Simon West: Carol and Ahoy

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 59pp.

Simon West’s fourth book begins with two poems which, in a way, embody the major themes of the work. The first, “River Tracks”, is a kind of celebration of the Goulburn River working its way north-west through Victoria to its meeting with the Murray just before Echuca. It’s a free-flowing meditative poem (recalling someone like Coleridge) and one’s first response is that this kind of poetry is a long way from the Italian influenced lyrics of West’s other books but the word “free-flowing” is slightly and importantly inaccurate. Inland Australian rivers aren’t free-flowing, they are muddy, rainfall-affected, often broken streams and “River Tracks” wants to exploit this quality. It isn’t just a matter of making a poem which mimics its subject: the rest of West’s poems show us that it is more likely that he sees an unavoidable harmony between what he wants his poems to do and the landscape that he inhabits. And it is a very distinctive landscape of river red gums standing in the channels, overflows and sandbanks of the Murray and its tributaries. The poetry, to match this, wants to move not by logical or imagistic assertion towards a triumphal conclusion but by surprising shifts and disjunctions. The significances which poetry seeks won’t be found here in a steady flood flowing majestically out to meet the sea but in oddities and surprises symbolised in the isolated pools left behind near the river after a flood event. So the poem ends with the poet, walking around a park in Shepparton made on the site of a place where the river has scoured out a track which it will fill at the next flood “letting us bide for a bit in common reflection”. These words, the poem’s end, are designed to be read in a number of ways. The first would stress the word “common” with its double sense of ordinary, unpretentious, far from the conventional Romantic sublime but also of communal, social, far from an incipient Romantic solipsism. Another would focus on the word “reflection” – also a crucial term in Romantic epistemology – with its double meaning of thought and physical reflection: the water will cover the complexities of the muddy, detritus-filled ground that West is very interested in and reflect the sky.

True to its plan of being more like a Murray-Darling river than, say, one of the east coast “Northern Rivers” like the Tweed or the Clarence, “River Tracks” spends its second stanza in a slightly unexpected investigation of the original names for the Goulburn:

Round Murchison it’s said the Ngooraialum
called you Bayungun, but Mitchell
might have got this wrong. Waaring
was also recorded, while downstream you were Kialla
and Goopna, deep waterhole,
living on in Congupna and Tallygaroopna.
Tongue sounds taken for runs, then stations
and finally the towns that drank you . . .

It seems a detour with a double purpose, at one level recording the processes by which original names were transmuted into the names of properties and towns and thus venturing into the territory of the study of the function of naming in landtaking. But this respectable and conventional interest is balanced against the very distinctive interest West always has in languages and their sounds. “Climbing the Tower of Babel” from The Ladder speaks of the complex emotional experience of language learning – “and doubt echoed, / ‘This isn’t yours to call your own’. / It was love kept me going . . .” – and it’s a theme traceable to the title poem of his first book.

And then there is the first stanza of “River Tracks”:

Never a straight line or a single course,
never blue. Most maps mistell you.
Eager to find where you finish,
they mistake your daydreaming, your loops
and faux pas and odd sidesteps,
your misgivings and floods of largesse . . .

On the surface (an appropriate cliché when speaking of rivers) this says that the complexities of the Goulburn’s course can’t be mapped (ie represented) without considerable abstraction and stylisation – that is, reduction. But it’s also a poem about poetry of course (another appropriate phrase), and may well want to make the point that various descriptions of poetry, especially those found in end-oriented disciplines such as literary history and literary theory, are always reductive, missing the point that the richnesses of poetry are often to be uncovered in unexpected twists, turns and seeming dead ends. It might also be read not as a general statement about poetry but as a specific description of West’s own poetry and thus a warning to anyone writing about it, saying something like, “In my work it’s not so much the big picture that counts as the surprises to be found in lesser things: bear this in mind when you write about it!”.

