Philip Neilsen: Wildlife of Berlin

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2018, 107pp.

Many of the themes of Neilsen’s excellent Without an Alibi get revisited in this new book, some ten years on. Above all there is the repeated invocation of the natural world as simultaneously a place of danger and a place of imaginative freedom. It is also a world in danger as it is vulnerable to the various processes of reduction: these include obvious things like poisoning and clearing but also the subtler processes of being turned into museum and media subjects. You get some sense of this in the first poem of Wildlife of Berlin, “Marienplatz – Munich” which makes a nice link with the poems of the previous book as well as introducing the sort of material which will figure in this present one. It belongs to a Neilsenian genre that might be called “Recollections of experiences with ex-lovers overseas”. The poet recalls a Munich visit and being lectured to by his partner who tells him that both possessions and regrets are ridiculous. The environment is packed with possessions that humans have taken from the natural world:

. . . . . 
At the Museum of Hunting the stairwells
are studded with antlers and heads, the floors
patrolled by brown bears, wolves and a lynx,
their Waldgeist stolen by some taxidermist . . .

And that last line, invoking the Germanic world of dark forests and the spirits of dark forests (and also, in a gentler vein, the “wild woods” of The Wind in the Willows), shifts the poem into the intense world of “fairy tale”, which derives from the same culture:

That night we rock the lacy bed
with ferocious intent and Frau Mettler,
morning in her hair, shakes a fat finger at
our blue eyed impertinence
but gives us gingerbread when we leave . . .

Though the poem goes on to meditate on the issue of love and leaving – “when lovers leave it seems unnatural” – it finishes with an image of the natural world at its most unnatural when council cranes remove tubs of flowers at night to prevent them being stolen by others who don’t believe in the notion of theft. It’s a complex, hard-working poem bridging the world of Without an Alibi and Wildlife in Berlin and it is followed by the book’s title poem. (By this time we have had enough exposure to the word “wild” in Neilsen to appreciate that “wildlife” is not only a connotation-free synonym for “animals” but a phrase made up of “wild” and “life”.) The poem contrasts the fate of women in Berlin during the Russian advance of 1945 with a contemporary television documentary on wild animals in the city. The result is that the documentary is made to look smug though the exact reason for this isn’t entirely clear. The poem seems to want to be read as saying that contemporary German culture is interested only in the minor arcana of urban life and ignores the horrors which seventy years ago reduced its population to the status of wild animals, and there is good reason for doing so since the turning point of the poem is in the quoted line, “the authorities turn a blind eye to Berliners feeding bread to the swans”.

This first section has another three poems “about” animals where, as in the second section, largely devoted to birds, there is such a variety of treatment that the poems avoid becoming stereotyped. The first of them, “Hotel Paris”, for example, is about Parisian experiences which ensure that you can never entirely “enjoy home comforts again” but uses the idea of fabulously dressed women pickpockets as giraffes. These three poems are followed by four which are re-imaginings of the experiences of literary characters. It isn’t my favourite genre and since the first three deal with women – Anna Karenina, Lady Chatterley and Sleeping Beauty – there is a yet further temptation to slide into cliché, seeing them as victims or plucky fighters for equality. The best of them I think is the last, “Literary Walking”, in which Dickens, Wordsworth and Woolf are imagined to meet up on their walks and share a picnic. The cynic in me thinks that this meeting between the remorselessly theatrical, the remorselessly self-obsessed and the remorselessly snobbish wouldn’t end at all well, but in Neilsen’s poem it does because writers have one thing in common – critics

. . . . .
They discuss pickpockets, bellowing cattle
and critics, a pebble like a fox’s eye,
downhill swoop and slow ascension,
the complicated dignity of supple boots,
the necessary hardening of the feet, the skin.

With the last five of this first section we enter on more interesting and less predictable poems since they are all, more or less about death, a subject less likely to attract simplistic, predictable contemporary responses. One doesn’t have to read poems like “Thanatophobia” as overtly personal, even confessional, to know that the issue of fear of death is a feature of Neilsen’s poetry. It’s beginning

There’s nothing wrong with you the psychiatrist
reassures me: no synapses in a train wreck,
no morbid angels of rumination.
The CBT approach would be to visit a morgue,
but you’re not afraid of dead bodies, just being one . . .

makes it seem like a gloss on Woody Allen’s famous comment, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. This group is marked, as is often the case in Neilsen’s poetry, by variety: they seem like distinct poems that have fallen together in the ordering of the selection rather than been a consistent mining of a theme. And they benefit from that. “Thanatophobia” is the only one of them that is presented in the first person, others are about a “hole-in-the-heart” operation suffered by his wife as a child, about a symbolic life-cycle, about a suicide and about those who want to fight fatal diseases with various kinds of non-medical approaches.

