Reviewed: Robert Harris, The Gang of One: Selected Poems, ed. Judith Beveridge, Grand Parade Poets, 224 pp.; L.K. Holt, Birth Plan, Vagabond Press, 96 pp.; Lisa Gorton, Empirical, Giramondo, 84 pp.; Emma Lew, Crow College: New and Selected Poems, Giramondo, 122 pp.
In 2017 Alan Wearne quite rightly decided that the work of Robert Harris deserved to be more widely available than through a scattering of individual volumes, and crowd-sourced funding for a selected—which may be an example of Australian poets taking a bad situation into their own hands, but which should never have been necessary if the rest of the country was even remotely aware of the achievements of its writers. Judith Beveridge came on board as editor, and the result is this very handsome and user-friendly edition.
Harris died of a heart attack, aged 42, in 1993. His first book, Localities, was published in 1973, followed by a couple more during the 1970s. Many of his first peers were members of the generation that stormed the poetry barricades—though it is doubtful whether he was ever an uncritical believer. There was a pause in publication during the early 1980s, and when he resumed, in 1986, with The Cloud Passes Over, he was writing as a newly converted Christian—first as a charismatic, and then as an Anglican—a faith that was to inform all his work from then onwards. Unlike most of his fellow poets, however, his premature death meant that it was difficult for his readers to obtain a sense of his achievement, and so this selection, 26 years overdue, is very welcome.
Beveridge gives Harris’s first three books fewer than 50 pages. Most of the selection is taken up with poems from The Cloud Passes Over, JANE, Interlinear (1992) and with uncollected pieces. This skew feels right: the quality of the work takes off at The Cloud Passes Over. Prior to that, he was still learning the ropes; his uncertainty over belief, moreover, could be reflected in an uneven sense of form—which in free verse can appear as a lack of control over the shape of the meaning. With Christianity came what was for Harris the liberating insight that the morality of the work was more important than its aesthetics, and this clarified his poems’ perspectives, and his sense of what he wanted to tension them against. In ‘The Snowy Mountains Highway’ he writes:
I have placed myself here in the poem,
at work, check-shirted, to help myself remember
black branches I snapped at dusk, snow
at the wind’s edge, a wombat. Also
to dismantle any aesthetic
ideal, keep, or Magian use
from which I might write.
This put him sharply at odds with the poetics he had started from. Harris thus exposed himself to the acrimony of the poetry wars, attracting much criticism for having ‘switched sides’. As a consequence, the selected contains more poems of pushback and counterattack than I can remember seeing from any of his contemporaries.
JANE, Interlinear is his most successful collection. It asserts the new belief and begins to explore what it might mean to his interpretation of events. There are three extended sequences, together with a substantial number of individual pieces. ‘Little Iliad’ is a varied collection of sonnets exploring the dividing lines in Harris’s society—Vietnam, poetry, morality. ‘Seven Songs for Sydney’ is a meditation on the sinking of HMAS Sydney by the merchant raider Kormoran off Shark Bay, Western Australia, in 1942. (Harris had the unusual ability to consider the meaning of national events at a personal level: there are also poems on the sacking of Whitlam and on the early forestry wars.) Individual poems in ‘Seven Songs for Sydney’ consider such things as the disaster’s fading from common memory, the culpability or otherwise of its captain, the treatment of the Kormoran’s crew by the townsfolk of Carnarvon and, in a ‘Chorus of Grandmother’s Handbags’, the long-term effect on the daughters of the lost men. The emotional centre of the poem, however, is ‘Everything sang’, in which he expresses his new belief that the men did not die in an indifferent universe:
The steel bound in giggling atoms
sang. The nickel, the brass, the steam, they sang.
And the armourer’s grainy treasuries, disposed
in falling to shift and blow.
The stars spread out in navigable beauty.
The universe sang. It sang. The night, superb and physical, sang.
The waves sang with unforeseen vehemence.
I sing, one.
I sing with the awe of the drowning.
This section thus becomes a kind of opposite to Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, where the sinking of the Titanic leads only to abyssal oblivion. Harris asserts that their deaths mattered: not just to other humans, but also to a world roused to sentience by the scale of the tragedy. He was also asserting, by implication, that the only adequate responses were emotional ones—grief translated by the body into music or poetry—and this differentiated him from peers who were wary of emotions strong enough to overwhelm the focus on the aesthetic. The ending of the sequence, however, shows him less confident about this sentient universe. He imagines the Sydney’s radio operator still trying to reach those onshore:
His phones gone dead
Under what salvo
I am forgotten as a dead man out mind:
I am a broken vessel.
