John Leonard (ed.): Young Poets: An Australian Anthology

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2011, 162pp.

If Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets gave a large number of poets a brief, walk-on appearance, this anthology of John Leonard’s presents far fewer poets at much greater length. The generation reflected here is also slightly younger than that in Thirty Poets since Simon West, the oldest, is a venerable thirty-seven. Presenting only seven poets has both advantages and disadvantages. On the debit side the selection of the poets to be included becomes less inclusive and hence more contentious. Leonard deflects this courteously in his preface by implying that his choice is one of informed subjectivity – “the poems in this anthology impress me as having a true distinction in quality and, personally, they move me” – and avoiding any comments about omissions or about the way this group might realte to other groups of poets of a similar age which could have been chosen. The enormous advantage is that readers get a twenty-page slab of poetry by each of the poets, enough to get some kind of idea as to what their poetry is actually like.

This leads me to the first of a couple of issues. The first is: Who exactly is the book for? At first I thought of it as a generous sampler for the John Leonard Press since three of the poets – Elizabeth Campbell, LK Holt and Petra White – have each had two books published by that valuable enterprise. But the tone of the Preface, focussing on the experience of reading contemporary poetry, looks very educational and it may be that this is a book imagined for undergraduate or better high school students. It would be nice for it to be successful if that is the case since what is happening now amongst writers young enough to be an older brother or sister of their reader is always more enticing for that reader than what has been done by generations before. The problem is, of course, that the contemporary is always difficult since it hasn’t had time to be fitted into a reading culture. The other objection to choosing a book like this as an educational text is that students need to be exposed to a full tradition, but this is nicely deflected when Leonard points out that this generation of poets, more perhaps than most, is informed by the poetry of the past and the possible connections it can make with that poetry. At any rate, this would be a good project to repeat for the next generation of poets, perhaps in ten or fifteen years.

The second issue doesn’t so much relate to the book per se but is a reviewer’s problem. How does one deal with a selection made up of few poets and large selections? Anthologies like the recent Australian Poetry Since 1788 and Thirty Poets ask to be considered externally. They are not really reading experiences so much as constructs that one wants to explore. If the reviewer is good enough, there will be some generational or national generalisations to be made. But you aren’t likely to find yourself talking about individual poets, let alone individual poems. The emphasis in Young Poets is squarely upon the output of seven poets and one is, at least at some stage, going to be talking about poets and their poems. Since I have written elsewhere on this site about all of these poets apart from Bonny Cassidy and LK Holt, I have used this opportunity to do some revisiting and some rethinking. I suspect that, as I write, the book in which they appear will melt away in favour the poems and poets which appear in it, almost as though it were no more than a group of pamphlets.

To begin with the first of the two poets I haven’t previously written about in detail, the poems of Bonny Cassidy are probably the most challenging in the book. They are in what is usually called a “post-Poundian” mode that is always going to be at odds with the kind of explorative free verse of contemporary Australian poetry, reflected in the work of the other poets of this book. In fact “post-Olsonian” might be more accurate though the amount of personal detail would have irritated a man opposed to the “lyrical ego”. You might find a connection with some of the poems of Laurie Duggan but his is really a kind of poetic anthropology, absorbed by cultures and their signs and seeing geology, say, more as a determining frame than a subject in itself. At any rate, Cassidy’s poetry is marked by its experimenting with an unusual mode and I am, consequently, on its side. This kind of poetry never takes itself for granted and so, whether it is talking about Margaret Stones’s botanical art or about the “recent” geological history of New Zealand, it will always have, as an undertone, the theme of what it is doing, how it is seeing. “Range” is a good example of this, beginning with sight and sound and quickly moving into a kind of self-directed imperative:

     A bird breaks
          itself down, ties
          its rune into a knot.

Always begin with a bird, like ruling a line
that stretches into angles . . .

This five-part poem is about the act of describing (it ends, “describing what you have seen”) and as such is about “creativity”. But even more it is about profoundly metaphysical issues since it seems to presume a particular relationship between the natural world and the observer. On the basis of the twenty pages of poetry here, it seems to reflect that American perspective of the way the self interacts with nature, but Australia has no tradition of transcendentalism or even of the kind of observer represented by someone like Ammons, so one wonders whether it is a model that has been, can be, or was intended to be, transported across the Pacific. Certainly the long section fom “Final Theory” included here (a Prologue and the first of four parts) seems quite distinctive, largely because it contains such a personal element – in fact, in many respects it seems as much a love poem as a registering of the geography, culture, botany and geology of New Zealand. The dynamism of the poem seems to derive from its exploration of scales, the delicious disjunctions between geological time-scales, for example, and the lives of the couple which the poem traces. It is certainly an issue that the poem returns to regularly:

That new space was dense with actuality. Its absurd
     dimensions
became acceptable, for instance, everything was middle
     ground.
Distance arrived from above and stayed until cloud locked us
     in.
 . . . . .

And, inevitably, like “Range” we expect it to foreground the processes of its own creation. When it does this the self is there again, not a purified self or an observing infiltrator but a “full-scale” emotionally-engaged-with-one’s-partner self:

Here is the poem, slowed by oil and grit,
to be shed and worn
as a skin.
Form may once have had some salvaging power,
but these days we let form whirl out of hand
like a camera in a Frisbee;
and see that order and delay cannot be made from space
     and time,
                                                               how could they?
All my words are gunning for extinction, all they can tell
     us is:
live more.
The photos you retrieve are a scream -
heart-battering reams of fortune, shadow and sleep,
                                                 as if "the sun fell . . . or leapt."

Your fidget-bone shrinking the aperture,
the flint of your lens against glacial gates

impose a double: lichen and hubcap
printed across one another

like two hands braced against the light, a herald for the
     Anthropocene.

I like “Final Theory” as I do the other poems in this twenty-page selection. I can understand that many readers won’t and would prefer poems more like those produced, say, by Caroline Caddy’s trip to the Antarctic. I can also understand that many readers will, sourly, claim that an extended sequence like “Final Theory”, as well as the longer sequences here by Elizabeth Campbell and Simon West are part of the corruption of the modern world in which poets need to write long sequences either (a) to meet the (understandable) requirements of valuable prizes (b) make a coherent project for a Creative Writing higher degree dissertation or (c) make a coherent project that will attract (what a mysterious metaphor that is!) Literature Board funding. But there is a lot of intriguing puzzling about poetry itself in “Final Theory” - not only covering how it should be done but also what it is and how it is generated by the cultures of the people who come after the geology is, more or less, completed. I find it challenging and exciting and want to see the other three parts.