As I’ve said, it’s the variety which is interesting here, rather than the consistent themes. The variety makes it difficult to see the nature of the poet’s involvement in these themes, to get a simple, viable sense of his poetic personality. That’s not a bad thing of course and one thing it does is prevent Neilsen ever being reducible to a simple thematic core since that would omit too much of what makes these good poems. And this notion of a group which isn’t a group applies to the second, or “bird” section of Wildlife in Berlin. “Crow”, the first poem, is tricky to read because, for all its sharpness, we don’t know whether to identify the “you” as the poet, the reader or the poet’s favourite enemy,

Crows are clever.
They use sticks as tools,
speak non-idiomatic French,
start but do not finish cryptic crosswords.
Crows were the first to wear black to book launches,
to peck at wine while avoiding a rival.
. . . . . 
Nothing will ever be black and white again.
Here comes the pain, so bite on it,
the crow in your veins.
You’re not going anywhere alone.

“Snowy Owl”, “Auspices” and “Pied Currawong” are, though very different, built on the theme of humanity’s poor chances of future survival whereas “Tawny Frogmouth” is an exploration of the way in which fitting in, aligning oneself to one’s social reality, results in transformation rather than merely a conscious disguise and reduces the powers to hunt and attract a mate – “So intent on blending in, / camouflage too perfect, or too rough, / a heart and lung of twigs”. In “Noisy Miner” we are back in the world of “Death and how to deal with it”. The eponymous bird is good at dying, responding to the death of its fellows and at killing. It imagines that its best approach to death (symbolised here in the cat watching the birds from under the grevillea bush) is aggression:

. . . . . 
                   Colonisation is its pulse.

It looks into a rain puddle,
pecks at the yellow eyes and beak,
trusts in belligerence to bully death,
the hunched fur, over there under grevillea.

“The New England Honeyeater” is a comic poem describing the fantasies of the early botanist who first encountered it and the final of these bird poems, “Red-Capped Robin – Long Pocket, Indooroopilly” is really a failed love-affair poem that uses the bird as a symbol.

The third section begins with a group of poems that are about professional people being in places where they shouldn’t be: “A University Bureaucrat Plans a Garden” – a parody of managerialist cant – “A Philosopher in the Brothel” – a chance to bring thought and non-thought (in the form of sex) together – “The Scientist at his Mother’s Grave” – a chance for son and dead mother to continue their spirited arguments, and “A Lawyer at the Funeral” – a chance to explore the opposition between a calm analysis and the “insincerity and mixed motives” of the relatives. By the time we get to “Unity Valkyrie Mitford at the Osteria” we have an historical portrait of a person who seems to be in a very odd situation: an Englishwoman infatuated with Hitler and determined to prevent war between Germany and England. How personally driven is this exploration of people out of their place? It’s hard to tell but it’s reflected in one of the book’s epigraphs, Elizabeth Bishop’s “I was made at right angles to the world and I see it so” and is perhaps the underlying theme behind the final poem of the group, “The Erl-King Reconsiders his Purpose”, where Goethe’s Erlking, damaged himself, decides that rather than abducting children’s souls, he will make a career move “from psychopath to psychopomp” devoting his attentions to “those who gossip and muck-rake”. Perhaps it’s all a baroquely varied expression of a core situation: of being a poet in a university. And “The University Makes a Poem” is about that very subject though it turns out to be a more complex poem than its title suggests. It begins with the issue of academics complaining, as they always do in all faculties, that their administrative and teaching requirements (the former especially since they involve responding to coded demands of mere administrators) prevent them from doing their real work:

We creative writing academics keep saying
I must find time. Submit an ARC application
and a short story is snuffed out,
supervise enough PhDs and a novel bites the dust.

The university gives us core business,
performance indicators. There is no arguing with this.
The efficient campus echoes with crow calls,
a student seen reading Proust on the quadrangle lawn
is hailed as a guru. . .

