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.

Petra White: The Incoming Tide

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2007, 52pp.

One of the difficulties with first books – and this superb debut by Petra White is no exception – is the lack of a host of previous publications to act as a kind of context for the reader. That makes a critic’s life hard and you are always nervous that you are going to get something terribly wrong. My sense of the poems of The Incoming Tide, however – accurate or not – is that they locate the self of the poet in three different ways: as member of a family, as worker and as inhabitant of a number of littoral areas, but particularly that between shore and sea.

Of these the third is the most important and I would describe White’s principal concerns as involving this macro-perspective and using work and the family as ways of anchoring it in the homelier, domestic world. This can make for some surprising and pleasurable shifts. The long sequence of poems, “Highway”, for example, describes a trip with a convoy (or perhaps putative “family”) of hippies made along the Eyre Highway through South Australia. This is littoral territory with a vengeance as Nullarbor Plain meets the Great Australian Bight providing cliff edge and horizon as horizontal limits. And the poetry rises to meet this challenge, especially in “Bunda Cliffs”:

The shelved-in sea hived with diagonals,
verticals, horizontals, slabs of sleek water
ferrying hazes of air in its crystal,

vapouring the desert’s tongue.
We funnel blue glimmers, personless gases,
far-outness pouring into the breath,

our own power just enough to keep us
from billowing out like kites. The cliff
props itself up, its piles of age and buried faces.
. . . . .

When, in the final poem, people run into the sea at Cactus Beach, a clever switch in perspective describes the land as though it were the sea:

When he tore off his rags and ran into the sea, we all ran in after him.

Beyond us was the jetty, a shark net, milky still water
that remembered the blood of a young boy.
Further out, the alpine peaks of whitest sand dunes.

The desert looked on, changed nothing.

But even a sequence with as cosmic a perspective as this carefully anchors it among people. The first two poems describe members of the expedition – a semi-demented misfit who is “our fool, our thing / of darkness” and a small boy who is, for a brief period, lost in the dunes – and the third poem, “Eucla Beach”, takes time out to describe the poet’s grandparents for no more obvious reason than that, on the trip from England, their boat would have passed this beach on its way to Adelaide and that the grandmother “would have loved it here”. Always a sucker for radical disjunctions, I find the appearance of the grandparents to be deeply satisfying and, of course, the poem encourages us to make order out of their inclusion. The grandmother’s walks, we are told, connected her to herself by unjoining “the joined-up dots” of the familiar, mapped world; emigrating to Australia was a spur-of-the-moment thing which was like “leaving the planet” but it results in the locating of the future poet:

. . . . .
Sea laps towards me like the breath of another,
and draws itself back to wherever I might have been.
. . . . .

And, finally, in Adelaide they were in a kind of desert “free of the crimes of a nation not-quite-really-theirs” and at Eucla “a past buries as easily / as sand moves”. We seem to be in an inverse of the Judith Wright world here: the essence of this family is not the discovery of indissoluble genetic bonds which mean that the poet is guilty because of the actions of her forebears, but rather – in the desert – the obliteration of such joined up dots leads to the discovery of self through making a new patter. That self is implicated in family, but not in any way determined by it. That, at least is my reading of “Highway”. It is a considerable sequence which, I think, is at the heart of where this poetry really wants to go. But I could be wrong.

The cosmic positioning also moves into the essentially philosophical area of the relationship between human self and natural world. I think that The Incoming Tide is bookended by poems that recall Wallace Stevens: the final poem, “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale”, does this overtly of course. The book’s first poem, “Planting” is a sonnet that has that Stevens-ish quality of fairly simple, abrupt documentation coupled with a refusal to help the reader as to significance:

So he gave you the tobacco plants, seedlings,
and you planted them behind the house
you half-lived in. He was nobody,
friend of a stranger’s friend. But he
gave you the seedlings and you pressed them
just lightly in the soil, before night
fell into rain, heavier, darker, greener
than the tiny sound or hair-line root
that might have flared into a moment’s light
as you lay still. When the rain
stopped, the eves and over-burdened gums
let fall their water, a long, unbounded echo
that welled into morning. The garden gurgled,
the plants drowned, the sound was yours all night.

An absolutely self-confident poem but not one that it is easy to feel comfortable with. Again, one searches desperately for context. A gift – a human, though remote, act – is drowned by the natural world. The frail threads of the roots of the seedlings are entirely subsumed by water. So far, so good, but the final clause “the sound was yours all night” is, of course, entirely equivocal. The “you” both possesses the sound of the water and makes the sound: thus, in the latter reading, becoming aligned to the heavy, dark and green natural world. It recalls Stevens’ great poem which begins as a simple assertion of the separation between the brute world of the sea and the singer but goes on further and further to enmesh the two.