 

Reading the two books of LK Holt is quite an experience. On the surface all one can see is the enormous confidence in her own poetic processes. She is the kind of poet for whom dramatic monologues or narratives from the point of view of an engaged and dramatically conceived narrator seem the natural habitat, possessing, as they always seem to, a Browningesque rhythmic drive and a fullness of poetic imagination and empathy. In a series of sonnets here, taken from her second book, we meet the Kafka of “Metamorphosis” just waking, a drunk who has walked into a door, a protestor who has just been struck in the head by a rubber bullet, someone beginning work in a ship-breaking yard, Lorca at the moment of execution, a boy out of control with rage who is shot by police and Douglas Mawson at an especially sticky moment. There is also a poem from a sequence spoken by Goya’s housekeeper and a long sequence, “Unfinished Confession”, spoken by a pre-op sex change patient. I’ll quote the opening lines of the first of these – the Kafka poem – as being in some way typical of what I’m trying to describe:

It is a mandible language, ours; one of release
or grasp; a byzantine binary of yes, no (yes);
the shellac click of stag beetles all het up.
Dear Franz you should love whom you want to
and hard - forget about the world's wanton
fathering and mothering . . . both will bear on
past your little momentous death.
Our parents always outlive us in a sense . . . 

This is terrific stuff – I especially like “your little, momentous death” – but sheer confident monologic energy like this always induces doubts in the reader and leads us to wonder whether it might not all be just a particularly impressive kind of dramatic rhetoric. What we need is some kind of indication of what the poet’s stake in these monologues is. Or, at least, the conviction that somewhere underneath there is a stake. It is hard to imagine a biography which is in some way engaged with all the poems I’ve sketched in above. I’d like to believe that the tension beneath them is not one of content but rather of form: that they represent a kind of public face to a poet who does actually have doubts. Perhaps they are doubts about the very ease with which they seem to have been written. We know in the case of other poets – I’ve already mentioned Browning – that the poems of most certainty are often the poems of most doubt. But you would have to know a lot of a poet’s biography before you could speak cponfidently about generative mechanisms as profound as this.

All this will lead to the fairly obvious conclusion that I like best those poems of Holt’s which are personal and slightly weird. Amongst the sonnets there is a lyric (which I deliberately omitted in my list) describing how an old door is transformed to a table and then a garden bench. It has the same confident assertive style as the monologues and is, I suppose, not much more than a brief allegory (what was recently marked out as a feature of contemporary poetry: “the significant anecdote”) but it still has resonances and intriguing tensions (between, for example, denotative description and a rather more high-flown conclusion) that are harder to find in the monologues. Two poems, “Poem for Nina” and “Poem for Brigid” seem to me to stand out in this selection. They are personal poems about the author’s very stake in the friendships they describe and they are complicated and not at all predictable: always a good sign in a poem.

 

I have looked at length in past reviews at Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry. She looks strong no matter how or where her poems are presented. Here, by virtue of the fact that the poets of the book are organised alphabetically, she is the lead-off voice and her poems look more than comfortable in that responsible position. Given that Error, her second book, was published last year, it’s reasonable that only one of these poems is new. That poem, “Black Swans”, is intriguing because it is a meditation on error – in the sense of inheriting a way (through ideology or cultural tradition) of seeing things which determines what we see – that takes one of the most famous of the Ern Malley poems as its core context. This, of course, is yet another testimony to the unkillableness of an imaginary poet who died thirty-seven years before Campbell was born and Campbell’s generation is one of the first (of many, presumably) for whom the story of Ern Malley, Max Harris and the hoaxers will not be one soaked in the irritations of literary polemics. The Ern Malley poem in question here, “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495″ is, itself, a version of a poem of McAuley’s which he was unhappy with, a poem which is about a painting and in which the poet finds himself a “robber of dead men’s dream”. If this poem is about artistic revenancy then “Black Swans” is about conceptual revenancy for although she is an avenging angel, coming to destroy:

                    we still hope
to cut her open and find bedded neatly inside
goose, duck, chicken, quail: all the known unknowns.

Poetry, philosophy, economics: the mind
repeats, in its ignorance, the vision of others:

all swans are white, all swans are white.

The other poems selected include two of the horse poems from Letters to the Tremulous Hand as well as two of the best poems in Error, “The Diving Bell” and “Brain” – both strong poems about various glitches in body and brain. These two poems, together with the sequence, “Inferno”, lead one to think that Campbell (together with West and White) might be trying to work out answers to the question of what a body/soul distinction for the twenty-first century could look like. We also get a chance to revisit that difficult sequence, “A Mon Seul Desir”, based on the famous series of late fifteenth century tapestries. It is a far from straightforward sequence and, as I’ve labored over it in my earlier review, I’ll spare readers a revisiting. John Leonard’s comment in the introduction, perhaps concerned that readers might run aground on the sequence which, after all, appears quite early in the whole book, recommends reading it as a poem about love, rather than an exploration of obscure late medieval art, and I suspect that that is a good tactic, at least for initial readings.

 

Sarah Holland-Batt is the author of perhaps the most likeable set of poems in this book, though that adjective has no implications, good or bad, about quality. It’s just that her work seems to be nicely pitched between accessible and questing. She also has (together with Graeme Miles) the highest percentage of new work after her debut volume Aria. If I had to hazard a guess as to the direction of this newer work – always dangerous when based on such a small sample - I’d say that it is definitely less emotionally expressionist than the earlier. Many of the complex poems in Aria seemed at heart, either opportunities for lament or opportunities for celebration. The self is present in these new poems but not at such a dominating level. An exception is “Rain, Ravello” which seems in the earlier mode: a long description of rain eventually establishes itself in the reader’s mind as a sympathetic exterior response to internal misery and the poem finishes, “Art is not enough, not nearly / enough, in a world not magnified by love”.

The other poems seem a lot breezier, focusing on life sciences and art. “Orange-Bellied Parrot” is like a cross between a Robert Adamson bird poem and Bruce Dawe’s “Homecoming”, enacting an imaginary return made by a stuffed parrot in the British Museum (surely the ultimate in exilic misery) to his homeland. “Botany” recalls the school experiment of mapping the spores of various mushrooms, while the poet interprets the results differently, seeing “a woodcut winter cart and horse / careen off course . . .” But one wouldn’t want to take these too sunnily. A brilliant poem, “The Quattrocento as a Waltz” celebrates the freedom of a new art style in abandoning the tyranny of the religious – here a sun-dominated, top-down world of stiff madonnas – and celebrating the real of the world, even if that real is a world of misery:

Let the darkness shake out its bolt of silk.
Let it roam over us like a blind tongue.
Let it bury its razorblades in the citrons
and its hooks in the wild pheasants.
Open the window: outside it is Italy.
A fat woman is arguing over the artichokes,
someone is dying in a muddy corner,
there’s a violin groaning in the street.

And other poems such as “Primavera: The Graces” and “Medusa” slide the poet into the poems as an allegorical and not necessarily positive figure – here too the emphasis is on suffering and death. “Persephone as a Whistling Moth”, far from the best poem in the group, is perhaps the clearest in that it takes a mythological figure who oscillates between the dark and the light (as so many of the poems of Aria do) and crosses her with another poetic myth of the moth and the flame.

