From Peter Craven, The Age , 2011.
Peter Steele is a Jesuit priest who is also a poet. It’s not an unheard of combination, as the career of Gerard Manley Hopkins testifies.
Steele has the kind of priestly intelligence that passes for urbane. He was a famous lecturer in the University of Melbourne English department, the eloquence rolling out without a note in sight as he discoursed on Swift or Pope or Dr Johnson. He was, in his heyday, as distinguished an essayist as he was a poet but, as Peter Porter once said, it would be wrong to imagine that Steele’s verbalism and wit were in any way at odds with a passionate belief in Christ.
It comes through with a moving gravity and intensity in The Gossip and the Wine, this richly textured book in which Steele sees the landscape of the world through what is, very frequently, a palimpsest of gospel references. They don’t intrude with a reverberant or religiose rhetoric but he often gives chapter and verse at the start of a poem as if a religious vision were the gnomic precondition of this swirling erudite talk that has been made artifactual and poetic without losing the implication of a moral dimension.
Sometimes the reference is explicit, while also recapitulating other literary echoes: “Pity us Christ, niggards too often of pity/ for our flesh and blood, and yours.” That, if I’m not mistaken, has an echo of Francois Villon’s Epitaph, which is itself a stark homage to a religion of sacrifice and contrition.
But Steele, with a mind as full of trash as of treasure, can as easily talk of the soul or self as “Making a splash/ like Scrooge McDuck in his Money Bin”. It’s a sense of the fated journey that makes this book moving for all the bric-a-brac of its referencing and erudite innuendoes and inflections. There’s a beautiful sombre line in a poem that is among other things a tribute to the high and hairy language of the Irish: “The road to Heaven is well enough signed,/ but it’s badly lit at night.” Yes, we know not the day nor the hour though this book of poems is luminous with the sense of a mortality costing not less than everything and the light that darkness is configured by.
Sometimes Steele’s language has a stark epigrammatic savagery. Here’s Lazarus, once a beggar, imagined by Tiepolo and given speech by the poet: “Bring me, he prays, to the banquet of the dead,/ And feed the heartless as I have been fed.”
There’s a lot of Latin and a lot of staring into the abyss that coexists behind faith, the temptation to rage that nourishes every starvation emotional as well as literal behind these lines. And everywhere, throughout this pensive and powerful book, there is the sense of how the imagination is the portal to what can be known.
It’s easier, in a brief review, to indicate the pith and wit of these poems, the epigrammatic flashes, than it is the way a summarising and roving intelligence animates all of them. Here is Peter Steele on his namesake, Peter, the coward who became the first and definitive Pope, the rock on which the church was built, the guy with the keys of the kingdom: “So all the stranger, when the boat was beached/ At cockcrow, and the baskets cried success,/ That he should brood in silence, not to be reached/ Wherever he had gone in wretchedness.”
Steele has a poem in honour of one of his heroes, George Herbert, another priest-poet. He has a poem in which he decries “gravitas” as if it were a besetting vice. But throughout this book with its moderated and muscular musicality, there is a voice that seems to have surrendered the trappings of urbanity as anything other than a conduit to truth.
It will fascinate people who want an accomplished poet’s view of great artists as a window to the gospel drama and, beyond that, it will nourish those with an ear for the music and the wisdom of a writer who has done his best to sustain a vision of truth in the midst of the whirligig and enchantment of the world.
From L’aine Gillespie, Text Journal, October 2011.
DH Lawrence wrote in his essay, ‘Chaos in Poetry’ (1967):
The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers’ a new world within the known world.
Poetry is, in one sense, a new expression or view of something old or previously known that brings attention to an uncommon knowledge or point of view, or sheds light on the familiar. Peter Steele has captured the essence of poetry in this sense in his collection of poems titled The Gossip and the Wine and cleverly told a new version of an old story. This collection tells the Gospel stories from a different perspective: instead of highlighting a man of miracles, it relates a story of human and divine elements in a somewhat storm-tossed world. Steele’s journey amongst these elements turns the biblical stories into a refreshing portrayal of men and God.
