St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2012, 358pp.
This will not be the only review of this book which points out that Rosemary Dobson’s first acknowledged volume, In a Convex Mirror, was published in 1944 and that her writing spans an extraordinary seventy years, indeed seventy-five if we include a volume, Poems, published when she was a schoolgirl at Frensham. Are there any living Australian poets whose careers are longer? This is not entirely a rhetorical question for reasons I will return to later, but the publication of this book should be registered as a celebration of extended creativity as well as a collecting of a lifetime’s poems. It is not a large output, seen in terms of bulk: three hundred and fifty pages over seventy years produces (according to my rudimentary mathematics) an average of five poems a year and, very generally, her books have appeared at about the rate of one per decade. I think it is fair to say that, although she would never have been seen as one of the dominant poets of any of these decades (specifying who was a dominant poet leads to some interesting calculations: the forties might have belonged to Slessor and Stewart, the fifties to Wright, the sixties to Hope and McAuley, the seventies to Dawe, the eighties to Murray and the “generation of ’68”, and so on) taken as a whole her work seems to grow ever stronger, a really significant landmark that should figure prominently in future anthologies and surveys.
She also poses some intriguing critical questions. As readers of these reviews will know, I am inclined to seek out consistently generative images and themes: the obsessions that underlie a poet’s work and which make that poet distinctive. In the case of Collected, David McCooey’s introduction has pretty well done this for me. He describes her, very accurately, as a poet of light and lucidity whose poems are also haunted by “visitations, apparitions, omens, annunciations, prophecies and premonitions”. Since he associates the light-filled quality of the poems with rationality, this balance between the rational and the half-understood visitations of something altogether different becomes a powerfully generative tension. I think this is a good basis for a description of Dobson in terms of what makes her consistent though I might cavil that it is not necessarily an opposition and that the lucidly rational always seeks out the worlds that lie outside its core interests, outside those places where it operates most comfortably. McCooey goes on to speak about Dobson’s obsession with the past (which would, in critical discussion of the period in which she began writing, have been seen as an obsession with time – or Time) and points out that there is another generative paradox here: the voices of the past represent loss and discontinuity but, at the same time, their memory and their reappearance in poems represents continuity – one of the continuities of poetry in which, as a poem of John Tranter’s pointed out, the miracle is not that we speak to the dead but that the dead speak to us.
Since McCooey has done so well what I usually try to do, there may be space to focus on something which I rarely emphasise but which the length of Dobson’s career suggests is necessary: the changes in her work, its organic evolution over such a long period. A long career suggests the value of this in the same way that, by analogy, the Greek language (and Dobson’s experience of Greece as a country and a literature is a crucial part of her evolution), as the living language for which we have the longest span of documents, almost forces us to think about those diachronic issues which were, for a time, unfashionable in linguistics.
The most obvious framing pattern in Dobson’s career derives from the fact that, as for many of the poets of her generation, she began in a formalist era and had to accommodate the rise and eventual triumph of free verse. It is true that formalist poetics are re-appearing but today these forms are treated in a rather more playful way as opportunities for experiment rather than as the cornerstone of poetic expressiveness. Poetry has probably always attracted people with formal interests but there is a large difference between this approach to form and that of the forties and fifties where there is a positive righteousness about what we would now see as a very limited corner of form: that which manifests itself in metre and rhyme. A.D. Hope’s The New Cratylus is a crucial text here though it was already out of date when it appeared in 1979 and was thus not so much a statement of a dominant ideology but rather a defence of a position whose time had already passed. It took a long while, in the late sixties and seventies, for free verse to emerge as a powerful set of possibilities in its own right rather than as some kind of reaction to the formalisms of poets like Hope and McAuley whereby, in their terms, poetry itself was undermined by a trivial and skilless formlessness, little more than ranting and opportunities for confessional display. In fact, as we now know (since it is almost an historical event) free verse, so-called, is a set of complex possibilities whereby the shape of a poem can do many things in relation to its themes, including – at the more complex end – inducing meaning through various resonances. Its problem – if that is the right word – is that it is very suited to an American poetic sensibility of open exploration and may have imported ways of thinking about poetry that don’t really suit the Australian temperament. It is a large question but the fact remains that Hope and McAuley, fine poets as they were, chose the narrower and more limited, less expressive path and, probably, made a mistake. Rereading their weird pronouncements about form always reminds me of Shaw’s example of the man who wrote proving, from first principles, that the Herzeleide motif of Parsifal wasn’t music.
