Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2008, 236pp.
As with Jan Owen’s recent selected, this book contains an entire, previously unpublished work accompanied by selections from previous books. It focuses on what the writer is doing now but enables readers to put this in some kind of perspective. Steele’s output is made up of two early (and really fairly forgettable books), Word from Lilliput and Marching on Paradise, published in 1973 and 1984 respectively. The four books since have included two which are made up of poems about paintings (I have always thought that English might be a better language without the word, “ekphrasis”, in it), and Invisible Riders (1999) which is stylistically not dissimilar to the new book of this selected: White Knight with Beebox. There is a lot of wonderful poetry in both White Knight with Beebox and the selections from Invisible Riders. I’m interested in the way this particular poet’s mind works, partly because, as he is a longtime Jesuit and an equally longtime Melburnian, he comes with an intellectual apparatus as far from mine (callow, post-enlightenment intellectual) as I could imagine. He has always loomed just over the horizon of my reading as a fellow Australian but somehow one with a different spiritual and intellectual ethnicity.
But before looking at the mental patterns, there is the question of the image we have of the author from these poems and what we can guess about the author’s image of himself. There is less fierce or rhapsodic transcendence than might be expected and an awful lot of wryness. In a number of the poems Don Quixote and Sancho Panza appear and this pair (the idealistic but disordered mind connected to the uncomfortable body) seem to be Steele’s totemic counterparts or at least totems of the wry side of his poetry. “Ass with Harp” (an “art-poem” in that it is about a puzzling ass sculpted on Chartres cathedral) is relevant here because its subject is the continued presence of the humble flesh in an atmosphere of yearning for the heavens:
. . . . . here, in a cosmic settling of accounts, fair and foul migrate for ever; and here, taking a liberty with tradition, a carved dreamer begins to smile. But the one with hoof to harp and roused eye remains arcane. Mocked by Jerome, a sleeper for Bottom yet to come, a dawdler at ears’-length from Balaam and angel – perhaps, on the pitted wall, this day of the Lord, he catches the note of dying Francis who said of the body, for all his starry hopes, “I have sinned against my brother the ass.”
Don Quixote is also perhaps not far from Lewis Carroll’s White Knight of the title poem, the one who has a fine hive but no honey. Again the stress is not on the divine radiating downwards but on human aspirations to move upwards:
Grander mentors are wasted on him – the Greeks consecrating bees to the moon, Jonathan risking death . . . . . . . . The clique of Immortals, knocking back their diet of nectarine juices and munchable candy, are at their best still in the dark as to the sweetness this jerked and lolloping figure has made of himself. In default of a comb, he’s bet on the dotardly build of his own flesh, going down fighting, coming up trumps, licking a dear-bought honey off thorns, and always husbanding fire for the next dream.
“This jerked and lolloping figure” – “Lolloping” is a word that recurs in this poetry and might bear the same relation to Steele’s poems that, say, “veteran” does to Bruce Beaver’s.
Other poems position the poet remorselessly as the wryly intelligent observer of the public world, an enlightened amateur. One of the best of them, “Mending Gloves at Anglesea”, moves, via a pun on the author’s names, to such a description:
the stitchwork will proclaim The amateur status of its wearer, Ferric and stoney by name, But understrapper among overlings, A lightweight in the contest for chief lout.
while “Phantom Pleasures” speaks very beautifully of those whose boats are “invulnerable to burning because their timber / is still unseasoned”. The amateur is only one step from the fool – indeed is, in his or her own estimation, a fool. Steele’s poetry, at the moments where it wants to speak of religious experience, often invokes the figure of the fool. There is, of course, a good Franciscan tradition for doing this but the character who figures more significantly than Francis is Christopher Smart. “Praying with Christopher Smart” sees Smart as rejoicing
though God knows how, at seeing the Lamb, all radiant victim and focal creature, where knave and fool and we the bewildered are welcomed.
The wry component meshes in well with at least one aspect of a poet’s capacities: the sensitivity to words produces puns of every level of complexity and these have always been seen as homely, rather embarrassing lapses. They are the kind of things that poets usually censor in themselves unless their poetics permits it. Surrealism does (accidents of language are one of surrealist poetry’s driving forces) but so does a poetry that positions its author as a humble, “bewildered” figure. Steele’s poems are full of these lolloping jokes. The Earl of Burlington’s lackeys and flunkeys did not have to stand next to an airport luggage carousel “conscious of what they lacked / or how they’d flunked” (“Impedimenta”). In “Anhedonia”, autumn is a “season of musts and sallow fruitlessness” and in “Valediction”, when the poet goes to switch off the light – “It’s dousing time, the thumb upon the switch” – the connection of “douse” and “switch” recalls the “dowsing” of diviners. A fine poem (though its central stanza can’t resist a swipe at imagined scientific reductionism), “Puny Dragons”, deals with punning overtly (in the title as well as the content of the poem). It begins with ancient maps, full of imagined monsters, contrasts these with modern maps, imagined to be produced in a spirit of snobbish superiority, and concludes by celebrating the forces of dream which, employing tropes like punning, push into our consciousnesses:
. . . . . Still, indiscipline being what it is, and emigrés from our dreams barefaced, ceaseless vigilance is the only way. Here come the tropes, aswagger, wielding their maps like so many gaudy warrants of licence, the back of their hand to Mercator, rhumbs, and the sacred polyconic projection. To them, it’s never far from Tipperary, Donne’s liable to riot over the globe displaying a body or two, Calvino sweet-talks you out of your wits as brazenly as the cock-eyed exiled Florentine. In default of any net to catch the wind, puisne dragons may be expected.
