             Free of conversation,
the long dispute of history, language
is crisp as salt, and with no air
to talk through their words are flawless,
discrete and unanswerable.

Both of these poems casually mention orbits and straight lines and one can’t help feeling that this interest derives from “Circle and Line” in Phosphorescence. Miles’s poetic world, as readers who have got this far will register, is a complex one.

A reader who expected the Up poems to be about transcendence might well come to the book’s middle section expecting poems of narrative and Ovidian transformation and, it is true, there is a lot of that to be found there. It begins with “Photis”, a suite of poems (also familiar from Leonard’s anthology) that form a narrative about an artist inclined to bring out animal shapes in the bodies of those who sit for portraits. A lover whose self-image is that of a hawk finds through the process of art that his totemic animal is, instead, the ass (for those of us who missed it, the book’s blurb points out an allusion here to Apuleius). When a baby is born – going through its own metamorphoses in the womb and then outside – it becomes an anthology of animals:

Your soft skin is full of animals. There are
fishes in the movement of your sucking cheeks, reptiles
in the glaze of your eyes overtired, the stillness of a kangaroo
when you watch light slide
over the ceiling . . . . .

And the artist’s work undergoes an equally profound metamorphosis, focussing on the world her child might live in rather than the animals under its skin: “she paints the night as a newsreel of frightening things, / waters above and below”.

“Ariadne on Naxos”, based on the version of the story found in Plutarch’s life of Theseus, focusses on the way an individual can transform into a complicated set of rituals; “Aggregore” revisits the idea of a child’s evolution in the womb; “At the End of the Seventies – Streets in Marmion” reproduces the way in which a beachscape is transformed when it is seen by moonlight; “Chennai” looks at the way individuals (or families) are always the centre of their own universe and carry their own gods and experiences with them in environments that are utterly different and a related poem, “Diminuendo”, imagines, from the distant location of India, all of the houses previously lived in since birth as a concertina opened out into one of those medieval maps.

This threefold division of the book is useful, but I cannot help feeling that it isn’t much more than a guide, uncovering only a small portion of what is in these poems and what animates them and gives them their integrity. If I had to focus on a single poem as an entrance into the poems of this book I would choose one from the first section, “Purusha”, which links the Norse proto-god Ymir with a similar figure from Indian mythology:

Ymir, who is Purusha, the Person, is sacrificed
but goes on. Its skin is cinematic, the light
breaks through it. Endless eyes watch it
sliding by. Its body is standing waves
frozen, and it crinkles with crystals of ice,
empties into the roaring absorption, the nuclear
introspection of suns. Its sound is the crowd
roaring in Geiger-counters, it goes on forever
and mostly is invisible.
                                         Moves down
and down is the static blur of sandgrains, the place
that barters crops for corpses.
                                                    Moves across
inventing plot, walks on or runs
forever in Zeno’s physics.
                                              Moves up
spies out the thinning, the spinning direction
of vertigo.
                  It’s promiscuous and virginal, celibate
and incestuous. It’s family at war with itself.
When a standing ape looks up it sees
air catch fire, water
thicken with mud, harden to land.
Objects are smashed in the slow riot
and the prickling of skin when reading a poem
is each pore expecting a bruise
to cover it. And the poems fit together
like a dry-stone wall, jagged edge
to edge, just making do.
Perhaps this should be thought of not as poem-as-key but as poem-as-digest (or, anatomy) since one can hear nearly all of the poems in Recurrence in this single work. The central section is a compressed explanation of the three directions and the over-riding image of the fate of Ymir (whose blood becomes the sea, whose skull becomes the sky and whose bones and teeth become rocks) as a sacrifice whose body goes on changing and expressing itself in the activities of the humans who live on and within him echoes throughout the book, down even to the poem about the child’s cutting his first teeth. Even the interest in light in the second and third lines recalls a number of poems.