 

The poems of Graeme Miles seem a long way from those of his first book, Phosphoresence, though, probably, there are evolutionary links I can’t, from a superficial rereading, trace. He seems a poet anchored in the mundane, especially the mysterious mundane of family and ancestors, but at the same time obsessed by the presence of things within other things. A fine sequence, “Photis”, deals with a painter in whose portraits animals continuously seem to emerge and from whose body a child eventually emerges, whose “soft skin is full of animals”. Ghosts of relatives past emerge from the liminal spaces in “Verandah” and in “At 30 Clifton Street”, the house seems to induce visions of its own ghosts. As one can imagine, dreaming is an important part of this world since dreams are yet another sort of poem with a complex and usually unresolvable relationship with the waking world and a poem about sleep, “Mineral Veins”, concludes with:

          Better to turn down,
find you can breathe easily under a world's weight
of earth, and that air was no more your element
than the endlesss vacancy it fades to.

As one can also imagine there is a lot of interest in transformation, Ovid’s obsession: it occurs at the level of myth in “Isis and Osiris” and at the level of a kind of humorous surrealism in a poem like “Talking Glass” (I went to find pasta for the wary / to prepare their pianos. I tried to speak, / knowing that I’d spoken pasta / in the past, but now there was broken glass / between my teeth . . .”
So in the case of this poet, ordinary events in life are likely to produce poems whose interests and structures are not at all obvious ones. A good example is the final poem, “Where She Went”, which is about the death of his grandmother (at least I assume it is: one has to be careful about making casual unequivocal assumptions about relationships. It is a marker of how young these poets are that the deaths which occur to them are those of their grandparents. Very soon it will be the deaths of parents and, in no time at all, the deaths of friends and contemporaries!):

Shade inks a human on the surface of the water,
brings it from a lostness so complete
that only this skeletal light
and athletic paperbark are lean enough to reach it.
It's reformed by remotest coincidence of lines,
dreamed by shade from the bones up
replaced where it never was.
Skinny land and paperbark
are the brassy echo of a wooden room
beside a deeper lake,
where the same figure saw her face shift in the mirror
like a friend she couldn't trust.
Rooms were closed then and vigils sat through.
Strangers covered the mirrors she'd left
and motes of dust fell one by one
precise as the knife-thrower's act in a circus.
They waltzed the wardrobe back from the doorway
and sold her clothes.
And she passed the white rock
which some said was a headland
too steep for goat's feet,
and some said was a marker stone
set into grey soil dry as ash,
a white stone just big enough
to overfill palm and fingers,
cool as liquid overflowing
and with weight to make you think of fractures.

This a poem that moves in four magical stages from the shadows on the water suggesting the woman (not in a simply Rorschach way, but in a much profounder movement from the deeps to the surface). Then it moves to the woman’s room and her funeral and then, surprisingly, to a description – which sounds like the Classical world – of moving beyond a boundary stone. But it doesn’t end there because the stone is imagined declining in size from  headland to marker to fist-sized. These are unusual emphases and markers of a very distinctive poetic mind.

 

Simon West is a tricky but impressive poet who seems highly sensitive both to dislocation and also its opposite: the moments when – and processes whereby – we emerge from a dislocated state. It’s a poetry where we always seem to be crossing thresholds. “Out of the Woods of Thoughts” – whose title seems to allude simultaneously to Dante’s selva oscura (an image that recurs in this poetry) as well as the wood of the suicides of Inferno XIII – is a good example.

We woke with the crook of our arms empty.
Each morning the triple-cooing turtle-dove
would probe about our yard,
"coo-ca-cai?" A nag and clamour
I couldn't help but hear as "cosa fai?"

Mostly summer turned away, tightened
to a knot of roots at river's edge,
where earth erodes from a red gum,
unable to grip things, and strangely exposed.

No use saying "it was him not me",
or "dispel the senses and repeat, The mind lies".
Even the faintest trails led back to that weight
cradled in the stomach's pit.
What was it doing? What did it have to say?

These seems an excellent introduction to the West-world especially its quality of being simultaneously precise and yet slippery. It’s a world where we move from sleep to waking, dreams to everyday, from natural speech into language, from the constructing, rational mind to the immanent natural.

A precious eight pages of the allotted twenty are devoted to a long and difficult sequence, “A Valley”, which is obviously central to where West’s poetry is at this point and which recalls many of these processes. It is not an easy sequence to get a handle on and consequently – if a reader is honest – not an easy set of poems to like. It is, like “Out of the Woods of Thought” about emerging from a dark wood, an emergence that happens in the last two poems. But the nature of the valley in which the protagonist is trapped for the other fifteen poems of the sequence is difficult to feel confident about. To what extent it is a conceptual one, and to what extent it is emotional (even, allegorically, personal) is really difficult to determine though, if Dante is the model, I suppose the same could be said of the Commedia. It is perfectly possible that it is imagined to be a valley of monolinguality broken out of by mastering a second language.

“Out of the Wood of Thoughts” contained an odd middle section where the roots of a red gum are “strangely exposed” by erosion and West is very sensitive to the texture and grain of wood.  “The Apricot Tree” seems on the surface a poem about childhood where the environment is symbolised by a rather grotesquely split apricot tree used as a set of cricket stumps by the boys. It begins, significantly, “I try to home in on this” but the poem’s conclusion takes it away into the inner life of the split and exposed wood:

I'd seen that wound open in wood. Under

a hard rind the core's gore colours
lay like a deep bruise: a reversal

or confirmation from within
of stone fruit, and equally alive.

In “Door Sill”, another childhood memory poem, that piece of wood is an unpainted slab of redgum which marks the boundary between the domestic house and the outer world:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes . . .

The selection includes “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri” from West’s first book. On first reading that looked very atypical, even positively out of place. But now seems more central because it concerns art and the way art deals with the conceptual maps we put over the endless flux of the universe. As such, this genuinely incomprehensible painting seems like a gateway to a quantum world and reflects West’s interest in the texture of the worlds revealed by the dissolution of surfaces.

 

Petra White seems to be a poet who continually wants to connect a fraught self with the outside world. From the poems in this anthology we can sketch in a childhood amongst people at the dottier end of protestantism, depression and despair, and a seriously sick lover. The first of these appears in the first poem, “Grave”, but also in “Trampolining” where the speaker and her brother save for a trampoline while the adults take part in a suburban prayer meeting. The experience of the trampoline is one of ecstatic movement in the world, significantly oscillating between earth and sky, taking place “in the present-tense, / cast off by the adults for the kids to play with”.  The desire to connect self with the world raises a lot of issues. Like Elizabeth Campbell, she is interested, for example, in the relationship between the self and the natural world. “Ode to Coleridge” deals with the body/soul distinction but not in any academic way: the issue of whether a sick soul sees the world only as dull and lifeless (Coleridge’s position) or whether the world can heal the soul (Wordsworth’s) is a crucial question in White’s poetry.   

