Dominic Symes: I Saw the Best Memes of My Generation; Pam Schindler: Say, a River

I Saw the Best Memes of My Generation (Canberra: Recent Work, 2022, 79pp.)
Say, a River (Port Adelaide: Ginninderra, 2023, 70pp.)

The initial pleasure in connecting these two excellent books derived from what seemed their absolute difference. It was both rewarding and fun to actually read poems from each book alternately and I was tempted to structure what I want to say about them by seeing them as opposite poles of the poetic spectrum: the one being tonally inclined to the wry and in terms of subject matter very much about how we are located in the (comparatively) new digital age; the other, tonally serious and thematically concerned with how we live and interact with the natural world. A little thought showed this to be misguided: there are far more alien outposts in the map of poetry than these: “language” poetry, found, conceptual poetry, the various forms of text-fiddling, multi-authorship poems, and so on. In fact, thinking of as much of contemporary poetry as I know and imagining it as a map or many-cornered geometric shape, these two books would occupy a reasonably central position and might even be able to speak to each another.

Dominic Symes’s I Saw the Best Memes of My Generation is, I think, a little betrayed by its title which suggests a certain facile cleverness. The reality is rather different. True the poems have a wry, often self-deprecating tone but they also worry about things in a serious and moving way. Admittedly some of the things worried about can be worried about in a reasonably comic, shoulder-shrugging way. The first poem, “Algorithm”, for example, is a list of contemporary insecurities, its title, presumably, deriving from the digitally structured way in which, nowadays, our profiles are matched to what is fed to us so that the tailored input we receive shapes us by confirming and strengthening our prejudices: no need to engage in real argument with an opposing case here. The poem begins with a sense of loss of identity when the world doesn’t process us correctly:

stood before an automated door
that refused to acknowledge my existence
I thought
but I’m here . . .

and goes on, through various contemporary angsts, to finish with the fear that one’s previous digital history will create a portrait of the self that will make getting a job tricky:

now I watch the candle
folding in upon itself
anxiously encoding its light
upon the ceiling of my bedroom

while I’m up all night
deleting statuses from when I was 19
in case I ever want to get a job

I like the compressed transition described when the ancient lighting method – the candle – encodes itself on the ceiling. It’s part of a contemporary sense of time being speeded up by the accelerating pace of technological development (something that was predicted, at least in general terms, by the book, Future Shock, now more than half a century old). It produces a sense of premature ageing that many of the poems in this book reflect. Since the gap between twenty and thirty now seems more than it did previously – caused by the nature of technological developments that the former are on top of – it’s no surprise to find a thirty-year old poet looking back to a time – what might previously have been imagined as a golden age in an infinitely distant past – when “time online was / less anxious – not a threat / to national security”, or one didn’t have to apologise for pontificating about love to someone “under 25” as he does in “Machu Picchu”. Time present is “no country for old men”, except that for Yeats being old was being sixty whereas now it is more like being thirty.

“Late Night Thoughts” is a kind of compendium of reasons for a contemporary depression, or, at least, a way of feeling oneself a failure in the contemporary world. It’s a list, imagined as being items seen from the window of a speeding train: “past all the times you said you’d read an article when you’d only read the headline . . . & the loyalty schemes you signed up to only to harbour years of frustration at all the spam . . . every time you nodded confidently in the seminar about Bruno Latour // every Bergman film you lied about enjoying . . .” It finishes by asking “why a train?” to which there are a couple of answers. Firstly because, archaic as trains are, they are a symbol of a sense of life moving quickly, too quickly for calm ratiocination. And secondly, because there is a kind of Australian poetic tradition of seeing train journeys as a symbol of life itself, something going, as in Slessor’s great poem, to unseen destinations, “mysterious ends”.

I Saw the Best Memes . . . is also a book that has a lot to say about the nature of poetry both in its subject matter and in its methods. I’m attracted to the poems formally. Many of them have a satisfying tension between a superficial unity derived from the subject matter and a tendency to pull apart derived from the fact that Symes is a poet who operates in discrete and pithy pieces of observation. This can be seen to good effect in “Scatole Personali”, an extended piece about Rome, where the structure of discrete observations is reflected in the title which (if my reading of the author’s note is accurate) derives from an art exhibition in Rome in which boxes of found objects were laid out on the floor and viewers were encouraged to take things. The method feels a lot like the poetry of Laurie Duggan but the personality behind these observations is rather different. With Duggan one gets a sense of wry but dispassionate observation of aspects of the world and of human cultures revealing themselves in odd and surprising ways. In Symes’s work, I think, the impress of the personality of the author, and especially of the awkwardness of contemporary living, seems stronger. I can’t imagine a Duggan poem beginning, as this one does, with

Rome opens its doors
but is never around
when I choose to stay in

          so in a way
          we miss each other
          but still I get to enjoy
          sifting through cupboards
          & using the free wi-fi . . .

One of my favourite poems in this book is the concluding one, “Nice Things, Artfully Arranged”, which pointedly asks, “how do I go fitting all this in / one poem”, the “all this” being not only meditations about marks and traces – very much material for a poem-poem – but also about the issue of compression and the inevitable fact that poems, the smallest and most ephemeral of the art-products of human creativity, often have the ambitions of containing the largest range of experience. And keeping the poem from being an intellectual exercise is the issue of grief underlying it in the references to his grandmother’s death and wake. It’s an issue and a setting which also occurs in “The Coffee Coffee Drinks” which is built around a necklace given by his grandfather to his grandmother. How can a small “heart-shaped chamber” contain that much love. How can a poem contain that much of the lived lives of the world, let alone the vast non-human expanses of the universe?

