From Martin Langford, Meanjin, February 23, 2013:
When he began writing, in the sixties, he was influenced by East Asian Buddhism. But although he used Buddhism as a means by which to approach the Australian landscape, he was far from being the dilettante of Chinoiserie1 that Laurie Duggan accused him of being. He used the alien tradition as a way of testing what he felt about his own world—as a fresh way of looking at it—and then kept the bits that made sense, much as other writers have done with European or American influences. From the beginning, he zoomed in on—he trusted—some of the less comforting aspects of Asian religion: its lack of sanctuary, its sense of the indifference of the other. One implication of its lack of a hierarchy of powers was that if everything were of equal value, then everything could be of an equal poetic interest. This was not a comfortable place, but there was a liberation in the way it stripped the imagination of its resting places. One could look at whatever one wanted for as long as one liked. It opened up the possibility of a search for the poetry of things.
Although Gray has shown little overt interest in science in his work, there is a convergence in perspective between a Buddhism which invokes the play of the forces of emptiness, and a science whose forces are figured as irruptions of nothing. Because of this, Gray’s world can seem very similar to the scientific one. Ironically, it is also similar to the world of the poets—Duggan, Bolton, Brown—who were his rivals. Where Gray presents a physical world which is ungrounded, Duggan, say, or Bolton, present cultural landscapes which are ungrounded. The members of both camps, moreover, have very visual imaginations, and share a strong interest in painting. Perhaps the difference between the two can best be described in terms of the length of gaze they are habituated to. Gray examines the physical landscape with the slow gaze of an eroticized fascination; poets such as Duggan and Bolton, however, reserve their slower gaze for visual artefacts: at other times, they cast their eyes over the constructed world with that rapidity with which we read the world of signs. The nature of one’s gaze affects one’s attitude to language. If, like Gray, one is a sensualist of the material world, then the shifting nature of language is a side-issue: one’s aim is to focus the mimetic properties of language in order to tease out an exact evocation of one’s experience. If, however, one’s topos is the play of cultural forces, then one will look closely at the unstable nature of language: in this context, linguistic instability is hard to separate from cultural instability. It is as if the two camps just happened to be looking at different things. Easy, for instance, to imagine, at some stage in the early eighties, the Laurie Duggan of ‘New England Ode’ gazing from a pub at the cultural paraphernalia of Armidale mall, while off towards the coast, Robert Gray was gazing from a train at the light on the ranges. Absurd, now, to think that only one of them could be correct.
Gray has been unusually fascinated by the world of things. ‘Things,’ he says, ‘…are worthy of ultimate standing. They’re the location/ of all we know. Nothing duplicitous/ in that vulnerability, we can sense/ they are present entire. It feels these things/ that step through the days with us have the fullness,/ on each occasion, of reality.’(p260) This fascination has been one of the bases of his poetry. Many people would describe themselves as similarly fascinated: they gaze from verandahs, mooch along the shore, check out the sunlight on floorboards. But they don’t give themselves over to it in the way Gray has. It isn’t a calling. Sometimes, good writing can arise out of unusual emphases of attention. If Gray’s has become an important imagination for us, however, it is not simply because he has described material things well. What makes his poetry resonate is the way he has been able to capture that double sense of their hacceity and their indifference. They may be our peers, but they do nothing to lessen our loneliness amongst them. If his work is not a poetry of important narratives, it does come close to being one which defines our contemporary relationship with the material world.
Sometimes, it sounds as if he is trying to find ways for things to speak:
misshapen, in a hotel wardrobe.
Steamy afternoon sun. (p92)
Or they might be tilted into their human moment:
alone. Seeds taken from
the lips, like hair. (p74)
Occasionally, he gives them a symbolic dimension:
A late sun
is casting for the fisherman
on the windy river. (p.92)
Things, however, still need to be situated. Although they can imply simple ideas powerfully, they cannot speak in a way which allows them to elucidate complexities. How, for instance, might he discuss the nature of the world in which things had their existence? His solution was to create two styles. From time to time, particularly in the early poems—but also, notably, in the later poem, ‘The Drift of Things’7—he has written some of the most overtly philosophical poetry attempted in this country. Some of these poems and passages are essential to an understanding of his œuvre. The following is from ‘Dharma Vehicle’:
And there was a Master, Hsuan-chien,
Told his students …
‘There is no transmigration to fear, no
Nirvana to achieve.
Just respond to all things
without getting caught—
Don’t even hold onto your Non-Seeking as right.