Throughout my reading of Peter Steele’s work I was reminded of the frailty of human existence, the faith and the hope for something greater than ourselves, and the traces of the existence of an almighty God which that human faith and hope rests upon. The ‘gossip’ is apparent in the role of human participation while the ‘wine’ is reminiscent of the divine dimension. Steele sets up the human element in the first two lines of the first the poem, ‘Advent’:
All my life I’ve been at the school of yearning
where masters come and go. (1)
Yearning is a psychological state that either drives an individual forward in life or becomes an unsatisfied longing. Either way it is an unavoidable weight that accompanies the state of being human. Steele draws attention to these human strengths and weaknesses immediately in this first poem. As the collection progresses, Steele attempts to offer a reconciliation of sorts between the human and heavenly dimensions in some of the poems, while others place them worlds apart. In his poetic method of reasoning he draws on the concept of spiritual belief and where it rests in human experiences. Throughout, Steele weighs the human and heavenly against each other as he revisits various events that are based on biblical stories.
Some of the poems journey in and out of time; some, such as ‘Contemplation with Ashes’(10), are positioned within particular events. Yet others, such as ‘Water Man’ (9), suggest the personal point of view that the water man, or Jesus the hero of the Gospels, may have had regarding various events and experiences.
‘Water Man’ takes a different slant on the story of Jesus and the disciplines in a boat on stormy seas. Rather than presenting the miraculous calming of the storm, Steele brings the almighty being to a human level:
Yes there was dreaming though he could not say
how long it lasted. He found himself
now in familiar waters, coasting the lake
his friends would fish for a living, now
in the open sea, possessed like herring or dolphin
by unbiddable currents… (9)
The water man wakes in the midst of the storm but his attention focuses on the commotion of sea life. In the biblical version Jesus turned to his fearful friends in the storm-tossed boat and said, “Oh ye of little faith…” then turned away and commanded the seas to be still. But in Steele’s version the water man, in his waking state, takes in the miracle of life tossed in the ‘unbiddable currents’ and says:
‘You never enjoy the world aright till the sea
itself floweth in veins.’ He made
the most of the dreamtime, still uncertain when
it must give way to showtime… (9)
‘Water Man’ shows the biblical hero as a man who marvels at life in the friction and the rise to ‘showtime’ which I assume, in this instance, to be the miraculous calming of the sea. Having said that, it also draws to mind the ultimate ‘showtime’ of the crucifixion. The poem then transports the reader to Jordan, the river where, as the biblical story tells us, Jesus was being baptised by John when a voice from heaven claimed him to be the son of God. Steele refers to this event as ‘water blessing him on his way’.
There is something of a tongue-in-cheek flavour entwined amongst the abstract and the common elements of human and heavenly representations in this collection. Steele has counter-balanced one against the other in order to re-present the Gospel stories. He embraces the yearning and the hope of humanity and accesses the ambiguity of the divine. Some poems are referenced by particular scriptures implying a specific story or person that Steele has re-presented and wants the reader’s attention drawn to. In following his lead in the poems, you take a journey that leaves you questioning these biblical stories and the religious faith they were intended to inspire.
Steele uses historical figures and makes other historical references to convey his point. After references to Homer and Dante, the last four verses of the poem ‘Advent’ turn to the life of George Herbert, seventeenth-century priest and poet, a man not afraid to argue ‘it out with God’, and who ‘went on hoping, as the lungs declined’. Herbert, a well-worn and well-liked man, was ‘a troubled soul’ and ‘brave spirited’. Disillusioned by worldly ambition, he eventually found solace in the priesthood. Steele refers to Herbert, a saintly man, in other poems such as ‘Trees’ and ‘Reverie in Lygon Street’ (17) as though he were proof of the religious claims Steele makes.
The poems ‘Simon’ (52)and ‘Peter’ (47) are delivered from the ordinary by scriptural events that connect these characters to the divine being or plan. Introducing these poems with scripture has an impact on their combination of creativity and creation: the scriptural references highlight the context of the poem which then tones down the ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’ controversy that has surrounded the bible for centuries, and will no doubt continue to do so. While consciously recognising two versions of the story, one of human creativity and the other of divine creativity, we see that truth or belief is not enough and has no meaning unless faith shows us another world. Steele makes the scriptural and poetical come together to create reflections on each other in this collection, showing us other worlds contained within the Gospel stories.
Steele brings the humanity of the bible characters to the forefront and makes them realistic. His poems make Jesus, the biblical icon, a ‘real’ person, part of a human existence rather than just a miracle man. The poet does not dismiss anything that suggests the power of the imagination, or creation. He states his belief in God in ‘Reverie in Lygon Street’:
Believing Him here, as in my folly I do,
the once and risen mortal, prompts me
to ask about the old days.
