When a landscape is sparsely populated, the eye is favoured over the ear. Robert Gray spent his childhood in the brilliant coastal spaces of the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, and he has spent his life looking at things, and in searching for the words for them.
When he began writing, in the sixties, he was influenced by East Asian Buddhism. But although he used Buddhism as a means by which to approach the Australian landscape, he was far from being the dilettante of Chinoiserie1 that Laurie Duggan accused him of being. He used the alien tradition as a way of testing what he felt about his own world—as a fresh way of looking at it—and then kept the bits that made sense, much as other writers have done with European or American influences. From the beginning, he zoomed in on—he trusted—some of the less comforting aspects of Asian religion: its lack of sanctuary, its sense of the indifference of the other. One implication of its lack of a hierarchy of powers was that if everything were of equal value, then everything could be of an equal poetic interest. This was not a comfortable place, but there was a liberation in the way it stripped the imagination of its resting places. One could look at whatever one wanted for as long as one liked. It opened up the possibility of a search for the poetry of things.
Although Gray has shown little overt interest in science in his work, there is a convergence in perspective between a Buddhism which invokes the play of the forces of emptiness, and a science whose forces are figured as irruptions of nothing. Because of this, Gray’s world can seem very similar to the scientific one. Ironically, it is also similar to the world of the poets—Duggan, Bolton, Brown—who were his rivals. Where Gray presents a physical world which is ungrounded, Duggan, say, or Bolton, present cultural landscapes which are ungrounded. The members of both camps, moreover, have very visual imaginations, and share a strong interest in painting. Perhaps the difference between the two can best be described in terms of the length of gaze they are habituated to. Gray examines the physical landscape with the slow gaze of an eroticized fascination; poets such as Duggan and Bolton, however, reserve their slower gaze for visual artefacts: at other times, they cast their eyes over the constructed world with that rapidity with which we read the world of signs. The nature of one’s gaze affects one’s attitude to language. If, like Gray, one is a sensualist of the material world, then the shifting nature of language is a side-issue: one’s aim is to focus the mimetic properties of language in order to tease out an exact evocation of one’s experience. If, however, one’s topos is the play of cultural forces, then one will look closely at the unstable nature of language: in this context, linguistic instability is hard to separate from cultural instability. It is as if the two camps just happened to be looking at different things. Easy, for instance, to imagine, at some stage in the early eighties, the Laurie Duggan of ‘New England Ode’2 gazing from a pub at the cultural paraphernalia of Armidale mall, while off towards the coast, Robert Gray was gazing from a train at the light on the ranges. Absurd, now, to think that only one of them could be correct.
Gray has been unusually fascinated by the world of things. ‘Things,’ he says, ‘…are worthy of ultimate standing. They’re the location/ of all we know. Nothing duplicitous/ in that vulnerability, we can sense/ they are present entire. It feels these things/ that step through the days with us have the fullness,/ on each occasion, of reality.’3 This fascination has been one of the bases of his poetry. Many people would describe themselves as similarly fascinated: they gaze from verandahs, mooch along the shore, check out the sunlight on floorboards. But they don’t give themselves over to it in the way Gray has. It isn’t a calling. Sometimes, good writing can arise out of unusual emphases of attention. If Gray’s has become an important imagination for us, however, it is not simply because he has described material things well. What makes his poetry resonate is the way he has been able to capture that double sense of their hacceity and their indifference. They may be our peers, but they do nothing to lessen our loneliness amongst them. If his work is not a poetry of important narratives, it does come close to being one which defines our contemporary relationship with the material world.
Sometimes, it sounds as if he is trying to find ways for things to speak:
misshapen, in a hotel wardrobe.
Steamy afternoon sun.4
Or they might be tilted into their human moment:
alone. Seeds taken from
the lips, like hair.5
Occasionally, he gives them a symbolic dimension:
A late sun
is casting for the fisherman
on the windy river.6
Things, however, still need to be situated. Although they can imply simple ideas powerfully, they cannot speak in a way which allows them to elucidate complexities. How, for instance, might he discuss the nature of the world in which things had their existence? His solution was to create two styles. From time to time, particularly in the early poems—but also, notably, in the later poem, ‘The Drift of Things’7—he has written some of the most overtly philosophical poetry attempted in this country. Some of these poems and passages are essential to an understanding of his œuvre. The following is from ‘Dharma Vehicle’:
And there was a Master, Hsuan-chien,
Told his students …
‘There is no transmigration to fear, no
Nirvana to achieve.
Just respond to all things
without getting caught—
Don’t even hold onto your Non-Seeking as right.
