Melbourne: Black Pepper, 2021, 285pp.
Somehow it’s hard not to warm to a book whose acknowledgements page tells us that many of the poems about “the apparition” – the character or state that the whole lengthy work is devoted to – “have been rejected by prominent magazines and anthologies. I would like to thank them for authenticating the nature of his character. The few that did take poems I do not embarrass by naming them”. And you can see why it would be difficult to get these poems into journals. Most of them are attempts to define something indefinable and their strategy is to continuously look at the subject from different angles, different perspectives and different genres: not something that produces stand-alone works. On top of this the poems are often very rough, sometimes even doggerel though – I’ll look at this later on – this seems to be a deliberate ploy on the author’s part, perhaps to avoid the unwanted elegances of symbolism.
Pearson’s obsession with “the apparition” can be traced, at least for an outsider such as myself, to The Apparition’s Daybook, a slim volume of 1995, and a later volume, The Apparition at Large, from 2006. Only one of the poems from these two books is included in The Complete Apparition (I think) so this isn’t going to be one of those rolling accretive projects like Pound’s Cantos or Berryman’s Dream Songs. In fact it couldn’t be, since the poems of the earlier books are first person pieces from the point of view of the central character himself. And the result is quite different to – and, in a way, more restricted than – the outsider’s attempts at definition that make up The Complete Apparition.
What can be said about the Apparition himself? Although there is a certain comical paradox in a reader attempting to define in prose what more than four hundred pages of poetry doesn’t really do, it’s still a question that one has to ask and a reading strategy one has to adopt. Firstly it can be said that he has sometimes a physical manifestation and sometimes a non-physical one. As a tangible character he can appear in a number of different guises and in a number of different roles. The most important is as a man who exists in the world, regularly taking walks and watching the ducks on the lake or the Kookaburra on the Hills Hoist, but at the same time being invisible to everybody else, not because he is technically invisible but because people don’t see him or, at best, see him as something that “disturbed them at the edge of vision”. To those who are receptive he will pay a visit, and many of the best poems are about these visitations. The opening of “Johnny-come-lately”, for example:
The arriviste has arrived on your doorstep, late at night. Mere pressure of the fingers opens all dark hallways of your house. There’s an almost-pad of footsteps like muted shivers from the past as they approach down corridor though you’re asleep and still sleep on a moment before the restless air requires you shift, then startle awake to something short of recognition but with a certainty of presence you could not deny, nor have the will to object to in the instant of your stirring. It’s hard to say what’s come upon you by an invasion (or your calling forth) of one beyond the realm of easy comfort . . .
At other times he becomes identified with the downtrodden, appearing quite often as a swaggie “on the wallaby”:
With dilly bag and walking staff, he strolls his lonely way, to meet the future or lose the past . . .
In these concrete manifestations he has a specific set of interactions with those who are in the right state of mind to perceive and accept him. He isn’t a simple embodiment of saintly visitation, poetic inspiration, intercession or annunciation; in fact he needs others so that he can have a sense of his own existence. A late poem in the book says “do not disremember / yourself who are his author” and an earlier one, describing him as being in subjection to “a mistress or master” shows him wandering in ‘sleep mode’ awaiting the summons that will activate him:
. . . . . He can doze, despair and await a summons. He does not himself possess a lure. His time is all the time in other’s hands. I you ask him, he could be your creature. Applicants are warned, although without one, he is, once yours, an imposing figure. He has the power of insinuation. They speak for him but he’s the more secure.
Although we are in the world of paradox here – an imposing figure who doesn’t have a figure – this component of the poetry has a solidity that is reasonably easy to grasp. Indeed it invites allegorical readings. He could represent that sensation of dwindling into invisibility and irrelevance that can come to most of us late in life. Conversely he could represent a visitation which shakes us out of the conventional tracks on which we run our lives so that we realise that while we thought of ourselves as free, in actuality we were entirely constrained by “mind-forged manacles” that we couldn’t even see. We could read him as interceding – certainly this is the image that the book’s last poem leaves us with. We could read him as an Ariel figure, an embodiment of inspiration. And we could also read him as an erotic figure, specializing in night-time visitations. This latter view gets some support from reading the earlier book, The Apparition’s Daybook, which is more like a sequence and could be read as a modern version of the renaissance sequences detailing a love affair and focussing on the lover’s sense of being insubstantial when apart from the loved-one. This is certainly true of “His State”:
My condition makes me suffer a state I’d not prefer, to be dependent on a certain gazer’s whim. To know when out of sight I am in no-one’s thought brings me to the brink. I am, but you don’t think.
But these reasonably substantial portraits of the Apparition – as visitant, as tramp etc – are only part of the complicated fabric of this book. There are very good poems defining him negatively, especially those in which various social structures – religions, the law, military intelligence – try to cope with him and, of course, fail completely. A group of three poems early on summarily dispatches the legal world, the police world and the mercantile world, and the first of these, using the equivocal language of legal process, double negatives and all – “The unresolved not impossible non sequitur / his is, your Honour, is not incapable of repair” – is not only a lot of fun but also an example of the way language can approach the indescribable as a mesh of contradictions. He is also a creature who sometimes leans towards the messianic, “despised among men”, a “figure on the hill” – the Beatles’ fool as well as the preacher of the sermon on the mount – an avoider of activism as much as religious structures:
. . . . . No mass hysteria ever could persuade him on St Peter’s balcony or in Tiananmen Square but roads or floorboards or a verge of grass that are the ways by which he finds his way can summon him like an hypothesis . . .
