Rereadings VI: Bruce Beaver: Odes and Days

Five Dock: South Head Press, 1975, 103pp.

This is a book published in the middle of a decade which looks, with the perspective of half a century, to be the most important in the history of Australian poetry. With a similar perspective we can also say that this book looks to be the climax of Beaver’s poetic career. It comes as the third of a kind of trilogy – Letters to Live Poets and Lauds and Plaints, being the other two – which now look to be the pinnacle of Beaver’s output. Later works, especially the fascinating autobiographical work, As It Was, have their moments, but Letters to Live Poets, Lauds and Plaints and Odes and Days are an undoubted high point of Beaver’s poetry. There are other perspectives too. The 1970s are usually seen predominantly as the site of an opposition between the “new” poets, collected a decade later in John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry, and a group of poets loosely associated with Les Murray. The perspective of half a century shows that the truth of the situation is a lot less clear: neither of the so-called parties was quite as organised as people thought at the time. Poets, Australian poets, are perhaps not instinctive joiners of literary groups. At any rate, Beaver could have been claimed by both groups. As an older poet (born in 1928), connected with Grace Perry’s Poetry Australia project – a project that probably doesn’t get as much analysis as it should when the 1970s are being considered – and having a temperamental distaste for the counter-cultural activities of the young of the time, Beaver would normally be slotted into the Murray “party”. But he is the poet who opens Tranter’s anthology and the opening poem, the great elegy for Frank O’Hara (conceived as a letter to that poet), sets the tone for an anthology open to the influences of contemporary American poetry.

But creating maps and plotting the terrain of poetic history is (or should be) only a minor part of poetry criticism. What matters are the poems themselves. Odes and Days, as its title declares, is conceived in two parts: a set of elevated, extended poems followed by forty-seven short poems written almost in diary mode – “weeks of daily verses scratched / into this small notebook”. This twofold structure is an example at a macro level of one of the deepest generators of Beaver’s poetry: a sense of the double, most especially as two responses to the world. Undoubtedly it derives from his own psychological problems – a major part of his history as a young man is described in As It Was – which, whatever its exact clinical description, involved periods of elation followed by depression and a suicidal sense of his own worthlessness, but also periods of optimism about his fellow human beings alternating with periods of intense and furious (he calls it Swiftian) loathing for the human race. This psychological duality runs through all his poetry but Letters to Live Poets is probably where it is seen most clearly, especially in poems like XII, one of the great descriptions of psychic unease:

. . . . .
I’m never likely to forget
the day I walked on hands and knees 
like Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, scenting the pit.
So it’s one day at a time spent checking
the menagerie of self; seeing
the two-headed man as half as much
of twice of everything; curbing the tiger;
sunning the snake; taking stock of
Monkey, Piggsy, Sandy’s belt of skulls.

The binary construction of the second book of this group of three is expressed in its title. Lauds and Plaints has poems which are built around the two possible poetic reactions to the world: celebration and despair. Odes and Days, on the other hand, can be said to have a single focus, despite its being based around binaries, and that focus is on creativity. In the Beaver world, creativity is not a simple expression of the positive phases of his personality but something which can have quite sinister overtones. The source of the creativity is not a bland, nymph-like muse but an altogether more potent force that he here, I think for the first time, calls his “daimon”. It is a word that grows more common in the books after Odes and Days.

The first of the “odes” is exactly about the nature of creativity. It is a long and complex meditation beginning:

Where does the fire come from
that burns in us like a lamp’s flame?
Not consuming the being
but using the body for a wick

so that lower and lower
the living fire descends in us
while ever higher and higher
the fumes of our immolation ascend.

Significantly, we are immediately presented with a binary conception of the whole process whereby part of us – the creative activity – ascends while the body is slowly consumed not as fuel but as a wick-like vehicle for the fire. The poem goes on to attempt to answer the question posed in the first lines, firstly by using the analogy of the flower on the stem of a plant, fed by the sun, and then exploring the image of the sun in some detail. Again, this is done in binaries for the sun is “more like Prometheus bound / than the bringer of light” – it is a hostile force which, like the protagonist of Aeschylus’ play, “writhes / and fulminates in its glowing shackles” and from which we need to be protected. But, “twin flames / there must be to experience: / one that renews the life / of things and one that cancels flesh”. One of the poetic sophistications of this first poem is that after nearly fifty lines of high-toned meditation, it modulates into an introduction to the situation in which the book is conceived. The poet is standing at the entrance to Grace Perry’s home in Berrima where he will be a visitor and write many of these poems. The sun that has become an answer to the question of the nature of creativity is a sun actually experienced as “the filtered warmth / through the green laden branches” which can also, in keeping with its double function of light bearer and destroyer, be much more violent:

         then I moved
and felt the oppressive fist of noon
box me about the ears
and drive me giddy indoors.

