Robert Harris: The Gang of One: Selected Poems

Flinders Lane: Grand Parade Poets, 2019, 224pp.

The Gang of One is one of those literary rescue efforts that need to be both encouraged and supported. Robert Harris, who died at the young age of forty-two, was never a dominant figure in Australian poetry, a fact demonstrated by his spotty inclusions in the various anthologies of the time. Had it not been for this book, a selection from his five books, together with some journal-published poems and some unpublished ones, selected by Judith Beveridge and with a good introduction by Philip Mead, he might have disappeared forever, like so many others. Instead readers can now get a far better perspective on a decidedly odd, and in many ways impressive, career.

The first thing that occurs to me, reading through all his books, is how hard he had to work to make himself into a good poet. Some people find their mode and their voice almost immediately, others publish a first book of what are, really, successful experiments before mining a particular vein in later books. Harris seemed to take until his fourth book, The Cloud Passes Over (1986), to produce consistently good poems. The first three books show someone not only not sure of the kind of poetry he wants to write but somebody without much of an ear for what makes a good line or a good sentence: he was, in other words, far from being dangerously fluent. The last two books, which are quite special, redeem all this, of course, and it makes one admire the dogged determination with which Harris pursued the idea of making himself into a poet over a period of perhaps a dozen years.

In both Localities (1973) and Translations from the Albatross (1976), one can see what Harris wants his poetry to do. These poems demonstrate an interest in the social world, both its individuals and its hidden mechanisms, while at the same time allowing for moments of uplift, usually involving elements of the natural world, especially light and clouds (though sometimes music). In other words, he wants to look horizontally at the social while retaining some space for a tentative upward look towards the transcendent. It seems likely that the interest in the social derived from an extended period (a later poem speaks of “seven years servitude”) doing odd jobs and meeting odd people (rather like Bruce Dawe before him). Some individual portraits work well enough – “Retirement of the Railway Ganger”, “Another One For the Road” and “The Enthusiast”, for example – but often the social appears in the form of extended, hectoring denunciations as in “From a Seat in Joe’s Seafoods” and “Concerning Shearers Playing for the Bride”. A few lines from the former will make the point:

. . . .
the blanket, affectionate
heart of night
is violently robbed of all serenity with
the coming of the hateful shrieks
of vampire sirens possessed of the calm,
of the always justified cops gone out
to beat up some shivering kids. . . . .

As I copy this, I’m yet again amazed by the gap in quality between this and the poems of The Cloud Passes Over and JANE Interlinear. It’s an extraordinary act of self-education; a very steep grade to Parnassus.

One of the dominant influences behind the poems of this first book is the work of Eliot, not someone one would necessarily recommend as an influence although Harris might have found himself sympathetic to the alienated portraits of Eliot’s early verse and to the religious component of his middle and later work. It’s Eliot’s “Four Quartets” which are used as a model for “Shift Workers” (not included in The Gang of One) which is clearly an attempt to find a meaningful framework for large statements about the alienation of low-paid workers arriving by train, those fleeing and dispossessed during wars and those who survived the Depression. The last two of the five sections attempt to balance the misery of these lives with intimations of a richer inner life symbolised by, in Eliot-fashion, a rose. It doesn’t work but you can see what it is attempting – balancing the social with the transcendent – and that it responds to the need for a new form in which this can be done, rather than single portraits or single lyrical moments of love and enlightenment.

Something similar happens in Translations from the Albatross. Although it finishes with a section devoted to Edith Piaf, almost all of the rest is about suburban Melbourne but these poems are inclined to flirt with more “open” form. They are also introduced by a quote from Olson and bracketed by two self-referential poems the latter of which, “Traditional for the Manuscript”, suggests that the fifty pages so far are mere “preparation for a voyage”. I’m not sure whether the form adopted by these poems is any better at dealing with suburban life than the more conventional forms of the poems of Localities. Indeed one of the more memorable poems, “A Reader of Poetry Comes on a Tea Warehouse”, is written in the earlier mode and is a fairly successful portrait of an factory and its workers:

. . . . . 
They claimed it was for the good teas I loaded my back
“good teas on a million tables”. The Boss
believed his fables? He could have done, he was young
and winsome enough in his thirty-eight year old folly.
The kind of person who’d like to make everyone pray.
Only once in seven years servitude
did I ever work for a stupider one.

At last they’ve gone broke and closed the place up.
I came on the building the other day.
Great red brick beast with nowhere to go
a great dead beast with sky shooting out through the windows.
Finding it empty
the asset locked tighter than capital
and being reminded of someone you once used to know
Frank / Bill / Victor / Nina / Rose
while thinking of nobody’s poetry.

