Reviewed: Les Murray, Waiting for the Past, Black Inc., 78 pp; Meredith Wattison, terra bravura, Puncher & Wattmann, 140 pp.; MTC Cronin, The Law of Poetry, Puncher & Wattmann, 257 pp.; Martin Harrison Happiness, UWAP, 100 pp.; Louis Armand, Indirect Objects, Vagabond, 159 pp.
Five contemporary masters, each unique, each with a distinctive set of perspectives, and an idiosyncratic way of articulating them in verse. As so often on reading one’s contemporaries, one finds oneself wondering what possible reading model could accommodate such variety—in the context of what can be the suffocatingly narrow poetics of some schools of verse, and the absurdly small number of poets who are accommodated by contemporary curricula. We need inclusive models that are built on the skills and experiences of the reader, rather than exclusivist ones where the poem is approached primarily through its poetics. But I have no idea how we achieve that.
Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past is a book about his own ageing, and the ageing of things he has known. Just because many of the poems are about the past, however, does not mean that they are works of uncritical nostalgia. Murray has always been fascinated by the intersection of the historical and the personal: aware that he is a storehouse for a vanishing way of life, he has a compulsive authorial need to preserve it—to honour it with music and accuracy—even if that includes its oddities and malignancies. Sometimes, as in ‘1960 Brought the Electric’, he is happy simply to record an event’s imaginative texture:
Now ah! The snapped dazzle
in the eyes of whatever
has fallen on the bed
and the wood cabinet streaming
ice cream and saltless meats.
In other poems the past is more ambiguous: imaginatively potent, but governed by misconception. ‘Growth’, one of the book’s strongest poems, tells how the infant Les, ‘[h]iding from the grief’, left the farm where his ‘friendly Gran’ was dying, in an attempt to make his way home. The young boy’s navigation of the dusk becomes an image both of the grandmother’s trials and of Murray’s trials now. Her illness, however, was also a shame: these were the days in which cancer was ‘a guilt in women. / One man was punched for asking / Did Emily have a growth?’ Clearly, these are no rose-coloured glasses. If Murray thinks things were amiss, he will say so: the strangeness of the certitudes of behaviour—the poetry of their anthropology—always having been a prompt for his imagination.
The emphasis on the past, however, does raise the question of where Murray’s imagination is most comfortably seated. ‘The Privacy of Typewriters’ is a poem about his dislike of computers, his fear of ‘that baleful misstruck key / that fills a whiskered screen / with a writhe of child pornography’. Fair enough. But a poet refuses engagement with the forces of history at some risk, and the poem’s sophistication and play does not fully make up for the avoidance it signals.
The other great presence in this book is death. Two perspectives, in particular, clash in a way that will not, it seems, go away easily: on the one hand, the pitiless forces of the natural world, and on the other, the poet’s Catholicism. It is hard to generate great imaginative power in a short poem (unlike longer poems where the poet’s counter-voices can come into play) but ‘The Genghis Firmament’ manages to do so—not least because of the way one is aware of the unstated presence of his faith:
Suspended archery of night
keeps a resplendent distance
slowly circling the earth.
Just odd long spittle
streaks from dark iron jaws.
‘Self and Dream Self’ is another poem that looks unblinkingly at the processes of dying:
Routines of decaying time
fade, and your waking life
gets laborious as science.
You huddle in, becoming
that deathless younger self
who will survive in dreams
and vanish in surviving.
For all the losses of age (‘yet few loves return: / trysts seem unkeepable’), the poem ends in an attempt to imagine a transition towards Heaven where ‘a re-start of tense / summons your waking size / out through shreds of story’. Few believers try to articulate the exact nature of their beliefs. This is one attempt to do so. Whether one shares Murray’s Catholicism or not, one has to admire the way he has tried to think through its implications.
Not all the poems have this sort of resonance. Many are the incidental poems of an old master. There are the felicities of phrasing, and the quirks and pleasures of the autodidact; there is the wonderful ear: a subtilisation of the way some country speakers can make a point, and leave its ambiguities hanging. This, for instance, from ‘Vertigo’, yet another poem about time’s assault on one’s person:
Later comes the sunny day when
street detail gets whitened to mauve
and people hurry you, or wait, quiet.
