Peter Steele: Braiding the Voices: Essays in Poetry

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2012, 310pp.

Although it is always an unhappy task to be looking at a posthumous book, it is also a pleasure, after focussing on books of poetry for the first six years of these reviews, to be able to review a book of criticism. In point of fact the proportions are about right: somewhere between fifty and seventy-five books of poetry are published annually in Australia but one could probably count the books of poetry criticism in the last six years on one hand. In a healthy literary culture, of course, poetry is always recognised as far more important than the criticism which accompanies it but you don’t want too great an imbalance lest critical instincts atrophy irrevocably. The fact that this is, in a sense, a memorial volume is a painful reminder that one of the always small company of good critics has left us and a source of good critical judgement has disappeared. But one still wants to congratulate the John Leonard Press for publishing a book which will have, at best, a small readership and, through the quality of their design and materials, making such a fine job of it. It’s also a book that looks as though it might have some kind of extended physical life: my copy of Steele’s earlier critical book, Expatriates, though, admittedly, getting on for thirty years old, has pages that look like frames from early acetate silent films. Braiding the Voices is a physical pleasure, as well as an intellectual pleasure, to read and if readers of these reviews were to buy, annually, one of the books reviewed, I would probably hope that it would be this one.

Peter Steele’s critical instincts are finely honed and I have always found that reading him is an introduction to admirable and often surprising insights. So I want to celebrate his work as that of an elder statesman of criticism. If Australian poetry critics often seem to me like a small, hungry, cold band of outcasts huddling around a fitful campfire in the middle of a great and partially derelict cathedral, then Steele would, in recent years, have been voted first choice when it came to portioning out the scraps of food. But being a respected elder statesman doesn’t mean that your method and interests are in any way representative. Those of you who follow up Steele’s book after reading this review won’t find many similarities in our methods though that can always be interpreted as evidence of a desirable polyvocality in the way Australian critics look at Australia’s poetry.

And that reveals one of the distinctive features of Braiding the Voices almost immediately: it doesn’t limit itself to discussing Australian poets. There are important essays on Peter Porter (whose poetry is the subject of a small book by Steele in the Oxford Authors series), Les Murray and Vincent Buckley but also on the poetry of Anthony Hecht and Seamus Heaney (Steele favourites). Perhaps the Australian poet most likely to appear is Steele himself but this is a result not of self-centredness or self-promotion but rather, as I’ll explore later, of the very genre of the book. At any rate, Steele in his criticism was no critical nationalist and it is interesting to look at the ambit of his interests. The first surprise is the extent to which he focusses on poets who are of his generation, or close to it: he is most comfortable with the poems of people like Heaney, Porter, Buckley and Hecht. Expatriates was focussed around individual poems by Hecht, Merwin, Wilbur and others born in the twenties as well as poets like Bishop and Moore from slightly earlier. I don’t think I have read anything by him which is about poets markedly younger than he is. These poets of his generation form a kind of community – an essential word in the Steele ethos – that he is very good at exploring. When his critical mind goes back in time, uncovering or claiming traditions, it tends to go on recognisable stepping stones: Hopkins, Smart, Swift, Herbert, Donne and Milton all figure regularly. In terms of what is called “secondary material”, Steele is very widely read and one is as likely to find references to contemporary social analysis as to the church fathers. Overall one gets the impression of a man at home in an immensely rich European tradition with those descended from the Greek Orthodox imperium, Russia and Greece, making occasional appearances. There is an essay on Dante in Braiding the Voices but, usually, Steele confines himself to English language literature.

The role of art is important in both his poetry and criticism. In one sense, it provides something that I want to argue might be lacking in Steele’s approach: an external yardstick. Two of the essays in Braiding the Voices are about art and poetry and the value of this exploration, you feel, is that the visual arts represent an otherness as against the verbal ones: they serve as a way of measuring the generalisations we make about poetry as well as revealing surprising new aspects of it. This seems to me an essential balance in criticism: it has to bring the outside to bear as well as evolving a vision which comes, internally, from an empathic response to the works being considered. On the other hand, it could be argued that the visual art which fascinates Steele is, by and large, an expression of European culture, with an emphasis on late medieval religious experience, and thus stands in for an area where the literary arts are weak. All of this is by way of observation rather than objection; the same could be said of the critical writing of Auden, a better critic than either Steele or myself. But I can’t help but feel – and it may be a personal rather than a true epistemological objection – that the very best criticism would also be familiar (and intimate) with a completely different culture, literature and language – Mandarin, say, or Hindi, or even Inuit – in order to see one’s own tradition from the outside. How else will we see it clearly? In other words it is a moot, and important, point whether Steele’s engagement with European culture is minutely and thus preciously informed and or just cosily intimate.