Here Harris is closer to Hardy: it ends on an image of oblivion. Much of the rest of the sequence, moreover—apart from ‘Everything sang’—is about the processes by which events recede from memory. He doesn’t attempt to resolve this: it is as if both responses were equally potent in his imagination. Together, the opposing perspectives may represent an important moment in the transition of his beliefs, but it is not clear that the inconsistency was deliberate or fully controlled.
His most ambitious piece is the title sequence. The Jane of the title is Lady Jane Grey, who was pushed towards the throne by her father-in-law, Northumberland, in 1553, so he could maintain access to power by forestalling the Catholic heir, Mary, with a Protestant. Mary’s backers, however, proved better organised, and Jane, aged 17, was sentenced to be beheaded—more to remove her as a focus for opposition than for anything she had done. She was a precocious scholar, a correspondent with some of the leading Protestant thinkers of Europe, and a beauty. She resisted the arguments of Mary’s theologian with firmness, and went to her death with exemplary fortitude: an Anglican martyr and an image one could believe in and proselytise with. No further reasons for Harris’s interest are required, but by choosing a historical personage he was also avoiding the inevitably complex questions that would have collected around a contemporary.
The ‘interlinear’ refers to interlinear translations of the Bible, in which phrases in different languages (e.g. Greek, Hebrew, English) are printed below each other to facilitate comparison. The interlineations in the poem don’t follow a strict pattern of parallel perspectives on Jane’s story, though different views do emerge from time to time. If Harris had originally been intrigued by the possibility of working with consistent alternatives (e.g. Anglican v. Catholic), what had started as a ‘way in’ to the poem may have given way before the practicalities of making its material available in a way that wasn’t overschematised. Even when he does articulate parallel perspectives, all qualifications disintegrate before the force of his admiration: this is not a postmodern text where each possibility is equally worthy of consideration. Though aware of the difficulties of retrieving any narrative at such a distance, he is uncompromisingly captive to the image he has of Jane. The climax of the sequence occurs in ‘Poem XXV’, where Dr Feckenham, who has been sent by Mary to persuade her cousin to convert, fails—in what is Jane’s last chance to save her neck—in a passage where Harris makes no attempt to maintain a historicist circumspection:
The last chance comes. dispute
But carry the close arising in St John
by force majeure: know you’ll die where she’s
your victory, you for it. Even the silver prisoner
cries from the table, shine for ever. but no sound
look, it will All objects shout breaks her
Was he a major poet, as the blurb suggests? He is certainly a poet whom no-one interested in Australian poetry can afford not to read. From the start, he had a sense of the independent life of the other—something that could be lost beneath the weaponised aesthetics of the time. His religious search was an attempt to find a framework for that. His instinct for the other also gave him a feel for context—which, in turn, gave an edge to his phrasing—aided, one might suspect, by his early experiments with the colloquial. So he sounds like an impressive poet: there is the decidedness of meaning and control over change of perspective one associates with writing that knows what it is doing. And there are important poems, such as ‘Cane Field Sunday, 1959’.
Beyond that, however, assessments of Harris’s significance may depend on how important his religious conclusions are to the reader. His poems are certainly important documents in the history of belief in Australia. Yet his death may have come before he had a chance to deal with his hardest questions: that having accepted the belief, he still had to work out what that meant in a world whose terms of reference were shifting. As with Les Murray, the background belief allowed him to invest specific events with broad moral implications. In the fourteenth sonnet of ‘Little Iliad’, he recounts his family’s discomfort with the establishment of the time:
My Dad, in fog, on the road to Dandenong,
got caught in the Governor General’s motorcade,
till a clear patch, it was good, the old boy waved
when we pulled out. It was Casey, like a wraith,
our Fiat vanished in this Commonwealth.
