Six of Andrew’s literary reviews are reproduced on this page
1. Abiding Things — review of Peter Kocan’s Standing with Friends and of William Hart-Smith’s Hand to Hand: A Garnering
2. Our Culloden Come: The Poetry of Peter Kocan — a review of Peter Kocan’s Freedom to Breathe
3. Tales of Hope and Heroism — a review of Hal Colebatch’s Return of the Heroes
4. Two Portraits of Humanity — a review of Robert Hughes’ Highgate Hill and of Peter Bakowski’s In the human night
5. Two Schools of Poetry — a review of Alister Kershaw’s Collected Poems and of Andrew Burke’s Mother Waits For Father Late
6. Stories of Optimism and Kindness — a review of Peter Shubb’s A List of All People
by Andrew Lansdown
Standing with Friends, by Peter Kocan; William Heinemann Australia, 1992.
Hand to Hand: A Garnering, by William Hart-Smith; Butterfly Books, 1991.
William Hart-Smith and Peter Kocan are two Australian poets I greatly admire. Yet how different they are! Hart-Smith is experimental in form, while Kocan is traditional. Hart-Smith is joyful in mood, while Kocan is sombre. Hart-Smith takes mother nature as his principal subject, while Kocan takes human nature. Hart-Smith is imagistic in style, while Kocan is epigrammatic. Such diversity is the glory of poetry!
Hand to Hand: A Garnering is a major work by and about William Hart-Smith, edited by Barbara Petrie. It is an essential volume for anyone interested in the work of this important poet.
Hand to Hand contains a generous 423 pages which are divided into eight sections. The first section, “A GARNERING”, is a collection of over 170 poems selected and arranged by Hart-Smith himself before his death in April 1990. The second section, “UNCOLLECTED POEMS”, comprises almost 100 poems selected by Joan Dale from Hart-Smith’s files after his death. (Hart-Smith spent the last years of his life living in New Zealand with Dale, his life-long friend.) The third section, “UNDATED POEMS”, contains over 20 poems given to Dale by Hart-Smith in their younger years. Apart from a few poems in the first section selected by Hart-Smith, the poems in this volume have not been published in book form before, and some have not been previously published in any form at all. They cover the poet’s entire writing life, from 1934 to 1989.
The remaining sections of Hand to Hand contain interesting and informative observations about Hart-Smith and his work by such noteworthy writers as Hal Colebatch, Roland Robinson, Philip Salom, Douglas Stewart and Vivian Smith, and include “ESSAYS & POEMS IN TRIBUTE”, “INTERVIEWS”, “CRITICAL ARTICLES”, and a “BIBLIOGRAPHY”.
The poems in Hand to Hand, as in most of Hart-Smith’s collections, are uneven in quality. But while the bad poems are not so bad, the good poems are very good indeed.
As one would expect from Hart-Smith, his imagery is exact and exhilarating. Sprinklers become “albino/ peacocks showing off their tails”. Jellyfish become “bells in the sea/ adrift from the towers/ of drowned carillions”. Paperbark trees “standing in isolated groups” in a cleared paddock become “conspirators planning revolution,/ heads together/ arms on each other’s shoulders”. Rain at the end of a drought becomes “Footprints of the Spirit Dog”. The moon slipping in and out of the clouds becomes “a pearl shell/ traded across the land/ silently passed/ from hand to hand.”
Some of Hart-Smith’s poems exist solely for the sake of the image, as with “Fly-Catcher”:
The way the Fly-catcher
darts from the Flame-tree in the carpark
to snatch a fly
close to my ear
reminds me of my mother
In other poems the imagery serves to further the mood and theme, as in the Maori poem, “Love Poem” (a poem which also demonstrates the poet’s considerable skill in the use of dramatic monologue):
I am caught like a fish
in the net of my longing,
like a Kahawai
that takes the lure behind a canoe.
My love is as beautiful
as the iridescent
belly of a dolphin
newly pulled from the sea.
While visual imagery predominates, Hart-Smith’s poems also contain many remarkable auditory images. “Kookaburras – Kalamunda” is a fine example of both auditory imagery and extended metaphor:
From a machine-gun nest
in a gum-tree
at the edge of the escarpment
six guns opened fire at once
barrels running red hot
following an exploratory burst
a chuckle of tracers
sent downhill by a wakeful sentry
at something he saw
up the slope in the twilight
among the boulders of red granite
In the closing stanza of “Autumn, Port Hills” Hart-Smith states:
I think it possible that Mother
Nature dreams in favourite images.
Thus one thing likes to represent another.
This tercet summarises Hart-Smith’s approach to poetry. He himself dreams in favourite images and delights to represent one thing in terms of another.
Max Richards, in his essay in the second half of the book, states: “Hart-Smith is one of those poets whose work awakens the reader to a responsive feeling of creativity. You feel that keeping eyes open, heart open and ear alert for nuance of image and cadence, will lead to poems of your own experience, vision, voice.” Without doubt, Hart-Smith’s poetry charges the familiar with wonder, and encourages the reader to see—and to keep on seeing—the world in a new and joyful light.
