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Another Year, Another Engrossing Crop

Martin Langford

Martin Langford on the invisible poets: Brook Emery, Stephen Edgar, Joanne Burns, Kate Lilley and Anthony Lawrence

Many of the poems in Brook Emery’s Collusion are about the sea, but the sea does more than supply him with material: it shapes his interaction with the world. Compared to the sea, the land is a much easier medium on which to project plans and migrations. Those close to the sea, however, tend to be less sanguine about such things. It is, after all, the element that, proverbially, we must never take for granted. Something of this respect enters Emery’s work as a reluctance to draw conclusions: as if they were a step too far, or smacked of hubris. In his previous book, Uncommon Light (2007), the rhythms and thought-patterns were those of the swimmer, for whom there was at least a sense of progression—even if only illusory, besides the sea’s scale, and its gridlessness. In Collusion, however, there is little expectation of forward movement—with the caveat that though the poems do not arrive at understandings, they do converge towards an assertion of happiness. Many of the poems display a static antiphony between the self—most commonly represented as a question—and the universe of things that don’t answer. Sometimes Emery addresses Kafka’s K, the patron saint of fruitless questions. More often there is no addressee. Whatever the question, there will be no answer. Answers are claims, and by being so wary of them, Emery aligns himself with that broad spectrum of poets, across an increasingly wide range of poetics, who do not trust them.

‘Words leave,’ he says in ‘It appears we are machines’. ‘Air and water rush in to fill the space.’ That doesn’t happen in desk- and screen-bound worlds. There, when words leave, they are replaced by more words—or perhaps by electronic silences. The physical and the body have been quietly elided from much contemporary verse—but not in these poems. Here, sea and light overwhelm the capacity to make plausible meaning—in particular the ambitious, intricate structures of consistent explanation. Even place is fleeting and conjectural—except, of course, for the sea, which ‘sloshes round you in its careless embrace’, ‘wind-whipped, scum-topped waves / churning in fractured lumps’.

If this is a poetry of epistemological restraint, it does claim the pleasure of being in the world. One may not be able to say anything about it, but it is a wonderful thing to experience. Doubt as pervasive as Emery’s normally has a sinking effect on the mood, but for all the time he spends worrying at intellectual bones, his buoyancy of mood is unimpaired. One suspects that the happiness is inseparable from the physicality: without the body to sustain it, the mind must take care of its own momentum, and that is not something it always does well.

Not all the poems are about the sea. There is a fine poem of noir romantic nightmare, for instance, and another, slightly improbably, about invigilating. But there are few that do not have a salty whiff. Emery’s pleasure in the world is one of the distinguishing elements of his work. He insists on it, quite aware that it places him at odds with many of his peers: ‘Contested ground, this strange persistent beauty.’ If, like many poets these days, he is a kind of existentialist, it is an existentialism of wonders.

Stephen Edgar’s new and selected volume The Red Sea contains eighty pages from previous volumes and fifteen new poems. The selection has been thoughtfully made, and if one does not know Edgar’s work, it is an ideal place to start. Edgar’s style and poetic interests have remained largely the same throughout his writing life, but the later verse—which is emphasised here—displays the greatest sureness of touch, and the majority of his strongest poems are to be found there.

It is long-distance work. At least one part of the self—or voice—in an Edgar poem is as distant from the object of its consideration as in any other poet working in Australia. Which is not to say that the poems aren’t also full of moments he invites us to participate in. One might define the poetry in these works as being a matter of the play of the irreconcilable distances between intellectual understanding and human engagement. Edgar attempts to invest events with something like their scientific scale. He is often remarkably successful, but to the extent that he also, inevitably, fails, it has more to do with our refusals—with the ineluctable complacency of our imaginations—than any lack of finesse or inventiveness on his part.

The arbitrary nature of our encounters and the vastness of the spaces that surround them render all our enthusiasms fragile: Edgar’s is not a world to cultivate hubris in. Ultimately his perspectives are driven by the ongoing realignment of our imaginations prompted by science. We have tended to be resistant to its implications: while we have acknowledged them intellectually, we have been slower to absorb them imaginatively, where real losses are at stake. When Eliot wrote of ‘the vacant interstellar spaces’ in ‘East Coker’ (Four Quartets), it was in the belief that they could still be redeemed. In Edgar’s ‘Coogee’, knowable reality has been reduced to a narrow strip of beach at dusk:

The east looms heaven-high, black and horrific,
A cloud of nothingness that holds no trace
Of the Pacific,
A maw that tells the sheer end of the world
Columbus feared, in which those gulls are buoyed,
And some few whitely curled
Waves break, like forces bursting from the void,
Creating time and space.

