Sydney: Pitt St Poetry, 2014, 98pp.
This new volume of Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s in the handsome Pitt Street Poetry series is, according to the author’s biography accompanying the photograph inside the back cover, his twenty-fourth. It is also the second collection this year which can be said to mark a poet’s eightieth birthday. It’s a reminder to me that the generation which I think of as the one before me – those born in the thirties like David Malouf, Wallace-Crabbe, Evan Jones, Les Murray, Judith Rodriguez, Tom Shapcott and Rodney Hall – are now in what, a hundred years ago, would have seemed an almost impossibly advanced old age. Not only that but they are still creatively productive, spinning out inner lives in new and fruitfully unexpected directions. When I was young, Tolstoy always seemed a figure of titanic, superhuman old age but he died just after his eighty-second birthday and his creative years were really well behind him by then.
For most of his career, Wallace-Crabbe has been a poet of what might be called metaphysical immersion. The poems continually worry about the so-called “larger issues” – the “meaning of life, the universe and everything: the meaning of meaning” – but never in an abstracted sense. In an odd way Wallace-Crabbe can be put forward as a poet of life as a lived process, it’s just that for him living involves continuous ratiocination. It’s a case of a poetry not of “I do this, I do that: but more “I think this, I think that”. It’s tempting to see him in the light of Eliot’s characterisation of the Metaphysical poets (without accepting the accuracy of that description in literary-historical terms) as poets for whom ideas were sensuous experiences. It’s an essentially humanist perspective with precious little patience for the postmodernist perspectives of the late twentieth century. And just as the sense of immersion leads away from abstraction so too does the specificity of accent. Wallace-Crabbe always retains enough demotic Australian touches (“my slang aubade”) to keep the poems tensioned and to prevent a bland, mandarin tone from entering the poetry. This can, occasionally, have a fake naivete about it (“Fancy a boy from Victoria having these metaphysical issues”) but it’s usually done so skilfully that the poems are cross-braced by the tensions of linguistic register within them.
The first three poems of My Feet Are Hungry can be said to set out Wallace-Crabbe’s principal concerns and methods. The first, “After Bede”, is very brief:
Our lives are built upon unlikelihood, their poignancy oddly fragile at the best of times like snow that falls softly into a ravaging bushfire.
At heart it’s an expression of the bleak fact that all the immense complexities of our inner and outer lives eventually dissolve into nothing. A poem from the seventies, “Meditation with Memories”, speaks of our sense of our lives as a kind of collection of snaps, “Random and miniature its family-album, / Brilliant the slides but dim the prophecy” and “After Bede” focusses on the bleakness of the future, its steady and inevitable progression down towards darkness. As in so many of Wallace-Crabbe’s poems there is a fruitful tension between the scholarly reference – to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (although that isn’t, admittedly, too arcane a scholarly reference) – and an Australianness which is expressed overtly when the snowflake falls into a bushfire and covertly when the poem evokes the phrase “a snowflake’s chance in hell” but leaves it unexpressed.
The reference to Bede is worth exploring a little further, though, apart from its role as a creator of tonal tensions. The reference must be to one of the best known passages in Bede in which Northumbria is converted when its king takes advice from his egocentric high priest (Coifi) and a frustratingly unnamed councillor who, in a wonderful speech, describes pagan life as being like the brief moment in which a sparrow, flying through a hall – such as the one in which the meeting is taking place – experiences transitory warmth and security but flies out into a bleak unknown future. Christianity, says the councillor, offers the hope of a known and benevolent future after our lives and therefore is worth adopting. Any scholar of the early Germanic Middle Ages could, I’ve always thought, have stood up and refuted this by arguing that not only does the pagan world offer the possibility of kleos aphthiton (“imperishable fame”) but Christianity brings with it the unattractive possibility of eternal damnation: but no-one appears to make that case. At any rate, the reference to Bede reminds us that Wallace-Crabbe doesn’t always have a brutally materialistic view of death and dissolution. Just as Bede’s councillor stresses the hope of a bright, even if incomprehensible, world after death, so a wonderful poem from the 1990 volume, For Crying Out Loud, called “They”, holds out hopes:
Where have they gone? Somewhere ahead of us in a meadow like the square root of minus one - infinite pastoral; pure interstice - where two objects can browse in the same space and history leaves not even a snowflake’s print. They have passed through darkness into a radiance which we cannot know and they can’t comprehend but which does not remember the griefs of our world. The pain is cauterized, the atoms dispersed. Body is no more body, nor is it soul. They are now at one with a nearer face of the All. Lamenting them, we weep for ourselves.