Recurrence certainly complicates the world of Phosphorescence (itself complicated enough) and it would take a review longer than this to go back to that first book and reread it in the light of this second one. Eventually it will have to be done but I will leave that for the appearance of Miles’s third book – something that admirers like myself will hope happens quickly.

John Leonard (ed.): Young Poets: An Australian Anthology

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2011, 162pp.

If Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets gave a large number of poets a brief, walk-on appearance, this anthology of John Leonard’s presents far fewer poets at much greater length. The generation reflected here is also slightly younger than that in Thirty Poets since Simon West, the oldest, is a venerable thirty-seven. Presenting only seven poets has both advantages and disadvantages. On the debit side the selection of the poets to be included becomes less inclusive and hence more contentious. Leonard deflects this courteously in his preface by implying that his choice is one of informed subjectivity – “the poems in this anthology impress me as having a true distinction in quality and, personally, they move me” – and avoiding any comments about omissions or about the way this group might realte to other groups of poets of a similar age which could have been chosen. The enormous advantage is that readers get a twenty-page slab of poetry by each of the poets, enough to get some kind of idea as to what their poetry is actually like.

This leads me to the first of a couple of issues. The first is: Who exactly is the book for? At first I thought of it as a generous sampler for the John Leonard Press since three of the poets – Elizabeth Campbell, LK Holt and Petra White – have each had two books published by that valuable enterprise. But the tone of the Preface, focussing on the experience of reading contemporary poetry, looks very educational and it may be that this is a book imagined for undergraduate or better high school students. It would be nice for it to be successful if that is the case since what is happening now amongst writers young enough to be an older brother or sister of their reader is always more enticing for that reader than what has been done by generations before. The problem is, of course, that the contemporary is always difficult since it hasn’t had time to be fitted into a reading culture. The other objection to choosing a book like this as an educational text is that students need to be exposed to a full tradition, but this is nicely deflected when Leonard points out that this generation of poets, more perhaps than most, is informed by the poetry of the past and the possible connections it can make with that poetry. At any rate, this would be a good project to repeat for the next generation of poets, perhaps in ten or fifteen years.

The second issue doesn’t so much relate to the book per se but is a reviewer’s problem. How does one deal with a selection made up of few poets and large selections? Anthologies like the recent Australian Poetry Since 1788 and Thirty Poets ask to be considered externally. They are not really reading experiences so much as constructs that one wants to explore. If the reviewer is good enough, there will be some generational or national generalisations to be made. But you aren’t likely to find yourself talking about individual poets, let alone individual poems. The emphasis in Young Poets is squarely upon the output of seven poets and one is, at least at some stage, going to be talking about poets and their poems. Since I have written elsewhere on this site about all of these poets apart from Bonny Cassidy and LK Holt, I have used this opportunity to do some revisiting and some rethinking. I suspect that, as I write, the book in which they appear will melt away in favour the poems and poets which appear in it, almost as though it were no more than a group of pamphlets.

To begin with the first of the two poets I haven’t previously written about in detail, the poems of Bonny Cassidy are probably the most challenging in the book. They are in what is usually called a “post-Poundian” mode that is always going to be at odds with the kind of explorative free verse of contemporary Australian poetry, reflected in the work of the other poets of this book. In fact “post-Olsonian” might be more accurate though the amount of personal detail would have irritated a man opposed to the “lyrical ego”. You might find a connection with some of the poems of Laurie Duggan but his is really a kind of poetic anthropology, absorbed by cultures and their signs and seeing geology, say, more as a determining frame than a subject in itself. At any rate, Cassidy’s poetry is marked by its experimenting with an unusual mode and I am, consequently, on its side. This kind of poetry never takes itself for granted and so, whether it is talking about Margaret Stones’s botanical art or about the “recent” geological history of New Zealand, it will always have, as an undertone, the theme of what it is doing, how it is seeing. “Range” is a good example of this, beginning with sight and sound and quickly moving into a kind of self-directed imperative:

     A bird breaks
itself down, ties
its rune into a knot.