The feeling that Steele is happiest when he is most “at home” emphasises how communal his readings are. One of the features of this is a kind of intimacy and the virtues of intimacy – as well as its problems – are present in the style and structure of these essays, too. The tone, for example, is always intimate, often even avuncular but it doesn’t invite disagreement. In fact a reader is inclined to feel that disagreement would be, in some way, rudely disruptive. I’m not suggesting that Steele’s prose contains a suasive or controlling element, even in disguise, and his discussion of Murray’s poetry shows how well he understands that, under the relaxed intimacy of a poem like “The Quality of Sprawl”, there is a very unrelaxed desire to command both poem and reader. It is more that you get the sense that in his work, the placing of observations against their very opposite (either in debate with others or in internal debate with oneself) in order to determine which is more accurate is not the essential method of moving forward. Steele’s critical mind (as opposed to his poetic one) seems to work by generalisation, association and the exploration of subtle differences. The essential subject, I always feel, is not a single work, a single writer’s works, a generation’s poems, or a national or linguistic tradition, but poetry itself, dignified almost to the extent of being capitalised.

Structurally, Steele’s essays are of a piece with his style. His most common method is to explore a particular facet of this subject – Poetry – by looking at a number of poems (usually three or four) that illuminate this in some way. One of the finest essays in Braiding the Voices is “Still Moving: Variations on a Theme”, and it’s a good example of his method. It begins by looking at the issue of whether poetry is more concerned with the particular than with the general and then modulates (through speaking of “primordial questions”) to the contrast between “what might be called the Still One and the Moving Many”. The essay goes on to look at some poems – by P.J. Kavanagh, Deborah Randall (in her mid-forties an exception to my comment that Steele doesn’t deal with poets younger than himself) and Peter Porter – not as overt discussions of the issue but as sites where the issue is given “imaginative play”. The reading of Kavanagh’s “Autumn” (which is based on the situation of “Gawain and the Green Knight” but with a strong element of Browning’s “Childe Roland”) is a brilliant analysis of that poem’s “dramatic suspension”s and describes Kavanagh as a poet “of moments and situations waiting to discharge their often striking energies”. It is the kind of observation that comes from intimacies, intimacy with an individual poet’s work but also an intimacy with the subtler features to be found in poetry itself. The analysis of Deborah Randall’s “The Hare” begins by finding in the poem the double image of an animal which is all movement and must be described both as movement and as frozen movement “the palpable and the fugitive” and goes on to discuss the opposition in poetry between the spoken and the unspoken before finishing up with the Navajo’s Coyote which occupies several planes of reality at the same time.

The final poem discussed in the essay is an ekphrastic one, Peter Porter’s “The Lion of Antonello Da Messina” a more difficult poem and one which provokes a subtler analysis. Steele responds to Porter’s transmutations and by beginning with a discussion of this he develops the issue at the core of his essay into movement between states rather than simply stasis and movement. And that’s just the beginning. I’ll content myself with quoting a compressed version of what follows since trying to paraphrase it will probably produce only a wordier summary:

Whatever the theoretical fortunes of mimesis these days, Porter’s poetry is incessantly mimetic, insofar as energy itself is up for imitation. The disconcertment which some readers experience upon exposure to his work comes less, I think, from what they take, sometimes correctly, for esoterica, than from the leaps and plunges of Porter’s associative mind: it is as if the many hundreds of poems are tantamount to an advanced course in metaphorical intelligence. Canetti wrote that “A great many ideas want to remain like comets”; Porter’s ideas and images are more often than not comet-like, but “remain” does not seem to be the right word.

Not the right word in part because, in the midst of remarkable intellectual fertility, Porter is an impresario of loss. The medieval philosophical dictum, made over from Aristotle, that “the generation of one thing is the destruction of another”, has a kind of aching cogency in his imagination. One of his first instincts in the face of the given is to see that it can be taken away and probably will be. The predicament is handled, commonly, with a blend of unillusioned trenchancy and stoical finesse, but handled it is, pretty well unremittingly. . . . . The truly extraordinary thing is to see this combined with imaginative vitality, not by concession or exception, but as if that were the norm in such things. Every church or theatre in which Porter contemplates complexity, every field or bay, seems indeed to be part of the great Globe itself, an instant before evanescence: but at that terminal moment insight is profuse, association emphatic, and imaginative mobility heightened.

That is such good criticism, such a subtle teasing out of the intellectual fluidity of Porter’s poetry and its connection with what seems to cruder readers merely a morbid imagination, that – I’m ashamed to say – it makes me envious. Of course, one can console oneself with the observation that it’s going to be a pretty irritating essay for undergraduate readers who are looking for some help with essays of their own and who are not at all sure even who the speaker is in Porter’s poem: Steele tends to speak at what is – or should be – the level of his community.