If Hart-Smith’s strength lies in images, Kocan’s lies in ideas. On one level, Standing with Friends is a defence of ideas and values that seem to be fading from the world.
In the title poem, Kocan regrets that “We limit friendship to the here and now”, and directs us to “think of the uncounted thousands” in history
“Who brought the world along the single track/ Which led to where we now stand looking back”:
They were the rulers who upheld the good,
The fighters who defended what they could,
The scholars who kept knowledge half-alive,
All those who had the courage and the drive
To do their duty as they understood.
And many more whose contribution lay
In simply being human in their day,
Who probably had little cause to think
Their ordinary lives would be the link
To us who live a thousand years away.
Stylistically, “Standing with Friends” is typical of most of the poems in the collection. The diction is simple and precise. The lines are measured—often employing an iambic meter, and iambic pentameter at that. The rhymes are regular, although in some poems near or slant rhyme (e.g., hour-pure, lost-vast, dark-black) is used with great effect. The emotion is controlled and the mood subdued.
Thematically, “Standing with Friends” is also typical of the other poems. The themes Kocan explores include the reality of good and evil, the value of ordinary people and acts, the unity of past and present, the beauty of courage and constancy, the necessity of duty and decency.
It is pleasing to observe how Kocan can take the smallest detail and invest it with the largest significance. In “A Baby Crying”, for example, he describes a newborn infant’s seemingly causeless squall, then notes:
This small philippic from the cradle hurled
Is baby’s estimation of the world.
And baby’s wise to howl it at the start,
Considering how soon the years impart
a dire sense of being, in the main,
Too deeply implicated to complain.
In “The Puppy”, Kocan describes how a mistreated pup responds gratefully to his affection, then concludes:
And for a moment it can seem
As if I had indeed been called
To heal the sorrows and redeem
The vast unkindness of the world.
In “To a Woman reading The Wind in the Willows” he defends “escapist” literature, asking sympathetically:
What fitter story could a grown-up find
Than one which makes uncomplicated sense
Of things like being brave and being kind,
Of virtues so important and immense?
Kocan constantly challenges the smug perceptions of our age. In “The Imperialists” he notes that the “Sahibs and Bwanas” built up their empires “often with no more lethal tools/ Than backbone and snobbery and gin.” This is in marked contrast to the imperialists of the twentieth century. Indeed,
The piled bodies of our stewardship
Might well suggest we’re deeper in the slime
(And a good deal handier with the whip).
This suggestion is validated in “Beijing Massacre”, where Kocan commemorates the hundreds of students who were massacred in 1989 by the People’s Army because they staged a sit-in for democracy in communist China. Kocan explores why it is that the massacre caused such distress in the West, given that other immensely greater atrocities by communist governments have been routinely overlooked or excused. The answer, the poet suggests, is that the communists made the mistake of allowing the Western media to record the event, thereby giving the Western public and the media itself “no option but to disapprove”. Kocan states with bitter irony,
If only they had had the sense to kill
More tidily, and in the proper place,
Then we in fairness would be lauding still
Kocan’s poetry is epigrammatic in impact, and as a consequence one is tempted to quote couplet after couplet and quatrain after quatrain. Many poems in Standing with Friends are imbued with moral and poetic beauty.
Unlike Hart-Smith’s, Kocan’s book could hardly be called joyful. It is sombre, often sad, and sometimes despairing. Yet it is also strangely uplifting. For his insights are striking, his sentiments just, and his sympathies genuine.
Despite their different subjects, themes and styles, Hart-Smith and Kocan have this in common: they both cherish simple, lovely, abiding things in poetry that is simple, lovely and abiding.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown
from Abiding Things: poems, stories essays
Studio (Albury), 1996
“Abiding Things” has also been published in the following magazines:
1. Quadrant, No.299, Vol.XXXVII, No.9, September 1993
2. Studio, No.57, Summer 1994/1995
Our Culloden Come: The Poetry of Peter Kocan
by Andrew Lansdown
Freedom to Breathe by Peter Kocan; Angus & Robertson, 1985
Peter Kocan was detained for fifteen years in institutions for the criminally insane. His first collection of poetry, The other side of the fence (University of Queensland Press, 1975), chronicled his experiences as an inmate of Morisset.
Freedom To Breathe also contains several poems detailing his institutional experiences.
He speaks of ‘The Mongoloid Boy’s Mother’ who came ‘To sit with him as though/ He really was in that bent frame’. In ‘The Beauty’, he speaks of a ‘little group/ Of retard women’ among whom one young beauty seems out of place:
The first time I didn’t understand:
I just saw her wandering behind
The hags, and then pausing absently,
Her mind elsewhere; and when she turned to me
A vague smile, a blue-eyed open glance,
I took it for serene intelligence
Until the nurse came scowling back
To hurry the moron with a kick.
