From Peter Craven, The Age, May 9 2009, p.22:
If literary Australia loses its memory of Buckley, then all our right hands should lose their cunning. [‘Golden Builders’] is our ‘Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’. It has an extraordinary verbal authority . . . It is grand, it is reverberative, and it haunts the mind like the intimation of a prophesy.
Buckley develops a style consciously eloquent, suited to the metaphysical urgencies that dominate the earlier work when the author was the foremost Catholic intellectual in the land. It’s later that Buckley develops a more flexible style, which he mocked as a “mature style” without attitudes. . . that remembers its own previous intimations of sublimity and makes a soft music out of the afterglow.
The later Buckley is a poet who has not only mastered the lessons of Lowell’s Life Studies but, perhaps more fruitfully, the occasional poem . . . a tacit quality that has an affinity with Buckley’s friend Seamus Heaney.
It’s a poetry constantly fringed with sadness and a sense of proximate loss but also a poetry with a feeling for the light and textures with which memory adorns its pathways. It is the work of a man who is haunted by the Romantic intimation of a world hung with symbols of the soul’s hopes and yearnings. It exhibits a conscientiously religious sensibility that is also, sometimes deliberately and sometimes compulsively, given to litanies of its own failings.
This is a rich and formidable Collected Poems.
From Gregory Kratzmann, ‘The life and poetry of Vincent Buckley’, Australian Book Review, July-August 2009, p.17:
The Collected Poems makes possible a reappraisal of Buckley’s impressive and substantial body of work.
Windswept Kilmore, metropolitian Melbourne, and the many faces of Ireland are the imaginative loci of his poetry, and in his last (and best) work, all these places are ‘embodied’ (to use one of his favourite terms) as he reviews the preoccupations of his poetic art: loss, vivid awareness of death in the midst of life, the shaping force of ancestry and the saving grace of human love. He arrives at an art of supreme simplicity.
There are some apare and deeply moving love poems here, and ‘Brought Up on the Fears of Women’… is surely among the greatest Australian poems that explore the potent memories of childhood. I wonder how many readers could have appreciated until now the strains of wit and broad comedy that sound through the bleakness of Buckley’s habitual vion of the world?
[Collected Poems] makes an important contribution to understanding the life, times, and above all the writing of a distinguished, difficult and always controversial Australian poet and intellectual. John Leonard Press has produced an elegant book, well set on quality paper, and including an illuminating foreword by Peter Steele.
From Alan Wearne, Australian Literary Review, 4(1), February 2009, p.23:
‘Stroke’ ends up being a fabulously bleak but never inhumane portrait of his father approaching death: ‘Across the bright unechoing floors/ The troleys and attendants rove;/ On tiptoe shine, by scoured walls,/ The nearly speechless visitors/ Skirt the precipice of love.’ Buckley in no-frills mode is perhaps our best no-frills poet, with this sequence occupying for me . . . not just a place as a worthy enough Oz elegy but as a great Australian poem.
‘Golden Builders’ anchors itself in the destruction of much of old inner-urban Melbourne . . . and the opportunities for renewal such events may yet present, finding parallels in Christianity and the poet’s life. Such a bland summary hardly does the work justice, for among many items the work is packed with great dour vignettes from Carlton and Fitzroy where near-ghostly characters wander in . . . often inner-suburban post-war migrants, dysfunctional, displaced. . . .
From Carolyn Masel, Eureka Street, 19(6), April 2009:
What first impresses about this pleasingly solid volume is the sheer richness of the oeuvre. [. . .] There is an insistence on the incontrovertibility of individual perception, which is coupled with an extraordinary sensitivity to the world, especially its sounds and colours. There is a deep and pervasive and rhythmically seductive melancholy. There is the leaven of humorous folk poems and riddles.
Buckley’s poetic career seems to trace a trajectory from the treatment of explicitly religious topics with religious language, to the exploration of experience in language that is not explicitly religious. But when individual and common experience — of love, or suffering, or conflict — is treated with the depth of seriousness that they can warrant, the result is pretty much the same.
[T]he later poems invite a wider range of readers . . . One of the last poems seems to articulate a new aesthetic that the poet hoped to be able to implement. Its first line, ‘A poetry without attitudes’, gave its name to one section of Last Poems. The poem pokes fun at seminars, critics and publishers, but it is a different thing for the poet:
while actually you are learning
to walk with it, to lie against it,
our earth-tremor, your vibrato
turning you slowly into song.