Even the little flower – a grape-hyacinth – which was pressed into service as a symbol of the sun’s ability to produce something small and beautiful from the soil, is an actual flower seen outside The Magistrate’s House which is the location of these poems.

There are nine “odes” of this sort, turning over notions of the interaction of personality and exterior source of inspiration (between the fourth and fifth of them are an important set of seven biographies of genius which I will look at in more detail later). The fact that Beaver is a visitor on foreign ground casts a distinctive light on the first of these. The third poem imagines a servant seeing in the blossoming of a tree in spring outside a window a symbol of a world going about its own processes far removed from the mundane and imposed task of dusting a desk. The poet as visitor sees the same tree a few days later and speaks of “my servant and my master selves” being blessed again by the tree’s “transforming ritual”. This “two-headed man” becomes part of the menagerie of self in the next poem which – another binary – allows the celebratory quality of the third poem to be balanced by a much bleaker tone as it looks at the darker side of creativity. The metaphor is not the beast selves of Monkey as it is in Letters to Live Poets XII but that sinister bird, the cuckoo:

The cuckoo-poet kicking out the fledglings
and even the parent birds from the convenient
nest in which he prepares for the proving
flight is doing only

what he was made to do. This does not justify
the damnably ruthless doing but explains
what happens to the friends and lovers
unfortunately his. . . .

It’s not only a general statement about the ruthless activities of the artist, the antisocial results of adhering to one’s inner vision, but a specific response to his own situation as guest. The last lines convey something of the state of self-disgust familiar from Letters to Live Poets:

. . . . . 
                   The spring is chill
that drives me to rehearse my two-
note tune of love and death.

And I have come into the decent lives
of loving friends and buffeted with thoughts
their nestlings, taken all the while
the freely proffered food,

to leave upon the generous table-top
a turd or two of anecdote and verse,
the dedication of a book,
pin-feathers for their nest.

This balance of the light and dark sides of creativity is continued in the six and seventh of this group of odes (their actual numbers are XIII and XIV). The former wants to celebrate creativity

. . . . . 
And yet the moving, making act
continues intermittently.
The special seeing and the half-conscious
ordering of words into a chant

that changes consciousness in others -
for good or bad’s the moral catch -
justifies most. . .

and the transformative power is seen in terms a move from winter to spring. There is nothing merely symbolic in this in Beaver’s case: winter brings physical distress in the form of neck pain – “an icy / hypodermic has snapped off in / the tendons of my neck” – a recurring experience which is an important part of the poet’s relation to the world and the subject of “Letters to Live Poets VI”:

Pain, the problem of, not answered
by dogma, orthodox or other-
wise. The only problem being
how to bear with. You may have an
answer ready. I, only the 
long-winded question breaking words
up and down the crooked line,
the graph of pain. Burns got it
in the neck. That’s where it gets me. . . 

The transformation to a world in which “the hour and I are warm again” is intensely felt rather than being a situation with nice, exploitable symbolic possibilities. As I’ve said, the following poem is its dark counterpart. The overriding image is not, this time of the cuckoo but of its arboreal equivalent, the strangler fig. It’s a more complex scenario than would appear on the surface. While the host tree is locked in a battle to the death with its “sinewy matricide”, there is a third element in the bees which are “not overly concerned / at the silent impasse / of tree and predator vine”. They are the bringers of fertility and creativity: “their metier was to fecundate / the living and the dying; / with blossoming / their day begins and ends”.

There is an extreme level of parallel and organisation in the odes section of this book though I have never been entirely sure what the organising principle is. Taking a clue from the continuous “Beaverian” alternation of light and dark and the emphasis, in the Beethoven ode, on the late quartets, I wonder whether Beaver isn’t imagining the structure to have musical parallels since, in the forms of “classical” music, the alternation of major and minor, adagio and allegro, is s crucial factor. With this in mind it’s hard not to see Beethoven’s Opus 131, the great seven-movement quartet, as a possible model for these nine poems. At any rate, the ninth takes a suddenly different tack by interesting itself in the poet’s antecedents. It is set on the late September Jewish festival of Yom Kippur – the day of atonement – and leads to Beaver thinking about the “Jewish eighth” part of his heritage as well as the others of “a motley sum of antecedents; / the Frankensteinian machine // of forebears nondescript and stubborn / to be accorded recognition”. It enables Beaver to think about the relationship between those who are creative and those who aren’t since “the silent ones” are not only part of his genetic history but also those readers who make up his readership. It’s a subject broached in Letters to Live Poets which is, as he says, addressed not only to poets but to a reader of poetry, “a not-impossible creative reader, a live poet in his or her own sense”. Ode XV finishes with a modest assessment – unduly modest to my mind – of Beaver’s own abilities, especially in relationship to the geniuses of the central section:

. . . . . 
Perfection of the life or art’s
a genius’s prerogative;
mere talent has no simple choice.