But again you can see the attraction of larger, conglomerate forms and the “Homage to Edith Piaf” is an early attempt at a form which will, eventually, lead to the long sequence about Jane Grey. I won’t say much about it here since it is hardly a success – the open form which enables a move away from free verse narrative and dramatic monologues is just too open to have a focus and becomes, instead, arbitrarily allusive – and it doesn’t appear in The Gang of One but it is worth noting that its subject was one of the class of dispossessed drifters that “Shift Workers” dealt with and that she made a popular music out of the details of her life. The sequence is, thus, an introduction to a continuing concern in Harris’s poetry with popular music as an expression of the tone of its time. It’s also worth pointing out the Piaf poems are a homage which involves a pilgrimage for the poet.

The Cloud Passes Over marks the beginning of Harris’s real, sustained poetry. The varieties in subject and method seem genuinely informed experiments rather than desperate searches for a poetry that will work. And all of this is marked by a new and clear Christian commitment – the first three poems, “Ray”, “The Call” and “The Convert” are overtly about the experience of “conversion” and the titles of the latter two are a clear nod to the poetry of George Herbert. I’m rather morbidly interested in this because I might have imagined that settling into a fixed ideology such as Christianity (though admittedly one with host of intriguing loose ends) would have been bad for a poet who was already struggling with the search for his real voice. A teacher of Creative Writing at a university today, faced with a talented and very committed student who hadn’t as yet written anything profoundly satisfying, would surely be uneasy if the student one morning announced that he or she had become a convert to Islam, say, or Buddhism. But whatever the complex interactions between faith, ideology, conviction and creativity are, in Harris’s case the effects seem immediate and are certainly beneficial. The poems deal with two aspects of Christianity. The first is the sense of an individual response to the “call” of Christ and the second is an interest in the God of the Old Testament, especially as invoked by the prophets.

The first component of this is reflected in the first three poems whose titles I have already given and they quickly sketch out the area where conversion is relevant to the poems. In the first, for example, intellectual scepticism is faced head-on:

. . . . .
Soon He was calling, not He without His Friend.
In from behind the winter wind.

The loudest rain could not drown
that soft knock. If then I heard words
they were, Why not come from hiding?

You’re an archetype, I flung back. So
go away. Or said, Nah. Listen, says Christ,
listen be deaf you are deaf now you aren’t,
listen. I will be back. . .

Admittedly, the notion that living and resurrected gods are pretty common, especially in the Levant, is an objection of its period – a time of pop-anthropology – and thus hardly constitutes the full panoply of intellectual difficulties that Christianity faces, but it is refreshing to see that it immediately forms a part of the experience. It recalls one of the unpublished poems at the end of The Gang of One, “Christians”, which begins, “A lifetime of explanations? Pah. / Explanations only summon evasions, / the stupidest religious disputes, / or unbelief’s weary shibboleths . . .” before going on to list those same shibboleths, presumably bowled up by friends and acquaintances:

. . . . . 
Did you know that Jesus, alone,
or, you know, whatever you conceive him -
Allah, Buddha, the Force -
is solely responsible for war?
That everything’s just a metaphor?
And the Resurrection, you tell us,
is just another fertility cult
(gee whiz, I never thought that before) . . .

This helps to give a sense of the way Harris accommodated intellectual objections by using the not uncommon technique of imagining an order of experience above the “intellectual”. And this can only be done if the fragmentary experiences of that order are powerful enough to override the intellect (or even common sense). So a powerful part of the poetic experience relates, for Harris, to a personal encounter with the benevolent side of the godhead.

But the other side is present as well – the Yahweh of the Jewish bible who grows in the first half of the first millennium BCE from a cranky local god to an overwhelming master of the universe (or, at least, master of the world and the nearest stars – the then-known part of the universe). Many of the poems of The Cloud Passes Over were written in the mountains behind Bega and the violent onset of winds which sweep clouds over the landscape that one finds there, becomes a congenial place in which to read and think about the God of Hosts. There are a series of fine poems, obviously written at the time of this virtual retreat whose titles alone will give some sense of this: “The Cloud Passes Over”, “Poem on a Hilltop”, “The Snowy Mountains Highway”, “Isaiah By Kerosene Lantern Light”. I don’t know much of Harris’s biography (a good article by Toby Davidson in a recent Sydney Review of Books is helpful here both with its own knowledge and with a set of references) but to an outsider this time in the mountains, either with some specific labouring work or with the calm of a retreat, seems to fulfil all the requirements of the monastic. It certainly involves a lot of reconsideration of his thus-far unsatisfactory development. Take “The Snowy Mountains Highway”, for example:

In the former post office/general store
there were four rooms and two fireplaces
and my lanterns. At a desk I had made
from sundowns often past moon-set
I read Scripture.

