St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1972, 73pp
This “Rereading”, like that of Norman Talbot’s Son of a Female Universe, takes its impetus not from the desire to investigate an entire book so much as to celebrate a much loved poem. In this case it is Richard Packer’s “The American Age” which I first saw in Tom Shapcott’s 1970 anthology Australian Poetry Now and then again, in its more natural habitat as part of a poet’s consistent output, in Being Out of Order, published two years later. I’ve known it, in other words, for just about half a century and I could still, if pressed, quote most of it from memory. Here it is:
In smoky weather Mal and I strolled the south sector, past the crumbling husks of yesterday’s children, and the gardeners watering the wasted bulletins from eyes like squashed bullets. “Mal,” I said. “Mal, old battler, I’ve noticed a petrol flavour in the fountain, and only this morning, only this morning, Mal, a flaming prophet bent like a croquet hoop across my coffee, while thrushes mourned; and I emptied a stranger’s blood from my gloves. I think it’s our time, brother pilgrim, to summon our creatures, and take an ecstatic trip somewhere beyond this cruelled horizon.” Sadness crimped his mouth like a slip of string, and we paused in a grove of broken flagpoles. One more monument melted in screams, and the gardeners shook. “Listen,” said Mal. “On Mars the trivial sun creeps up faint as my fingernail. Nothing sings unless the lonely grains of ice - their tinny dribble in those bankrupt pockets. No harvest ripples there, and nothing sings. Louden your transistor. And pluck away that evergreen ear of yours for angelic trumpets. Too late, too late for such election. We have all fallen to living in our feet and the American age. We must picnic here on the plastic grass forever, and admire the many skulls.[“] Face after face died of no rice, as we sat quite broken, watching Christ shave his armpits for movie dollars, and munching our TV dinner. Overhead, the steely locusts foamed and whined: the gardeners begged an early shower of paper-clips. It was true! It was true! We were parked for good in the American age.
It’s not difficult to sketch in some of its virtues. Not the least is the fact that American domination of Australian popular culture – usually dated as beginning in the postwar period and thus only in its infancy in the early seventies – has grown to be all-dominating in the way the poem suggests to the point where it is unravellable. We really are stuck though the locus of power has changed from Hollywood and Washington to Silicon Valley. More important in the poetic dimension is the way in which the surreal imaginative leaps match the fact that American culture has always been a home for the wilder reaches of the apocalyptic world view. This view, invented by Jewish writers more than two millennia ago to explain what their god was doing in allowing a series of other empires to trample over his covenanted people, has a well-established place in the “religions of the book” (intriguingly “The American Age” was translated and included in Dimitris Tsaloumas’ anthology of Australian poetry in Greek. You feel that it may have made a lot of sense in the poetic culture of that country). “The American Age” is, to summarise, a poem of contemporary comment that creates a style which embodies the situation – odd happenings in the pre-apocalyptic phase matched with personal impasse – that it wants to talk about.
Reading the rest of Packer’s work, one wants to say, initially, that this is an unusual poem for him. There is certainly nothing else stylistically like it in his three books of poems and his condemnations of contemporary life never, as far as I can recall, specifically blame it on the impositions of an alien culture; the villains are much closer to home. But it does fit neatly into the arc of his obsessions.
Packer’s output is hardly voluminous. There are three books of poetry and a stand-alone verse radio play, The Powerhouse, over a period of twenty-two years. But two of the books of poetry themselves include radio plays (assuming the twenty-two part “The Great Food Animal” from Serpentine Futures is a radio play rather than an extended suite of poems designed for radio performance) and this, by my counting, leaves a total of eighty-seven poems. And “The American Age”, coincidentally no doubt, appears exactly in the middle and so, though other poems don’t mimic its surreal flights, it does have a thematic centrality. And this isn’t in blaming imported American culture for the woes of the world but in describing a state in which there is no escape. In fact the arc of Packer’s three books of poetry – Prince of the Plague Country, Being Out of Order and Serpentine Futures – could be said to move from struggles to escape a bad world to explorations of possibilities of flight. It’s no accident that the first poem of Serpentine Futures – a complex piece with something of the grotesque imaginative intensity of “The American Age” – is called “The History of Flight”, the final word appearing, of course, in its two meanings of, first, taking off into a higher plane and, second, shamefully attempting to escape.