It manufactures book and babes
because it must. The rest is chance.
Schismatic, average, sensual

the muffled voices of our time
interpret Babel, prophesy
in tongues, and I along with them

in doubt, in all but ignorance
of antecedents and vocation,
put one foot before another,

proffer one hand instinctively
toward the mediators of 
high art, holding my talent close,

interpreting the human scene
in endless ambiguity
with peers as numerous as clerks.

A night and day suffice to judge us -
all guilty, all innocent, because
all complex found before the gods.

Superficially the seven odes devoted to the biographies of genius, slotted in as a sequence in the middle of these poems, looks like an attempt to investigate creativity by looking at case studies, a process that will widen the inquiry by moving it away from the limitations of one poet’s experience. Perhaps the sequence was conceived this way, but there is nothing mechanical about the portraits presented here which I think are among the high points of Beaver’s creative life. Biography, as we know, can take many forms, all of them unsatisfactory. The largest, most scholarly multi-volume work (something like the de La Grange biography of Mahler) still captures only a fragment of even the outer life, let alone the endless complexities of an individual’s subjectivity. At an opposed pole is the “biographical sketch” reducing a life to a minimalist skeleton. A variant of this is what might be called the “poetic biographical sketch” which often involves an intuitive stab at defining the essence of a person and then expressing it in a poetic form which is even shorter than the conventional sketch. It’s a case of poetry’s claiming to be able to say most in least and good examples of it can be found in Auden’s work from the 1930s, especially poems like those devoted to Rimbaud, Houseman (sonnets), Melville and, of course, Yeats. Another poetic way of dealing with biography is in sequences where each poem can take a period in the life, or a feature of the individual’s character, and express it imaginatively. Interestingly both of these kinds of poetic biography occur in Beaver’s treatment of Rilke, one of his favourite, and most influencing poets: there is a single ode in Odes and Days and an extended sequence (twenty-three pages) in the later book, Charmed Lives.

The seven creative geniuses who appear in Odes and Days are, in order, Hölderlin, Beethoven, Brennan, Mahler, Rilke, Delius and Hesse. Although Mahler was born before Brennan, and Delius before Rilke, the ordering is roughly chronological if one looks at their outputs. But it is tempting to look again at the Opus 131 as a structural model since these odes, as they are positioned, alternate language geniuses with musical geniuses. They were something of a shock at the time because they revealed a talent for striking and incisive portraiture that Beaver’s previous five books showed little sign of – it is hardly a signature skill of someone who seemed to oscillate between confessionalism and a fast moving lyricism. Hölderlin’s life, for example, blighted as it was by an early madness which led to him spending the last forty years of his life in the care of a kindly carpenter, begins with “He did grow old and he must have known it” a striking sentence and a striking approach to the experience of madness which Beaver himself must have related to. Rilke’s ode begins “He said the alps were too distracting” before using this to explore the possibility that the great poet of taking things within and making them into poetry (especially in the New Poems – “Nothing / was not sacred: a truncated marble, / a ball on a water-spout, a panther”) found the final sight of the alps too much to absorb. And the poem devoted to Hesse begins with a series of analytical, single stanza propositions about the very genetic inheritance which will recur in Ode XV:

If one’s father is a clergyman
and one is male
one becomes either a canny business-
man, a politico or a writer.

If one is Hermann and loves his father
there is nearly
another saint in the family until
the peculiar daimon asserts itself.

With a grounding in comparative
religion it’s hard
not to revert to pantheism
with a bias to the humanistic.

And there’s nothing so likely to abort
the clerical as
a clerkship in a well-stocked bookshop.
Hermann held one for four years. . . 

There is the shadow of a pattern in these portraits – a striking and incisive opening followed by a quick sketch of the subject’s life seen from the perspective of this opening – but there can be no question of an endlessly repeated trick. The portraits are, in contrast, remarkable for their variety of approach. The Beethoven portrait, for example, whose beginning lines – “Gneixendorf – a name like / the snapping of an axle-tree” – are a quotation from the composer’s letter to Haslinger written to introduce the town where he wrote his final works: the ending of the Opus 130 which would replace the Gross Fugue, and the Opus 135. It is, for the most part a dramatic monologue focussing on the way in which art can be some kind of compensation for domestic woes. But there is a personal element in that you feel that Beaver attributes to Beethoven (probably accurately enough, given the evidence) the same sort of out-of-control disgust and fury which he, himself, suffered at his worst moments. Here Beethoven’s anger is directed towards his sister-in-law, the probably innocent mother of his nephew, Karl:

That canker of menses and venom,
his mother – My ears crack with pressure
so that I almost hear -
almost feel –

her grating mew against 
the farting ground-bass of my brothers.
O friends, not these tones! . . .