Intimacy encourages, among other things, playfulness and Steele isn’t above enjoying the complex structures of his own essays which are often deliberate floutings of the academic template. In Expatriates, there is an essay on Robert Huff’s poem, “Blue”. It is an essay full of delightful, writerly jokes, beginning with the contrast between the four-letter title of the poem and the length of essay itself – some eight or nine thousand words. The short poem which forms the opening of the essay is itself a complex affair dealing with the Huff’s role in a bombing raid over Germany in the Second World War. It is so densely interwoven with allusions that the ethical issues underneath are obscured as they become made complex. The central figure is Faust whose pact with the Devil perhaps makes such high-tech warfare possible and the plane is, in a way, bringing this process back to its origins: “As though I had been turning through the stars / For ages on my way to Germany. / Down in the ashes that were Wittemberg / The blue flames cough up black geraniums.” And the entire poem – not only the inside of the bomber’s cockpit – is bathed in “blue”. It’s a poem that you would like to see teased out but Steele’s essay begins with a passage which I will quote:

Poetry is among other things language making a nuisance of itself. Some poets are applauded for their pellucidity, for giving tongue as though they were giving explanations; but even these poets are less likely to be delivering the goods than delivering the baby – things are off to a new start with them, and language is given the cross-hatching of the personal. The night comes when no man can work, but the words can play their way along quite as well then, better in fact. The marche militaire is a skater’s waltz in disguise, the uniform a camouflaged motley.

This is a nuisance for the preliterate, many of whom are not illiterate. Many indeed traffic much in books, cracking their codes, as they suppose, alembicating poetry into diurnal meanings: beyond the Hyades they find the Ephemerides. Of course such is not the Kingdom of Heaven, but they often suppose that it is, or at least that if that starry zone is not yet theirs for the having, they may sponsor, now, the Good, or the Good Life. Petulant moralists, soi-disant analysts, unfrocked legalists – these fragments of our usually fragmentary selves maraud around the poem, as around the arts at large, and proclaim with the tireless, heedless insistence of somnambulists what the poem means. “For every complex problem”, announces a poster, “there’s a simple solution. And it’s wrong.” The poet may forget his other words, but that one he knows.

Or knows after a fashion. It is in his hornbook, but only imperfectly in his heart. Bad company does odd things to our ideals, and we are in part all bad company to ourselves. There is a perverse streak in us which leads us to want to take wooden nickels, want to be snowed by the offer of Brooklyn Bridge. A human being is an angular thing, more like a question mark than an exclamation mark. . . . .

And so on for another twenty pages. It’s Steele at his most Delphic and inspissate. Most of it I don’t follow despite having reread it many times but I quote it to point out the extent that it is also a set of gags. Many of these derive from the method of obliqueness. There is a wonderful essay by Greg Dening, “Sharks that Walk on the Land: The Death Of Captain Cook” in which the reader has to face two pages of anthropological analysis (admittedly very lucid and not especially forbidding) until the curtain goes up, so to speak, and Captain Cook appears. Part of the fun of Steele’s essay is that the appearance of the poem itself is delayed for about fifteen hundred words and the first thousand words devoted to it are a long meditation on the colour blue. It has the same structure which underlies most of Steele’s essays (none in Braiding the Voices are as extreme as the essay on “Blue”) in that a poem is subsumed into a general theme which is then engaged obliquely. But the fact that the subject of the poem is a bombing raid (certainly not a “raid on the inarticulate” though that theme appears in the essay) and is treated in such a less than full frontal attack, is part of the joke, as is the fact that a poem with a four letter title is surrounded by such an extensive meditation. The fact that it begins with an attack on a certain kind of poetry analyst (with an asperity rare in Steele’s writing) is also something of a joke in the light of the poem under consideration. I’m sure there is a lot more subtle humour of this sort in this weird essay but it would take a lot of work to tease it out. At any rate my point is that Steele’s intimate, “at home” approach to criticism includes a playful element.

But, of course, Expatriates is not a series of scholarly analyses of poems: it is a set of meditations about poetry itself, roughly constellated about the idea of expatriation and exile. In a sense it is belletristic but it is also, obliquely perhaps, a challenge to scholarly analysis of poetry to match its quality and insight. Braiding the Voices is in a more recognisable mode: that of the collection of poet’s essays. Behind it (and often quoted) stand similar collections by people like Hollander, Jarrell, Merwin, Nemerov, Heaney, Auden and many others. In the absence, in Australia, of a strong tradition of literary journalism, it is a book genre that needs to be encouraged. As I said before, the genre is the reason that Steele and his own poems make so many appearances: in Expatriates he appears incognito as Michael Kent, the author of a sestina. Braiding the Voices concludes with six final poems. The first of these is set, sinisterly, in the oncology ward but you feel that rampant confessionalism was never going to be Steele’s way and so the final poems, about eating and proverbs, are about community.

Peter Steele: The Gossip and the Wine

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2010, 65pp.

In the poem in which they appear, the words of the title of Peter Steele’s new book (themselves derived from a Peter Porter poem) suggest, perhaps, no more than the conviviality of the Last Supper contrasted, in the poem, with the sinister but necessary events offstage:

Dead man walking as he goes to dine -
The handing over broached and squared away -
He settles to the gossip and the wine,
The casual banter and the heart at play.
. . . . .