There too I wrote about twenty
belligerent sonnets; shedding, I hope,
a lax, Frenchified English
derived from reading the Symbolists
in translation.
. . . . . 
I have placed myself here in the poem,
at work, check-shirted, to help myself remember
black branches I snapped at dusk, snow
at the wind’s edge, a wombat. Also

to dismantle any aesthetic
ideal, keep, or Magian use
from which I might write. . .

Of course, to move from what was then called “The New Romanticism”, with its obeisance to Rimbaud and Mallarme, to a hearty Thoreau- or Snyder-like experience of a bracing mountain slope, might be to move from one cliché to another. But even though that might be a danger, the proof is in the poems and this group celebrating the winds and clouds of the Australian Alps is terrific. And one reason for this is that the poems don’t rely on the conventional Romantic connotations of the windy upland to produce the poem. They are fascinating because they are cross-pollinated by the sense of the Lord of Hosts expressing himself in various of the books of the prophets, as a cleansing gale.

. . . . . 
But these nights
                   there aren’t any fishermen out
from caravan and tent enclaves,
                    their hair on end,
their lines frightened in;
                   no little white cloud
with damaged oars
                    passing over so carefully
that nothing below
                    may hear it think.
The Lord of all
                    is at large throughout His Creation. . .

Another reason for the fact that these poems impress so much may be that they concretise what in the earlier poems is no more than a glance upward towards the transcendent. Not only is the transcendent made more actual in the winds, it no longer looks – as it does in so much other poetry, including Harris’s earlier work – like a mere gesture to finish a poem and perhaps balance its bleakness. “Poem on a Hilltop”, which gets into the crucial question of how this spiritual experience of solitude and meditation interacts with (and dares to judge) the social world that Harris originally outlined as part of his poetic remit, concludes

Down the hills people still die for lack
                    not of what is to be
somehow found in poems
                    alone, but for promise
made at the rain’s origin,
                    your sons and daughters
shall prophesy, your old men dream dreams
                    your young men
shall see visions . . .
                    dying for years
by steady lights
                    mimetic of the candid stars,
gleaming on farm porches
                   blazing on solitary outbuildings.
Things become clearer
                    as conversation gets scarcer
until the day comes
                    when you must hear somebody
talking again, be all assent,
                    all nod and prompt to drink the life
that doesn’t examine itself,
                    the numerate life
with no use for wider meanings,
                    especially His.
But this man has repaired a fence,
                    another has drilled and drilled
for a well.

Even as you left the shadows of the clouds
                    went gliding over the parched, bright hills,
and rainbow coloured parrots
                    flew alongside you.

Poetically, the issue is whether the poem is weakened by its finish (as it certainly is by a virtual quotation from Eliot, earlier on). The parrots are rainbow coloured to reflect God’s covenant after the Flood and might be a mere invention, but the poem is so carefully concrete in its details (the specific activities of the working men, for example) that it convinces me, at least, that the arrival of the parrots is an event in the real world (like the swans Sibelius’s saw before his death) and that an accidental incident becomes illuminated into a genuinely potent symbol.

JANE, Interlinear and Other Poems is built around two large-scale pieces, an approach that, as I’ve tried to show, Harris’s work continually gropes towards. The first of them, “Seven Songs for Sydney” is about the HMAS Sydney, sunk by a German raider with the loss of all hands in 1941. It’s conceived as a performance piece and shows, as Toby Davidson says, the strong influence of Francis Webb’s “A Drum for Ben Boyd”. In fact Webb is a clearly detectable influence in much of Harris’s later work, resulting not only in straightforward allusions like the title of “Six Years Old” recalling Webb’s “Five Days Old” but also more generally in the knotty yet dramatic meditative style of many of the poems. Presumably Harris was drawn to Webb partly through the enthusiasm of Robert Adamson, an admirer of Webb and friend of Harris, but also as someone sharing a similar uncomfortable position – that of a poet-believer in secular times. At any rate, the conception of “Seven Songs for Sydney” is one of those which diminishes the central event and concentrates on the surrounding, social “waves”. It is interested in the effects of the disappearance of the boat on the communities that were nearby, especially those of Carnavon. But it isn’t simply a case of dramatizing a disappearance by focussing not on the disappeared but on those connected to them who have to wait – a time-honoured tactic for canny dramatists. Since the exact events of the sinking were not known and what was known by the military was not made public, we are in the Lord Lucan world of rumour, self-deception and paranoia. The entire sequence is, in other words, also about truth (with or without its capital letter), reality, community and poetry. As such it adds a layer of complexity to the sequence. And Harris’s own connection to the navy – where he spent a short time as an on-shore seaman in his early years – adds something as well. It still seems a slightly artificial piece – a performance on the poet’s part, deriving from the radio-plays of the fifties – but it has enough complexity to be engaging.