There are also a host of theatrical references which set a frame of disguise, impersonation, exits and entrances for him – in a poem from The Apparition at Large he describes himself as “a tragedian in civilian garb”. In “Debut” he is an outsider “lured inside by a cabaret tout” who is forced to perform: the famous long-handled shepherd’s crook doesn’t drag him off the stage but onto it. And as “Any Proscenium in a Storm” says,
. . . . . Less a charade, more harlequin with colour leached from clothes his hold, once curtains part, is in Republics of Suppose.
Finally, there are also two memorable descriptions of him as a sufferer of “reverse Alzheimer’s” – “He doesn’t forget but is forgotten” – and as a “reverse pilgrim”, one who goes:
. . . . . not to the shrine with relic or lock of a martyred saint’s hair her mother cut off when she was a babe, or on a beaten track to sacred rock or tree, but rather he’s the one who wanders to be found in drawing room, or byway, or hidden in a crowd. . .
These are all concrete manifestations – even though the approach is often paradoxical – and as I’ve said, they aren’t the entire picture. Sometimes he is completely insubstantial as in “Selfie” where it’s said, “Spotlit at any camera angle / there is a sheen but nothing stable” but also in those poems which relate him to gaps. In “The Resting Place” he lives in “the discrepancy between the time / on wristwatch and the mantle clock” and in “The Finer Things” he is a “devotee of interstices” who “has spoken well of filigree”. This idea of a creature of the spaces between things is probably best expressed in “A German Poem Read in his Youth” from The Apparition’s Daybook, one of a number of poems that refer to Morgenstern’s comic poem about an architect who, much to the discomfiture of the local authorities, steals the spaces between the palings of a fence and makes an edifice from them.
The book’s structure whereby seemingly endless attempts at description and analysis are brought to bear on what is conceived as an indescribable and unanalysable phenomenon seems a satisfying one to me. Each fits well with what poetry does because each of the poems is, in itself, a complete entity but is also only ever one possible approach to life. And the book uses this well by allowing the approaches to be in completely different styles and genres. There is a good deal of warm-hearted parody going on here, for a start, and you can hear snippets of Robert Frost, Kipling, Henley, Burns and Stevens – the latter’s “let be be finale of seem”, if reversed, might make a good epigraph for the project. And Les Murray’s “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow” – a poem dealing with an individual as anonymous and ungraspable as the Apparition – makes an appearance in “In Praise of Cowards” which begins, “Ah! the whisper sighs around the Showground. / It is heard in Fitzroy, and on Fitzroy Street”. But the apparition also appears in different settings and genres. There are a couple of Gordon- or Paterson-like gestures at the bush ballad including “Before Back of Beyond” – a nice paradoxical title – which begins in full bush ballad galloping style – “Way out where the track’s exhausted / far beyond the dingo’s cry” – before reverting to more conventional rhythms. And “Recitative” sounds like those twee late nineteenth century poems about childhoods remembered and lost:
There’s a sigh that hovers near the memory of a passenger seat and an aura gone by that’s why there’s a yearning to be just returning along the track to Make Believe. . .
So much for the variety of genres. There is also quite a variety of styles. Sometimes the syntactic style is very awkward – these are poems that share with others an uncomfortableness with the way English deploys a compulsory definite article “He wields stick with ferule”, “or who has stilled brass tongue of bell” – but I think the awkwardness is a kind of deliberate rawness: it’s not there in the earlier Apparition books. This is a poetry, in other words, that wants to sound more like Blake than Tennyson. And a number of poems are written in a rhymed two-line stanza style that I find very attractive, again they nod towards Blake and also to the ghazal form. Take, for example, one of the last poems, “Pebbles”:
Who reads a chapter before sleep has plot lines her dream may keep. Who hesitates is taking time to weigh the waits, to find the rhyme. Who spends ten minutes with an orchid knows the earth’s good habitat. Who plucks a pebble from a pool feels water close once hand is pulled. One who observes her walking feet looks up to see who she will meet. A kookaburra on a rotary hoist lifts breakfast to a higher place. Who studies formation of a leaf, green or skeletal, finds relief.
It probably belongs to a group of poems whose relationship to the apparition is a bit tenuous – “Corona Wreath”, for example, is a straightforward Covid poem in which the apparition doesn’t appear either as a figure or a set of moral imperatives – but it has that nice, raw Blakean quality.
What to make of this strange and intriguing book, when all is said and done? A central hermeneutic problem is that an “outside” reader such as myself can’t really define the poet’s stake in the whole project which, since The Apparition’s Daybook was published in 1995, has now occupied its author for more than a quarter of a century. There are obviously autobiographical elements – the kookaburra on the Hills Hoist and the daphne that lines the lane recur so often that they lead a reader to think that this must be happening at the author’s home. One of the most important poems, if we are looking at this question, is “His Letter of Support” from the second book, where he has a kind of alter ego relationship with the poet, describing him as “my amanuensis”. The apparition can also be allegorised as both inspiration (something that visits the poet) and poetry (and its authors) itself, a force able to play a non-activist but important part in public affairs and to celebrate the generally uncelebrated. But these two readings are mutually exclusive: the apparition must be either outside the poet or a part of the poet’s life and personality; that is, on the inside. Pearson’s stake in all this can probably only be described by the author himself, and although that is a situation that applies to almost all poets, it’s especially complex here in this extensive and multi-focussed collection.