The ode’s structure is also not as linear as the other portraits, and reverts to Beaver’s characteristic binaries by contrasting Gneixendorf with Heiligenstadt the village to which twenty-four years earlier Beethoven had retreated, probably with suicide in mind as his deafness became more acute.
Even more distinctive is the ode devoted to Delius. It is seen from the perspective of a shadowy figure, Thomas Ward, who came across Delius in Florida and for a short while taught him compositional techniques, and then pretty much disappeared from history:

. . . . . 
Wards’ time was up by fall. His task
complete, he left the other’s life as easily
as he had entered to work at a church.
No more is ever heard of him. . . 

Narratively this belongs to that tradition where the point of view is of someone who tangentially sees an important historical event. Thematically, I think Beaver’s interest here is in outsiders who make the functions of creativity possible. Sometimes they are teachers, like Ward, at other times patrons, and these latter appear inevitably in his various poems about Rilke, a serial exploiter of well-bred patrons of the arts. Given the setting of this entire book in Grace Perry’s house, there is undoubtedly a glance at his own position and a nod to Perry as, in his case, an enabling friend. At any rate, the theme is of the exploitation of patrons because the poem finishes with another example:

His guest and mentor then is Grieg.
They milk an income from a wealthy uncle
and so begins the maelstrom of
his early making and debauch.

The rest is music. Never such
was heard or will be heard again on earth
as those exquisite harmonies
wrung from mortality and love.

Finally in this survey designed to establish that these poems are all very distinctive productions rather than the extended mining of a stumbled-upon creative seam, there is the ode devoted to Mahler which gives no details about that short and stormy life but which is a recreation of the nightmare, fairy-tale world which Mahler’s music so often draws on.

Perhaps the creative figure with whom Beaver finds himself most connected is Brennan and the portrait begins with an acknowledgement of that poet’s own experience of lauds and plaints by describing his late romance with Violet Singer and her death in a tram accident:

To have come thus far within, without,
an honoured man and slandered, past the middle
way of years, a youth and life’s work past,
to have come upon such love.

The simplest meeting of two oldest friends
who, strangers a month before, became such lovers
that time itself became a twice-told tale:
then, nothing; now, all. . .

Brennan occurs a number of times in Beaver’s work, perhaps most importantly in “Winter Dreaming” from the posthumous volume, The Long Game, where the personal parallels are stressed simply by the fact that, oppressed by weather, Beaver finds Brennan “and his load of ancient night” coming into his mind. He has no illusions about the size of Brennan’s talent – “He was a monster with a minor gift / Rating somewhere between James Thomson and / Dowson, no major talent certainly” – which fits in with Beaver’s tendency to see himself (over-modestly) as possessed of a “little talent” rehearsing “my two- / note tune of love and death.” But he understands Brennan’s position as someone who, having spent “two long magian years” in European culture, returns (as Patrick White would half a century later) to its dry polar opposite:

From Europe to the country he called home,
that olden mother-continent of the South,
the dragon-lover of her haunted children
and art’s ultima thule.

Incredibly he essayed in the brazen
ears of his never-fellow countrymen
the good news of the poets of the silent
music. He was ignored

or ridiculed by the nominally educated.
Even his peers rejected the dense structures
and tortuous order of his celebrations
and lamentations both. . .

But the two years in Europe are paralleled by the two years with Singer, not in contrast as the two villages of Beethoven are, but in consonance.

Beaver’s talent for portraiture is exploited in his later work though the subjects are not usually part of this forensic examination of creativity. Someday someone will look at Beaver’s portraiture in more detail than I can here, but Charmed Lives contains the extended life of Rilke and Poets and Others has the brilliant portrait of Richard Packer which I have quoted in an earlier Rereading, as well as “Poems for Adrienne Rich” which is conceived in the letter mode, much like “Letters to Live Poets I”.

And so to the forty-seven short poems which make up the Days section of Odes and Days. Although they range in length from twelve to twenty-five lines and cover a range of subjects, there is a tonal and structural unity about them: no-one, coming across a few of them at random would have any doubts they are by the same poet. What they share is Beaver’s distinctive energetic, poetic movement. The tendency of the odes to divide into short stanzas embodying a single proposition is replaced by a structure which is always a single stanza and usually contains only a few sentences. Beaver is a master of making a poem power along, driven by its own internal dynamics which include long, remorselessly enjambed sentences. There are also throwaway metaphors which give the impression that they might have been exploited but that the poem had no time. The same could be said for the extended adjectival phrases which obviously point to a desire for accuracy but also suggest that there is no time to find a more syntactically conventional way of stating the same thing. There are also some wonderful, clever, clinching conclusions. Some of these characteristics can be seen in a single poem, No 17, a poem rehearsing one of Beaver’s themes – his extreme sensitivity to seasonal changes:

This first official day of spring,
started with hay-fever and sodden
handkerchiefs, ends with smoky
milky light falling on the hail-
stripped trees, the dented
iron roofs, the benzine-fumed
and oil-stained streets, blinking
back from slivers of the
hail-shattered windows
of the big storm of Sunday
last. Legitimate spring
will smooth out the bruised,
storm-cowed psyches, set
new leaf chirping in flutters
of warm air like green
birds on the stripped
branches. And of course the birds
themselves are preposterously
vocal – poets must be
reincarnating sparrows,
on wings of song and
a little lousy.

The subjects of these poems are the homely and immediate details of life. But since it is a poet’s life, it isn’t exactly the same as that of most other people. There is a good deal of reading (two of the poems talk about the prose of Henry James brilliantly and No 33 is a daunting list of obscure books that Beaver would like to sample) and, of course, a good deal of writing to go along with the usual events of visits, seasons, objects on the writing desk. In this sense these poems complement the odes’ concern with creativity since they document it in its immediate, down-to-earth environment. There are also examples of Beaver in his angry mode. Poem No 40 begins innocently enough as a registering not of the state of the season but of the quality of the air and quickly moves on to be an excoriating and funny attack on the world of car-lovers:

. . . . . 
The place is lousy with machines.
The streets harbour them
like a colony of gigantic cockroaches
feeler to feeler, bumper to bumper.
And if Saturday night rocks
with copulating couples,
Sunday morning sways
with lovers recumbent
under machines, oiling grease
nipples, adjusting fan belts,
feeling with eerily erotic
fingers the goddess’s private parts.
And when some of them die, they die
welded into her, unparted in death,
while the lives of the rest are truncated
obsessed, in rusting thrall, fouling the air.

These homelier poems are distinctive and they are in a mode which grows more common in Beaver’s later books. Some of them do, however, look back to the earlier poems from the Odes section of Odes and Days. There is a portrait of the NZ poet James Baxter which is also an elegy

. . . . .
We never met though I saw him once,
bearded, in unkempt gear, wintry
blue feet in battered sandals, 
a pretty girl with him – St Francis
and the snow lady. . .

and No 19 might well be a combined portrait of Hölderlin, Schiller and Goethe. There are also poems which are essentially letters to other poets – Nos 39 and 42 – recalling the style of Letters to Live Poets rather than that of Odes and Days. But for all these continuities, I think they represent the establishing of a new mode for Beaver’s later work.

Rereadings IV: Richard Packer: Being Out of Order

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1972, 73pp

This “Rereading”, like that of Norman Talbot’s Son of a Female Universe, takes its impetus not from the desire to investigate an entire book so much as to celebrate a much loved poem. In this case it is Richard Packer’s “The American Age” which I first saw in Tom Shapcott’s 1970 anthology Australian Poetry Now and then again, in its more natural habitat as part of a poet’s consistent output, in Being Out of Order, published two years later. I’ve known it, in other words, for just about half a century and I could still, if pressed, quote most of it from memory. Here it is:

In smoky weather Mal and I strolled the south sector,
past the crumbling husks of yesterday’s children,
and the gardeners watering the wasted bulletins
from eyes like squashed bullets.
                           “Mal,” I said. “Mal, old battler,
I’ve noticed a petrol flavour in the fountain,
and only this morning, only this morning, Mal,
a flaming prophet bent like a croquet hoop across
my coffee, while thrushes mourned;
and I emptied a stranger’s blood from my gloves.
I think it’s our time, brother pilgrim,
to summon our creatures, and take an ecstatic trip
somewhere beyond this cruelled horizon.”

Sadness crimped his mouth like a slip of string,
and we paused in a grove of broken flagpoles.
One more monument melted in screams,
and the gardeners shook. “Listen,”
said Mal. “On Mars the trivial sun creeps up
faint as my fingernail. Nothing sings unless
the lonely grains of ice -
their tinny dribble in those bankrupt pockets.
No harvest ripples there, and nothing sings.
                               Louden your transistor. And
pluck away that evergreen ear of yours for angelic trumpets.
Too late, too late for such election.
We have all fallen to living in our feet
and the American age. We must picnic here
on the plastic grass forever, and admire the many skulls.[“]

Face after face died of no rice, as we sat quite broken,
watching Christ shave his armpits for movie dollars,
and munching our TV dinner.
the steely locusts foamed and whined: the gardeners
begged an early shower of paper-clips.
It was true!
                    It was true!
We were parked for good in the American age.

