Cameron Lowe: Porch Music

Geelong: Whitmore Press, 2010, 76pp.

The 2005 chapbook, Throwing Stones at the Sun, provided an introduction to the likeable poetry of Cameron Lowe and many of those poems reappear in this first, full-length book. One’s response to Throwing Stones at the Sun was that there was a tension between a basically lyric gift – a sensitivity, that is, to the here and now and the larger patterns of memory and entropy in which it is meshed – and a love of the kind of dashing, semi-surreal imagination of John Forbes whose turns of phrase appeared in a number of poems.

By Porch Music, things seem to have complicated a little. The powerful drive towards the lyric is still there and it is stressed in the title which very much suggests a celebration of the things seen close at hand from that most homely of viewpoints, the porch. Lowe does this really well, especially in an extended poem of getting up and into the day like “Morning Light” which, after a rehearsal of all the events leading to breakfast, asks what a message floated in a bottle might say and concludes with its own answer:

That the eucalypt on the traffic island
is flowering with abandon;
that bats have come for the summertime -
by May they’ll be gone.
And there is nothing else like this -
nothing at all.

What I like about these lyrics is that they are never take-it-or-leave-it expressions of lyric simplicity, but instead, have tentacles that connect them to wider issues than the conventional lyric obsession with beauty and its ephemerality. In “Yellow Pansies, at Evening”, for example:

Counting them now, an economy
of colour in the fading light,
rising together from a pot
on the porch,
not a dry set of numbers
considered alone,
but a richer,
more collective intent,
black eyes searching out
the sun that’s now gone.

the lines that come at the hinge of the poem, “not a dry set of numbers / considered alone”, are deliberately dry themselves and prevent the poem being elegant whimsy by embodying the theme of abstraction (which leads to meaning) versus embodiment (which leads to presence). “Morning Light” had begun with the poet’s injunction to himself that the experience was “nothing grand – / the scale is neither big nor small” while it is registering the “little waves / of abstraction as the morning, / devoid of ambition, simply occurs”. Similarly in “The Dragonflies”, being visited by a cloud of these insects tempts the couple in the poem to “read it as a sign: / that to be here, together, / amongst these trees, / just as we are, / may be enough” and the issue is the delicate balance between the experience itself and its putative meanings. And the preceding poem, “Saturday, Eastern Beach” embodies the same issue in a phrase: a couple, meshed in a seaside, “lyric”, scene watch a massive tanker and the partner asks, “Where’s it headed”. Though the question is ostensibly about the ship, it is also about the scene itself and the poem which is being derived from it and so the question is really, “What does it mean?”

And then there are the issues of authorial position. In “Normanby Street” a description of this semi-sacred place, replete with picket fence, church spire and pansies on the porch – in other words, items which recur regularly in other poems – is continuously interpenetrated by reminders that “You are not this place”. Two poems, “A Sunday” and “Alice” relate to this. On the surface, “Alice” is a lovely poem about the way in which the drive towards extinction (“the rose dead-heading / its way toward June”) is counterbalanced by the human:

Now, suddenly, amongst

falling leaves and dying buds
your smile lights and the colours,

all of them, come creeping back.

But you are confident, from the other poems, that the complexity of the philosophical position behind this is recognised and thus incorporated in the poem: for this is a Romantic stance, best embodied in Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode”, where “joy” emanates from the watcher in order to penetrate and animate the lifeless objects of sense. In fact this may well be the theme of “A Sunday” which counterbalances “Normanby Street”’s “You are not this place” with the repeated assertion that “This empty street needs you”. Equally “Romantic” are the issues of the inner and outer and language itself. “Breathing” is a complex and satisfying poem in which the first half is devoted to the lover’s back (and, significantly, her breathing) using images from the natural world for her body so that fingers are leaves and hands are stones. In the poem’s second half she becomes a landscape (“her back itself an ocean”) but one which might speak:

. . . . .
Seashells, she might say suddenly,
half-asleep in the sun, dreaming
perhaps of distant, pebbled shores,

little waves rising,
crumbling, repeating again and again,
meddling with memory . . .

This interpenetration of the three crucial realms – the human, metaphorical and external worlds – not only makes the poem a sophisticated one, it also reminds us of the epistemological issues that lie behind what often seem to be simple lyrics.

Of course, one of the things the lyric can do is celebration and, for some reason, we are happy if that is done innocently – that is, without the markers of authorial sophistication and engagement with larger issues. One of the nicest poems of Throwing Stones at the Sun is included in Porch Music: “Summer” is worth quoting in full:

The smell of sausage on the wind
from a distant backyard brings you erect
and summer grins like a show clown
because it knows it’s being watched.
In your baggy shorts and T-shirt
you could be a surfer, and you know it,
but that was summers ago and seems now
like a mirage, or an ad on TV,
where wetsuits slide like quicksilver
toward the waiting water, which viewed
through a screen is as beautiful as a bottle
of Coke and just as sweet. As the day’s
heat softens into evening there’s that
sausage again, adrift on a hot breeze,
whispering: it’s summer, it’s summer.