I write at some length about this – though it is, heaven knows, a very large subject – partly to declare my own prejudices against those endless poems of tetrameter quatrains whose only music seems to lie in wry conclusions, suggesting both power (“I observe this and express it elegantly”) and helplessness (“What can I do about it?”). But I also want to set the scene in which Dobson’s first poems were written. You would have had to be a very powerful and disruptive voice in the forties to triumph over the formal prejudices of figures like Stewart and Slessor; and Dobson certainly wasn’t the type of personality to mount a campaign of that sort. Her first four books echo the modes and the themes of her time. Take the first poem or her first book, “In a Convex Mirror”:
See, in the circle, how we stand, As pictured angels touching wings Inflame a Dutch interior Bespeaking birth, foretelling kings. The room is still and brushed with dusk; Shall we not disregard the clock Or let alone be eloquent The silence between tick and tock? Shall we be fixed within the frame, This breathing light to clear-cold glass Until our images are selves And words to wiser silence pass? But ruined Rostov falls in flame, Cities crumble and are gone, Time's still waters deeply flow Through Here and Now as Babylon. And swirling through this little frame Will rive the two of us apart, Engulfing with unnumbered floods The hidden spaces of the heart.
I have quoted this in full, not only because it is a good poem but because it exemplifies so much of its period. In form it is in those inevitable quatrains and, to modern ears, demonstrates one of its weaknesses in that the form is tolerant of inversions and awkward grammatical structures that free verse isn’t. We have, nowadays, to read the second stanza a few times to realise that its grammatical meaning is: “Shall we disregard the clock and allow the silence (that lives between the tick and the tock) to be the only eloquent thing?”. This occurs partly because “let” can be connected with “alone” in a couple of English idioms: “let him alone” and “no-one, let alone Peter”.
Thematically we are in the world of Time and timelessness. The couple are situated, framed and distorted, so that it seems as though they are in a painting and thus the poem is set up to contrast the timelessness of the visual arts with the flood of events going on outside. This is very much the Slessor world, the world of “Five Bells” and, especially, “Out of Time”; and we can hear, in “Through Here and Now as Babylon” not only Edward FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam but also Slessor’s “Out of all reckoning, out of dark and light, / Over the edges of dead Nows and Heres . . .”. But Slessor’s poems are better (it’s no disgrace for a poet at the beginning of a long career not to write as well a Slessor!) because there is, in the best of them, a powerful tension between the formal control of language (in the verse form) and its desire to break from it by a kind of radical expressiveness of language itself, a desire to be incarnated: there is nothing in these early poems of Dobson that approximates the power of a single phrase like “foxed with air” or the fury that Slessor is able to feel and express at the gap between the worlds of timelessness and the world of reality, the glass panes that he wants to beat against. But what Dobson’s poem has to contribute is that delicate manouevre whereby the painting that the couple seem to be in, becomes a Dutch interior and they then become like angels, “Bespeaking birth, foretelling kings”. In this first poem is laid out a new, rich development of the themes of the time whereby moments of stillness are also moments of annunciation and of, to quote McCooey again, “visitations, apparitions, omens . . . prophecies and premonitions”. Significantly, also, the couple are visitors not the visited. In other words this poem inhabits both the poetic world of its time, flaws and all, and the distinctive Dobson-world that readers grow to love over the succeeding decades. Perhaps all poems do this but rarely as clearly. One final point: the suggestion of voices from without could be read as an assault on the music of this formal verse but it would take a lot of special pleading to do so: there is nothing especially “rational” about tetrameter quatrains that the irrationality of voices from the various beyonds threatens or holds a tense relationship with. In other words, I don’t think that the poem’s content makes a fruitful tension with its inherited form, as though a po-faced family, sitting in fixed, almost metrical, positions, actually fell off their chairs when visited by angels. I don’t see anything subversive here, rather a fascinating poetic development of a theme of its time, housed in the verse of its time.
It is very unlikely that “In a Convex Mirror” is the earliest poem of this first book to be written. I think that honour probably goes to “Cherry Picking” and “Australian Holiday, 1940”. These, too, are poems of their time but seem more in the Jindyworobak tradition. They aren’t of the same quality as the best of this first book and they are hidden away a little but I mention them because they too have visitations, though of a very different sort. Each of the poems has a relaxed, even bucolic frame done in pentameters with, in the middle, an irruption of tetrameter quatrains italicised to stress that the voice behind them comes from somewhere quite different. The interrupting voice in “Cherry Picking” worries about how we relate to the land (“Blistered by drought in strips of sandy cities, / We front a tide more terrible than ocean / And, like the ostrich, head in sand to danger . . .”) and sounds very like that 1930s hectoring tone that survives (ironically, it is true) in Hope’s “Australia”. The intruding voice in “Australian Holiday, 1940” (“Not death and darkness are our company / As others who untented warfare keep . . .”) wants to bring reminders of the war to the otherwise mindlessly happy holiday scene where “at the horizon / Pennons of smoke trail the unmindful steamer / And the clouds lie at invisible anchorage”.