The problem is that having achieved the rhetorical emphasis—all that sudden extra weight applied to ‘Fiat’ and ‘vanished’ and ‘Commonwealth’—we are still left with the issue of exactly what the relationship between his family and the Commonwealth was: there is a claim—a suggestion, perhaps—of a truer commonwealth among ordinary Australians, but there is no real exploration of that. There is a similar sense of the begging of the question behind a great deal of Harris’s work: whether because he had not yet had time to think such things through, or because the questions were really too difficult. For all the openness of his attention, there was much that it never resolved. Whatever one makes of his oeuvre, it is hard to get past the sense of a man of great decency—not least because he had always been intent on searching for the other through—or even beyond, if beyond is possible—the tricky lattice of aesthetics.
Birth Plan is Lucy Holt’s fourth collection, and it is her best book yet. There are adaptations of Louise Labé’s sonnets, of Chekhov and other episodes from her reading, and there are poems exploring incidents from her own life, but the most ambitious poem is the autobiographical meditation ‘You’re Going Through Something’, written under the rubric (of John Hughlings Jackson), that ‘There is no such entity as consciousness: we are from moment to moment differently conscious’. Holt has explored her experiences, and those of her peers, before. Now, however, a little older perhaps, she is able to avail herself of that distancing, so precious to a writer, that allows her commentary to shift between the engagement and the response.
Holt’s is a sophisticated, highly self-aware voice, so her ruminations are interrupted by all sorts of other voices: washerwomen, Lorca, her mother—together with quotes from other texts and irruptions of slapstick. Although its surface movement has much of the apparent unpredictability of stream of consciousness, there is a poet’s touch in the organisation of ideas. To capture the elusiveness of thought with sufficient point for the piece to work as poetry requires great facility with syntax: it is one of the skills of the good contemporary poet, and not, perhaps, appreciated as frequently as it might be.
‘You’re Going Through Something’ is not a poem that suggests startling new answers. She asks herself all the old questions: Who should I be in a relationship? Who do I want to be to myself? And the questions are no easier when she turns to her other great conundrum, her poetry: What is poetry? What can I ask it to do? What makes the piece work is not some drum-roll answer from the hat, but the shrewdness and liveliness with which she frames her questions—together with the developed sense of implication with which she fails to answer them. When she thinks about her place in a relationship, she writes:
Good feminist, by acceptance, you mean self-love of course!—
But self-love as a mental exercise just isn’t very. Generative or diverting. Unlike: beautify or obliterate? Unlike: which sister would you be in Guilt and Culpability? In Prozac or Precipice? Please discuss: Creation: Pro- or Anti-? Please discuss: Biological Imperative or Entitlement?—
When it comes to poetry, her little list of descriptions of what it is and does manages to be both delighted and dismissive at the same time:
A seizure with a seaview—
An adequately-pinned-down picnic in a wind—
A part-time object rescued from nothing by its bones—
A lambbleat with neat pleats!—
It’s pointless when for you the poem is always leading to an
unsaying past silence. A black op between two that never finishes.
But happily for the poet it seems each empty sign is a lustral basin
that feels the air as water so purified by its good work—
Rhythmically, the poems in this sequence—they are mostly monologues—walk a tightrope between speech and poetry, though with the end pause frequently contributing an important buoyancy. In terms of perspective, however, they are poems through and through—simultaneities that shift between immersion and commentary, as opposed to material organised chronologically, in order to facilitate the management of its release. If the central note of almost all the poems in Birth Plan is conversational—alert, surprised; a thoughtfulness heightened into play—that doesn’t mean that it can’t stiffen with gravitas when it needs to. In ‘Día de Los Muertos (Bye Dan, Hi Dan)’, in which family and friends have gathered (one assumes) to scatter Dan’s ashes, most of the poem is light touch with a background awareness, but it resolves to a full, quiet nakedness with the sister’s words:
a dying albatross may rest on a ship awhile
but will never leave so late as to not
put good distance between itself
and that with a weakness for landfall.
Some of the shorter poems are not so strong. ‘Mary Anning’ (recasting an episode from the life of the palaeontologist), for instance, reads more like an anecdote that has captured Holt’s imagination than as a poem that had to be written, but we should judge authors by their strongest work. It is the confrontation with the things that matter in ‘You’re Going Through Something’ that lift both the play of its meanings and its language, together with its understanding of just how complex its questions are. Reading it, I kept thinking of how sophisticated we have become. It is only in the past couple of generations that we could have attempted a language of such playfulness, speed and breadth of referent. If it is also a poetry without easy answers, one can see how its qualities may be the very things that prevent it from achieving currency in the public space: that strange, conflicted malaise of simple explanations explaining hardly anything at all.