But read as the title of the book, they clearly reflect two different directions that the poet wants his verse to travel: “gossip” for the gregarious, human dimension and “wine” for the spiritual one. It makes sense in terms of the Afterword to Steele’s 2003 collection of ekphrastic poems, Plenty, in which he says:

I am of the belief that poets are mainly on the trace of the Human, that familiar, curious, and largely mysterious creature. The greatest of medieval poems in a European language is called a “Comedy”: and although I am aware that the title does not refer to clowning but to a happy ending, the pilgrim figure in that work is what might be called a sponsored blunderer, a quester by ricochet. Dante is exercised to know not only how things will turn out, but who it is for whom things will thus eventuate. It is most appropriate that this should take place in poetry, in which everything leans yearningly towards the possible consolation of song . . .

One wouldn’t want to make too much of this dichotomy – the sociable human below, the remote but incarnatable divine above – for fear of being simplistic, but it isn’t a bad map even if, in The Gossip and the Wine, there are really three groups of poems rather than two.

It begins with a group of a dozen poems built around various events in the Christian year: some of these poems are part of an imaginary biography of Jesus, others are reflections prompted by the festival itself. Thus the Ash Wednesday poem, “Contemplation with Ashes”, is about neither human sociability or the divine so much as the sheer violence of the world. And it uses one of the most powerful weapons in Steele’s own poetic armoury – the learned list:

These, among others: Assyria’s mailed archers
          and mounted spearsmen, the charioteers
drinking to devastation, Sennacherib boasting,
          “of Elam, I cut their throats like sheep”;
Polybius, of the Roman way on storming -
          “the purpose is to strike terror,
the very dogs in halves”; the Langobards,
          each broadsword sleek with lacertine figures,
each lance of a strength to lift its wriggling target;
          Byzantium’s troopers . . .

At either end of this sequence are two longer, meditative poems. “Advent”, the first, is about Steele’s own emergence expressed as a biography of three men: Odysseus (The Odyssey read early, in Perth), Dante (seen rather as in the quotation from Plenty as a yearner, “rapt at the feast of song”) and George Herbert (someone whom it is hard to dislike). Put together they make a kind of composite biography encapsulating a theory of what humanity is and what its poems do: “the heart is a nest / for nurselings making music in an air / they barely guess at”. And it makes its first line (there is a Greek name for the trope deployed here where you expect one word and get another – but I’ve long forgotten the technical terms of rhetoric) “All my life I’ve been at the school of yearning”, introduce the central word of the collection. The first yearns for home, the second for “the best of notes, / stilling the world to hear and yearn” and the third to “have it out with God”.

The last of the poems of this sequence, “Reverie in Lygon Street”, is an ambitious piece and your heart warms to it once you get inside it a little. Structured as three sections of three stanzas each, it sees the poet in a market meditating, in turn, on human and vegetable variety, books and finally the quest to see the relation between the divine and the human. The drive here seems Greek as much as Christian in that Steele’s love of the particular and love of registering the particular in one of his lists stresses the multiplicity of the world which any unifying principle must be balanced against. The core of this comes out in a few lines in the first section of the poem:

                                                       I’m gawking
now at the avocadoes, now at garlic,
          a sucker as ever for the cabbage in
its ostentation, for the blushing apples to which
          the maddest George devoted a corer
as golden as his dreams, for the jokey banana,
          for maize in spite of the Aztec blood,
for the swank of strawberries, the almonds left behind
          as a pourboire by Tutankhamun,
for the parsnip that doubles for Pasternak the yearner,
          for snow-peas and pineapples, the cocksure eggplant,
                    and the mandrake called tomato.

Believing Him here, as in my folly I do,
          the once and risen mortal, prompts me
to ask about the old days. Were the leeks
          as good in Galilee . . .

Entering a bookshop in the second section prompts a meditation whereby the theory of poetry that the first poem of this group, “Advent” ventures on is modulated into an unusual theory of reading whereby the reader’s task is to hear “the melodious thing in a book’s tempest, / its cataracts and clowning”. This is a more than interesting position about texts, treating them as analogous, at least, to the complex of particulars in which the believer must find hints of the divine. It is consistent with the response to Dante in “Advent” but it makes me nervous by creating a scenario in which human intelligence, expressed in texts, is devalued at the expense of echoes of the divine. I’m not sure that Euclid or Newton would have wanted their works treated that way, just as I’m nervous about the characterisation of Dante in “Advent”, but it’s a tenable approach, especially from a Christian perspective.

This fine sequence occupies the first third of the book. The rest is made up of a series of sonnets responding to moments in the gospels broken up by longer poems which are often focussed on the humbly human. There may well be a pattern to the appearance of these fragments of Jesus’s biography (are they positioned to align with readings in church, for example?) but it isn’t one that I can see. They are quite different to the poems in the first section that deal with Jesus. Those are daringly imaginative, conceiving him, in three successive poems as “Star Man”, “Green Man” and “Water Man” and they operate by trying to move Jesus out of limited, local environment into wider spheres of particulars. It’s a reverse of the process whereby God is discovered in particulars. God expands here to experience particulars so that a stanza beginning with a description of Jesus’s life among the Galilee fishermen, moves quickly to wider oceans:

. . . . .
                                        He saw plankton
bloom to clouds, could touch the holdfast of kelp,
          the bristles of krill, the fins of tang:
lantern fish hung in the twilight zone, the vampire
          squid from hell gazed in the dark,
black smokers vented.