This is, of course, a little Proust joke though, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t see it in the first few readings. Proust’s great work is On the Search For Lost Time and so the student reading Proust could be said to be somebody who has found time, unlike his or her teachers who keep saying that they must find more of it. It’s the young who teach the old, or perhaps, the memories that the old have of being young that can still provide a guiding light:

And yet it is the young who leave us clues.
Rooms still imagine themselves as thinking spaces,
classes still have epiphanies which come
and pass, well-lit, like a night train.
A tutorial becomes a bird of paradise.

The great writers worked in banks, toiled as labourers,
fought fascism. Even the privileged were worn down
by river stones of despair.
The world won’t miss our foregone scribbles.
The academy stutters, and produces a poem.

I’m assuming that the way to read the last line is as saying that the poem we have just read is the one that the stuttering academy has produced. As such it’s a version of what might be called the “Dejection: An Ode”-syndrome where a complaint that depression inhibits poetry is expressed as a poem.

The fourth section begins with two poems about death but I think that the dominant motif of this section is one of perspective on times past – something that begins to take over one’s approach to reality as one approaches seventy. So the significance of the location of “Guitar” and “Noosa Beach” is, perhaps, that they are about the experiences of the past. “Sunset at Brisbane Airport”, “Chrissy Amphlett and You” and “The Intervention of Wolves”, each of which marks its times carefully and brings the past and present (or, at least, the near-present) together might be more typical of this section. As would “Where Were You When” whose title tells us that it’s going to be about moments in time in the past and whose conclusion – “pointless as a thousand year sleep” – suggests that these moments need to be see in a larger time-perspective.
The final section intersperses some very interesting, personal-relationship poems – especially “Men of a Certain Age”, which answers Bronwyn Lea’s “Women of a Certain Age” and may have a lot of interesting guilts in the dream that the men awake from – with straight-out satires on such eminently satirisable subjects as texting, Hollywood genre films, daytime television and Nordic noir. I’ve never thought that this satirical mode, well-done as it is, is Neilsen’s strength. Perhaps this is because the author’s stake is unclear. When something is as silly as texting or a generic thriller we tend not to ask how and why the author is embroiled in this. And yet the complexity of Neilsen’s position behind or within his poems, the indeterminate nature of his poetic personality, is one of the things that makes his poems both challenging an rewarding. I said in my review of Without an Alibi on this site that Neilsen was an under-appreciated figure in Australian poetry and that his work deserves to be better known. I think that Wildlife of Berlin confirms this judgement. Of the two most recent VLAs (Very Large Anthologies), Australian Poetry Since 1788 allots him two poems, one of which I have always thought of as very ordinary and the second of which is exactly the satirical sort that I think is the weakest of the many arrows in his quiver. Contemporary Australian Poetry omits him altogether. These are things that should be rectified in the future.

Philip Neilsen: Without an Alibi

Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2008), 111pp.

Philip Neilsen is a poet whose work ought to be better known. There are a number of volumes preceding this new Salt Publishing book including two small Gargoyle Poets pamphlets as well as the full length Life Movies of 1981 and, though the poems have appeared irregularly, it all amounts to a fairly substantial output even for a poet in his late fifties. Somehow it seems to have glided under the radar of anthologists and translators and that is a pity since there is much to admire – and, as publisher of two and a half of these volumes, haud inexpertus loquor. One of the things that Neilsen does which may make him a poet of our time is articulate fear. In We’ll All Go Together (a shared book with Barry O’Donohue, 1984) this was fear of nuclear annihilation. In this new work, Without an Alibi, it seems, on the surface at least, fear of ecological catastrophe. But I don’t know that fear is a response that, in itself, has ever produced a good poem. Certainly panic hasn’t – to my knowledge. What we get from Neilsen, and it is his characteristic poetic movement, is a way in which assertiveness (always something that can sustain a poem) deals with fear.

Without an Alibi has two sections. The first is devoted to the forest. Here we meet a fear for the forest but it is balanced by a fear of the forest. The first of these fears resolves itself as a fear of reductionism (always a good thing to fear). Robinson Crusoe, in the third poem of a sequence, “Literary Forests”, looks at a tree and sees “congealed / within it a sled, five stout barrels, a fort” – that is, for all our sympathy for someone trying to survive in the wild, his view of life (late-seventeenth century, mercantile, practical) reduces the tree to the sum total of its value to him. Finally Crusoe is stranded on “a thin strip of sand” and behind him “indistinguishable groves hovered, / hissing with insects, promiscuous scents, / backward-looking, taboo.” Paradoxically, he hopes for a miracle, that the ocean “might one day puff its cheeks and send ships, / wooden angels flying for captains of industry, / the bold ecstatic prayer that is engineering.”