There is no other wisdom to attain.’ (p54)
Gray has a sharp eye for the material world, but in extended meditations such as this, he also displays an unusual ability to articulate abstract thought. One of his most apposite aphorisms, not included in Cumulus, says, ‘One’s touch with things, I have seen, is the same as one’s touch with other people.’ One might adapt that and say it can also be true that ‘one’s touch with abstractions … is the same as one’s touch with material things’. It is a rare thing to be able to use abstractions well: some of those who do it best also have a feel for the sensual world in which abstractions must be grounded. Perhaps because his skill with detail is the obvious thing, Gray has not received enough credit for this.
The achievements of his poetry are impossible to imagine without the distances the eye creates in order to see things clearly. The following is from ‘Bondi’:
In the longest street, out towards the cave-in of the headland, is a
where, through empty swings, with their over-sized hot chains, the
Out here are callow home units of pale brick, fenestrated as the
below the cliff’s edge they are built upon.
Beyond a last railing, the sea throws over and spreads its crocheted
across its rock table, and (something you can’t watch for long—it is
draws it off again.
Around at the beach-front, rattling fun parlours, discos, and milk-
lurid as tattoos, thickly over them… (p88)
One does not build momentum with attention to physical things: sensual qualities, unlike signs, take time to be rehearsed by the reader. The rhythm proceeds, phrase by phrase, line-end by comma by dash, with the ever-shifting object of his gaze—first the swings, then the surf, then the units and then the cliff’s edge. It doesn’t gather speed or weight with mounting emotional pressures. It proceeds evenly at the pace of an attentive eye. For material such as this, Gray’s rhythms are ideal. They have enabled him to record as much attention to the qualities of things as anyone has been able to: the accessible complexity of his imagery is one of his key achievements.
But the eye is a cool witness. It demands that the body remains still, so that it can concentrate. It does not invite the body to dance in that unmediated way the ear does; nor, at distances such as this, does it generate rhythmic or emotional momentum. And thus there can be an issue with respect to the placement of emotion in Gray’s poems. In order to let the eye do its work as well as it does, he sets to one side anything likely to disturb it. Since the poem cannot access emotion through the embodiment of its rhythms, it must summon it through implication. Gray has made a virtue of this and based his practice on the belief that emotion is at its strongest when it is at its least overt. Few would disagree that it is a part of a poet’s craft to know how to tension implication. But to base a poetics on it is to underestimate its limitations. There are times when the attempt to maximise the impact of the words that are there by refusing to speak further actually generates inappropriate or inadequate responses. “In Departing Light” is about his visits to his mother in hospital, who has advanced Alzheimer’s:
Her mouth is full of chaos.
My mother revolves her loose dentures like marbles ground upon each other,
or idly clatters them,
broken and chipped. Since they won’t stay on her gums
she spits them free
with a sudden blurting cough, which seems to have stamped out of her
an ultimate breath.
Her teeth fly into her lap or onto the grass,
breaking the hawsers of spittle.
What we see in such age is for us the premature dissolution of a body
that slips off the bones
and back to protoplasm
before it can be decently hidden away. (p234)
At several points, Gray tells us how moved he is: ‘she juts there brokenly/able to cut/with the sight of her someone who is close’(p234); ‘Too lonely a figure/ to bear thinking of’(p238)—though these are phrases of telling, not of embodiment: we must take his word for it. For the rest, the poem assumes that the reader will be appropriately dismayed or appalled, and that nothing more need be said. If, however, one also wants literature to be a meditation on an ideal response, then one will be disappointed. And isn’t that the writer’s job too—to find the shape of the ideal response? Gray does a wonderful (i.e. compelling, confronting) job of enabling us to see his mother. But even in matters as personal and desolating as this, the writer needs to do more than provide the statement: literature—all art—is as much a history of responses as it is of experiences. It is not just the questions: it is the play of the possible answers as well.
Gray has excluded bodily momentum from his rhythms, in order to give himself room in which to try out names for the objects of his gaze, and so that the movement will be slow enough for us to absorb the sensual qualities he elicits. But in a poem such as ‘In Departing Light’, such rhythms are not enough: they do not allow us to respond with that movement into our own sympathetic suffering that the mother’s suffering requires: we are, as it were, held back, by the insistence on looking carefully.
He has articulated an important aspect of the Australian imagination. No-one captures better that dual sense of our fascination with the physical world, and our dismay at its indifference. He has given us a poetic version of the play of inhuman forces which, while originating in his study of Buddhism, serves equally well for the world projected by science. In doing so, he has produced important poems: ‘The Sawmill Shacks’, ‘Bondi’, ‘Scotland, Visitation’. But the work seldom moves into spaces which are occupied by anyone other than the observer. He is rarely interested in the interplay of human worlds—in the way we invent and re-invent our selves and our interactions.