In general, in Packer’s poetry, there is a fury with the world – mercantile, military and soulless – which is matched by a fury with himself and his inability to escape or transcend or rectify that world. He is a being out of order in a plague country. There is a dynamic balance here which serves the poetry well. As I’ve said before on this site, Australian readers are likely to be wary of traditional satire – the ridiculing of contemporary vices and foibles – because it implies a stance of superiority on the part of the poet, something that infringes our sense of egalitarianism. Packer’s gaze is just as hostile when directed towards himself as it is when directed at the world – though for different reasons. He rarely castigates himself for being complicit with the mercantile world that he writes so much about, but castigates himself for being unable to move beyond it. As with Rimbaud, the alchemical, transformational power of art fails and leaves nothing more than an experience of a season in hell.
At lot of this can be seen in the first poem of the first book, “Prelude”, where a saxophone is heard playing in what can be recognised as a fairly standard allegorical depiction of the world as being made up of a prison – for all those implicated as victims or oppressors – and a set of equally imprisoning, loveless relationships for those who are, ostensibly, free:
. . . . . It called against the windows to husbands fuddled by their spawning debts, to odourless, lacquered wives, urging them dance beneath the bruised sky with the jailbirds, their fellows, for dead Orpheus, whose gay flesh they’d ripped for sandwiches on desks, and whose sweet blood they’d thieved to guzzle from thermos flasks inside air-conditioned crypts. No-one became Eurydice for that pain serenading from the slum built even in the tallest mind. The tough wall stood. The townfolk drowsed on their pillows of nonentity. I cried in my turn for a millennium beyond the sleep of flesh, for a faithful torch to lead my soul’s long exile to its bride and faultless home.
Yes, it’s all a bit overwrought but it should be remembered that it’s an early poem from a long time ago. But it is, interestingly, about the way art stands apart from contemporary life and also about the way in which it fails. The melody (the song of the dismembered Orpheus) wants to transform the world by summoning it to a millennium in which lions lie down with lambs or, as the second stanza says, “warders would tear off their uniforms / and their bought importance / as prisoners clasped each other / each forgiving his brothers’ fall / and the long arm”. And at the end there is a return to the fantasy of the apocalypse which will introduce a millennium in which the soul is reunited with its bride – Orpheus, through his creativity, is reunited with Eurydice. Significantly for an essay involving “The American Age”, the book’s second poem is called “No Way Out”. This poem is an extended attack on the self, though there is an element of blaming external matters in it. Wanting to “ditch / the carcass of my life”, the speaker goes over the features of that life. Religions (and Packer has a developed interest in a broad variety of religions) fail him: “I’ve found no creed to be / the needed trainer for / the squabbling, lusting snouts / in my menagerie” as do the attractions of a socialised state which has “a master plan / to make all brothers” yet “can only fill your guts”. Ultimately the three possible releases that the poem deals with – “girls, states or prophets” – fail the task of finding “a cure / for being my disease”. Another poem, “Warning to the Rider”, provides a new perspective on this characteristic impasse by suggesting the image of a remorseless Hindu cycle of rebirth: “Rider of the poisoned wheel, / remember when your breath retreats / you must accept each cell again” and this odd conjunction of a Jewish apocalyptic sense with the Law of Karma seems to be the seed behind “Reborn Babylon” where the modern urban world, so much a source of loathing to Packer, is a modern version of ancient Babylon – not the real Babylon of course, but the symbolic Babylon of apocalyptic texts:
. . . . . For Babylon fallen as the seed of yet another Babylon, with only darkness in between, is something you have always known.