Always begin with a bird, like ruling a line
that stretches into angles . . .

This five-part poem is about the act of describing (it ends, “describing what you have seen”) and as such is about “creativity”. But even more it is about profoundly metaphysical issues since it seems to presume a particular relationship between the natural world and the observer. On the basis of the twenty pages of poetry here, it seems to reflect that American perspective of the way the self interacts with nature, but Australia has no tradition of transcendentalism or even of the kind of observer represented by someone like Ammons, so one wonders whether it is a model that has been, can be, or was intended to be, transported across the Pacific. Certainly the long section fom “Final Theory” included here (a Prologue and the first of four parts) seems quite distinctive, largely because it contains such a personal element – in fact, in many respects it seems as much a love poem as a registering of the geography, culture, botany and geology of New Zealand. The dynamism of the poem seems to derive from its exploration of scales, the delicious disjunctions between geological time-scales, for example, and the lives of the couple which the poem traces. It is certainly an issue that the poem returns to regularly:

That new space was dense with actuality. Its absurd
     dimensions
became acceptable, for instance, everything was middle
     ground.
Distance arrived from above and stayed until cloud locked us
     in.
 . . . . .

And, inevitably, like “Range” we expect it to foreground the processes of its own creation. When it does this the self is there again, not a purified self or an observing infiltrator but a “full-scale” emotionally-engaged-with-one’s-partner self:

Here is the poem, slowed by oil and grit,
to be shed and worn
as a skin.
Form may once have had some salvaging power,
but these days we let form whirl out of hand
like a camera in a Frisbee;
and see that order and delay cannot be made from space
     and time,
how could they?
All my words are gunning for extinction, all they can tell
     us is:
live more.
The photos you retrieve are a scream -
heart-battering reams of fortune, shadow and sleep,
as if "the sun fell . . . or leapt."

Your fidget-bone shrinking the aperture,
the flint of your lens against glacial gates

impose a double: lichen and hubcap
printed across one another

like two hands braced against the light, a herald for the
     Anthropocene.

I like “Final Theory” as I do the other poems in this twenty-page selection. I can understand that many readers won’t and would prefer poems more like those produced, say, by Caroline Caddy’s trip to the Antarctic. I can also understand that many readers will, sourly, claim that an extended sequence like “Final Theory”, as well as the longer sequences here by Elizabeth Campbell and Simon West are part of the corruption of the modern world in which poets need to write long sequences either (a) to meet the (understandable) requirements of valuable prizes (b) make a coherent project for a Creative Writing higher degree dissertation or (c) make a coherent project that will attract (what a mysterious metaphor that is!) Literature Board funding. But there is a lot of intriguing puzzling about poetry itself in “Final Theory” – not only covering how it should be done but also what it is and how it is generated by the cultures of the people who come after the geology is, more or less, completed. I find it challenging and exciting and want to see the other three parts.

 

Reading the two books of LK Holt is quite an experience. On the surface all one can see is the enormous confidence in her own poetic processes. She is the kind of poet for whom dramatic monologues or narratives from the point of view of an engaged and dramatically conceived narrator seem the natural habitat, possessing, as they always seem to, a Browningesque rhythmic drive and a fullness of poetic imagination and empathy. In a series of sonnets here, taken from her second book, we meet the Kafka of “Metamorphosis” just waking, a drunk who has walked into a door, a protestor who has just been struck in the head by a rubber bullet, someone beginning work in a ship-breaking yard, Lorca at the moment of execution, a boy out of control with rage who is shot by police and Douglas Mawson at an especially sticky moment. There is also a poem from a sequence spoken by Goya’s housekeeper and a long sequence, “Unfinished Confession”, spoken by a pre-op sex change patient. I’ll quote the opening lines of the first of these – the Kafka poem – as being in some way typical of what I’m trying to describe:

It is a mandible language, ours; one of release
or grasp; a byzantine binary of yes, no (yes);
the shellac click of stag beetles all het up.
Dear Franz you should love whom you want to
and hard - forget about the world's wanton
fathering and mothering . . . both will bear on
past your little momentous death.
Our parents always outlive us in a sense . . . 