The poem which engages with the world at its most “social” is “Southbank” an eleven part sequence based in a Melbourne work situation. At first it seems a minor piece of social recording but rereadings show it to be far more complex and engaging. Amongst the parodies of business-speak – “I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy / joins the Networks & / Infrastructure Team to give cover . . .” – there is an examination of what it means to be a suited worker in an industry designed to provide aid to people in need “out there”. The answer, I think, lies in the Heidegger comment, included in the poem, that we only see how things work when they break down (a statement that expresses, after the event, the entire rationale of Modernism as a broad cultural phenomenon). The Melbourne office is, in the last poem, “a portal, / point of stillness from which the world extends” and many of the poems want to explore this movement from a shakily-secure self into wider worlds of experience. We see it schematically in both “Woman and Dog” and in “Kangaroos”. In the latter poem the rows of dead kangaroos by the roadside are tribute to the fate of those moving through experience who make the wrong choice, “one wrong leap against / thousands of right ones; thousands of hours / lived hurtling through space with no notion of obstacle”. They act, finally, both as guardians of new worlds and as psychopomps for humans:

Always turning to leave, wider to go -
they emerge in dissolving light as if they carry
the Earth in their skins, as if they are the land they inhabit . . .
it stares at you through them, looks through you
in the shared-breath stillness, their telepathic here now
group hesitation. As if something's deciding
whether to let you in or through. As if there was an opening,
a closing. Then turning away again, loping off
into that open where death stands to one side (you imagine)
and each leap is a leap into deeper life, deeper possession.

It’s a constant movement in this poetry to desire a deeper life, starting, as it does, from a vulnerable self. There is a profound difference between the young girl in “Ricketts Point” who, playing at the water’s edge “suddenly marvels at how the world / tips open to a broad deep space, not fearsome” and the damaged self of “St Kilda Night” for whom the beach is a nightmare experience:

Stripped to the soul, squatting at the shoreline,
thoughts prey like sharks but never bite,
no voice inside the skull sounds right.
O listen to the tiny waves crash their hardest,
as a lap-dog yaps its loudest to be loud.
Pitched past pitch of grief: how far is that?
. . . . .

Whereas many of the poems in this anthology derive their strength from complex conceptual approaches to life and writing, White’s are strong because of the fractures that generate them. There is nothing sensationally “confessional” about them but the underlying dis-ease makes all the issues – self, world, society – crucial ones.

 

 

Felicity Plunkett (ed.): Thirty Australian Poets

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011, 285pp.

The significant poetic productions from the declining months of last year seem to have been anthologies. Not only is there this intriguing collection of thirty poets – all born after 1968 – edited by Felicity Plunkett but there is also an anthology, interestingly different but covering similar ground, edited by John Leonard called Young Poets: An Australian Anthology. And, as well as these, there is Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s daunting Australian Poetry Since 1788. Though, generally, I avoid reviewing anthologies I will try to cover both the Leonard and the Gray and Lehmann in later months on this site.

Anthologies are weird and fascinating reading experiences. In many ways they are rather like poems themselves. They have an intention (to encapsulate a national poetry, to show what interesting things newcomers are doing, to raise the profile of poems the anthologist likes and diminish the reputation of those that he or she doesn’t, etc) but the possible meanings of the work often overtake its intention. Like poems they have a personal stamp but they also have a context – the context of other anthologies. Like poems they have complex and important internal structures: are they to be arranged chronologically and if so should it be by date of birth of the poet or by the period in which the poet floruit. This is a more important consideration than it seems: Kenneth Slessor and R.D. FitzGerald were born within a year of each other but the former, precocious, is really a poet of the twenties and the latter a poet of the thirties.

The intention behind Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets is, I think, to showcase (an unfortunate but useful word) the work of poets who have risen to prominence recently and perhaps, also, to give critics like myself, who have a dim and fragmented perception that a poetic renaissance (largely led by women poets) is taking place, the chance to see the group in toto and make some decisions about what is happening. And some evaluations, too. In this respect it is a very cool and clean anthology, eschewing subjective judgements at every point where it can. The poets are organised in alphabetical order by surname so that it is not a judgement of the quality of their work but merely the result of an alphabetical accident that the poems of Ali Alizadeh are placed first and those of Petra White last. (Alizadeh’s Iranian origins prompt me to make the point that the divans of the classical Persian poets – Hafez, Sa’adi, et al – are organised in the same, neutral, way whereby the poems are placed in alphabetical order according to their final, rhyming words. A Western equivalent might involve something like organising a collected poems not chronologically but according to the poem’s first letter so that the Index of First Lines became, in effect, the contents page. It’s an intriguing rethinking and one that it might be interesting to try with a Collected Auden or Graves, say.)

Similarly there is no weighting of representation whereby we know that the anthologist considers one poet to be more significant than another because the former gets more pages allocated than the latter. Here everybody gets about five pages. I like this because, when I am doing my thinking about the quality of these poets and the nature of what is happening in Australian poetry, I don’t have to enter into a debate with the anthologist. Many anthologists are inclined to be opinionated and the reader’s fight with them (on the subject of individual choices and omissions, both of poets and poems) can obscure the wider issues. Felicity Plunkett is as anonymous as an anthologist can be and brings to mind (another “showbiz” analogy, I’m afraid) those award hosts who have the good grace to get off the stage quickly and let the real stars of whatever show it is get on with the job. In fact it’s not entirely coincidental that images of award nights keep sliding into my prose here. There is a slight sense about Thirty Poets of a public performance where everybody – in alphabetical order – gets their five minutes to show what they can do before being replaced by the next act. There is nothing wrong with this. If you wanted to know what was happening in, say, Australian stand-up comedy, then giving thirty comedians five minutes to do their thing in front of an audience might be a lot better than a show put together from what some entrepreneur thinks are “the best stand-up comedians in Australia” carefully organised (according to the structures of comedy whereby some acts work well as warm-ups for others) to emphasise particular performers.

In keeping with the anthology’s general tone of a calm dispassionateness and an overall lack of indulging whims or vendettas, there isn’t too much that one could object to in the choice of the thirty poets. There is a strong argument for including Graeme Miles whose first book (reviewed on this site) was an interesting and challenging one and one could make a case for Adrian Wiggins and perhaps Brett Dionysius, Liam Ferney and some others. Certainly they wouldn’t look out of place (or tone) in this anthology, especially if they replaced some of the weaker selections. And there are others who might have had some sort of claim. But, all in all, this seems as good a presentation of a generation as one could ask for. We aren’t told whether the editor or the poets actually chose the poems but I suspect it was the latter in collaboration with the former and the selections involve a mixture of published and new work. The poems chosen do seem, in the case of the poets whose work I know well, to give a good sense of a poet at his or her best. But the format does have a slight levelling quality. In the case of those poets whose published work is probably uneven (I’m deliberately avoiding names here, rather than being vague or coy) five pages of poetry can make you think they are stronger than they are. Those poets who are marked by their ability to write very different but equally strong poems end up being reduced slightly in a volume like this. If one read the books of these thirty poets I think one would feel that the poets’ abilities and achievements were much more varied than Thirty Poets alone suggests. And then there is the issue of the way a poet’s work is “set” in the arbitrary, alphabetical context of other poets’ work. To name names, for once, at the end of reading this book, I felt that, yes, Elizabeth Campbell, Emma Jones, Bronwyn Lea and Nick Riemer were terrific poets, absolutely individual voices doing their own thing. But I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this based on a previous knowledge of these poets’ work. I did plan to read the book in reverse as an experiment to determine how much of this reaction was really a response to the setting of the poet’s work, but time and deadlines caught up with me!