These are fine, complex poems, but I can’t find anything as satisfying in the sixteen sonnets based on the gospels in the second part of The Gossip and the Wine. They seem to be almost genre-pieces – expansions of the gospel stories. And one of the things that betrays them as genre pieces is the bluff tone: one of the earlier poems begins “Getting him up the hill was a long business / however you gauge it . . .” and I quote this, rather than one of the sonnets, as the best encapsulation of this tone. Why do these gospel revisits always seem to do this? Even Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” (though it quotes Andrewes) begins with a hearty “A cold coming they had of it”. Presumably poets feel the opportunity (or obligation) to counteract the iconic status of the gospel narratives by seeing them obliquely as events in a real world populated by many who, although they might not be singled out in the narrative, still have a right to be acknowledged. It is part of a complicated question, or, at least, a question that grows more complicated the longer you look at it. My position would probably be that it is a response to the generally abstract nature of biblical narrative (I except the David story of first and second Samuel here as one of the great masterpieces of ancient narrative). The gospels, in particular, seem remote and abstract to the common reader. There are almost no concrete details (apart from some matters of geography and legal process) and it is clear that none of the texts which survive have any actual contact with the man from Nazareth. It can be argued, of course, that biblical narrative favours the iconic or abstract, but really that just means that it is bad narrative.

I wonder whether this abstractness doesn’t account for much of Steele’s love of religious art because there he is in touch with a long tradition of trying to make these events concrete. Some of his poems give brilliant readings of such paintings as Crivelli’s “Madonna of the Swallow”, but they result from more than just a good art historian’s eye. I think they derive from a sense that all of these are concretisations of vague texts, attempts to make the iconic “real” in a way that people within the last seven hundred or so years will recognise. Of course none are final concretisations – everything is provisional – but perhaps there is a response to a kind of cumulative effect. Just as it has been argued that the meaning of a text is the sum total of sensible readings of it, so perhaps Steele feels that he is doing something similar for representations of the gospel stories. But a bluff tone and a knowing way of speaking about minor characters such as the High Priest’s servant “ . . . a lout, / And a slave with it, obedient to the bark // Of the officer bloke, to whom he’s a waste of space . . .” doesn’t seem the right way to go about it. The right way to go about it, demonstrated continuously in Steele’s other poems, is to harness the intense particularity of poetic language, its capturing of learning in technical words and its torrent of icons (to distort a phrase from “All the Latest”, a fine poem from this book and one which demonstrates what it is speaking about).

The poems that I have called, crudely, “human”, are certainly more satisfying and in them we see more of Steele at his best. “Folklore” is, for example, is a fine celebration of a loved doctor (presumably a colleague) couched in terms of the kind of folkloric cures that would once have been such a doctor’s tools in trade. It concludes with another example of Steele’s tendency to characterise himself (in the manner of Francis of Assisi, perhaps) as a yearning fool-for-God but also with a heartfelt tribute:

to use your powers wisely, for us
          whose wits are turned, often enough, but who know
good when we see it, and love too.

A number of these poems focus on the humble side of the human by dwelling on folklore: “One for Pieter Breugel” is based on his “Netherlandish Proverbs” and is a catalogue of the sayings in the painting, and “After the Irish” is a set of Irish sayings (I say this confidently, though I have never actually heard any of them!) including the memorable “The road to Heaven is well enough signed, / but it’s badly lit at night”. But the two poems in the book that I like most are very much about relationships between the macro and the micro, or between the divine and the human. “Dancing” (its epigraph is another Irish saying, “God is good, but never dance in a small boat”) is built out of two stanzas of wonderful technical detail:

                                             on for a ceilidh or clogdance,
          huffing and puffing the hornpipe, invoking
rain by the lakeful, turkey-trot matching the Lancers,
          reels from the Maenads, kabuki as haka,
hoedowns and riggadoons, nautches and hays and fandangos . . .

followed by a lovely stanza about Sir John Davies’s “Orchestra” in which Davies is encouraged to keep his eyes on the heavenly dance and “say goodbye to small boats”. And “Gardens” is a celebration of monks and their gardens based, so the notes tell us, on the De Naturis Rerum of the Augustinian abbot, Alexander Neckham. It begins with a stanza of delicious tactile particularity:

Swinking they called it, and meant the drive of the spade,
a rake’s reluctance, the haul at loins
of mattock and pickaxe, the tilt of a swilling pail:
the new turves tamped and beaten.

but the poem is really about whether the garden feeds the divine (by growing flowers along the graves of dead monks in preparation for some eventual rebirth at the resurrection) or whether it feeds the hungry human body. For the present, it feeds the body:

For the present though, and this side of the moon,
the belted diggers had at the earth,
keeping, they thought, body and soul together:
“First the starch, and then the singing.”