In a way the glow of this poem probably derives from its – in truth, unsupported – hopes, and it expresses the spirit of one of the squibs from The Amorous Cannibal: “Approving mystery / with all my heart / I practise disenchantment”. But it’s no accident that the image of the snowflake appears here. It appears also in a later poem in My Feet Are Hungry called “Snowfall”. True, in this poem the emphasis is not on the beautiful – though quickly dissolved – phenomenon of a human self, although the opening:
The white behaviour of snow looks weirdly indecisive, maybe wayward; yet its general drift keeps dawdling down, friendly to gravity . . .
recalls snowflakes from poems past. The real subject of “Snowfall” turns out, I think, to be the fascinating issue of cultural borrowing – it’s no accident that it appears in a section of the book pretty much devoted to places and views. Snow somehow remains outside of the automatic responses of an Australian – it can’t “be there for us” as the poem’s final line says. But in this sense snow is only a single example of a colonial inheritance that includes folktales, books, art:
. . . . . One fragment sits on my overcoat shoulder, then pisses off. The chilly roadscape sends back whiteness and light this Anglophone afternoon. But then Snow White and the eponymous goose long struck me as goofy, being a son of dry gumleaves and gravel. . .
The second line has a demotic phrase and, while it mightn’t necessarily be the sole property of Australians, its use here in a complex meditation invokes the no-intellectual-nonsense stance that Australians like to think is Australian. Interestingly the poem’s next stanza begins “As a wee girl, my daughter declared / she’d have preferred to have it pink” thus using a Scots/New Zealand adjective. (This issue of cultural borrowings and the echoes they bring with them are the subject of “The Big Bad” a short poem making the point that Australian children dream of wolves, “sleek antetypes of anyone’s puppy dog”, though they aren’t part of the Australian environment.)
So much for snow. The second poem of My Feet Are Hungry, “And the Cross”, is a retelling of the gospel story in deliberately flat quatrains. The overall tone is bathetic:
. . . . . Three exotic astrologers Had picked up good tidings, it appeared; Out of the east they rode with their camels, Each man sporting a different beard And bringing presents for the baby, Sweet-smelling frankincense and gold, Also some other stuff called myrrh - Whatever it is, you’ll have to be told. Shepherds guarding their flocks by night Had seen a ruddy enormous star . . .
and, at first, you think it is just a matter of choosing the right tone for a post-enlightenment intellectual’s debunking of this important but unlikely narrative. But it isn’t really a debunking poem: it keeps its mind open, for example, as to the possibility of materialist and spiritual readings of the events – “A junction in eastern history, say, / Or transcendental epiphany”. I think this is a poem which needs to be read in the context of one of Wallace-Crabbe’s obsessive themes: the question of whether our lives have meaning and what on earth meaning in our lives would look like. “Stardust” from I’m Deadly Serious (1988) explores the issue
. . . . . But how could the universe have meaning? Would the stars be patterned differently? The seasons vanish, or come on faster? Would there be an End? Perhaps we wouldn’t require any sleep; Maybe we’d no longer have to shit; Or one radiant mathematics Would show up trimly in everything . . .
but one could choose any number of poems going back as far perhaps as “A Wintry Manifesto” from Wallace-Crabbe’s second book in which the death of Satan stands for the loss of a kind of Zoroastrian purpose and hence meaning in the universe. Admittedly “A Wintry Manifesto” finishes on the reasonably positive note that, lacking a cosmic order, we can, at least, focus on knowing “the piece of earth on which we stand”. At other times poetry makes an appearance as something which is a small patch of order in an either unordered or imperceptibly-ordered universe, “a drug that endures / Riding atop the bubbles of evanescence”. But ultimately, as “Eating the Future (I)” from The Amorous Cannibal says:
. . . . . The city that I thread through is a flower, the clouds are escapades of cottonwool which give aesthetic cuddles but we hurt, knocked rotten by the blues of random power. Without god the upshot turns out worse but with his aid it cannot make much sense . . .
What is happening in “And the Cross”, I think, is an investigation into what a meaningful life would look like, a way of focussing on a problem concretely rather than abstractly. The life of Jesus of Nazareth is, conventionally in European Christianity, a life of cosmic significance, a turning point in the existence of the entire universe and so it must, even in miniature, express a meaning for the universe. Of course, as the poem suggests in its tone, what you get in a narrative of this life is something really weird. Not contemptibly myth-riddled, just weird even though it is “a story of absolute good”.