While the details of our existence are precious, we are nevertheless helpless before their changes. ‘Silk Screen’ works the recurring Edgar trope of defamiliarising the domestic and everyday—the more mundane, the better: if one cannot rescue the world’s details from their vanishing, there is at least some strange poet’s satisfaction in being able to turn them into language stuff. The speaker observes light draining from an estuary at dusk:

Cloud, water, slopes: so many Chinese grades

Of columbine and pearl,
Layered against a parquetry of pewter,
Gunmetal plates and sheets of faded merle.
Uncolours lost to colour, rendered neuter
(A glintless skyey sheen
Of eau de nil that is bankrupt of green …

If there is anything that offers sanctuary from the welter of narratives, the surprise and indifference of detail, it might be the careful distances of such poems. One might even place some reliance on these Jamesian cadences, these oh-so-precise filtrations of memory. Not a great deal: even these can barely be trusted—but that is not the fault of their eloquent distillations.

joanne burns’ amphora is not about ideas so much as strangenesses: the behaviour of language, the peculiar nature of the things we believe in (here: angels, saints and ladders) and the world of things—in particular of artefacts. First and foremost is the behaviour of language. Whatever burns wants to say about a particular thing—a saint or a phrase—or, for that matter, Acteon and Diana—she won’t be interested unless she can also inflect her interest into a playful, knight-move-hard-to-anticipate, skewed-to-the-familiar field where words generate a momentum of their own with their absurdities, their unexpected links and, sometimes, their sheer daffiness.

One of the ancestor-spirits of her style is undoubtedly Francis Ponge, but amphora also contains a large number of variously whimsical meditations on angels, saints and other personae from the imaginations of the faithful, and the mood of these pieces resembles that of modernist French writers such as Blaise Cendrars—his SkyLink Text, for instance, which is both a biography and a history of levitating saints. Such writers managed the transition from the storied surrealism of the church’s imagination to the disinhibited surrealism of twentieth-century art as if the one led to the other, and some of burns’ poems, particularly in the section ‘soft hoods of saints’, have a similar familiarity with both worlds—an unusual note in Australia. She is at home, for instance, in the world of the saints’ lives and somehow—though without any explanations in the interim—that prepares her for the weird worlds of the object and the word when she turns her attention to them.

Even in poems about belief she is likely to focus on the way it expresses itself in linguistic terms. She gives us lists of saints’ names, in ‘haggle’, for the pleasure of their resonance and associations:

adalbert adelaide agape agatha amadour apollonia asaph attracta
bathild bavo benignus blaide blandina botolph bona of pisa
carpus chad chrodegang chrysogonus cloud cuby

The poem ‘rung’ ends as a serious meditation on the spiritual journey: ‘but me. i look for an easier solution … i climb down the ladder of memory … arms reaching out for that first swim in deep water. letting go of gravity and pushing out into the glossy emerald waters’, but can’t help working every angle on the theme of the ladder before it gets there—including one variation on ladders in stockings.

Much of the book, however, comprises poems that praise language by enjoying it. The section called ‘amphora’ is a collection of jokes on common phrases that are not behaving properly: ‘she kept her distance in a yellow and blue lacquered box she had bought on dal lake’ (she kept her distance); or, in ‘counter’: ‘the trouble with leaving things up in the air is that they can become hard to find’.

The poems in ‘pogo’, like puns on steroids, are extended riffs on single words: slip (‘relief’); stock (‘stock’); coast (‘spreadsheet’); poppet (‘lathe’)—and, in ‘oh’, on tuross, profrock and porlock.

Reading amphora is like sharing an afternoon with someone who is a fount of coincidences and incongruities; someone who just can’t help chuckling—but who drops into a more serious note from time to time, as in ‘composition’, a beautifully worked piece on the evanescence of all writing:

when there are enough of these dust petrifactions to create a triumphal
avenue of columns you will smash open the clay
and complete your architectural plan. there you *
will recline in your best dust jacket (the wallpaper
now a faded entertainment, a resource for the *
songbook of bugs) and browse the dharma of
dust whisperings while playing the harmonium at
auspicious interludes of mist.

Ladylike is Kate Lilley’s second book. While her first, Versary (2002), had good poems in it, for me it was a book in which she had not yet quite decided what she wanted to do with her material. But in Ladylike she has: it is a strong book—among other things, one of the best meditations we have on that impossible topic, the construction of the self. It is built around three sequences that deal with this. The first, ‘Cleft’, is about her relationship with her mother, Dorothy Hewett:

Anachronic from first to last
what’s left to confess?