The Gossip and the Wine reflects the priest-like task of the poet that Robin Skelton refers to in The Poet’s Calling (1975). In this book Skelton suggests that a poet believes in an ability to create awareness and heal the misconceptions of humanity. In my opinion, Steele attempts to reconfigure the Gospel stories and draw attention to the idea that perhaps there is some reality in them, perhaps these stories were about ordinary people who did extraordinary things. I think Steele has, once again, delivered a poetical masterpiece that, from a Christian viewpoint, enhances the Gospel stories and the divine promises of grace as a panacea for the wretchedness of human nature in a way that is not overly religious or pious but simple and real.
The Gossip and the Wine unveils the mystical and religious characters of the Gospel stories in a way that invokes the question: Who was that man?
From Martin Duwell, Australian Poetry Review , May 2011.
In the poem in which they appear, the words of the title of Peter Steele’s new book suggest, perhaps, no more than the conviviality of the Last Supper contrasted, in the poem, with the sinister but necessary events offstage:
Dead man walking as he goes to dine –
The handing over broached and squared away –
He settles to the gossip and the wine,
The casual banter and the heart at play.
. . . . .
But read as the title of the book, they clearly reflect two different directions that the poet wants his verse to travel: “gossip” for the gregarious, human dimension and “wine” for the spiritual one. It makes sense in terms of the Afterword to Steele’s 2003 collection of ekphrastic poems, Plenty, in which he says:
I am of the belief that poets are mainly on the trace of the Human, that familiar, curious, and largely mysterious creature. The greatest of medieval poems in a European language is called a “Comedy”: and although I am aware that the title does not refer to clowning but to a happy ending, the pilgrim figure in that work is what might be called a sponsored blunderer, a quester by ricochet. Dante is exercised to know not only how things will turn out, but who it is for whom things will thus eventuate. It is most appropriate that this should take place in poetry, in which everything leans yearningly towards the possible consolation of song . . .
One wouldn’t want to make too much of this dichotomy – the sociable human below, the remote but incarnatable divine above – for fear of being simplistic, but it isn’t a bad map even if, in The Gossip and the Wine, there are really three groups of poems rather than two.
It begins with a group of a dozen poems built around various events in the Christian year: some of these poems are part of an imaginary biography of Jesus, others are reflections prompted by the festival itself. Thus the Ash Wednesday poem, “Contemplation with Ashes”, is about neither human sociability or the divine so much as the sheer violence of the world. And it uses one of the most powerful weapons in Steele’s own poetic armoury – the learned list:
These, among others: Assyria’s mailed archers
and mounted spearsmen, the charioteers
drinking to devastation, Sennacherib boasting,
“of Elam, I cut their throats like sheep”;
Polybius, of the Roman way on storming –
“the purpose is to strike terror,
the very dogs in halves”; the Langobards,
each broadsword sleek with lacertine figures,
each lance of a strength to lift its wriggling target;
Byzantium’s troopers . . .
At either end of this sequence are two longer, meditative poems. “Advent”, the first, is about Steele’s own emergence expressed as a biography of three men: Odysseus (The Odyssey read early, in Perth), Dante (seen rather as in the quotation from Plenty as a yearner, “rapt at the feast of song”) and George Herbert (someone whom it is hard to dislike). Put together they make a kind of composite biography encapsulating a theory of what humanity is and what its poems do: “the heart is a nest / for nurselings making music in an air / they barely guess at”. And it makes its first line (there is a Greek name for the trope deployed here where you expect one word and get another – but I’ve long forgotten the technical terms of rhetoric) “All my life I’ve been at the school of yearning”, introduce the central word of the collection. The first yearns for home, the second for “the best of notes, / stilling the world to hear and yearn” and the third to “have it out with God”.
The last of the poems of this sequence, “Reverie in Lygon Street”, is an ambitious piece and your heart warms to it once you get inside it a little. Structured as three sections of three stanzas each, it sees the poet in a market meditating, in turn, on human and vegetable variety, books and finally the quest to see the relation between the divine and the human. The drive here seems Greek as much as Christian in that Steele’s love of the particular and love of registering the particular in one of his lists stresses the multiplicity of the world which any unifying principle must be balanced against. The core of this comes out in a few lines in the first section of the poem:
now at the avocadoes, now at garlic,
a sucker as ever for the cabbage in
its ostentation, for the blushing apples to which
the maddest George devoted a corer
as golden as his dreams, for the jokey banana,
for maize in spite of the Aztec blood,
for the swank of strawberries, the almonds left behind
as a pourboire by Tutankhamun,
for the parsnip that doubles for Pasternak the yearner,
for snow-peas and pineapples, the cocksure eggplant,
and the mandrake called tomato.