He speaks of ‘Retards Out Walking’, ‘Each one the Druid/ Of his own mystery’. In ‘Post Mortem’ he begins: ‘This is the tree he did it from,/ The bough still weighted with it …’ In ‘Cecil’ he describes how, while an inmate died coughing blood from ‘the collapsing bin/ Of his ribs’,
We stood about,
Full of easy air,
And no way to give him
The breath we had to spare.
In ‘Fang and Claw’, Kocan indulges in a moment of black humour. He notes how it used to anger him the way people driving by Morisset would gawk at the inmates as if they were exotic zoo creatures:
Now I’m keen to see one
Leave his car and stroll,
All stupid grin, up to the fence
And poke a finger in
Near Billy Prendergast.
There isn’t any sign
Warning that he bites!
In ‘On an Invitation to Revisit Morisset’, he asks, ‘Why go back?’, and concludes:
So much would be the same, and yet
The place I lived in isn’t there.
I took it with me when I left:
It fitted in a tiny bag
Of the mind, but took years to pack.
Kocan does not whinge or seek pity in his prison poetry. He records facts and remembers fates with insight, integrity and compassion. Nor does he dwell overly on the past. By page eleven, he writes in ‘Goodbye to Morisset’:
I am leaving the old shaft,
The old workings of a theme,
To blink in daylight and find
Fresh material to sift.
The rest of the book is devoted to the new themes and concerns he has sifted from his post-institutional life.
Apple trees, moths, dogs, tussock grass, obsolete trains, cricket, cemeteries, suicides, mass murders, street protests, politics, mutineers, Irish harpers, Jacobites, Scottish, Roman, Grecian and American history: these are some of the subjects of Kocan’s poetry—subjects through which he explores themes relating to love, loneliness, freedom, goodness, and courage.
A recurring theme in Kocan’s work is courage in the face of despair—courage to fight for what is right even though it is too late to win the battle. In ‘Elite’, he celebrates ‘a purity of will/ That finds apotheosis in defeat.’ In ‘Murdoch MacLeod’, he admires the courage of a fifteen-year-old Inverness schoolboy who runs to join his doomed kinsmen at the battle of Culloden. In ‘Exemplars’, he holds up the Jacobites as an example of bravery
’For us in our time
Who can already see
Our Culloden come.
In ‘Jacobites’, he claims that most poets are ‘the Jacobite kind’: ‘We understand defeat makes better songs,/ And our trade is mostly brooding on ancient wrongs’. In ‘Lost Causes’, he states:
I think of nothing now
But lost causes, and how
Many preferred to fall
Fighting, for good or ill.
By far the most moving poem extolling and exhorting courage is ‘To My Godchild, Chloe’, the last two stanzas of which read:
Now the darkness gathers fresh
In empires of the lie and lash
Our candle’s guttering away
To outcomes we cannot see.
You are already summoned
To the battles of the mind
And hard experience will show
Past any word I offer now.
I have my own sins to face
Of folly and of cowardice,
But yet I say to choose your sides
Without measuring the odds;
As did Plataea, little town,
That sent its handful to join
Those reckless Athenians
Hurrying to Marathon.
In Freedom To Breathe, Kocan displays the same reckless courage he praises in men and women of old. Without measuring the odds, he challenges many of the articles of faith so cherished by the powerful, liberal-left intelligentsia.
He is implacably opposed to the abandonment of traditional values and verities. He enunciates his concern in the concluding stanzas of ‘AIDS, among other things’:
We acquiesce to birth-in-bottles now,
Dissimulate on every law we knew
Was solemn in the covenants we had
With whatever we call Nature or God,
Yet we never think to reap what we sow.
The ills multiply as we unlearn
That ancient wise humility of men
Who saw, beyond the wreckage of taboos,
Despair and madness, hatred and disease—
The promised payment in the promised coin.
In ‘The Treason of the Women’, he laments the hatred and treachery embodied in much feminist thought and behaviour:
With all the enemies we had
We knew to guard both front and back.
Who’d have dreamt we had to take
Precautions at our side?
In ‘Protest’, he observes a group of homosexuals wearing pink triangles in the pretence that they are persecuted like those homosexuals imprisoned in Nazi Germany. He notes wryly, ‘I recognise/ What perversion truly is’, and concludes:
… In safe Macquarie Street
The spoiled children rage and pout,
Thieve indignation from a tomb
To make-believe at martyrdom.
In ‘An Anniversary’, he examines the fall of Saigon, noting the courage of several South Vietnamese army divisions in the face of the communist invading army. Although western ‘treachery had sold the pass’, although ‘there was nothing left to save’, the soldiers—from ‘corrupt officer’ to ‘conscripted ploughboy’—fought on, ‘Grown sudden to heroic size’. Kocan is probably right when he says:
It strikes me I may be the only poet
In the entire western world who’ll write
Even one grudging stanza of lament
He’d have appear publicly in print.
