By one of fate’s mysterious throws of the dice, two of our outstanding poets have just died on the one day. On Wednesday June 27, Rosemary Dobson and Peter Steele both passed away, leaving our community of poets ever so much the poorer.
My especial friend, over almost half a century, was Peter Steele SJ: indeed Professor Peter Steele, sagacious poet and priest. He was twenty years younger than Rosemary, who was the last survivor from our great crop of World War Two poets: why does poetry so flourish in wartime, I often wonder.
Peter Steele grew up in Western Australia, went to a Christian Brothers school, and felt the religious calling at the age of fifteen. He confesses himself to have been a boyhood bookworm, early into the way ‘romance is the stage at which we are intrigued by anything presented for learning’. His ‘romance’ included the local libraries in Perth. Such avid reading laid the ground for his becoming one of Australia’s most brilliant poets and critics: as verbally dazzling as he was modest.
Coming east, he began to train with the Jesuits who, in his phrase ‘knew what they were about’. After this training, he studied at the University of Melbourne, capping this with a doctorate on sardonic Dean Swift, which generated his Jonathan Swift: Priest and Jester (1978), in turn. The Swiftian turn comes to mind in such later remarks of his like ‘the cutting-edge of the status quo’ and ‘It is a common view that poetry would be something else, if it could.’
While remaining a priest, Peter enjoyed a long, busy career in the Melbourne English Department, apart from five years aside as the Jesuit Provincial: years that took him even to Himalayan Bhutan, with its potato curry and yak butter. When at home in Melbourne, he liked a ‘small super special’ in Papa Gino’s pizza house: no doubt he savoured the Washington equivalent during his semesters at Georgetown University.
His verse was omnivorous, one could say, ranging tonally from the church fathers to forthright Willy Sutton, the habitual bank robber. It came in chunky stanzas, buoyed up by his delight in the English language, and its American cousin. Peter wrote verse about kitchen herbs and airlines, Assyria and Scrooge McDuck, Jimmy Durante and Montaigne, even the remembered air force bullring of his youth. Latterly, the birds and bush of seaside Anglesea made their appearance more often, as in these rejoicing lines:
On the eggshell rink above us all they are wheeling
in Lincoln green or burred gold,
hanging from wings that hang from nothing, and stealing
the apple of grace from air’s hold.
Here, as ever, he saw the beauty and plenitude of our natural world as further evidence of a creator’s grace, embodied.
Orchestrating the tropes, he became the kind of stylist who could write, of our mutual friend Peter Porter, that ‘The melancholy which spreads its thin coat over everything he does is like rust on armour, patina on copper domes’. But also, in a late poem, he could ask
Were the leeks
as good in Galilee as the fleeing slaves
remembered from their time in Egypt?
As I have suggested, the world for him was thronged with the stuff of images, similes and metaphors: it all fed his poetry and his faith. And when necessary he could produce such nonsense-piercing phrases as ‘All are skilled in choosing targets for contempt’. But a joyous hunger was far more common: just imagine what he could have made from the discovery of Higgs’ boson.
For so sparkling a language artist, Peter was remarkably modest and uncompetitive: also a good mate to many, as his many dedicated poems testify. His later collections of poetry include Invisible Riders and two ekphrastic books of poems with their bright parental pictures: one of these, The Whispering Gallery, is a gorgeous tribute to the National Gallery of Victoria.
A last volume, mainly of essays called Braiding the Voices: Essays in Poetry, appeared by photo-finish in the last fortnight of his life. Miraculously, he was still well enough to attend its launch. Peter Steele’s generous spirit flows on and on among us, in phrase, cadence and old friendship.
© Chris Wallace-Crabbe