There is little agency in his work: he invites us to share his gaze, but there is no attempt to create a space in which one might be more than a witness—in which the reader might be invited to consider what needed to be done. It is in just such spaces, however, that we must live: beyond that solitude in which things become visible, there are messier, less manageable places in which there are others, with whom we must live. Where the poem must dance as well as see.
From Kevin Hart, The Australian , November 10, 2012:
TO publish a volume of collected poems is not without risk. It means offering the reading public everything you want to preserve. It’s not just a report on what you’ve written of late but a summa of your vision as a writer, and accordingly it solicits a comprehensive judgment.
Robert Gray’s collected poems, Cumulus, is a major achievement, one of the great books of Australian poetry.
What is Gray’s vision? At first, the answer seems beguilingly simple: the natural and cultural worlds are all there are. His poetics turn therefore on the senses, especially visual perception, and there is no one else who can see better than Gray.
In an early poem, The Farm Woman Speaks, a woman on the north coast of NSW, who is going through hard times, tells us: “We can’t take a bad year, / but the lino looks like an over-ripe banana”. The simile tells us exactly how the linoleum is seen, and “but” tells us why it is worn down: there have been many bad seasons before and she has paced the kitchen for hour on hour. We do not simply see through the woman’s eyes, we also feel what she sees: a whole world of worry.
For Gray, art is not just attention to what is before our eyes; it presumes a change in the quality of attention. We are invited to see, as though for the first time, what has always been there. To do so, however, requires that we step outside ourselves. In one poem he sees people at the beach: “Racing to the surf / they strike its silver crookedly / as roots of ginger”. At first we visualise people entering the cold surf waving their arms and hopping around, their limbs going in all directions like the branches of the ginger rhizome.
Then we feel the gasping of the people in the water: the pungency of ginger. We also notice the allusion to ginger doesn’t fit into the economy of the poem; it breaks through the picture plane, and we grasp Gray’s point: the world does not neatly accommodate itself to our desires. Finally, we find no “I” in the poem. Gray’s vision turns on erasing human subjectivity from art for as long as possible.
Not only from art but also from life: in Dharma Vehicle, a long poem on the development of Ch’an Buddhism from its birth in India to its most radical embodiments in China, Gray quotes Gautama on the self. “I saw the thorn / that is piercing to the heart of men”, he says, “and belief in the soul is part of its poison – / the thorn / is one’s subjective desire”. We must remove that thorn, realise that the self is a tightly constructed fiction, and only then may we live in harmony with nature.
Gray is amused and moved by the deflationary gestures of the great Ch’an sages. Chao-chou, one of the most unconventional masters, is revealed to us, in all his asperity and wisdom, in a short exchange. “A nun asked, ‘Would you tell me the truth / that has never been spoken?’ ” And Chao-chou replied, “Look out, the kettle is getting burned!” The nun has been overly concerned with hearing a marvellous spiritual truth and has missed the deep truth of Buddhism, that we should “just respond to all things / without getting caught”.
Yet Gray is no apologist for Buddhism. Although his vision coheres with the “religion of no-religion”, and he has no sympathy with the supernatural, he recoils against what he sees as a strain of cruelty in Buddhism. He is drawn to Taoism, and even more, perhaps, to Heraclitus as a corrective to the rigours of religious practice.
For Gray, there is no substance, only change; and for all the sorrows this brings forth, the sole compensation is the immediate presence of nature and, for those drawn to art, the intense pleasure of the sensuous evocation of this presence.
If sometimes Gray’s main theme becomes a little didactic, his sympathies expand through the years to include more and more of human experience.
As one goes further into Cumulus one finds poems of deep humanity and compassion that could be written only after years of writing poetry as a spiritual exercise, one that trains the heart to be in tune with the eye. There is the plangent Diptych about his mother and father, and the extraordinary long poem about his mother in extreme old age, In Departing Light. I doubt there has ever been such a powerful and tender poem about the very end of life. “My mother will get lost on the roads after death”, he writes, but then consoles himself, “This is all / of your mother, in your arms”.
Add to these poems The Life of a Chinese Poet, Bondi, and On a Forestry Trail, among so many others, and we have the mature work of a master.
From Lisa Gorton, Sydney Review of Books , March 12, 2012:
Critics often remark upon the Asian influence in Robert Gray’s poetry. True, Gray includes in every collection a sequence of short poems, which sometimes have the form of haiku, and they are often perfect in their way. In this, he has gone back to one source of modernism: the Imagists, with their desire for an unencumbered line, and for that clarity of thought and image they found in Chinese and Japanese poetry. In poetry, the Asian Century started more than a hundred years ago.