In these early poems in the book, the forest is best represented by the wild-woods (of The Wind in the Willows) and there is nothing cosy about the experiences they offer. The fear is for the various ways in which their potent magic is reduced. In “The Imperial Forest” the Amazon is reduced to a place from which drugs can be brought to Europe:

. . . . .
Adventure and profit are multiplied
by the fruits of bark and seed,
the magic, once-secret garden,
a home-brand pharmacopeia.

In another poem, early Christian saints defeat the ancient spirits of the forest in Germany and in “The Fairy-Tale Forest” the dread forest of Germanic folktales becomes properly sanitised – the wolf of Red Riding Hood does anger-management classes, Pooh and Piglet study hospitality at a polytechnic until finally:

. . . . .
All the woods were accessible and safe
as Woolworth’s. At night they were patrolled
by axemen, monitored by CCTV. But sometimes
the forest folk peered out at the trees hung
with safety lanterns, paths lined with hand rails,
and yearned for unimaginable menace.

This seems nicely to sum up the paradox in these poems. The fear is for a reductive process which will remove the fear of the forest. And it is continued in another fine comic poem “Public Liability”. Here, the civic fathers, motivated by childhood terrors (“they are the lost child again, / running through a forest / from animal noises”) destroy the city’s trees and those they have left are reduced to trying to “project benevolence, avuncular interest”, they “try not to stir alarmingly in the breeze.”

So what is it that the wild-wood represents and which is valuable enough that we should overcome our fear of it? In Tolkien’s world, it is a kind of social/ecological harmony that is threatened by the rapid changes that go on in wartime. In Neilsen’s poetic world, it seems to be either the wellsprings of the imagination or a part of the world not subjected to a contemporary fashion of brainless mercantile reductionism. A crucial poem here is “Brisbane, 1959-1960” – dedicated to David Malouf and very Maloufian in style and sentiment. It begins by recounting the childhood world of the encroaching bush (a sensibility that the civic fathers of the previously discussed poem have not outgrown):

Each night the bush moves closer
to the suburb and the mosquito net,
and in winter the wolves come.

Outside my parents’ house,
the sweet-pea trellis, Oleanders,
dissolve into fir trees.

At dawn the pack is drunk with moon,
running the rim of hills that holds us here.

Still half in sleep, lungs swollen,
I cough phlegm into a china bowl.
The grey tree tops are jagged, as obvious
to me as paw prints on linoleum.

Why does the child imagine that there are wolves on the south side of Brisbane? They must come from the world of European folktale brought over to Australia by English settlers. Or is the idea here that all children have night terrors related to the natural world and the form they take is unimportant? At any rate the poem’s second section describes the child, one year older, accidentally setting fire to the bush. The poem finishes:

Fire, asthma, the genial doctor’s night visits
to administer adrenalin injections.

Lizards appear again in the charred bark,
beetles luminous as watch dials.
But no wolves rise from the ashes.

This poem is important because it is a personal one detailing how an individual can lose the fear of the wild-wood. The issue that makes this a complex poem, rather than a good performance, is the fact that we are not exactly sure whether getting rid of the wolves of nightmare is a good thing or a bad thing. There are no easy targets in this poem: no civic fathers, no neighbouring vandals, no blinkered imperial merchants. Two other poems in this section belong to this more lyrical, open-ended mode. “The Need for Seclusion” talks, very elegantly, of the mind-expanding effects of wilderness, but seems to associate it with a return to infantile perception:

. . . . .
Though we lack the migratory path
of geese to the wetlands,
our radar leads us back
to the first database,
evergreen and deciduous,
a mental woodland
many days wider than
Thoreau’s cabin on the pond.

And in “Death Will be Unsighted” (a title with a delicate allusion to Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have no Dominion”), the primal fear of death is dispersed by the forest “this anchor to earth / this complicated light . . .” How does the experience of the forest lead to an overcoming of the fear of death? I think by associating it with the social (“the creaky staircase, / the level crossing, or beery pub”). What I like about the conclusion of this poem is that it doesn’t try to rationalise the experience of the forest: it goes on narrating the effect it has on the mind and the question of death simply melts away from the poem:

Wild plums grow in tangled weight
each September, and over there
is a courtesy of wildflowers
where the thinking animal falters
beneath a flock of parrots,
is suddenly wrapped
in the same instinctive colours,
the details of existence brilliant,
more precise,
walking on dusk.