As I said at the beginning, anthologies are, in a way, like poems. The aleatoriness of the procedures of arrangement means that these hundred and forty-odd poems are not naturally sociable with each other and one of the pleasures of anthology reading is to trace unexpected motifs as though this were the work of a single mind. There is a lot that is hermeneutically interesting about this procedure and both Felicity Plunkett (in her Preface) and David McCooey (in his Introduction) do this to some extent. The idea behind this sort of reading is that, like poems, anthologies reveal patterns that might well come from somewhere else.

This reference to McCooey’s introduction leads me to the most difficult of questions which it would shame a reviewer to ignore: What are the features of this generation of Australian poets? I’m so old that the issue of the challenge posed by the “academic” poets of the fifties (Hope, McAuley, Buckley et al) to the “Bulletin” poets (Wright, Campbell et al) is not merely an historical one. I have thought long and hard about these issues of poetic generations, their ruptures, influences, internal relationships and continuities. Most descriptions of poetic periods are very impressionistic and would not satisfy a professional historian let alone a scientist. Chris Wallace-Crabbe memorably spoke of “the habit of irony” when dealing with the poetry of the fifties and I spoke of the need to “make it new” as the imperative behind the “generation of ‘68” but these were very gestural statements. Accepting, though, that it is probably impossible to give a completely accurate account of thirty poets, I’ll describe a few, equally subjective, impressions I have at the conclusion of this book.

Firstly, it is rather a shock – though it shouldn’t be – to see how professional these poets are. If the generation before were often the product of Creative Writing courses taught by poets who had managed to get jobs in universities and often looked out of place alongside the (declining) establishment of literary scholars, these people seem to be teachers themselves, almost always with doctorates. And they often teach something more demanding than Creative Writing. Judith Bishop (whose “It Begins Where You Stand” was lovely to re-encounter) describes herself as a professional linguist; Michael Brennan works in the Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University; Claire Potter “spent five years studying and teaching in Paris”; David Prater and Jaya Savige are both doctoral students, the former in Karlskrona, Sweden, the latter at Cambridge (Emma Jones has a Cambridge doctoral degree in literature). I might be confusing two elements here – professionalism and multilinguality – but I think they are closely related (John Mateer, Ali Alizadeh and Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers seem to have had multilingual upbringings). At one level this professionalism seems entirely admirable. But of course there is a darker side and my second impression of this anthology relates to this. There isn’t much madness in Thirty Poets. Those working in a surreal tradition (like Louis Armand or David Prater) work in the thoroughly familiar (dare I say acceptable and professionalised?) tradition of reworking and rebuilding existing texts. The complexities of the poems of, say, Maria Takolander or LK Holt, seem interesting and challenging complexities rather than confronting ones. Other poems have a lot of emotional intensity and weirdness (Bronwyn Lea’s “Born Again”, which readers have a habit of remembering, stands out here) but it isn’t something that is going to change your ideas of what poetry can do. This response was provoked by coming across, very late in the book, Samuel Wagan-Watson’s “Night Racing” (“night racing through the suburbs / of white stucco dreaming . . .”) and realising that there was nothing else in the anthology remotely like this (though angry, aggressive poetry is not usually something I prize). It reminded me of my reading of Benjamin Frater’s 6am in the Universe (reviewed on this site). That is “mad” poetry though with a perfectly coherent aesthetics/metaphysics behind it. Should he have been included? He would have been the youngest poet in the anthology and his voice would certainly have stood out. But it would also have skewed a reader’s response to what this generation is like. It isn’t like the poetry of Benjamin Frater.

David McCooey makes the good point that the work of these poets “shows a profound knowledge of poetic precedence” and I want to explore this a bit. It is a useful idea because it brings the textual manipulators in out of the rain and under the umbrella where the (generally) lyrical and meditative poets are camped. I would approach this issue from a technological angle: this is the first generation of Australian poets writing under the aegis of Google. Whereas previous generations might have been addicted to particular forms – the villanelle and then the pantoum – now we find centos; there is one by Kate Fagan in Thirty Poets. To write a cento is perversely difficult enough but to read it respectably – almost impossible in the pre-google age – is simplicity itself nowadays. And it isn’t only a matter of locating and relating to poetic precedences. What would once have been the result of a monstrous, obsessive erudition, an interest in the most arcane byways of some subject (which, for some reason, is often a feature of the make-up of a poet’s mind), is now easily available at the writing desk. In a sense we are all erudite now and can “get up” things unimaginable to much cleverer people (like Hope, Buckley or McAuley). In The Best Australian Poetry, 2009, Liam Ferney, introduced his complicated poem (which blended the Australian High Court with a host of popular culture references) with the off-hand comment, “You can google the rest. I did”. That registers an important moment. Thinking this through further, though, leads me to see it as a possible positive that someone who was, himself, very erudite, John Forbes, would have approved of. Erudition itself is not going to be as impressive as it once was and poems will be forced to work for themselves rather than rely on some wonderful piece of arcane knowledge inside them. And apart from Google there are the combinative powers of the personal computer. Everone knows how John Tranter exploited the capacities of the Breakdown programme and while it must have taken Laurie Duggan hours of painstaking work to assemble his set of anagrams of the names of Australian poets in the 1970s, children could now do this effortlessly as a party game.

A final subjective impression concerns the sexes. If this is the Age of the Professionals, I had also expected it to be, poetically, an Age of the Woman. My sense from reading the new books emerging over the last ten years was that a fairly high percentage of the good ones were by women. Publishers like the excellent Giramondo Press seem to make a policy of publishing women poets. Picking up Thirty Poets and knowing that in today’s world an anthology without any particular axe to grind would have to aim at equal gender representation, I expected to find quite a number of make-weight male poets. This isn’t what happened. For some reason, perhaps to do with the levelling quality I spoke of earlier, the poetry of the women doesn’t seem dominant at all. Related to that is the fact that, of those poets I would have omitted if I had been editor, more than half are women and the poets that I listed previously as ones who might have been included in an anthology like this without raising any eyebrows are all male! Thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that it is “the age of the woman poet” but that the anthology doesn’t entirely reflect this. In other words I trust the subjective impression I have from reading all the individual books over the years above the impression I have from this anthology.