Lisa Gorton’s Empirical begins with a group of poems that peer closely at the physical details of Royal Park, Melbourne: at its grass and weeds, its concrete and other detritus, at the cuttings and other shapes we have imposed on its landscape. Collectively, such details generate a vanishing effervescence of perspectives and events that we continually seek to capture and stabilise. Gorton describes, for instance, the way thistledown ‘tracks how [light] pours through the front of now / into that unreal scene out the back / of all description’. In this poem ‘description’ is not a throwaway term. It is part of the process by which we seek to ‘monumentalise’ these occurrences—to turn them into language and image, and, ultimately, into narrative, architecture and empire. Despite this, as the quote suggests, the world continually eludes us. After the sequence describing the physical presence of Royal Park, she turns to its history:
Now bullet casings, bottle shards, steel mesh alike
turn to monument under my eye and by this trick
here I have felt the past around me like a landscape—
ruinable, massed, a blank in thought which sets the names
in their array—
Here again, our attempts to make sense of history—to set ‘the names in their array’—is just another form of ‘monumentalisation’—this time of arranging events in a chronological sequence, rather than in a spatial one. If the first half of the book is concerned with attempts to observe this fugitive process, the second, ‘Crystal Palace’, is concerned with the various things that we do with it, once our constructions have achieved enough stability and consistency to build on: with Venus de Milo, a monument herself, further ‘monumentalised’ by the reifications of gender, politics and aesthetics; with Rimbaud’s ‘Imperial Panaromas’, exorbitant invocations of imperial daydreams; with the Crystal Palace, that giant display-box of the world’s admirable objects; and, finally, with the initiating impulse behind all such cornucopias, imagination—specifically that of Coleridge.
Much of the ‘Crystal Palace’ half of the book—the ‘Crystal Palace’ referring not just to the building, but also to the whole phantasmagoria of the constructed world—takes the form of quotes and instances. This is a poem that has been researched like an essay, and as with other recent examples (Jordie Albiston’s Warlines, for instance),1 the quality of the author’s reading is a key skill underpinning the whole production.
The most powerful section is the ending, ‘Landscape with Magic Lantern Slides’. Here Gorton presents the reader with a field of broken statues:
This middle distance built perpetually
out from the statues’ eyes—at once
resembling and drawn into that flat
and through-shine plain at the back
of all description in which each word lives
in its own landscape—widening out
through silent weather as though at home—
their hands—half-open, palms
Gorton reminds us of the fate of all representations, and invoking, by implication, that ‘need / for something new which all the myths proclaim’—because all our representations come loose from their originals (they were never joined); because to act requires the endless reinvention of the basis of action. The hands of the statues look back to a passage in ‘Empirical III’ that ends, ‘what the future will keep / of this place will be its innocence, a hunger / as undeliberate as rain’—nominally conjuring the yearning of the sign for the world it can never touch, but ultimately referring to the yearning of the wielder of signs.
Overall, Empirical is a dark text. We are reminded that the original pleasure palace in ‘Kublai Khan’ was built by a great tyrant, and that William Beckford’s follies, which inspired Coleridge, were created with the proceeds of slave labour. The whole sequence is dominated by the tension between place—the earth—and the apparently unstoppable momentum of the imagination as it goes to work on it. Ultimately, this is a recipe for tragedy. But there is also great poignancy in the quiet counter-pressure of the author’s desire for things to be different—for us to be able to touch the statues’ hands and retrieve them from ruin, or to access the innocence of the earth without destroying it in the process. This is Gorton’s most ambitious production thus far (and that includes her novel, The Life of Houses). Empirical deserves a wide readership. If there are any quibbles, they are that the early sequence of ‘Empirical’ poems, and the later riff on the working of Coleridge’s imagination, may be slightly too long: not by much, but just enough to mar what is otherwise a beautifully balanced sequence.
For a long time now art has focused principally on the way humans interact with each other. We are beginning to understand that there is a forgotten partner in these equations—the earth—and that until we take stock of the moral dimension in our behaviour towards it, we will struggle to make sense of our behaviour towards each other. Empirical is a plaint about the sad, ruinous imperialism latent in trying to grasp—and inevitably, it seems, diminishing—the ungraspable earth. The implication is that until we get this foundational relationship right, nothing will follow properly in its stead. This is another book without any answers, but when Gorton considers the effects of our efforts to ‘wrest control’, as in the sequence on the monumentalisation of the female form in ‘Aphrodite of Melos’, there is little room to doubt that we have to find some.
