Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Is, Is not, Is, Is not, a Haiku. Is, Is not. Is.

The haiku was virtually unknown to English writing before the twentieth century. Some readers see haiku in William Blake, William Wordsworth and many others, but if they are haiku they are there by accident rather than design. It is today the most common form of English poem, unless you define free verse as anything without end rhymes.

Peter Porter was the first person I know to raise complaint about there being too many haiku, his words turning into the usual ker-plop of the frog into the pond of despond. Porter’s complaint was probably based on the judgement that there is too much bad haiku circulating about, and possibly that it is too easy to produce such stuff. Porter was anything but a curmudgeon, no scrooge muttering bah humbug at haiku. His expectations for poetry were always high, even with the lowliest of forms. His own poetry, for example, is a result of the Audenish belief that the forms exist to make something new, surprising, and different. Auden himself went haywire on haiku, for a time.

Like everything, to know what’s going on requires an understanding of history. Two names are crucial: the publishing house Tuttle & Co. and the self-styled beat Jack Kerouac. After the Second World War, Tuttle published translations of haiku into English that reached an American readership, in particular Americans, which proved to be momentous. One of the readers of these books was Kerouac, who took the basic idea of haiku but messed around with the structural components. As he writes in ‘Blues and Haikus’ (1959):

The American haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again . . . bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.

Thus the scene was set, the attitude adopted, the sensibility transgressed, that led to our current tsunami of little poems. How many of these poems are genuine haiku seems to depend on how closely we believe in the pure rules of the Japanese masters or, alternatively, on the freed-up form positions of crazy-as-a-daisy Kerouac. At least two rules of ancient Japan have been lost along the way in English haiku. The first is that the poem must have at least one word that connotes one of the seasons. This may even be a sound, as we hear in the effects of Basho, Issa, and others. The second is that the words describe, or are connected to, the “Void of Whole”, i.e. the Zen awareness of existence within nothingness, which has its roots in the koan. They exist and express the present continuous. Haiku in fact stem historically in time from the practice of koan, which is probably why the quintessential English translator of Asian literature Arthur Waley regarded haiku as an inferior form, a cheap trick almost, when stood beside other sacred Japanese poetry of olden times. Waley was not exactly a snob on this matter, he was simply fortunate enough to have read across the literature and craved works of greater depth. He seems to have avoided doing much translation of haiku himself, but would not have denied that haiku are part of classical Japanese literature. 

The rest is literature. We recognise haiku instantly and join in the game. Whether it is a poet of rare East-West awareness like Gary Snyder or W.S. Merwin, comic lunatics like Paul Muldoon, or anyone in between or beyond, the haiku’s apotheosis in the early twenty-first century is manifest.

Even down to this recent excuse for an excursion. My review of the recent love poems collection edited by Mark Tredinnick includes mention of singer Paul Kelly’s short poem:

Time is elastic
Together, days disappear
Apart, seconds crawl

Apparently dispute has erupted on Facebook claiming that this simple enough (some would even say, romantic) statement is not a haiku. I don’t do Facebook, so the only way I can join the conversation is if someone creates a link to this page. Evidentially, Kelly’s poem has seventeen English syllables, so it passes the Syllable test. The poem creates a sense of the present moment, thus getting at least an A for the Present Tense test. The poem does not contain a word that quickly reminds us of a particular season of the year, so on this count flunks the Season test. It does, in my judgement, pass the Kerouac test, for the same reason, or even reasons. It will never pass the Waley test. I have no firm word that Kelly practises Zen, but other information in newspapers suggests he does not live in a monastery. Who knows if these comments will cure the blemishes reported on Facebook, or only cause further viral outbursts.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Australian Love Poems 2013

This review first appeared in Eureka Street in early November:

Saying we love someone can take all our courage, all our wisdom, all our foolishness, and often we don’t know how to say it. When we do get to say we love someone, sometimes we reach for the pitch known as poetry. Of all the art forms, poetry and song relay love most immediately. A book of all new work (Australian love poems 2013, edited by Mark Tredinnick. Inkerman & Blunt Publishers ISBN 978-0-9875401-0-2) shows how poetry can stretch the message to screaming point, or say it all in a few seconds. Poetry allows us to say just how silly we feel or can make of a simple admission, something sublime. Michael Sharkey asks profusely

The sky that falls in children’s tales,
the tide that ebbs, the moon’s Swiss cheese,
Nijinsky’s dance. Stravinsky’s Flood;
what if I said you’re all of these.

While Petra White forces a needful perspective:

Hogging both time and world,
soul of another’s
body, making us
as we make it,
no fighting for it,
it blasts doubt out.

And the singer Paul Kelly opts not for the big ballad this time, but the minimal haiku:

Time is elastic
Together, days disappear
Apart, seconds crawl

Anyone writing love poetry needs be aware of the pitfalls of sentimentality. “When we kissed,” claims Michael Crane, “peach trees in China / did not blossom.” He distances himself further by considering
Maybe there is no genius
in a kiss, just a hunger
a thousand centuries old
and a need for comfort
willow trees can not fathom.

Sentimentality though is not to be confused with sentiment. Every poem in the book expresses sentiments, from the passionate to the objective, the innocent to the experienced, the idealistic to the cynical. Peter Rose’s Catullan persona says of love-making, “It’s more intimate / and exacting than one of his feeling lyrics.” And indeed, love poetry expresses by knowledge and a little art the desires and experiences that necessarily remain inexpressibly personal to the individual. Anne M. Carson writes about “ honing / the human, so we too become vast, / and all that is paltry in us, blown away.”  