There are a couple of poems, however, where the country voice—elsewhere such a source and strength—fails him or achieves less than he thinks it does. ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ is about visiting the mouth of the Murray, ‘the river full again’, before returning ‘a thousand miles / home across green lawn’. I read this as a poem of the arguments about the health of our inland rivers (if it isn’t, if it is purely about the ironic pleasure of seeing things green in a dry country, then Murray should have been more alert to the context it would be read in). The fact that he is seeing the river after a good season I took to be a shorthand way of saying that the seasons come and go, that we have to expect bad seasons in Australia, and that we shouldn’t, therefore, base policy just on the bad years. If that reading is correct, the problem is that implication only works where understandings have been established beforehand. If common ground still has to be decided, then you cannot get away with an elided argument that pretends it has been. A need for substantiation has percolated even into the subjective realms of poetry: science now governs the claims that the poem can make. ‘Rivermouth’ is too anecdotal: there are limits to the wisdom of wise old heads, even if they are as shrewd as Murray’s.
Waiting for the Past is a long way from being Murray’s best book—from the full-on clash between Bunyah and the modern world that one finds, say, in The People’s Otherworld or Ethnic Radio1—but it still contains some very good poems. A good writer’s engagement with a set of understandings, moreover, is not a linear matter, and this book, too, modifies and refracts perspectives that are part of a complex narrative. Poems may need to be able to stand by themselves, but they are also facets of a protracted exploration. Understandings that emerged in the sixties and seventies are coming up against some hard places now. The shapes those confrontations take is an essential part of the story of Murray’s verse.
One poet who has not received anything like the attention she deserves is Meredith Wattison. With terra bravura, a very good writer has produced her finest book yet, a masterful divagation through the edges of family history, and it deserves to bring her to the attention of a much greater audience than she currently possesses.
The book begins with a trip to Broken Hill, to find her great-grandmother’s grave: in order to ‘(?) exorcise (?) her from my familial consciousness and my father’s inherited/adopted memory of her’, but it soon broadens into an attempt to understand the whole family, together with her own place in it. Her father’s grandmother, Johanna Kalisch, was no likeable character: ‘she has the misanthropy / of clingstone fruit, / its centre a tumour, / her grace slipstone / as soap, / hair pulling, / ear pulling, / noses gripped / as Larry, Curly / and Moe’s karma, / fighting over wormed fruit / and the weaker backhand’. One of her punishments involved hanging her children in sacks in order to beat them, and Wattison compares her effect on the family to that of a cow that gets stuck in a dam, who ‘fouls / the water, the general malaise, / with a specific sadness’. Cruelty aside, Johanna was fierce and uncompromising, and although the connection is never explicitly drawn, the reader senses that there are aspects of Wattison’s own personality that may derive from her—the uncompromising nature of her gaze, for instance—very different to the milder ‘mother, daughter,/ cousin, aunt gene pool, / nebulous in black and white, / in summer’s sleeveless cotton’, a ‘trompe l’oeil of women’, which only made her feel cramped and inhibited. Johanna was also Jewish, and Wattison’s investigation of her Jewish heritage becomes a touchstone for the broadening of her own sympathies.
One might conclude that this is just another family history—poems about people the poet has known: one about a fellow teenage rebel who later died in Africa, another about her father’s increasing struggles with dementia. There are many such collections. Except that it’s all in the way in which one does it, and there are few who have done it as well. Good writers develop their own way of seeing and saying things, and Wattison does not sound quite like any other poet around. One reason for this may be that she comes from rawer circumstances than many. She has lived much of her life on the Western fringes of Sydney, where one is rarely encouraged to refine one’s responses in words. If, however, one can be faithful to one’s responses for long enough, then one may be able to nurture the self-trust that, so important for the author, remains a much rarer basis from which to write than is generally acknowledged.
In the following passage, Wattison and a girlfriend visit the butcher’s to collect a cow’s eye for dissection at school:
We entered the coolness,
the time immemorial
2 teenaged girls
in short uniforms,
sun-skinned and tender.
A slick libretto of rubber soles
on tile and sawdust,
we skated raw.
The indiscriminate lust
of rankled blade and blood
and the ancient married.
This perfect eye made prank
as it was juggled about us,
we as mirror, turn like veal from rain.
We were yet to be drawn, complying
with the men’s Goth nuisance,
the cow’s agate eye.
Where the first instinct of many writers would have been to protect themselves from ‘immemorial carnality’ by conjuring an abstract distance, a safe zone, in which to resettle one’s voice, for Wattison the point is to recapture the forces at play—not to reinstate the evasions that make them manageable. This is one of the strongest impressions one has when reading her work: that, stripped of its conspiracies of blandness—not just in society at large but in the family and the bedroom as well—the world, for all its pain and injustice, is also more compelling and attractive.