But there is more to Gray’s poetry than that. His images concentrate a votive sense of place and memory, which derives far more from William Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. In fact, it is the meeting of these two influences that makes his imagery so memorable: at once cool and rapturous. Yes, his short poems are often perfect in their way. Nevertheless, his reputation should rest on his longer and more entire poems: ‘Journey: the North Coast’, ‘Flames and Dangling Wire’, ‘Memories of the Coast’, ‘In Departing Light’, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, ‘Joan Eardley in Catterline’, ‘Sansouci’. As this list suggests, Gray is still underrated in Australian poetry.
The selection in Cumulus, good though it is, leaves out many of those studies of bare places, of place itself, which are at least as essential to Gray’s achievement as the shorter poems. It includes poems from eight collections: nearly four decades of work. Coming more than a decade after his New and Selected Poems (1998), it includes poems from his two most recent collections, Afterimages (2002) and Nameless Earth (2006), along with drawings from Ingres’ Violin. In an author’s note, Gray explains: ‘The free verse line in my poems I see as analogous to the spontaneous line in drawing. This written line is a gesture, also, although for the voice.’ Anyone who reads Robert Gray will want Cumulus. Yet Cumulus omits poems which, if not everywhere likeable, are nevertheless – or as a consequence – some of his most memorable: ‘Poem to Kristina’; ‘Greyhounds’, ‘Poem to My Father’, ‘The Swallows’, ‘A Country Town’, ‘Emptying the Desk’, ‘A Garden Shed’, ‘Ritual’. Many of these excluded poems arise out of Gray’s interest in country towns: their rituals, their poverty, the lives of their women and children, their overlooked places. Few Australian poets have noticed them or written of them so well, with such a combination of tenderness and rancour.
Leaving home, returning home, catching trains and ferries, watching the weather from the window of a hospital or hotel room, renewal and self-betrayal: these are the starting places of Gray’s poetry. If there are two influences at work in his poetry, there is a similar conflict built into his apprehension of place. The rooms that Gray sees whole are those rooms that he remembers: rooms he has left behind and rooms he is coming home to after too long away. In the same way, his images, for all their precision, are often troubling in some way.
Gray’s imagery is the first thing a reader notices. Individual, surprising, evocative – his images have more in common with Amy Lowell’s imagism than with the hard objectivism of Ezra Pound. Like Gray, Lowell wrote versions of Japanese poems and her interest in what she called polyphonic prose probably lies somewhere behind Gray’s prose poems, such as ‘In the Bus’ and ‘Damp Evening’. His images are not austere but complex and affecting, partly because they seem in the same instant true and precarious. Take an image from ‘Journey: the North Coast’, the poem that opened his second collection, Creekwater Journal (1974): ‘Down these slopes move, as a nude descends a staircase / slender white gum trees.’ It is unforgettable because it makes the mind work between stillness and movement. It is a downward stepping, pictured step by step and all at once. The image captures not only the look of the landscape from a train window when the movement of the train can make the land appear to move; it also captures the way in which memory holds a run of time in a single image. In this way, the image shows like a hairline crack the difference between something held in memory and something seen in an instant from a passing train.
Gray’s poetry is too often criticised for its remoteness. His poetry is solitary, certainly, and polished, but his images are almost everywhere sharp with feeling and often sensuous: ‘The slow effervescence of wind-lifted rain / on knuckle and cheekbone / a sweet / occasional prickling / that is met while I walk.’ Images exist in poetry because of how memory works in experience: they make some place or fact the votive of lost years and build in us the habit of involving ourselves in what we see. All this is to suggest that an image is never simply visual, and that precision itself may be a register of feeling truer than effusion. This is nowhere more evident than in Gray’s poem ‘In Departing Light’, which is everywhere vivid with painful intimacy:
Her mouth is full of chaos.
My mother revolves her loose dentures like marbles
ground upon each other,
or idly clatters them,
broken and chipped. Since they won’t stay on her gums
she spits them free
with a sudden blurting cough …
Gray’s images typically draw on his feeling for place, particularly for the North Coast of New South Wales where he grew up. This sense of the place of childhood is what connects Gray with Wordsworth, whose The Prelude(1850) is a study of the making of imagination: a ‘spiritual autobiography’. Gray’s ‘Memories of the Coast’, ‘A Day at Bellingen’, ‘Curriculum Vitae’: these all draw on it. ‘A Day at Bellingen’, for instance, describes a night rowing-trip so alive with the recollection of Wordsworth’s night rowing-trip in The Prelude that it serves as a meditation on it. Here is part of The Prelude:
Nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light …
Like an answer, returned from a different place – like a return of those echoes the child in The Prelude sets loose – Gray writes:
and there’s a daylight moon
among the shabby trees,
above the scratchy swamp oaks
and through the wrecked houses of the paperbarks;
a half moon
drifting up beside me like a jellyfish.