It is true to say that most poems are written for love’s sake, for what the Greeks call agape; still, most of this collection is tangled up in eros. The book confirms the given that love poetry in English means the erotic before other forms of love, i.e. affective and familial love, love of nature and nation, let alone the supreme love of God. Be that as it may, we are not alone when we read Bronwyn Lovell:
Outside the world is silent
after a light fall of rain that
must have come while we
were not looking or caring
for anything more
than each other.

Nor can we ignore the truth in Cate Kennedy’s ‘Ode to Lust’:

It doesn’t need to have a bed;
its teeth pull off your underwear;
it likes you driven from your head,
legs round neck. Clothes over there.

Freud was not the first person to advise that eros doesn’t last. Relationship is about communication and change, so the poems are arranged to track different states in love’s life. Poets talk things through to themselves, yet they talk to us. Poets talk to the one they love, or to us about the one they love, so it can get tricky. Quietly they let us in on secrets, or other times let it all hang out. Reading 200 love poems at once, we start hearing people talking to each other. We wonder if Poet A is actually mad about poet B, if Poet Y wants to take Poet Z to Paradise, or dearly wishes them in the other place. The book sets up such connections and moods.

Anthologies reflect the character of their anthologists. This book was shaped by someone who knows first loves and losses, resolutions and fresh starts. He likes the variety of forms, favouring clear expression, strong images, and striking analogies. Mark Tredinnick has cited Hafiz and the Sufi tradition as a guiding principle in creating the collection. This is spoken voice poetry from the heart, direct speech but heightened, tending to the ecstatic. We hear its poetic example in the deep breath lines of Anne Walsh Miller: “You’re written in me in the before antiquity language of snowflakes. / Landing everywhere on me so thickly that you’re on me and in me and on my tongue / (you on my tongue is why I talk beautifully like snow under a streetlamp).”  

Are Australians Persians? To judge by the evidence of this book they are more forthcoming than might be assumed, at speaking of love. Trademark laconic is there, but also a delight in syntactical play and unexpected words. Gender and orientation are not issues, even if relationships are. Shyness and bluster live as neighbours with bubbliness and raunch, but then also melancholy and regret. Survival, like love found, is a good in itself. There is an intelligence at work frequently in the use of allegory and trope that is almost courtly. But one conclusion is certain: when 632 Australians submit 1501 new love poems to a tight deadline, it has to be said, they’re up for it.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Purgatorio after Inferno according to Dante

Readers of The Divine Comedy who get stuck in Inferno and see this as the place where all the action happens, have a long way to go. It is a common response for a novice to conclude that Dante equals Inferno. But Inferno is a dead-end ultimately without an understanding of what happens next. Indeed, Purgatorio is the poem that helps us better appreciate what is going on in Inferno. Here are some contrasts in Dante’s presentation of the two places that help our reading of both Inferno and Purgatorio.