Freedom To Breathe, is a moving and courageous book. One hopes it will not be Kocan’s undoing. In this enlightened age, the editor’s rejection and the reviewer’s silence can suffocate a poet as surely as the torturer’s wet towel or the tyrant’s gas chamber.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown
“Our Culloden Come” was first published (under the title, “Peter Kocan’s Poetry”) in Quadrant, March 1987
Tales of Hope and Heroism
by Andrew Lansdown
Return of the Heroes: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Contemporary Culture by Hal Colebatch (Australian Institute for Public Policy, 1990)
Return of the Heroes is a fascinating study in which Hal Colebatch, a well-known conservative poet and essayist, argues that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and George Lucas’s Star Wars are important and praiseworthy repositories of traditional Western values.
Colebatch notes that there was a collapse of traditional Western values in the 1960s and 1970s. This collapse “seemed to affect all aspects of life. The anti-hero, in various aspects, seemed to dominate ‘high’, ‘serious’ or intellectually fashionable culture. Serious literature and art had largely embraced Nihilism, and established religions seemed to have become, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it, a matter of ‘crazed clergy, empty churches, and total doctrinal confusion’” (pp.1-2).
Colebatch attributes the moral collapse of the West to several causes, but most particularly to the pervasive influence of moral relativism throughout the twentieth century. He quotes several “important spokesmen” by way of illustration. Lenin, for example, maintained that morality is merely whatever serves to establish the socialist state. Consequently, he rejected outright any thought of moral absolutes: “We do not believe in an eternal morality, and we expose the falseness of all fables about morality” (1920). Hardly had the kilns cooled in Auschwitz before the Canadian scientist Brook Chisholm advocated “The reinterpretation and eventual eradication of the concept of right and wrong” (1946). Sir Julian Huxley proclaimed with absolute certainty that “There are no Absolutes of truth or virtue” (1962). And Philip Johnson seemed to sum up the intellectual mood of the West when, speaking on the BBC with Susan Sontag, he declared, “What good does it do you to believe in good things? … It’s feudal and futile. I think it much better to be nihilistic and forget all about it” (1965).
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Leftism and varieties of Nihilism apparently held the cultural high ground. … It is because of this apparent state of affairs that the successes of The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars are culturally significant. They were a small part of a thorough-going revolution, which may still be only beginning” (p.8).
Colebatch does not argue that the Tolkien and Lucas tales greatly influenced political events or social attitudes in the West. Their significance lies primarily in both the fact and the popularity of their portrayal of values antagonistic to the prevailing ideas of Marxism, collectivism, nihilism, moral relativism and anti-heroism. He states:
I do not intend to suggest here that these two tales created a significant change in culture or values. The people of Eastern Europe did not need stories from another society to tell them of the necessity to resist evil. These tales, along with many other things, may have made some contribution in the West. … Far more significant for our purposes here, however, was the way in which they reflected and expressed the values of a strong and continuing culture whose existence had been discounted by much conventional wisdom (p.9).
Both The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars depict a life-and-death struggle between good and evil. The very nature of this struggle causes the structure of both stories “to be permeated with spiritual issues and questions” (p.14). Both stories depict the use of force as essential to defeat tyranny and evil. Both depict the ennoblement of hitherto ordinary individuals who choose to oppose evil in spite of terrible odds. Both celebrate courage, honour and chivalry. Both “take for granted a conservative and traditionalist view of love and the family and of romantic and sexual relationships” (p.14). Both “look to individual rather than social salvations” (p.13). Both are ultimately optimistic in outlook, but neither is Utopian or socially progressive. Both accept the immortality of the individual soul. These characteristics give the stories “a mental atmosphere at once both classically ‘Western’ and at odds with much of the atmosphere of modern secular society, art and culture” (p.14).
While careful to eschew grandiose claims, Colebatch considers it reasonable to believe that, given both their exalted world-view and their extraordinary popularity, The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars may have contributed in some small way to the preservation of traditional Western values:
It is impossible to measure precisely the effect of literature, film, television and other entertainment on a culture. However it is generally thought that where the values expressed in entertainment (and education, into which it merges) consistently denigrate notions of courage, honour, gallantry, nobility, self-sacrifice and discipline as evil, contemptible, obsolete, neurotic, boring, absurd or suicidal, there will be some real social and political effect, and that a converse effect may be expected in a culture where such values and notions are promoted and portrayed positively. Myths and stories as well as formal education programmes that explicitly or implicitly promote certain cultural values affect in some way how people think and behave (p.46).
If this is true in general, it is reasonable to assume that it is true in the particular cases of The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars.