There is no other wisdom to attain.’8
Gray has a sharp eye for the material world, but in extended meditations such as this, he also displays an unusual ability to articulate abstract thought. One of his most apposite aphorisms, not included in Cumulus, says, ‘One’s touch with things, I have seen, is the same as one’s touch with other people.’9 One might adapt that and say it can also be true that ‘one’s touch with abstractions … is the same as one’s touch with material things’. It is a rare thing to be able to use abstractions well: some of those who do it best also have a feel for the sensual world in which abstractions must be grounded. Perhaps because his skill with detail is the obvious thing, Gray has not received enough credit for this.
The achievements of his poetry are impossible to imagine without the distances the eye creates in order to see things clearly. The following is from ‘Bondi’:
In the longest street, out towards the cave-in of the headland, is a children’s park,
where, through empty swings, with their over-sized hot chains, the surf swings.
Out here are callow home units of pale brick, fenestrated as the rock face
below the cliff’s edge they are built upon.
Beyond a last railing, the sea throws over and spreads its crocheted cloth
across its rock table, and (something you can’t watch for long—it is
draws it off again.
Around at the beach-front, rattling fun parlours, discos, and milk-bars,
lurid as tattoos, thickly over them…10
One does not build momentum with attention to physical things: sensual qualities, unlike signs, take time to be rehearsed by the reader. The rhythm proceeds, phrase by phrase, line-end by comma by dash, with the ever-shifting object of his gaze—first the swings, then the surf, then the units and then the cliff’s edge. It doesn’t gather speed or weight with mounting emotional pressures. It proceeds evenly at the pace of an attentive eye. For material such as this, Gray’s rhythms are ideal. They have enabled him to record as much attention to the qualities of things as anyone has been able to: the accessible complexity of his imagery is one of his key achievements.
But the eye is a cool witness. It demands that the body remains still, so that it can concentrate. It does not invite the body to dance in that unmediated way the ear does; nor, at distances such as this, does it generate rhythmic or emotional momentum. And thus there can be an issue with respect to the placement of emotion in Gray’s poems. In order to let the eye do its work as well as it does, he sets to one side anything likely to disturb it. Since the poem cannot access emotion through the embodiment of its rhythms, it must summon it through implication. Gray has made a virtue of this and based his practice on the belief that emotion is at its strongest when it is at its least overt. Few would disagree that it is a part of a poet’s craft to know how to tension implication. But to base a poetics on it is to underestimate its limitations. There are times when the attempt to maximise the impact of the words that are there by refusing to speak further actually generates inappropriate or inadequate responses. “In Departing Light” is about his visits to his mother in hospital, who has advanced Alzheimer’s:
Her mouth is full of chaos.
My mother revolves her loose dentures like marbles ground upon each other,
or idly clatters them,
broken and chipped. Since they won’t stay on her gums
she spits them free
with a sudden blurting cough, which seems to have stamped out of her
an ultimate breath.
Her teeth fly into her lap or onto the grass,
breaking the hawsers of spittle.
What we see in such age is for us the premature dissolution of a body
that slips off the bones
and back to protoplasm
before it can be decently hidden away.11
At several points, Gray tells us how moved he is: ‘she juts there brokenly/able to cut/with the sight of her someone who is close’12; ‘Too lonely a figure/ to bear thinking of’13—though these are phrases of telling, not of embodiment: we must take his word for it. For the rest, the poem assumes that the reader will be appropriately dismayed or appalled, and that nothing more need be said. If, however, one also wants literature to be a meditation on an ideal response, then one will be disappointed. And isn’t that the writer’s job too—to find the shape of the ideal response? Gray does a wonderful (i.e. compelling, confronting) job of enabling us to see his mother. But even in matters as personal and desolating as this, the writer needs to do more than provide the statement: literature—all art—is as much a history of responses as it is of experiences. It is not just the questions: it is the play of the possible answers as well.
Gray has excluded bodily momentum from his rhythms, in order to give himself room in which to try out names for the objects of his gaze, and so that the movement will be slow enough for us to absorb the sensual qualities he elicits. But in a poem such as ‘In Departing Light’, such rhythms are not enough: they do not allow us to respond with that movement into our own sympathetic suffering that the mother’s suffering requires: we are, as it were, held back, by the insistence on looking carefully.
He has articulated an important aspect of the Australian imagination. No-one captures better that dual sense of our fascination with the physical world, and our dismay at its indifference. He has given us a poetic version of the play of inhuman forces which, while originating in his study of Buddhism, serves equally well for the world projected by science. In doing so, he has produced important poems: ‘The Sawmill Shacks’14, ‘Bondi’15, ‘Scotland, Visitation’16. But the work seldom moves into spaces which are occupied by anyone other than the observer. He is rarely interested in the interplay of human worlds—in the way we invent and re-invent our selves and our interactions.
There is little agency in his work: he invites us to share his gaze, but there is no attempt to create a space in which one might be more than a witness—in which the reader might be invited to consider what needed to be done. It is in just such spaces, however, that we must live: beyond that solitude in which things become visible, there are messier, less manageable places in which there are others, with whom we must live. Where the poem must dance as well as see.