Many of the newly published final poems seem to bear out this aesthetic; relaxed and deeply rhythmical, they seem at once natural and precise.
From Martin Duwell, Australian Poetry Review, 2009
Chris Wallace-Crabbe, the editor of this Collected, has yielded to Buckley’s own estimate of the worth of his earlier poems by including only a selection, and has taken as a guide the selection made by Buckley himself in his Selected Poems of 1981. Interestingly, he has reinstated two poems: “Late Tutorial” and “Impromptu for Francis Webb”. The second of these is dedicated to a poet born in the same year as Buckley and who, you feel, is a kind of alter ego to be quarrelled with, admired and feared (or at least, his fate is to be feared). The poem speaks of the world as a place which must evolve to express the divine and wants to warn Webb of the danger of poetry and language being a refuge from an insanity caused by the present corruption of the world. Poets are supposed to be cleaning up words so that they can match the divine rather than using them to build walls:
Words would become our home
And cosset us, till one dark day we find them
Dwindled to ash, or rigid as a tomb.
Our task is this: To keep them swept and sure,
An open courtyard where the poor may find,
Always, the walking Love, Who does not rest
In hearts which fear and hatred have defined.
. . . . .
“Impromptu for Francis Webb” is full of certainty, the very certainties which, I think, Buckley grew to see as poetically false, certainly false to his own poetic and intellectual character. When he speaks of these early poems being based on rhetoric, I think he means not so much an excessive formalism as a tendency to think that poetry operates in the world of elegant assertions. For some poets it does (one could write at length about the function of propositional assertion in something like Rilke’s Duino Elegies and the way in which they balance sureness with a kind of implied gesturing tentativeness) but for Buckley it surely doesn’t and much of his career can be mapped around the gradual playing out of this truth. The core for him lies in the body and the mind’s responses, as well as in a kind of visceral response to community: it doesn’t lie in understandings expressed as propositions.
The other poems from the first two books are impressive. . . especially “Autumn Landscape” which seems (at least in my reading) to take us straight into the heart of Buckley’s early ideas about the world and the spirit, about a religious humanism superior to mere doctrine.
See the flame balancing in the leaves
The old man piles, until they cloud and choke
Under the musty top, where the green crisps
To blackness. There, the air-channels stop
Their running light. Above, is sweetness lodged
In dens of smoke more sweet than honey-cells.
And from all distant quarters how the bird
Gathers its song! And how the rake
Leans crazily to the wall, and passing wheels
Clamp sound to fire – the sparks that wince from stone
As though my hands had ambushed their flame:
Dark cells I touch, beyond the bounds of breath.
A flame, flames, balancing in dark leaves,
Like water that goes straitly on stone.
No more. No hero in the striding mist
Of smoke, or sweetness; but the stony land
Is burning, burning, in this chestnut tree
You gaze on. Breast of stone. A destined land.
Yes you can hear the McAuley (another problematic poet of the period) of “Terra Australis” and “Envoi” here, as well, perhaps, as Brennan. But it’s still a good, formal, rather stately poem, using a symbolic scene, rather than propositions, to make a statement about how, basically, death and decay can be transformed into sweetness by fire. As this is happening in the ancient, dried-out country of Australia, there will be nothing theatrical (“no hero in the striding mist”); it will be a natural process but it will still occur. It is hard to call “Autumn Landscape” a major poem but it is a genuine one and it benefits, perhaps, in this Collected, by being followed by “Winter Gales”, a poem that counterbalances any bleak optimism by a very negative vision. Surprisingly, Wallace-Crabbe has chosen not to reinstate “Walking in Ireland”, a poem many would find important for Buckley at a number of levels. Firstly it introduces the theme of Ireland as a place of family origin, a subject which occupies Buckley for all his writing life and secondly it introduces the larger theme of Buckley’s inability to be utterly at home in any place or institution or even genetic pattern. True, the poem seems to attempt an assertive conclusion (“Can anything, in the gathering light, be foreign?”) but we remember the carefully described awkwardnesses of the earlier part of the poem (“Everything here, strange in its very nearness, / Perplexes me like the shape of a foreign room.”) to the point where we (well, “I”) want to read the conclusion as proposing a new and more inclusive sense of what is meant by belonging.