Believing Him here, as in my folly I do,
the once and risen mortal, prompts me
to ask about the old days. Were the leeks
as good in Galilee . . .
Entering a bookshop in the second section prompts a meditation whereby the theory of poetry that the first poem of this group, “Advent” ventures on is modulated into an unusual theory of reading whereby the reader’s task is to hear “the melodious thing in a book’s tempest, / its cataracts and clowning”. This is a more than interesting position about texts, treating them as analogous, at least, to the complex of particulars in which the believer must find hints of the divine. It is consistent with the response to Dante in “Advent” but it makes me nervous by creating a scenario in which human intelligence, expressed in texts, is devalued at the expense of echoes of the divine. I’m not sure that Euclid or Newton would have wanted their works treated that way, just as I’m nervous about the characterisation of Dante in “Advent”, but it’s a tenable approach, especially from a Christian perspective.
This fine sequence occupies the first third of the book. The rest is made up of a series of sonnets responding to moments in the gospels broken up by longer poems which are often focussed on the humbly human. There may well be a pattern to the appearance of these fragments of Jesus’s biography (are they positioned to align with readings in church, for example?) but it isn’t one that I can see. They are quite different to the poems in the first section that deal with Jesus. Those are daringly imaginative, conceiving him, in three successive poems as “Star Man”, “Green Man” and “Water Man” and they operate by trying to move Jesus out of limited, local environment into wider spheres of particulars. It’s a reverse of the process whereby God is discovered in particulars. God expands here to experience particulars so that a stanza beginning with a description of Jesus’s life among the Galilee fishermen, moves quickly to wider oceans:
. . . . .
He saw plankton
bloom to clouds, could touch the holdfast of kelp,
the bristles of krill, the fins of tang:
lantern fish hung in the twilight zone, the vampire
squid from hell gazed in the dark,
black smokers vented.
These are fine, complex poems, but I can’t find anything as satisfying in the sixteen sonnets based on the gospels in the second part of The Gossip and the Wine. They seem to be almost genre-pieces – expansions of the gospel stories. And one of the things that betrays them as genre pieces is the bluff tone: one of the earlier poems begins “Getting him up the hill was a long business / however you gauge it . . .” and I quote this, rather than one of the sonnets, as the best encapsulation of this tone. Why do these gospel revisits always seem to do this? Even Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” (though it quotes Andrewes) begins with a hearty “A cold coming they had of it”. Presumably poets feel the opportunity (or obligation) to counteract the iconic status of the gospel narratives by seeing them obliquely as events in a real world populated by many who, although they might not be singled out in the narrative, still have a right to be acknowledged. It is part of a complicated question, or, at least, a question that grows more complicated the longer you look at it. My position would probably be that it is a response to the generally abstract nature of biblical narrative (I except the David story of first and second Samuel here as one of the great masterpieces of ancient narrative). The gospels, in particular, seem remote and abstract to the common reader. There are almost no concrete details (apart from some matters of geography and legal process) and it is clear that none of the texts which survive have any actual contact with the man from Nazareth. It can be argued, of course, that biblical narrative favours the iconic or abstract, but really that just means that it is bad narrative.
I wonder whether this abstractness doesn’t account for much of Steele’s love of religious art because there he is in touch with a long tradition of trying to make these events concrete. Some of his poems give brilliant readings of such paintings as Crivelli’s “Madonna of the Swallow”, but they result from more than just a good art historian’s eye. I think they derive from a sense that all of these are concretisations of vague texts, attempts to make the iconic “real” in a way that people within the last seven hundred or so years will recognise. Of course none are final concretisations – everything is provisional – but perhaps there is a response to a kind of cumulative effect. Just as it has been argued that the meaning of a text is the sum total of sensible readings of it, so perhaps Steele feels that he is doing something similar for representations of the gospel stories. But a bluff tone and a knowing way of speaking about minor characters such as the High Priest’s servant “ . . . a lout, / And a slave with it, obedient to the bark // Of the officer bloke, to whom he’s a waste of space . . .” doesn’t seem the right way to go about it. The right way to go about it, demonstrated continuously in Steele’s other poems, is to harness the intense particularity of poetic language, its capturing of learning in technical words and its torrent of icons (to distort a phrase from “All the Latest”, a fine poem from this book and one which demonstrates what it is speaking about).