Keeping the body and soul together, in the sense of keeping the human and divine together, is a noble task in a Christian context and it must be one of the tasks of a Christian poetry.

Peter Steele: White Knight with Beebox: New and Selected Poems

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2008, 236pp.

As with Jan Owen’s recent selected, this book contains an entire, previously unpublished work accompanied by selections from previous books. It focuses on what the writer is doing now but enables readers to put this in some kind of perspective. Steele’s output is made up of two early (and really fairly forgettable books), Word from Lilliput and Marching on Paradise, published in 1973 and 1984 respectively. The four books since have included two which are made up of poems about paintings (I have always thought that English might be a better language without the word, “ekphrasis”, in it), and Invisible Riders (1999) which is stylistically not dissimilar to the new book of this selected: White Knight with Beebox. There is a lot of wonderful poetry in both White Knight with Beebox and the selections from Invisible Riders. I’m interested in the way this particular poet’s mind works, partly because, as he is a longtime Jesuit and an equally longtime Melburnian, he comes with an intellectual apparatus as far from mine (callow, post-enlightenment intellectual) as I could imagine. He has always loomed just over the horizon of my reading as a fellow Australian but somehow one with a different spiritual and intellectual ethnicity.

But before looking at the mental patterns, there is the question of the image we have of the author from these poems and what we can guess about the author’s image of himself. There is less fierce or rhapsodic transcendence than might be expected and an awful lot of wryness. In a number of the poems Don Quixote and Sancho Panza appear and this pair (the idealistic but disordered mind connected to the uncomfortable body) seem to be Steele’s totemic counterparts or at least totems of the wry side of his poetry. “Ass with Harp” (an “art-poem” in that it is about a puzzling ass sculpted on Chartres cathedral) is relevant here because its subject is the continued presence of the humble flesh in an atmosphere of yearning for the heavens:

. . . . .
here, in a cosmic settling of accounts,
          fair and foul migrate for ever;
and here, taking a liberty with tradition,
          a carved dreamer begins to smile.

But the one with hoof to harp and roused eye
          remains arcane. Mocked by Jerome,
a sleeper for Bottom yet to come, a dawdler
          at ears’-length from Balaam and angel ”“

perhaps, on the pitted wall, this day of the Lord,
          he catches the note of dying Francis
who said of the body, for all his starry hopes,
          “I have sinned against my brother the ass.”

Don Quixote is also perhaps not far from Lewis Carroll’s White Knight of the title poem, the one who has a fine hive but no honey. Again the stress is not on the divine radiating downwards but on human aspirations to move upwards:

Grander mentors are wasted on him – the Greeks
          consecrating bees to the moon,
Jonathan risking death . . .

. . . . .

          The clique of Immortals, knocking back
their diet of nectarine juices and munchable candy,
          are at their best still in the dark

as to the sweetness this jerked and lolloping figure
          has made of himself. In default of a comb,
he’s bet on the dotardly build of his own flesh,
          going down fighting, coming up trumps,
licking a dear-bought honey off thorns, and always
          husbanding fire for the next dream. 

“This jerked and lolloping figure” – “Lolloping” is a word that recurs in this poetry and might bear the same relation to Steele’s poems that, say, “veteran” does to Bruce Beaver’s.

Other poems position the poet remorselessly as the wryly intelligent observer of the public world, an enlightened amateur. One of the best of them, “Mending Gloves at Anglesea”, moves, via a pun on the author’s names, to such a description:

                              the stitchwork will proclaim
          The amateur status of its wearer,
                    Ferric and stoney by name,
But understrapper among overlings,
A lightweight in the contest for chief lout.

while “Phantom Pleasures” speaks very beautifully of those whose boats are “invulnerable to burning because their timber / is still unseasoned”. The amateur is only one step from the fool – indeed is, in his or her own estimation, a fool. Steele’s poetry, at the moments where it wants to speak of religious experience, often invokes the figure of the fool. There is, of course, a good Franciscan tradition for doing this but the character who figures more significantly than Francis is Christopher Smart. “Praying with Christopher Smart” sees Smart as rejoicing

                    though God knows how, at seeing the Lamb,
          all radiant victim and focal creature,
where knave and fool and we the bewildered are welcomed.

The wry component meshes in well with at least one aspect of a poet’s capacities: the sensitivity to words produces puns of every level of complexity and these have always been seen as homely, rather embarrassing lapses. They are the kind of things that poets usually censor in themselves unless their poetics permits it. Surrealism does (accidents of language are one of surrealist poetry’s driving forces) but so does a poetry that positions its author as a humble, “bewildered” figure. Steele’s poems are full of these lolloping jokes. The Earl of Burlington’s lackeys and flunkeys did not have to stand next to an airport luggage carousel “conscious of what they lacked / or how they’d flunked” (“Impedimenta”). In “Anhedonia”, autumn is a “season of musts and sallow fruitlessness” and in “Valediction”, when the poet goes to switch off the light – “It’s dousing time, the thumb upon the switch” – the connection of “douse” and “switch” recalls the “dowsing” of diviners. A fine poem (though its central stanza can’t resist a swipe at imagined scientific reductionism), “Puny Dragons”, deals with punning overtly (in the title as well as the content of the poem). It begins with ancient maps, full of imagined monsters, contrasts these with modern maps, imagined to be produced in a spirit of snobbish superiority, and concludes by celebrating the forces of dream which, employing tropes like punning, push into our consciousnesses:

. . . . .
Still, indiscipline being what it is,
          and emigrés from our dreams barefaced,
ceaseless vigilance is the only way.
          Here come the tropes, aswagger, wielding
their maps like so many gaudy warrants of licence,
          the back of their hand to Mercator, rhumbs,
and the sacred polyconic projection. To them,
          it’s never far from Tipperary,
Donne’s liable to riot over the globe
          displaying a body or two, Calvino
sweet-talks you out of your wits as brazenly
          as the cock-eyed exiled Florentine.
In default of any net to catch the wind,
          puisne dragons may be expected. 

One of my favourite poems from this selected is “Confluences”. It sees the poet standing at the site of Richard the Third’s death and responds to a whole series of fascinating connections. The date of Richard’s death is the same as the poet’s birth, for example.

. . . . .
          The stream was too much for Richard, slighter
even than the Rubicon though it is. If ever
          the trumpets sounded for him, it wasn’t
on the other side at Bosworth. Conceivably,
          the real man’s well placed
to explain the matter to Shakespeare, who managed to die
          on his birthday, feast of St George,
that honorary Englishman, and who
          went wherever they go on the same
day as that master-forger of knights, Cervantes.

One could find a lot in this poem if one went searching for clues about how this poet’s mind works: it is surely significant that it finishes with the creator of Steele’s iconic Don Quixote. But in the light of what I’ve been describing, I want only to point out that puns are confluences, accidental meetings of sound, orthography and meaning. So the puns of the meditative poems in Steele’s outputs are more than just games made respectable by a tone of wry self-deprecation. They must be bound into both the structure of the psychology and into the metaphysical structures that psychology feels comfortable with. Hammering this out would be well beyond my capabilities (and stamina) but a fine and very moving poem, “Brother”, continues the etymologizing cast of mind that appeared in “Mending Gloves at Anglesea” (it also, surely, contains an allusion to the relationship between Moses and Aaron). An etymology is not strictly a pun but here it shows an interest in the confluence between name and character:

No day goes by without your haunting me,
You, whose tongue was always heavy with silence.

Watching myself taped, a mouth pouring
Word on crested word, I am ashamed

To have outlived you, whom first I saw huddled
Behind glass some wars and loves ago.

There is, as your brooding gaze always implied,
Nothing to say. But as I back towards

Your veiled country, let me say only
That you were never slight, nor I the rock. 

In the middle of White Knight with Beebox is a group of poems, “A Mass for Anglesea”, overtly engaging religious experience. Although they seem to make up a highly organised group, there are many different genres inside the group and I’m inclined to think of it as a miniature anthology. And you can see much of Steele’s array of poetic technique in this sequence. It begins, for example, with a prologue in which the celebrant prepares the material for the mass and devotes a stanza to fire, water, wine, bread and, finally, the word. I’m not au fait with the full theological and metaphysical implications of the various processes here (are we dealing with symbols or metonyms, for example) but the poem begins with a characteristic connecting of the local and small with the large so that the white tablecloth table is associated with the large expanse of the southern ocean which, of course, concludes in snow and icy wastes. This is a shift that begins “Mending Gloves at Anglesea”. Fittingly for a poet/priest, much is made of the fact that the poem concludes with the word of the gospels:

                                        Its tale
of good having the last word is a quaint one,
          given the plague and the camps, but I’ll read it,
heart a crosspatch often as not, and mind
          losing and finding the way.

The Kyrie is a set of three prayers, the first two on behalf of the little local community. The comfortable assumption of authority (and, admittedly, responsibility) on the part of the priest seems mildly irritating here, but I accept that that is a hyper-sensitive Australian response to a religion which thrives in more hierarchical societies. The last of the prayers begins by sounding as though it wants to approximate the verbal animation you get in Hopkins and concludes by asking for the fire of God to animate the heart and dispel the inner darknesses. It, too, can’t help noting the pun in the place name:

                                               Changer of hearts,
Downhill is Demon’s Bluff, and any old day
The cards may fall like that, the spirit darken,
Amen stick in the throat indeed, and song
Dry on the lips like salt. Come in, I pray,
Winter or summer, your own music about you,
Your fiery touch a mercy after all.

“Gloria I” is interesting because it attempts to re-animate what is a poetic cliché – the poem devoted to one of the bystanders at one of the miracles, the kind of thing that begins “She was always such a quiet lass . . .” and goes on to describe Mary from a neighbour’s point of view. “Gloria I” isn’t as bad as that, fortunately. It does the shepherds “shaggy under keffiyehs, the heavy cloaks / rucked high for the wind” and, if it works at all, does so by recalling an earlier tradition (Lancelot Andrewes and Eliot) and keeping the language level high. But somehow all it is doing is struggling to keep afloat against the deadweight of its own cliché.