At any rate, I think it is fair to say that Dobson’s first four books – nearly half her collected output – explore all the possibilities set up by “In a Convex Mirror”. Sometimes, as in the case of the fifteen poems which come at the beginning of Child with Cockatoo, this seems like a deliberate policy. “Paintings” concerns itself with the strange phenomenon of art-sound, the sound of the events of a painting:
Climate of stillness: though I hear No sound that falls on mortal ear Yet in the intricate, devised Hearing of sight these waves that break In thunder on the barren shore Will foam and crash for evermore. . . . . .
We already know from an earlier poem that this pregnant and peculiar soundlessness is to be associated with one of the central concepts in the Dobson world – that of “wonder”, the response to visitation – “Wonder is music heard in the heart, is voiceless: / Lazarus having conversed with angels was dumb . . .”. “Commissioned Altar Piece” and “Commissioned Portrait” deal with the interaction between artist and the expectations of genre and commissioning patron, while “The Bystander”, “Detail from an Annunciation by Crivelli” and “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” are dramatic monologues (rather infected, like nearly all such, by the bluff pentameters of “My Last Duchess”) revolving around the paradoxes of the people who are the subjects of the paintings. The whole group finishes with the book’s title poem which describes a Verelst painting of a child, an earl’s daughter, who has been given a cockatoo to distract her from the boredom of sitting for the painting. But the cockatoo is a visitor from Terra Australis (it has got itself lost and landed on a passing boat to be, later, sold to the earl’s steward in a pub), well before the voyage of Dampier, let alone Cook. So he is a visitant, an annuciating angel who bears a distinctive message:
. . . . . That sulphur-crested bird with great white wings, The wise, harsh bird - as old and wise as Time Whose well-dark eyes the wonder kept and closed. . . . . .
He is a kind of messenger sent, before the event, to announce the discovery of Australia which – I like to think – is intended to be both a message from paradise and a radical widening of possibility in the lives of the inhabitants of that chilly island off the north-west coast of Europe. Just as “In a Convex Mirror” locates the author as angel rather than visited, so “Child with Cockatoo” locates Australians (though, perhaps, only the “dark men moving silently through trees”) as the dwellers in paradise. At any rate, this poem is cannily placed so that the self-contained works of art of the other poems open out into a pressing world of Time and reality: just as the bird heralds a greater world, so this poem suggests that there might be other subjects to speak of, as well as the nature of art and time.
It is true that, beginning with the last poems of Child with Cockatoo and continuing through Cock Crow, there is the additional inflection of Dobson’s own experience of motherhood so that the annunciations of the painters have an especial, personal significance. But even here the poetry of the time – in this case, Wright’s Woman to Man – is on hand to provide a model so that we begin to get an element of paradox and riddling in the poems. Take, for instance, some lines from “To a Child”:
. . . . . Before you were then you were mine, Dark honey of my honeycomb. I laboured patiently and long To fashion out of flesh and bone The form to keep you housed and home. . . . . .
But the striking thing about these poems of child-bearing and -rearing is that they develop a new generative motif in Dobson’s work: that of journeying. Interestingly, we meet it first in one of the poems about painting. “Painter of Antwerp” imagines Pieter Breughel returning from his trip to Italy “with head full of slow wonder, pondering / On frescoes at Venice . . .”. Breughel, like Durer, is one of that great wave of Germanic artists moving southward into a “sunburnt otherwhere” to plunder its art (to use Auden’s description in “Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno”). Dobson’s poem has Breughel rejecting this mediterranean world of madonnas and annunciations in favour of the bluntly earthbound – she even reads his “Fall of Icarus” as being built on the allegory of the southern transcendent (Icarus) falling – but underneath this is the idea of a journey, undertaken in the name of one’s art, to a region of foreign forms and foreign themes. And this becomes an important motif in the poems about her three children. In “The Edge” she says,
Three times to the world's end I went, Three times returned as one who brings Tidings of light beyond the dark . . .
and the image is developed explicitly in “To Meet the Child”:
I await the signal for setting forth, the journey To be taken alone across an unmapped country, A land now tremulous with pain and mirage, Now bright beyond the focus of my vision. . . . . . Then I shall look upon that face with knowledge And eyes look back at mine with recognition, And together we shall return to our own country With word of wonders, by another way.
