Peter Steele: The Gossip and the Wine

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2010, 65pp.

In the poem in which they appear, the words of the title of Peter Steele’s new book (themselves derived from a Peter Porter poem) suggest, perhaps, no more than the conviviality of the Last Supper contrasted, in the poem, with the sinister but necessary events offstage:

Dead man walking as he goes to dine -
The handing over broached and squared away -
He settles to the gossip and the wine,
The casual banter and the heart at play.
. . . . .

But read as the title of the book, they clearly reflect two different directions that the poet wants his verse to travel: “gossip” for the gregarious, human dimension and “wine” for the spiritual one. It makes sense in terms of the Afterword to Steele’s 2003 collection of ekphrastic poems, Plenty, in which he says:

I am of the belief that poets are mainly on the trace of the Human, that familiar, curious, and largely mysterious creature. The greatest of medieval poems in a European language is called a “Comedy”: and although I am aware that the title does not refer to clowning but to a happy ending, the pilgrim figure in that work is what might be called a sponsored blunderer, a quester by ricochet. Dante is exercised to know not only how things will turn out, but who it is for whom things will thus eventuate. It is most appropriate that this should take place in poetry, in which everything leans yearningly towards the possible consolation of song . . .

One wouldn’t want to make too much of this dichotomy – the sociable human below, the remote but incarnatable divine above – for fear of being simplistic, but it isn’t a bad map even if, in The Gossip and the Wine, there are really three groups of poems rather than two.

It begins with a group of a dozen poems built around various events in the Christian year: some of these poems are part of an imaginary biography of Jesus, others are reflections prompted by the festival itself. Thus the Ash Wednesday poem, “Contemplation with Ashes”, is about neither human sociability or the divine so much as the sheer violence of the world. And it uses one of the most powerful weapons in Steele’s own poetic armoury – the learned list:

These, among others: Assyria’s mailed archers
          and mounted spearsmen, the charioteers
drinking to devastation, Sennacherib boasting,
          “of Elam, I cut their throats like sheep”;
Polybius, of the Roman way on storming -
          “the purpose is to strike terror,
the very dogs in halves”; the Langobards,
          each broadsword sleek with lacertine figures,
each lance of a strength to lift its wriggling target;
          Byzantium’s troopers . . .

At either end of this sequence are two longer, meditative poems. “Advent”, the first, is about Steele’s own emergence expressed as a biography of three men: Odysseus (The Odyssey read early, in Perth), Dante (seen rather as in the quotation from Plenty as a yearner, “rapt at the feast of song”) and George Herbert (someone whom it is hard to dislike). Put together they make a kind of composite biography encapsulating a theory of what humanity is and what its poems do: “the heart is a nest / for nurselings making music in an air / they barely guess at”. And it makes its first line (there is a Greek name for the trope deployed here where you expect one word and get another – but I’ve long forgotten the technical terms of rhetoric) “All my life I’ve been at the school of yearning”, introduce the central word of the collection. The first yearns for home, the second for “the best of notes, / stilling the world to hear and yearn” and the third to “have it out with God”.

The last of the poems of this sequence, “Reverie in Lygon Street”, is an ambitious piece and your heart warms to it once you get inside it a little. Structured as three sections of three stanzas each, it sees the poet in a market meditating, in turn, on human and vegetable variety, books and finally the quest to see the relation between the divine and the human. The drive here seems Greek as much as Christian in that Steele’s love of the particular and love of registering the particular in one of his lists stresses the multiplicity of the world which any unifying principle must be balanced against. The core of this comes out in a few lines in the first section of the poem:

                                                       I’m gawking
now at the avocadoes, now at garlic,
          a sucker as ever for the cabbage in
its ostentation, for the blushing apples to which
          the maddest George devoted a corer
as golden as his dreams, for the jokey banana,
          for maize in spite of the Aztec blood,
for the swank of strawberries, the almonds left behind
          as a pourboire by Tutankhamun,
for the parsnip that doubles for Pasternak the yearner,
          for snow-peas and pineapples, the cocksure eggplant,
                    and the mandrake called tomato.

Believing Him here, as in my folly I do,
          the once and risen mortal, prompts me
to ask about the old days. Were the leeks
          as good in Galilee . . .

Entering a bookshop in the second section prompts a meditation whereby the theory of poetry that the first poem of this group, “Advent” ventures on is modulated into an unusual theory of reading whereby the reader’s task is to hear “the melodious thing in a book’s tempest, / its cataracts and clowning”. This is a more than interesting position about texts, treating them as analogous, at least, to the complex of particulars in which the believer must find hints of the divine. It is consistent with the response to Dante in “Advent” but it makes me nervous by creating a scenario in which human intelligence, expressed in texts, is devalued at the expense of echoes of the divine. I’m not sure that Euclid or Newton would have wanted their works treated that way, just as I’m nervous about the characterisation of Dante in “Advent”, but it’s a tenable approach, especially from a Christian perspective.