Arcady and Other Places (a title we know so well that we can’t see how wonderful it is – though the book itself doesn’t contain much that explicitly reminds us of the arcadian face of the world) probably owes its popularity to the two sequences, “Stroke” and “Eleven Political Poems”. What is really happening, though, is a poet moving from a tendency to be hieratic (or dense, or stately) towards a sense of being more open to life and its vulgarities. It is a long journey from “And the light grows tall / In the flame without smoke, and the day without number” to “In the faint blue light / We are both strangers” and it is a journey that we are happy for poets to make: it’s why we prize Yeats’s Responsibilities and Lowell’s Life Studies. The problem is that we can’t help judging them contextually: they are ‘breakthrough’ sequences in the dramatic narrative of a poet’s growth, and it is difficult to go through the exercise (though it remains a valuable exercise) of imagining them shorn of all context as though they were poems come across in an historical anthology, or poems preserved on scraps of paper after the Mongols have been through. I think they are actually good sequences viewed in that light. “Stroke” is full of conceptual sophistication: the death of a father is, after all, symbolic of the death of God, and dying focuses on the physical and resists the impulse to casual transcendence (“Now, in the burnt cold year, / He drains off piss and blood . . .”). The opening lines establishes Buckley’s existential position – always a stranger when he should be among kin – and the way they segue into poetic description suggests that alienation might be the correct stance for producing poetry. Perhaps that is one of the many possible reasons for the two panels of memory in the sequence. The first is a memory of childhood, of reading outside at night when the air is as cold as the father and the warmth is provided by words:
. . . . .
And if I think back, there’s nothing mythical:
A cross-legged kid with a brooding nose
His hands were too chilled to wipe,
A book whose pages he could hardly turn,
A silent father he had hardly learned
To touch; cold he could bear,
Though chill-blooded; the dark heat of words.
A life neither calm nor animal.
. . . . .
The punctuation in this passage has a lot of work to do. At the end of this poem, Buckley is returned to himself, to the world of academic life (“Manuscripts, memories; too many tasks”) and it concludes with a pregnant but slippery proposition, “We suit our memories to our sufferings”. The second memory poem (the fourth of the sequence) is a kind of induced race-memory, focussing on the generations before his father. From the poet’s perspective it is a movement farther back: from the father’s perspective, though, it is quite different. The first memory poem is a move forward in time to the generation of his son while this second is a move back to the generation of his father. The entire sequence finishes, on the surface at least, affirmatively:
Dying, he grows more tender, learns to teach
Himself the mysteries I am left to trace.
As I bend to say “Till next time”, I search
For signs of resurrection in his face.
One of the things that makes “Stroke” stay with us is that by this time in Buckley’s career, we have experienced his lack of belonging so much that a relatively straightforward affirmation of faith is problematic. I want to read it as almost a desperate gesture, a way the poem wants to conclude but one which is compromised by doubts and discomforts so deep that we can sense them in the awkwardness of all the human interactions in the sequence. The father is not a man who, in the last run-in is dedicated to God (whether he knows it or not) and has thus moved out of the ambit of the son’s life, the world in which he feels comfortable. This is a son who is always estranged from his fathers.
Some of these themes are taken up in other poems in the book, especially “Places” and “Shining Earth: A Summer Without Evil”. Both are embodiments of a vision of a transformed world: in the first, a sacred place stands for what the world might be like and in the second this is achieved by a brief moment in time. Again, taken as poems without context, they have an irritating triumphalist certainty about them and I prefer to read them in the contexts of doubt and awkwardness which make them ecstatic fantasies, all the more poignant for containing the seeds of their own uncertainty. The sequence “Eleven Political Poems” works by creating a bathetic language to suit the world of politicians, the power-hungry and the servants of totalitarianism. There are no gestures towards transcendence and the poetic voice is never put in a superior position to pass judgement. All in all, the achievement is really dramatic rather than intellectual. It is interesting to contrast the poems of this sequence with another political poem from Buckley’s next book, Golden Builders. “Willing Servants” follows the successive resignations of officials of the Nixon presidency, each a little more senior than the last and each implicating the person on the next rung of the ladder. It has a Bruce Dawe-like quality, especially in its long sentences and its continuously-held, slightly grotesque (or at least un-obvious) image of the functionaries as shepherds in the fog. But it is not a technique or a subject that is anywhere near the heart of Buckley’s poetry.