I said that anthologies have contexts, just as poems do. To put it another way, anthologies are aware of their predecessors. Thirty Poets alludes immediately to one of these, John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry, by choosing the date 1968 as the earliest cut-off birth date for its poets. That’s an elegant and generous gesture, I think, although there is a big difference between a birth date and the date at which a group of writers make an impact. The poets of the “generation of ‘68” were generally born after the Second World War. But Thirty Poets also seems to be the younger sibling of an anthology published in 2000, Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx. I think Thirty Poets is, as an anthology, a far superior book exactly because it does reflect a single generation. Calyx’s virtue was that it anthologised interesting poets but they came from what appear, now, to be two quite separate generations. I also want to make connection when I read Thirty Poets with an anthology from 1968, Rodney Hall and Tom Shapcott’s New Impulses in Australian Poetry (also published by the University of Queensland Press). That anthology had a very strong sense of a generation (it turned out to be the one between the Bulletin poets and the ’68 poets). It too was organised alphabetically though it was much more “interventionist” than Thirty Poets in that it varied the number of poems by contributors and included highly interpretive introductory notes to each poet by the editors. In retrospect (and, probably, at the time) the faultlines within that generation were fairly clear. There were Brisbane poets (Hall, Shapcott, Malouf, Rowbotham, Croyston, Green and perhaps Harwood), Melbourne “university” poets (Buckley, Jones, Wallace-Crabbe, Simpson, Taylor and perhaps Dawe), Sydney poets (Lehmann and Murray) and a number who could either be seen as “unaligned” or loosely connected to one of these groups (Beaver, Smith, Stow). I mention this to ask whether the same (or similar) lines can be drawn in Thirty Poets. There are Sydney University poets here, there is a Melbourne group published by the John Leonard Press and so on. If they can’t be confidently drawn now, will they become clearer a few years on. Living in the Google/Amazon/Internet age means that groupings are likely to be matters of sympathy rather than proximity (let alone class or gender, those subgroups beloved of sociologists). All poetic texts are available, as influences, to everyone and so there are less likely to be poetic “gateways” in the form of elder poets lending books or supervising reading groups.

A final two points about this excellent book. By encapsulating a generation it turns the older poets (who were born before 1968) into a generation as well. This is something that I don’t think they were before and they might not like being now. That dividing line means that major poets like Anthony Lawrence, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Adam Aitken, Emma Lew and a host of others (these were literally the first names that came into my head) have become isolated into a kind of group. I don’t think this is a bad thing because their work is different to that of these thirty poets and seeing them as a generation might encourage us to attempt a more complex description before looking for continuities between them and the poets of this anthology.

Tom Shapcott edited Australian Poetry Now in 1969. In many ways it has the fewest continuities with Thirty Poets being a bit of a grab-bag. But, for me, it was a very exciting anthology introducing (or allowing the authors themselves to introduce) a host of poets I had never heard of. It caught the idea that a poetic renaissance was occurring by not predefining the nature of that rebirth at the editorial level. So in many ways it is crude. It has a hoax poet (Gwen Harwood’s Timothy Kline) and a lot of poets who didn’t sustain significant careers. But more than Thirty Poets it conveyed a sense of a lot of new (and often weird) things happening. If Thirty Poets recalls New Impulses in Australian Poetry then it is possible that there is room for an anthology that recalls some aspects of Australian Poetry Now, publishing people who are young, have not produced a book and who have appeared only in journals or online.

 

 

Elizabeth Campbell: Error

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2011, 60pp.

 

Error is Elizabeth Campbell’s second book and has at least this much in common with her first, the excellent Letter to the Tremulous Hand (2008), that each concludes with an extended set of poems devoted to a medieval mystery. In the first book, a ten poem sequence explores a host of issues – including poetic personality, the matter of copying, the act of entering imaginatively into the life of an historical personage – revolving around a medieval scribe/copyist who has escaped the customary anonymity because his handwriting is marked by a distinctive tremor. This new book, Error, concludes with a fifteen poem sequence devoted to the famous sequence of late fifteenth century tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn. As with the former sequence there is a two-page introduction to establish the context. The sequence (which may, irritatingly, not be complete or in the correct order) is usually seen as being made up of five tapestries devoted to each of the senses and a final one in which the Lady at the centre of each prepares to enter a tent on which is written A Mon Seul Desir (most likely to be taken to mean “to my sole desire”). The sequence is most commonly interpreted to represent the lady’s gradual abandonment of the sensual world for the world of her true desire: philosophical and religious meditation. But it is an interpretation which is highly conjectural, doesn’t seem to fit with anything known of its noveaux-riche sponsors, and, by managing to get the individual tapestries titled after the relevant sense and order them the way it has, it supports itself in a circular way. At any rate, Campbell says, pointedly, at the end of her introduction: “I suspect all of this is more complex”.

Campbell’s sequence sees the tapestries as being about love – a complex phenomenon in any culture and at any time, but particularly elusive in the high medieval heraldic-allegorical tradition. And so she writes a poetic sequence about the different features of love, slotting in personal experience where it fits. The first poem, “Canso: toucher”, demonstrates this, but also the way in which “true” or “high” or “courtly” love is very much about identity and the way it is not only submerged in the loved-one but also reflected from the loved one:

I step off the round blue island
into the red sea and break a leg.
So you tend me

and I watch your face for clues
to what you stare into
so tenderly binding my leg:

what is this person

who loves you?

The Romance of the Rose of Guillame de Lorris, though two and a half centuries older than these tapestries, is probably the key text to these complicated issues of identity, but there is also the second act of Wagner’s Tristan (based on Gottfried’s poem which is more or less contemporaneous with the Romance), especially in the wonderful La Scala production where Waltraud Meier earnestly puzzles over words like “you, only, I, we, two” (to quote Campbell’s second poem) during the second act. “Love”, the final poem (in which the lady grows into a unicorn) says, is “holy envy”, though the servant who holds the case for the lady’s jewels tells her:

love itself is allegory – its fever
and its lion all costumes
of the mythic unicorn: a secret tithe.

These few glossed quotations will give some sense of what a difficult poem it is, and the difficulty of its central allegorical work of art is multiplied by the sequence’s freedom to mix personal experience in with it. But, ultimately, this is not simply an interpretive sequence and it is all the more interesting for that reason. Perhaps its final position is that love desires to become love and searches in the loved-one not for another self but for love. The lady’s tent is her inner self and, as the second poem says:

Myth we reject

turns inward – the selfless lover
loves no self in his other, loves only love, ends
folding on himself, ceremonial:

love’s mind loves
its own luminous terminology . . .

This technique of inhabiting existing myths isn’t reserved for the longer sequences. You can see it in “Ithaka”, one of the best poems in the book. The poem begins with Cavafy’s poem as though it were the embarkation point for its own mysterious voyage. Its first shift is to introduce the poet’s own situation – awake and mildly paranoid in a house not her own:

Lying alone unsleeping in this good house
that is not mine, the bright day gone to teeming night,
the thought-bark ground ashore again
. . . . .
                                        I lie awake and wait
for the batter at the door – sit up each time and look
as headlights crunch through trees,
three in two hours . . .

And then modulate into a fascinating study of poetic completeness, entirely logical given Cavafy’s theme in “Ithaka”, but unexpected nevertheless:

Sleep the safe journey, Ithaka arrival, waking.
An old, a respectable trick, I’ve done it,
this making a perfectly ended poem
that tells the reader “don’t waste
your time on endings”:

art as round and finished as the lives of the dead,
to celebrate the virtue of life’s unfinish.
. . . . .

