From Paul Hetherington, Australian Book Review, November 2008:
There are times when I read a book that reinvigorates important questions for me – such as how language carries and creates meaning, and what, after all, is the function and force of poetry. Usually, such a book is a creative work, and I like to imagine that the first readers of volumes by George Herbert or John Donne responded with such questions – to poetry that consistently registered a persuasive complexity and which, while emotionally restrained, carried a pithy emotional charge.
Peter Steele’s White Knight with Beebox is a book of this kind. It collects most of the best of Steele’s poems, which are lyrical, questing and metaphysical.
In other countries this poetry, notwithstanding its occasional difficulty and its sometimes clotted textures – which, to mix the metaphor, brings its own cerebral pleasures of unknotting strands of thought and words – would be widely celebrated. In Australia, where poetry has consistently been marginalised by both public policy and a broad culture with little interest in its own serious literature, Steele’s poetry has mainly been admired by a small circle. I hope that, with the publication of this volume of new and selected poems, many more readers will make its acquaintance.
However, real familiarity with Steele’s work is not a glancing matter. It demands an attentiveness to language and to cultural and spiritual issues. It is highly allusive, challenging the reader to make connections with other books and literatures. Yet one does not need to be fully cognisant of all of Steele’s references to make good sense of the poems, which consistently and persuasively speak of recognisable and important subjects, such as compassion, the preciousness of good ideas, and the complexities and contradictions of history.
. . . Steele’s poetry is not always marked by a high seriousness. In the poem ‘Possum’, he writes: ‘There you go, fast in a long swagger, / cool cat on a hot night, / impenitent and gleaming.’ This is a poem which gains much of its force through virtuosic tonal and rhythmical control. It runs at the reader with an easy gait and travels swiftly, with complex wit, through to a deceptively simple and resonant conclusion: ‘Small clown, prince of the raw, moron / with blazing eyes, keep watching: / you are not alone.’ Between the opening and closing stanzas, the word ‘fleering’ appears. Like ‘crosspatch’ in the earlier quotation, it illustrates Steele’s love of an unusual, even arcane vocabulary. There is something flamboyant in his use of such words, yet they also add to the poetry’s depth and subtlety. As much as Steele is concerned with the meaning of ‘the Word’, he continually delights and revels in words in the lower case.
. . .
There has been a good deal of debate in recent decades about whether religious poetry can stand alone as successful poetry in its own right. Steele’s White Knight with Beebox conclusively answers this question in the affirmative.
From Martin Duwell, Australian Poetry Review, October 2008:
“Credo” begins with a large perspective on history and the cosmos and then switches very beautifully to the local by engaging with a truck driver on the forecourt of the service station. As he drives through the stands of eucalypts he becomes a kind of wood-man and the poem then transitions to Jesus (“the other traveller, working his passage / from boy to man, country to city, / sawyer’s horse to the bloody work on a pole”). This is all wonderfully done, seamlessly producing a poem that is as well-made as a fine piece of wooden furniture. It is worth dwelling for a while on this element of Steele’s technique: many of the poems are driven by transitions or disjunctions which are announced in the language of argument or by a demotic turn of phrase.
Finally, though not the last poem of the group, “Offerings” is a wonderful celebration of human creativity beginning (with the customary wide perspective) with the cave painters of Lascaux, and including Neolithic flint blades and Chinese oracle bones and coffin-handles. The final stanza surprisingly but very satisfyingly moves not only towards names but towards the tactile experience of the words themselves – something a poet is especially sensitive to but which everybody can relate to. And the method of the poem is not argument or analysis but listing:
And blessed are you who fit us all for naming –
telling the arrow’s nock, the gladdie’s
corm, the Bellarmine jug, the Milky Way,
spinnaker, follicle, Nome, Alaska:
catfish, deckchairs, the age to fall in love,
gaspers and megrims and the Taj Mahal,
derricks, and El Dorado, and peach Melba.
Blessed are you: the years toll,
and yet I chance my arm enough to say,
(the brute tide swayed by the moon)
I bless the wine and the bread.
Just as the priest can bless the host so the poet can bless language (itself mysteriously connected to the word, or Word).
From Philip Harvey, Eureka Street Vol 18 No 23, 2008:
It is always good to come back into the steadying orbit of a Steele poem, what with so much dark energy and dodgy Plutos moving about. This selection shows what a consistent object the Steele poem is, and just as we view the universe backward in time from today, so the book starts with the most recent illuminations then works back to beginnings.
The Steele poem is like this. It generally never goes beyond a page, or needs to. Concentration of information sometimes obstructs, sometimes enables clarity, but even with the simplest poem we know we are on an endeavour. The main form is a series of artful, usually long, sentences that combined make a fortified argument of considerable persuasiveness. Prose though is about the last thing we have before us. It is Auden’s ‘voluble discourse’ in portable form.
Although not a beat poem, it is comradely with Ginsberg’s aesthetic of the poem as measure of breath. Breath in the Steele poem is commanding like an original lecture, enspiriting like a true sermon, propulsive like a perfect dinner conversation. No matter what the extent of the references or the shape of the wit in a Steele poem, we can always be assured of cogency. The effort is worth the time. It provides a classical education and reminds the reader of how accessible and enjoyable such an education can be. It expresses the challenge of an idea, but once think it is all intellect, you will be taken by surprise with emotional subtleties. If a poem can be called transatlantic Melburnian, then this is it. It is a gift, the construction of an intricate argument with fewest words. It is like John Donne: the apposite yet unexpected use of image and phrase, always at the service of the argument. It has Donne’s showiness, his complexity, as well as his reality checks.
. . . .
Peter Steele has been fortunate in having about the best poetry editor in Australia to arrange this book. John Leonard has chosen with a cheerful scrupulosity. A criteria for the ‘picture’ poems was that they require as little need for reference as possible to the surveyed work. Leonard allows us to appreciate the strengthening of the Steele mode through forty-plus years, especially its gradual relaxation of delivery and increased confidence with inclusivity.
In retrospect we find that, in an age when free verse goes in all directions at once, where there are no endings, only closures, Peter Steele maintains firm metrics and a determined purpose that reproduce a unique voice. ‘Even an autist or a lone wolf / makes his debut with with a budget of tips to go by.’ (‘Help’) But Steele has a full hand. He is prudently gregarious, meaning he has any number of characters at his intellectual feast, and we are also made to feel welcome.
From Chris Wallace-Crabbe, The Age, ‘Favourite Literary Encounters of the Year’. December 13 2008:
In poetry, I was utterly diverted by the hopscotch mind, covering all bases, in Peter Steele’s White Knight with Beebox (John Leonard Press): the poems have as much dazzle as the strange title might hint at.
From Peter Kenneally, The Age, November 29, 2008:
At times Steele seems like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days: up to his neck in culture and history, all his life in his eyes, singing and declaiming to the world in general and God in particular.
The poems with the most air in them are those that start with the everyday and approach the divine. . . .
From Andrew Hamilton, Madonna, November/December 2008:
[Steele’s] poems display a vast vocabulary and an irrepressible curiosity about the rich variety of our world. But these are brought together into disciplined and musical forms.