It’s not difficult to sketch in some of its virtues. Not the least is the fact that American domination of Australian popular culture – usually dated as beginning in the postwar period and thus only in its infancy in the early seventies – has grown to be all-dominating in the way the poem suggests to the point where it is unravellable. We really are stuck though the locus of power has changed from Hollywood and Washington to Silicon Valley. More important in the poetic dimension is the way in which the surreal imaginative leaps match the fact that American culture has always been a home for the wilder reaches of the apocalyptic world view. This view, invented by Jewish writers more than two millennia ago to explain what their god was doing in allowing a series of other empires to trample over his covenanted people, has a well-established place in the “religions of the book” (intriguingly “The American Age” was translated and included in Dimitris Tsaloumas’ anthology of Australian poetry in Greek. You feel that it may have made a lot of sense in the poetic culture of that country). “The American Age” is, to summarise, a poem of contemporary comment that creates a style which embodies the situation – odd happenings in the pre-apocalyptic phase matched with personal impasse – that it wants to talk about.

Reading the rest of Packer’s work, one wants to say, initially, that this is an unusual poem for him. There is certainly nothing else stylistically like it in his three books of poems and his condemnations of contemporary life never, as far as I can recall, specifically blame it on the impositions of an alien culture; the villains are much closer to home. But it does fit neatly into the arc of his obsessions.

Packer’s output is hardly voluminous. There are three books of poetry and a stand-alone verse radio play, The Powerhouse, over a period of twenty-two years. But two of the books of poetry themselves include radio plays (assuming the twenty-two part “The Great Food Animal” from Serpentine Futures is a radio play rather than an extended suite of poems designed for radio performance) and this, by my counting, leaves a total of eighty-seven poems. And “The American Age”, coincidentally no doubt, appears exactly in the middle and so, though other poems don’t mimic its surreal flights, it does have a thematic centrality. And this isn’t in blaming imported American culture for the woes of the world but in describing a state in which there is no escape. In fact the arc of Packer’s three books of poetry – Prince of the Plague Country, Being Out of Order and Serpentine Futures – could be said to move from struggles to escape a bad world to explorations of possibilities of flight. It’s no accident that the first poem of Serpentine Futures – a complex piece with something of the grotesque imaginative intensity of “The American Age” – is called “The History of Flight”, the final word appearing, of course, in its two meanings of, first, taking off into a higher plane and, second, shamefully attempting to escape.

In general, in Packer’s poetry, there is a fury with the world – mercantile, military and soulless – which is matched by a fury with himself and his inability to escape or transcend or rectify that world. He is a being out of order in a plague country. There is a dynamic balance here which serves the poetry well. As I’ve said before on this site, Australian readers are likely to be wary of traditional satire – the ridiculing of contemporary vices and foibles – because it implies a stance of superiority on the part of the poet, something that infringes our sense of egalitarianism. Packer’s gaze is just as hostile when directed towards himself as it is when directed at the world – though for different reasons. He rarely castigates himself for being complicit with the mercantile world that he writes so much about, but castigates himself for being unable to move beyond it. As with Rimbaud, the alchemical, transformational power of art fails and leaves nothing more than an experience of a season in hell.

At lot of this can be seen in the first poem of the first book, “Prelude”, where a saxophone is heard playing in what can be recognised as a fairly standard allegorical depiction of the world as being made up of a prison – for all those implicated as victims or oppressors – and a set of equally imprisoning, loveless relationships for those who are, ostensibly, free:

. . . . . 
     It called against the windows
to husbands fuddled by their spawning debts,
     to odourless, lacquered wives,
urging them dance beneath the bruised sky
     with the jailbirds, their fellows,
for dead Orpheus, whose gay flesh they’d ripped
     for sandwiches on desks,
     and whose sweet blood they’d thieved
to guzzle from thermos flasks inside
     air-conditioned crypts.

     No-one became Eurydice
for that pain serenading from the slum
     built even in the tallest mind.
The tough wall stood. The townfolk drowsed
     on their pillows of nonentity.
I cried in my turn for a millennium
     beyond the sleep of flesh,
     for a faithful torch to lead
my soul’s long exile to its bride
     and faultless home.