And finally, added to this odd mix is a dash of Kabbalah. “The Night After Wormwood” is an extended dialogue between Everyman, the last survivor of mankind after a comet strike (the star, Wormwood, of the “Book of Revelation”), and the idealised figure of Adam Kadmon. Everyman takes on himself the guilt of allowing the world to become a soulless place:
. . . . . I now confess that I unleashed the judgement hail by sitting deaf and small, and was the criminal cursed by those dying lips. . .
And the poem finishes with Adam Kadmon invoking cycles of rebirth: “Sleep now, and wait the wheel’s next spin. / It is my peace in which you drown”.
Prince of the Plague Country has a couple of features then that save it from being nothing more than a grumpy poet’s assault on the obvious faults of his community. There is the odd synthesis of religious/philosophical interests for a start but, above all, you get a sense of poems motivated by a profound irritation directed both outwardly and inwardly. Irritation seems to be the trigger that wakes up Packer’s muse and, if the poems are angry and condemnatory, they still seem to derive from internal irritations. Packer began as a New Zealand poet – this first book was published there – and by the time of Being Out of Order had moved to Australia (interestingly his third book was published while he was living in England, thus making a nicely patterned triptych). Being Out of Order is a far superior book though it is based on the same irritations and frustrations. Whereas Prince of the Plague Country began with a poem about the inadequacy of poetry in a blighted environment, Being Out of Order begins with “Madam” a piece from White Goddess-land in which women – or Woman – has the double role of seducer/lover and destroyer. It’s a fitting introduction since the poems of this book do tend to focus on the infinite complexities of the relations between the sexes. And the dominant mode is dramatic monologue from a carefully chosen, oblique perspective. And so, for example, the Pygmalion/Galatea story is seen from the perspective of Pygmalion’s vulgar (ans invented) agent. And the story is given a deliberately bleak twist – the intensity of Galatea’s love kills Pygmalion and she ends up being shipped off as makeweight in a deal with a Cretan trader. Like all good oblique dramatic monologues we look into a complex and important situation – here about the idea that men fall in love with an idealised image rather than a real woman with bad results for both – through a not especially insightful or sympathetic narrator. One of the best, and funniest, of them is “The Wrong Beach” in which a naked, Venus Anadyomene kind of character, complete with shell, appears off the coast of some bleak northern beach:
. . . . . Our king was there before us. His iron toes awash, he leaned that lonely, willed asperity of his upon the pommel of his sword. The constant mountain wind changed spray to diamonds in his steely beard. “Get back,” he shouted, while we set our useless mutters at him, moths at armour. “Get back, you warming slut. This is no beach for you. Go south at once, Go south.” She turned her peachy breasts away, and south she went without complaint . . .
The poem finishes with the narrator – a minor figure in the king’s comitatus – being sensitive to what this rejection costs:
Not that I blame him too hard, since he is our leader who brought us here for saving by rough elements, and dines himself off granite as his law requires. There’s time enough, he says, for chasing nymphs in heaven, when we’ve proven heat can’t steam away our wills. This rings fair enough: and if he stared too sadly on that dimpled backside, well – it helps to know he too is human.
Though it might at one level be about men’s devotion to various causes and the way these require a controlling of normal sensual instincts (in other words the kind of processes required by, say, monasticism) it is also about the comic cultural differences between North and South. The thought of a Botticelli goddess being stared at by people used to, say, the abstracted interlaced art of medieval Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians paints a very funny picture.