1.     The word ‘peregrin’ (pilgrim) first appears in the Divine Comedy in Canto 2 of Purgatorio.  For the first time in the poem we are on pilgrimage, we are on the way to learning about ourselves. Inferno was not a pilgrimage. How do we describe Inferno? An endurance test, a wakeup call, a warning, a place of no exit for its inhabitants. But an early sign that the infernal state has been escaped is the use of ‘peregrin’. It is behind us. While on pilgrimage we are not in a burning hurry, we can stop when we like, we make conversation as we wish, we have time to reflect on ourselves and others, what we have been and who we are now and what we can be in the future. None of that is possible in Inferno, which is somewhere passed through in haste, as quickly as possible in order to get out of there. Inferno is not even really much of a journey, it is not a tourist destination. Pilgrimage is a medieval business, a way of finding the Way. Pilgrimage is what we do on earth in our allotted time, which may be why Purgatorio is for many readers the most accessible and recognisable of the three places in Dante’s poem. Pilgrimage is a way of reconciling things in our own life: it is a ‘little life’ within the larger span of our life. We may also choose to remember the poem is set in 1300 that, coincidentally or not, was the first Holy Year of the Western Church. It was a Jubilee that was, in this case, a chance for sins to be pardoned if the penitent took a pilgrimage to Rome.
2.     ‘Ahi quanto son diverse quelle foci / da l’infernali! ché quivi per canti / s’entra, e là giù per lamenti feroci,’ Dante observes in Canto 12, rendered by W.S. Merwin thus: ‘Oh how different are these openings / from those in Hell. Here one enters to singing / and there below to fierce lamentations.’ (Lines 112-114)  XII.’ Those in Purgatorio sing, an expression not to be heard in Inferno. In Inferno there is weeping, howling, groaning and lamenting sounds. The contrast is powerful. Singing is a natural human activity indicative of a listener, of belief in the future, of hope. The human noises in Inferno are the opposite, they are negative and painful sounds, the sounds of enduring suffering and irreversible loss. Almost every canto of Purgatorio mentions singing. It is the singing of psalm lines, in particular, for the psalms were the commonly held poetry of the Mediterranean world of Dante. They were known to educated and uneducated alike. The role of the psalms and their meaning in the context of different cantos deserves an entire essay of their own. 
3.     All of which affirms the central fact about Purgatorio, that there is hope. The script at the gate of Inferno famously warns those entering to abandon all hope. A complete absence of hope is a definition of Hell. Those in Inferno are fixed at the stage where they come to a realisation of the sins they have committed. Such a moment of painful realisation in real life can be like hell, which is one way of appreciating why Dante places them there: as a warning. We have to consider the idea that people in Inferno have no wish to be free of their sin and that hope itself is not on their list of possibilities. While Purgatorio offers the possibility of moving out of that fixity, of finding a solution to the mistakes in life, of learning to overcome past errors. 
4.     Penance, for this reason, is central to an understanding of the first two books of the Divine Comedy. Repentance and the possibility of being forgiven seem not to be available to those in Inferno. Almost the entire reason for Purgatorio is repentance and forgiveness and reparation. The condition of those in Inferno is a warning to the reader about the pitfalls of committing those things, with the certain implication that we are in fact capable of doing such things. Inferno is at least realistic in forwarding the view that humans are quite capable of mistakes, crimes, and evil, and that we have to start by examining our own selves. Purgatorio is the option where that examination of self is on offer. Each individual in Purgatorio is going through some kind of penitential test, with the aim of future personal restoration.
5.     Heaviness is a condition of Inferno. Lightness is a feature of Purgatorio. This contrast only becomes apparent once we read Purgatorio, where as each encounter passes Dante feels himself lightened of a burden. Sometimes he talks about a weight being lifted from his shoulders. The first third of Purgatorio is a physical, emotional and intellectual effort of overcoming the experience of Inferno. The recent memory stays in the present. We are made to sense its presence, even though Inferno, it has been established, is behind us. Gradually, the sense of being freed from the infernal state of mind is described by Dante. Purgatorio appears to be the place where both gravity and grace are at work, unlike Inferno where only gravity operates, and Paradiso, where we are drawn into another place altogether, one only possible through the operations of grace.
6.     Similarly, falling and rising, descent and ascent are contrasts made between Inferno and Purgatorio. In Inferno we not only descend physically into more extreme conditions, but the descent is one of increasingly intolerable scenes of sin and punishment. Dante himself literally falls down on a number of occasions. Whereas Purgatorio is on the up and up. Here the climb is increasingly easy (not always what we feel when we actually climb a mountain, by the way) and Dante is not prone to the same collapses as reported from the previous place. The further away from Inferno we find ourselves, the lighter we feel.
7.     Falling asleep is one way of dealing with trauma, with shocking sights not previously thought imaginable. Sleep is one way of dealing with pain and in Purgatorio Dante reports on several occasions how he goes to sleep. In Inferno there is much fainting and swooning, where Virgil is there to pick Dante up and keep him on track. Perhaps after Inferno Dante was suffering from sleep deprivation and Purgatorio is a kind of catch-up. No one is going to be caught napping in Inferno and when Dante does sleep in Inferno it is sudden and deep, as when he loses consciousness after witnessing Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5. This year a professor in Bologna has offered the theory that Dante himself had narcolepsy. Retrospective diagnosis based on a literary text is fraught with risk. Certainly Dante is fascinated with the process of falling asleep and describes it more than once in beautiful detail. Some critics of the narcolepsy theory say that Dante describes the poetic state of reverie attendant upon the creative act. Others that Dante the person in the poem falls asleep at those moments of the day, evening in fact, when the body would fall asleep naturally, and that this is Dante’s way of indicating time passing, in places where clock time is redundant. Whether or not the poet was narcoleptic, the theory draws attention to the sleep patterns through the poem and the poet’s acknowledgement of dream states as part of human experience, a source of the poetic muse. 
8.     A noticeable contrast when we enter Purgatorio is improved inter-personal communication and human contact between Dante and those he meets. Contact is suddenly real, not just a matter of observation, a quick hello (if that) and then moving on, as we know it in Inferno. Words are no longer delivered under duress. Instead of briefings from Virgil about the circle we now find ourselves in, a change happens in Purgatorio. People are allowed to share their experiences. They no longer stand as examples of what we don’t want happening to us, but as people who by their actions show us what we can do in our own lives. This is why Purgatorio is the critical book in the Divine Comedy, it is the main access to the meaning of everything else we read about here. It is the book of examples, it is ‘Life, a User’s Manual’.
9.     The artificial landscapes of pitted circles (Inferno) and a terraced mountain (Purgatorio) serve artistic and theological ends for Dante. But truer to our own experience of this one world of the Earth (and Italy and southern France, in particular) are the landscapes through which Dante and his companion travel. Inferno opens in a dark wood, Purgatorio on a rushy island shore, and while both of these landscapes serve as picture places of psychological awareness, we know they must be descriptions of places Dante knew about. But where? Both Inferno and Purgatorio include landscapes that his readers would have known intimately, and the delicacy with which he describes them, either literally or when they appear in his analogies, tells us that he is being more than generic, that he has very definite places in mind. We cannot locate many if any of these today, but we know we are in Italy and France because that is the circumference of Dante’s world. The dark wood usually reminds me (Philip) of the wilds of Tuscany, the rushy island of somewhere on the tranquil Po delta around Ravenna, but that’s just what I see. All of Dante’s nature descriptions of trees, birds, creatures and so forth are likewise redolent of the northern Mediterranean and Adriatic. To return to the lines quoted before, ‘Ahi quanto son diverse quelle foci / da l’infernali!’ (‘Oh how different are these openings / from those in Hell.’) Dante focuses attention on landscape and how different the landscape of Purgatorio is from that of Inferno. Inferno is a place of stone, streams, and darkness. It is rough and disorganised. There is no fiery lava because Dante had never seen a volcano. There are manmade landscapes in Inferno, notably in Malebolge, and we wonder what constructions Dante knew from life that correlate to these fearsome ditches. Purgatorio is a place of increasing interestingness, as for example in our quote where entrance into a new place is something surprising, something to look forward to. At each step of the way, landscape is increasingly inviting, there is improvement, there is promise. 
10. Companionship is vital to our reading of the Divine Comedy. Without Virgil we could not traverse Inferno. I say ‘we’ because the opening line of the poem (‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’) must not be translated ‘In the middle of my life’ but quite explicitly ‘In the middle of our life’. Brilliantly and subtly, Dante involves us, any reader of his poem, from line 1 as a fellow traveller along the way. So right away we too trust Virgil and treat his every word and action with respect and expectation. In fact we too can only survive Inferno by going along with Virgil. This relationship of utter dependence changes in Purgatorio. By contrast, in this other place Dante meets up with other guides who have special things to relate to us. The poets Sordello and Statius, for example, act as temporary leaders who help Dante elucidate pressing questions. In Purgatorio our sense of learning directly from other people is opened up, while in Inferno we were locked into witnessing shocking things with only one person to help us through, and even then Virgil was not always 100% communicative. Inferno is a single interface, Purgatorio several interfaces. 

