Peter Porter: The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems

London: Picador, 2010, 420pp.

This selected poems appeared not long before Porter’s untimely death earlier this year. The selection was made by Don Paterson and Sean O’Brien, though you have to read the introduction to find this out. It’s a good selection though it is, of necessity (given the size of Porter’s output) a fairly stringent one, choosing between half a dozen and a dozen poems from each of the nineteen books. Given how consistently good Porter’s poetry is (he’s the opposite of those poets who produce a small number of outstanding or significant or influential poems nestled in a mass of material that only scholars want to look at) this means that a lot of material is going to be left out. You won’t find “’Talking Shop’ Tanka” from The Cost of Seriousness, “The Philosopher of Captions”, “At Lake Massaciuccoli” (English Subtitles), “Men Die, Women Go Mad” (Dragons in Their Pleasant Palaces), “Scordatura” (Afterburner) and a host of other favourites. On the other hand, there aren’t many poems in this selected that cry out for omission. It is probably the best designed and produced of Porter’s books and has as its cover a fine photograph of its author which reveals him as intelligent, sensitive, haunted or scarred depending on which poem you have read before you look at it.

Porter poses a lot of problems for critics and the most pressing derive from the feature with which I began this brief review: the high degree of consistency in his work. One part of a critic’s toolkit is the ability to winkle out lines of approach to features which are more crucial (in being more important generatively) than others: to locate, for example, the unspoken grief at the heart of the jollity or, for that matter, the jollity that underlies what seem to be poems of grief. With Porter this is almost impossible since all these generative areas have been visited by the author and raised into the sunlight as themes in the poems. Poets usually have complicated relations with the texts they produce and saying something in a poem is often a way of not saying many other things, but Porter seems to have, of all the poets I have ever looked at carefully, the most open disposition. A critic is not likely to find a path into Porter’s underworld without finding that Porter himself (like Jules Verne’s Arne Saknussem) has been there before. You feel that, in the case of many authors where this occurs, there is a war being pre-emptively waged with the reader and that the poet proclaims himself, at every point, to be superior to the awkward and uninformed ideas of any potential critics – he is the one who laid down the clues and the reader, congratulating himself on his perspicacity, is actually only following them. But there is no such ego-driven battle in Porter’s case, just a calm thoughtfulness that permeates the poems themselves. The image that springs to mind of the totality of Porter’s work is that of a smooth sphere with transparent walls revealing fantastically complex inner mechanisms. Because it is a sphere it is almost impossible to get any sort of critically privileged purchase on it: there are no unusual poems encoding hidden generative areas which would make a good point at which to begin a description of the whole.

In conjunction with Porter’s poetry this month I have reread two critical works about him to see how others have dealt with this problem: Bruce Bennett’s excellent biography of 1991, Spirit in Exile, and Peter Steele’s small but satisfyingly dense volume in the Oxford Australian Writers series, published the year after. The Bennett is very concerned to trace the differences between volumes, matching them to biographical events. And it is true that the Porter “sphere” does change and evolve, But focussing on changes can highlight these at the expense of continuities. The Steele book is a set of “soundings” a critical procedure that seems well-suited to Porter’s work. It looks at the way in which a particular “issue” – for example the “thickness” of events – appears in the poems. Much as I like both the book and its method, it can’t escape the suspicion that there is something arbitrary about the chosen issues or, worse, that they are predetermined by the critical mind of the writer. Put together these two books actually form a very good guide to the first thirty years of Porter’s fifty-year publishing career. The diachronic and synchronic nicely counterbalance each other’s weaknesses.

One “issue” which appears a priori in anyone’s creative work is how the self is conceived and how it relates to both the world and to language. The Porter self declares itself early as a damaged one. The source of the damage is the loss of his mother, Marion, when he was nine and his banishment to a private school, and Bennett is right to focus on this sense of a traumatic loss of a childhood Eden. But there are other fracture lines: the mother’s family were Sydney-based while Porter grew up in Brisbane and of the two, the former is the more generously remembered probably largely because they were memories of holidays. One of the recurring images in Porter’s poetry is of the ferry “with a Lady’s name” which “wallowed round / the river bends”. The Mother/Father fracture seems to be, according to Bennett, between a well-bred slightly vulgar energy and a more desiccated, mercantile approach to the world. The damage continues of course with the suicide of Porter’s wife, Jannice, in 1974. It is impossible for any reader of Australian poetry not to begin to make comparisons here with Les Murray who functions (in Porter’s case) as a younger alter ego, admired colleague and sparring partner (possibly my favourite Porter poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod” is a full-frontal assault on Australian farmer poets and their raucous assertions about national identity and is a kind of opening round in a long debate/conversation). Murray has a lot to tell us about the degree of damage caused by the death of his mother and his experiences at High School but his analysis is very much ex cathedra and readers and critics are certainly not encouraged to often any contributions.

