Petra White: That Galloping Horse

Swindon, UK: Shearsman, 2024, 73pp.

Rereading Petra White’s poetry since her first book, The Incoming Tide of 2007, it’s hard not to feel that the main task she faces in her poetry has been to find ways of getting her life into it. Nothing unusual about that, of course, but you get a sense in her work of life as a continuously developing experience plotted against, and in tension with, the unchangeable matters of temperament and childhood background. And the developing life develops at quite a speed so that in the poems of this new book, That Galloping Horse, we find her in Germany, married and with a growing daughter living through the Covid experience. Some of the themes are consistent: she writes brilliantly about office work (the title of this new book is a metaphor for that sort of work) and sensitively about her unusual childhood in Adelaide. What her career so far shows is a desire to get crucial material into forms that will work well poetically. Is office life dealt with best in a multi-part, multi-perspective sequence as it is in “Southbank” from The Incoming Tide or is it best dealt with metaphorically and allusively? Does the life-changing experience of travelling across the Nullarbor as part of a kind of hippie convoy work best as a narrative sequence – and so on?

As the books progress they seem to be trying out new modes and a number of these in That Galloping Horse can be traced back to her earlier books. One of these modes, for example, could be described as a small group of poems exploring a particular mythical situation, seeing, perhaps, to what extent it is fit for purpose as a site to explore contemporary experience. There are three poems in the ironically titled Reading for a Quiet Morning of 2017 which look at the Oedipus myth. Although, superficially, these poems look like a rehearsal of the familiar trope of inverting an ancient myth in the light of contemporary platitudes – here Oedipus is a “squat, young, bald” man who runs off “squawking with glee” when he solves the riddle, and Jocasta is a woman for whom “things happened to me, // I did not make anything happen” – I think there is rather more to them than this. In other words, one looks not for contemporary platitudes but for White’s distinctive and intense personal experiences to be underlying the poems. You can certainly find the issue of depression – a major theme in White’s personal poems – in these three poems. Each deals with a character on the edge of death – the first poem, “The Lovely Sphinx”, concludes with the sphinx contemplating asking Death itself her riddle as he comes to escort her to the cliff over which she will suicide. And the blinded Oedipus, shuffling along on his way to meet the mothers at Colonus (if we accept Sophocles’ version) meditates on the way in which his path into the future is also a path into his past. Each of the three characters also locates death in a +character: for the Sphinx it is a man “with eyes of tedious fire”, for Oedipus it is the seer Tiresias, “a quiet man in a quiet room / wearing necklaces of fates” and for Jocasta, endlessly contemplating her future suicide, it is Time, moving from an abstraction into an embodied character:

. . . . . 
I make the tiny dark stars inside me scatter.
Days and days to exist
only time kills me now.
Time, my guest,
I make nothing happen and it happens.

In Cities, her next book, there are five poems devoted to the Demeter/Persephone myth although the last of them, “Persephone at 40”, is an eleven poem sequence. The initial connection with the poet’s own history is very clear here: these are poems about motherhood – very much a theme in this book and That Galloping Horse. In a sense, Demeter’s loss is an expression of any mother’s fears of losing a child and these are raised or expressed to the highest possible pitch, to the point where the simple humans who suffer from Demeter’s search for her child can see her as psychotic: “She lives through her daughter! / She is depressed! A monster!” But it is also about the future loss present in all parenting, for a time will come when the child abandons his or her parent to become a functioning adult – “what you love you must lose”. But the Demeter poems are also, like the Oedipus poems, about death and the dead. “Persephone at 40” takes the opportunity to move away from an investigation of mothering to an investigation of the dead and their role among the living. There’s a reason why Persephone becomes the queen of the dead.

The three poems in this mode in That Galloping Horse are “Zeus on a Weekday”, “Leda” and “Daphne”. All are, in a way, poems about divine-human intercourse but it isn’t the issue which is stressed. “Leda” recalls the Demeter poems since it isn’t the rape that Leda concentrates on but the twins she will eventually bear. They will be half-divine, half-human and so motherhood will, for her, be a tricky issue:

. . . . . 
And what would I see when I looked at them,
children bathed in my blood.
How could I love them, how could I not,
half and wholly mine, brimming
with the sun, its coldness.

