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Paul Kane's Drowned Lands

Paul Kane Drowned Lands University of South Carolina Press 1 57003 341 2

Reviewed by Philip Harvey in The Australian Book Review, late 2005

This is a poet who believes in a book that ‘lies open, taking the measure/of the world, of what in dreams is sought or/found in the fissure that separates and/joins two translucent worlds of fire and ice.’ (‘Frost, at Midnight’) Paul Kane’s technique for filling such a book is not by universalizing or massive cataloguing, but through crystalizations of favoured themes into poems that can read deceptively like plain English.  In this book ‘sky and land were sold for a song, which became an anthem/and then a dirge,’ school was where ‘daydreams stopped and humiliating knowledge began,’ and you, the individual,’have come this far/and still you think/your life will endure.’

Kane has a skill at revealing how experiences transpose prior awareness into other meanings, deeper, darker. His first premise is that the world is whole. After that,  preconceptions are vitally revised by the twin powers of personal and historical memory. Nothing could look more simple, for example, than his short poem entitled, very simply, ‘Australia’:

Island nation, island people - we are both:
the sea surrounds us on all sides, and washes up
into our dreams at night. We dream of it by day:
the image the shadow of the word, and the word
illumination by desire - mere mother sea of what
we are, or simply wish for, in this inseparate world.
            And in our ears, wind and words.

In his acclaimed critical history of 1996, Australian Poetry, Paul Kane went to lengths defining that quotient of the human race engaged in the problematic enterprise ‘Australian poetry’, without including the subset to which he belongs: non-Australian poets who take Australia as a theme. (Kane is also poetry editor of that North American journal of Australian literary studies of resourceful longevity, Antipodes.) A thorough-going orthodox syntax and metrical perfectionism are hallmarks of his work. The measured voice never strains and, to everyone’s relief, never drones as it carefully drops soft surprises one after the other. Every noun has its special shading. A predictability of tone, an evenness, is the necessary assistance for a content that upends expectations. It is his unargumentative placement of just the right details that makes the feel of Kane’s work, at its best, unforgettable.

A ribbon of cloud billows in the valley,
An opaque mirror of the river below.
You are crossing a bridge in sunlight,
Suspended above cloud, water, ground.
        And do you remember such moments?

he asks in ‘Shadows’, as if we answer any other way. Just occasionally such limpidity ends limply; we turn to look for more but the moment has passed and perhaps this is the price a poet pays who uses words with such consistently gentle persuasion. Only someone with real confidence in his powers could get the most well-worn rhyme in English to turn things over: ‘It is change we mean when we speak of time,/and night revolving into day repeats/its pattern of inevitable rhyme.’ (‘Outback before Dawn’) Such a verse draws us towards Kane’s handful of convictions: that we must accept our own scale before space and time, that everything is subject to change, that beauty is more than a possibility, and that something new can happen under the sun. A simple list, but how do any of us learn to live with their proverbiality?

That great compiler of maxims and paradoxes, that indulger of the proverb, Erasmus, is a Kane mainstay. Yet another poem about the Dutch Humanist (‘Concedo Nulli’) appears in this, Kane’s second collection. Visiting the Maison d’Erasme in Anderlecht, the poet works through the contrast between its run-down state (‘wit, satire/ridicule - even mortared stone can rot’) and the undeniable newness of ancient Latin choral singing he chances to hear:
In the faltering voices rehearsing
the hymns, there is no irony - and if
the priest takes pleasure in the sound, as do
I seated by a pillar in shadows,
it is because for moments at a time
what’s praised is neither knowledge nor folly,
but an absence we cannot account for.

Praise has become a crucial discovery in Kane’s work, a positive way out of the limbo of enclosed gesture. Poems using traditional religious stories, reminiscent of Levertov, also make a welcome entrance into Kane’s published work. In ‘Disciples Asleep at Gethsemane,’ Peter, James and John account for their inaction when vigil was invited, their excuses a mixture of desire to belong compromised by personal weaknesses. The challenge ‘to keep faith’ is harshly underscored in the final verse by an authorial voice prepared to extend personal rebuke to the extreme that ‘the dream erodes within,/and sweet hope is made sweeter by perversion.’ The lesson of commitment is never too late, the lesson of self-knowledge cannot be made alone. And in ‘Preaching the Cross’, the poet’s silent viewing of a room of crucifixion paintings teaches him to view the gallery space itself as the scene of darkness and light where ‘patrons stroll from one death to another, covetous/of their own good fortune.’ The gallery and, by implication, the world outside are identified as the place ‘where defeat became the transfigured norm.’


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