This damaged self is a highly receptive one though the receptivity has boundaries. This is surely the point of the last stanza of “On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod”. It is conventionally seen as a kind of whimsical desire on the part of a literary man for a world “out of nature” (to quote Yeats, a poet – like Dante – beyond the bounds of Porterian receptivity) where “home is just a postmark” and “plants conceive in pots”. But the real point Porter is making, I think, is that the more the poet is centred, locked in the holy ground of origins or his or her sacred sites, the less receptive they can be. A damaged self which is also rootless makes for maximum ability to absorb into itself the complexities of the world. Not only is the self highly receptive it is also highly connective. Porter’s legendary erudition and immersion in European art is not done to provide matter for poems. Porter never, in his poems, behaves like an art tourist, writing poems about individual sites or individual paintings, instead these things come up as parts of much more complex poetic wholes. The title of the poem (“The Settembrini Waltz”, “Non Piangere, Liu”, “Frogs Outside Barbischio”, “Alcestis and the Poet”, “Winckelmann at the Harbourside”) may seem to announce that the poem will focus on an interesting, suitably arcane topic, but it rarely does: Porter’s poems, and the titles they contain, are complex, multi-faceted phenomena.

Then there is the issue of language, another phenomenon, like the hidden levels of the self, which we are partly in control of and use but which also controls us. Porter always seemed (when I have heard him speaking of it) to have an exaggerated respect for the English language. He also had an exaggerated respect for the poetry of that language, especially for that of the canonical Romantics and Victorians, poets who are generally a step too far for my own receptivity. English is, of course, a great big democratic grab-bag of a language, an out-of-control creole with a “self” made up of at least four parts – English, French, Latin and Greek – and a host of other borrowings. It is tempting to see it – at the lexical level at least – as some sort of corollary for the receptive, fractured self at the heart of the poetry. You could do a lot of thinking about Porter’s obsessive love of punning (an issue, interestingly, which is the subject of a poem in Murray’s, The Biplane Houses) in terms of the way in which these jokes, sometimes excruciating – as in “The Werther Level”, “The Man with the Blue Catarrh” – are built on fractures in the language allowing for shock connections as well as maximum densities. Even the title of the current volume has to be carefully unpicked at this level. The double meanings of “rest” (recuperation/remainder) and “flight” (airline travel/escape) combine in a form which suggests the genre of paintings of Joseph and Mary on their way to Egypt.

And then there is, at the syntactical level, the issue of Porter’s love of phrase-making. This is so strong that my first attempts to say something general about Porter’s poetry were built around it: a kind of “The world exists to end up in a well-made phrase”. Early in Porter’s career this was felt to be some sort of intrusion from the sordid world of advertising in which Porter worked, and readers were concerned in case the inevitable vulgarity of this sort of mercantile phrase-making should corrupt the pure and virtuous world of poetry: one “Love goes as the M.G. goes” was felt to be enough. Bennett’s biography makes clear that the image of Porter as a copy-writer moving up into the world of poems is entirely incorrect: copy-writing was a job offered because he could write poetry and he took it up to earn money, finally judging that he was not especially good at it. “Looking at six books / of poems, painfully and / yet so slovenly / produced over thirty years, / I notice one well-wrought phrase”, says the first of the “’Talking Shop’ Tanka” from The Cost of Seriousness. But what constitutes a “well-wrought phrase”? Compression of disparate material and wit, obviously, but I can’t help feel that there is also an attraction to the way in which good phrases dissolve the boundaries between high culture and vulgarity thereby keeping language in contact with the powerful linguistic generative forces of what the Romantics called “the folk”.

This is all matter for a more detailed and less gestural analysis. But I’m also reminded that there is another phenomenon in Porter’s work which, if not exactly a “language”, is so close to being one that it is easily connected metaphorically. That is the world (or language) of dreams, the “black creatures of the upper deep” as they are described in “An Exequy”. In dreams the self speaks both for one and to one, the trouble is (as a politician said of the “people’s judgement” in the recent election) we are not sure what it means. Bennett sees as a kind of third stage of Porter’s career (the first is that of the damaged self which, as satirist, savages the surrounding world, and the second that of a more confessional poet trying to find poetic ways to come to grips with the guilt induced by his wife’s suicide) an engagement with seductive but troubling general theories like Freudianism and the interest in Theory (summed up in a later poem as the ogreish “the Theory Fairy”) circulating in universities. And there’s a lot of truth in this view. “Civilization and its Disney Contents” (a perfect example of a groan-inducing pun in the title which is also a profound and important observation of the general style of dreams – Porter once described himself as “if not the Leonardo da Vinci, at least the Cecil B. DeMille of dreams” and in “Leaving Mantua” as “a dream-master”) has Freud imagining the effects that Freudianism and Marxism, as systems, might have on each other:

It will never be forgiven let alone laureated to say
that the trouble with systems is that no one system
can cover everything – to work a system must be unified.