This all makes “River Tracks” a significant, even pointed, opening poem and raises the paradox that it might be a pointed poem about how poems aren’t pointed in the same way that Coleridge’s Dejection ode is partly a poem about not being able to write a poem. “Hans Heysen” also has a specific point to make. It is a poem about a painter’s problems in representing a gum tree and it uses material from Heysen’s own letters. The difficulty – as the poem begins – is “to keep the gum tree solid” given the way in which the distinctive morning light is echoed in the tree’s bark and thus tends to etherialise what should be a solid, earth-bound lump of timber. I read this as an example of the tension in any art between significance and “thinginess”. The Romantic tendency is inclined to favour the former and there is a swing to the latter embodied in movements like Chosisme and Neusachlichkeit. This might be a lot of weight for a comparatively small poem to carry and the last two lines – “as truth, world’s truth, not absolute, is blent / and filters through our pulsing temperament” – seem to locate significance not as universal, undeniable meaning but as a subjective, Romantic experience in itself.

The issues raised in these first two poems appear in later ones in the book. “Floodplains on the Broken River” is a dip into personal history and place (as is the preceding poem, “On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land”) but is interested, as are many of West’s poems, in the richness of the subsoil: “I trod on litterfall and felt under foot / a stir of living things”. This takes us back just over a hundred poems to the first poem of West’s first book, “Mushrooms” – but it’s a recurring theme, a kind of alchemical change from decay to fruition that might – at a stretch – be made into a variation on Judith Wright’s “coral” approach to Australian culture whereby generations of the exiled and failed dead make a kind of base from which something might flower. And this idea of the riches underneath is the theme of “Walking in the Bush at Whroo” where the activity of the nineteenth century’s gold miners – digging downwards hoping to stumble on wealth is contrasted with that of the cicadas, “miners in reverse”, which move upward from the darkness to the light. I think this is connected with the question raised in the first poem of where significance is to be found and how it is to be found, suggesting that the answer is not as a random symbolisation but as a long-held loving development that sees, rather than makes, connections. At any rate these cicadas are not merely insects with a weird life-cycle:

. . . . .
But I listened and it seemed
those insects from the stones
were driven by a need
to avow old love with their own,
to fathom a dying branch
and the eggs left as a gift,
the spider-like nymphs that fell
to a course of katabasis
where, fostered by black roots,
the imago grew well-fed
as the living learn to bear
visions left by the dead . . .

This all rather makes Carol and Ahoy into an exploration of aesthetics, which is part of its interest but not the only one. There is, throughout the book, a strong personal theme. “On a Trip to Van Diemen’s Land” is about the poet’s family history:

. . . . .
Death wiped a shipwrecked generation’s slate.
Their children seemed to spring from wind-tossed seed
and grew staked to the mores of English State.
My grandmother denied her convict breed,
kept corgies . . .

But the poem does end in a poet’s resolution, significantly flavoured with a Latin (ie early Italian) reference to Aeneas carrying his father.

In a sense this is a preparation for the last three poems of the book. “Swimming” is about the death of West’s father and, to a lesser extent, his paternal grandmother and grandfather, figures symbolically carried from the wreck of Troy by pious Aeneas. It’s a more sophisticated poem than perhaps I am making it sound, as interested in absence as in significant, if inexplicable, presence – “The thought bridged both your being / and not being and made no sense”. This is followed by a version of part of Book VI of The Aeneid, “The Twofold Tree”, dedicated to West’s father. One can see why this is being done, even though it seems at odds with the style of the other poems. Aeneas’s descent into the underworld (the mythical equivalent of the “litterfall” and productive humus of the earlier poems) is prefaced by an encounter with the Cumaean Sybil, the instruction to find a golden bough (in which he is assisted by doves sent by his muse/mother), and the correct filial behaviour towards a drowned friend. All of which sets out Aeneas as a symbol for the poet, above all as someone concerned to carry his predecessors and their household gods to safety, rather as the cicadas “bear / visions left by the dead”. The final poem continues this Virgilian theme by being an eclogue, a conversation between two farmers (but, in reality, two opposed positions inside the poet’s own head) in which the complaints of the younger – an inevitable catalogue of personal miseries derived from the social set-up in which he lives – are countered (or, at least, opposed) by the elder who argues for making the most of your luck and going on writing: “Such fears / are better sung than dwelt upon.”

