Petra White: Cities

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2021, 64pp.

Petra White’s Cities is a slim book by current standards but it is a dense one and there is a lot to be said for connecting it to its predecessor, Reading for a Quiet Morning. Both, for instance, begin by broaching crucial themes in the form of a revisiting and reconstruction of an existing myth. In Reading for a Quiet Morning the myth revisited was Ezekiel’s strange visions “at the edge of the Chebar” during the Babylonian exile. In Cities it is the old Greek story of Demeter and her lost daughter, Persephone. Taking an even longer perspective we can see that White has often employed sequences to work away at a theme and often these sequences are comprised of quite different poems. What strikes me about “How the Temple was Built” – the long sequence based around Ezekiel – and “Demeter”, is the way they each seem bifurcated, able to develop in two different directions.

“How the Temple was Built”, for example, begins as a kind of exploration of the relationship between artist and prophet. Its impetus is Blakean, I think, involving the notion that a “perception of the infinite” is the beginning of all inspiration, poetic as well as prophetic. God is thus a voice within Ezekiel whose promptings take us towards ideas like inspiration. But from early on the poems leave Ezekiel behind to focus on his dead wife (here given the name, Esther) who, becoming an angel, is able to be a part of the history of the fall and thus the human race’s entry into the real world. She’s a female principle and an angel of expansion – an issue not, of course, separate from notions of human creativity. The sequence finishes by returning to Ezekiel, and also the last chapters of his prophetic book, to describe the mad details given for the construction of the heavenly temple in a new Jerusalem. It’s a long sequence – nearly book length – and it takes several readings for an outsider like myself to feel at all at home in it, but I think, in retrospect, that it’s quite a major achievement, even if I can only give a sketchy account of it here.

The Demeter poems at the beginning of Cities share, as I’ve said, this thematic bifurcation. Demeter is the ultimate mother – willingly or forcedly plunging the earth into perpetual winter in search of her daughter – and thus a focus for a whole thematic area of motherhood. But motherhood isn’t just a one-directional expression of love from mother to child, it is also the looking back of an adult child at their mother: that is, it enters the rich world of family, genetics and upbringing that many poets have exploited. The last of the Demeter poems is a longish sequence called “Persephone at 40” whose very title makes the point. And the second series of the book, “In Front of the Sea”, concerns itself with White’s mother, seen both in memories and photographs. The question the sequence asks is an obvious one, “Now I’m a mother myself, how do I reinterpret my relationship with my own mother?” and this is pretty much the same issue that Persephone encounters as she crosses into early middle age. In “Chicken Shop”, looking at a photo of her mother holding her as a baby, she says that “her long future wriggles its gills in my blood” and in “To My Mother’s Ghost” she sees her mother as a kind of revenant, perhaps coming to tell her how much she loved her, an experience which the poet’s recent motherhood makes possible. It’s a sequence in which what to an outsider is a comparatively clear-cut if powerful experience is seen as intensely complex with the author positioning herself as both a Demeter and a Persephone. It’s also a sequence in which the sea appears as an image of psychic instability – something that will occupy the last poem of the entire book. After the sequence of poems about her mother is a single poem, “For My Daughter Ten Weeks Old”. In a sense this is an elegant, almost old-fashioned, high-toned lyric of address (one wouldn’t have been surprised if it had rhymed, for example) but it’s opening line, “Stay afloat, in your wobbling pea-green boat”, prepares us for the final poem of the book which will deploy the Odysseus myth and also use the sea as a symbol of unsteadiness.

It would be impossible to underestimate the significance of motherhood in this book and I’m not going to try, but one of the features of the Demeter poems (as it was of “How the Temple Was Built”) is White’s interest and response to the humans who enter the poems either as inhabitants of the city in the latter or as the dead and potentially dead in the former. It’s an area where the allegorical possibilities of the myths are rather cut off: we know that the author is, on the one hand, Ezekiel and Esther, and, on the other, Demeter and Persephone and a lot of the bifurcated pleasure of poems like this is that they hover between mythic recreation and disguised personal “confession”. But if the humans of the sequences are of a separate order to the divine figures then the second of these is rather supressed. It’s a technical issue that I have met before and I haven’t explained it very clearly here, but my real interest is the way in which the poems come alive when they deal with a divine figure responding to the small creatures that make up the human race. We can see it in “The Corn” where Demeter, knowing that the mother-love of ordinary mortals cannot match hers, is nevertheless sympathetic towards their suffering while she is wreaking havoc:

. . . . . 
That love that slugs a goddess -
they can barely stand their own little cupfuls of it
ripping their hearts.
Those cottages littered with rancid grain, poor bodies
in the fields . . .
. . . . . 
How I once adored the golden mornings when the tufty
harvests fell into being from my hands,
and the slumbering black world
came to at a tick from me.
And all the people were fed and happy
as zebras without predators . . .