The third poem, “Fragrantly Here All Day”, is a complex piece that focusses – or, more correctly, spins out from – broad social issues, broad because they involve how humans are going to live on a planet where “Some processes just happen, willy-nilly. / Hungry millions come trudging into cities / faster than any asphalt can understand”. It’s about what might be called the “NIMBY paradox” a kind of modern mutation of the “tragedy of the commons”. We want a morally acceptable existence and are prepared to pay for it but only up to a point. Beyond that point coercion is necessary and coercion involves the application of force in a way that is morally unacceptable. It’s an insoluble problem that this poem doesn’t pretend to solve but what intrigues me is its emphasis on point of view and perspective since they are issues found in Wallace-Crabbe’s other books and they percolate through this new one. “Looking Down on Cambodia”, for example, from the 1993 book, Rungs of Time, points out that, from an aeroplane,
You can’t see the blood; you can’t hear the dying or mounded skulls rubbing faintly together . . .
and you see only the aesthetically attractive image of “a silver delta threading its liquid gush / beyond those matted islands”. Rungs of Time, has, as an epigraph, a statement by the English philosopher (and translator of Wittgenstein), Frank Ramsey: “My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as threepenny bits . . .”. From a more abstract, scientific perspective there is the difference between physical description at the quantum level and at the human level – a barely comprehensible disjunction with an indistinct boundary. “Moments of Being” from My Feet Are Hungry has a short poem about this:
When I bump into the kitchen table I am not kicking galaxies of unseeables in waves or in orbit but grazing my shin.
The issues of “Fragrantly Here All Day” are really issues of perspective. Morality and its enforcement are, at the personal level, very different from morality at the macro level. At the latter level you are in the world of Plato’s unattractive republic in which poets are banned:
. . . . . But what if we stand back from it awhile, was the move I asked before, given lucidity entailing prophecy somehow; this calls for Plato’s bald philosopher kings who’d have to make it all enforceable. . .
Even “Firestorm”, a poem eloquent about the horrors of the 2009 bushfires and the experience of violent extinction (which recalls the fate of the snowflake in “After Bede”), concludes with the dry comment that if you alter the point of view, the scene becomes very different:
Nature must lack the chivalry we could sniff as brotherly tribute: something has turned out worse with Plato’s cave become a blazing cliff; pain is the knot-hole in our universe and yet the black calligraphy of trees can make this long view elegantly Chinese.
And “Remnants” shifts perspective in two directions. Beginning as one of many poems in this collection which are about moving house and renovating, it notes that the “odd little / wodges of blackish clay” that the restumpers leave behind will, seen from the perspective of the future, be the “future stuff / of archaeology – remnants / from this mobile phone age”. At the same time, from a natural perspective, the plum tree prepares for spring although, from a moral perspective, at the same time Baghdad is in flames. There is a comic poem, “The Shards of Then”, which actually attempts to describe what a future team of archeologists will make of Australia as they try to piece together scattered fragments:
. . . . . Let’s look at what we have; an early scribe called Clark suggesting a culture of tautology, as in their army settlement, Townsville . . .
Finally, one of the late poems, “The Absent Self”, which might be included as a poem of extinction, of the “fears that I may cease to be”, might also be seen as essentially about perspective – in this case the perspective that occurs when one’s self is no longer the viewpoint:
What will the world do when I am completely gone, without me to observe things, will it simply blow away like the milky mist above midwinter footy grounds just after breakfast, . . . . . The mystical survives. It is not bound by my life, nor even dependent on quanta. It merely expands like the unseen, epiphanic ether which we have already abolished.
The final section of My Feet Are Hungry is devoted to a translation of the twenty-eighth canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. It’s a well-made translation with a nicely balanced tone – flexible without any folksy touches – and done in unrhymed, three line stanzas. But since Wallace-Crabbe is not a serial translator – I think this is the only example in his published books of poetry – the crucial issue is not how good the translation is but why this passage was chosen. Canto XXVIII is that strange transitional moment where Dante leaves his poetic guides Virgil and Statius and comes under the guidance of Beatrice for the heavenly stage of his tour (he meets Beatrice in the next canto as part of what must be one of the weirdest processions the human imagination has ever concocted). Canto XXVIII finds Dante in the Earthly Paradise which a lady, Matilda, explains is the original garden of Eden and which, according to Dante’s botany, is a kind of genetic seedbank holding seeds of all the plants on earth and, under the pressure of the rotation of the mount of Purgatory, scattering them over the planet. Its appeal to Wallace-Crabbe might lie in the way this stanza is a farewell to fellow poets (there is an elegy for Seamus Heaney in My Feet Are Hungry) but I think it is more likely that he is extending a long held interest in the first garden. An early poem, “Genesis”, from The Emotions Are Not Skilled Workers speaks about the edenic myth and its special attractions:
. . . . . I hate the story and love it, detesting death, a vast stupidity, but glorying that Eden could be smeared with, flashing with, energized by the first colours of love . . .
Here it’s a site illuminated by love, the very first love, but it can also stand for the state of being ecstatically in reality, all irritable searching after meaning suspended, that turns up regularly in Wallace-Crabbe’s poetry.
A final possibility is that it may be an image of that longed-for afterlife where the inevitably descending snowflake of “After Bede”, representing all lost loved ones and things, swerves away at the last moment into the world described in “They”: “a meadow like the square root of minus one – / infinite pastoral”.