Describing the concerns of Carol and Ahoy and showing that they are present in the earlier collections rather obscures the fact that this book feels utterly different to West’s earlier books. One superficial feature of this might be the comparative lack of Italian elements. The earlier books showed someone inhabiting two different cultures and two different languages – climbing the Tower of Babel. When such things do appear in this book it is only in the distant echoes of Virgil’s Latin. But a more important feature is the mode of the poems themselves. As I said earlier there is often a kind of Coleridgean quality to them (I am thinking of important pieces like “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode”). They meditate in sophisticated ways while working along in a mundane environment. They sometimes sound extraordinarily old-fashioned – a word I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to use in these reviews – recalling pieces like FitzGerald’s “The Wind at You Door”. At one moment – in the second stanza of “On Looking into a Chinese Scroll” – I think I actually winced. When a poet is as good a writer of lyric poetry as West proves himself to be in his earlier work, this is something of a surprise, and the impetus to change one’s mode of working from complex lyrics like “Mushrooms”, “Out of the Wood of Thoughts” or “Roman Bridges” to this sort of post-Romantic ambulatory meditation must be a powerful one. Perhaps he is looking for a way of thrashing out issues that might, in the future, form the basis for another kind of lyric. Perhaps he wants to recreate the meditative mode for a new century. At any rate, I’m contented with reminding myself of the truism that really good poets follow their own imperatives and it’s the job of critics to keep up.

Simon West: The Ladder

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, 57pp.

The Ladder is Simon West’s third book (after First Names of 2006 and The Yellow Gum’s Conversion of 2011) and it gives readers an opportunity to see more of the complex world its lyrics inhabit and explore. West is a very sophisticated poet who can be seen – now that we have a hundred or so poems – as rather more resistant to schematic plotting than my review of his first book, published on this site, might have suggested. But while we always speak of the way poets develop through their first books perhaps we should also speak of the way that our own responses as readers of that poetry develop as well. In that first review I wrote of two elements: an obsession with the tactility of language and a fascination with the vertical axis which moves from the under-soil – the word “humus” kept appearing as a kind of talisman – to the surface of the earth and on to the celestial view, re-enacting Dante’s three zones.

The Ladder, as its title suggests, contains poems which do develop the second of these interests. In fact the book’s epigraph is taken from that moment at the end of Paradiso XXII when Dante and Beatrice are about to ascend to the eighth heaven, after Benedict’s discourse about Jacob’s ladder: “The little threshing-floor which makes us so fierce was all revealed to me from hills to river-mouths, as I circled with the eternal Twins. Then to the beauteous eyes I turned my eyes again”. (I’ve used the Singleton translation here and should point out that by rendering l’aiuola as “threshing-floor” rather than “little plot” it perpetuates what many feel to be an over-interpretive, liberty-taking translation. (If I sound knowledgeable about all of this it is entirely thanks to the resources of Google and Wikipedia!) This epigraph should be enough to alert us to the fact that vertical axes still operate at the basis of West’s poetic imagination. Of course the passage in Paradiso is about seeing our little world – the place of all merely human drives, including savagery – from the perspective of the cosmic and may be as much about perspectives as it is about those drives. It may, in other words, be a comparatively abstract view which reminds us that everything seen is seen from somewhere and thus fits in with a number of other poems (beginning with “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarara Tjapaltjarri” in First Names) which are about point of view – or its lack.

At any rate, this passage from Paradiso is the basis for one of the poems of The Ladder, “Speckled World”. The narrator, like an Astronaut in the space-station, finds himself sailing over “deserts and the lights / of towns clustered against the dark”:

. . . . . 
                                               But then
I was taken with fear at the thought of drifting so far
I might lose the smell of soil on a frosty morning
when the sun refracts through dew on grass blades
and the tops of hills float in a layer of fog.
With longing I looked down on the speckled world
and knew my betrayal of Gravity could not last.
She would tug me back once more from this mad flight,
and I would return to plot my Res Gestae thus -
in my thirty-fifth year, after a long struggle,
I conquered my mistrust of life. . . .