How does journeying tie in with the basic motifs of visitations and omens? In a sense it is both the antithesis and a development. A journey is the opposite of a visitation because it is seen from the perspective of the one doing the visiting. And the wonder comes from the visitor not the visited: I don’t think that anywhere Dobson explores the possibility that the angels who announce Mary’s pregnancy or who summon the three kings experience any sense of wonder at their trip into this world. In fact one of the earlier poems, “The Raising of the Dead”, specifically distinguishes angels from human beings like Lazarus as creatures who are “free to come and go” and thus are thoroughly familiar with our world. Journeys might also be said to be part of the poetic material of the forties and fifties since Stewart encouraged the writing of “voyager” poems. Their function was, I think, to explore the connections between present and past rather than suggest a move into new modes and, for the most part, his poets wrote their poems about explorations of the new world in very traditional forms.
So the journey, which I see as the dominant image of her best work, is present in the earlier books but is arrived at by a radical alteration that makes one think of musical analogies. It will come as no surprise to those readers who have got this far that I am proposing a rather triumphalist narrative in Dobson’s growth as a poet whereby her best books begin with the fifth, Over the Frontier, published in 1978. Even the title suggests movement and reminds reader just how static, how frozen in time, the earlier titles are. And there are many journeys taken in these later books. In “Oracles for a Childhood Journey”, for example, Dobson recalls the advertising hoardings seen as a young child on her way to her school in Mittagong. The straightforward messages – “Out of the Blue Comes the Whitest Wash” – become, when seen fragmentarily, cryptic answers to posed questions:
. . . . . All the way to Mittagong, I asked of flying cloud and sky, And shall I then write Poetry? And whence shall come the words to me? And whence the masks to speak them through? Out of the Blue. Out of the Blue.
In “Reading Mandelstam” the journey is the one taken by that poet, metaphorically into the unknown and literally to his death in the east of Russia. Dobson, in the act of reading him, goes “as far as we could”. (It recalls an earlier poem, “The Cry” which begins “All day I walk in other worlds” and which may well be about the act of reading.) Perhaps the most abstruse journey is dealt with in the title poem of Over the Frontier which concerns itself with the non-existent and the journeys made across that border:
. . . . . And the poem that exists will never equal the poem that does not exist. Trembling, it crosses the frontier at dawn from non-being into being carrying a small banner, bearing a message, bringing news of the poem that does not exist . . .
It is a philosophical realm rarely visited by Australian poets and, in an epigraph, acknowledges its debt to a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, but, read together with the journey-poems about childbirth, it develops a lovely specificity. From this period on, we also have journeys into Russian poetry, detailed by Lissant Bolton in an appendix to this volume. Together with David Campbell (does his career trace a similar pattern to the one that I am arguing for Dobson?) and a group of Russian speakers in Canberra, she read the poetry of Mandelstam as well as that of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva “and a group of younger women poets”. These readings produce a set of translation/imitations included in two volumes in 1975 and 1980.
Although I do not know Rosemary Dobson’s biography well, it is clear that there are literal journeys as well as metaphorical ones and the crucial one seems to be to Greece. There are wonderful poems about Greece, especially Crete, in Over the Frontier and the books after that. Many of them retain formal verse patterns and these continue to appear in her most recent work. The important “A Letter to Lydia” actually mimics the verse form of McAuley’s Quiros though the reason for this shows that by now she has adopted the more relaxed approach to forms that I have described as modern since it is done to celebrate the fact that this was a favourite poem of her friend as she explored Australian literature. But the most satisfying of the poems explore the dizzying possibilities of open verse. The first of these is “The Greek Vase”:
In the garden a Greek vase brimful of leaves fallen from the grape-vine. When the wind blows the leaves spill out like an alphabet. Twisting tendrils join the letters in phrases. A sentence is blown my way - some words perhaps dissevered from the Iliad or the Odyssey re-formed by hazard of wind and season. Treading carefully among sentences, lines, whole stanzas on the paving I think: or are they not inscriptions for Musa and Erinna, friends of my childhood, in a cryptic calligraphy. Beautiful indeed were Musa and Erinna, their epigraphs are composed in an unfamiliar language and written in leaves by the wind.