The poems that I have called, crudely, “human”, are certainly more satisfying and in them we see more of Steele at his best. “Folklore” is, for example, is a fine celebration of a loved doctor (presumably a colleague) couched in terms of the kind of folkloric cures that would once have been such a doctor’s tools in trade. It concludes with another example of Steele’s tendency to characterise himself (in the manner of Francis of Assisi, perhaps) as a yearning fool-for-God but also with a heartfelt tribute:
to use your powers wisely, for us
whose wits are turned, often enough, but who know
good when we see it, and love too.
A number of these poems focus on the humble side of the human by dwelling on folklore: “One for Pieter Breugel” is based on his “Netherlandish Proverbs” and is a catalogue of the sayings in the painting, and “After the Irish” is a set of Irish sayings (I say this confidently, though I have never actually heard any of them!) including the memorable “The road to Heaven is well enough signed, / but it’s badly lit at night”. But the two poems in the book that I like most are very much about relationships between the macro and the micro, or between the divine and the human. “Dancing” (its epigraph is another Irish saying, “God is good, but never dance in a small boat”) is built out of two stanzas of wonderful technical detail:
on for a céilidh or clogdance,
huffing and puffing the hornpipe, invoking
rain by the lakeful, turkey-trot matching the Lancers,
reels from the Maenads, kabuki as haka,
hoedowns and riggadoons, nautches and hays and fandangos . . .
followed by a lovely stanza about Sir John Davies’s “Orchestra” in which Davies is encouraged to keep his eyes on the heavenly dance and “say goodbye to small boats”. And “Gardens” is a celebration of monks and their gardens based, so the notes tell us, on the De Naturis Rerum of the Augustinian abbot, Alexander Neckham. It begins with a stanza of delicious tactile particularity:
Swinking they called it, and meant the drive of the spade,
a rake’s reluctance, the haul at loins
of mattock and pickaxe, the tilt of a swilling pail:
the new turves tamped and beaten.
but the poem is really about whether the garden feeds the divine (by growing flowers along the graves of dead monks in preparation for some eventual rebirth at the resurrection) or whether it feeds the hungry human body. For the present, it feeds the body:
For the present though, and this side of the moon,
the belted diggers had at the earth,
keeping, they thought, body and soul together:
“First the starch, and then the singing.”
Keeping the body and soul together, in the sense of keeping the human and divine together, is a noble task in a Christian context and it must be one of the tasks of a Christian poetry.
From Andrew Hamilton, Eureka Street, Extra, December 2010:
Speech for the launching of The Gossip and the Wine.
Earlier this year many of us gathered at Newman to launch Peter Steele’s, A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies. At one point in Morag Fraser’s memorable words on that occasion, she described Peter, Brendan Byrne and myself as the three musketeers. She went on to say that she had never heard one of the three say a single unqualified good word about either of the other two.
Well, Peter, with Brendan in Vietnam, it seems that I am called upon to break a lifetime’s habit. That by definition will demand of me unprecedented virtue. But it will cost no effort to speak with unqualified praise and gratitude for The Gossip and the Wine.
As I read the poems in the echo of Morag’s words I was taken back to our first years at Loyola, Watsonia. When Peter and I joined the Jesuits together, we were boys really, both with writing in the blood. My fondest memories of Watsonia were of Thursdays, when we were free to walk out into the Plenty country. In winter we would walk 20 or 30 miles, dressed like tramps, with hobnailed boots ringing on the stone of the country roads.
Peter used to talk passionately of books and ideas, taking me far beyond the boundaries of my intellectual world. And when talking fell silent, he sang ‘Farewell’, the drinking song from White Horse Inn. Despite the absence of drink, the song always straightened our shoulders and lengthened our stride.
One of our longer walks took us down the Yarrambat Road, and over the crest of a little hill above Doreen. This was one of my paradise places. We had been on the road for an hour or so, muscles warm, and the winter sun just breaking through the clouds. From the rise, the fields sloped down to a clump of trees bordering a dam, and beyond the dam to the line of the Plenty river. I associate the scene with the liquid call of the grey bush thrush. It was a place at which I always liked to pause silently.