The following volume, The Chair of Babel, begins with two “bad dreams” poems in which messages come from the dead wife (“Bad Dreams in Venice” and from the id (“Bad Dreams in Naples”).

To prevent this review being nothing but a series of hesitant generalisations, I want to look at three poems which, though I had known them before, had never particularly stood out until this reading. Poets are always best served by readings of their work, so this is intended as a kind of mini-memorial, if not to the whole of Porter’s rich output, then to this month’s reading of it.

The first of them appears at the end of Porter’s first book, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten. It is true, as everybody says, that that volume, and the three that follow it, generally contain outward-looking poems and it is these poems which were early anthologised – “John Marston Advises Anger”, “Death in the Pergola Tea-Rooms”, “Annotations of Auschwitz”, “Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum”. Poems which involve personal experience are, for the most part, very distanced, very outward: “Forefathers’ View of Failure”, “Mr. Roberts”, “A Christmas Recalled”. Given this I can see the reason for beginning the volume with “A Giant Refreshed”. It is not a particularly important poem (it is omitted in this selection) but it is personal experience turned inward and shaped by psychic pressures (in this case a sort of Protestant fear of judgement):

The Market gardeners of my home town,
Good Chinese, by the creek grew lettuce
In the sun and left on their own,
As the water ran by and the tadpoles swam,
Just worked to live or with a gun
and salt-petre fired at trespassers.
I do not often think of them but I dread
such sober judges of me when I am dead
. . . . .

(Typing this out, I notice for the first time, the little pun on the word “just”, conveniently capitalised – the sober judges will be the Just). At any rate, this is a long introduction to the last poem of Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, “Tobias and the Angel”:

When I play the sad music my conscience urges,
I hear through the great summary of our loss
My father praising the long cataract before his eyes
Where on the retina he starves for light.
We are an unlucky family and we have faith
For which we praise our oppressors and our God.

This has been a long journey; my dog is tired,
My companion is a holy dandy, his clothes are praise.
The fish leap from the river, short verbs hold time
For me in haul – I have an inventory of praise
And do not tire of the simple entering in,
Like my father closing his Day Book on his trade.

There is no justice: love relies on luxury,
Faith on habit, health on chemistry,
But praise sits with persistence. Today
There is a sun pestering the water, tomorrow
A water falling from the sun and always
The pilgrim cursing the falling water and performing sun.

I shall get home one day or if I die instead
An Insurance Angel will tell my waiting wife
His grave is furnished by his good upbringing,
His habits were proper, his doubt all to the good;
From his warm orthodoxy melancholy shrinks,
He did what he was told, obedient and sane.

So when the miracle strikes from the open door,
The scales fall from my father’s eyes and light goes in,
I shall be eating a traveller’s heavy meal
Made much of by the kitchen staff. Our house
Is not a tabernacle, miracles are forgotten
In usefulness, the weight and irony of love.

This seems so much more a Porter poem than any of its predecessors and its Porterishness lies in its complexity. But this is not the sort of verbal complexity that makes a poem like “Too Worn To Wear” (which appears three poems before “Tobias and the Angel”) almost incomprehensible, instead it’s a complexity that comes out of the connections within the poem. At one level it is a poem preferring the ordinary virtues to those wreathed in various forms of transcendence and its central statement is “miracles are forgotten / In usefulness”. The grand abstractions on which ethical systems are built – justice, love, faith – are all (in true materialist fashion) dependent on the physical world. You could also read it by focussing on its “confessional” or at least, personal, aspect. Porter’s father (in Porter’s own words, “a decent, timid man with no great expectations of life . . . a gentile in the rag trade”) was a man who took mercantile activity seriously. He was also, as Porter’s late poems show, a very keen gardener (eschewing natives for European plants) and so he becomes a kind of comically inverted version of the Hebrew God who created the Garden of Eden and, like God, did the expelling from the garden by sending Porter, after his mother’s death, to a boarding school. So there is a lot of history between the pair, lending itself to poetry. But this is a poem not of Oedipal conflict (another interpretation deriving from a system) but of a guarded reconciliation and respect. But hovering over this, or parked alongside, is – in my reading at least – the spectre of the transcendent and this gives to the recounting of all the virtues of the simple unambitious family life a faintly comic tinge. (The transcendent always does this: believers of various beliefs seem always on the edge of saying, “Is this the best you’ve got? Look at the glories we can offer!”). And the poem allows this into itself by seeing nothing for the son apart from life as a commercial traveller (a fellow-traveller to his father) who was well brought up and did the right things.

