Paul Kane: A Slant of Light

Geelong: Whitmore Press, 2008, 31pp.

This beautifully designed pamphlet contains twenty-three poems selected from Paul Kane’s three previous books: The Farther Shore (1990), Drowned Lands (2000) and Work Life (2007). It is subtitled “Australian Poems” and chooses those poems from the books directly relevant to Australia, though it does omit two of an Australian suite from the first book. This immediately arouses, of course, a host of issues that I’ll just leave lying on the beach: is Kane a kind of cultural hybrid? Which cultures hybridize best with Australian? What component of Kane’s poetic sensibility is Australian? Is this reflected in the poems “set” in Australia or might it be seen to better advantage in certain of the “American” poems? We are into “Only an Australian could have written An Imaginary Life” territory here.

Kane is not a prolific poet but he is a very good one. He has a high degree of sensitivity to landscape and the way it reflects process. And like most poets of process he is sensitive to the vast wastetrap of entropy that the universe is composed of. He is an elegist in the sense of griever. But his books do change their methods. The first, The Farther Shore, simply contains too many extended, safe, scholarly poems to present a challenge though it does, in its final section, move to a more lyrical mode. By the time of the first section of the next book, Drowned Lands, there are some brilliant, if fragile, symbolic set-pieces: “Acceptance” is a good example:

Gray across the bridge, the bridge
itself silver, shining in the dull air,

the gray mist and water below
pale, obscuring any view but

the prevalent neutrality. Gray, then,
with splashed color, lights moving

slowly, the bridge trafficking in
anonymous lives, sequestered worlds –

it could be this way always, somber
and yet not sad: washed, toned down,

quiet, even serene. It would be
all right, with much still to praise.

Splashes of light – representing sealed off, individual lives – moving across a bridge suspended over the river of process in a monochrome landscape. The setting is bleak but the poem concludes with a tentative (and typical) movement towards affirmation. Other poems, like “Shadows”, take up this symbolic scenario, always equating colour and brightness with affirmation:

A ribbon of cloud billows in the valley,
An opaque mirror of the river below.
You are crossing a bridge in sunlight,
Suspended above cloud, water, ground.
. . . . .

It is no accident that this is a poetry very sensitive to the possibilities of dawn, especially the idea of travelling towards the rising sun, watching its lurid colour animate the grays of predawn.

Later in Drowned Lands affirmation hardens towards a vaguely defined theological sense and the poems become overtly concerned with religious subjects. A set of such poems is introduced by “Concedo Nulli” in which the poet visits a church next to the Maison d’Erasme in Anderlecht and listens to choirboys practicing in a Latin that Erasmus “would have / smiled at”. It is a situation full of symbolic significances for the seeker who feels that the power to affirm might repose in a religious context. Erasmus is a scholar’s icon, a humanist who “never left the Church, from / which he was always apart: wit, satire, / ridicule – even mortared stone can rot”. The poem finishes with the poet responding to that part of the service which praises “neither knowledge nor folly, / but an absence we cannot account for.” There are attempts at wit, satire and ridicule in various parts of Kane’s output (versions of Martial, some funny “Two Liners”) but it is not what he does best. Nor are attempts at ecstatic invocation. Drowned Lands’ second last poem, “The Repentant Magdalen” finishes

You – parabolic! – who exist beside
me here, touch the radiant cell of this
life, illumine me beyond reflection,
and make remorse the glass of what I am.

And it seems deeply unconvincing. You suspect that Kane knows this too because the last poem, “Lines Left at Shiprock”, returns to the low expectations and generalised desire for affirmation that he seems – to my eye and ear anyway – to do best. It also reverses the symbolic scene of driving towards the rising sun:

Westward, wings of rock
enfold the setting sun
as the world tilts
towards the edge of night.

You have come this far
and still you think
your life will endure.

So the poetry of Drowned Lands is built around a twin sensitivity: to moments of revelation, “out of time”, and to the processes of a time-structured personal world with its personal experience of the infinite flow of life. And the dominant of these processes is loss. The same concerns are carried over into Kane’s most recent book, Work Life, as is the tendency to slot poems with a more theologically inclined investigations of the possibility of revelation at the book’s end. Work Life, however, begins with a section of poems that deal with macro-ethics – prompted by the attacks in New York. There are portents:

. . . . .
      a Great Horned Owl in daylight
shrieking that calamitous cry – and I cannot
bear to tell you the sorrows that followed.

and there are meditations:

. . . . .
                    we who
began with the word liberty in our mouths

ended with blood on our hands? That we
who surrendered freedom for security

lost both? . . .

but the other sections of the book deal with the obsessions I have already outlined. “Psyche” is unusual in that it is a nineteen page poem in couplets but it is a meditation on revelation: at the beginning of spring the poet – “trying / to wake up in a world so stupefying / that I despaired of anything more than / momentary wonderment” – finds himself with a butterfly settled on his head. The poem is an experiment in essayistic middle style, pursuing the possible meanings of this event. In a way, poems like this are a kind of elegy for that long lost style and are rarely really successful, though one can appreciate a poet’s attraction to the ins and outs of thought and the way a long poem is bedded in time and can thus reflect the linear appreciation of time. Seen in this light, luminous lyrics – like “Acceptance” – beg the question in that they structure the poetic experience to be timeless. My own taste is for middle length accretive poems: like those of Peter Porter or Jennifer Maiden and Kane produces one of these in “Doo Town” which begins as a comment on people’s playing with the name of their town and moves on to being about our attempts to escape language, using the escaped convicts of Port Arthur as a metaphor begging to be brought into the game. This kind of poem has always seemed richer in possibilities than attempts to resuscitate, in the style of Hope, an archaic mode.