This is terrific stuff – I especially like “your little, momentous death” – but sheer confident monologic energy like this always induces doubts in the reader and leads us to wonder whether it might not all be just a particularly impressive kind of dramatic rhetoric. What we need is some kind of indication of what the poet’s stake in these monologues is. Or, at least, the conviction that somewhere underneath there is a stake. It is hard to imagine a biography which is in some way engaged with all the poems I’ve sketched in above. I’d like to believe that the tension beneath them is not one of content but rather of form: that they represent a kind of public face to a poet who does actually have doubts. Perhaps they are doubts about the very ease with which they seem to have been written. We know in the case of other poets – I’ve already mentioned Browning – that the poems of most certainty are often the poems of most doubt. But you would have to know a lot of a poet’s biography before you could speak cponfidently about generative mechanisms as profound as this.

All this will lead to the fairly obvious conclusion that I like best those poems of Holt’s which are personal and slightly weird. Amongst the sonnets there is a lyric (which I deliberately omitted in my list) describing how an old door is transformed to a table and then a garden bench. It has the same confident assertive style as the monologues and is, I suppose, not much more than a brief allegory (what was recently marked out as a feature of contemporary poetry: “the significant anecdote”) but it still has resonances and intriguing tensions (between, for example, denotative description and a rather more high-flown conclusion) that are harder to find in the monologues. Two poems, “Poem for Nina” and “Poem for Brigid” seem to me to stand out in this selection. They are personal poems about the author’s very stake in the friendships they describe and they are complicated and not at all predictable: always a good sign in a poem.

 

I have looked at length in past reviews at Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry. She looks strong no matter how or where her poems are presented. Here, by virtue of the fact that the poets of the book are organised alphabetically, she is the lead-off voice and her poems look more than comfortable in that responsible position. Given that Error, her second book, was published last year, it’s reasonable that only one of these poems is new. That poem, “Black Swans”, is intriguing because it is a meditation on error – in the sense of inheriting a way (through ideology or cultural tradition) of seeing things which determines what we see – that takes one of the most famous of the Ern Malley poems as its core context. This, of course, is yet another testimony to the unkillableness of an imaginary poet who died thirty-seven years before Campbell was born and Campbell’s generation is one of the first (of many, presumably) for whom the story of Ern Malley, Max Harris and the hoaxers will not be one soaked in the irritations of literary polemics. The Ern Malley poem in question here, “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495” is, itself, a version of a poem of McAuley’s which he was unhappy with, a poem which is about a painting and in which the poet finds himself a “robber of dead men’s dream”. If this poem is about artistic revenancy then “Black Swans” is about conceptual revenancy for although she is an avenging angel, coming to destroy:

we still hope
to cut her open and find bedded neatly inside
goose, duck, chicken, quail: all the known unknowns.

Poetry, philosophy, economics: the mind
repeats, in its ignorance, the vision of others:

all swans are white, all swans are white.

The other poems selected include two of the horse poems from Letters to the Tremulous Hand as well as two of the best poems in Error, “The Diving Bell” and “Brain” – both strong poems about various glitches in body and brain. These two poems, together with the sequence, “Inferno”, lead one to think that Campbell (together with West and White) might be trying to work out answers to the question of what a body/soul distinction for the twenty-first century could look like. We also get a chance to revisit that difficult sequence, “A Mon Seul Desir”, based on the famous series of late fifteenth century tapestries. It is a far from straightforward sequence and, as I’ve labored over it in my earlier review, I’ll spare readers a revisiting. John Leonard’s comment in the introduction, perhaps concerned that readers might run aground on the sequence which, after all, appears quite early in the whole book, recommends reading it as a poem about love, rather than an exploration of obscure late medieval art, and I suspect that that is a good tactic, at least for initial readings.

