Graeme Miles: Infernal Topographies

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2020, 95pp.

In a poetic culture where individual poems often seem to be cut from slabs of discourse spun out from a recognisable set of obsessions, Graeme Miles’s poems stand out as having a strong individual integrity. They are poems (this is his third book after Phosphorescence and Recurrence) which, in other words, you have to live inside a bit before they begin to suggest their power. The “recognisable set of obsessions” is there but because each poem tries to be a free-standing event, it might be better to call them interests. It does pose a problem for a reviewer since the default approach is usually to search out underlying themes. I’ll be doing this in the case of the poems from Infernal Topographies but at the back of my mind is always the knowledge that the best approach to poems like this (as in the case of the poems of Peter Porter, say) would be to look at a few in detail and comment fairly obliquely on their shared themes. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a good or readable review for readers looking for some overall sense of what a book is doing. So I’ll look mainly for patterns of themes but compensate by calling them “interests” to try to take away some of their usual dominance. If I’ve space, at the end I’ll look at one or two poems in detail.

One of the places that looks as though it would provide a good position from which to describe these “interests” is the final section of the book called “Dream Genres”. Since a note tells us that this was a sequence written on commission, there seems a likelihood that its subjects are things thought about consciously rather than simply popping up one day as a poem among poems and setting readers the task of finding how it fits into the poet’s work. “Dream Genres” is made up of a couple of poems each under a series of five general headings: “More Rooms to the House”, “Dead Friends”, “Trying to Get Back”, “In the Vicinity of the Temple” and “The End of It All”. That’s five sub-headings to which can be added a sixth: dreaming itself. We could interpret the dreams of the first section – in which the dreamer, who lives in a “weatherboard bungalow”, finds doors leading to new, unknown and spectacular rooms – as being about visions of domestic life but also, using popular modes of dream interpretation whereby a building represents the dreamer’s self, as being about the self and the expansion of that self in surprising directions. We could also interpret these rooms as metaphors for poetry, a great expander of consciousness but also something which, at its best, leads poets and the readers of their poems into unexpected areas. Each of the four elements so far – dreaming, domesticity, the self and poetry – are major interests in Miles’s poems.

The second section touches an interest that anyone would identify on the most superficial of readings of Infernal Topographies: extinction, the dead, and the way the dead revisit us in memories and dreams: as the book’s title poem says, “since if / there’s one thing certain from infernal topographies / it’s the neighbourly feelings between deaths and dreams”. The dead can be dead friends – a number are about the death of Lucas North including one whose title, “The Inevitable Elegy”, seems an attempt to forestall the objection made by one part of the poet’s brain to another, that a poem like this is too entirely predictable – but they are not necessarily as immediately personal as this. One of a sequence of poems called “Domestic Fauna” details the visit to the family home, either in dream or in an imagined scenario, of a Tasmanian tiger. Although there’s the inevitable plucking of the guilt string, there is more of the unconventional in what the poem makes of this visitation from the dead:

. . . . . 
      It was like meeting someone
whose suffering you’d heard about,
someone excluded come out
of the past. It could almost have been
a person disguised or a sleazy god
in an old myth, hidden in a skin.
It had the look of someone condemned
who knows he’s innocent and has something on you.

“A sleazy god / in an old myth” seems to take us into territories not entirely predictable in a poem about the extinction of the thylacine. It recalls another, quite different poem, “Vehicle”, a breezily written narrative (its first sentence sounds like the beginning of a joke – “A mortal and a god step into / a vehicle”) which explores the situation in which gods act as drivers of chariots: Athene in Diomedes’ chariot in the Iliad and Krishna in Arjuna’s in the Mahabharata. Although it might seem a stretch to call this a visitation of the dead, in a sense it is because the poem is set in a modern car and the gods are dead figures from the past, here communicating by inhabiting a living body, that of “the mortal’s mortal friend”. Interestingly, getting into a mortal body, feeling its limitations and scars, not to mention its future decay and death, is described as a frisson for the god. But eventually the gift that the god gives to his mortal companion is the ability to see everything around him not as forms of vibrant life but as things living under the sign of future extinction. Eventually he is allowed to look into the mouth of the god:

. . . . . 
Instead of the homely apparatus
of digestion, you see how it’s alright
that worlds devour themselves, that some
old fault
in ape-kind can’t help but poise
its everything on a final drop, pretending
it’ll save itself at the last chance. . .