“Beautiful indeed were Musa and Erinna” and profoundly beautiful is the poem that memorialises them. There is much that could be said about its lovely syntactic shape, about the way it deploys the techniques of free verse, especially its enjambments across line and stanza; indeed it is such a beautiful example of its kind that it feels as though Dobson were suddenly speaking in another language: her own. But I should also point out the continuities with Dobson’s previous work. This is a poem about equivocal messages (something that fits very comfortably with Greek culture, the home of the oracles of Delphi and Dodona) in a language not understood. One of the strengths of free verse is the way it can incarnate this feeling of a meaning which hovers just the other side of the simply paraphrasable and that is one of the subjects of this wonderful, never portentous, poem. It can also be seen as an example – perhaps inspired by Greek poetry – of the humanisation of Dobson’s world. The protocols and rhythms of friendship become crucial: appearances of the word “linen”, a synecdoche for all that is involved here, grows in frequency. Visitations, in the later poems, are likely to be sudden visits by friends (“Taken by Surprise”) or visits to friends (“The Good Host”, “The Friend”) rather than theological events. In fact one late poem, the second of “Two Silences” from Seeing and Believing, has, perhaps, the most beautiful expression of a visitation in all Dobson’s work:
When a child is born Among the tribes of the Lushae Its soul alights On the careful shoulders Of the parents, perches On clothes and bodies. For seven days the parents Move as little as need be Sit tight, very quiet. And the soul, little bird, Flutters first then settles Seven nights, seven days.
If the dominant metaphor of the later books is journeying, the dominant theme is continuities. This can appear in poems (densely represented in Untold Lives) of record, annotating and recreating the lives of friends and acquaintances of the past. This is – as McCooey points out – a major part of her poetic activity. But the nature of continuity and its problems exist in the later poetry as a theme in itself. “Poems from Pausanias” is a particularly telling sequence celebrating Pausanias’s journey through Greece searching for the remains of classical sites and evidence of historical events. He is a kind of alter ego because, although not a poet, he is:
Receptive to the voices of the gods sounding from rock or out of holy fire, transmitting through the rivers or the springs their enigmatic answers to desire. . . . . . So late, so late. Yet we should name our need and recognise the counsel that he brings - and hand to ear in silence listen for oracular voices in the water-springs.
This search for continuity is present in so much of Dobson’s thought that one would want to ask whether she is sensitive to continuities in the history of her own verse. The first of the Pausanias poems – from which I have just quoted – is in the everpresent tetrameter quatrains but it is followed by a poem of classical annunciation (the god speaks to Aischylos and tells him to write) which is in free verse. Since it ends in a powerful expression of wonder –
And he, the god, perhaps Will speak to me in dream As once to Aischylos. Marvellous! Marvellous!
one can see why the measured, formal mode of the first poem is inappropriate. To thicken a little the sense that there might be some play here in the choice of forms, it is worth pointing out that Aischylos’ verse, when he writes at the behest of the god, is composed in “sweet, syllabic” and very regular, Greek verse.
The poem that asks to be considered in this light (of whether Dobson is keen to register changes and continuities in the development of her own poetic career) is “Knossos”, the third poem of Over the Frontier. It is worth quoting in full:
Impossible to build the palace again over our heads, the painted roof-beams, the cisterns, the great granary, impossible to think of people living simply, going about their errands in the sunshine, the king receiving supplicants in the throne-room. In the empty courtyard by the fallen columns it is possible, nevertheless, to feel continuance. A cock crows in the valley, noonday exhales resin, sunlight settles almost like thin golden beaten petals. Settles about us like burning hammered petals, falls on the hand or the cheek like burning metal, so that one turns with hand to cheek, awaking from noonday dreaming with an urgent question - Is the impossible possible? What has happened? Better that one should listen to the cock, be attentive to the farmer calling his daughter from the vineyard (Go back to the house, he says, go back my daughter), listen to the cicada, rub a little of the ancient Cretan dust between the fingers. Do not disturb the gods, do not disturb them asking urgent and impossible questions. This is the birthplace of Zeus, home of the snake-charming dangerous goddess. Remember here also Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Historical continuances, the poem says at the beginning, can be established only through resonances but it finishes by counselling against expecting too much of the omens, prophecies and visitations, as though we should be content that the gods speak only occasionally and then obliquely. It is for us to listen attentively (like Pausanias) rather than expect unequvocal voices from beyond. But, having said that, it is hard to forget that, in this poem, the word “continuance” is followed by “a cock crows” and this recalls the title of Dobson’s preceding book. Similarly the final reference to Icarus recalls “Painter of Antwerp” (from her second book) a poem about a great artist who rejects the mediterranean world of apparently perpetual visitations by God and who represents this rejection, in Dobson’s reading, by painting “The Fall of Icarus”. It leads one to feel that Dobson is well aware of the shape of her own career, its evolutions and continuities.