These contrasts are one result of the creative conversations between Will Johnston and Philip Harvey on the writings of Dante, made during 2013 and 2014. Source of quotes: Purgatorio : a new verse translation by W.S. Merwin. New York, Knopf, 2000.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

‘Good Friday Seder at Separation Creek’ by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

This is a paper on the poem ‘Good Friday Seder at Separation Creek’ by Chris Wallace-Crabbe written for the symposium in his honour held at University College, Parkville, on Saturday the 31st of August 2013. A shorter version of this paper was read at the symposium itself, to meet the set time limit of ten minutes. The poem was first published in the poet’s collection ‘Rungs of Time’ (Oxford University Press, 1993).


Separation Creek is a pretty inlet with its own hamlet on the Great Ocean Road halfway between Lorne and Apollo Bay. The exact reason for the name remains inconclusive, maybe something to do with the early timber industry, or something brought back from France in 1918. It is a weekender, which is why the family in this poem is down for Easter holidays. The title warns us that complexities and ironies abound, for the family plans to conduct that most ancient of Jewish familial obligations, the seder meal commemorating the Passover in Exodus, on the most holy day in the Christian calendar, Good Friday. Separation is not only the name of the creek, an innocent enough thing seemingly, it is also a theme of the poem.

The moon has a flat face,
yellow Moses peering over the chine
of our neighbourhood mountain. Growl,
goes the rough surf. Our backstage mopoke
may have guessed that we lack
shinbone and bitter herbs for the occasion
while nuggety Joshua, gleeful as ever,
nicks off to his bedroom in order to find
the tucked-away afikomen. His brother
is all tricked out in Liverpool strip,
as red as Karl Marx but much fitter.

The moon, beloved of poets, maintains its presence throughout. It is the full moon after the equinox, time of Passover and cause of countless church synods called to determine the date of Easter. We find the Otways have a range of beings with ambiguous religious meanings. Moses himself is a presence, albeit the benign albedo light of the moon. One of the sons is Joshua, Hebrew antecedent of the name Jesus, who is found nicking off (a verb with its own religious connotations) to find the bread for the seder, part of the game of the ritual. Karl Marx, who said religion was an opium, makes a guest appearance. The word “fitter” hints unsubtly at that other threat to Victorian religious certainty, Charles Darwin. But it is the presence of the mopoke, or boobook owl, that catches attention, reminder both of the ancient Australian reality of the locale of Separation Creek and of the owl as, at least in Western tradition, the symbol of wisdom. It is the mopoke that tests the poet’s guilty awareness that they do not have all the required food for a genuine seder meal, thus asking is this a proper seder? An essential clue to the poet’s view of the whole process is in the word “backstage mopoke”, a comic reference to the spooky sound of an owl hoot, but as well acknowledgement that this is theatre. Ritual, even of this laid back nature down the coast, is a form of human theatre and humans understand relationship at one level as theatre. The surf itself goes Growl, like a character from Maurice Sendak. 

Braggart moon floats loftier now,
a white queen dragging the tides along
like a cloak of crushed velvet.
No rest for the wicked: surfers are camped,
or shacked, all the way from Pisgah to Sinai.
If they read, it is airport novels
with titles embossed in gold, but not the scriptures,
not crazy Nietzsche, certainly not Oscar Wilde
who shrugged and scribbled, ‘what comes of all this
is a curious mixture of ardour and indifference,’
and believed all art is entirely useless,

or said, or thought, or wrote, that he believed it,
a plump serious chap who lived
beyond religion on the Plains of Art.

Why surfers, that innocent breed who spend their days riding waves, are singled out as wicked seems unjustified, unless we hear the poet using the saying “No rest for the wicked” (the phrase is from Isaiah) as Australian drollery, a reversal or ironising of normal usage. He both means it and doesn’t quite mean it at the same time: he’s “deadly serious”. The surfies read works “embossed in gold”, something our culture once reserved for the holy writings, e.g. medieval illuminations, but is now used for cheap novels; another sign of separation from traditions. The poet invokes three bodies of writing with special religious connections: the Scriptures, those testaments to God’s work; Nietzsche that polemicist against Jewish and Christian teaching; and Wilde, who would replace religion with art, though Wilde did write De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The poet calls Wilde “a plump serious chap”, thus making a very relevant literary reference to the opening words of the novel Ulysses, but is this how we normally think of Wilde? Is a poet a person who just shrugs and scribbles? Is the poet delicately putting forward a proto-creed of his own in these lines? Or adopting a relative position? Keeping the options open? He certainly acknowledges he lives in a state of separation from the certainties offered by the religions of his upbringing. But this will not stop him being involved.