It’s a moment of re-evaluation from a new perspective and one’s reminded of the great moment in Paradiso where Dante, near “the final blessedness”, looks back down on the earth that he had a few days previously been living (and fighting) in, calling it “that little threshing-floor” – though Dante’s attitude to the people of this floor would be a lot more dismissive than it is in these two books. “How the Temple was Built” itself begins with a loving description of the small folk who inhabit and construct their city:

     In the frail city that burns from within
and all along its distances
people organise into families,
make more of themselves,
bedeck sadnesses, build houses,
a town, a king and queen, princes,
footpaths and passageways, hiding places,
make weapons, listen for war,
violate, love, murder, ground themselves
in the concept of home, cultivate
adorable individual souls, speak of forever
and ever and believe
they have time . . .

And later describes,

    This peculiar town, it swarms in itself, with its handmade gods
vivid as puppets held up to the burning sun,
its superstitions rooted as fact, nourishing itself
with industries of fear and fate, its clever canopy
that turns the voice of God
into a howl of the wind, a skittering of something in grasses . . .

and so on. Perspective is what matters and one of the problems of beginning with the infinite (or the nearly-infinite in the case of the God in Job) is that it’s a very long leap to the ordinarily human. But there’s a verve in the poetry that deals with the ant-like humans that leads me to think that the impulse behind these poems is fundamentally humanist.

Nothing could be closer to the scurrying humans of “How the Temple was Built” or the suffering ones of “Corn” than the poems in the last half of Cities which are – at least roughly – travel-diary poems. We follow White as she follows her partner from Australia (its “delicate orange-blush / tracery they call ‘the Outback’” seen from the passenger seat of the plane) to London and then Berlin. Although they are built on a continuous series of observations – as travel poems tend to be – they are complex pieces in themselves, partly because of the interactions of the themes which run through them. Sometimes they are “mother” poems – there is something symbolically satisfying about the way the baby is virtually a newborn on the initial flight so that newness of place and life are combined – sometimes they gravitate around issues of love and marriage and sometimes they just make acute comments about the new environment so that in a London square, “The homeless man’s camp is gone / hoovered up with the efficiency it lacked” and in the flat geography of Berlin “A siren lifts above all else, two notes / played maniacally, / this emergency / hurtling into the arms of the city”.

But underlying these poems are both psychological sensitivities and mythical structures. The beginning of the first of them “To London”, which describes the departure, describes Australia seen from above, as I have said, and immediately moves to a memory of the past:

There I ran with the hippies,
free as a stray dog, dole forms
signed with an eagle feather.

For readers who are arriving at White’s work for the first time this will seem an odd reminiscence to drop in but those who have followed her writing will see it as a recurrent item. It appears first (I think) in a longish sequence from her first book, The Incoming Tide. It is called “Highway” and, though the poems and their approach vary – as they do in all of her sequences – it covers this trip with “hippies” across the Nullarbor towards a nirvana in the east. And references to it occur so regularly in White’s poems that its significance as a journey undertaken during a bad period of aimlessness and psychological lowness slowly impresses itself on the reader. It becomes rather less of a young adult’s madcap adventure and more an experience which embodies psychic dis-ease, recalling, for example, those references to his experiences as a child working in a blacking factory which occur in almost all of Dickens’s novels.

The final poem of Cities is set in London in July of 2020. It is carefully called “Home” and thus balances “To London”, the first of these travel-poems. But it also balances the opening of the entire book in its deployment of myth. Whereas the beginning sequence was based around Demeter and Persephone, “Home” is built around the myth of Odysseus and Penelope, the great myth of homecoming – after, in the case of Odysseus, time not only spent at sea but also in the Underworld ruled by Persephone. Given that White’s poetry tends to be centred around dis-ease, depression, awkward relationships with her mother, with her own past, and even with her co-workers during a long spell in the public service, “Home” is a remarkably upbeat poem, beginning with an image of equilibrium. It finishes with an image of Odysseus “sat among his people, his son” settling “a little heavier into the earth”. This stability replaces his voyaging mode which is a symbol of an unsteady life, a life where one’s legs are “wobbling and rippling” and where it is always possible that the boat might sink, just as it was always possible in the opening of the earlier “To London” that the “perilous” plane, might fall out of the sky.

Before this conclusion, though, is a stanza which summarises the experience of not feeling stable or steady:

In the otherwise empty Trafalgar Square, the homeless men
for whom the city is neither inside nor outside,
stale home on cobblestones, a wandering sense,
stand up, sit down, roam back and forth, sidle into
the blue July sky.
Twenty years ago, on the Nullarbor Plain
I walked, or knelt,
enveloped in the hygiene of space.
My fragile brain set like a flower in the desert,
thoughts flew, none could be caught,
believing only in a fizzing distance
in which my gaze could dissolve,
naked in the desert air, shitting in soft holes,
desperately becoming,
this wild source . . .

It’s no surprise that the “hippie” pilgrimage should turn up here as a symbol of a lack of a sense of stability and steadiness. Those who know their Odyssey well will know that during his visit to the Underworld, Odysseus is told by Tiresias that after he returns to Ithaka and Penelope he must placate the god Poseidon who has been the cause of his traumas. And the way to do this will be to voyage not on the sea but inland carrying an oar on his shoulder. When he arrives at a place where people are so ignorant of the unstable sea that they ask him why he is carrying a winnowing fan over his shoulder, he can make propitiatory sacrifices and then return to his home and a tranquil old age. Everyone has a different way of overcoming a psychological (and physical) lack of stability.