Although it’s difficult for a reader to orient him- or herself in this poem – is it a rewriting of Dante’s experience (which occurs in the fiction of the Commedia at the age of thirty-five), a dream of the poet’s who is, coincidentally of the same age, or is the narrator neither Dante or the poet but a separate, invented character? – the general point is the same. Ascending into the heavens is one thing but the loss of the feeling of earth and its tactility – the smell of its rich humus – is intolerable. The narrator, as I read the poem, is going to focus on the horizontal dimension of this world and, indeed, many of the poems of The Ladder, despite its title, develop into discussions of the possibilities and protocols of this “speckled world” as well as what occurs when we break free, or at least half-free, from it.

The first poem, for example, “Roman Bridges”, concentrates on one of the defining features of the horizontal world: the way we move into, through and across it. The bridges, whose arches make a kind of leap, show that there is

           grace in holding gravity at bay
and a certain poise in being in between.
My ideal landscape has room for bridges and hills,
spires, birds and echoes: halfway things.

A later poem, “The Go-Between”, tells of a bridge in northern Italy built across a gorge by a devil in exchange for the soul of its first user. As often in these folktales the devil is tricked when a dog rushes over in pursuit of a bone. But you can see the schema of the thing and the way it appeals to West. The context of the poem is one with a vertical axis – it is about a demon pulling, or trying to pull, a member of the human world down into hell. But what is left is a horizontal bridge which, as the poem says, is a “marvellous / go-between” that leads the rest of us “somewhere else”.

It’s also chastening to see that this interest in way a bridge makes a kind of horizontal step into space is present in First Names too. A poem there, “Flight”, was about a couple arriving in a new country (“a change both of money and language”) at an entirely new kind of house (“all narrow stairs, and doors of different sizes”). Nothing really happens except that, “with a cry of joy you jumped / forward and ran a few paces ahead”. Taken on its own, in a first book, it was difficult to see what sustained this poem, apart from its desire to represent a brief, important moment in a relationship. Read alongside “Roman Bridges” it can be seen as one of those moments of horizontal leap into a new world, like the arches of the bridges:

. . . . .
at last it seemed so easy to break
from that poise which had
borne the weight of times past.
And my heart jumped behind you, startled
at having to catch up, busy collecting
the slipstream of a new intent.

And there is a striking, autobiographical poem in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion, “Door-Sill” which is about a bare “slab of red gum” serving as a door step, a threshold between the inner world of the house and the outer world. Initially one read it – in a rather Maloufian way – as a poem about liminality, interested in the doorway between two worlds. Rereading it, one can see that it is the step forward, rather than the different worlds, which interests West:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes,
after a poise
that seemed about to come
when top-heavy we pitched,
and were too quickly seeking
peace with gravity . . .

In The Ladder, “Nothing Ventured” – the title exploits the many ways of reading that phrase, as part of a cliche and as complete in itself – is about, as a child, crossing the wire fence into an empty field for the first time. Again, the emphasis is a little unpredictable in that the poem is interested in the way the mind and the body are engaged in this crucial step – rather as they were in “Flight”:

. . . . . 
Something came of nothing, though, when first
I leapt that fence alone. Giddy with lag,
my head raced to catch where my feet now stood. And did,
and was pledged, like saying to a mirror, here I am.

And a poem about Tintoretto’s weird “Miracle of St Mark” in which the saint, seen from behind and rather below, floats through the air, about to save a slave due to have his legs broken for worshipping the Christian god, is interested in the way in which this odd pose is a matter of capturing the moment before the miracle, the step (if one can make a step in mid-air) from which “Everything / set in motion must occur”.

One of the features of this “halfway world” whose landscape is made up of bridges, spires, echoes, mountains and rivers – but also doorsills and birds – is that it is a place where boundaries are less clear than is usually assumed. There is a halfway state in which, say, under the effects of fog, shapes lose their precision. A longish poem late in the book, “Chimera”, is about the patron goddess of this state who sounds a little like Spenser’s Mutabilitie:

. . . . . 
Eagle-eyed when she surveys the land
each leaf is lucent as in Vermeer,
and all at once softens to take its place
in a patchwork of colours by Klee.
It is thought she is the patron saint of nay-sayers,
and easily consumed by spite, but when at twilight
the trees unmoor in winter fog
and, in a panic, you reach out as if they could be held,
don’t despise her clown hooting from the bank. . .