When defending material that is politically radical or sexually perverse, members of the left often ridicule the notion that people are influenced by what they read and view. However, they are quick enough to endorse this notion when the material is morally or politically conservative. This hypocrisy is an effective strategy for claiming liberty of thought and speech for oneself while denying it to others. It is a hypocrisy that Colebatch decries:
Members of the progressive intelligentsia have, virtually by definition, regarded it as natural [and] right … that their work should have a political, social or ideological message. There has also been a considerable pressure to deny legitimacy to equivalent non-collectivist or conservative messages in literature, art and entertainment. In Britain, for example, radical-progressive groups such as Librarians for Social Change and sections of the Inner London Education Authority have moved to ban ideologically unacceptable children’s books, such as Peter Rabbit, which deals allegedly with ‘middle class rabbits’ … (p.58).
Judging from the numerous and influential attacks on The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars, it would appear that opponents of traditional Western values believe, like Colebatch, that both tales have had an impact on popular thought.
Attacks on the two stories “by hostile critics have run along strikingly similar lines, and shown a similar political agenda and set of value judgments” (p.58). In general, Colebatch claims, the critics have been associated “with left politics (that is, progressivism, collectivism and moral relativism)” (p.59). Their objections have been almost entirely ideological rather than literary.
Colebatch documents and debunks the criticisms in detail. Predictably, the qualities that enamour a conservative like Colebatch are the very qualities that enrage progressive critics. They detest the fact that, in varying ways, both stories: oppose collectivism; support individualism; endorse free enterprise; advocate political pluralism; postulate a dichotomy between power and freedom; validate the use of force in a just cause; praise heroism and chivalry; espouse moral absolutes; posit the eventual triumph of good over evil; and contain a religious consciousness. All these things are supposedly evidence of Cold War propaganda and middle class morality.
For those who had thought that The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars were simply good yarns, Colebatch’s ideological analyses of the two stories may seem rather heavy-handed and far-fetched. However, the importance he ascribes to the stories becomes quite credible in the light of the vicious attacks of the left-wing critics.
Colebatch views the stories as metaphors for the great struggle against totalitarianism and evil: “Tomorrow belongs automatically to no-one, and we not only see and applaud from afar the tale, told to entertain or stir, of the heroic quest against great odds, but live in the same tale still” (p.103). Indeed, in the light of the recent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he views them as prophecy, too: “Cultural modernism and political collectivism are not all-conquering, and perhaps, as Frodo says when, in one of the darkest moments in The Lord of The Rings, he sees a small flower growing like a crown on the ruined and defaced statue of an ancient king: ‘They cannot conquer forever!’” (p.99).
In Return of the Heroes Colebatch not only expresses Frodo’s hope, he also advances it.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown
“Tales of Hope and Heroism” was first published in Quadrant, June 1991.
Two portraits of humanity
by Andrew Lansdown
Robert Hughes’ Highgate Hill and Peter Bakowski’s In the human night are both part of Hale & Iremonger’s Contemporary Australian Poets series. But this is all the two books have in common.
Highgate Hill is a unified collection of portraits of people who live in a Queensland suburb. The continuity of the book consists not only in the style and setting of the poems, but also in the interweaving of the characters. For while each poem is an independent portrait, sometimes the principal character of one poem will appear as a background character in another. In several instances, one character is the main subject of two or more poems.
The collection is not without its flaws. Hughes sometimes lapses into sentimentality. In “Dignity,” for example, he describes an elderly, arthritic man who walks about in threadbare pants and shoes repaired with vinyl and string. Then he explains:
He only continues in this eccentric frame
because he still sings to the being
of his beloved wife.
Even if one credits the causal relationship between the man’s eccentricity and his devotion to his deceased wife, these lines are mawkish.
When Hughes becomes explanatory, he also becomes ploddingly prosaic. In “It wasn’t easy for Eddie,” for example, he defends the denizens of the Hill, declaring:
Many of the people in this place
have overcome great obstacles
to live lives of peace in which
there is generosity and concern for others.
While these lines are refreshingly generous and probably true, they don’t make poetry.
But thankfully, lapses into the mawkish and the mundane are few and far between. In the main, the poems are admirably controlled and understated.
Hughes has a knack for concise, quirky beginnings that arouse the reader’s curiosity. (The impact of the opening lines is intensified by the fact that in each poem the title and the first line are one and the same.)
How’s this for an opening? “Sam and Angelo’s house/ was made strange by their parents’ anatomy.” Having been hooked into the poem, the reader discovers that Sam and Angelo’s two-metre-tall father built split levels in every room so that he could meet eye-to-eye with their one-and-a-half-metre-tall mother. Along the way we also discover that the father ate “Onions and garlic, aniseed and bananas” which “made the air he breathed wriggle from him”.
If Hughes’s beginnings are tantalising, his endings are satisfying. In fact, the closing lines sometimes have an epigrammatic quality, as in “When Harry married Ellen”: “Harry has an answer for everything/ and no understanding at all.” As for Eric’s midlife crisis, it is sadly resolved when he plugged himself into a power point and flicked the switch. Hughes concludes: “The lights in the flat flickered momentarily/ as his went out forever.”