“Zeus on a Weekday” and “Daphne”, though concerned with the human/non-human distinction, are also about time. It’s stressed in the Zeus poem – and in its slightly comical title – because the poem is structured around the cycle of a single day, describing Zeus’s activities in the morning, noon, afternoon, evening and night. To be sure, the material of the poem is based on the god’s awkward interactions with ordinary small humans (much as Demeter’s was) but the poem stresses the way in which time-constrained mortals experience pleasures. For them it is not a matter of an expression of their inner drives as it is for Zeus,

Morning and the father is out fathering.
The verb thrills him, fathering, engendering,
something beyond himself, meaning nothing.
His odour the same whatever form he assumes - 
the sweat of a bricklayer in a bristle of feathers. . . 

but rather a matter of momentary unexpected pleasures torn from the teeth of time,

. . . . . 
He bears down on them, who think they find themselves
in the flower-pink breath of time, in the sweetness
before a moment is lost, when an infant blushes
and screams into the world. . .

Daphne, in the last of these three poems, is, on becoming a tree (a peculiar way in which a life can “develop”) someone who is outside of time: she must live forever, watching how both mortals and gods live their lives. This is described as “snap-freezing in their own stories” and leaves Daphne with the comment that her story is “not a love story, something else”. This issue of narratives, stories, as a way of expressing the development component of life is something of an overt theme in White’s recent work and it’s no accident that the poem that follows “Daphne” in That Galloping Horse is “Somerset”, a poem entirely about how two women, rambling in the English countryside have no story to tell, that is until they enter a pub: “We follow each other / up steep hills, almost make it to pure emptiness, / but there it is, surfacing at the pub, that stubborn story”.

Another poetic mode in That Galloping Horse is that of the Journal-poem. I think it’s a more promising mode for White’s poetry than mythic revisitings but that isn’t really anything more than a personal prejudice on my part. It can be said, though, that the journal model allows for an interaction between life as lived in the present, in a specific, immediate place on the one hand and on the other the themes that constantly run through the poet’s mind: motherhood, her own younger life in Australia, the dead. The mode first appears in Cities where there are three poems named according to the months in which they occur. There is also a later poem, “Home”, which is dated as though it were a journal poem but is dedicated to the theme of home and so derives a thematic unity from that in a way which is rather out of keeping with the variousness possible in the journal mode.

Something similar happens in That Galloping Horse because its four journal poems are preceded by “Melbourne” which is dated (London, July 2020 – Berlin, July 2021) and thus looks like a journal poem but, like “Home” from the previous volume, is a reasonably conventional poem with a specific theme. It’s an imagined revisiting of Melbourne, separated from the northern hemisphere by season, and like the north, undergoing the rigours of Covid:

. . . . . 
The city boarded up, airports closed
to citizens, my friends indoors.
I know the cold crisp magnolia must be opening white petals,
wattle bursting along roads into the city,
where few will travel.

Unpeopled trams squeaking through streets brushed clean,
city that forgets me as it moves snake-like through time.
Twenty years ago I arrived there -
as a bee arrives on a camellia,
with a suitcase full of poems
like wisps of smoke but heavier. . .

The four journal poems have a powerful way of responding to the immediate – “In the Spielplatz, children running in circles / their gentle pregnant mothers / lunging after them, life after life” – and, in other sections, allowing the mind to dwell on familiar themes so that a new life in Berlin begins a section devoted to White’s own childhood of “bare feet burning on South Australian summer grass” and the antiquities in the Pergamon museum lead to the familiar theme of dead loved ones – “Our candles for the dead, diminishing eternally / the bright burn of our love . . .”.

The journal mode is marked by elision and juxtaposition. A poem might have several sections, incomplete in themselves and butted against others so that it approaches a collection of fragments meaningfully arranged and framed by a single location and a single time. Very different is the third of the modes that I want to look at, a mode appearing for the first time in this book and occupying nearly a third of it: the elegy.

Having pontificated at some length in my last review about the classical elegy, I don’t want to locate these thirteen poems that form the last part of That Galloping Horse too precisely in the history of the elegy in its decline from Latin poem of passions to churchyard laments for the dead but I will say that these are elegies in the mode that we associate with Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Paradoxically, they are, in the early ones at least, very much about the dead and they give White a chance to work at themes of childhood, parental loss and parenting which are a major part of her thematic material. What marks them out as having Rilke as a model is not so much subject matter as tone: those long winding sentences in which the poetic voice seems to have an arm around our shoulders as it leads us intimately through complex meditations, always assuming that we understand and agree. Take the opening of the second poem:

They come to us of their own accord, the dead,
tame as horses. We can tell them anything,
our tiny pressed details private as the inch of a closed eye,
we tell them everything, we hear them whisper, as if to us,
as if to themselves, and their own ancestors. . .