And “The Perfection of Apollo”, about Ribera’s painting of the flaying of Marsyas, contains a stanza which, quoting Pico della Mirandola, claims an ethical virtue, deeply humanist, for the race of humans who live in the halfway world of continuous change:

. . . . .
          our dignity resides in having
no fixed seat and no form of our own,
in being placed halfway; not wholly mortal,
rather free to mould and make ourselves. . .

Another poem, with the faux Chinese title “Outside on a Warm Evening I Consider My Confused Ideas about Poetry. For Now I Offer This Brief Account” (a title that ensures all critics will return to it to read it carefully) revisits the same idea. It begins with something of an assault on the idea that poetry (together with the other arts) is a way of expanding our inner lives:

The poets of my youth spoke of dwelling
in themselves, as if they meant a secret
cavern of emotions where an essence
might be found purring like a cat. . .

It’s the defined stability of this model of the inner life which is being criticised though West doesn’t invoke the usual philosophical and psychological arguments of the last half-century. For him it seems more an issue of poetic temperament:

Too restless to abide, I’ve mostly lingered
round the threshold which the senses keep.
Outside there is so much to contemplate.
Some talk of depth and things as they are. Others
see layered surfaces alive with light. 
. . . . . 
In the poetry of mountains and waters
a path meanders through vast landscapes. Sometimes
it is hard to distinguish a man from a cloud or a tree . . . 

And it’s important to have not only the correct perceptual perspective but also the correct ethical protocols in this halfway landscape: “Here too, I imagine, before crossing a stream / it is wise to wash one’s hands and offer a prayer / while gazing into the flood”.

It’s a distinctive poetic perspective and West is a distinctive and, already, powerful presence in Australian poetry. My own perspectives on poetry are not much interested in national or ethnic distinctivenesses but one could imagine readers of First Names thinking that much that was distinctive about this new poet came from an acquired Italian component of his creativity. If so, well and good. But the second and third books have enough of Australia in them – especially at an autobiographical level – to make readers feel that this issue of Australianness, however murky and unhelpful the debates about it might generally be, is one of the issues raised by West’s poetry. There is a poem in The Ladder, “The Mallee Singer”, which is a tribute to Shaw Neilson. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect from this poet but the poem contrasts Shaw Neilson’s sensitivity – “you sought quieter weightings in your line / for the balm of green and flight of water birds, / for children in the sunlight in the spring” – with the louder, cruder music of his contemporary world, “Salvation drums, and blokes’ ballads / thudding over the black flats”. This aligns Shaw Neilson not just with sensitivity but with a sensitivity to the fluid boundaries of West’s halfway world where outlines are not so rigidly maintained as they are in Salvation Army hymns and in bush ballads.

The gum trees that begin to turn up in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion play an important role here and perhaps they do add a precision and specificity to what in First Names was inclined to be a generic “dark wood”. They are celebrated, in a way, in the first of twelve poems about Rome in which the author sees a gum tree among the Roman ilexes. The eucalypt has a particular quality that the poem wants to celebrate. Because, when we look at one we also look through its slim, falcate, downturned leaves, it is obviously very much a halfway tree:

Unreal city, still. By default. And then
the jolt of recognition hitting home - 
a gum broke the shade of holm oaks.
Its exhortation – remember, make known.

It was how light sifted through those swinging leaves - 
you looked at it and beyond it all in one.
. . . . . 
Intimate, drab and tragic, the branches curved
like Christ’s limbs in a deposition scene. . .

I think it is this odd quality of the gum that appeals to West – the poem doesn’t want to celebrate nostalgia. And after all, it’s a moot point how “Australian” the gum trees are nowadays. They are grown throughout South East Asia, for example, as a source of quick-growing hardwood impervious to local diseases and predators, and are common in North America and around the Mediterranean. I myself once saw a stand of them on the road between Kashan and Qom in Iran.