The last poems of Being Out of Order contain what are for Packer comparatively positive impulses if we interpret positive to mean seeing glimpses of how the frustrating impasse of the situation focussed on in the early work can be escaped – how we can release the parking brake of “The American Age”. “Where One Goes From Here” returns in its setting to the poems of Prince of the Plague Country: life is imagined to be a prison in which one is at the mercy of the warders. The speaker provides a list of pieces of advice to those wanting to plan their escape and these suggestions have as their common theme deceit and subterfuge. One should, for example, always speak loudly “of your intent / to seek a nectared atoll in some warmer sea” because the guards will be working on the assumption “that talkers never try the wall”. One should “endure the fists of discipline, insisting only that / your punishment’s by regulations not by whim” and you should “avoid heroics. No successful saboteur / leaped openly at throats”. Eventually when the guards have been “mirrored . . . / into the sleep of trust”, you can make your escape:
Good luck, then. Exercise the muscles of your faith by studying the messages of those who’ve fled before you, and now drink from individual springs. They are brothers by consent and more than kin to you. Strangling one’s own hope’s the deepest danger; the hope of fruitful islands where the heart is free.
“Rocks” is a celebration of those ordinary stones that can be said to be in order rather than out of it – “They are being what they ought / and where. // Which is more than can be said for humans, / who seem always to be nipping / each other’s rumps” – and they serve as symbols not of a desired transcendence but rather as seeds of what just possibly might produce some future blossoming:
. . . . . What I see most to be envied in rocks is the cool with which they make walls for us, keeping us from the chirpy neighbour and other beasts while knowing all the time they enclose the green shoot of a future that will dismiss us like the pterodactyl. Rocks are truly the eggs of our impossible, this being why we are driven to employ them as bodies for cathedrals and gods. They hold the voices of the sweeter unborn we sense and work to elevate them so they may plead for us at altars we’re denied.
This of course looks to a long term future but the next poem, “Good Mornings”, is about the immediate present and its very occasional felicities that reside inside us “warming like your seed”. And the final poem, “Homecoming”, is a kind of elegy in what is, for Packer, a decidedly rhapsodic mode. It’s core concept is to identify the freed state, the “fruitful islands” dreamed of in “Where One Goes From Here” (which precedes it in the book), not as an imaginary place to be discovered but as a home always carried within:
There will be a homecoming. There will. Our cavern is not forever. Roar of sunlight on the naked eye, the snapped chain, the dance, the unexpected bride and the absolute honey in the restored garden, these will be yours, will be mine, and together. . . . . . The green shoot will break the rock. It will flower; our tombs of loss will shatter, and there will be a homecoming. There will. There will. There will.
It’s not a positive vision that Packer invokes very often. It balances the sense of being mired in social and personal failure that dominates the poems of the first book but, as always with poems of assertion, a reader is never sure how much it is a triumphant achievement and how much it is the putting on of a brave and hopeful face, a result of an “evergreen ear . . . for angelic trumpets”. While Packer’s final book, Serpentine Futures (published with his Christian name altered to Lewis) is a bit beyond the ambit of this review it might be worth pointing out that if we treat the long sequence “The Great Food Animal” as a radio piece, like “The Uncommercial Traveller” which concludes Being Out of Order, then the last poems in Packer’s last book concern a visit to Auschwitz. Packer’s own comment on the book’s cover says:
. . . concentration camp facts always downwardly transcend creative values. It is probably impossible to write a successful poem about the holocaust, or any other apocalypse for that matter. One tries to fail as honourably as one can.
Packer died in 1989, three years after the publication of Serpentine Futures, at the age of fifty-four. His intense, irritated poetry which seemed to be derived from a dissatisfaction with himself as much as with the wider world was matched by his personality: he was notoriously quarrelsome. Bruce Beaver, who shared New Zealand origins with Packer, and was a good long-term friend, wrote a poem about him after his death:
Dear man, like me you were quite awful while you lived. But then, we were half-dead for most of the time and in these times of semi-thanatopsis we came closer to life than most of those we knew; the partly-living who did not acknowledge death in any of its varied manifestations, a friend to some, a friendly enemy to all, my alter-ego, your conscious shadow self, certainly no stranger. . . . . . But the big white bird took you away beyond all day- and night-life once upon a last time of an apocalyptic hyper-tensive seizure when your heart couldn’t cope any longer with your already out-dated attempt at a new self, half a new name, skinhead hairdo or the like, leather gear and an improbable turnover of new words minted too late in your last days. . .