The whole second section of Work Life is devoted to poems exploring loss and the last of them, “A Murder of Crows”, unites loss with the poetry’s other great theme of the flow of time and the moments of its arrest. It begins with two moths, symbols of grace, and then goes on to imagine the possibility of the relentless onward flow of time being momentarily arrested and reversed:

. . . . .
Our world acts as a membrane directing the flow
of time in its singular forward direction,
but now and then something seeps through in reverse,
a backwash from the other side, like a check
valve that fails in the plumbing, or – if it serves
some purpose after all, beyond us – then
like a vitreous fluid weeping unnoticed through
the trabecular meshwork of the eye.
. . . . .

The poem finishes with a memory of its dead dedicatee speaking about the arrival of crows. When the crows appear, the strength of the poem’s mediation is enough to see them as negative images of what is white arriving in another world.

So what are we to make of A Slant of Light which includes “Australian” poems from the three books? Well, Australia is a land of strong sunlight and strong colours and we might thus expect the poems to be more positive than those which write of the gentler, softer light of the north-eastern seaboard of the United States. Australia might well, we guess, be a land of continuous, even apocalyptic revelation, but the truth is that what we get here is a sampling of the three books that seems to accurately reflect their character though we are spared any overtly religious poems – Australia, perhaps, being a place where you are less likely to come across a religious painting or step into a little church. There is one moment which is utterly Australian, though. When one of the two-liner jokes says : “First sex and the birth of Cain: / the root of all evil” (which looks like one of those comical condensations of literary works – in this case of Hope’s “Imperial Adam”) you have to read “root” in its lovely, vulgar Australian-English way to get the joke.

The sensitivity to loss is there. There are a lot of elegies involving a good deal of meditation about the absoluteness of loss. “Third Parent” is an extended poem which describes the lost one but also describes the absence she leaves:

. . . . .
We have nowhere to go now, with every reason
to go: friends, professions, a group, and love
of the land and the light – all the circumference
of a life without the centre, as if a void
were proof positive for the existence of God.
. . . . .

There are five other elegiac poems, two of them dedicated to Philip Hodgins.

The sensitivity to light is there as well. An early poem, “Philip Island” works hard to stress the strong coloured outlines of the place where “deep-green water – nothing like the sky – / folds in upon the strand, with mist on its back”. The obsession here though, as so often in the early poems, is with time. Memory is an insignificant recreation of the “flow of created time” while the experience of the place now

          is not of the moment, having
no use, no immediate connection to life,
      but the sheer chance encounter with something
continuous, distance made more distant by rain
      on the water, whenever the sea storms.
. . . . .

And “Hard Light in the Goldfields” meditates on the importance of the slash of light that is found in so many of Kane’s poems. The location itself suggests a symbolic scene: the horizontal band of light is between the dark sky and the dark, gold-bearing hills. The poem really wants to ask why the light is important; this is really another way a poet can question his own obsessive responses. But we live in evil times: “Has hope / diminished to that extent, that a mere / streak of light is set upon as evidence / that all is not darkness”.

. . . . .
And if the world in its indifference
can bring us comfort, what need have we
of benevolence? The sky-gods withdrew
a long time ago, but that streak of light -
how it answers to a need, and the need
answerable to neither hope nor faith,
but to the ground of being in the world.
. . . . .

I like “neither hope not faith” – it evinces a good, stony scepticism.

One poem worth noting is “On the Murray”. The allegorical implications are, of course, immediately obvious but, like many good allegories, it is mysteriously about both worlds: the surface and the significant. Yes this is a celebration of one of Australia’s great poets who rises “from heights rare in Australia” and uncoils

like a great serpent on a journey cross-country, the long
line traversing, composing, all terrains – as if limning
the borders of at least three states of mind: call them the New,
the South, and the Victorian. The Murray’s capaciousness
is legendary, and the flow, the flow draws tribute
wherever it appears . . .

But it is also a fine poem about the river as much as the man.

The book’s title comes from its first poem, “South Yarra”. Here the symbolism of light is present but it is seen in a domestic setting. The bar of light in the morning separates “the joy / of the not yet begun” from “the shadow of the dream”. In a way it seems to be a typical Kane poem. It may well be, though, that he grew tired of these careful symbolic scenarios freighted with obsessive images and in the most recent work has wanted to explore other possibilities. However I can’t help feeling – even though I may be bearing bad news – that poems like “South Yarra”, “Acceptance” and their kind are what he does best.