The transcendent appears in the form of the biblical story which is announced in the title. The Book of Tobit is part of the Apocrypha and tells a fairly lurid tale of the son of Tobit who travels to the land of the Medes where he marries his cousin. He is guided by the angel Raphael in disguise and discovers that a fish’s organs, if burnt, will drive away the demon of lust who has killed his cousin’s previous husbands and also cure his father’s blindness. But this story doesn’t appear in Porter’s poem in textual form but rather as a painting. There is an extraordinary fifteenth century painting by Andrea del Verrocchio in the National Gallery, London (, which is clearly the crucial text. Its existence in London is important because this poem comes before Porter’s first forays into Europe in search of its art (in “Exequy” he describes the first visit made by him and his wife: “I think of us in Italy: / Gin-and-chianti-fuelled, we / Move in a trance through Paradise, / Feeding at last our starving eyes, / Two people of the English blindness / Doing each masterpiece the kindness / of discovering it . . .”). The striking feature of the painting is its sublime looniness. It is opposed at every conceivable level to the sober world of Porter’s father. It brings the transcendental world of God – close enough to his creations to send an angel as a helper – not in solemn, significant or even wildly dramatic (Caravaggioesque) terms but in whimsical ones. The dog (an erudite friend pointed out that it is the only pet in the bible) belongs to no recognisable breed and the central gesture of the painting – Tobias’ grasp on Raphael’s arm – is weird and indecipherable, recalling a couple on an earliesh date rather than an angel leading a human. The problem of the poem at its first, casual reading is that the reader can’t decide whether or not this is a version of the Book of Tobit, dramatised by updating. My reading of it now is that both versions lie alongside each other: the poem interweaves them and allows each to compromise the other.

“Dejection: An Ode” comes from Fast Forward.

The oven door being opened is the start of
the last movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony -
the bathroom window pushed up
is the orchestra in the recitative
of the Countess’s big aria in Figaro, Act Three.
Catch the conspiracy, when mundane action
borrows heart from happenings. We are surrounded
by such leaking categories the only consequence 
is melancholy. Here the tramp of trochees
as the poet, filming his own university,
gets everything right since Plato. What faith in paper
and the marks we make with stencils
when a great assurance settles into cantos.
The Dark Lady was no more than the blackness of his ink
say those whose girl friends are readier than Shakespeare’s.
Just turn the mind off for a moment
to let the inner silence flow into itself -
this is the beauty of dejection, as if our unimaginable death
were free of the collapse of heart and liver,
its faultless shape some sort of architecture,
an aphorism fleeing its own words.
Betrayal goes so far back there’s no point in
putting it in poems. I see beyond the pyramid
of faces to strong monosyllables – faith, hope and love -
charitable in halcyon’s memory, fine days
upon the water and weed round the propeller.
Now all the theses out of dehydration
swarm upon my lids: I was never brave
yet half an empire comes into my room
to settle honey on my mind. Last night
I quarrelled with some friends on politics,
sillier than seeing ghosts, and now this neuro-pad
is dirging for Armenia. Despair’s the one
with the chewy centre, you can take your pick.
I listened to misanthropy and had
the record straight. The woman in white,
the lady with the special presents of mind,
may now be on the phone from out of town
just to keep in touch. Think, she usually tells me,
of Coleridge and days in record shops
and all those “likes” that love is like,
a settlement to put our world in place.
What has the truth done to our children’s room?
The toys are scattered, the pillow damp with crying,
chiefly the light is poor and no-one comes
all afternoon: Meermaedchen of the swamp of mind.
I kept my father waiting, he will know
that the disc, long-playing for however, ends
in sounds of surface, of the hinge and wind,
an average door, a tree against the pane.