Golden Builders begins with a sequence and ends with one: in this way it approximates the structure of both the previous and the succeeding books. The opening sequence, “Northern Circle”, is, superficially, about a trip to Canada. But its real subject is place and belonging; its method is to approach the familiar by beginning with the utterly unfamiliar. There is a touch of Descartes’ “Meditations” about this. We can arrive at the truth of a subject by immersing ourselves in it but we can also do it by stripping away all our assumptions and tentative conclusions and then looking at the subject afresh. As I have been suggesting, Buckley’s poetry is, in a way, bedevilled by its own openness to different forms and here a rather American poetic approach to place is allowed to have a go at the material. There are indents and tabs that would have been unthinkable in the poems of Arcady and Other Places, let alone those of the first two books. And the result is, like almost all of this book, an admirable, interesting failure. The un-Australian cold of Canada drives the poet back into sensation, back into the body and its responses (“here you sweat differently”) and to a sudden awareness of surprising differences: the fact that cold precludes scent makes the poet realise how full of smells Australia is. There are also two fascinating prose poems (another form you wouldn’t expect in earlier Buckley) in Golden Builders, “Brought Up to be Timid” and “Closed House”. I suspect that Buckley undertook this formal experiment (very rarely repeated in later published work) for its narrative/associative possibilities. “Brought Up to be Timid” seems, in its central part, to be almost more intimately connected with the central theme of not-being-utterly-at-home than any other work. It imagines (having begun by blaming it on a socialised timidity) the awkwardness of a strange place (even if it is a pub) and the paranoid sense that others, in contrast, do completely belong:
. . . Better not move too freely here; the whole place is theirs, it’s here they have their vivid and opaque lives; they know its secrets, their coffins will stand at last in the smell of this cathedral, this cul-de-sac rings for them like a lovers’ lane. Even the restaurateur, who lives elsewhere, on some neat slope at the end of a tram-ride, has the run of it. Every opening of the door brings him in company, clients, lights, a living. He is a native, and the foreign place delivers him cargo . . .
The poem finishes with a fantasy of radically, violently new experience imagined as a traveller crying “The Sea! The Sea!” It is possible that we could read the inn as the body and that, in dream fashion, the identity of the poet moves from the awkward guest to that of the innkeeper who hopes to receive, through his senses (and “doors” in this book inevitably alludes to Blake’s “doors of perception”) some experiences of a radically different order. This may be the better interpretation, but it is hard not to remember (as I had done since I first read the poem when Golden Builders appeared,) the guests who feel never “at home” and feel themselves surrounded by people who are completely “native”.
The title sequence of this book is an extended (twenty-seven poem) work. It is one of those poems that is probably better read-about than actually read. I’ve always found that it looks better from a distance, seen through the eyes of a sympathetic interpreter (there is a comparatively full treatment of it in McLaren’s biography). There are a lot of good things that can be said about its sophistication and ambitiousness but the painful fact is that it doesn’t work as a sequence. Its virtues, if it has any, lie in how open its author is prepared to be about how desperate his search for a form for his material is. The figure who lies behind the poem in various shapes is Bruce Beaver. Letters to Live Poets is there on the surface in the Roman numerals, in the second poem beginning “God knows what it is about Town Halls. / I’ve lived next door to three of them” which almost mimics the opening of the first “Letter” before going on to look like “Letter V”, in the ageing male prostitute who recalls the paper seller of “Letter XIII”, in the experimental dogs which live in cages above the offices of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and thus provide the same kind of nightmarish, over-riding symbol as the sharks in the aquarium of “Letter I” and so on. These are so open as to be allusions and I read them as one poet’s acknowledgement of another. But it is also there at deeper levels. Beaver’s foregrounding of his psychological malaise frees Buckley up to do the same. The time of the writing of these poems was, as McLaren makes clear, a time of serious physical and mental stress for Buckley, and this is allowed into the poems, especially numbers VII and XV, as admissions that “my mind’s not right”. Beaver’s influence (or model) is also there in its emphasis on life as a process occurring within a city: to document the city you need only recount the details of your living.