Tatterdemalion estate
waste and wild

I’m bound to it as if it were you
Your disinhibition
Eat my words to keep them
from resembling your loose lips (‘Genie’)

This sequence is honest, moving and nuanced, and has a very writerly sense of memories edited into verse. ‘Coil’, for instance, is a potent hand of images about the nakedness of death:

A lilac sheath to cover you
your wardrobe of opening nights
reduced to a simple party dress
snipped curls in plain paper
your bed hacked to pieces for the skip

There will be a messy but rewarding doctorate for someone who sorts out the relationships between the imaginative worlds of mother and daughter: messy because both women have been prepared to explore their experiences with the added dimensions that art allows; rewarding because one cannot imagine a better interface for bringing the two generations of feminism into relief.

As Lilley explains in her notes in this volume, a second sequence, ‘Ladylike’, ‘draws on the pamphlets associated with the notorious case of the bigamist, Mary Carleton, executed in 1673 …’ Lilley has written elsewhere about Carleton,1 who made an extraordinary career out of reinventing herself on the run—at one stage escaping from the Caribbean in order to return to a proscribed London—apparently because that was the field in which her skills—and perhaps her desires—were most potent. Sometimes historical figures can be a way of thinking about the present because their cultural displacement makes our own dilemmas visible. As well as exemplifying the ongoing fascination of our age with ladylike, there is an edge to Mary’s story in that the stakes are so high for her. The stakes are high for moderns too, except that we seldom see our losses so starkly—obscured as they are by our comforts.

Finally there is a group of poems drawn from case studies from the early history of psychoanalysis. The gift for the poet (which Lilley still needed to recognise) is that the voices—principally Freud’s—were already present in the psychoanalysts’ reports: with a little thoughtful juxtaposition, and a little dislocation of the props of their authority, she could arrange for them to bring themselves undone, and for the women to become visible:

A single case not too pronounced
a misfortune like any other
a cocotte in the ordinary sense
a severe beauty mature but still youthful
a well-made girl intact unversed
she did not scruple to appear
in the most frequented streets
she was in fact a feminist (‘Sidonie’)

The music in this book is intellectual as much as aural: a tight, minimalising craftsmanship of the accretion of understandings. Not all the poems are overtly about the construction of the self, but many even of the miscellaneous pieces originate in its tensions and ironies—it is a subject, one suspects, that we will be revisiting in the years to come.

Many of the poems in Crimson Crop, the fifth collection from Peter Rose, begin in the daily and familiar: he reads Huysmans in the heat, at a cricket match; he has ‘a / Quiet day at last’; he goes to visit his mother. But the familiarities have a knack of tripping over themselves into more exotic or intense territory: the burnt landscape on which the cricketers compete may also be an artefact, though not the sort Huysmans had been thinking of; the quiet day dissolves through its details into its absences; the ‘crimson crop’ of the family visit turns out to be a crop of cut flowers and mangled digits from the family narratives, and even includes a doctor, killed by the Japanese. And this, I think, suggests something of the continuum that Rose’s imagination operates along. On the one hand it is urbane and congruent with the appearances of reason; his voice is comfortable in the world of the social necessities—it is not restricted to private or dissociated places in the way some voices are. On the other hand, he doesn’t quite trust any of that—it just happens to be the world he has to operate in. Outside the Anne Frank museum:

The bells of Westerkerk toll *
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Whipped by bereted jockeys
draught horses drag beer to the weekday palace,
videoed by the laconic *
who queue towards enlightenment. (‘Annex’)

So what does he trust? Perhaps trust isn’t the right word. He turns, as if instinctively, towards the beautiful and the erotic. Opera is one of his touchstones—more potent than anything in the workaday world, it is one of the sources of his imagery when the terms that world supplies are inadequate:

Echoes of the E flat in Rheingold
when they dim the lights and
someone taps you on the shoulder:
‘No exit now. Here for good.’ (‘Sheridan Close’)

Like eros, it may not make any more sense than the rational world does, but its pleasures are more compelling. There are ‘fifteen new poems from the Catullan rag’, of a type that Rose first began writing in his collection The Catullan Rag (1993), in which Catullus’s voice—civilised, cynical, obsessed by love—is used as a way of talking about the contemporary world. He isn’t the only Australian poet to use Roman voices—one might mention Laurie Duggan (The Epigrams of Martial, 1989), Peter Porter (After Martial, 1972), John Bray (Collected Poems, 2000) and Geoffrey Lehmann (Nero’s Poems, 1981). The attraction, I think, is that the Romans allowed these poets to talk knowingly about the sentimental life when they couldn’t find a way to do so in more conventional Australian tones—after all, one way of defining Australian innocence is as an obliviousness to the fact that there even is such a thing. Some of the new Catullan poems are not ambitious pieces—a few are literary digs—but ‘Verge’ is an important poem. Bang in the middle of an evening of romantic intensities, Catullus played

… that corny old song
by Paul Robeson, the one about nature.
Trees, you mocked, trees of all things—
as if you’d never eyed a sapling.
And so the night paled,
*everything changed irremediably.