Yes, it’s all a bit overwrought but it should be remembered that it’s an early poem from a long time ago. But it is, interestingly, about the way art stands apart from contemporary life and also about the way in which it fails. The melody (the song of the dismembered Orpheus) wants to transform the world by summoning it to a millennium in which lions lie down with lambs or, as the second stanza says, “warders would tear off their uniforms / and their bought importance / as prisoners clasped each other / each forgiving his brothers’ fall / and the long arm”. And at the end there is a return to the fantasy of the apocalypse which will introduce a millennium in which the soul is reunited with its bride – Orpheus, through his creativity, is reunited with Eurydice. Significantly for an essay involving “The American Age”, the book’s second poem is called “No Way Out”. This poem is an extended attack on the self, though there is an element of blaming external matters in it. Wanting to “ditch / the carcass of my life”, the speaker goes over the features of that life. Religions (and Packer has a developed interest in a broad variety of religions) fail him: “I’ve found no creed to be / the needed trainer for / the squabbling, lusting snouts / in my menagerie” as do the attractions of a socialised state which has “a master plan / to make all brothers” yet “can only fill your guts”. Ultimately the three possible releases that the poem deals with – “girls, states or prophets” – fail the task of finding “a cure / for being my disease”. Another poem, “Warning to the Rider”, provides a new perspective on this characteristic impasse by suggesting the image of a remorseless Hindu cycle of rebirth: “Rider of the poisoned wheel, / remember when your breath retreats / you must accept each cell again” and this odd conjunction of a Jewish apocalyptic sense with the Law of Karma seems to be the seed behind “Reborn Babylon” where the modern urban world, so much a source of loathing to Packer, is a modern version of ancient Babylon – not the real Babylon of course, but the symbolic Babylon of apocalyptic texts:

. . . . . 
For Babylon fallen as the seed
of yet another Babylon,
with only darkness in between,
is something you have always known.

And finally, added to this odd mix is a dash of Kabbalah. “The Night After Wormwood” is an extended dialogue between Everyman, the last survivor of mankind after a comet strike (the star, Wormwood, of the “Book of Revelation”), and the idealised figure of Adam Kadmon. Everyman takes on himself the guilt of allowing the world to become a soulless place:

. . . . . 
I now confess that I
unleashed the judgement hail
by sitting deaf and small,
and was the criminal
cursed by those dying lips. . .

And the poem finishes with Adam Kadmon invoking cycles of rebirth: “Sleep now, and wait the wheel’s next spin. / It is my peace in which you drown”.

Prince of the Plague Country has a couple of features then that save it from being nothing more than a grumpy poet’s assault on the obvious faults of his community. There is the odd synthesis of religious/philosophical interests for a start but, above all, you get a sense of poems motivated by a profound irritation directed both outwardly and inwardly. Irritation seems to be the trigger that wakes up Packer’s muse and, if the poems are angry and condemnatory, they still seem to derive from internal irritations. Packer began as a New Zealand poet – this first book was published there – and by the time of Being Out of Order had moved to Australia (interestingly his third book was published while he was living in England, thus making a nicely patterned triptych). Being Out of Order is a far superior book though it is based on the same irritations and frustrations. Whereas Prince of the Plague Country began with a poem about the inadequacy of poetry in a blighted environment, Being Out of Order begins with “Madam” a piece from White Goddess-land in which women – or Woman – has the double role of seducer/lover and destroyer. It’s a fitting introduction since the poems of this book do tend to focus on the infinite complexities of the relations between the sexes. And the dominant mode is dramatic monologue from a carefully chosen, oblique perspective. And so, for example, the Pygmalion/Galatea story is seen from the perspective of Pygmalion’s vulgar (ans invented) agent. And the story is given a deliberately bleak twist – the intensity of Galatea’s love kills Pygmalion and she ends up being shipped off as makeweight in a deal with a Cretan trader. Like all good oblique dramatic monologues we look into a complex and important situation – here about the idea that men fall in love with an idealised image rather than a real woman with bad results for both – through a not especially insightful or sympathetic narrator. One of the best, and funniest, of them is “The Wrong Beach” in which a naked, Venus Anadyomene kind of character, complete with shell, appears off the coast of some bleak northern beach:

. . . . . 
Our king was there before us. His iron toes awash,
he leaned that lonely, willed asperity of his
upon the pommel of his sword. The constant mountain wind
changed spray to diamonds in his steely beard.
“Get back,” he shouted, while we set our useless mutters
at him, moths at armour. “Get back, you warming slut.
This is no beach for you. Go south at once, Go south.”

She turned her peachy breasts away, and south she went
without complaint . . .

The poem finishes with the narrator – a minor figure in the king’s comitatus – being sensitive to what this rejection costs:

Not that I blame him too hard, since he is our leader
who brought us here for saving by rough elements,
and dines himself off granite as his law requires.
There’s time enough, he says, for chasing nymphs in heaven,
when we’ve proven heat can’t steam away our wills.
This rings fair enough: and if he stared too sadly on
that dimpled backside, well – it helps to know he too is human.

Though it might at one level be about men’s devotion to various causes and the way these require a controlling of normal sensual instincts (in other words the kind of processes required by, say, monasticism) it is also about the comic cultural differences between North and South. The thought of a Botticelli goddess being stared at by people used to, say, the abstracted interlaced art of medieval Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians paints a very funny picture.