At the poem’s end some quite complicated things occur as the passenger sees, in the depths of the god’s devouring belly (the images here are more Bhagavad Gita than Iliad), himself looking in:

your shoulders relaxed, eyes fixed
on the shifts from cells and thermal vents
to eyes and mouths, and thoughts about thoughts
about thoughts.

That is, spanning evolution from simple life to material life to intellectual life. Interestingly, intellectual life – “thoughts about thoughts / about thoughts” – is seen in terms of a Chinese box structure, or one of replicating mirrors. It makes intellection progressively less tangible rather than stressing, say, the ability of thought to understand the processes of evolution and extinction, though that might be too naively positivist for its author. But the structure of these receding repetitions seems to occur often in Infernal Topographies. It produces a poem about imaginative language, for example, in “Some Similes about Similes About Similes”. It also ties together extinction with an interest in perspective making meaning out of the simple perspectival terms, “vanishing point” and “lines of sight”, each of which produces the title of a poem. A vanishing point is the moment of extinction, the loss of something’s ability to self-replicate, a singularity – to draw on the language of cosmology – rather than something which makes a representation realistic and acceptable.

As usual, in reading Miles’s poetry, following up connections drags one inexorably away from the main point which is here, the interest in the dead and their tendency to communicate with us. There’s a poem in Recurrence, “In Himachal Pradesh”, which has stayed in my memory. It describes the way in which “a family planned all year a wedding / for a groom dead fifteen years / and a bride never born” because it was wrong if he were “left single / with his sisters all married”. That’s communing with the dead with a vengeance. The happy couple are impersonated by “local kids”, but the parents “called them Radha and Krishna”. Perhaps the gods slipped into their skins during the ceremony. The second section of “Dunes”, in a way that mediates between reality, dreams and fiction and recalls Cervantes (or, perhaps, Calderon, or, perhaps, just the Spanish narrative tradition generally) imagines the poet dying at the age of eighteen and living out the rest of his life up to the present as a brief dream, shaped by the familiar dream mechanisms of wish fulfilment and anxiety, compressed into the last few moments of his life:

. . . . . 
               The dream fades
a bit when I suspect what it is
and there’s a furtive, lying feeling when I write
the date, knowing it’s really ’94.

Among the dead who are inveterate communicators with us are, of course, the poets of the past who start talking the moment we open one of their books. Infernal Topographies includes a translation from the poem by Callimachus in the Greek Anthology which is addressed to his dead friend, Heraclitus (not the Heraclitus) stressing the inability of death to destroy poems. It’s a classic trope but the issue is dealt with in far greater complexity in “An Archaism”. It seems at first that this will be a poem about the way the past is contained (and speaks to us) in old forms of language: like, the poem says, “eremite” rather than “hermit” but it develops rapidly so that archaism is imagined as a set of messages from the past – oracles – whose reliability is always suspect (one of the book’s other poems deals with the story of Croesus who, in Herodotus, is remembered partly because of his trick to test the accuracy of the various Greek oracles before entrusting his future to one of them). And just when you think you have a reasonable handle on what is happening in the poem, it shifts gear again:

. . . . . 
                                 He coughs
like someone knocking in morse code.
And he tells you all his correspondences:
a perfume, a virtue, an image.
Names and orders of angels, a leader over each,
a series of doors, corridors, mazes
of playing cards and tarocchi, to paper over
what neither is nor isn’t, where you can
pile up the negations as deep as you like. . . 