“Gloria II” reads like the meditative poems that this book is filled with – I’m not sure why it has wandered into this sequence. Again it is in a mode that Steele’s poetry occasionally leans towards, a Les Murrayish swipe at the Enlightenment:

Transit gloria mundi” say the begrudgers,
death’s name as tart as quince
on their relishing tongues, a barrel of doornails open
to the casual reach, and ash like talcum
in its trim can. It’s always a Bad Friday.

It’s not really my business but sniping at the uncharitable or begrudging or sarcastic or in-love-with-destruction-and-death tone of atheists is just argumentum ad hominem: the tone in which a proposition is expressed or the reason for its expression is not relevant to the issue of whether the proposition is true or false. I emphasise this because in Murray at his worse there is a good deal of pre-Enlightenment (ie medieval) vitriol and one looks at Steele, as a modern Jesuit, to see how a sixteenth century tradition of argument can be recreated in the modern world. One wants something better than informal logical fallacies.

“Credo” begins with a large perspective on history and the cosmos and then switches very beautifully to the local by engaging with a truck driver on the forecourt of the service station. As he drives through the stands of eucalypts he becomes a kind of wood-man and the poem then transitions to Jesus (“the other traveller, working his passage / from boy to man, country to city, / sawyer’s horse to the bloody work on a pole”). This is all wonderfully done, seamlessly producing a poem that is as well-made as a fine piece of wooden furniture. It is worth dwelling for a while on this element of Steele’s technique: many of the poems are driven by transitions or disjunctions which are announced in the language of argument or by a demotic turn of phrase. So the first three stanzas of a terrific poem, “Impedimenta”, begin: “Overdone? Well yes, it can be, as when . . .”, “For all I know, the Earl was an ascetic . . .” and “Whatever. Noble, gentle or simple, later . . .” and the final stanza enacts an elegant shift to the wry self, “Wary myself, instinctive investor in / body-armour and multiplied options . . .”. I could list many similar examples of this core poetic technique. I love this kind of poetry built on enjambment, disjunctions and the drive of logical syntax: I could devour quires of it and this selected has brilliant examples. At the back of my mind, however, is always the slight fear that this is a rhetoric, a way of producing a well-made poem that could conceivably be imitated and could certainly be parodied.

“Sanctus” deals with ecstatic celebration of the divine and takes its cue not from Christopher Smart this time but from Blake. At the end it provides us with some kind of definition of holiness “a trace / of light and sweetness taking flesh, / the heart ringing like crystal” before making a reasonably daring transition to helping up a little girl:

                                           Down the road,
          drooling a little, eyes rounded,
another of Mary’s children makes for the beach,
          every day a maceration.
Fall as we do, retrieved as we are, by the instant,
          my hand out if she’d like, it’s
                     Holy, Holy, Holy.

The last poem of this group, “Fires”, is built on a different meditative model to the one I have been describing. It accumulates and aggregates images of fire and concludes with Jesus walking towards us (a structure I have met in other poems about religious figures):

                                                       It’s true
          of the tramp from the north, his eyes

learning the country, change on his mind and its trying,
          good news aflame in his mouth,
no time lost of the little they let him have,
          burning and blessing and burning.

It’s just that here the connections are not as clear as in the kind of poems I’ve been describing and one has that sense that here is a poem where the reader is not at all immediately comfortable and we need to look at it carefully in order to make some sense of the landscape we have found ourselves in. There are a few poems in the book like this. One way of putting the difference might be to say that the poems of transition and disjunction occasionally sound like Hope (of the Casserius poem, perhaps) whereas these others sound occasionally like Peter Porter.

Finally, though not the last poem of the group, “Offerings” is a wonderful celebration of human creativity beginning (with the customary wide perspective) with the cave painters of Lascaux, and including Neolithic flint blades and Chinese oracle bones and coffin-handles. The final stanza surprisingly but very satisfyingly moves not only towards names but towards the tactile experience of the words themselves – something a poet is especially sensitive to but which everybody can relate to. And the method of the poem is not argument or analysis but listing:

And blessed are you who fit us all for naming -
          telling the arrow’s nock, the gladdie’s
corm, the Bellarmine jug, the Milky Way,
          spinnaker, follicle, Nome, Alaska:
catfish, deckchairs, the age to fall in love,
          gaspers and megrims and the Taj Mahal,
derricks, and El Dorado, and peach Melba.
          Blessed are you: the years toll,
and yet I chance my arm enough to say,
          (the brute tide swayed by the moon)
I bless the wine and the bread.

Just as the priest can bless the host so the poet can bless language (itself mysteriously connected to the word, or Word).

The last two poems of the sequence seem derived respectively from a statuary group and from a carved scene on a plaque. And concluding as these poems do with human creativity and its results reminds me how many of Steele’s poems are responses to painting and further reminds me that I have barely considered the thirty-five pages in this selected which collect these. That will just have to wait for another suitable occasion.