The title puts this poem together with “On This Day I Complete My Fortieth Year” as a rewriting-of or revisiting or alluding-to a canonical Romantic poem, in this case, Coleridge’s poem of the same name. In fact, here, Coleridge’s poem is crucial and is always present. The idea of turning the mind off for a moment is the opposite of Coleridge’s desire for joy to expand from the mind and to animate the dull objects of the “inanimate cold world” though, of course, it shares its metaphysical set-up. Coleridge’s poem is addressed to a lady and she becomes the “woman in white” – here presumably some kind of grief-counsellor, though also Wilkie Collins’s eponymous heroine – who is, with another of those excruciating puns that are deliberately included to shake up the high tone of the piece, a woman who brings “presents of mind”. The last part of the poem is an attack on the notion that the suffering of the world can be assuaged by a mind which thinks correctly. After the suicide of the wife, truth does nothing to the scattered toys of the daughters’ room, or the tear-stained pillow: it certainly doesn’t set you free. “Nothing is curable but may still be endured” as a later poem, “The Ecstasy of Estuaries”, says. The poem finishes with a reference to Porter’s father, then recently dead at the age of ninety-six in a nursing home in Brisbane. “I kept my father waiting” is a tricky clause. I read it as implying a kind of guilt for lack of visiting, as though the father hung on beyond the normal span of lives, waiting for his son either to visit or symbolically to take over responsibilities – as though the meaning were “I took a long time to become inured enough to grief to become an adult enough man and to be able to assume responsibility and allow my father to move on”. At any rate it is the father who knows that after death there is, if not silence, only the sound that vinyl records make when the needle runs in the repetitive groove, oscillating forwards towards the central hole and then back – an image that is going to need extensive documentation for readers in a future where the niceties of vinyl record construction are as arcane as the structure of the various kinds of horse-drawn carriages. It’s a powerful image but it is worth noting the degree to which it follows Coleridge in his images of the wind, the “Aeolian lute, / Which better far were mute”.

It also takes us back, rather wonderfully, to the opening of the poem where Mozart and Rachmaninov are being listened to on a recording (perhaps examples of “The sad music my conscience urges” that “Tobias and the Angel” begins with). Here the “leaking categories” are the worlds of art and ordinary life (a major theme in middle and late Porter) whereas in Coleridge’s poem they are the inner self and the exterior world of nature. The middle section of Porter’s poem is difficult – mainly because the references are unclear. He seems to be watching a documentary in which a poet revisits his university and he is irritated by the way in which poetic hindsight is always correct. This is followed by a reference to the theory that the Dark Lady of the sonnets is no more than the ink used to write. Both of these references, at any rate, seem critical of recourse to the world of art in which all assertions are correct and which is hermetically sealed so that all references are not to the “outside” world but to art itself. Something similar happens with dejection where the outside realities of physical collapse are ignored in favour of enjoying the inner silence. The danger for a poet is a lack of perspective: you have a trivial quarrel with friends and poetically it emerges as a lament for the victims of the Armenian genocide. It is a really difficult and challenging poem, structurally very complex. When I first read it, I pigeonholed it as a poem of inner misery where remembrances of his wife’s suicide lead on to a powerful statement about the bleakness of death but it is altogether more complex than that and may really be a poem that has to linked up with other poems about art like “Basta Sangue” or “And No Help Came”.

Finally in this mini-anthology of revisionist glosses, there is “Ex Libris Senator Pococurante” a fairly late poem from Max is Missing.

Carchemish, this tedious performance
our forefathers valued as the first account
of the creation of the world; it seems
no more than a boring battle between
the snakes and the dogs, with comic referees
called gods obsessed by their own dignity.

The Troiliad, just as silly and twice as long,
with lists of heroes, ships and towns,
interfering gods on shortest fuses
and magic implements and animals,
its love-life platitudinous
and its epithets attached like luggage labels.

The Hunnish Wars, a propaganda feast
prepared by an ambitious consul
for home advantage, as full of lies
as tedium. The style is gelid,
the facts factitious – it deserves its fate
to end up teaching grammar to dull boys.

Summa Cattolica, a sort of Natural History
of Credulity. Should you want to know
the stories of the saints you still might baulk
at being shown their laundry lists and tax returns.
This huge concordance mixes pedantry
with gloating martyrdom and police reports.

The Satanic Comedy, a strange attempt
to draw a picture of the world based on
the machinations of a city council
together with a paedophile’s infatuation
with a merchant’s teenage daughter.
In three books, Heaven, Hell and Nowhere.

Eden’s End. Expelled from Heaven in a war
with guns and bombs, The Devil tempts
God’s franchise-takers with his fruits and hisses.
Our classicist author makes Adam a market
gardener while Eve assembles Lifestyle hints
on Post-Coital Guilt and PMT.

The Interlude. In this almost unending
meditation on the life and times of one
banal existence, the author dares presume
we are as self-obsessed as he is.
Its marginal attractions are no better:
country hovels, childhood and wet walks.