I read this as examples of archaic beliefs and poetic methods. Although the poem later speaks of “grails and trances” and this might lead one to think of the whole history of beliefs dating back to the twelfth century and extending into the seances of the fin de siecle, I think, on reflection, that it really is speaking only about the poetic practices of the French writers of the last half of the nineteenth century for whom the Kabbalah and the grail of Arthurian romance were an important part of their mythology. These are the Symbolists, of course, and one’s confidence in reading the poem in this specific way – rather than being, generally, about the beliefs of the past impinging on the present – is that another of the major “interests” in Infernal Topographies is the issue of French Symbolist theory. Matching the two translations from the Greek Anthology are translations of poems by Jean Moréas, Maurice Rollinat and Georges Rodenbach (the only one in any way a familiar name to me because one of his works formed the basis of Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt). You get the sense here of a writer exploring the works of this group and trying, in a poem like “An Archaism”, to come to grips with an inheritance that involves a lot of beliefs to which the only response might be a pile of negations. But two other poems in Infernal Topographies relate to the Symbolist movement. “In a Symbolist Mood” (which immediately precedes the translation of the poem by Moréas) looks like an experiment in that mode:

Distant, untouchable night is stooping
over fingers of street-lights
that push her away. And the children of night?
The children of night are in hiding
wherever the dark still is,
under their mother’s gauzy veil
or in the street where an ambulance
just passed.
          I was drunk once
in a dream, years ago.
The bushfire sun was orange
and I said that I wouldn’t 
remember this.
            So disjunct things drop,
as you forget them, with an oily, lurid swirl
of dream, a little drum-roll on the lids of the eyes.

Two logically disconnected images are juxtaposed, together with a brief statement of this fact, to form the structure of the poem. The first is of street-lights (which appear in other poems in this book). I’m not sure whether the “children of the night” are Count Dracula’s wolves or something more obscure but the contrast with the bushfire is extreme. One of the features of French Symbolist poetry is that since the unifying thread is unstated, the surface of the poem can be made up of a rapidly shifting set of correspondences that have no relationship to one another when seen as the objective part of the poem. It could just be a matter of European poetry stumbling on the power of poetic disjunction and it’s reflected in this poem. Another poem “Salt and Ash” describes the burning down of an old house built “in the year of the Symbolist Manifesto” (1886). It’s one of the poems in Infernal Topographies set in Tasmania, a state haunted by extinctions and the convicts of its past. I don’t know whether “Salt and Ash” attempts to be a poem in the symbolist mode but it finishes with rituals which attempt to stop the ghosts of the past reappearing in the present:

. . . . . 
The house where coaches stopped
on their way to the Huon, let down
a limp, thick arm of smoke,
pointed to the gap where the Southern Ocean starts.
Bury its ashes between high and low tide.
Salt seal it against unhappy returns.

I promised at the outset of this review to look at at least one poem in terms of itself and its structures alone, rather than as part of an intersecting mesh of “interest”. I’m very attracted by the complexities of “From a Colony”

Here stones, there sea. Some
hills, a river. Enough to make a world.
In the river flecks of gold so the people
come and from the hills watch
each other moving. On this hill
they see a horse, say esva,
on that hill say hippos. The head man
of hippos meets head man of esva.
Hand shoves into soft chiton. Hand shoves
into leather. Esva-chief falls under kicks
from lanky kids at hippos’ side.
Everyone watches. And the esva-folk decide
not to go to the hippos-hill with long knives
but join them, use them against the others.
And in years they bury the hippos-chief
under their hill, remember him
with black goats and warm blood.
Under esva-hill they hide their man-god
swallowed by the earth, the horseman
murdered in his sleep. They watch
from the hills, and in the pits and on low altars
warm blood and black fleece, sand.
Hands are shaken tight as strangling.