Now, over a varnished tabletop
we recite the special dealings that a people
had with He-who-is while quitting Egypt,
but it does feel quaint to have this on Good Friday,
a day whose very name has the kids
wondering if the language was taken ill
at its coining. Those big waves barge home
out of a Matthew Arnold metaphor

while the grained beach stands in for Zion,
offering peace of mind. No sweat
this evening, with our salt stars sailing
through the black text of pinetree branches
and that mopoke murmuring its bafflement
in the very face of the Torah,
sitting on the shoulder of mortality.

‘Quaint’ is a momentous word in this poem. An Orthodox Jew would use various words to describe the Passover seder, but ‘quaint’ would not be one of them, because even though an ancient ritual practice, the meal is central to Jewish identity. The seder might be defined as ‘quaint’ by Christians, in the sense of old-fashioned, because in their tradition the main ritual meal is the eucharist, the commemoration of what happens at the Last Supper and on Calvary. Both meals are an invitation based on faith, which may be why the poet alludes to that famous 19th century poem ‘Dover Beach’, a poem about loss of faith. The poet is indicating a sense of separation from these traditions he knows so well, yet he is cognisant of the fact that all of these ritual meals offer what Separation Creek offers, “peace of mind.” Tellingly, the poet does not tell his children that the day in question is called Good in Christian tradition, at least in English religious tradition, because Christ through the Cross brings redemption and salvation. Neither freedom from bondage nor the actions of grace are affirmed in the poem, though human desires, playfulness, the beauties of the empirical world, and historical reality are affirmed. Perhaps the poet is a Pelagian, but he continues:

It’s a gorgeous night. And there we go:
Diana of the fibros cannot show us that
history is a polychrome figure,
thorned, gassed and smeared with blood.

This poet makes endings that take us into a whole new space, a whole new way of seeing the rest of the poem. The easygoing Australian chill-out “It’s a gorgeous night. And there we go” gives no warning of what is going to happen next. The unexpected figure of Diana comes before us, goddess of the moon and woods, and fibrocement houses apparently, but there not to show us what she’s made of but what she cannot do, which is to place us in time. The poet leaves hanging at the end of the poem, in midair as it were, an unnamed figure we have no trouble recognising. Thorned and bloody, we know this is the victim enunciated in the Gospel narratives, but he is also gassed, not a Gospel word. Why? Because between the writing of this poem and Marx, Nietzsche and Co. are two historical disasters where ‘gassed’ has crucial meaning. The first is the trench warfare of the Western Front where thousands of innocent men were gassed to death, or survived the gas and guns to come home and work on projects like the Great Ocean Road that runs through Separation Creek. The other is the destruction of the European Jews, known as Shoah, in the other Great War of the past century. Both of these tragedies have informed modern memory and challenged our means of commemoration. Which is what, it seems to me, the poet is doing. He will partake of the seder meal, quaint though it may be, in order to share in the memory of human existence, with its need to belong and its sense of separation. 

And without being too irreverent of Jewish practice, I offer this midrash of the poem by Chris Wallace-Crabbe in gratitude for his thoughts expressed, his language honoured, and his experience vivified in words.

The following two addendum are abstracts of other papers, other ways of reading the poem.

Addenda 1: Every line of the poem contains further senses deserving of our attention, but let us contemplate here the use of ‘polychrome’ in the second last line. This is, like ‘quaint’, a momentous word in the internal dynamic of the poem. On first encounter we are right to see this as descriptive of the bloodied victim, who is a mass of obscene colours. Just as in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’, where named colours throughout the poem come together in the climactic final line “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow …”, so here different colours named in this poem have an associative meaning with the word ‘polychrome’. The moon itself is yellow, as it will be at moonrise, then as the evening continues, white. The poet identifies moon as both male and female in this colour code, the patriarchal God-listener Moses and the matriarchal goddess queen, and note how Diana is named later in the poem. One of the brothers is all in red ‘strip’ of a famous English football club, but a reader versed in religious imagery will see the potential sacrificed son and will hear the word ‘stripe’ also, an English poetic word of good vintage for the wounds of Christ. Gold, the only colour permitted for the actual illumination of medieval manuscript (Jewish and Christian), the required Byzantine colour of the icon, plays its own part in the poem. Gold was used in this religious art not to show off the wealth of the illuminator, but to illuminate, to draw light; gold was the closest the artist could come to reflecting the glory of the Creator. The ‘wicked’ surfers read texts embossed with gold, while the poet up the slope has a whole lot of religious and philosophical texts at his disposal we assume come from reputable presses that do not waste their time on gilt. The “varnished tabletop” is a visual cue for brown, the colour of the desert, and notice how in a poem set at night he artfully delineates “the black text of pinetree branches”. For, in nature, for the owl, that is the text, hence the bird’s “bafflement” at the texts of humans. All the colours in the poem are leads, different ways of seeing the “polychrome figure” at the conclusion, one could almost risk saying apotheosis, of the poem. The poet does not name this figure, though he does call it “history”, which is why there is reason to interpret the subject of the poetic drama as history, as much as religion. Unavoidably though, we do have to read the figure as the crucified God. The word “polychrome” has rich connotations in this reading, for Christ is polychrome, according to the New Testament. Every culture depicts Christ according to its own ideal and that includes the colour of his skin. He is, indeed, whatever colour we want to make him in order to present Christ-likeness. Also, “polychrome” is one way of paraphrasing the great and radical equalising of humanity we find at Galatians 3, here in the King James version: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” For the poet, Passover and Good Friday are in history, help us to interpret history. They are necessary signs and will not be denied, anymore than the “backstage mopoke”, “crazy Nietzsche” and the other characters in his little miracle play. Colour is one of the devices the poet uses, both in this and many other of his poems, to dramatise and explain the course of his thought.

