Max is Missing, by Peter Porter, Picador, 2001. ISBN 0 330 48698 5, RRP no idea
Reviewed by Philip Harvey in Eureka Street, at the time of the book's publication
‘Chaos is the ideal of every pattern,’ it is said, though the 41 patterns in this latest collection by Peter Porter aspire dutifully to whatever order the poet desires. Purportedly ‘a late work’, there is here nothing late about the delivery, nor any overstaying the welcome, whether in the precision found in, say, his catalogue of misfit classics:
The Troiliad, just as silly and twice as long,
with lists of heroes, ships and towns,
interfering gods on shortest fuses
and magic implements and animals,
its love-life platitudinous
and epithets attached like luggage labels.
Or in the brevity of a lyric like ‘The Puppy of Heaven’:
Some sort of judgment comes to everyone -
Mind overtaken by its metaphor
May watch dismayed as in the evening sun
The Baskerville-shaped shadows cross the floor.
(The publisher does not state if the book is set in Baskerville. It looks like Times Roman.)
Even to be warned of ‘a late work’ makes us pause. We expect a drift toward timor mortis, meditations on decay, or reveries about being the oldest person at the party. But contradiction is one of Porter’s favourite ploys: life is all we have to fear, creation is breaking out all over, uncomfortably so, and the poet himself seems the liveliest if not the youngest person still standing. Even the elegy that names this collection plays delightedly with the mysterious disappearance of his cat Maximus: “Should stars know Max is missing, would they guess / How little he must miss them where he is?” The half-rhyme of ‘guess’ with ‘is’ names the territory we have entered.
If there is an elegiac strain, it is a mournfulness we have heard often in Porter, the still-not-knowing although we know so much. He asks ‘is this love - / This inconclusiveness which orbits us, / A spacious Swiftian teleology / Of backs being turned, and elsewheres to be at?”, having just asserted ‘Love is the inward journey of the soul.’ He has some fearsome things to say about fame in poems like ‘Tasso’s Oak’, still taking a reality check as he ululates ‘Rejoice that of their number, one was recognised.’ The philosophic urge is native to this poet, to the degree that he can turn a proposition into an intense emotion or wreak Romantic havoc on a cliche. Small wonder a favourite poet is Robert Browning.
Commenting on his career in ‘Streetside Poppies’, is Porter bragging or lamenting?
After fifty years of writing poetry
I lust still for what is natural.
My vernacular was always bookish;
somehow I missed the right Americans,
I couldn’t meld the High and Low -
even my jokes aspired to footnotes
but I am open to Wordsworthian signs.
He knows more than he’s letting on. It is plain from this poetry that Porter has spent a lifetime studying ‘naturalness’, the language is confident, chiding, reflective, wry, inviting, even if most of it is lost on a shepherd. One wonders who the ‘right Americans’ could be and whether in fact he ever had any inclination to dally along their pathways. His may borrow from the library, but the same Porter can observe critically, ‘Poor Fellow, he’s vomited the Dictionary.’ Some would even say Porter has ‘melded’ cultural diversities quite skilfully over a lifetime of concentrated literalness. It is precisely his transatlantic humour and manner that is so attractive.
A more pressing question is, did he miss the ‘right Australians’, whoever they are? Australianness vexes Porter. Its brash experimentation and distinctive parlance have been studiously avoided. He much prefers the comfort zones of English metre and tone. And in this collection we find plenty more on the Porter complex of belonging, a major strand throughout his oeuvre that brings to mind the door with the permanent brass plate on ocean liners: PORTER. In the sonnet ‘Streamers’, he writes ‘To get away, to make your fortune, to lose your virginity / you hold one end of a coloured streamer,’ that snaps ‘the paper symmetry / of country, identity and all your loved ephemera.’ The repair work continues in paper form, poems about Sydney prickly pear, Brisbane picnics. And in the same poem, a tantalising meaning to his Italian romance:
Then the creeks once known to you as spider defences
on the school’s Cross Country Run, become the babble
of a Tuscan stream, torrente to Serchio’s senses.
An alternate land of summer’s lease, Italy as a replacement Australia. You don’t have to travel as far and there are more galleries.
Porter’s ventures into worlds of belief continue and beliefs, frequently someone else’s, are his constant source of copy. The desire to believe what he cannot in all honesty believe, gives Porter a sure foundation, even a mighty fortress, on which to build his verbal towers. And he will drive this activity to the max if he can. He may protest ‘I can visit churches only for the Art,’ but then tell us more than most church attenders about the Monophysites and Nestorians who would have it that ‘our hearts, unreconciled, / Will hold our minds to ransom.’ He praises a musician who believes ‘Up Calvary my harpsichord must climb.’ For every doctrine there is a heresy. Claim and counterclaim can sound equally plausible, and often plausibility is all Porter, or any of us, have to work with. Such atmospheres are pumped into his poems until they are fit to burst. Restless, or is that restive, energies are contained in these poems, form straining to hold things in. An opening line like ‘The age demands that we invent the wheel’ presages a massive move through time and space.
Relief from these heightened states comes in his one-liners. Porter’s penchant for the perverb, or reconverted aphorism, has been there ever since he uttered the hard saying ‘Once bitten, twice bitten’. In this collection they pop up in what he amiably defines as Lichtenbergers: ‘E pur se muove, since all the instruments agree.’ One clever betrayal of the Porter quandary, in a long line of betrayals is ‘The Unconscious finds Consciousness irrelevant.’ Hardly the expression of a centred personality, but then Porter is an expert rhetorician.
Physically and temperamentally, Peter Porter’s poetry speaks from the city of curates and queens but, like clockwork, psychologically he always winds up back in the city of popes and caesars. Nevertheless, his uneasy acceptance of high politics and the cruelties of existence only reminds us that, for Porter, the most important business of life is really maintenance of a civil conversation, a common respect for mystery. In one of the most conventional and indulgent poems here offered, ‘Magica Sympathia’, he virtually reverences the life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (not to forget his brother, George.) The last two verses say more than a little about Porter’s ‘late’ reflections on his own life, here in the Wales of the mind:
O Sympathetic Magic,
Shy fortresses and weirs!
O Forests Green and Stygic,
The wit of Passing Stairs!
Lord Herbert gave his castle
Up to Cromwell’s men,
He held himself a vassal
Only to song and pen.