 

Sarah Holland-Batt is the author of perhaps the most likeable set of poems in this book, though that adjective has no implications, good or bad, about quality. It’s just that her work seems to be nicely pitched between accessible and questing. She also has (together with Graeme Miles) the highest percentage of new work after her debut volume Aria. If I had to hazard a guess as to the direction of this newer work – always dangerous when based on such a small sample – I’d say that it is definitely less emotionally expressionist than the earlier. Many of the complex poems in Aria seemed at heart, either opportunities for lament or opportunities for celebration. The self is present in these new poems but not at such a dominating level. An exception is “Rain, Ravello” which seems in the earlier mode: a long description of rain eventually establishes itself in the reader’s mind as a sympathetic exterior response to internal misery and the poem finishes, “Art is not enough, not nearly / enough, in a world not magnified by love”.

The other poems seem a lot breezier, focusing on life sciences and art. “Orange-Bellied Parrot” is like a cross between a Robert Adamson bird poem and Bruce Dawe’s “Homecoming”, enacting an imaginary return made by a stuffed parrot in the British Museum (surely the ultimate in exilic misery) to his homeland. “Botany” recalls the school experiment of mapping the spores of various mushrooms, while the poet interprets the results differently, seeing “a woodcut winter cart and horse / careen off course . . .” But one wouldn’t want to take these too sunnily. A brilliant poem, “The Quattrocento as a Waltz” celebrates the freedom of a new art style in abandoning the tyranny of the religious – here a sun-dominated, top-down world of stiff madonnas – and celebrating the real of the world, even if that real is a world of misery:

Let the darkness shake out its bolt of silk.
Let it roam over us like a blind tongue.
Let it bury its razorblades in the citrons
and its hooks in the wild pheasants.
Open the window: outside it is Italy.
A fat woman is arguing over the artichokes,
someone is dying in a muddy corner,
there’s a violin groaning in the street.

And other poems such as “Primavera: The Graces” and “Medusa” slide the poet into the poems as an allegorical and not necessarily positive figure – here too the emphasis is on suffering and death. “Persephone as a Whistling Moth”, far from the best poem in the group, is perhaps the clearest in that it takes a mythological figure who oscillates between the dark and the light (as so many of the poems of Aria do) and crosses her with another poetic myth of the moth and the flame.

 

The poems of Graeme Miles seem a long way from those of his first book, Phosphoresence, though, probably, there are evolutionary links I can’t, from a superficial rereading, trace. He seems a poet anchored in the mundane, especially the mysterious mundane of family and ancestors, but at the same time obsessed by the presence of things within other things. A fine sequence, “Photis”, deals with a painter in whose portraits animals continuously seem to emerge and from whose body a child eventually emerges, whose “soft skin is full of animals”. Ghosts of relatives past emerge from the liminal spaces in “Verandah” and in “At 30 Clifton Street”, the house seems to induce visions of its own ghosts. As one can imagine, dreaming is an important part of this world since dreams are yet another sort of poem with a complex and usually unresolvable relationship with the waking world and a poem about sleep, “Mineral Veins”, concludes with:

          Better to turn down,
find you can breathe easily under a world's weight
of earth, and that air was no more your element
than the endlesss vacancy it fades to.

As one can also imagine there is a lot of interest in transformation, Ovid’s obsession: it occurs at the level of myth in “Isis and Osiris” and at the level of a kind of humorous surrealism in a poem like “Talking Glass” (I went to find pasta for the wary / to prepare their pianos. I tried to speak, / knowing that I’d spoken pasta / in the past, but now there was broken glass / between my teeth . . .”
So in the case of this poet, ordinary events in life are likely to produce poems whose interests and structures are not at all obvious ones. A good example is the final poem, “Where She Went”, which is about the death of his grandmother (at least I assume it is: one has to be careful about making casual unequivocal assumptions about relationships. It is a marker of how young these poets are that the deaths which occur to them are those of their grandparents. Very soon it will be the deaths of parents and, in no time at all, the deaths of friends and contemporaries!):