In “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale” it is the continuous interaction between the world of the sea, the world of the sky, and the human which is stressed. The scene is set on a pier, projecting out into the sea (which is, at Point Lonsdale, a channel entering Port Philip Bay). The sea and air are connected (raising a hooked fish is described as “fish / after fish seeps through the cloudy / eye of its brother”) while humans occupy a kind of interzone. There is nothing of the sublime or even vaguely creative in the world of these humans, however: they are no more than children fishing although there is an older fisherman who “shivers like a hatchling” and whose “dilate eye is blazing with / outward-seeking light”. I’m aware that both of these readings – of “Planting” and “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale” – are no more than inadequate gestures, of course, and we’ll have to wait for White’s next books to feel more comfortable with these poems.

Family is the central theme of three poems devoted to two grandmothers and a sister. “Munich”, dedicated to the grandmother who appears in “Eucla Beach”, is striking in that so much of what it does – ie what the poet finds important – is surprising. It begins, for example, with a description of Munich, the city that White is in when the bad news comes. But it doesn’t go on to conventionally lament absence; rather, it celebrates presence:

. . . . .
She didn’t entirely want to be remembered,
no grave, no plaque.
Her memories, freed from her head,
swarming in mine, or some of them:
the child I was who sat on her knee
and the child she was in blackout Stoke-on-Trent
step awake, two slippered ghosts,
past houses blasted to rubble and bones
. . . . .

As in “Eucla Beach” experiences are freed from their conventional and determined patterns and can be made into new and unusual ones, including fine poems. The second grandmother poem, “For Dorothy”, is unusual in that it portrays the woman, not in terms of her relationship to her granddaughter, but in terms of her surrounding children. And, finally, “Sister”, is a lovely, almost comically surprising poem whose essential structure is that it is about sisterhood only in its title and its last two lines. The bulk of the poem is devoted to a long and loving description of an axolotl “his polite uneraseable smile swanning / him upwards”. As the poem progresses through four eight-line stanzas the gap between the title and the content of the poem grows more and more intense so that the conclusion is that much more satisfying:

Descendant of the Aztec dog-god
Xolotl, who with mangled hands and feet
guided the dead to heaven, his once trans-
lucent form refuses catastrophe; more
than the ailing tabby, the timorous
and watchful high-heeled dog, or the rented
fireprone house, he guards our dangerous
childhood pledge to never change.

It is one of those rare poems which is simultaneously sophisticated and easy to grasp: it should be immediately anthologized.

Finally there is the world of work. Again it is a slightly surprising to find such a context-for-a-self in a first book but the tone is ideal: never outright contemptuous but open-minded, engaged and prepared to mock when necessary. One of the balancing techniques these poems explore is to let business speak for itself and so the sequence, “Southbank”, alternates meditations by the poet:

Our time is sold not hired,
our names as simulacra
show us up in our absence
on semi-partitions, brass-plated.
We forget, like monks, and serve
an abstract we must
not care too much for.

with monologues from management:

I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy
          joins the Networks & 
Infrastructure Team to give cover
          until Jill returns
from maternity leave. . . .

“One Wall Painted Yellow for Calm” is a full-scale dramatic monologue done by a worker in a Job Network office. I am not sure how “found” it is but it captures a voice and person so brilliantly that The Incoming Tide becomes one of those rare books where you would say that this is a technique worth persevering with:

                              I know you’re probably thinking
          I’m just some geezer
who’d be like totally unemployed, if not
          for the unemployed -
so we’re all in this together. I always say,
          we are each of us
individuals, to whom anything can happen.
          Last week I had a chap . . . . .

What makes these work-centred poems work is the tone of balanced and involved observation: harder to do than it might seem on the surface.

As I’ve said, most of the poems in this book rotate around these issues of Family, Work and what might be called Cosmic Position. I’ve omitted “Grave” an ambitious and lengthy poem which moves beyond Cosmic Position into theology or at least religious ethics. It is built around the grave of a young girl and has several of those surprising shifts that mark out the poetry of this book, eventually working its way towards the problematic flood of Noah’s Ark, worrying, as many poems have done, why we focus on the few survivors and ignore the horror of the devastation under the water. But I’m not sure it is a successful work; for once the transitions seem too complex to follow and, although it makes sense logically, it is, perhaps, the one poem in the book where the surprises are not especially pleasurable. but if it is a failure, it is a rare one. This is a very accomplished and very complex first book by a poet who can be said to be, already, of considerable importance.