Addenda 2: ‘Lightness’ was a word of praise used frequently at the Symposium to describe the poetry of Chris Wallace-Crabbe. ‘Lightness’ has been much on my mind too in reading the poetry over recent weeks. There is more to be said about this elsewhere, but it is a key struck by a tuning fork for the following lieder. Another way to write about the present poem is in terms of its poetic devices, in particular those that are common in the work of this poet and that show up in this poem. Some of these devices assist in the achievement of ‘lightness’. Let me point some of these out, in the order they appear. Line2. The first is the use of surprise words, be they archaic or retro or local or streetwise or whatever, to catch and keep our attention. ‘Chine’ is a good example. It is fair to say most Australian readers wouldn’t know ‘chine’ at all, it is not in common usage. It means ‘backbone’, though in fact as a geographic term it is peculiar to Dorset and means a deep ravine. The word is a perfect description of the steep rising slopes above Separation Creek, yet its presence sends readers scrambling for the dictionary, there to alert them to how such a very English word has been imported to describe such a very Australian landform. Line 11. Here the poet employs incongruity and contrast to masterly effect. To describe someone as “red as Karl Marx” is to say they are a serious kind of Socialist, at the very least. However, this is not the red of Communism but Liverpool F.C. The simile is comic, but with purpose. The separation in time and awareness between the Liverpool of Engels and the Liverpool of Lennon is achieved in four words. Brevity is the soul of it. Line 19. The use of words and phrases whose connotations in their existing sense are augmented and enlivened is a device we hear in “certainly not Oscar Wilde.” The sentence lists the kinds of books we do not expect surfers to keep in their campervans. Oscar is not in their library, certainly not. But “certainly not” is itself a Wildean locution. It not only conjures an underlying principle of Wilde’s camp decrees, it also evokes the legend of the fall of Oscar at his notorious trial, where Wilde and what he stood for was met by the English public with the stern and absolute judgement, “certainly not”. Here the phrase is so easily slipped into the syntax that it could be missed. Line 23. The device whereby authorial certainty is undermined, thereby lightening the weight of the argument and shifting the tone of seriousness, is at work where the poet asserts that Wilde “believed … or said, or thought, or wrote, that he believed it.” Well did he or didn’t he? What did Wilde do exactly? This is an expression of the poet’s own thought at work, moving around the place, trying to figure out whether if Wilde wrote this he did actually think it, and did he ever say it? The thoughts break the pattern the poem has established of being a straightforward, steady, trusted narrative. It also raises questions about the poet’s different modes of passive thought and active expression, and of how belief can even be expressed, or what is the beginning and end of beliefs. All in one line. Line 35. Australian idiom and vocabulary are constantly at play in the work of this poet, likewise the manners of speech that sometimes are immediately obvious to an Australian reader, but not always everyone else. “No sweat”, for example, would be an idiom familiar to Americans and British to mean no difficulty or no worries, but its appearance at this point in a poem about Passover could be heard without the deadpan refinement of Australian usage. How this poet uses Australian English to leaven his poetry is the subject though not of a paper like this but of a whole day of interactive reading, a whole book of arduous, ardent insights. Bonza insights, even.

Monday, 24 June 2013

“What if I said you’re all of these” – Michael Sharkey

Two Sonnets

Ten Talk: or, Ten to the Dozen

What if I said you’re all of these

“Yeah whatever can I run round the block?”

A singular wonder, a soft breeze,

You leave us all timeless, even the clock.

So embarrassing to hear that stuff.

You change the subject with questions

“What’s new?” and “How do you spell ‘enough’?”

Homework, piano, plus other suggestions.

All’s not as it seems, while we’re on it,

As you rebuff praise and cut to the chase.

A week later you ask how’s the sonnet

While you put a bookmark in place.

“You know,” you say, “it starts (if you please)

‘What if I said you’re all of these?’”

Questionnaire: Please Limit Answers to One Hundred Words

What if I said you’re all of these?

When did it start? When will it end?

What is asked for on our knees?

Where’s the safest address to send?

Why are there things that words can’t say?

How long does it take to miss you?

Why is the whole of time today?

And how come the old looks new?

Shall I compare thee to Shakespeare?

Art thou not so bloody intense?

Rather, just yourself? Awake, clear

To live with whatever makes sense?

And asleep, what is sleep? A key?

Isn’t it time for a cup of tea?

At last week’s Writers’ Retreat at Santa Casa in Queenscliff, Mark Tredinnick invited participants to write something using the line from a sonnet by Michael Sharkey, “What if I said you’re all of these.” These two sonnets are my response to this exercise.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Bloomsday and Dear Dirty Dublin

In the New York Times this week John Williams reports:

Today is Bloomsday, when readers worldwide celebrate Leopold Bloom’s Dublin wanderings on June 16, 1904, in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. To mark the event I asked a few notable fans of Joyce’s masterwork for memories of their own Bloomsdays.