Wattison doesn’t so much create a world—though her writing is immediately distinctive—as engage with the one in front of her with a pointed linguistic energy, as if her aim were to restore its edginess as well as its warmth. There is a constant sense of the pursuit of the surprising and effective word—not to smother the world beneath artistic merit, but to make it available, to find a way in.
MTC Cronin has long held parallel interests in poetry and law: a little surprising at first, it makes sense when one thinks about it: both are attempts to find words for our ever-shifting behaviour. For two decades she has been writing the poems that are now collected in The Law of Poetry. The poems—in alphabetical order—describe or otherwise engage with the way a somewhat uncategorisable assortment of things behave: ‘The Law of A Thing’, ‘The Law of Abandonment’, ‘The Law of Absolutes’, ‘The Law of Another Universe’, ‘The Law of Ants’. As poems, they are grounded in subjectivities, but when Cronin generalises her experiences into Laws, it is not done with the solemnity that one might find in, say, a scientific paper, or a parliamentary drafting room, but with the brio one looks for in a creative response.
In some ways, Cronin’s is a modern version of a grand style—she takes her experiences as absolutes, starting points from which she might be able to extrapolate large imaginative gestures—but she has no illusions about how relentless our pettiness and our interests are. Why can’t life always be as glorious as it occasionally appears? What is wrong with our courage? Our dreams? Originating in a capacity for assent, the poems are also aware of the degree to which we fall short, and the high-spirited, almost comic gravitas of tone is shadowed by some very grounded disappointments. Cronin’s voice matches the energy of her idealisms. Ultimately, more than any particular poem, it is the voice that is a poet’s central achievement—that loosely self-consistent set of rhythms and ideas, emotional cruces and word choices, which, for all their personal and temporary nature, are the most comprehensive linguistic responses we produce.
Most poets’ voices are hybrids, concocted out of the inflections they hear around them, and the literary possibilities that enable them to say things that cannot be said in ordinary speech. Cronin joins a long list of Australian women poets—Harford, Gilmore, Wright, Harwood, Hewett—who seem to have been able to say just about anything they wanted to (one might struggle to adduce, from their works, that they were living in a culture with so many restrictions). Although, if one listens carefully, one can still hear the forthrightness of the Australian countrywoman in her voice, a very considerable component of Cronin’s voice is literary. She has spent time with the Spanish and Latin American traditions, she has explored post-modern American styles (particularly in her prose) and she has been exposed to eastern and central European verse. She is a long way from the linear naturalism of the more uninventive sides of the Anglo imagination. One would imagine her trusting the impulses of the poem. Even in pursuit of the imagination, however, she never loses track of the constraints on idealism. The following is from ‘The Law of Perfection’:
How can we live
just this one little life,
confess it, whose idea looms
so much larger, much finer,
more shining, beginning on the way
of devastation, the one long piece
made up of what is short, this conversation,
a talk with exile, how can we live this one life,
laughing among the women carrying water
and crying for the brief love, not knowing
what to do but imagining all things,
all places and times, considering
that accept means take and that the road
drops away just when our feet
One of the book’s finest poems is ‘The Law of ZZZzzz (What there Is not Time For)’, a coda to the whole collection:
And we were meant to learn love from our
mother’s torsos yet all we learned was haircuts,
sunglasses, The Laws of Jesus and Some Other
Bold People, false promising, enslavement and
finally, forgetting. All our life, perfectly unable,
and now our lives list to the side where the first
moment beckons us back through The Law
of Old Toys to become the last and eternally
reminded child, to follow along a darkening sky
The Law of the Little Bird Full on Crumbs,
to clumsily descend the ladder leaning against
The Law of Hazard and to walk, as if our legs
still could carry us, into the chambers and valves
of the heart.
One can only compare the rhetoric of a contemporary such as Cronin with the limited technical and imaginative range available, say, in Australian verse before the war—Slessor excepted—and wonder at the invisibility of contemporary poetry.
There are problems with consistency in ‘The Law of Poetry’: bold styles can contain a momentum that makes them resistant to critique—including that of the author—and there is considerable variation in quality here, which can make parts of this long book hard-going. But the key thing is the quality of the best poems. If there is a certain amount of wastage necessary to arrive at the best work—at poems such as ‘The Law of ZZZzzz’, ‘The Law of War’ or ‘A Low Sensible Science (The Law of Love)’—ultimately, it doesn’t matter: this game is not about the second-best.