“JANE, Interlinear” it is at every level more ambitious. It is extensive enough to have formed a book in its own right, especially if it is connected with the final section of the book, “Recorder Music”, which looks at other participants in this historical event. It’s “about” the brief life and execution in 1554 of Lady Jane Grey, the cousin of Edward the Sixth and, as granddaughter of Henry VII, someone with a claim to the throne on her cousin’s early death. Again, Harris’s approach is to avoid all things which would reduce his narrative to a predictable set of dramatic monologues (probably by his heroine herself and her handlers) for that is a path to a drearily predictable and inert poem. Instead he focusses on issues and invents a form – the “interlinear” of the title – in which the layout of some of the poems looks rather like an interlinear edition of the bible which he had seen where, in a common format, the original text contains an interlinear translation into another language (the bible he refers to has Hebrew with a Greek gloss and also the same passage from the King James translation). He clearly wants the effect of this to be something approximating a very controlled open form, encouraging the reader to read both horizontally and vertically (syntagmatically and paradigmatically perhaps). I’m not sure that a reader is really going to exploit this much but it certainly solves the problem of avoiding producing predictable monologues or slabs of narrative. Much, in fact, is in a decidedly lyrical vein.

As always, it’s the poet’s stake in this sordid story that is intriguing. As an outsider I can only guess but I can imagine Harris responding very strongly to this figure of a well-educated intelligent girl going perfectly bravely to her death. She is, in effect, a candidate for Protestant sainthood. The second poem, “Speed Reading”, deals with the interpretation of Jane’s life as well as Harris’s own involvement:

. . . . .
                                                                                      finds her still
                                                one party                     the queen of

schism, the other             perfection. Or else          a heroine, one
tedious virtue in              lone readers keep           Katharine Parr, another,

Anne Boleyn . . .

And later (I’ll disengage the text from its matrix here), “They’ll say of / me, too, I wrote // a costume drama, took her for symbol, / as abstract, as / as eidetic; unborn / daughter, missing / wife, lost sister” using here the same technique as he has used in his “call to believe” poems of raising the objections first (though not exactly answering them). He is also concerned, throughout, to investigate the stake others have in visiting not only the texts but the sites of her life and death:

. . . . . 
           And she, divided,
attracts those who are divided,
the fissiparous seek their bridge
over sex, seas, time, phenomena,
and always, always, narrative defeats them.
The 19 year old exports from
Kansas and Osaka
are troubled to learn . . .

But Harris, too, is affected by the desire to step in his idol’s footsteps when in the twenty-seventh poem he speaks of revisiting the site of an apocryphal rescue attempt: “And I, eagerly, under trees / finding her path to a gap in a hedge. / To say for some metres / her path was mine . . .”

Although the poems circle around Jane’s life, her scholar-friends, and the relevant politicians, Jane Grey herself is rather an absence. This may result from the little detail there is about her – a lack that spurs on speculation – but it also has an effect rather like the poems for the Sydney: that there is a gap surrounded by complex designs, in fact a gap which favours complex designs. And the surrounding material spills over into the section cleverly called “Recorder Music” which has poems about Sir John Challoner who knew Jane and wrote a Latin elegy to her (culta fuit, formosa fuit – she was cultured, she was beautiful), her husband Guilford, her father-in-law, and her recent biographer, Hester Chapman (“Four years I’ve probed her book”). The last poem is about the man who is at the centre of the events, the Duke of Northumberland and recounts how Harris finds, investigating him, that, far from being the archetypal Tudor politician, sacrificing all to ambition, he actually did many benevolent things including, significantly, providing funding for the stage while he was the senior advisor to Edward the Sixth. If you have seeded the theatre that will eventually produce Shakespeare you can expect that poets from the unimaginably distant antipodes will be forced to think of you as “Enigma more than Beast”. But the end of the last poem in Harris’s last book celebrates him as someone who showed just how vicious and cruelly destructive the political world can be. It’s true that, horrific as Jane’s death is, in Tudor times beheading was generally a very quick and painless end (compared to the horrors that others had to endure) and Jane’s intelligent-schoolgirl faith would have ensured that, in her own mind at least, she would simply be making a rapid transition to paradise before the world could corrupt her. Certainly her fate is nothing in terms of horror compared with the fates of Sejanus’s children, say. But for Harris it’s a revelation of the dark:

. . . . . 
So rest in peace, duke of Northumberland,
there’s no man here will fight you in your shirt;
your best bid did help several understand
how black the actual blackness blackly gets.