Emotion, in the form of underlying grief, is a feature of Pam Schindler’s Say, a River. If the dominant issue of I Saw the Best Memes . . . might be said to be how we live and love in the contemporary world, Say, a River might be said to be about how we respond to the loss of loved ones expressed as an intense engagement with the natural world. It’s a world where digitisation seems to have made no impact and as a result detractors will find it old-fashioned and admirers – in which I include myself – classic and timeless. Just as Dominic Symes’s first poem set the scene for what is to follow, so does Pam Schindler’s:

the flame tree scatters
little silk goblets, Chinese-red
loosed handfuls of scarlet

the storm, passing at a distance,
is a clot of dark gestures,
flung brushstrokes – stilled,

and the flame-tree scatters
the light red and the dark red
little stemmed cups

and it is a tree scattering itself
against the light
mingling red into its own shade

exclaiming itself
in wet red silk
against the painted light

On the surface, this could be read as a painterly version of the classic “capture” mode, obsessed with getting the exact colour of the flame-trees’ spectacular blossoms “down” in words. But the context of the other poems, which often deal with loss, makes one rethink the scene. That passing storm with its “clot of dark gestures” that looks originally like a visual contrast to the “Chinese red” of the blossoms, also wants to be read as the darker background which in other poems is overt grieving. In other words, the natural world where most of these poems are set, bears a responsibility to reflect human emotional life, not in a one-to-one “pathetic fallacy” way, but in one much subtler where the balance between the inner world and the outer, “natural” one is constantly explored. A poem later in the book, “Fig-tree / Fig-bird” might well be, fairly covertly, about this issue. The two – tree and bird – are so intimate and similar that it almost seems as though the fig-tree had produced the birds as an expression of itself. It’s tempting to read the relationship as that between the natural and the human world and this might be supported by the end of the poem:

 . . . . .
in its dark foliage
wings speak to leaves,
to hands – who is it
sings in this tree?

I think I am the sand’s familiar
how it shapes feet for walking
for printing its skin

The question of whether the bird is singing, or the tree is singing through the bird can be read as asking whether the natural world forms us or we simply express ourselves and our griefs and excitements with the natural world as a background. And the way the same issue is transferred out of metaphor in the last three lines supports this.

Loss – more frequent in these poems than excitement – interacts with the world in intriguing ways. A really fine poem, “The Leaving”, shows how well the “outside” world can be deployed in an elegy. It begins with a walk towards the water with carefully observed details that prevent the allegorical nature of what is going on dragging the poem towards vagueness:

your brother with you as you walk
down to where the air goes fuzzy with salt
and a boat carves the green bay,
a cormorant on every channel-marker

you sing him a hymn from childhood
the sand braided with the tide
jellyfish like heavy-petalled glass flowers
sea eagles rafting the wind . . .

The “walk towards the water” is, of course, the walk towards death and so at the end, “it is suddenly too deep / and he goes on without you”. Although it is a standard trope (think of Paul Dombey or Tennyson putting out to sea) the quality of this poem lies in its precision about a natural world which generally has to serve as an allegorical image. The idea of the ocean as one’s death is also used in another intriguing poem, “Or This Way”, written as an answer to a short poem by Anne Kellas, and configuring death not as a plunge into the deeps but as a quiet retreat into the familiar shallow waters of a bay:

 . . . . .
I will head out across the shallows
the flat shelving seabed
ankle-deep, dappled with sun

and flatten myself like a stingray
into a resting hollow
and pull up the sand like a sheet . . .

As a counterbalance for the tendency of poems about the natural world to inhabit only a very small and precisely rendered portion of that world, there are also poems in this book that deal with more exotic locations. In fact the last of the book’s three sections might well be read as different ways in which poems can inhabit a wider world. And this doesn’t only happen because they are set in places like Iona or Assisi but because sometimes they deal with ethical issues – “Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones)” is about the German art-project which involves placing plaques in the pavements where Jewish victims of Nazism lived. One of the last poems of the book, “As if, Curlews”, describes the birds which leave Queensland in autumn to fly to Russia for the northern breeding season. The poem ends by imagining the riches of the northern spring – “the insect burgeoning // as if only such plenty / could feed such flight”. It may be fanciful, but I want to read this as an expression of poetry’s pull towards wider vistas, something that will be in opposition to the intense focus on the local that Schindler’s treatment of the natural world – as in the first poem, say – involves.

To try to bring these very different books together by way of some sort of conclusion, I note that the final word of I Saw the Best Memes . . . is “trace”, a word pregnant with contemporary (well, fairly contemporary) significance. There are traces in Say, a River too and Schindler is very sensitive to the worn signs that populate parts of the natural world she is exploring. “The Old Track Signs: Little Lake Valley” is, as the title says, about the old sign cut out to name the place and expressing the hope that words in a poem might be left in a similar way to commemorate a death. And “The Old Track Signs: Lake Holmes” describes in detail how the words “Lake Holmes”- “two English words” – are carved in “frayed silver wood”. It’s an example of a trace but one that is, temporally speaking, very shallow. As the poem says;

 . . . to know its old name
is beyond our listening 

and before that? a presence
of darkness and silver, nameless
dip in the moraine,  
a pool for the wind’s shaping.