One of my favourite poems from this selected is “Confluences”. It sees the poet standing at the site of Richard the Third’s death and responds to a whole series of fascinating connections. The date of Richard’s death is the same as the poet’s birth, for example.
. . . . . The stream was too much for Richard, slighter even than the Rubicon though it is. If ever the trumpets sounded for him, it wasn’t on the other side at Bosworth. Conceivably, the real man’s well placed to explain the matter to Shakespeare, who managed to die on his birthday, feast of St George, that honorary Englishman, and who went wherever they go on the same day as that master-forger of knights, Cervantes.
One could find a lot in this poem if one went searching for clues about how this poet’s mind works: it is surely significant that it finishes with the creator of Steele’s iconic Don Quixote. But in the light of what I’ve been describing, I want only to point out that puns are confluences, accidental meetings of sound, orthography and meaning. So the puns of the meditative poems in Steele’s outputs are more than just games made respectable by a tone of wry self-deprecation. They must be bound into both the structure of the psychology and into the metaphysical structures that psychology feels comfortable with. Hammering this out would be well beyond my capabilities (and stamina) but a fine and very moving poem, “Brother”, continues the etymologizing cast of mind that appeared in “Mending Gloves at Anglesea” (it also, surely, contains an allusion to the relationship between Moses and Aaron). An etymology is not strictly a pun but here it shows an interest in the confluence between name and character:
No day goes by without your haunting me, You, whose tongue was always heavy with silence. Watching myself taped, a mouth pouring Word on crested word, I am ashamed To have outlived you, whom first I saw huddled Behind glass some wars and loves ago. There is, as your brooding gaze always implied, Nothing to say. But as I back towards Your veiled country, let me say only That you were never slight, nor I the rock.
In the middle of White Knight with Beebox is a group of poems, “A Mass for Anglesea”, overtly engaging religious experience. Although they seem to make up a highly organised group, there are many different genres inside the group and I’m inclined to think of it as a miniature anthology. And you can see much of Steele’s array of poetic technique in this sequence. It begins, for example, with a prologue in which the celebrant prepares the material for the mass and devotes a stanza to fire, water, wine, bread and, finally, the word. I’m not au fait with the full theological and metaphysical implications of the various processes here (are we dealing with symbols or metonyms, for example) but the poem begins with a characteristic connecting of the local and small with the large so that the white tablecloth table is associated with the large expanse of the southern ocean which, of course, concludes in snow and icy wastes. This is a shift that begins “Mending Gloves at Anglesea”. Fittingly for a poet/priest, much is made of the fact that the poem concludes with the word of the gospels:
Its tale of good having the last word is a quaint one, given the plague and the camps, but I’ll read it, heart a crosspatch often as not, and mind losing and finding the way.
The Kyrie is a set of three prayers, the first two on behalf of the little local community. The comfortable assumption of authority (and, admittedly, responsibility) on the part of the priest seems mildly irritating here, but I accept that that is a hyper-sensitive Australian response to a religion which thrives in more hierarchical societies. The last of the prayers begins by sounding as though it wants to approximate the verbal animation you get in Hopkins and concludes by asking for the fire of God to animate the heart and dispel the inner darknesses. It, too, can’t help noting the pun in the place name:
Changer of hearts, Downhill is Demon’s Bluff, and any old day The cards may fall like that, the spirit darken, Amen stick in the throat indeed, and song Dry on the lips like salt. Come in, I pray, Winter or summer, your own music about you, Your fiery touch a mercy after all.
“Gloria I” is interesting because it attempts to re-animate what is a poetic cliché – the poem devoted to one of the bystanders at one of the miracles, the kind of thing that begins “She was always such a quiet lass . . .” and goes on to describe Mary from a neighbour’s point of view. “Gloria I” isn’t as bad as that, fortunately. It does the shepherds “shaggy under keffiyehs, the heavy cloaks / rucked high for the wind” and, if it works at all, does so by recalling an earlier tradition (Lancelot Andrewes and Eliot) and keeping the language level high. But somehow all it is doing is struggling to keep afloat against the deadweight of its own cliché.
