Reviewed Peter Porter, Chorale at the Crossing, Picador, 57 pp.; Peter Boyle, Ghostspeaking, Vagabond Press, 370 pp.; Bonny Cassidy and Jessica L. Wilkinson (eds), Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, Hunter, 122 pp.; Antigone Kefala, Fragments, Giramondo, 82 pp.; Greg McLaren, Australian Ravens, Puncher & Wattmann, 112 pp.
Chorale at the Crossing ‘gathers together the work Porter completed after the publication of his final collection, Better than God’.1 It is an uneven book, with some very good poems, and some, such as ‘A Chip off the Old Blog’, which are little more than creative doodles: one suspects a few of its inclusions are for the sake of having enough poems for a book. That said, there are a dozen or so fully realised pieces, and a few that would make it into the most compact of Porter selecteds. Sean O’Brien has contributed a brief but useful introduction, and Christine Porter has written a thoughtful little afterword on one poem, ‘The Hermit Crab’—a genre we could use a lot more of, judging by the puzzlement with which unpractised but otherwise intelligent readers so often meet contemporary poetry.
Some of Porter’s best work was written when he was disrupted out of the shrewd, self-deprecating and inventive redoubt of his various civilised voices—as in the poems about the death of his first wife, in The Cost of Seriousness,2 or the later, scattered retrospects of this in Better than God3 and Max is Missing.4 This is not always the case—clearly his long meditation on European culture is central to his achievement, and there are many poems, such as ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’,5 in which he achieves the always difficult task of investing an abstract insight with poetic resonance. In this book, however, there is such a source of disruption: the prospect of his own death. In ‘After Schiller’, which, as Sean O’Brien notes, is ‘an example of “late work” if ever there was one’, the language displays the unselfconscious confidence that comes with lifelong practice, but it is also heightened by attempting to deal with the most difficult of confrontations:
And would you wish to hear me speak to you
Of irretrievable darkness by the sea;
Of happiness too far off to travel to
And in some narrow space a leafless tree?
The poem ends by articulating a starkness that cannot be affected or resolved by language:
With looking upwards hardly in my power
And being forced to seek the stars on earth,
In this exacting planisphere I cower:
I have not moved one footstep from my birth.
Weightless in everlasting space, but true
To the blindly heavy rules of time,
I have become a harbinger for you
Of every weighted station of your climb.
This is Porter the aphorist (‘I have not moved one footstep from my birth’) trapped in the context the aphorism describes. The change in the direction of his gaze, in the last two lines, is both recognition of the separateness of everybody’s fate and a moment of intimate concern, which, while lifting the speaker’s voice out of its distress, is all the more poignant for its inability to effect a change.
The poems are dotted with instances in which, under the shadow of death, Porter questions the efficacy of those arts in which his whole life has been steeped. In ‘A Daughter’s Life’ he writes:
The ladder of the octave,
its foot set in the grave,
fills with the angels Jacob saw and blessed,
and beside the point.
In ‘Du Holde Kunst’ he praises one art form, music, for saving him from another:
from the permanent irrelevance of words,
from words begging in my ears,
from unread novels scowling on the shelves
from things God says, talking in his sleep.
In ‘Salon of Lost Masterpieces’ he ponders the art lover’s reluctance to miss any important concert or exhibition, joking about the unlikely possibility that, even if all the lost masterpieces were found, ‘our human satisfaction might / accept its fearful heritage of richness / and let the worthless world shine for itself’. This is not quite a new note in Porter—if art had always been his love, it was also an arena in which doubt was expressed—but there is a darker, strengthened sense of the contingency of what had been so compelling: of the glories of art peeling away, with the attentiveness they’d been invested with.