The last poems of Being Out of Order contain what are for Packer comparatively positive impulses if we interpret positive to mean seeing glimpses of how the frustrating impasse of the situation focussed on in the early work can be escaped – how we can release the parking brake of “The American Age”. “Where One Goes From Here” returns in its setting to the poems of Prince of the Plague Country: life is imagined to be a prison in which one is at the mercy of the warders. The speaker provides a list of pieces of advice to those wanting to plan their escape and these suggestions have as their common theme deceit and subterfuge. One should, for example, always speak loudly “of your intent / to seek a nectared atoll in some warmer sea” because the guards will be working on the assumption “that talkers never try the wall”. One should “endure the fists of discipline, insisting only that / your punishment’s by regulations not by whim” and you should “avoid heroics. No successful saboteur / leaped openly at throats”. Eventually when the guards have been “mirrored . . . / into the sleep of trust”, you can make your escape:

                                 Good luck, then.
Exercise the muscles of your faith
by studying the messages of those who’ve fled
before you, and now drink from individual springs.
They are brothers by consent
                                                    and more than kin to you.
Strangling one’s own hope’s the deepest danger;
the hope of fruitful islands where the heart is free.

“Rocks” is a celebration of those ordinary stones that can be said to be in order rather than out of it – “They are being what they ought / and where. // Which is more than can be said for humans, / who seem always to be nipping / each other’s rumps” – and they serve as symbols not of a desired transcendence but rather as seeds of what just possibly might produce some future blossoming:

. . . . .
What I see most to be envied in rocks is
the cool with which they make walls for us,
keeping us from the chirpy neighbour
and other beasts
                             while knowing all the time
they enclose the green shoot of a future  
that will dismiss us
                                   like the pterodactyl.
Rocks are truly the eggs of our impossible,
this being why we are driven to employ them
as bodies for cathedrals
                                           and gods.
They hold the voices of the sweeter unborn
we sense
                 and work to elevate them so
they may plead for us
                                        at altars we’re denied.

This of course looks to a long term future but the next poem, “Good Mornings”, is about the immediate present and its very occasional felicities that reside inside us “warming like your seed”. And the final poem, “Homecoming”, is a kind of elegy in what is, for Packer, a decidedly rhapsodic mode. It’s core concept is to identify the freed state, the “fruitful islands” dreamed of in “Where One Goes From Here” (which precedes it in the book), not as an imaginary place to be discovered but as a home always carried within:

There will be a homecoming. There will.
       Our cavern is not forever.
Roar of sunlight on the naked eye,
the snapped chain, the dance,
the unexpected bride and the absolute honey
in the restored garden,
these will be yours, will be mine, and together.

. . . . . 
The green 
shoot will break the rock. It will flower;
our tombs of loss will shatter,
and there will be a homecoming.
There will.
               There will.
                                  There will.

It’s not a positive vision that Packer invokes very often. It balances the sense of being mired in social and personal failure that dominates the poems of the first book but, as always with poems of assertion, a reader is never sure how much it is a triumphant achievement and how much it is the putting on of a brave and hopeful face, a result of an “evergreen ear . . . for angelic trumpets”. While Packer’s final book, Serpentine Futures (published with his Christian name altered to Lewis) is a bit beyond the ambit of this review it might be worth pointing out that if we treat the long sequence “The Great Food Animal” as a radio piece, like “The Uncommercial Traveller” which concludes Being Out of Order, then the last poems in Packer’s last book concern a visit to Auschwitz. Packer’s own comment on the book’s cover says:

. . . concentration camp facts always downwardly transcend creative values. It is probably impossible to write a successful poem about the holocaust, or any other apocalypse for that matter. One tries to fail as honourably as one can.

Packer died in 1989, three years after the publication of Serpentine Futures, at the age of fifty-four. His intense, irritated poetry which seemed to be derived from a dissatisfaction with himself as much as with the wider world was matched by his personality: he was notoriously quarrelsome. Bruce Beaver, who shared New Zealand origins with Packer, and was a good long-term friend, wrote a poem about him after his death:

Dear man, like me you were quite awful while you lived.
But then, we were half-dead for most of the time
and in these times of semi-thanatopsis we came closer
to life than most of those we knew; the partly-living
who did not acknowledge death in any of its varied
manifestations, a friend to some, a friendly enemy
to all, my alter-ego, your conscious shadow self,
certainly no stranger.

. . . . .
the big white bird took you away beyond all day-
and night-life once upon a last time of an apocalyptic
hyper-tensive seizure when your heart couldn’t cope
any longer with your already out-dated
attempt at a new self, half a new name, skinhead hairdo
or the like, leather gear and an improbable
turnover of new words minted too late in your last days. . .