After the forest, what next? We might expect more concentration on the social world. The second section of the book is called “Metamorphosis” and it is a puzzling title that sets the mind scurrying. The final poem of the book shares this title and is an inversion of Kafka’s story: here a beetle turns into a writer and has to deal with a lot of problems including the bleak fact that the books containing the writing that the beetle is forced to do in his new incarnation will ultimately be “consumed / by insects”. How should we read this? Does it mean that possessing the requisite skills to be a writer turns you into the one person capable of seeing the futility of the process. It would be a bleak vision with which to conclude a book that does have a positive core – the forest. Does it refer to the fact that writing is contained in books which are processed out of forests and which will, courtesy of beetles and their friends, return eventually to the natural world? This would make it a bleak meditation on the function of consciousness and, as such, would fit in with a poem like “The Anteater” which begins this section. In this poem human behaviour in current wars is detached from the preferred metaphor of the anteater (which locates its prey precisely and with minimum collateral damage) and lined up with the metaphor of Swift’s yahoos:

In the desert dawn
a machine with polished snout
sniffs the confusing air.
If it had a heart
it would flirt with indecision.
History beckons us backwards:
we leave the jungle
for the grassy plains,
manipulate sticks,
discover language,
still shriek and shake our paws.
Swift’s man-monkeys
rattling our digital spanners.

Metamorphosis (incidentally the name of a poem of Neilsen’s second book) might also, conceivably, refer to Neilsen’s tactics of finding the basis for a strong poetic voice amongst themes of angst and fear. Changing yourself into the bluff speaker of an often ironically positioned monologue is one of these. A poem from Life Movies begins: “When Alice got back from Wonderland / she had a few questions to ask” and “Lewis Carroll’s Counsellor” from this book begins: “And so, reverend, when you took / those photos of young girls, / you thought you were preserving / a memory of innocence, is that right?”.

Whatever the answer, the second section of Without an Alibi has poems with the same themes as the first but with a lot more humour. “Harry Potter Book 8” tells us what happens in a world where the magic and terror (like the magic and terror of the wild wood) have been removed: Harry becomes headmaster of a sanitised Hogwarts, Voldemort enters a retirement home, Hermione’s career descends to joining a pop band:

And Harry, now middle-aged, paunchy,
two novels published to mixed reviews,
takes to visiting the magic wood each night,
walking marathon, thoughtful miles like Dickens.
The wood seems smaller than in his childhood,
and dark shapes follow him everywhere.
He thinks of slowing so they can draw closer,
to see if he recognises anything in their faces.
He considers never going home to Ginny or the kids.
Just staying here
where there is always more to wonder at
than to forget or justify.

This kind of comic inversion is something Neilsen has always done well, partly because he can do a confident narrator’s voice so well. It is a light-verse genre but here given depth by being consistent, thematically, with the book in which it appears.

“The Romance of the Clockmakers” is a comic, symbolic scenario in which Charlotte of Paris, weighing up her suitors, is won over by the one who has invented the spiral spring. The wedding is happy but the poem finishes with yet another image of reduction:

Charlotte relished the certainty of measure,
freed from the sun’s uneven passage,
the autumnal loss of Nature’s treasures.
The coach sprang and sped on polished wheels,
dashed from cobbles to country lanes,
past peasants at work in the shrinking fields.

The best poem of Without an Alibi is, I think, “The Lie of Biology”. It is one of those poems one meets often in books where the author is speaking very personally but in a way that readers find a fraction equivocal. There are no double fears here, but there is a concern for the author’s personality and his place in things. It might also be an allegory about the scenario poems that Neilsen does so well – or at least about where the author is located in such poems. Four stanzas are devoted to each of the four grandparents, the first three describe photos of visits made in which the author consistently looks out of place: he has a Dennis Lillie moustache in Southampton, a padded jacket among sun-seekers in Scotland and a “long-haired / conscientious objector” look among the culture of officers and bureaucrats of Konigsberg. The final stanza is devoted to an imaginary photograph from a yet-to-be-made visit:

Great grandfather Nilsson left Bergen
in 1874 for the Windjammers and tropical
Queensland. I am delaying this fourth
and final trip, the one to Norway.
I can see the photo already. There I am,
standing by the multi-coloured boats glistening
with rain, or on the edge of the fiord
with a beanie pulled down over my ears,
looking genetically uncomfortable,
trying to smile my way into the frame.