“Gloria II” reads like the meditative poems that this book is filled with – I’m not sure why it has wandered into this sequence. Again it is in a mode that Steele’s poetry occasionally leans towards, a Les Murrayish swipe at the Enlightenment:
“Transit gloria mundi” say the begrudgers, death’s name as tart as quince on their relishing tongues, a barrel of doornails open to the casual reach, and ash like talcum in its trim can. It’s always a Bad Friday.
It’s not really my business but sniping at the uncharitable or begrudging or sarcastic or in-love-with-destruction-and-death tone of atheists is just argumentum ad hominem: the tone in which a proposition is expressed or the reason for its expression is not relevant to the issue of whether the proposition is true or false. I emphasise this because in Murray at his worse there is a good deal of pre-Enlightenment (ie medieval) vitriol and one looks at Steele, as a modern Jesuit, to see how a sixteenth century tradition of argument can be recreated in the modern world. One wants something better than informal logical fallacies.
“Credo” begins with a large perspective on history and the cosmos and then switches very beautifully to the local by engaging with a truck driver on the forecourt of the service station. As he drives through the stands of eucalypts he becomes a kind of wood-man and the poem then transitions to Jesus (“the other traveller, working his passage / from boy to man, country to city, / sawyer’s horse to the bloody work on a pole”). This is all wonderfully done, seamlessly producing a poem that is as well-made as a fine piece of wooden furniture. It is worth dwelling for a while on this element of Steele’s technique: many of the poems are driven by transitions or disjunctions which are announced in the language of argument or by a demotic turn of phrase. So the first three stanzas of a terrific poem, “Impedimenta”, begin: “Overdone? Well yes, it can be, as when . . .”, “For all I know, the Earl was an ascetic . . .” and “Whatever. Noble, gentle or simple, later . . .” and the final stanza enacts an elegant shift to the wry self, “Wary myself, instinctive investor in / body-armour and multiplied options . . .”. I could list many similar examples of this core poetic technique. I love this kind of poetry built on enjambment, disjunctions and the drive of logical syntax: I could devour quires of it and this selected has brilliant examples. At the back of my mind, however, is always the slight fear that this is a rhetoric, a way of producing a well-made poem that could conceivably be imitated and could certainly be parodied.
“Sanctus” deals with ecstatic celebration of the divine and takes its cue not from Christopher Smart this time but from Blake. At the end it provides us with some kind of definition of holiness “a trace / of light and sweetness taking flesh, / the heart ringing like crystal” before making a reasonably daring transition to helping up a little girl:
Down the road, drooling a little, eyes rounded, another of Mary’s children makes for the beach, every day a maceration. Fall as we do, retrieved as we are, by the instant, my hand out if she’d like, it’s Holy, Holy, Holy.
The last poem of this group, “Fires”, is built on a different meditative model to the one I have been describing. It accumulates and aggregates images of fire and concludes with Jesus walking towards us (a structure I have met in other poems about religious figures):
It’s true of the tramp from the north, his eyes learning the country, change on his mind and its trying, good news aflame in his mouth, no time lost of the little they let him have, burning and blessing and burning.
It’s just that here the connections are not as clear as in the kind of poems I’ve been describing and one has that sense that here is a poem where the reader is not at all immediately comfortable and we need to look at it carefully in order to make some sense of the landscape we have found ourselves in. There are a few poems in the book like this. One way of putting the difference might be to say that the poems of transition and disjunction occasionally sound like Hope (of the Casserius poem, perhaps) whereas these others sound occasionally like Peter Porter.
Finally, though not the last poem of the group, “Offerings” is a wonderful celebration of human creativity beginning (with the customary wide perspective) with the cave painters of Lascaux, and including Neolithic flint blades and Chinese oracle bones and coffin-handles. The final stanza surprisingly but very satisfyingly moves not only towards names but towards the tactile experience of the words themselves – something a poet is especially sensitive to but which everybody can relate to. And the method of the poem is not argument or analysis but listing:
And blessed are you who fit us all for naming - telling the arrow’s nock, the gladdie’s corm, the Bellarmine jug, the Milky Way, spinnaker, follicle, Nome, Alaska: catfish, deckchairs, the age to fall in love, gaspers and megrims and the Taj Mahal, derricks, and El Dorado, and peach Melba. Blessed are you: the years toll, and yet I chance my arm enough to say, (the brute tide swayed by the moon) I bless the wine and the bread.
Just as the priest can bless the host so the poet can bless language (itself mysteriously connected to the word, or Word).
The last two poems of the sequence seem derived respectively from a statuary group and from a carved scene on a plaque. And concluding as these poems do with human creativity and its results reminds me how many of Steele’s poems are responses to painting and further reminds me that I have barely considered the thirty-five pages in this selected which collect these. That will just have to wait for another suitable occasion.