Some portraits are poignant and sad. In “Bits of a family,” for example, Hughes refers to a Cambodian family who moved in next door: “don’t know what happened to them/ but it was bad”. The teenage girl spends entire afternoons in the yard, turning “the soil over with her hands”. Hughes conjectures:
I reckon the ground
is getting into that girl
pulls out a shiver & puts back a rose
you can see it turning memory
fear into flowers.
Other portraits are vibrant and humorous, as in “Louise Harris” who has “a body that looks like it’s about to leap/ out of her clothing.”
Still others are just plain lovely, as in “Naveed and Sikina Khan,” which depicts a Pakistani family, and concludes:
… On weekends
the family walks out in traditional dress,
they look like beautiful sails on the river.
The parents together, the children
dancing around them.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of this collection is its warmth and generosity. Hughes portrays his subjects with a tenderness and kindness that is uncharacteristic of much Australian poetry.
In a poem towards the end of the book the poet describes how “An old man and a boy” often walk along “the path down the Hill”:
Sometimes their conversation drifts
into the gardens, the boy questioning,
the old man answering.
There is no fear or doubt in them.
Walking in unison on the same path
their joy falls like dust around them
and for hours after they have gone
the people who walk there smile
without knowing why.
Through his poems, Robert Hughes has left a trail of joy along Highgate Hill, and when I followed I found myself smiling, not always knowing why.
My journey with Peter Bakowski in In the human night did not get off to a good start. The opening poem, “Fire, fire, in the mouth of many things,” struck me as arty and pretentious. It begins: “I want your poem to/ turn my train ticket into a canary”. It continues: “I want your poem to/ turn his eyebrows into ants/ that will bring him a tambourine.” It ends: “And I will dance with such a poem/ beneath a chandelier of fishes.” Ho hum, I thought. Another profundity-through-pretension-and-obscurity poet!
This first impression was not, however, entirely right. Certainly, there are other self-conscious pieces and moments in the collection. But many of the poems are vibrant and arresting. There is something in the best of Bakowski’s poetry that resonates deep in the heart. He explores the loneliness, transience and longing that resides In the human night.
In “For Hart Crane”, Bakowski states:
we are trying to understand
in our minds and flesh.
Yes, indeed we are. And while Bakowski’s may not enlighten us as to the origin and meaning of those “strange knockings”, he certainly awakens us to the presence and power of them.
And he does so with some striking imagery. Indeed, his images often have a surrealistic quality, and as such they create an emotional (more than a visual) impression. He speaks of “the moon/ howling on the stairs/ like an orphan”; of “the stars/ measuring the distance/ of yearning”; of “actors and cats/ walking that thin line/ between smugness and grace”; of cars and pedestrians “waiting for the hiccup/ of each cursed traffic-light”; of a roominghouse ceiling “sulking its last Autumn of paint”; of children “running with dogs and glee”; of “a tumble of children:/ learning the difference/ between stop signs and wishes”; and of a child “killing a small bird in your heart.”
Addressing the poet Charles Bukowski, Bakowski says,
You’ve taught me
to be lean in the poem,
to say the thing
the way the hammer
to the nail.
These are remarkable lines, remarkable sentiments! Unfortunately, however, Bakowski does not always live by them. His poems are not always lean and direct. Many could be tightened.
I make this point not as a quibble but as a regret. For if the poems are powerful in their present form (and many are), how much more powerful could they be with some hard editing?
For example, in a poem about loneliness and the need for love titled “The Spanish understand”, the poet begins strongly: “You are/ shot through/ and sour.” He continues with even greater strength: “The days in bright dresses have run away/ to be with somebody else.” Then he falters with a list of eight possibilities: “You are waiting// at a bus stop// at a train station// at your kitchen table …” The list could be cut in half (there is no need for both the bus stop and the train station, for example) without loss. Then back to some reasonable lines: “What is it that you’re waiting for?// to be loved in the world// to be loved in the world.” (The repetition is strangely pleasing, and is used with good effect in several other poems.) Then on to the claim that “If you wait and wait …/ she will come,/ a girl made from truth and wild horses”. This description of the girl, even if it can be imagined, seems a touch saccharine and silly. Then Bakowski speaks of “her tomorrow eyes, her lagoon kisses,/ her embrace that ploughs the moon”. The first image is good, the second it better, but the third is poor. There is in the male and female anatomy and embrace something that lends itself to the plough-and-furrow imagery. But it is difficult to see how she can do the ploughing—and more difficult yet to see how that ploughing involves the moon. The image lacks both visual and emotional verisimilitude. Surreal imagery is one thing; but even the surreal gains its strength from the real. And finally there is the abrupt shift towards the end of the poem from the second to the first person. With a little rigor, the poem could have been tightened and strengthened considerably.
In the human night is an audacious collection. This explains its shortcomings—and its strengths. John Millett is right to urge on the jacket blurb: “Read it! Be amazed!”
© Andrew Lansdown
This review was first published in Five Bells, Vol.2, No.10, November 1995.