This fine sequence occupies the first third of the book. The rest is made up of a series of sonnets responding to moments in the gospels broken up by longer poems which are often focussed on the humbly human. There may well be a pattern to the appearance of these fragments of Jesus’s biography (are they positioned to align with readings in church, for example?) but it isn’t one that I can see. They are quite different to the poems in the first section that deal with Jesus. Those are daringly imaginative, conceiving him, in three successive poems as “Star Man”, “Green Man” and “Water Man” and they operate by trying to move Jesus out of limited, local environment into wider spheres of particulars. It’s a reverse of the process whereby God is discovered in particulars. God expands here to experience particulars so that a stanza beginning with a description of Jesus’s life among the Galilee fishermen, moves quickly to wider oceans:

. . . . .
                                        He saw plankton
bloom to clouds, could touch the holdfast of kelp,
          the bristles of krill, the fins of tang:
lantern fish hung in the twilight zone, the vampire
          squid from hell gazed in the dark,
black smokers vented.

These are fine, complex poems, but I can’t find anything as satisfying in the sixteen sonnets based on the gospels in the second part of The Gossip and the Wine. They seem to be almost genre-pieces – expansions of the gospel stories. And one of the things that betrays them as genre pieces is the bluff tone: one of the earlier poems begins “Getting him up the hill was a long business / however you gauge it . . .” and I quote this, rather than one of the sonnets, as the best encapsulation of this tone. Why do these gospel revisits always seem to do this? Even Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” (though it quotes Andrewes) begins with a hearty “A cold coming they had of it”. Presumably poets feel the opportunity (or obligation) to counteract the iconic status of the gospel narratives by seeing them obliquely as events in a real world populated by many who, although they might not be singled out in the narrative, still have a right to be acknowledged. It is part of a complicated question, or, at least, a question that grows more complicated the longer you look at it. My position would probably be that it is a response to the generally abstract nature of biblical narrative (I except the David story of first and second Samuel here as one of the great masterpieces of ancient narrative). The gospels, in particular, seem remote and abstract to the common reader. There are almost no concrete details (apart from some matters of geography and legal process) and it is clear that none of the texts which survive have any actual contact with the man from Nazareth. It can be argued, of course, that biblical narrative favours the iconic or abstract, but really that just means that it is bad narrative.

I wonder whether this abstractness doesn’t account for much of Steele’s love of religious art because there he is in touch with a long tradition of trying to make these events concrete. Some of his poems give brilliant readings of such paintings as Crivelli’s “Madonna of the Swallow”, but they result from more than just a good art historian’s eye. I think they derive from a sense that all of these are concretisations of vague texts, attempts to make the iconic “real” in a way that people within the last seven hundred or so years will recognise. Of course none are final concretisations – everything is provisional – but perhaps there is a response to a kind of cumulative effect. Just as it has been argued that the meaning of a text is the sum total of sensible readings of it, so perhaps Steele feels that he is doing something similar for representations of the gospel stories. But a bluff tone and a knowing way of speaking about minor characters such as the High Priest’s servant “ . . . a lout, / And a slave with it, obedient to the bark // Of the officer bloke, to whom he’s a waste of space . . .” doesn’t seem the right way to go about it. The right way to go about it, demonstrated continuously in Steele’s other poems, is to harness the intense particularity of poetic language, its capturing of learning in technical words and its torrent of icons (to distort a phrase from “All the Latest”, a fine poem from this book and one which demonstrates what it is speaking about).

The poems that I have called, crudely, “human”, are certainly more satisfying and in them we see more of Steele at his best. “Folklore” is, for example, is a fine celebration of a loved doctor (presumably a colleague) couched in terms of the kind of folkloric cures that would once have been such a doctor’s tools in trade. It concludes with another example of Steele’s tendency to characterise himself (in the manner of Francis of Assisi, perhaps) as a yearning fool-for-God but also with a heartfelt tribute:

to use your powers wisely, for us
          whose wits are turned, often enough, but who know
good when we see it, and love too.

A number of these poems focus on the humble side of the human by dwelling on folklore: “One for Pieter Breugel” is based on his “Netherlandish Proverbs” and is a catalogue of the sayings in the painting, and “After the Irish” is a set of Irish sayings (I say this confidently, though I have never actually heard any of them!) including the memorable “The road to Heaven is well enough signed, / but it’s badly lit at night”. But the two poems in the book that I like most are very much about relationships between the macro and the micro, or between the divine and the human. “Dancing” (its epigraph is another Irish saying, “God is good, but never dance in a small boat”) is built out of two stanzas of wonderful technical detail:

                                             on for a céilidh or clogdance,
          huffing and puffing the hornpipe, invoking
rain by the lakeful, turkey-trot matching the Lancers,
          reels from the Maenads, kabuki as haka,
hoedowns and riggadoons, nautches and hays and fandangos . . .

followed by a lovely stanza about Sir John Davies’s “Orchestra” in which Davies is encouraged to keep his eyes on the heavenly dance and “say goodbye to small boats”. And “Gardens” is a celebration of monks and their gardens based, so the notes tell us, on the De Naturis Rerum of the Augustinian abbot, Alexander Neckham. It begins with a stanza of delicious tactile particularity:

Swinking they called it, and meant the drive of the spade,
a rake’s reluctance, the haul at loins
of mattock and pickaxe, the tilt of a swilling pail:
the new turves tamped and beaten.

but the poem is really about whether the garden feeds the divine (by growing flowers along the graves of dead monks in preparation for some eventual rebirth at the resurrection) or whether it feeds the hungry human body. For the present, it feeds the body:

For the present though, and this side of the moon,
the belted diggers had at the earth,
keeping, they thought, body and soul together:
“First the starch, and then the singing.”

Keeping the body and soul together, in the sense of keeping the human and divine together, is a noble task in a Christian context and it must be one of the tasks of a Christian poetry.