I quote this in full, partly to demonstrate the Forbesian influence that I spoke of initially, for Forbes was (surprisingly, given the complexity of his ideas about poetry) a great writer of celebrations. Also, as I said initially, the two drives of Throwing Stones at the Sun – one towards lyric meditation on the world just around the porch and the other towards a more surreal practice – a complicated here by the brief second section of this book, called “The Corrosive Littoral”. Most of these poems are derived from responses to paintings by James Gleeson whose surrealistic lushness seems, on the surface, a long way from the pansies and picket fence outside of the porch. Indeed this section, even in its title, seems so utterly different to the book’s first section, that at first it looks like a challenge to the poet – either from his unconscious or from a critic – to expand his palette. It might almost have been a skilfully constructed Writing School exercise, designed to catch this poet at his weak point.

The fact, though, is that these poems are very good and “very good” not in the sense of “accomplished”, but in the sense of engaging the poet’s deepest responses. My tentative explanation for this is that classic surrealism (and Gleeson is no exception here) is obsessed by desire, works through dream, and engages memory. This is not so far from the thematic material of the first part of Porch Music so that when we read a poem like “The attitude of lightning towards a lady mountain” we are in not entirely unfamiliar territory:

In the science of cosmetics she’s the product
of the test: among so many reflections there can be no need for reflection.

Yet her value to the history of mirrors
remains a mystery to merchant bankers
and to lick her, as if with lightning,

is the secret ambition of adolescents
racked with lust. On the catwalk in Paris,
or naked in a kitchen in Geelong,

her forehead is the glitter of sunlight
striking ice on the summit of Mount Fuji;
even then she’s a fiction of desire too cold

to touch. When she whispers in the night
that sex and violence are futile you’re witness
to the true confessions of a lightning rod.

The “lady mountain” of the Gleeson painting is very much a totem (another feature of this sort of surrealism) and the poem too confronts the totemic qualities of this obscure object of desire. It is omnipresent (her embodiments appear in both Parisian haute couture and in Geelong kitchens), unattainable and, above all, a source of power. We meet her again in the poem derived from “Gardens of the Night” where she is much more clearly a totemic female.

If these poems engage with ideas of desire which are present in the poems earlier in the book, then others deal with more distinctive themes. “The Descent”, for example, responds to Gleeson’s lush landscape by taking us back to the lyric objects of the other poems:

It begins late in the hottest month, this thin fiction that summer’s ending, as if winter’s always with us, curled like a spring around our fingers or our childish hearts. And if autumn’s a dream of falling, then the night sweats spill their abstract meanings like lyrics from our parents’ songs. It’s always been like this: dust days drifting in and out of the last evening light, then that slow descent into sleeping, the street outside a dark river leading us back to ourselves, to beaches and distant suns, to pale moonlit hands pressing down, down. In the night all the words return, the bitter, hissing spume of memory, making of the motion of this quiet street obsolete patterns in the sand.

There is a lot you could say about this poem but I’m interested in the way it transposes material from other poems. It begins with one of Lowe’s obsessive touches: the exact time of the year. In the earlier poems this always seems connected with a sense of seasonal change and the very clever result is that lyric immediacy (the exactly documented appearance of the singular item) is balanced against both ephemerality (when the season is declining into another) and eternity (when the circularity of the seasons is stressed). In “The Descent” the fall is not into winter or summer but into the image rich-world of sleep and dream. And the poetry of the night is like the lyrics of the songs of another generation, that is, lyrics whose meaning is just out of reach.

For me, the most intriguing of these later poems is “City on a Tongue” (the painting on which it is based, I have never seen). As with the first two poems I looked at, this is a poem about desire conceived totemically. The female figure “rises like a city on your tongue” and the city image is continued when she floats above the poet animating the world beneath, “As she lights her lamps at evening the sky above you glows with sudden fire . . .”, but, of course, desire never satisfies the immense energies it arouses:

Once you thought yourself the only music in her streets, the  melody that stirred her like a gentle seaside breeze. Now those same streets echo to a song that’s sung alone.

Most intriguing to me is the way the poem gets a bathetic effect out of looking like a prosified poem. In fact it looks as though old rhyming “fourteeners” have been opened out into a prose poem. It’s an unsettling and interesting effect: whether it’s a unique formal discovery of Cameron Lowe or something well-known among poets, I have no idea.

Where Cameron Lowe’s next book will go is anybody’s guess. The lyric world is so strong and done so well and with such awareness that you feel it is likely that this idiom (rather than, say, responses to surrealist paintings) will prevail. But there is plenty of room – and talent – for experiment.