Donovan’s Demise, the lexicon of Modernism,
its every sentence stitched into the text
like Cash’s name-tapes, this epyllion
of solipsism demands that we devote
a lifetime to its study. Properly examined
it becomes the scribbling on a ouija-board.

I still laugh out loud when I read this attack on the Western Canon (Bloom’s book is the subject of a fine earlier poem, “The Western Canoe”). It makes fun of – in order – The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (I think), Dante’s Commedia, Paradise Lost, The Prelude and Finnegans Wake. The title suggests that we should imagine it to be the comments by Senator Apathetic on various works in his library or, conceivably, comments by a bookseller/critic on a library which has been broken up after its owner’s death. The only one that doesn’t work in its own terms is the last stanza which deals with Finnegans Wake by abuse rather than by caricaturing elements that even lovers of the various books can see to be there. The central issue of course is: how close is this to its author’s own beliefs. At one extreme we could read it as a expressing a set of literary prejudices. At the other we could read it as a dramatic monologue where the pleasure derives from the fantastic ignorance and stupidity of the speaker. The latter extreme has the additional complexity that it is possible that an ironic frame is being bolted on whereby the comments of the ignorant or naive are actually more penetrating than the comments of the experts. And on top of that, there is the reader’s inevitable suspicion, based on long observation, that authors attack other texts usually in an effort to clear space for the central text of the universe – their own. This could well be a satire on the critical machinations of authors whereby Porter looks wryly at his own prejudices. I’m inclined, now, to see it as an expression of views close to Porter’s own – he certainly had a profound dislike (which I never entirely understood and don’t now, given his love of Italian art) for Dante. If this is the case then it becomes an important poem in which an author, known for his receptiveness and ability to forage intensely in the world of literature, marks out some of the borders of that receptivity.

There is almost always something uniquely dispiriting about the death of poets. True, they may have their “best work” long behind them by the time the creature with the scythe tracks them down. They may even have been silent for decades, no more than a shell of the poet who produced the wonderful works. But usually, even then, the inner life is one of such richness and greed for its own expansion that the idea that it is now destroyed or disbanded seems like an affront to nature itself. Why, the argument goes, would our evolution have created individuals who have such an unimaginably intense imaginative life if there were not some purpose for it, an afterlife perhaps? It’s not an argument that, you feel, Peter Porter would have succumbed to. There is too much realism (and its concomitant, bleakness) about the structure of his intelligence for him to fall for what is, in reality, nothing more than wish-fulfilment. He was a great and profound poet whose work grew in its own strange way. He is, as I have said, difficult for critical analysis to approach, not because of the complexity of individual poems – though there is plenty of that! – but because of the complexity of the structure of the totality of his work. The emphases of the middle and later poems are slightly different to those of the earlier ones but the reader, facing one poem, also faces the whole. And what a “whole” it is. The back cover of this volume has a comment by Martin Amis: “His is a voice I value and honour. I need its nourishment daily.” At first you read this in genre as an understandable piece of hyperbole, but actually it may just be literally true.

Peter Porter: Better Than God

London: Picador, 2009, 81pp.

It would take a long, exhausting (though ultimately pleasurable) overview of Porter’s previous sixteen books to say something sensible about how this new one fits into the overall shape of Porter’s poetry. But the Porter poetic profile – a huge range of references, immense compression, sardonic humour and a meditative cast that yokes together surprising ideas and follows them down mysterious paths – is not radically different in this new book from that of at least the past two. Much of one’s interest in mapping the shape of a great poet’s career might, anyhow, only be morbid: although the treasured hive of experiences and references must continue to grow, at what point does sheer aged exhaustion begin to abrade the ability to write? Peter Porter has just turned eighty and Better Than God shows no sign of any slackening in his poetry’s ability simultaneously to challenge and to give pleasure: a reminder that in these days of vastly extended lifespans, Porter may be no more than reasonably matured, latish-middle-aged. There may be, God willing, many more books to come.