Two Schools of Poetry
by Andrew Lansdown
Collected Poems, by Alister Kershaw; Angus & Robertson, 1992.
Mother Waits For Father Late, by Andrew Burke; Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1992.
A fellow poet told me not so long ago that there are two schools of poetry in Australia: one that makes sense and one that doesn’t. Alister Kershaw’s poetry belongs to the latter school. A majority of his poems simply do not make sense.
The publication and prestige of senseless poets depends upon two common misconceptions. The first is that profundity involves obscurity, and vice versa. The second is that a failure to understand a poem necessarily involves a failure on the part of the reader.
Concerning the second misconception, it is possible for a reader to misread a poem. But it is also possible for a poet to miswrite it—that is, to write it in such a way as to make it inaccessible to the reader. Such a miswriting may be inadvertent, in which case the poet has honestly failed to say what he means. His thoughts are muddled or his skills are inadequate and therefore his meaning is unclear. However, the miswriting of a poem may also be deliberate, in which case the poet has dishonestly failed to mean what he says, for his meaning does not lie in the text but in himself. Indeed, his poem is a vehicle not for communication but for self-aggrandisement. Its message is: “Look at my author. My obscurity proves his profundity and superiority.”
Whatever his motives, Kershaw has written many poems that, in whole or in part, defy comprehension. The opening stanzas of part two of “Lands in Force” are typical:
The rains are ruined of the weeping,
Thrust by the brittle season, fearful at the offer,
From the stars’ disquietude to the separation of the sea
They are welding odd pulses in the shaft of tears.
Rains are making surrender to disquiet,
And loud disruption ceases by championed chaos.
All sourest conquests, stopping by the tremors,
Thirst on the shout of summer, stream
Further than pace the rains, collapse’s triumph,
In equal ghosts of time—
The brittle grants are each defeat …
Regardless of how the reader ponders them, these stanzas, and numerous others like them, remain utter gibberish. Hardly has the groping mind imagined intelligence in one line before it is mocked with idiocy in the next. Sometimes the cadences and symbols stir a vague emotion, but it soon drifts away because it finds no anchor in meaning.
The two stanzas quoted above contain four of the symbols—“rain”, “sea”, “tears” and “stars”—Kershaw repeats tiresomely in poem after poem. For example, “victory shall echo like a star”; “The weeping of the captured stars”; “my hands made movements with the stars”; “a thought of stars”; “With the stars alert”; “the torment of the stars”; “my poems,/ Some, at least, having lived long with the stars”; “The singing moment looks/ On the pitiful skeleton of stars”; et cetera. (“Sky” and “moon” are two more symbols that are used with abandon and abstraction.)
Interestingly, Kershaw tends to make sense when he uses rhyme. The section “No-Man’s-Land”, for example, contains a number of rhymed poems that are basically intelligible. And the long rhyming poems at the end of the collection—“The Denunciad” and “A Second Denunciad”—are bitingly cogent and clever:
By the same token, if you can’t abide
The Left, it’s certain you’ll be left outside,
And even if you’re Left you might belong
To some variety of Left that’s wrong
Or, putting it another way, you might
Support the kind of Left that isn’t right …
In his introduction to the collection, Michael Keon states smugly that “the reader will look in vain through the present volume’s pages for the hop and scamper, trill and flash, of our usual fauna and flora.” Yes indeed. A kangaroo or a kingfisher, it seems, would be too palpable and uplifting for Kershaw or Keon. How ironic it is, then, that one of the finest poems in the book is a short nature poem titled “Dragonfly”:
In your blue and gold brocaded coat
With its wide sleeves of silver—
With a button on your hat
To proclaim your station,
I am abashed by your condescension
In visiting me.
In its imagery and simplicity “Dragonfly” is quite unlike anything else in Kershaw’s Collected Poems. More’s the pity.
Andrew Burke’s poems mostly make sense, and for that alone he is to be commended. His Mother Waits for Father Late is an uneven collection, but there are enough good poems in it to reward a close reading. His central theme is family relationships, and his poems are imbued with sadness, tenderness and merriment.
The title poem is a horrifying account of alcoholism and its effects. When the poet was nine his father killed a woman while drunk driving: “she was old,” his father relates, “just stepped off the curb—My bad luck/ she chose me.” The shock of the accident brought on diabetes; but his father could not change his lifestyle to accommodate the illness: “comas came on. Mother and I forcing sugar in water/ down his throat”. Then one night several years later “jellybowls of blood came/ jumping out,” and he died. But he left his son a legacy of alcoholism:
… My sick mind cleaned up
as best it could
until, wacked on
booze and dope, that night rose again
fifteen years later and drove me
to a cliff’s edge …
This long, grim poem sets the scene for a shorter, brighter poem, dealing with the third of The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him”. In “Third Step”, the poet relates how he found a spiritual home with a Christian Fellowship that uses grape juice instead of wine for Holy Communion. After ten years of sobriety, Burke concludes,
Every day I wake
my will away.