Of course, this poem goes on to note that we, the living, soon become the dead, experiencing the same processes that the previous dead generations have undergone:

. . . . . 
in the light we see ourselves falling into, when the living let go of us -
our corpses chopped to bits by their wild memories,
nobody able to remember us quite as we were,
whatever we were, it slips our minds
that we will not remember ourselves,
we may not enter the emptiness that we will become,
cannot get close to it, it is not the pit of stars, nor the faded blue
of three p.m. in the office, nor the gathering clouds to a cliff top
where we plant our certain feet, our Furies waiting in the background -
what we look for is the life remaining, touching us like a kiss. . . 

One of the central images here is of the childhood home – “the brittle green house that held us” – having been demolished and this ties in with earlier poems by White which are about her childhood and her siblings. But these elegies quickly leave meditations about loss and death to try to deal with the present, a present infected by Covid and the whole experience of working from home. The seventh elegy is a quite brilliant evocation of this experience – Zoom conferences that mean that outsiders mix with domestic detritus – finishing with a striking and unexpected image for the experience of being someone whose work is right next to their domestic life:

. . . . . 
In the pitch of night we kip like the Greeks at Troy,
their fraying tents home, the horse-handlers, charioteers
sleeping a thumb’s distance from their work - 
the soul, preparing to climb again,
well beyond the sun’s little stretch.
O hands that ably twist and grasp, minds
fleet as ships, willing as Achilles to die in pure process.

I think that this sequence is the strongest thing in the book although some readers might say that this mode is really an imitation. It will be interesting to see if it persists in White’s future books. If it does, it will indicate that, like the journal mode, it is something that enables her to deal with her material in a satisfying way.

That Galloping Horse also contains a cryptic sequence, “The Mirror”, which perhaps is based on Father-daughter experience but might well be about God-angel relationships, and another narrative sequence, “The Chorus”, in which life is imagined as a journey in an old car with Death as a hitchhiking companion and thus deals with life as burdened by depression – another of the recurrent themes that White deals with in different ways. And there are sixteen “conventional” poems, conventional in they don’t essay modes that aren’t familiar from White’s early work. Many of these deal with the complex experience of depression mapped across events like marriage and parenting. The emotional inner life is intense, especially as it balances lows and highs:

. . . . . 
            Sorrow to gladness and the
maddening in-between
where things get done, or vanish, where minds
prone to evenness shovel shit,
pave roads of solemnity between neurons. . .

The first poem, “Passing Through Chicago”, is about an angel (I assume it’s a statue somewhere in the city) and speculates as to whether it is a transfigured person – “If we think we could be rescued / from the fate we’ve shored up, / it is not an angel, it’s a person, rising out of flames” – or an actual member of the divine court, fallen to earth. It adds a certain shape to the whole book because angels are a major feature of the Duino Elegies whose elegiac mode forms the last part of the book. It even asks a question, Rilke-style, “What good is an angel now?”

Two of these poems, “Beauty” and “My Daughter in the Park”, essay an unusual minimalist six-line lyricism that recalls oriental poetry. I’m taken by these, especially “Beauty”:

Between dreading and desiring sleep,
which ends the day, brings the day,
a woman undressing in lamplight

hastily, flimsily, tripping in her knickers.
O beauty! In the springing seconds,
luminously and suddenly herself.

I don’t think though, that this is a mode which will offer much for White in the future. It needs too much contextual material since White’s inner life is a distinctive one – classic Chinese and Japanese poetry operated within established and familiar situations. In That Galloping Horse it works brilliantly because the surrounding poems establish that context and maybe something similar can be done structurally in future work so that a poetry of brief flashes encapsulates part of the complex world that makes up White’s poetry.

Petra White: Cities

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2021, 64pp.

Petra White’s Cities is a slim book by current standards but it is a dense one and there is a lot to be said for connecting it to its predecessor, Reading for a Quiet Morning. Both, for instance, begin by broaching crucial themes in the form of a revisiting and reconstruction of an existing myth. In Reading for a Quiet Morning the myth revisited was Ezekiel’s strange visions “at the edge of the Chebar” during the Babylonian exile. In Cities it is the old Greek story of Demeter and her lost daughter, Persephone. Taking an even longer perspective we can see that White has often employed sequences to work away at a theme and often these sequences are comprised of quite different poems. What strikes me about “How the Temple was Built” – the long sequence based around Ezekiel – and “Demeter”, is the way they each seem bifurcated, able to develop in two different directions.