When Martin Harrison died, much too young, in 2014, he left behind a manuscript of poems celebrating his late-blooming love for Nizar Bouheni and then elegising his death in a fire in a block of units. Happiness is that book. While it deals with a key event in Harrison’s life, and while it will therefore be of lasting importance in any overall consideration of his oeuvre, it is a book with some problems.
Harrison’s previous work had been an exploration of the interactions between the data the world supplied him with, the qualia they became in the flux we call mind, and the weave of language he attempted to net them with. His characteristic stance was of someone observing himself not just being in the world, but also constructing it with his observations and with the words he played across it. Harrison was fascinated by the way we modulate between an absorption in so-called exteriorities and the inner momenta they in turn initiate, pushing and inviting us along on little spurts and languors of invention, memory and lack. He doesn’t just describe this in terms of abstractions: he watches it happening, articulating the transitions as they occur. This, from ‘White-tailed Deer’, where he is not just listening (and looking), but observing himself doing so:
The small thump from nowhere, someone turning
a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise closing across the gulley,
a neighbour—what are they doing out there?—dropping a trailer or a drum
in a paddock where damp grass’s been drying out these last twenty minutes
in a final sun cube whose shattered gleam just now has
flooded through sprays of half-grown bluegums
traced on the shed wall—
closing in mid-air between two never identified twigs
six metres up, or caught behind a bird song (was it that?
or just some other sound) caught the thousandth time
from outside the kitchen door, magnified for a second or two
then forgotten just as many thousand times.
Like many writers—ultimately under a background pressure from the way science was now looking at everything—Harrison had sought to de-couple perception from the narrative and affective hierarchies that shape it. To do this, one needs to step outside the act of looking or hearing and observe it. A style developed to explore such ever-changing interfaces may not, however, be the place to be writing elegies from. In ‘Dry Grass’ he writes:
October’s inland arid country night
grazes over the dry, still, quiet land
and, in pain without you—
literally, breathing pain and absence—
I’ve woken up and go outside
There are no rules, but this far down in his grief, Harrison shouldn’t need to be telling us that he is ‘in pain without you, / literally breathing pain and absence’. That he has to do so is a sign he is writing not from within the grief, but about it. This is not to question the depth of his feeling. It is just that a technique devised to observe and articulate free of interference from agency is unlikely to be suited to material as grounded in agency as love and grief are. Thus the two long elegies for Nizar Bouheni, the centrepieces of the book, are not so much expressions of grief as articulations of a grief observed.
There are similar disjunctions with some of the love poems, where Harrison, who had been so careful to discipline the way anthropocentrisms might colour verse, suddenly found himself in love, and that this love was the centre of the universe:
How is there love such as this
proceeding from the heart of things the brain of things
glimpsed like some familiar sense of air and space
a sense so familiarly known you don’t hear it
(Summer Rain Front, North Coast)
It may take more than an initial review such as this to decide whether what Harrison presents as the culmination of a life’s search (‘At last I’ve woken up with you, at last the night was dark with fire,’ he writes in ‘Aubade’) is also the culmination of his life’s poetry—or a confrontation with emotions that a style devised for a different purpose found difficult to deal with. In the meantime, there are still some very fine poems in the collection, such as ‘Patio’ and ‘Cloud’, which, for me, is the great elegy in this collection, one that, while consistent with Harrison’s previous style and concerns, nevertheless finds a way to deal with the appalling fact of Bouheni’s death. Harrison—who owns images of the swarm in Australian literature2—watches a cloud of thrips:
Microbes below significance as is any sense
of being that’s brought into prominence when the context
seems lost, non-existent, a flicker darkening
in which (no less instantly) you remember details too terrible to
bring to mind of, say, a car crash or a house fire
where the meaninglessness of a life in the scheme of things is contrasted—about as powerfully as it could be—with what that life might mean to another individual. ‘Cloud’ works because the examination of the thrips is so precise: the implied contrast with Harrison’s own meaning-making could not be stronger. Where the poems work less well, it is because his love and grief still feel undigested, as if he was not yet ready to transform them into art. What he might have done with this material, had he had more time, we will sadly never know.