“Diary Of A Bad Back” is a moving poem about the poet’s ageing and ailing mother. Suffering from memory loss and back pain, she cares more for her cat than for herself. In one section of the poem Burke recounts how she phoned to report that her back was worse and her cat food was gone. He dutifully went shopping for milk and cat food, only to return to find the phone ringing:
You have just rung to say
you looked in your fridge
You are feeling
so much better now
the cat has eaten
These last three lines epitomise that mixture of the pitiful and the gleeful which is characteristic of the best poems in this collection.
There are also many poems about the poet’s wife and children. The finest, I think, is “Sitting Together”:
Those are prayers
from our windchimes
as we sit
in verandah shade
from the hills
Alice cannot keep
all her songs
so she gently hums
not to interrupt
In both structure and sentiment, this poem is exquisite.
It is a shame that “Sitting Together”, rather than “Mother Waits for Father Late”, was not chosen as the title poem. For in addition to being more euphonic and subtle than the present title, “Sitting Together” (as a title and as a poem) is more representative of the overall theme and mood of the collection.
© Andrew Lansdown
This review was first published in Quadrant, March 1994
Stories of Optimism and Kindness
by Andrew Lansdown
A List of All People & Other Stories by Peter Shrubb (Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982)
I suspect that many people in Western Australia will have heard little of Peter Shrubb.
Ironically, Shrubb’s success overseas may be partially responsible for his low profile in Australia. London Magazine, Transatlantic Review and The New Yorker are among the foreign journals that have published his work. In Australia, his stories have appeared in The Bulletin, Quadrant and Coast to Coast.
The stories in A List of All People are deeply sensitive to the griefs and joys, the fears and aspirations, the defeats and triumphs, of ordinary men and women. These are stories of the human heart and of human relationships. Their “action” rests in the seesawing of emotional states — the unwitting development, and deliberate resolution, of emotional crisis and conflict.
Shrubb explores how easily an inadvertent action (or inaction) can slight the hoping or hurting heart. In “Little Difficulties”, for example, Andrew Lewis feels uncertain about his manliness. After a number of false starts, he finally achieves a sense of confidence and harmony with his wife while soaping her back as she lies in the bath. Then, as he washes the soap from her shoulders, she makes “a sound like a child”. This innocent sound — a sound, in fact, that was probably meant to express contentment and pleasure — disconcerts him, and he abruptly leaves her. Because of his own, private uncertainties, this insignificant thing becomes hurtfully significant. But within moments of leaving her, Andrew “felt ashamed of himself, and then smiled, suddenly, at the regularity with which shame assailed him.” He considers how humiliating his sexual desires are, and how childish he is to be hurt simply because his wife does not intuitively understand all of his complex needs and desires. Then he returns to her.
A feeling of shame is often the pivotal point for Shrubb’s characters. Through petulance, they harm someone they love; then, realising the harm they have done, they feel shame; and on the strength of that shame, they make amends. The overriding decency of Shrubb’s characters imparts a sense of optimism, if not joy, to the reader. Though solemn, his stories (with the exception of “Down at the Works”) are imbued with a kind of triumph.
Shrubb’s characters are fully human — it is, after all, their weaknesses that engender a contrite spirit — but they are not typical of human beings. Their sensitivity — both to their own weaknesses and to the needs of others — often stands in marked contrast to our own insensitivity.
Peter Shrubb has a delightful ability to weave threads of humour into the fabric of serious stories. For example, in the midst of a eulogy about his sweetheart who waves to him each morning from a house across the street, a 14 year old boy declares: “she wore sleeveless nightdresses, and the movement of her white arm as she threw a kiss was the most beautiful thing imaginable. That and her smile, for she had slightly buck teeth, and from fifty yards away I could see her smile quite clearly.” (This reminds one of Holden Caulfield’s observations in J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher In the Rye.) In “Other People’s Houses”, Frank, who arrives in London full of romance and hungry for heritage, is fascinated by the “historical” appearance of the people he meets. He declares: “I’ll bet every English chromosome has a little bust of William the Conqueror built into it somewhere.”
Structurally, the stories are sparse and tight. No allusion is without significance; no description is without emotional weight; no sentence is without precision and balance.
The style and tone of these stories are key factors behind their appeal.
Shrubb is a master of understatement. (Only once, in the entire collection, does he overstate his case: “Other People’s Houses” is in danger of sentimentality because of the last section, and would be a much stronger story if it were to finish with the child’s question at the bottom of page 89.) Through the skilful use of understatement, Shrubb both creates a solemn, sometimes sombre, mood and establishes a fine tension.
In “A Birthday”, Tom, the narrator and chief character of the story, describes his wife as having a “small but delectable shape” which is “packed full of optimism and kindness”. Peter Shrubb’s stories may fairly be described in the same terms.
© Andrew Lansdown
This review was first published in Artlook, July 1983