“How the Temple was Built”, for example, begins as a kind of exploration of the relationship between artist and prophet. Its impetus is Blakean, I think, involving the notion that a “perception of the infinite” is the beginning of all inspiration, poetic as well as prophetic. God is thus a voice within Ezekiel whose promptings take us towards ideas like inspiration. But from early on the poems leave Ezekiel behind to focus on his dead wife (here given the name, Esther) who, becoming an angel, is able to be a part of the history of the fall and thus the human race’s entry into the real world. She’s a female principle and an angel of expansion – an issue not, of course, separate from notions of human creativity. The sequence finishes by returning to Ezekiel, and also the last chapters of his prophetic book, to describe the mad details given for the construction of the heavenly temple in a new Jerusalem. It’s a long sequence – nearly book length – and it takes several readings for an outsider like myself to feel at all at home in it, but I think, in retrospect, that it’s quite a major achievement, even if I can only give a sketchy account of it here.

The Demeter poems at the beginning of Cities share, as I’ve said, this thematic bifurcation. Demeter is the ultimate mother – willingly or forcedly plunging the earth into perpetual winter in search of her daughter – and thus a focus for a whole thematic area of motherhood. But motherhood isn’t just a one-directional expression of love from mother to child, it is also the looking back of an adult child at their mother: that is, it enters the rich world of family, genetics and upbringing that many poets have exploited. The last of the Demeter poems is a longish sequence called “Persephone at 40” whose very title makes the point. And the second series of the book, “In Front of the Sea”, concerns itself with White’s mother, seen both in memories and photographs. The question the sequence asks is an obvious one, “Now I’m a mother myself, how do I reinterpret my relationship with my own mother?” and this is pretty much the same issue that Persephone encounters as she crosses into early middle age. In “Chicken Shop”, looking at a photo of her mother holding her as a baby, she says that “her long future wriggles its gills in my blood” and in “To My Mother’s Ghost” she sees her mother as a kind of revenant, perhaps coming to tell her how much she loved her, an experience which the poet’s recent motherhood makes possible. It’s a sequence in which what to an outsider is a comparatively clear-cut if powerful experience is seen as intensely complex with the author positioning herself as both a Demeter and a Persephone. It’s also a sequence in which the sea appears as an image of psychic instability – something that will occupy the last poem of the entire book. After the sequence of poems about her mother is a single poem, “For My Daughter Ten Weeks Old”. In a sense this is an elegant, almost old-fashioned, high-toned lyric of address (one wouldn’t have been surprised if it had rhymed, for example) but it’s opening line, “Stay afloat, in your wobbling pea-green boat”, prepares us for the final poem of the book which will deploy the Odysseus myth and also use the sea as a symbol of unsteadiness.

It would be impossible to underestimate the significance of motherhood in this book and I’m not going to try, but one of the features of the Demeter poems (as it was of “How the Temple Was Built”) is White’s interest and response to the humans who enter the poems either as inhabitants of the city in the latter or as the dead and potentially dead in the former. It’s an area where the allegorical possibilities of the myths are rather cut off: we know that the author is, on the one hand, Ezekiel and Esther, and, on the other, Demeter and Persephone and a lot of the bifurcated pleasure of poems like this is that they hover between mythic recreation and disguised personal “confession”. But if the humans of the sequences are of a separate order to the divine figures then the second of these is rather supressed. It’s a technical issue that I have met before and I haven’t explained it very clearly here, but my real interest is the way in which the poems come alive when they deal with a divine figure responding to the small creatures that make up the human race. We can see it in “The Corn” where Demeter, knowing that the mother-love of ordinary mortals cannot match hers, is nevertheless sympathetic towards their suffering while she is wreaking havoc:

. . . . . 
That love that slugs a goddess -
they can barely stand their own little cupfuls of it
ripping their hearts.
Those cottages littered with rancid grain, poor bodies
in the fields . . .
. . . . . 
How I once adored the golden mornings when the tufty
harvests fell into being from my hands,
and the slumbering black world
came to at a tick from me.
And all the people were fed and happy
as zebras without predators . . .

It’s a moment of re-evaluation from a new perspective and one’s reminded of the great moment in Paradiso where Dante, near “the final blessedness”, looks back down on the earth that he had a few days previously been living (and fighting) in, calling it “that little threshing-floor” – though Dante’s attitude to the people of this floor would be a lot more dismissive than it is in these two books. “How the Temple was Built” itself begins with a loving description of the small folk who inhabit and construct their city:

     In the frail city that burns from within
and all along its distances
people organise into families,
make more of themselves,
bedeck sadnesses, build houses,
a town, a king and queen, princes,
footpaths and passageways, hiding places,
make weapons, listen for war,
violate, love, murder, ground themselves
in the concept of home, cultivate
adorable individual souls, speak of forever
and ever and believe
they have time . . .

