Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Pasternak Time: "Quasi people, with more haste than voice"

Pasternak Time: "Quasi people, with more haste than voice"
Quasi people, with more haste than voice,

Face book opinions ephemeral as crosswords;

Friends more by accident than choice.

Stasi people brandish orders of boss words;

Watch hallways; their digits rip-off files.

Incognito always, they engineer lost words.

Power people, in private frantic, in public smiles,

Know who they banish are stars they fought.

Half a people respect them, the rest revile.

Non-people, sorted or bought or fraught, caught

On the wrong side of the street, the wrong year;

Grew up wanting something, last left with naught.

Anti-people paraded in news reports, raise fear

By their every mention, have nowhere to hide;

Live abroad, by the sword. Their fate is clear.

Real people, with normalcy on their side,

Stay silent wrong times; asked something, rave.

We live and let live with their small prides.

Near people, here, we will go with to the grave;

Think dear about every day, keep close to hearts

Even after we are broken and are brave.

Icon people, reminders of the greater part,

Post-work watchers of blessing, warning,

Stay at peace through owners' fits and starts.

Mirror people, those ones we see in the morning

Full frontal in the bathroom with their internal noise:

The only face from which is no hiding, no ignoring.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “The Bible improves with years”

Pasternak Time: “The Bible improves with years”

The Bible improves with years.
How useless the cynic with “It’s all useless!”,
The optimist absurd as the pessimist.
The psalmist knew many days
Who waited with joy for sunrise,
Gave thanks for small beauties it revealed.
He had seen enough for a lifetime
And exile was always just around the corner.
Comes a time faith alone is all that’s left.
The Bible, returned to as we do to home,
Home’s landscape and meetings in all weathers.
There rages argument about Russian,
Which words in what order work and why.
Tongues proliferate across the Soviets,
Out across the world of raging nations.
And Job sits amidst the results
Sorting out how it’s them and it’s him, both:
We sit down together gazing at loss.
Tyrants may scan the borders,
Send their enemies to the bombed frontline,
But it is still a child governs the household
And hope alone, immaterial hope, persists.
The Bible, fragments left from big explosions:
Those little first churches of old Asia Minor
Built on nothing but breath and bare stone.
Everyone is dealing with the fallout.
Temptations are personal, like religions.
Miracles in the midst of great crowds,
Unjust trials more gruesome than reality
And a death over before it began.
When I was a child
I read the Bible like a child.
How we see our world afresh there
Where everything built is apt to age
And love alone is passed along,
That love may grow. We rendered
Unto the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
And its Great Leader its due,
But unto you the greater part.

Pasternak Time: “She listened long after there was much to say”

Pasternak Time: “She listened long after there was much to say”

She listened long after there was much to say.
There was always something to say.
Winter days, remembering the times all day inside.
So much to forget, inside.
Imagine no-one to talk to while winter lasts,
Sharing the spoken word, while time lasts.
Those with no-one to talk to live so long.
It is fearsome how much we long.
Hermits receive visitors’ needs and uncertainties.
Novelists write alone vastly from uncertainties.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “Flat on its face the old movie”

Pasternak Time: “Flat on its face the old movie”

Flat on its face the old movie
Stands up again. It stands up well.
Crowds run one way, bullets the other.
Someone must lose. A speech is made.
They all wore clothes like that,
Hard to believe. Broad coats and hats.
Clackety-clack like the intercity
The film unwinds. Cities disintegrate.
One thing about people who disappear:
They disappear. You could be next.
Opens its mouth without a voice,
Only cue card words. We hear no screams.
Comedy or tragedy, epic or farce?
That is the question. It does not say.
Credits are an historic custom
To reward the winners. That’s another story.
Ah! All the time in the world to consider
The captured revolution! The editor died. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “Green glassware and silver bowls”

Pasternak Time: “Green glassware and silver bowls”

Green glassware and silver bowls,
White linen and wide open windows
Are not so much to ask for.
Close writing and secret psalms,
Firm friendships and wild private visions –
Who says there will be no more?
Grown ideas and saving themes,
Greek knowledge and deep inner doubts –
Excuse me, here is the door!
Dark vigils and feast day meals,
Rich motets through long summer twilights
The party will not ignore.
Lost mornings and afternoons,
Hereafters and pained after effects:
After is not like before.

Pasternak Time: “Anti-poems pass by the censor”

Pasternak Time: “Anti-poems pass by the censor”

Anti-poems pass by the censor:
“The thousand-room castle – tear it down!”
“Crumble crumbs for the hungry ants”
“At the end of the day there are outcomes”
Your kind of anti-poem has sonorous sunsets,
It is edged around with indulgence.
Her versts of bursts are self-referential,
They beg for a visit to Vladivostok.
Anti-poems on the fall of the florin,
The collapse of the edifice Inevitable.
Anti-poems for every occasion:
Birthdays, assassinations, funerals.
His kind of anti-poem fixates on facial hair,
Is too lukewarm about the Great Leader.
My kind of anti-poem is whispered round midnight
After they’ve hauled the ‘traitor’ away.
Follow these rules for partyline anti-poems:
1.  Keep the similes simple.
2.  Use the root word ‘work’ at least once.
3.  Improve your basic crescendo.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “The five minute phonecall took no time”