The novelist Colm Toibin recalled a June 16 several years ago when he took a break from working at home in Dublin to food shop. Forgetting it was Bloomsday, he came across a group of literary celebrants outside a pub. “I had two plastic bags of groceries,” Toibin said. “When the crowd asked me who I was, I expressed puzzlement. They presumed I was masquerading as a character from the book, and were trying to think who had two bags of groceries in ‘Ulysses.’ In the end, I used a term with which Joyce might have not been familiar — I called them ‘a shower of wankers’ — and slowly made my way home and got on with my day’s work.”

This is a carefully articulated position, not as it appears a casual anecdote. Colm Toibin is placing himself in relationship to James Joyce, not the Bloomsdayers whom he disparages in a gratuitous fashion. He describes himself as doing what an average Dubliner (he is not an average Dubliner, but never mind) would do on an average day like say um the 16th of June, just to pull a date out of the air. He is walking home with his bags of groceries, just like some character in Ulysses. It’s so mundane it deserves a sentence in the greatest work of English fiction. Except in Ulysses not many people would have had grocery bags because (1) there was scarcely any food to buy and (2) grocery bags hadn’t been invented.

Toibin’s belief that he uses a term with which “Joyce might have not been familiar” assists in distancing himself from Joyce as well. Toibin inhabits a different world of English language in time to Joyce, so by logic a separate world of literary habitation. He does not need to live with Bloomsdayers, or James Joyce.

I find the story itself implausible. The most unlikely thing about this story is that anyone in Bloomsday would bother to ask a passer-by who he was pretending to be from Ulysses. Would they really do that? They might if they recognised Toibin and concluded he was joining in the festivities. As Joyce knew, being recognised on the streets of Dublin can come at a cost, which is one reason Joyce lived most of his life on the Continent. Toibin cannot escape, but clearly Toibin has more important things to do than celebrate Joyce, like going home and writing.

This anecdote will be added to the long historical record of ‘anxiety of influence’ and ‘the long shadow’ of Ulysses that affects Dublin writers. There is a wilful need in many Dublin writers to put themselves at odds with Joyce and his inheritance. Even today. They are uneasy with the phenomenon of Bloomsday in its hometown and seem prone to fire off missiles in its general direction. In some cunning or hostile way, Irish writers contest with the reputation of James Joyce. We see it writ large in Flann O’Brien, who read the predicament very well, and goes on to this day with Colm Toibin. The fact that Toibin is in the business of ‘forgetting it was Bloomsday’ is symptomatic of the Irish literary mind. He wants to forget Bloomsday but Bloomsday won’t let him.

There is also in Ireland an observable hostility from within the literary establishment towards Bloomsday, one that we do not see anywhere else. Edna O’Brien wrote an excellent biography of Joyce, but has voiced her criticism of Bloomsday as an unthinking Edwardian dress-up. Seamus Heaney chided the people in Dublin who (at last after so long) were prepared to celebrate Joyce’s achievement in the streets, by reminding them that Joyce suffered long for his art and deserved better than this free flow of Guinness. Roddy Doyle, in typical iconoclastic style, once claimed that the book should have been reduced in size long ago. In my experience of Bloomsday in Melbourne these criticisms are negligible. Dressing Edwardian, sipping stout, wondering if a particular passage is a longeur, these are incidental seconds of time on June 16th, overrun by the larger momentum of the performances and seminars.

When I read Toibin here I cannot help wonder if Joyce is right, Dublin is full of puritanical grumblers, full of unresolved jealousies and resentments. No wonder he left. The culture of complaint about Bloomsday is part of the history of Joyce reception in Ireland and may well be linked, in ways that need exploring, with the longer history of rejection of Joyce’s own work by the city of Dublin through the twentieth century.

Toibin, it must be remembered, idolises Henry James and is highly skilful at the calculated putdown. When I read this anecdote in the New York Times, I ask who it is who really serves the long term enjoyment of Joyce, the cheerful “group of literary celebrants outside a pub” or grumpy old Scrooge Toibin? Ulysses is a comedy from beginning to end, but when I read this story I wonder who it is that gets the joke.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Las Preguntas - History (Pablo Neruda)

Article by Philip Harvey first published in Eureka Street on May the 14th, 2013

Like many great poems, life is worked out by testing both questions and answers. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is itself a beautiful question, made more beautiful by the thirteen line reply that follows. A poem with all the answers is as unconvincing as a poem that has never asked any questions. We seem to find ourselves somewhere between those two extremes, which is why some poems work for us now, while others bide their time.

The last poems of the Chilean Pablo Neruda are a cycle of 74 cantos called El Libro de las Preguntas, The Book of Questions. In fact, the poems consist entirely of questions, which act as much to celebrate as to query the world around us. They reveal the poet in his many moods – humourous, nostalgic, political, sentimental, metaphysical, absurd, realistic, passionate, wistful – and in just a few words reduced to the fundamentals.

The unquestionable marvel of the nursery rhyme lives in a line like “Dónde dejó la luna llena su saco nocturno de harina?”, which William O’Daly translates “Where did the full moon leave its sack of flour tonight?” Neruda’s child-like eye surprises us to the end. Soon enough though his voice toughens: “Is the sun the same as yesterday’s or is this fire different from that fire?” When he asks “How old is November anyway?” he is asking us for an answer, but what is our answer? Do we have one? With a question like “Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?” the human world and nature confront one another; the words conjure extra meanings the more we care to think about them. “Where is the centre of the sea?” could keep geographers busy for hours. Neruda can turn a question into an image in time: “Why do assemblies of umbrellas always occur in London?” And there are questions we have thought all our lives without putting them into words: “What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?”