Emma Lew’s Crow College is a New and Selected drawing on work from her two previous collections, The Wild Reply (1997) and Anything the Landlord Touches (2002), together with about 40 pages of new poems. Lew’s poetry has always sought either to make sense of history or to ponder the ways in which understanding has failed. The new poems continue to do this, although there are also a number of condensed life narratives, and of summative or otherwise significant episodes from romance. Lew’s poetic imagination is based in Europe: there is little if anything in the book that was prompted by Australia. European history being what it is, one can hardly blame those who are its captives.
Her highly poetic style, often abstracted from original context, suggests that the important details are the ones that help give an edge to the resilient, underlying shapes of our gestures and their failures. In ‘Freight’ she says, ‘Remember: everything is / transitory, even the disturbances; / even the sunlight, trees and fields.’ It is the skeleton of the event that attracts her: narratives condensed to their barest structures—sometimes to the point of absurdity; love reduced to its expectations and defeats. Between the terrors of history in the twentieth century and the hollowness of relationships stripped to words and nothing else, there is considerable room for bleakness:
What’s in your heart?
a strange, cruel starvation,
the smallest storm.
What are your riches?
Puddles and thistles,
Burst fruit, such ashes,
wild as I wish. (‘Nettle Song’)
One way the poems maintain their momentum in the face of this is with humour: a black, dry mixture of the Marx Brothers, Mae West and Harold Pinter:
Something about the way you dance
reminds me that I have to sit down. (‘Chernobyl: Small Talk’)
I’m sorry if I added darkness,
but I couldn’t just show up empty-handed. (‘Luminous Alias’)
Beyond that, there is always the poet’s satisfaction at turning bewilderment into shapely lines, or in discovering an exact articulation:
It was like a rain,
the world, and his eyes loved faint things. (‘Shoes of the Morning Star’)
As if we could get back into our own mirrors. (‘Kind of a Golden Girl’)
Come, trust the world—it’s still night,
and the moon wishes to dissipate,
and earth groans under its weight of mice,
and God has given us everything,
everything. (‘Sinking Song’)
The poetry in Lew lies in the tension between the assumptions and naiveties of her speakers, and the broader perspective of the poem, in which their inadequacies are laid bare. Her cast of characters includes an urgent, seductive woman (‘but there was a larceny in her too’—‘Fast’), women who throw caution to the wind (‘Luminous Aliases’), or who want to (‘Rattling the Forms’) and women whose love stalls or turns sour (‘Tainted Version’). Over and over, she returns to the theatre of power in intimate relations—including those of mother and daughter (‘Kanipshins’, ‘Finishing School’). The latter explores the way parents wear away at the trust and earnestness of the child—here, as an extension of the mother’s victory against her own hurt and vulnerability:
Sweet dreams, delusive hopes.
The taint is passed on from mother to
How could anyone as pale as she, I wonder, sit so silently?
I’ll never tire of punishing her.
Many of her speakers are constrained by the specificity of their needs, or compromised by circumstance. As a consequence, the poems seldom display an expansive attitude towards human possibility. What agency there is tends to belong in the terrain of comedy, or in the theatre of the absurd. When it appears, it mostly emerges from the past, in life stories subsumed and neutralised by generalisation. Rather than opening towards qualia, or the unknown, the overall note is of the poem resolving to statements that define and at least attempt to usurp the pain they are sourced in. As a variant to the aesthetic pleasures of the turned line and the tart joke, one also encounters the more driven satisfaction of the attempt to manage difficulty with exactitude and emphasis:
The past will be a bitter land.
I do not trust the face of my father.
The wind, they say, is going to blow till the end.
The fleas are hungry. (‘The True Dark Town’)
For all the finality in Lew’s statements, however, it is impossible not to hear the desperation beneath them:
We are always hounding ourselves
Why shouldn’t we laugh, even if there is nothing? (‘The Way Out of Hungary’)
There is a connection between grief and the overtly poetic: it is the same pain that abstracts us from the present in life, and from the concrete and incidental in language. It is a pain, it seems, that for all the tricks of Lew’s sharp intelligence, she can do little to mollify. •
Martin Langford’s most recent collections are The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (2009), Ground (2015) and Eardrum (2020).