I don’t know how critical Campbell wants to be of Cavafy (rather than herself at the moment when she catches herself “painting fakes”) but there is an inbuilt contradiction between the polish of Cavafy’s poems (not to mention their long gestation and delayed publication) and the theme that it is process not completion that matters. But I emphasise this to give an example of the distinctive way in which Campbell can make other fictions and myths her own: she neither yields to the story nor ruthlessly appropriates it, but makes a new story that seems to oscillate between the original and the private.

What might be called the “Ithaka principle” emerges at different places in other poems. A fine poem, “New Year’s”, describes the poet with two friends swimming before the “year’s turning” and meditating on what happiness is, whether it is something we find ourselves momentarily immersed in or whether it comes from a structured “good life” which is, however, built according to various templates,

. . . . .
one light among those that dot-to-dot
the improbable wilful constellation called
The Good Life, that is traced on other star-maps
as The Balance, The Empty Ship, The Maze
. . . . .

and an earlier poem, “Fireworks”, describes various people for whom the dream doubles as the fulfilment before, in a way that is very similar to “New Year’s”, describing three schoolgirls at an end of school fete towards the end of the millennium, walking at the edge of the oval where the fireworks (in a metaphor that anyone would recognise) are being prepared:

. . . . .
                    Three girls, sick on sweets

and their own secret metaphor – fireworks -
for the cuspy feeling that could be
hope or fear; the violent promises

beneath their words – “I will be –“: already
embarrassed by their own self-conscious ardour.
In the end they went home

before the first fuse, saw nothing.
The need was the feast, the promise itself the event.

There are many poems in Error which focus on process rather than abstraction and the chief interest of the small section devoted to Dante seems largely to revolve around the way in which, in Inferno, the souls are permanent, eternal expressions of their sins. Count Ugolino becomes:

                                             The damned dead by hunger
gnawing at the nape of the damned tormentor.

Stuck forever in the ice, in the pattern
of its own act like an Escher staircase
stubbornly moving going

nowhere. Back to yourself is nowhere.

And, in a way that now seems familiar, Campbell moves on to think about Dante himself and his poem. As the sinners are their sin so Dante is his poem and allegory is not a way of saying something in disguise but of inhabiting two worlds at the same time. This bleak little sequence ends in a warm poem about process in the form of lived life, asking, in its last line not the, “speak to me of the living” that we might expect but rather the Dantesque, “speak of me to the living”. Another poem, “Dalkey Island”, uses terns diving as a metaphor for thinking and points out that just as terns do not actively “dive”, rather they surrender to the passive force of gravity, so

Perhaps all your insights are this obvious -
modest freefalls out of doubt
when the mind stops beating and the head bows

out of the abstraction of the air . . . . .

The first sections of the book are called, respectively, “Error” and “Fear”. “Fear” contains two extraordinary poems, “The Diving Bell” and “Brain” the first of which recounts its author’s accumulated bodily damage and the second the experience of epilepsy. They belong to what looks like a little anatomy of fear, the central image for which is the idea of a room. The first poems are, similarly, grouped around errors. The opening poem is a wonderful recounting of the experience of involuntarily crying out at the remembrance of childhood cruelty. For this poet it happens in the shower whose waters then become an image of the passage of time “your hands explore what years have done // to the self that did that thing”. At least one of these childhood “errors” is an insensitivity to her mother’s recounting of her own past (and thus the author’s genetic history) contrasted with her own true poet’s sense of autogenesis:

. . . . .
                    I circled her
in disgust with her hopeless dead: absorbed

in the myth of my self-birth:
goddess of wisdom, learning, war – sprung
whole from my father’s head!

Letters to the Tremulous Hand and Error establish Elizabeth Campbell as, consistently, one of the best of Australia’s new poets. It remains to be seen whether the structure they adopt – especially that part which engages with a medieval (or other) problem with such an intriguing deployment of the self – is used again. There is an argument (which I’m not entirely committed to) that extended sequences of this sort smell too much of University postgraduate writing courses where they have the right blend of required imaginative research producing a nicely extended (and thus examinable) text. We are such a long way beyond that in the poems of the major sequences of these books that it shouldn’t be an issue, but then no poet can go around inhabiting an endless set of historical/artistic issues like the Tapestries or the handwriting of the “tremulous” hand. Campbell has shown that she can make her own successful choices in these first two books and so there is no reason to doubt that she won’t make the right decisions in the future books that readers of Australian poetry will be happily anticipating.

 

 

Elizabeth Campbell: Letters to the Tremulous Hand

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2007, 68pp.

I have been looking forward to this book of Elizabeth Campbell’s ever since I met two of her Tremulous Hand poems in Anthony Lawrence’s The Best Australian Poetry 2004. The poems were interesting mainly because they were quite different from what one expects from the sort of poetic biography that Australian poetry is, at the moment, full of. But at the time, the subject was even more interesting: an unnamed monk who, at the beginning of the thirteenth century acted as a copyist in Worcester, despite a tremor in his writing hand. It is always exciting when a poem can introduce us to an unknown historical reality and I was fascinated by this figure: someone old enough to remember the Old English which was in the process of being replaced by the new, half-romance idiom of Middle English. He caught my imagination as being analogous to the great Icelandic historian, chieftain and thug: Snorri Sturluson. The two were, most likely, coevals though Snorri was, perhaps, rather the older of the two. The Tremulous Hand, as part of his activities, compiled a word list of Old English, the language of Aelfric and Wulfstan as well as a host of other celebrated medieval scholars.

Snorri’s fate was to see not the decline of his language (Icelandic robustly resisted all incursions and the language of Snorri can be read with ease by Icelanders today) but the loss of his poetic culture. This occurred because of the freak mischance that the complex metaphoric language of Old Norse poetry was derived from Norse myth. When the church arrived at the end of the first millennium (just before William the Bastard arrived in England bringing French with him) the myths went. And when the myths went, the poetry became incomprehensible. Snorri fought against this by compiling a collection of prose retellings of these myths (the Snorraedda) which was designed to act (surprisingly for most first-time readers) as a poetic primer. It is irresistible to think of the Tremulous Hand, at almost the same time and in a much humbler way, compiling a glossary of a beloved language now passing out of existence. I imagined the pair of them, one in a scriptorium the other on his estates, at pretty much the same time and in neighboring countries, each fighting for a past which was sliding into oblivion.

Regrettably this is a moving but inaccurate view of the situation of the Tremulous Hand. The major text which Campbell has used, Franzen’s The Tremulous Hand of Worcester, debunks most of the romanticized elements in favour of bleaker truths. The tremor is most likely congenital rather than being the grief-laden response of an old man desperately trying to record the past, etc etc. And, to do her justice, there is nothing in Campbell’s poetry that desires or needs a romanticized view. Her ten-poem sequence, devoted to the scribe, is at the farthest possible remove from the conventional poetic recreation of a life. The Tremulous Hand sequence is really a kind of meta-poetic-biography. What Campbell is interested in is, among other things (this is a very complex sequence), the morality of writing about historical figures. She is also interested in the nature of personality, history, scholarship, writing, the act of transmission, where love comes into all of this and even the nature of our existence trapped between past and future.