The second figure who looms over “Golden Builders” is Blake. His contribution comes from his continuous sense that Jerusalem and London (or Israel and England) are co-terminous. In Blake this seems to have been reasonably literal, the expression of a weird extreme English Protestant position deriving presumably from the idea that the English are one of the lost tribes and that those feet really may have, in ancient time, walked on England’s mountains green. If the literal basis is ludicrous the spiritual implications and possibilities are enormous because it provides a symbol whereby the quotidian and the sacred are inside each other. Melbourne is the sacred city, or at least the sacred city can be found within Melbourne. It is all very alchemical in that alchemy was not about changing base material into gold, but in releasing the divine which is present within all material, base or otherwise. This conceptual framework might suggest that “Golden Builders” is rather static: a poem about momentary illuminations, odd angles of vision, odd acts of kindness or companionship. Actually the poem is made dynamic by a regularly reappearing emphasis on building and destruction. Cities are in a constant process of evolution so there is always the possibility that, in the future, they might evolve in a way which expresses the divine rather better. Blake also provides two styles or voices. Two of the poems mimic the quatrains of poems like those of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as well as using symbolism in a very Blakean way:
The tree that has a winding root
The faces brightened with desire,
These power wear down the stone of doubt,
There each man builds a spine of fire
And there he walks on layer thorn . . .
(that third line, which looks as though it should read “These powers” unless “power” is an adjective, has remained unamended in this edition). Other poems use the more oracular mode of Blake’s “prophetic books” although that tactic runs the risk of making a poem like number XXII sound a bit like Allen Ginsberg!
The Pattern of 1979 is much more restrained and, perhaps, more successful – certainly it is a likeable book. Ireland (both the Ireland within the poet and the historical, sociological, geographical reality of the country itself) is the subject matter. Again, the search is for a satisfying form to contain all the responses and it is no accident that the book, like so many of Buckley’s, begins and ends with sequences: “Gaeltacht” and “Membrane of Air”. The poems are prefaced by a definition of the word “pattern” which prepares us for the fact that it will live in the book as a unifying feature through the exploitation of its different meanings. Ireland is a mould from which the genetic material of the poet emerged; it is a template, a decorative design and a precedent. There is also a little introductory poem which tells us that this will be a journey back to Ireland but also a journey in the reverse direction, back to Australia; it will oscillate like a sewing machine needle, stitching the two together. And “journey” won’t simply be a matter of trains and cars; it will also be trip back to water, to origins of life. And it will be made by a poet in emotional extremis:
And go to: and come back from:
the slow starved pattern
I follow with inflamed nerves
to discover, close to the beginning
of all, a tadpole barely
at movement in the clammy water.
“Gaeltacht” is an extended meditation on the experience of meeting one’s equivocal “homeland”. A set of visual images is preceded by “you keep looking for some way / into it, letting your mind bulb around one / image or another”, and Buckley finds that “the origin is not / one place but ten thousand”. “Membrane of Air” is a more difficult work, keen to expand the experience beyond the simply social. It begins and ends with water and the poet’s injunction to himself to “start low”. I’m not sure what was intended in the opening and closing sections: the sea is the source of life and blood; it connects Ireland and Australia and is the medium whereby a population moved from one place to another but ultimately, despite the enormousness of the connections, there remains a membrane between the two. This is only a crude, external reading, but I’m simply not sure of the implications of the focus on molluscs in these passages and the implications of one of the central poems which sees the sea as a symbol of psychic terror. Again, not to press a point, one feels that this may derive from Beaver, especially the iconic seawall of the poems of his second book, Seawall and Shoreline.
What makes The Pattern so attractive is that, inside these laboured-over structures there are poems where Buckley seems to be himself. That sounds stupid, but I mean that there is an acceptance that everyone, poets and readers, is the result of a complex of features, genetic and social, that we barely comprehend but which we want to understand. But it is possible, momentarily, to put the self-conscious sense of one’s presence aside and simply write out of it; to write, as the next book says, “a poetry without attitudes”. I find myself returning affectionately to poems like “Spanish Point”, having, despite a long exposure to Buckley’s situation, very little comprehension of what it is trying to do, but a strong sense that it was written under the pressure that produces real poetry:
That night the wind’s closed eye
opened inward, and the Atlantic
shivered, laying its salt reflection
on our windows. Indoors,
you squirmed in your soft blankets,
in the floorcot, neat
as a kitten in a butterbox. Where mouse
preyed: black, quick, he ricocheted
from nest to nest along your warmth.
