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.