Shade inks a human on the surface of the water,
brings it from a lostness so complete
that only this skeletal light
and athletic paperbark are lean enough to reach it.
It's reformed by remotest coincidence of lines,
dreamed by shade from the bones up
replaced where it never was.
Skinny land and paperbark
are the brassy echo of a wooden room
beside a deeper lake,
where the same figure saw her face shift in the mirror
like a friend she couldn't trust.
Rooms were closed then and vigils sat through.
Strangers covered the mirrors she'd left
and motes of dust fell one by one
precise as the knife-thrower's act in a circus.
They waltzed the wardrobe back from the doorway
and sold her clothes.
And she passed the white rock
which some said was a headland
too steep for goat's feet,
and some said was a marker stone
set into grey soil dry as ash,
a white stone just big enough
to overfill palm and fingers,
cool as liquid overflowing
and with weight to make you think of fractures.

This a poem that moves in four magical stages from the shadows on the water suggesting the woman (not in a simply Rorschach way, but in a much profounder movement from the deeps to the surface). Then it moves to the woman’s room and her funeral and then, surprisingly, to a description – which sounds like the Classical world – of moving beyond a boundary stone. But it doesn’t end there because the stone is imagined declining in size from  headland to marker to fist-sized. These are unusual emphases and markers of a very distinctive poetic mind.

 

Simon West is a tricky but impressive poet who seems highly sensitive both to dislocation and also its opposite: the moments when – and processes whereby – we emerge from a dislocated state. It’s a poetry where we always seem to be crossing thresholds. “Out of the Woods of Thoughts” – whose title seems to allude simultaneously to Dante’s selva oscura (an image that recurs in this poetry) as well as the wood of the suicides of Inferno XIII – is a good example.

We woke with the crook of our arms empty.
Each morning the triple-cooing turtle-dove
would probe about our yard,
"coo-ca-cai?" A nag and clamour
I couldn't help but hear as "cosa fai?"

Mostly summer turned away, tightened
to a knot of roots at river's edge,
where earth erodes from a red gum,
unable to grip things, and strangely exposed.

No use saying "it was him not me",
or "dispel the senses and repeat, The mind lies".
Even the faintest trails led back to that weight
cradled in the stomach's pit.
What was it doing? What did it have to say?

These seems an excellent introduction to the West-world especially its quality of being simultaneously precise and yet slippery. It’s a world where we move from sleep to waking, dreams to everyday, from natural speech into language, from the constructing, rational mind to the immanent natural.

A precious eight pages of the allotted twenty are devoted to a long and difficult sequence, “A Valley”, which is obviously central to where West’s poetry is at this point and which recalls many of these processes. It is not an easy sequence to get a handle on and consequently – if a reader is honest – not an easy set of poems to like. It is, like “Out of the Woods of Thought” about emerging from a dark wood, an emergence that happens in the last two poems. But the nature of the valley in which the protagonist is trapped for the other fifteen poems of the sequence is difficult to feel confident about. To what extent it is a conceptual one, and to what extent it is emotional (even, allegorically, personal) is really difficult to determine though, if Dante is the model, I suppose the same could be said of the Commedia. It is perfectly possible that it is imagined to be a valley of monolinguality broken out of by mastering a second language.

“Out of the Wood of Thoughts” contained an odd middle section where the roots of a red gum are “strangely exposed” by erosion and West is very sensitive to the texture and grain of wood.  “The Apricot Tree” seems on the surface a poem about childhood where the environment is symbolised by a rather grotesquely split apricot tree used as a set of cricket stumps by the boys. It begins, significantly, “I try to home in on this” but the poem’s conclusion takes it away into the inner life of the split and exposed wood:

I'd seen that wound open in wood. Under

a hard rind the core's gore colours
lay like a deep bruise: a reversal

or confirmation from within
of stone fruit, and equally alive.