As I reflect back now on those walks, I can see the difference between Peter’s urge to write and my own. I wanted to strip down words in order to speak as briefly and clearly as possible of what I could say. I was happy to be silent about what I could not say. My hero was the master of terseness, Tacitus. But Peter wanted to find words, and ways of putting words together, that could unfold the shape of what lay beyond words. This attention to what cannot be directly said always makes one a wanderer, not at home in the conventions of the world. One of Peter’s heroes then was G. K. Chesterton, the man of paradox, who wore the air of a cultural exile.
As Peter’s world expanded through ferocious reading, and his vocabulary swarmed, his ways of speaking also naturally broadened to include poetry, homiletic and pensées. And as I listened through the years to Peter speak of his latest adventures in ideas, my own world also grew larger. I began to see that words did not have simply to be marched in straight lines and sent back to barracks. Peter could make words dance, mimic, do somersaults, fandangle and echo silence. I heard Peter with gratitude, but also with the slight irritation that a stay-at-home-mind, set in its ways, feels when invited to go out at night, even to the most convivial of events.
In the opening poem of this book, ‘Rounding the Year: Advent’ Peter traces three of the seminal influences on his own intellectual journey: Odysseus, Dante and George Herbert. They were all, in one way or another, exiles. All knew what it was to be out of place, and when in one place to have their heart set in another. In two separated stanzas, Peter writes of his childhood.
All my life I’ve been at the school of yearning
where the masters come and go. Early
the gambler from Ithaca, brine in his beard and hair,
stepped from his latest ship to possess
a puzzled child and steep him in nostalgia,
that ache to be making the journey home …
What could I make of it, there by another sea?
The swans manoeuvered, preening their sable
on a river named for them: pods of dolphin
engaged the current, fluent and peaceful;
but what I thought of was the veteran come home
to the figs and the fifty rows of trees.
Many of the poems in The Gossip and the Wine retell stories, some of them mediated by paintings. Poems on explicitly religious themes are hard to write well, especially if religious faith is tenaciously held. Religious images and words are familiar and often tired. Poets, too, need to deal with their own ironies, as well as to place themselves within a culture that is generally uncomfortable with religious faith. They experience the indigence of exile.
Peter knows the difficulties better than I do. In ‘Reverie on Lygon Street’, he says,
Believing Him here as in my folly I do,
the once and risen mortal, prompts me
to ask about the old days.
Folly is a strong word to use of belief. I wondered fleetingly and seditiously if the folly of which Peter spoke was the Newman dining room. But the reference to folly here does suggest that in his milieu Christian faith is a quixotic, even foolish, thing, and that Christ’s presence can only be described when it adheres to the cloak hem of absence.
In the face of that sense of exile, some writers, like Chesterton, exult in creating religious poems that are like follies. Constructed consciously in the forms and language of the past, they flaunt their difference from the conventions of the day.
Peter’s poems work quite differently. Faith has to pay its passage. Many poems in this collection describe New Testament stories of Jesus, But they mostly tell the stories from the perspective of the minor characters – Pontius Pilate the Governor, Caiphas, a soldier, Simon Cyrene, Herod, Peter, Malchus. They portray Jesus as a minor figure whose fate was settled routinely after a minor disturbance.
Peter’s poem ‘Moron’, describes the mocking of Jesus from the perspective, first of the soldiers, and then of Pilate. Jesus is the moron who had pretentions, who didn’t get out while there was still time.
It’s moron time, so now he’s out on the flags
To get some thorny burnet into his head
And more than a touch of scarlet, as the wags
Affect belief in what, a king, he said.
Back-handing’s how they do it here, the face
Worked to a ball of meat and bone, the eyes
A dullard’s willy-nilly as the lace,
A whipsaw reed’s achievement takes the prize.
It’s too soon yet for him to have a turn
At the bitter posca, or the broken legs;
And all too late to measure or to learn:
He is, they need not tell him now, the dregs.
Inside, the governor’s reasoning with his wife:
Dreams, as he knows, have nothing to do with life.
‘Moron’ describes the event as the systematic stripping away of any hope for the future that Jesus might have, and of any claim that he mattered. It may too late for him to learn. But he has been learned that he is definitively the dregs.