It’s a drily recounted, almost parabolic narrative. What holds the poem together, and drives it on, is its fundamental oppositions between the two tribes. The poem’s opening, geographical, setting is based on binaries – land vs sea, hills vs river – and this acts as a preparation. The story the poem tells is one of those which, in its simplifications and abstractions, seems almost on its way to myth itself. But it can be read in the opposite direction as a fleshing out, in this case a fleshing out of the old linguistic classification of the Indo-European languages into centum and satem. (For those not familiar with this early piece of historical-linguistic analysis, the Indo-Iranian languages developed some proto-Indo-European consonants differently to the Western languages and the difference is captured in the different words for one hundred: Latin centum and Avestan satem. It’s also expressed in the different words for horse: Latin equus and Greek hippos as opposed to Sanskrit asva.) If it fleshes out an opposition it does so at the most abstract level because it is hard to imagine such separate branches of the Indo-European family ever facing each other: that doesn’t really happen until the time of Alexander and Chandragupta. So I think it’s ultimately a poem about two very different cultures. Both are treacherous but the “esva-folk” (it’s significant that the word “folk”, redolent of Herder and nineteenth century German romanticism, is used rather than “people”) work by engaging with their enemies and using them against others. Most importantly they spawn different notions of life after death. The leader of the hippos people becomes, when he dies, a noble warrior, possessor of imperishable fame in the Greek sense and celebrated with sacrifices while the leader of the esva people is converted into one of the many gods who will later populate the subcontinent. But though it is a poem about two cultures, it is also a poem interested in the acts of narrative becoming, whereby an abstraction is fleshed out into an imagined event and an event is abstracted into a myth. A poem full of interest in a book full of interests.

Graeme Miles: Recurrence

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2012, 61pp.

This book gives us an opportunity for a second look at the challenging and sophisticated work of Graeme Miles, his first book, Phosphorescence, having been published in 2006. In one sense nothing has changed: he remains a powerful lyric poet – his poems almost always have enough self-confidence to stay upright as well as walk with their own gait – the exact nature of whose poetic sensibility is very difficult to grasp. The first poem of that first book, “Nest”, is an introduction to at least part of the Miles method:

The wasps are making a nest on the weight
of the wind-chime, deaf, I think, to its sound,
and undisturbed by its sometimes swaying
for no reason. They build a paper house
as a launching pad for violence in a calm. 

I’m thinking of a final call, when waiting,
feeling like the luggage is packed, the phone
will ring, be answered. The house will be locked
already and it’ll be time to go.

The problem for a reader isn’t so much of guessing the intended (and thus structuring) meaning so much as choosing between all the possible meanings since the poem is dense with allegorical possibilities. Somewhere in here is a kind of Frostian poem about the nests that creatures make, usually in inappropriate places, and how humans have to leave such havens. By a further Frostian shift, the “final call” can be read not as the language of airlines but as the final summons of death. The fact that the wasps build “paper” nests suggests that the whole poem might be read as an allegory involving poetry since a poetic career is, in a sense, a “paper house”. The first stanza is full of noise and movement – both of which the wasps are insensitive to – whereas the second stanza, though it is about a noise (the telephone) and a movement (the leaving) is, as a stanza, full of a kind of calm stasis. And that is reading the poem as though it were anonymous; Miles’s poems tend to be full of houses, places stayed in and places left, not to mention places revisited just as they are full of movement.

When I reviewed Phosphorescence on this site I clung rather desperately to an extended poem, “Circle and Line”, which looked as though it might provide some clues about its author’s views as to what poetry was doing. In retrospect I’m not sure that that was the correct procedure; one ought to able to work out such things by looking carefully at the poems. In Recurrence Miles has gone some way towards mapping at least a part of his poetic by dividing the poems into three sections: “Down”, “Across” and “Up”. It is in the first of these where the significance of the titular direction is least obvious. True, a poem like “Libations”, traces the downward path of water, milk, honey and wine – conscious or unconscious offerings – through the earth to the point where “the only way to go on forever / is to become as small as nothing at all” and “Mineral Veins” explores the way that, in sleep, the self gravitates downwards towards its natural home:

. . . . .
                             Then sleep
is only half-sleep. Better to turn down,
find you can breathe easily under a world’s weight
of earth, and that air was no more your element
than the endless vacancy it fades to.

Gravity, the prevailing god of downwards, is in fact celebrated in a poem of the same name. A large part of the expressive side of Miles’s worldview is made up of mythologies, especially Classical, Norse and Indian, and so it isn’t especially surprising that such a poet should begin with Hesiod’s locating of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld on a vertical axis and then work through the idea of the gravity of an extreme mass as a “Samadhi of space”. The conclusion of the poem also makes a distinctive move, slipping effortlessly from the macro-physical to the inside of the brain: “she’s all herself / fixing and destroying, like the colourless dot / at the beginning of migraine / that grows to swallow the world.”