This is more than a clash between personal preferences. At the heart of this argument is the chasm between those who can only conceive of their interactions—including love—in terms of status and power, and those who need to gesture beyond that. Lesbia has no idea that such a chasm exists. All she knows is that allowing the other to speak—in this case, for Paul Robeson to speak, indirectly, of nature—breaks the enchantment of power. This is a gulf that divides the imaginaries of the whole society—it divides the poetry world. It is difficult enough to write about at the best of times. The achievement of ‘Verge’ is to situate it in that most confronting of arenas, the bedroom.

As well as opera and eros, Rose turns to poetry, and if one thinks of the way verse must negotiate the rational on the one hand and the musical and the sensual on the other, then one can at least speculate on what its attraction might be: poetry is the Janus art, the art form that inhabits the impossible territory between two aspects of the world that cannot be reconciled. Which also happens to be the place where everyone must live. Unlike some poets, Rose reads as one who finds the writing of poetry a natural thing to do. Perhaps that is why the familiar trips so readily into the unanswerable, the beautiful and the appalling.

Anthony Lawrence’s The Welfare of My Enemy is a collection of poems about the missing, and the anxieties that attend them. In poems of various lengths, written in buoyant free-verse couplets, he ranges through every situation and point of view that missing conjures—some trivial or temporary, but others, like the anxieties, unable to avoid the possibility that the nightmares might be real.

The idea of the missing is a recurring one in the contemporary world. For people who are personally affected, it is natural that they should be haunted by those who aren’t present. But it also has a broader resonance. We seek security from our narratives. Our birth certificates and driver’s licences are artefacts that we place great faith in: sound evidence in a diegetic world upon which the more contested aspects of our stories—our CVs and moral personae, our claims to spiritual worth—are erected. But what if the body around which everything coheres—certificates and licences included—disappears without explanation? The loose thread can be as disturbing as the missing flesh. We live in economies of narratives where to survive we must commit both to our stories and to the way they interweave with everyone else’s. The idea that a narrative can simply be excised challenges our investment in our own. We have a stake in the sustainability of all stories—other people’s as well as our own.

Lawrence explores the whole range of reasons to go missing: gambling debts; the oppression of responsibility or marriage. Some of his speakers have grown tired of interaction and gone bush. There is one compelling group of poems about people who go missing from their own heads. The largest number, however, are about those who get into the wrong car, or who are watched by objectifying eyes on their way to the shops, and over time, the poems gravitate towards situations where missing does turn into nightmare, and the sequence ends dominated by the presence of Ivan Milat. There is no resolution to the exploration of an idea: the possibility simply persists. For all the drift towards nightmare, however, Lawrence is rarely interested in the details of how someone died: the book leaves us with a sense of the uneasy tension between the actualities of nightmare and the more self-interested anxieties of the public—which is probably a fair summary of the situation that pertains.

Interestingly, he doesn’t greatly alter the speaking voices as he moves from one character or situation to another. No matter who they are—even if they are criminals—they all have something of the empathy of the poet and something of the shrewdness of the detective. As a result, they all become versions of the one voice: incidentals of time and place remain just that. The victims are also versions of each other; and everyone, we know, is a potential victim. So this is not a book about any particular identity going missing. If Lawrence’s attitudes are representative of the way our understanding of missing is now inflected, then one might say that last century’s anxiety about the specific nature of one’s identity—as exemplified, say, by the tensions between Ellen Roxburgh and Ellen Gluyas in Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves, Eddie and Eadith in his The Twyborn Affair, or Will and Toki in R.D. Fitzgerald’s collection Between Two Tides (1952)—has morphed into a broader concern about the fragility of all identity, irrespective of where it has come from.

All the poets reviewed have shrewd and telling things to say about important aspects of contemporary life. They are all experienced artists working at a high level of craftsmanship. Yet they are not the only poets of this quality beavering away: Australian poetry has never been richer nor more varied. Its invisibility, however, is a disgrace: it is, given this level of cultural wealth, simply not possible to claim an interest in the intellectual life of the nation if one does not know what the poets are up to.

©Martin Langford