No Australian poet is as steeped in the poetry of the Spanish-speaking world as Peter Boyle. His heritage is Irish, and he will use Irish personae in his work (such as the William O’Shaughnessy who fictively provided us with the texts for Apocrypha),6 but it is the Hispanic world (and, to a lesser extent, those of France and Italy) he keeps returning to. These days, the Hispanic imagination is a parallel planet to the Anglo one—one that, with its taste for poetry and its mistrust of rationalism, is an ideal universe in which to set the life-stories—and write the poetry—of the 11 heteronymous authors of Ghostspeaking. Boyle’s earliest poetry, in books such as Coming Home from the World7 and The Blue Cloud of Crying,8 was often concerned with pain (‘a bureaucracy of blind snails / sidle forward to inspect / this clown stripped of his music’, he wrote, imagining Schubert on Judgment Day), its ubiquity, its imperviousness to reason. In later works, he mulled over the nature of identity, an anxiety that was always strong in postcolonial cultures but has now become universal. In Ghostspeaking he combines the two.
Some of Ghostspeaking is just about the pleasure of inventiveness: 11 authors to provide with biographies, to differentiate by style, to concoct narratives of connection for—backstories by which the real author came to know the invented ones. All the poets write in a way that is continuous with the rest of Boyle’s work. These are not radically disjunct styles: Ernesto Ray, from Puerto Rico, who rejected his career as a successful Nuyorican balladeer to become a student of Buddhism; Maria Zafarelli Strega, who left Argentina under the threat of political terror, but whose poems were passed on to Boyle by a friend after her suicide in the Sonora Desert; Lazlo Thalassa, the ‘eccentric Mexican poet of mixed Bulgarian and Turkish origins’ (p. 68), whose ‘love of the Renaissance … and the literature of the Elizabethan and medieval periods’ (p. 70) offers Boyle the chance to experiment with rococo flourishes that his more sober tones might not otherwise permit.
The universe his characters inhabit is a poetic one: a world of French provincial houses and lost South American streets; of missed connections, noms de plume and convoluted family histories. It is almost completely lacking in the paraphernalia of the contemporary world—its media and its technology—and this may have been one of the things that drew him to his imaginary Latin world in the first place. It allows him to avoid having to contextualise and explain all those inventions we have barely, even now, created meanings for, and to be free to mull over those recurring conundrums: the relationships between word or gesture and silence; between the fetishisations of memory and the masks of the present; between our losses and the way we recraft our narratives in the face of them. The re-emergence of the note of suffering gives the strongest of these poems an extra dimension: they do not just record marvels neutrally, but present them in the unsettling light of their cost. Thus there are poems by ‘The Montaigne poet’ such as ‘Of Books and Silence’ (p. 205), in which the speaker is taken in a skiff past a library that contains all the books in the world:
And the books, I ask,
what do they say?
Facing my last years of pain and my death,
what do they say?
As we drift past, he says,
place your hand beside this row of light-blue windows
that are also books.
Now listen: do you understand?
The silence changes.
Or the following short poem by Gaston Bousquin (p. 325), who was ‘tasered by security staff’ in Villawood Detention Centre for asking to see a lawyer:
After the cancer
after the divorce
after the retrenchment
he moved the stones one by one in the garden.
For all the play with heteronyms—and the pleasure Boyle takes in their invention is a huge part of the meaning of this book—one is left with an abiding impression of the chasm that lies beneath them. Identities are intimacies we refuse to disengage from. To articulate their invention, however, is also to conceive of their absence. For all the vigour and love of detail with which Boyle constructs them, this is also a book about their fragility. They are forever going on journeys, these poets—into exile, in pursuit of love, in search of the past. But how could they ever arrive? They have just been made up. Perhaps, in this respect, they are not so different to the authors who invent them.
Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry is a compilation of previously unpublished work. Although it contains some very good poems, overall the work is a little uneven, as one might expect from a sampling—as opposed to a reading—of any one particular field. That said, this sampling performs the important task of providing a section through a complex and central meditation: one that seems to produce ever more interesting and difficult questions.