Down is allegorised out in other ways too. In “The Problem of Other Minds” (the second poem of a fine sequence with the ambiguous title “Causes”) the movement downwards appears as a pit into which our life experiences are thrown. Again the shifts of this poem are distinctive. The initial image is an interesting one and you can imagine most poets being happy to explore it. Each of us carries a kind of black hole which is being continually stocked by our experiences as they sink into the past:

. . . . .
All the toys I could find
didn’t fill it up. My thin books just lined the bottom.
Put in my friends and they were small 
down there, craning their necks up
to see what I’d done to them.

Put in all the houses I’d lived in, so I wouldn’t
have to see them again, then left my grave
with a last house-load of furniture . . .

But this poem goes on to ask about the pits of others, especially those who have disappeared into the author’s own pit. It is, as its title says, really a poem about the inter-relationship of the experience of subjectivities; we are experiences for others as they are for us. Continually meditating on what we are to others – apart from our usual egoistic obsession with what we are to ourselves – shakes our sense of our own identity. After returning to his own pit (he hears it “slurp as something else fell in”) he sees flecks on the surface spelling out a message, “’What’s it like / to be you?’ And when you looked closer, / ‘Is it like anything?’”

The same sequence has a descent poem, “Forgetting to Laugh”, in which “When you’ve drunk the water to remember, / and the water to forget, they slide you down / into a dug-out cave”. What follows is a kind of cross between a Mithraic rebirth initiation, an MRI scan and the act of dreaming, followed by the everyday – but still mysterious – process of waking. What is typical here is the way in which mythical, allegorical and metaphorical meanings, distinctive to Miles’s cast of thought, are held in suspension.

The book’s final section (to proceed out of order) ought to be a simple inversion of the first but turns out to be rather different. Certainly, in Miles’s poetry, the view upwards doesn’t involve any simple-minded transcendence. When the eternal is considered, as in “Two Guesses at Immortality”, there is no superior, heavenly reality. The two possibilities are either a kind of eternal present containing all the past (“Everything is here and everyone. / You’re home once and for all / at the moment when it’s all new again.”) or a kind of Groundhog Day endless recurrence (“the one day repeats itself / with its long night to be slept through”.

In other poems, like “Dioscuri”, the emphasis is on the reciprocity between the upper and lower worlds though “Above, Below” contradicts the old relationship of as above so below to contrast the love of the immortals for mortals (“a gold-haired boy or girl . . . too squeamish to stay / for the squalid fact of your death”) for that of mortals for mortals – in this case parents for children:

But the ones who wait below
will only be as frightening as necessity,
quiet farmers keeping their kids
from the dangerous machines and the gun.

One of the metaphoric associations of downwards in the earlier poems is the idea of descent through the family line and so it is, in a kind of way, logical that a poem about the poet’s parents and grandparent should be associated with a look upwards. “Verandah” is a really fine poem, familiar from its appearance in John Leonard’s Young Poets: An Australian Anthology, and though verandahs – the quintessential Australian liminal space – might suggest movement across, there is a certain rightness in this poem’s appearing in the final, Up section. It is also, of course, an example of a modern version of a classical invocation, summoning mother and father out of the past into the present.

Ultimately the vision affirmed is a humanist one and two poems, “Shivery to Think of the Long Spaces” and “Ascesis” make this fairly clear. The former begins as a view upwards to the stars, recalling Pascal’s or perhaps Slessor’s poem’s fear of the spaces between the stars, spaces which have become even more mindboggling vast since the twentieth century’s development of cosmological measurement. The result of this perspective is described as “shivery while it’s measured / by this piece of skin” but the poem goes on to imagine a perspective beyond humanism where there is “object with no subject” where “the suns flame silently” in their death throes “and don’t return from their last / going under, don’t care to”.

The book’s final poem, “Ascesis”, seems to have an unequivocally humanist perspective as it mocks the results of labouring to be released upwards into the cosmos, free of the earthbinding sins of the body:

They let go,
lift clear of weather,
soil’s vapours
that tint the mind like plot.
. . . . .
             Free of conversation,
the long dispute of history, language
is crisp as salt, and with no air
to talk through their words are flawless,
discrete and unanswerable.