The fourth, six and ninth poems seem to focus on conceptions of self inside the process of history. These are all impressive meditations, especially the ninth, “ansyn/face”, which focuses specifically on the question, “What do we do / when we take another’s words and say them / again in a different hand?” This makes a neat connection between the act of scribal transcription and the biographical poet’s search for a suitable subject. In the middle section the poem continues to address artists. Syntactical difficulties in the first sentence (of the fourth stanza) make the exact authorial position tricky to determine but it seems deliberately to reject the postmodern position that there is no transcendent ground by which to judge knowledge and imagines a last judgement where all would be known and “salvation // would be endless recognition”. The final section of the poem is complex and moving:

My face is my end

though it changes: as never-same
as the river of speech that can’t talk
backwards down the arrow though they quote
or spade us up on the last day.
What saint’s face did they uncowl,
that came for you?

You wrote: Sanctus Bedus was iboren:
here that scholar is, poling you over the river
here you: a glimmer
behind my shoulder, a pocket compact:
long chosen, the helmsman
lifts your hood, bears my face.

We carry those who transmit us: so Bede ferries the Tremulous Hand and the Tremulous Hand ferries the author (at least that is what I take the reference to the glimmer behind the shoulder to mean). But this is complicated by the last two lines which contain a number of disorienting puns and ambiguities: who lifts whose hood and bears/bares the author’s face? A complicated and fascinating poem.

Campbell herself tells us that she came across her subject through an interest in dialogues between the body and the soul and this issue percolates through the poems. One poem, based on the extraordinary opening of Heloise’s first letter to Abelard, concludes by positioning the poet respectfully:

To the minor scholar, the minor poet
to the body, the soul:
to the dead, the living.

In the second poem of the sequence, she asks the Tremulous Hand to teach her the difference between “divine truth and cramping” that is: between the soul (and its transcendent co-ordinates) and the immediate demands of the body. This poem opens out into an issue of epistemology. The poet declares herself “suspicious of anything / that could be called expansive” and “suspicious of anything reductive”. She is suspicious of the former because even the soul has to have a precise location and of the latter because the things that experience is reduced to (such as sex) turn out themselves to be strange and complex. Removing expansion and reduction however “clearly flattens // like the blotting-out of sin – like the Earth / I am on not in”. This epistemological quandary is only a small part of the complexities of the Tremulous Hand sequence but the fact that it is important for the poet is stressed by the poem that opens the entire book, ‘Proverb”.

Here the expansion/reduction binary is expressed in more philosophically conventional terms as the battle between generalization and datum. Does the truth lie in the facts or in our understanding of the facts? “Who could love detail for its own sake?” the poem asks, “Surely a gentle mind turns straight / away to symbol?” Although successive readings have left me a little more nervous in the face of this poem than I was at first reading, there is not much doubt that here the author comes down clearly on the “data” side of the binary:

But Mother Doubt, you early laid on me

your threefold cradle-gifts:
sadness, restlessness,
and foremost of these, a hopeless

passion of reality.

The “Letters to the Tremulous Hand” sequence sends its thematic feelers out to other poems in the book, as well. The dialogue of the body and soul, for example, re-emerges in an earlier poem, “Gravity”, which begins by expecting all the usual jealousies between the two but concludes: “Our bodies fly us like a kite”. “The Song’s Bride” built of the “Song of Songs” and Christ’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins also is probably a body/soul poem.

“Fetch” is a complicated poem recounting a friend’s near-death experience in an upturned canoe. It is about facing death (“facing” has, of course, a double meaning in this book) and about incarnation and invocation (“fetch” is the key word) in a way that recalls the ninth poem of the later sequence. It also, incidentally, recalls the river image at the end of that poem and, like the second poem of the sequence has a lovely invocation:

Nick, old friend and
                  one of the few
who can inhale water and breathe out
                                   love, love –
go back for me, still my lungs, smell my hair.
Fetch me up and tell me I will live.

A four-part sequence, “Passengers”, is marked by a strong sense of our movement between birth and death or between the past and the future. The book itself has two epigraphs: one from Jennifer Harrison about the past (it asks “is memory the soul?’) and a crucial one from de Beauvoir, “the future has no face.” The third poem of this sequence is a little story about a pair of clowns waiting with the author at Athens airport and entertaining some children to pass the time. The book’s obsession with the relationship between ourselves and our faces clicks into focus here. The clown persona is a kind face without a history: it is what our faces might be like if their function were only to render expression rather than our pasts:

Without a mask
he becomes a mask
. . . . .
Rummaging his bag for the hidden he is
Search, leaping up plain
as Hope at each annunciation
of flight or passenger, lips fished in an “oo”
of “Surprise”, or else he’s Rage chewing “shuttup”

silently and shaking a fist
his every impulse even anger kind in its equality.
. . . . .
His mask completes him, whose repertoire
does not include: grief, guilt, memory:
without a past. The children watching are more
tangled; tired and amazed, yawning to believe
his promise, that they will be
reborn to a parentless face.

Finally there is a kind of unofficial sequence about what is clearly another obsession (though one which, for obvious reasons, does not make it into the poems to the Tremulous Hand) – horses. Even here, though, familiar themes arise. “Equus” and “Forget” revolve around a horse whose foal has died and thus explore the nature of grief, consciousness and memory. Throughout these poems you can feel the body/soul binary pushing for recognition. “Horse” deals with the pure responses of the body to stimuli and takes this into surprising areas:

. . . . .
                         Stripped
of motive
made the
        pure reaction
of a massive self all action is
messianic. A body that saves nothing, but stops and turns and starts.

That word “messianic” pulls you up short and makes you nervous about your reading of the poem. Finally, in “Longitude”, the poet stands at the still centre while the horse, on a long rope, paces out a circle. The horse, we are told, is oriented horizontally “her spine // long into landscape like a ridgeline: / forwards like time” while the author is vertical. It is, like so many of the poems in this book, difficult and intriguing. The binary begs to be particularized: the horse is the body, the person the soul. But it could be read in other ways.

Letters to the Tremulous Hand is a pretty exhilarating first collection by someone who is more than a “minor poet”. There are very complex poems sharing similar thematic material but never to the point where one poem acts as a touchstone to explain the rest. Here, what we get instead is a series of different reflections on these themes. The poems are very difficult, especially for an innocent reader who has nothing but the text to work with, but it’s the kind of difficulty that is not gratuitous. You feel that the poet has our interests at heart but also has a very complex view of life to share. This is the second John Leonard Press book I have reviewed on this site and I really need to say that the production standards, especially the printing, are absolutely outstanding. All of these books are, physically, a pleasure to read.