And later describes,

    This peculiar town, it swarms in itself, with its handmade gods
vivid as puppets held up to the burning sun,
its superstitions rooted as fact, nourishing itself
with industries of fear and fate, its clever canopy
that turns the voice of God
into a howl of the wind, a skittering of something in grasses . . .

and so on. Perspective is what matters and one of the problems of beginning with the infinite (or the nearly-infinite in the case of the God in Job) is that it’s a very long leap to the ordinarily human. But there’s a verve in the poetry that deals with the ant-like humans that leads me to think that the impulse behind these poems is fundamentally humanist.

Nothing could be closer to the scurrying humans of “How the Temple was Built” or the suffering ones of “Corn” than the poems in the last half of Cities which are – at least roughly – travel-diary poems. We follow White as she follows her partner from Australia (its “delicate orange-blush / tracery they call ‘the Outback’” seen from the passenger seat of the plane) to London and then Berlin. Although they are built on a continuous series of observations – as travel poems tend to be – they are complex pieces in themselves, partly because of the interactions of the themes which run through them. Sometimes they are “mother” poems – there is something symbolically satisfying about the way the baby is virtually a newborn on the initial flight so that newness of place and life are combined – sometimes they gravitate around issues of love and marriage and sometimes they just make acute comments about the new environment so that in a London square, “The homeless man’s camp is gone / hoovered up with the efficiency it lacked” and in the flat geography of Berlin “A siren lifts above all else, two notes / played maniacally, / this emergency / hurtling into the arms of the city”.

But underlying these poems are both psychological sensitivities and mythical structures. The beginning of the first of them “To London”, which describes the departure, describes Australia seen from above, as I have said, and immediately moves to a memory of the past:

There I ran with the hippies,
free as a stray dog, dole forms
signed with an eagle feather.

For readers who are arriving at White’s work for the first time this will seem an odd reminiscence to drop in but those who have followed her writing will see it as a recurrent item. It appears first (I think) in a longish sequence from her first book, The Incoming Tide. It is called “Highway” and, though the poems and their approach vary – as they do in all of her sequences – it covers this trip with “hippies” across the Nullarbor towards a nirvana in the east. And references to it occur so regularly in White’s poems that its significance as a journey undertaken during a bad period of aimlessness and psychological lowness slowly impresses itself on the reader. It becomes rather less of a young adult’s madcap adventure and more an experience which embodies psychic dis-ease, recalling, for example, those references to his experiences as a child working in a blacking factory which occur in almost all of Dickens’s novels.

The final poem of Cities is set in London in July of 2020. It is carefully called “Home” and thus balances “To London”, the first of these travel-poems. But it also balances the opening of the entire book in its deployment of myth. Whereas the beginning sequence was based around Demeter and Persephone, “Home” is built around the myth of Odysseus and Penelope, the great myth of homecoming – after, in the case of Odysseus, time not only spent at sea but also in the Underworld ruled by Persephone. Given that White’s poetry tends to be centred around dis-ease, depression, awkward relationships with her mother, with her own past, and even with her co-workers during a long spell in the public service, “Home” is a remarkably upbeat poem, beginning with an image of equilibrium. It finishes with an image of Odysseus “sat among his people, his son” settling “a little heavier into the earth”. This stability replaces his voyaging mode which is a symbol of an unsteady life, a life where one’s legs are “wobbling and rippling” and where it is always possible that the boat might sink, just as it was always possible in the opening of the earlier “To London” that the “perilous” plane, might fall out of the sky.

Before this conclusion, though, is a stanza which summarises the experience of not feeling stable or steady:

In the otherwise empty Trafalgar Square, the homeless men
for whom the city is neither inside nor outside,
stale home on cobblestones, a wandering sense,
stand up, sit down, roam back and forth, sidle into
the blue July sky.
Twenty years ago, on the Nullarbor Plain
I walked, or knelt,
enveloped in the hygiene of space.
My fragile brain set like a flower in the desert,
thoughts flew, none could be caught,
believing only in a fizzing distance
in which my gaze could dissolve,
naked in the desert air, shitting in soft holes,
desperately becoming,
this wild source . . .

It’s no surprise that the “hippie” pilgrimage should turn up here as a symbol of a lack of a sense of stability and steadiness. Those who know their Odyssey well will know that during his visit to the Underworld, Odysseus is told by Tiresias that after he returns to Ithaka and Penelope he must placate the god Poseidon who has been the cause of his traumas. And the way to do this will be to voyage not on the sea but inland carrying an oar on his shoulder. When he arrives at a place where people are so ignorant of the unstable sea that they ask him why he is carrying a winnowing fan over his shoulder, he can make propitiatory sacrifices and then return to his home and a tranquil old age. Everyone has a different way of overcoming a psychological (and physical) lack of stability.