You cried out, his rush
staring in your eyes’ drowsy vortex,
dragging a black hole into position
at the floor’s centre. At least
there was something
there we stepped over
or around, a minuscule abyss
close under the timber joists.
travelling in the chipped moon-landscape,
your eyes were
heavy as milk.
Yes, you could make a case for some kind of influence from Lowell – you can’t write about winds in the Atlantic without recalling “Quaker Graveyard” or of sudden meetings with vermin while in a state of psychic distress without recalling “Skunk Hour” – but the poem rings true. It is not totally comprehensible (whatever that might mean) and, with a bit of luck, might have been equally mysterious to its writer, but it feels whole. The features of Ireland which appear – the sea, the landscape – are givens, not opportunities to confront, experience and explain, and the pressure of the poem comes from the fear of the stability of things expressed in the vortex of the wind, the eyes of mouse and poet and the sense of the existence of an abyss which must be skirted or crossed. It seems a poem where the powerful drive to understand origins is by-passed in favour of something much more expressionist.
“At Millstreet” is another fine poem from the collection, also more relaxed. But the relaxation (in terms of questing for origins and structures) allows a genuine pressure of lived experience to enter the poem almost as though it arrives on its own terms rather than as an expression of something:
Barm brack, soda bread, its thickness
doubled with butter: fresh cut
ham, tomatoes, large hard strawberries,
all fresh as a rivulet. The only smell
came from their clothes, where fireside
smoke had been absorbed like sweat.
Lake-flat land that held the hoofbeats
of the Rakes of Mallow. The bog-cotton
shuddered in the breeze, touching
a scum of anemone-like small flowers.
Glass glittered . . .
It is a poem about position, of course, as almost all of Buckley is, but perhaps it is no accident that this poem concludes with a memorable image of awkward distance, far more memorable than the laboured ideas behind the sea and membranes of air:
They served me: “that’s right all right”,
agreeing with everything I said,
creaking like leather with my strangeness.
In a sense, the best of Last Poems is made from poems like these in The Pattern. The Foreword to the original printing of Last Poems by Penelope Buckley, describes how the book was pieced together. Buckley had imagined making a MS out of these poems, largely found in a computer file. I think it’s possible that the poems were lucky that Buckley’s death meant that this intention was not entirely carried through. The MS Buckley selected would, after all, be highly patterned. One of the strengths of the poems of Last Poems is the impression they give of being a little raw. They perhaps haven’t been entirely polished and they haven’t been set in the kind of context where their charms can sparkle. This may be imagination, but I feel it again, now, rereading the poems. The result is wonderful: puzzling, powerful works written without a theory or, at least, without a worked-out intellectual position. This is what I understand by “a poetry without attitudes” in the little poem that prefaces the collection:
. . . . .
That would be worth it:
friend without envy,
love without bile,
a life’s work without guilt,
a poetry without attitudes.
It can’t, after all, mean “poetry without prejudices and opinions” because these poems are full of those.
It is fascinating to compare poems like “The Good Days Begin” and “Spring’s Come” with “Autumn Landscape” and “Winter Gales”, the first two poems of this Collected. In the early poems, good as they are, you can feel the work that has gone in to stiffening them up and making sure that the allegorical significances are clear to a good reader. “Spring’s Come” is quite a different business:
Spring’s come, but not the cleanliness,
the wind brushes dirt in corners,
and the tiny black seed pods
seem covered with drapes of cobweb,
leaf-slivers, and dried matter,
the whole growing like a set of mobiles.
Time to enter, Botticelli-woman,
with the light on your shoulder
and the strong leg forward
protecting the sacred place.
There is a poetic freedom about this in that the poem moves on the elegance of its two sentences with their related length (six lines, four lines) and contrasting modes: the first is an expository list, the second a disguised imperative. There is also a gestural quality about it: you hope (though I may be out of order here) that its writer might have said of it “It’s a poem I like though I’m not sure why. I’m not even entirely sure what I thought I was saying and so I don’t mind if it gets omitted.” This touches a quality of the true lyric which has often been lost with the rise of literary studies and canons: ephemerality. There is also a lot that could be said, analytically, about the poem’s meanings but it seems a poem that might be reasonably casual about its own implications. The “sacred place” must be the Primavera’s genitals as much as the flower-strewn ground she walks on and, yet, in a way, these are the same. Once we get genitals into our heads, how does that connect up with the lack of cleanliness and are the cobwebs symbolic of pubic hair? And so on and so on, but freely and pleasurably, a play of possible readings ad perpetuum rather than a hunt for the planted seeds of meaning. And then the Botticelli reference leads us to think of the notion of allegories in his own paintings, the elusive significances that no-one is fully agreed upon, and this thinking suggests that here may be a poem which contains fragile clues to its own reading . . . and so on, even further!