In “Door Sill”, another childhood memory poem, that piece of wood is an unpainted slab of redgum which marks the boundary between the domestic house and the outer world:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes . . .

The selection includes “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri” from West’s first book. On first reading that looked very atypical, even positively out of place. But now seems more central because it concerns art and the way art deals with the conceptual maps we put over the endless flux of the universe. As such, this genuinely incomprehensible painting seems like a gateway to a quantum world and reflects West’s interest in the texture of the worlds revealed by the dissolution of surfaces.

 

Petra White seems to be a poet who continually wants to connect a fraught self with the outside world. From the poems in this anthology we can sketch in a childhood amongst people at the dottier end of protestantism, depression and despair, and a seriously sick lover. The first of these appears in the first poem, “Grave”, but also in “Trampolining” where the speaker and her brother save for a trampoline while the adults take part in a suburban prayer meeting. The experience of the trampoline is one of ecstatic movement in the world, significantly oscillating between earth and sky, taking place “in the present-tense, / cast off by the adults for the kids to play with”.  The desire to connect self with the world raises a lot of issues. Like Elizabeth Campbell, she is interested, for example, in the relationship between the self and the natural world. “Ode to Coleridge” deals with the body/soul distinction but not in any academic way: the issue of whether a sick soul sees the world only as dull and lifeless (Coleridge’s position) or whether the world can heal the soul (Wordsworth’s) is a crucial question in White’s poetry. 

The poem which engages with the world at its most “social” is “Southbank” an eleven part sequence based in a Melbourne work situation. At first it seems a minor piece of social recording but rereadings show it to be far more complex and engaging. Amongst the parodies of business-speak – “I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy / joins the Networks & / Infrastructure Team to give cover . . .” – there is an examination of what it means to be a suited worker in an industry designed to provide aid to people in need “out there”. The answer, I think, lies in the Heidegger comment, included in the poem, that we only see how things work when they break down (a statement that expresses, after the event, the entire rationale of Modernism as a broad cultural phenomenon). The Melbourne office is, in the last poem, “a portal, / point of stillness from which the world extends” and many of the poems want to explore this movement from a shakily-secure self into wider worlds of experience. We see it schematically in both “Woman and Dog” and in “Kangaroos”. In the latter poem the rows of dead kangaroos by the roadside are tribute to the fate of those moving through experience who make the wrong choice, “one wrong leap against / thousands of right ones; thousands of hours / lived hurtling through space with no notion of obstacle”. They act, finally, both as guardians of new worlds and as psychopomps for humans:

Always turning to leave, wider to go -
they emerge in dissolving light as if they carry
the Earth in their skins, as if they are the land they inhabit . . .
it stares at you through them, looks through you
in the shared-breath stillness, their telepathic here now
group hesitation. As if something's deciding
whether to let you in or through. As if there was an opening,
a closing. Then turning away again, loping off
into that open where death stands to one side (you imagine)
and each leap is a leap into deeper life, deeper possession.

It’s a constant movement in this poetry to desire a deeper life, starting, as it does, from a vulnerable self. There is a profound difference between the young girl in “Ricketts Point” who, playing at the water’s edge “suddenly marvels at how the world / tips open to a broad deep space, not fearsome” and the damaged self of “St Kilda Night” for whom the beach is a nightmare experience:

Stripped to the soul, squatting at the shoreline,
thoughts prey like sharks but never bite,
no voice inside the skull sounds right.
O listen to the tiny waves crash their hardest,
as a lap-dog yaps its loudest to be loud.
Pitched past pitch of grief: how far is that?
. . . . .

Whereas many of the poems in this anthology derive their strength from complex conceptual approaches to life and writing, White’s are strong because of the fractures that generate them. There is nothing sensationally “confessional” about them but the underlying dis-ease makes all the issues – self, world, society – crucial ones.

 

 

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.