The two editors of this volume work in the Creative Writing School at RMIT, and one locus for the selection revolves around people like themselves—bright, young and urban—poets steeped in ‘the signs of third wave feminist poetics’. They cite Arielle Greenberg: ‘Third Wave feminism is considered to be invested in a more “fluid” and proactive understanding of how gender does and can function in the world … [it] is interested in transitional and overlapping identity formations rather than adhering to one or another aspect of a binary such as male/female or mother/worker’ (xii).9 Since the question of who one is—of the nature of the subject—burns most strongly in the young, there is a natural overlap between the issues that many of these poets are attracted to and the theoretical interests of the editors.
The literary space in which such interests are investigated, moreover, happens to have been left relatively clear by the anthologies that preceded it. Its principal feminist predecessor is Motherlode,10 which is a different sort of book. The great strength of that collection was its focus on such things as childbirth, mothering and nurture—those subjects that had somehow eluded Western literature in recent centuries. If a key function of the Cassidy–Wilkinson collection is to explore what poets were writing under the influence of third wave feminism, they had a convenient opening in which to do so.
Giving names to things remains one of the most powerful things a writer does (and this includes legitimising something by referring to it unselfconsciously). If Motherlode created cultural space because its poets referred unselfconsciously to the body in contexts of childbirth, many of the contributors to this anthology perform an equivalent assertion by referring to their bodies in sexual contexts, as in Mikaila Hanman-Siegersma’s negotiation of the dance crowd in ‘when I tried to be cool calm collected’, or Meredi Ortega’s conceptualisation of herself as a cyborg.
It is not that the spaces in which the bodies appear are not as problematic as ever, but the first step towards changing those spaces must surely be the capacity to own, name and regard them in an unproblematic way (an area, incidentally, in which men are just about struck dumb: we don’t know what to say about female bodies, and we hardly know what to say about our own bodies either—as if our imaginations had gone dormant while some important stuff occurs elsewhere).
I did have some difficulty deciding what was feminist about some of these poems. Cassidy and Wilkinson say that their ‘anthology’s understanding of feminism seems closer to Kate Jennings’ definition (itself a quote): “Feminism is simply a belief in the full humanity of woman and her right to define herself.”’11 While it’s hard to disagree with that, it defines just about any representation of female life as feminist. While this suits the unregulated nature of the poetic imagination—whereby one is reluctant to see any valid response made subject to an abstract ruling—it means that some of these poems focus on things that are feminist only because of the identity of the speaker.
Thus Lucy Dougan has a beautifully modulated poem about women who appear in British magazines, choosing artistic lives in removed locations. Although the poem’s habitus is female, as a work about the difficulty of holding firm to the artistic life, it could just as easily have been cast in terms of male contexts and perspectives. Perhaps the best way of schematising the spread of poems is to say that while there are some that argue overtly for feminist change (such as Antonia Pont’s ‘technique’) or meditate on matters of enduring feminist concern (such as Jill Jones’ riff on the ambiguities of the verb ‘looks’), others are feminist simply because of the ancient political act of speaking freely.
Antigone Kefala’s Fragments is her first book of poetry since Absence, her new and selected collection of 1998. Although there are many poems of memory here, they constitute a smaller proportion than they do in earlier collections. Now there are many that record states of mind, or observe other people, and some that invoke the future—dispassionately, and sometimes with foreboding. There has been a further tightening of skill, a refinement of that craft which asks all words to be ‘doing work’. Collectively, the effect is of a brightening, or a hardening, of the poems’ little nests of relationships. Some of the poems are condensed observations:
She was smoking
stirring her coffee
giving me the news.
A detached observer
presenting a life
unconnected to her
that left her indifferent.
Through the glass
the sea green with the wind
and the seagulls
icy white with red eyes
shrieking above the beach.