Two other poems will serve to illustrate this combination of rawness, accomplishment, mystery and openness. The first is “The Curragh in Cold Autumn”:
The punters in the stand spoke like spitting.
“Fockin’,” they said, and “fockin’, eh, fockin’,”
through the fagends hoarse as eucalyptus.
In the Members this speech was more drawn,
less committed, as the fieldglasses hung
below the halves of whiskey. High Style,
by Interest out of Nonchalance.
You’d almost think they’d won without betting.
All the same. The wintry wind, the air
unravelled like a rope, belted so hard
it sliced clods from the ground. And the three-year-olds,
slicing too, came awkwardly, their silks
rain-coloured, no-coloured, in the blast,
their shoulders struggling, down the interminable straight,
their hooves dripping, as if running at us
from the black caves of County Meath.
I won’t labour the obvious here, but just try to describe what I like in this poem. It is largely the matter of contrast, of the poem going in a direction that is not entirely predictable. The first part, the first five sentences (which get progressively shorter), is well-observed social comedy concluding with an arch irony that makes you think of Dawe or Murray, “You’d almost think they’d won without betting”. At first you think that this will be contrasted to the physicality of the wind and of the horses and that mere social comedy will be put in its place by visceral sensation. But the end of the poem twists so that the horses seem more like psychic demons, spinning out of the kind of vortex that we met in “Spanish Point”.
Something similar can be said of “Iceland Foxes” in that it is a poem of lovely twists which prevent it ever being the writing-class poem that it might have been. It begins with a portrait of “poet in old age” but, while speaking of his freedom (or mental obligation) to read, suddenly moves into the kind of animated description of a scrap of his reading that suggests that his mind has moved, in the poem, from grumbling about old age to a fascination with the expectations immigrants have of a new country:
Boring as a cuckold
I find all the same that I need to
keep up with my night reading:
all the mind-triggers of our decade
from Historical Geography
to Dolphins, ESP, the Saints of Cornwall.
The first people to arrive in Iceland,
I read, found there only one mammal,
the fox. The Iceland Fox. Laying a musk,
giving birth, in the stench of volcanoes
while the impulsive, panicky invaders,
peering from ships bent like a riddle,
tried to see, to descry, wolf-stag,
lynx-bear, running jerkily on the sulphur slopes,
chased by half-men, screeching, with their knifestones
pelting the air. Eyes full of old habits.
At about this point, we think we are perhaps encountering a general observation about invaders that will go on to slip in a subtle allusion to Australia. But the poem goes on to see old age as a new existence to which we bring the wrong expectations:
Reading, imagining this, I say to myself:
Now, you’ve lasted through forty years
of universities, those correct pun-loving islands
with their soft grievances, their clubs, their baby-talk,
their low-rust landscape of the soul
where watchfulness is normal –
a gauntlet of islands – and you’ve come
into a new life, skilled in Agecraft,
free to think anything, tell any truth,
scotch any lie; and yet you sit there
doling your last years out to yourself
as if they were mogadon or heart-pills
while the organisation-persons hunt
confidently past libraries, carrying on
as if the jungles were not a form of culture
in which to invent new species,
not something learned and trained for,
but pristine things, native, imperative,
the most natural of enclosures.
There is an ironic bitterness in finding that one treats one’s own experience with the same conceptual timidity that one always despised in ambitious but second-rate academics. And again, as with “Spring Comes”, one is tempted to go on hermeneutically and to say that the structure of the poem, which is one of surprising twists, is an attempt to demonstrate that what the content of the poem says we don’t do (look at new landscapes with new, not old, eyes) a poem might be able to do. Not a bad description, in poetry, of one of poetry’s immense capabilities.
In the last part of his career, as I read it, he achieved wonderful poems by accepting himself as a complex of intricate difficulties and simply (or not so simply) writing out of this position. If you can’t cure it, or even fully express it, you can exploit it. And this produced the best poems of his career.