To say that a book is brilliant, funny and entertaining is not the same as saying that it is particularly easy, though. But the one thing that you can say of the difficulties in Porter’s work is that they don’t derive from an a priori aesthetic theory: you don’t have to go away and “get something up”, you just need to read the poems very carefully, live with them a little and allow them to talk to you. There is a tremendous density in a lot of these poems and it is a density that emerges in different ways. You get compressed allusiveness, for a start. Most of my first few readings of the poems of this book were done to the nagging accompaniment of afterthoughts about the title and the little poem that introduces the collection: “As He said of the orchestra / at the Creation, they can play / anything you put in front of them”. What is this intended to mean? What is better than God? It could be music, for a start, though it’s not clear whether this would be human music or the singing of angelic hosts (though there exist aesthetics in which these two things are related). Most likely, and harmonizing with a number of poems in the book (especially “No Infelicitous Phrases Need Apply”) it might well be the assertion that creation (or Creation) is the setting in train of an incredibly complex series of developments and potentialities for evolution rather than the making of a fixed universe in the medieval way. Or perhaps flexible, interpretive, human artists are better than creator-gods. Or perhaps poetry and music are better than theology. And running along as a kind of undercurrent is the fact that this little poem makes us think instinctively of Haydn’s great work: perhaps we should read “the Creation” as Haydn’s oratorio rather than God’s fiat lux.

Sometimes the compressions are in the movement of the argument. There are many poems here in three-line stanzas. Some of them are terza rima, some not, but in all cases the three-line form acts as a little warning to expect some bumpy reading. “Lost Among Lizards”, for example, is, in its broad structure, a kind of eighteenth century “essay” – thoughts prompted by the author’s holding a lizard on his palm. But structurally it is a long way from the leisurely, meandering expatiation of the traditional essay. “This beauteous quadruped / [which] sits in my hand and wonders” doesn’t appear until the eighteenth out of twenty-three stanzas, making the bulk of the poem a kind of extended introduction. And it makes some very sharp sideways steps:

To ask yourself do lizards ever dream
Will entertain a burning afternoon
As uselessly as any other theme

You might cull out of thought. You say the moon
Has served its misanthropes as perch
To set despair out, stage a night cartoon

Of Nineteenth-Century divine research,
The ever-loving, ever-seeing eye
Of what kept faith when at a fatal lurch

The Sun of Sureness seemed to fail the sky
. . . . .

Even the poem worries about this shift (“Yet, why . . . / bring out the moon to simplify a state / of nervousness”) but the underlying idea is that, once the nineteenth century had removed a conventional God, issues such as the status of other forms of life (lizards, for example), or the status of humans as animals, or the relationships forged between the macro events of the universe (stars) and the micro (fireflies), all need rethinking. And the very movement of the poet’s mind, so restless, must be opposed to the living-in-the-skin immediacy of the material world:

But now the circuit of my mind has gone
Behind the burning light; I cannot feel
That warm-limbed, lizard-like phenomenon

Of living in the real world, the real
Unpersuaded territory where
No truths impose, no needs can break their seal.
. . . . . 

Eventually Porter decides (I think) that he might be able to share with the lizards of the world a fear of impending apocalypse and, if the lizards had a literature, it would be one of little, Gulliver-like heroes in a world where “we know the source of every scream / And pitch our ears to dying’s monotone”. Unlike the lizard’s, the human’s eyes look inward and the poet feels that reading a book might be a safer option that mind-melding with lizards. In literature living is “forever independent of surprise” and is basically about love, life and other social matters pitched comfortably at the dimensions of the human. It’s a fine and complex poem and recalls the Porter theme of preferring the city over nature (“On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod”) or gently mocks the American desire for a poetry of immersion in the sensual at the expense of any ratiocination.

All this is done in a fairly expansive meditation where it is the shifts that make for initial difficulties. Sometimes the compression is so intense that there is a kind of exhilarating gnomic density. Take the wonderfully titled “That War is the Destruction of Restaurants”:

All occasions bloom within priorities.
Insensible and more insensible selves
Choose to marry in their most-frayed cuffs.

They are promising riches in the Afterlife
Where every thread unravelling is a star
Within a plain of anecdotal stars.

This is the only true intelligence
Of taste: you open eyes in infancy
And see a dog in death-throes from a bait.

The prunus clipped, a glorious parent and
A fearful one speak of themselves at tea.
The five-foot line is waiting to usurp.

Like God, our animators are upset
By nought on nought, always too many noughts -
Stop dying now, they say to Dacca floods.

In Pantheons the heroes may not snore
Or be androgynous in twilight tombs
Since sexual peace is firmly cut in stone.

Year on year the wars arrive and raze
The science plains: we want to order fire
And do so staring at the plat-du-jour.

Not the kind of poem that approaches you wagging its tail. In some way it is about the vagaries of an individual life from infancy to the discovery of poetry (“The five-foot line is waiting to usurp”) contrasted with the patterns that religion and art impose. But the movement is so abrupt and so dense that it reads like a set of propositions, an impression supported by its title which suggests a kind of medieval exercise in argument. This won’t be to everybody’s taste, especially the taste that runs to “lyric grace”, but to me it belongs to those experiments which push disjunctiveness to the limit. Its formality is heightened by the fact that, apart from a couple of the opening lines, it is in a rigid ten-syllable form.