The cool and knowing telling of the story takes it out of the past. This sort of thing happens everyday wherever security forces gather: whether it be in Guantanamo Bay, Rangoon, Colombo, Harare or Lhasa. Suspect people are dehumanised, and any reason for resting hopes on them, for dreaming of them, or even for remembering them, is stripped away. Pilate knows from a lifetime’s experience, in which Jesus’ couple of days in the system are just a comma, that dreams have nothing to do with life. And so does the reader.
On the surface the poem tests the grounds of faith and judges it groundless. But at a deeper level it creates a space for possibility. It gives the soldiers and Pilate better words than those they themselves would have found. But against the seriousness embodied in the formal structure of these poems, Pilate’s words still weigh in light. As religious poems, these are minimal in their claims, but large in possibility. The fact of the poem intimates that the moron may have a future, which in turn will play folly onside, and suggest that life may have everything to do with dreams.
‘Moron’ is a tightly compressed poem. In The Gossip and the Wine there are also many expansive poems. Peter constantly celebrates the variousness and beauty of the world, of the minds that measure it, and of the words that we conjure up to represent it. His poems introduce us to more things and to more words than we ever knew existed. They all come as gifts.
In his poem, ‘Genesis 1: Third Day’ God lists some of the plants and herbs that he has made.
Hyssop and spikenard, mandrake and pomegranate, vetches
that grow with the gazing, melons and cumin,
rue by the hazel-bush, mustard and bilberry, flaxes
creamy and sage-green, barley and cinnamon.
Mulberry’s promising, laurels enchanting, and everything’s
coming up roses, except for the apples.
They call for attention: I must see they’re given their due.
This is a portrait of the creator as chef. The vegetative world is to be celebrated through being cooked. The poem reminds me of the many times when I have arrived at Anglesea by bicycle and there have found Peter in his cooking apron and his Kingdom. A selection of knives, vegetables and spices lie front of him, each measured out generously enough to include chance comers like myself in the hospitality. The soup and the poem open out to something deeper. Apples will get their due – certainly in the cooking pot, but perhaps also in the invention of Eve.
If Peter’s world is a gift, The Gossip and the Wine is a gift catalogue. And it comes attractively wrapped. The book is exquisitely produced. The paper, the typeface, the notes, the number of poems chosen and their setting on the page are all measured to encourage attention and celebration. They represent poetry as a serious and convivial business. We would expect no less of John Leonard of course, who has shared so much of Peter’s journey and his love of poetry.
The search to find words to point to what cannot be said makes the poet a wanderer. But in Peter’s poetry this is not a plangent condition. His poems model a light and passionate attention to the intricacies of the world we live in. They are a rehearsal, inviting us to return to the significant points of our lives, the Paradise places of which Vincent Buckley wrote,
‘I must touch my forehead to the ground still,
Because its radiance is in my body.’
The poems are a rehearsal also in the sense in that the smallest things we do are freighted with the hope of future performance.
The Gossip and the Wine finishes appropriately with the lovely poem, ‘Rehearsal’. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Peter’s friend and fellow teacher and poet, will read it for us.
Upright again, fritters of mint in my fingers,
I’m given pause in the kitchen patch
by the cars’ whine, the loud harrumph of lorries
that round the stand on Two-Tree Hill
and hustle past the boneyard.
I’ve taken leave of the Cliffs of Moher, the unsmiling
campus guard at Georgetown, the fall
of Richelieu’s scarlet enclosed by the London gloom:
I’ve watched my last candle gutter
for dear ones, back in Paris,
sung, as with Francis, the spill of an Umbrian morning,
each breath a gift, each glance a blessing:
have said farewell to Bhutan of the high passes
and the ragged hillmen, to the Basque dancers
praising their limping fellow,
to the Square of Blood in Beijing, to the virid islands
that speckle the Pacific acres,
to moseying sheep in Judaean scrub, to leopard
and bison, a zoo for quartering, and
to the airy stone of Chartres.
But here’s the mint still on my hands. A wreath,
so Pliny thought, was ‘good for students’,
to exhilarate their minds.’ Late in the course,
I’ll settle for a sprig or two —
the savour gracious, the leaves brimmingly green —
as if never to say die.
Thank you Peter for the gift that your poetry is, and for The Gossip and the Wine. And for the rest of us, let the gossip continue, the wine flow freely, and our treasuries open to buy books!