The attraction here, for the poetic gaze, lay in the indifference of her interlocutor: that strange quality only humans exhibit. Poetry can turn even its negativities into presences, and thus the speaker’s indifference is transformed into a tacit, shaping pressure through the marginal theatricality of ‘presenting’, the lack of connection between teller and tale, the falling pitch and diminishing energy of the rhythm in lines five, six and seven, and the contrast with the energy and absorption of the gulls.
Sometimes the epigrammatic nature of Kefala’s thinking creates connections of particular resonance. ‘Night Thoughts’ is, for me, one of the most intriguing poems in the book, for the link it makes between the homelessness of the postmodern mind and the collapse in the speaker’s belief in the possibility of love:
She knew that now there was
no home, and no home comings,
only the emptiness
inside that waits in silence
not searching for an answer.
She knew that she had never
been in love with anyone, in love
only with her image of a love.
The idea that the essentialisms of ‘home’ and ‘love’ may be interdependent remains something we prefer not to explore too thoroughly.
Kefala does not so much interact with her world as record it as a series of quiet astonishments. Her style is economical, and while it is a truism now to say that every word must count, there are losses involved in such a complete withdrawal from context: she has, in effect, deleted the other that initiated the astonishment in the first place, leaving enough for us to see what caused the response, but not so much that it has an independent presence in the poem. And thus the consistent sense of interiority in the poems, as if they’d been withdrawn from the world of agency and physical others.
Kefala has a distinctive style, and all styles have their costs and their advantages. The extent to which one responds to it will largely depend on whether one feels that her quiet interiorities, with their undoubted skill and attentiveness, are sufficient to energise the material of the poem.
In Australian Ravens, Greg McLaren returns to Kurri and the small coal towns of the Hunter region, with an extended meditation on family history, ‘The Blue Gum’; a miscellany of self-contained poems also titled ‘Australian ravens’; a sequence, ‘Broken’, about travelling around Broken Hill; and another, ‘Not being in Kyoto’, about the problems of travel and of maintaining a contemporary, long-distance relationship—a comedy of gadgetry and time zones. The Kurri poems are full of memories—kids fooling around in quarries, uncles who drink too much, long trips at night to visit relatives—set against a background of depressed and inward-looking communities that struggle to deal with the closure of the underground mines. As with all McLaren’s work, the poems are understated, sometimes with a mischievous twinkle, and rarely use a metaphorical palette much greater than one might expect to find in ordinary conversation (though they are not at all similar to conversation when it comes to the play of implication, or the weighting of presences). ‘In the far-off night’ records the reaction of dogs to a coal train:
It’s always coal
in the containers, or worthless traces
of coal, spanned by soiled timber
belted with mined and refined steel.
Then the dog kennels
along Horton Road get set off,
and you can hear them forever,
canine ambulance sirens,
there were someone to save.
The dismay in this poem is, perhaps, reminiscent of Larkin, but mostly it is rare for McLaren to allow himself this level of involvement. His usual note is grounded in two perspectives that happen to overlap: that refusal to extrapolate found in the Australian colloquial, and the dismissive eye cast on emotional noise by Buddhism. Much of the poetry in a McLaren poem lies in what has been left unsaid, as if the recognitions of the reader supply the oxygen by which the words begin to breathe. It may also be that there is more bush in his poetry than his material initially suggests: these are not environments where the human replaces the natural world so much as extends its tentacles into it, clumsily and untidily. It is noteworthy that the work of other poets who exercise this degree of understatement is often pervaded by the presence of large-scale non-human environments, as if a background sense of the natural world were a restraint on our flightier, more talkative enthusiasms. In Australia, one might cite the poems of Louise Crisp and perhaps those of Laurie Duggan, whose earliest works—when his style was evolving—consistently reveal the presence of the bush.
Minimalist inflections work best when there is already a commonality of understanding between poet and reader, and that is the case here. With the exception of the section that explores travel and electronic distances, most of the material in this book captures perceptions and experiences that are well understood by all but the most urban Australians: the poetry, here, is in the craft with which these are evoked.