Many of the poems in Better Than God, especially the later ones, return us to the world of Porter’s Queensland childhood. “The Burning Fiery Furnace” takes up one of the themes of “That War is the Destruction of Restaurants” – that of individual life over mass-life – and mocks Australians’ continuous fascination with defining their national self-identity. Why bother with the mass, the poem says, when you have the infinite complexity of the unit to deal with:

. . . . . 
Henry Ford was right: what’s history,
Why do Australians wonder who they are?
Infinite stars in heaven – your one star
Is your own life – the millions don’t agree.

They sulk in digits and symposia
And measure muscle-tone and their synapses
. . . . .

“My Parents Were Walking Islands” revisits the “glorious” and “fearful” ones of the earlier poem, and “Ranunculus Which My Father Called a Poppy” follows his father’s later life but these family poems are also inclined to extend the ambit of the word “family”. Maternal and paternal uncles killed in the first World War appear as does an earlier ancestor, Robert Porter, who carefully worked the middle ground, giving Australians what they wanted and needed architecturally. He rose to be the architect of the appalling and little-lamented Boggo Road Gaol – surely an example of the mystical bond between object and name since both could hardly have been uglier. It is probably no accident that the first poem in Better Than God looks forward, among other things, to these family poems. “Buried Abroad” begins with the discovery of the body of Bert Hinkler, the Bundaberg aviator, in the mountains of Tuscany years after his disappearance:

. . . . . 
His first bi-plane hung
in the Brisbane Museum
while a captured German tank
stood guard outside
to stop imagination 
sorting out its dead.

My Father’s only brother -
with no known grave in France
or any cache of letters sent
from London back to Brisbane -
suggests his nephew join him
anywhere but home.

It wouldn’t be a Porter book if it didn’t include its share of meditations on death and this establishes that gloomy subject immediately. Extinction can be dealt with on a personal level – “The Burning Fiery Furnace”, generally about childhood, concludes with night saying, “State your preference, the stake or sword” – but it can also be dealt with biologically and socially. In “Young Mothers in the Square” the young go about thoughtlessly blossoming, much to the poet’s amazement:

. . . . .
How can they play, as Gray observed,
Unconscious of their fate? The curved
Blades of their death swing round
Like frisbees looping to the ground
Where everything is burgeoning,
A rose, a laptop, someone’s bling.

Death can also be approached abstractly in poetry. “The Dead Have Plans” is one of those three-line poems, structurally very interesting in being in triplets where the rhymes are disjunctive in terms of meaning. One gets the sense that the rhymes might have been determined first and the exercise in writing is to compose a poem around them. “Men/man/cumin” would be a challenge as would “passions/pensions/positions” and “gods/words/tides”. Though the effect is intensity rather than comedy, it rather recalls Lewis Carroll’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song”.

And, together with death, there is art. “The Judgement of Cambyses” sees Gerard David’s oddly cold painting of judicial torture as being about the complicity between observer and torturer; “When Did You Last See Castagno”, while referring to Andrea Del Castagno’s painting of the hanged citizens, is really about scale, about a sparrow’s position alongside the painting of the last supper. There are two poems to poets and, even closer to home, a poem like “Whereof We Cannot Speak” which begins by taking issue with Wittgenstein’s famous formulation and then continues by inverting it:

There is nothing here “whereof”. We are
philosophers and drainmakers,
prospectus-holders, vainly gripping
the under-edge of a minor star.

On which we know we can’t stay quiet.
How many sonnets must we write
before the great gong sounds in Heaven?
. . . . .

This vision of humankind as language-animal appears in a slightly earlier poem in the book, “We do Not Write the Way We Are”. If we are encrusted with parasitic words then this lends strength to the idea that words are evolved by the mass to produce the meanings of the mass, rather as Cultural Theorists are inclined to see narrative, or Jungians a Collective Unconscious. Porter’s poem is unhappy with this and wants to assert, as so often in his work, the individual over the mass. The tone is deliciously bathetic and it is fitting that, in this review, Porter should have the sinisterly named “last word”:

. . . . .
How do we scan the things we write?
Is this our fabled Second Sight,
the huge reflective Self interred
in generations of the Word?
I’d love to pose as Terrorist
or Trotsky under House Arrest,
       but sadly I’m not mad.

Instead, a circumstantial Truth
without the vanity of proof
is mixing in my double mind
with darkness lining up behind,
an unfree kind of Free Trade Zone,
a Fascist rule insisting words
       report to me alone.