Some revolutionaries cannot help themselves. No matter how contemptuous they may have been of the oppressions of conventional meaning, they find themselves drawn, inexorably, towards a need to make sense. Sometimes such transformations look like nothing more than the emergence of a talent. Louis Armand seems to me to be one such, whose earliest career read as just one more young man’s desire to impress with a display of confronting gestures, but whose work just kept displaying more and more of the need to engage with the strange playful pressures of meaning. For this reader the turning point was the 2003 collection Strange Attractors,3 not of all of which quite works, but which contains such fine poems as ‘jacques cousteau est mort’ and ‘oxygen as a socially useful substance’. If Strange Attractors was the turning point, the book that really announced Armand’s mastery was Letters from Ausland, from 2010, a collection of scapes that ranged across Prague, where he is based, New York and Australia.4 Indirect Objects is not so much an improvement on Ausland as evidence he can work at will at that impressive level. If it doesn’t represent a new direction, it doesn’t have to: what it does show is that he can do this now. A restless, energetic and appalled imagination has come into its own on the page.
Armand’s is a bleak imagination. He is both fascinated by the modern world—its visuals (he is a visual artist as well), its arguments, its absurdities—and repelled by it, as if it were a cornucopia of unrelievedness. The tone is a relatively high-pitched refusal of monstrosity: as far as one can be from ironic demurral and still be continuous with it. In this respect his is probably the bleakest imagination on the current Australian scene, a poetic equivalent of, say, Peter Booth, or Nick Cave. The sequence called ‘Realism. Four Preludes’ is partly an Australian road poem:
Dead-of-night towns on the
overland route. Miles gape,
evoke silent interlocutors
on the nod towards unfolding
catastrophe. A deus ex machina
out of bearing cases ground down
on the long haul from Mount Isa
to Broken Hill, dry-retched into
cataracts of bulldust.
But it culminates, in its fourth section, ‘Reprise’, in a meditation on the equivalence of the emptiness of the mall world and the emptiness of the back country:
In the shadow
of America everything was neon,
sex and no come-down.
A plush hollywood blonde
all glass and electric switches
radiating from a single point
like a finial on a skyscraper.
It is ‘an ever-exploding movement / watched over and again on replay’, which, however, ‘jump-cut[s] … to nightroads across flat out-country’, as if there had never been any more than an illusory difference between the excitements of the city and the desolation of the plains, where one might attempt to ‘out-run the dry / resounding emptiness head-on’, but where escape was never more than ‘a sad parody of a film / that’s been running for a century’. Like John Kinsella or Hal Porter, Armand is unforgiving on the topic of regional Australia. One important thing he has done, however, is to draw a link between the way a regional town can baffle the impulses of the imagination and the way we are defeated both by the traditional theatres of nihilism, such as central Europe, and the more up-to-date indifference of New World capitalism. This is quite different to the way in which regional Australia is normally contextualised against either pastoral idealism or urban adventure. Perhaps this longer perspective is just a by-product of the transnational mind, but it has the unsettling effect of taking a layer of imaginative protection away from the bush, as if familiarity were no longer sufficient excuse against thought, and it had to fend for itself, now, like everything else.
Armand is one of a new breed of philosopher-artists. It is one thing for him to be at home in the theory, however, but it is quite another for him to be able to incorporate it convincingly into the play of meanings in his poems. William Carlos Williams famously said there were no ideas but in things.5 It was an important thing to say at the time: poetry was being swamped by non-specific usages, and it remains true that there are few bogs deeper than a page of undigested abstractions. But that is only part of the story. Some material is complex and resists articulation. A few, however, can articulate it really well: the ability to use abstractions with originality is a sign of a very good writer. Here is Armand, in ‘Interpolations’, considering what it may really have meant for Rimbaud to have reinvented himself:
Knowing that for transformations to occur
a system of equivalences must be erected, an architecture of
nowhere. And despite the pretence of a definite article
the mirror has begun to crack and you can’t believe it you’re
If one were to criticise Armand, it would not be for of the complexity of his arguments so much as the joylessness with which his language encounters experience—as if the idealism implicit in language invited the world to fail, and it were somehow satisfying that the failure occurred in the predictable way that it did. But preferences for one response over another are inarguable, and if Armand has decided that that is what the world is like, then the reader must simply accept it as a given of his poetry. Even if we do not share his comprehensive dismay, we can still admire the artistry with which it is marshalled.
- Les Murray, The People’s Otherworld, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1983; Ethnic Radio, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1977.
- Martin Harrison. See, for instance, ‘Stopping for a Walk in Reserved Land near Murra Murra’, in Wild Bees: New and Selected Poems, UWA Press, Crawley, WA, 2008.
- Louis Armand, Strange Attractors, Salt, Cambridge, UK, 2003.
- Louis Armand, Letters from Ausland, Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2011.
- William Carlos Williams, Paterson, New Directions Press, San Francisco, 1963.