Still, not everything is living for living’s sake. Time is of the essence. Neruda wrote these poems on the eve of the violent overthrow of the elected government of Chile in 1973. He was a close friend of President Salvador Allende, which is why some lines unsettle the general sense of an enquirying mind at peace with the world: “Pero es verdad que se prepara la insurrección de los chalecos?” O’Daly has this as “But is it true that the vests are preparing to revolt?” Los chalecos means vests in Spanish, but anyone reading this poem at the time would know its military and political connotations. Vests were worn by soldiers, including top brass with lots of medals attached. When General Augusto Pinochet, the head of the army, took control of Chile in a coup d’état, it was a vindication of the fear spoken, by implication, in some of the lines of El Libro de las Preguntas.

Many suspected foul play when Neruda died twelve days later. In 2011 his former driver claimed that Neruda had been poisoned by secret agents, contradicting the official version, death from cancer. Due to legal action from the Communist Party, the Chilean government last month exhumed the body. This act is contentious itself, the Pablo Neruda Foundation disapproves, while the family want closure, one way or the other.  Preliminary results confirm that Neruda did have an advanced case of prostate cancer, but tests continue, both in Chile and the United States. Full results could take up to three months.

The questions kept on coming. Neruda could nail his colours to the mast:
It is bad to live without a hell:
aren’t we able to reconstruct it?

And to position sad Nixon
with his buttocks overt the brazier?

Roasting him on low
with North American napalm?
Dantesque conjectures were a way of dealing with political upheaval inside Chile. And through those years some of Neruda’s questions came to have prophetic meaning: “Why in the darkest ages do they write with invisible ink?” This is not softened any with a line like “Is peace the peace of the dove?” We know where his sympathies are when he says
Do all memories of the poor
huddle together in the villages?

And do the rich keep their dreams
in a box carved from minerals?

But as we return into The Book of Questions we find that all of life presents us, and the poet, with paradoxes that contain within them leads and explanations, if only we pay attention. It is almost offhand when he jokes “Cuántas Iglesias tiene el cielo?”, “How many churches are there in heaven?” Exact statistics are not on his mind when Neruda wonders, “Does a pear tree have more leaves than Remembrance of Things Past?” For these are the words of someone looking out beyond present disasters. He keeps hope alive, pays attention daily to the value and goodness in the world, seeing in these things that which is truly life-giving. It is a South American, after all, who would ask “De qué suspende el picaflor su simetría deslumbrante?” “From what does the hummingbird hang its dazzling symmetry?”            

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Las Preguntas – Tyrants (Pablo Neruda)

Don’t let the turkeys get you down, as the saying goes. For even the best regulated lives have to deal with difficult people and petty tyrants. Pablo Neruda himself asks,

Por qué me pican las pulgas
y los sargentos literarios?

Why do the fleas
and literary sergeants bite me?


His though is a world more extensive of view than a publisher’s desk or editor’s redraft.

Aquel solemne Senador
que me atribuía un Castillo

devoró ya con su sobrino
la torta del asesinato?

Has that solemn senator
who dedicated a castle to me

already devoured, with his nephew,
the assassin’s cake?


For this is a world on the edge, a society in 1973 where no one knows who to trust, where what you say today could be your death warrant tomorrow.

Qué significa persistir
en el callejón de la muerte?

What does it mean to persist
on the alley of death?


Adolf Hitler is not the most interesting figure in Second World War history, not by a long way, but that period is unimaginable without Hitler. We will never know if the course of history could have been otherwise. Pablo Neruda gets to the point.

Cuál es el trabajo forzado
de Hitler en el infierno?

What forced labour
does Hitler do in hell?


The tyrant ends up where we (and any reader of Dante Alighieri) would expect him to end up. Late in El Libro de las Preguntas the poet asks a series of questions about the tortures Hitler must suffer in Inferno, tortures he was responsible for inflicting on so many innocent people.

O debe morir sin morir
eternamente bajo el gas?

Or must he die without dying
eternally under the gas?


Hitler’s entry into the poem is ominous. He is a stand-in or exemplar for any tyrant and in the circumstances of the poem’s composition, Hitler is code for something, someone, very much alive at the time and about to act.

No es major nunca que tarda?

Isn’t it better never than late?


… Pablo Neruda asks grimly of the impending moment. It is a black joke, for he and his friends would prefer anything to the political disaster that is about to befall Chile.

Es verdad que vuela de noche
sobre mi patria un condor negro?

Is it true that a black condor
flies at night over my country?


The poet indicates that dictatorship in his country is a possibility, without naming names. He knows South America’s modern history of military regimes.

Por qué enseña el professor
la geografia de la muerte?

Why does the professor teach
the geography of death?


And though he can name President Richard Nixon in his poem, a contemporary who deserves the fires (or at least napalm) of hell, Pablo Neruda cannot dare name Chilean names in the same way. The closest he comes are surreal references to familiar local sights.

De qué rie la sandía
cuando la están asesinando?

At what does watermelon laugh
when it’s murdered?


Other names come close to the poet’s own memorial sense of inescapable tragedy.

Por qué no amanece en Bolivia
desde la noche de Guevara?

Why does it not dawn in Bolivia
after the night of Guevara?


Because for all of the thanks for life being expressed in this his final long poem, Pablo Neruda stares at the inevitable moment. He must meet the power of the tyrant, just as others have during his lifetime, in other countries than his.

Cuánto media el pulpo negro
que oscureció la paz del día?

How large was the black octopus
that darkened the day’s peace?


All the Spanish lines are from Pablo Neruda’s book poem ‘El Libro de las Preguntas’. The translations are by William O’Daly, published under the title ‘The Book of Questions’ (Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, c1991).