Both of these poems casually mention orbits and straight lines and one can’t help feeling that this interest derives from “Circle and Line” in Phosphorescence. Miles’s poetic world, as readers who have got this far will register, is a complex one.

A reader who expected the Up poems to be about transcendence might well come to the book’s middle section expecting poems of narrative and Ovidian transformation and, it is true, there is a lot of that to be found there. It begins with “Photis”, a suite of poems (also familiar from Leonard’s anthology) that form a narrative about an artist inclined to bring out animal shapes in the bodies of those who sit for portraits. A lover whose self-image is that of a hawk finds through the process of art that his totemic animal is, instead, the ass (for those of us who missed it, the book’s blurb points out an allusion here to Apuleius). When a baby is born – going through its own metamorphoses in the womb and then outside – it becomes an anthology of animals:

Your soft skin is full of animals. There are
fishes in the movement of your sucking cheeks, reptiles
in the glaze of your eyes overtired, the stillness of a kangaroo
when you watch light slide
over the ceiling . . . . .

And the artist’s work undergoes an equally profound metamorphosis, focussing on the world her child might live in rather than the animals under its skin: “she paints the night as a newsreel of frightening things, / waters above and below”.

“Ariadne on Naxos”, based on the version of the story found in Plutarch’s life of Theseus, focusses on the way an individual can transform into a complicated set of rituals; “Aggregore” revisits the idea of a child’s evolution in the womb; “At the End of the Seventies – Streets in Marmion” reproduces the way in which a beachscape is transformed when it is seen by moonlight; “Chennai” looks at the way individuals (or families) are always the centre of their own universe and carry their own gods and experiences with them in environments that are utterly different and a related poem, “Diminuendo”, imagines, from the distant location of India, all of the houses previously lived in since birth as a concertina opened out into one of those medieval maps.

This threefold division of the book is useful, but I cannot help feeling that it isn’t much more than a guide, uncovering only a small portion of what is in these poems and what animates them and gives them their integrity. If I had to focus on a single poem as an entrance into the poems of this book I would choose one from the first section, “Purusha”, which links the Norse proto-god Ymir with a similar figure from Indian mythology:

Ymir, who is Purusha, the Person, is sacrificed
but goes on. Its skin is cinematic, the light
breaks through it. Endless eyes watch it
sliding by. Its body is standing waves
frozen, and it crinkles with crystals of ice,
empties into the roaring absorption, the nuclear
introspection of suns. Its sound is the crowd
roaring in Geiger-counters, it goes on forever
and mostly is invisible.
                                         Moves down
and down is the static blur of sandgrains, the place
that barters crops for corpses.
                                                    Moves across
inventing plot, walks on or runs
forever in Zeno’s physics.
                                              Moves up
spies out the thinning, the spinning direction
of vertigo.
                  It’s promiscuous and virginal, celibate
and incestuous. It’s family at war with itself.
When a standing ape looks up it sees
air catch fire, water
thicken with mud, harden to land.
Objects are smashed in the slow riot
and the prickling of skin when reading a poem
is each pore expecting a bruise
to cover it. And the poems fit together
like a dry-stone wall, jagged edge
to edge, just making do.
Perhaps this should be thought of not as poem-as-key but as poem-as-digest (or, anatomy) since one can hear nearly all of the poems in Recurrence in this single work. The central section is a compressed explanation of the three directions and the over-riding image of the fate of Ymir (whose blood becomes the sea, whose skull becomes the sky and whose bones and teeth become rocks) as a sacrifice whose body goes on changing and expressing itself in the activities of the humans who live on and within him echoes throughout the book, down even to the poem about the child’s cutting his first teeth. Even the interest in light in the second and third lines recalls a number of poems.

Recurrence certainly complicates the world of Phosphorescence (itself complicated enough) and it would take a review longer than this to go back to that first book and reread it in the light of this second one. Eventually it will have to be done but I will leave that for the appearance of Miles’s third book – something that admirers like myself will hope happens quickly.