Now the reflected shapes are fading in the darkened rooms of the water.
And the water becomes, momentarily, white – magnesium burning.
This is not to suggest the poem is derivative. What Gray takes from Wordsworth is the setting of an encounter – in this case, between the solitary rower and the moon’s reflection in water. From there, the perceptions, the images, the conclusions are his own. It seems to me Gray’s poem traces how the memory of a poem can enter into the perception of a place: ‘reflected shapes … fading in the darkened rooms of the water.’ Here are more of those rooms we cannot go back to. In this way, the poem also questions how a Romantic sense of place might work in Australia now, ‘among the shabby trees … and through the wrecked houses of the paperbarks.’ In Gray’s poem, there is a rapturous involvement with place, built up through the list: ‘and … among, above … and through.’ Yet that involvement is undercut by the haiku-like clarity and surprise of his images. Wordsworth’s circles of light on water melt ‘all into one track’. Gray’s images are sudden perceptions; they don’t last long enough to melt, and even in memory keep that quality of surprise. In Gray’s poem, ‘the water becomes, momentarily, white – magnesium burning’. Momentarily: Gray’s images almost always appear, in this way, at once exact and precarious. He takes up the Romantic poets’ interest in the nature of imagination, in how we form out of some place a landscape of memory. But the precariousness of his images suggests that he would rather discover, not his mind in things, but things in themselves. As he puts it in ‘Minima’: ‘What we love about nature / is its unresponsiveness – / it is precisely / that it does not “care or know”.’
This is what makes Gray so interested in motel rooms, which illustrate how quickly and even helplessly we manufacture familiarity with places, and take possession of what we do not own. Gray’s attentive descriptions of the natural world have a similar restlessness built into them. He is always leaving behind the images that he makes, just as he is always leaving the rooms that he has inhabited. ‘I realize I am in the future,’ he writes in ‘Flames and Dangling Wire’.
Wordsworth revised The Prelude throughout his life. Taking that as a model, perhaps, Gray revises a number of the poems that he includes in Cumulus. A poet has the right to rewrite work. In the main, Gray’s revisions make different versions of the poems: not always better, and not always worse. He does nothing so radical as Marianne Moore’s revision of ‘Poetry’, in which she cut a poem of several pages back to four lines starting: ‘I too dislike it’. His revisions work more with prepositions and line breaks, titles and word changes. Take the first poem in both Creekwater Journal and Cumulus, ‘Journey: the North Coast’. In Cumulus, Gray changes the title to ‘Journey, the North Coast’. In the first version, the poem starts:
Next thing, I wake up in a swaying bunk,
as though on board a clipper
lying in the sea,
and it’s the train, that booms and cracks,
it tears the wind apart …
The version in Cumulus starts:
Next thing, I wake-up in a swaying bunk
as if on board a clipper
clambering at sea,
and it’s the train that booms and cracks,
it tears the wind apart …
That is to say, in just four lines he adds a hyphen, changes ‘as though’ to ‘as if’, changes ‘lying in’ to ‘clambering at’, and cuts two commas. Later in that poem, he cuts a reference to pyjamas. As this might suggest, in general his revisions clean up punctuation and cut prepositions. Subtly, this changes the rhythm of some lines, making it cleaner but sometimes less various.
Cleaner but sometimes less various: that is also how Cumulus stands in comparison to Gray’s New Selected Poems. In his author’s note Gray writes: ‘The latest version of my poems are the only ones I acknowledge, and only those that appear in this book.’ What T. S. Eliot said about tradition and the individual talent could equally describe a poet’s relationship to all the poems he has written before: ‘What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.’ Gray is writing poems as good as any he has written. Possibly the poems that he is writing now draw most upon the poems collected here and he has for that reason modified this selection. Possibly he or his editor have looked askance at something domestic and awkward in the poems he has left out – much as he has cut a reference to pyjamas from ‘Journey, the North Coast’. Unacknowledged or not, a number of the excluded poems will persist: poems of bare, poor places. That is to say, Cumulus is not a complete picture of Gray’s achievement and does not replace his New Selected Poems. Still, a number of the poems that it includes from Afterimages and Nameless Earth – ‘After Heraclitus’, ‘In Departing Light’, ‘In the Mallee’, ‘Flying Foxes’, ‘Joan Eardley in Catterline’, ‘Sanssouci’ – are among his best, and that is saying something.