 Pasternak Time: “The five minute phonecall took no time”

The five minute phonecall took no time
For such a famous phonecall. Yes, comrade.
They have talked about it ever since,
A lifetime of conjecture. What was the tone?
Lives hung in the balance on the weight
Of a single sentence. It’s not poetry.
A lesser writer would stumble with words
Or make false claims. Not Pasternak.
He learnt dialectic in the days of glory
When his parents wowed  Moscow. The Pasternaks.
The Georgian psychopath knew all that
But he had a mission. Vendetta.
Lifetimes fill with connected incidents
To break the receiver. Friendships founder.
And time hangs heavy in her two books
Who lived to remember her call. Silent decades writing.
Where all roads lead to the five minute phonecall,
One name traded against another. Hang up! Now!
For what is Mandelstam, tell me again,
What kind of damn fool name is that? Mandelstam.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “The narcissistic psychopath”

Pasternak Time: “The narcissistic psychopath”

The narcissistic psychopath
Has them all doing his dirty work.
Main motive: his own only-ness.
Who he wouldn’t kill to keep control,
What he wouldn’t say to hold them in sway,
What he wouldn’t will.
Statues he commissions for town squares,
In his own likeness. His own inscription
Makes a murderer of millions their liberator.
His records reach every room in the land:
His signature must be a death’s head.
For what is he without his fame,
His appetite for his own power
Beyond reason to satisfy?
O what might they do to dethrone
His prospering claims to supremacy?
What do to reconstruct the bodies
He destroyed in his will to tyrannise?
Shall short lines prevail? Witticisms
Spotlight his blind acquisition?
They could ignore him, leave time alone
To end the cruelty of silent assent.
They may take up the wisdom that is folly,
Render their lives to powerlessness.
Share common food.
Speak to the future in truth
As if time had no hands
And clock faces in town squares,
Wordless as the moon
Remind of times before he entered,
Rolling out his slogan inscriptions,
His preposterous claims to liberation.
Only after a death, his death
Dare anyone denounce direct.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “Summer stops us in our tracks”

Pasternak Time: “Summer stops us in our tracks”

Summer stops us in our tracks,
The heat wave and the heat wave
City roads and gardens empty as flyleaves,
The heat wave and some reading time
Behind the louvres, in the parlour cool.
Averbakh, Troshchenko, Kirpotin, Gidash,
Party names denouncing Pasternak
‘fellow traveller’ ‘class warfare’ ‘bourgeois’
‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ ‘formalism’
Only names now in a book on Pasternak.
Their words are an entire climate
Stopping everyone in their tracks,
Oppressive and disempowering and heated,
As if the city should endure no let-up,
Empty of any vehicle for new words.
Between paragraphs our eyes take a rest.
Only in the surviving pages of Pasternak,
The supporting letters of friends of Pasternak
Does life go on behind the louvres:
Bright lines, some rewarding reading time,
Rumours of a cool change by the weekend.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “Two-timing takes its toll”

Pasternak Time: “Two-timing takes its toll”

Two-timing takes its toll
As the secret gets out
And everyone is drawn in
Whether they take sides, or not.
Mistress Revolution or Lady Art:
Will he never make up his mind?
Who’s it going to be?
Their beauties so transparent,
Their expectations almost eternal,
Their moves fabulous and fickle.
Someone is going to get hurt,
Someone else tries not to care.
Divides become apparent.
Mademoiselle The Present and Madame The Past:
What’s the choice?
Who will he stay with?
Will they all just stick it out?
Or will someone get the flick?
Commentary circulates:
Only death will come between them.
Everybody is talking,
No two opinions quite the same,
But on this they agree:
It’s an uneasy truce
Where no-one is completely happy,
No side gets everything they want.
Life must go on now this is the situation.
Watch the calculations start!
Miss Chance or Dame Fortune?
The compromises settle uncomfortably
Certain of a flare-up.
Can he serve two mistresses
And not hate the one
While he serves the other?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “Twelve versions of Hamlet”

Pasternak Time: “Twelve versions of Hamlet”

Twelve versions of Hamlet
Were found among his papers.
Workmanlike, as critics say,
Or was this, say, just an honest day’s pay
In the worker’s paradise?
The father will be obeyed,
He will not be denied:
Twelve versions of Hamlet
Write and rewrite that writing counts
And the state is corrupt,
Lying all over the place.
The established playgoer
Watches the playacting prince
Do his twelve versions of Hamlet
So socially so really really real
He could be mistaken
For a social realist,
While murders happen offstage,
Women go mad for some reason,
And you would dearly wish yourself
To be living in another country.
Where are the armies going now?
What’s to laugh about in a graveyard?
As one after another the leaders
Are disappeared or reappeared
Or kill each other out in the open
With words or swords,
Lying all over the place.
The lucky ones leave at midnight
For the writer’s dacha in yon woods,
Or legal asylum in Denmark somewhere.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “Life herself comes about”

Pasternak Time: “Life herself comes about”

Life herself comes about,
The messages scramble to keep up.
Once upon a time solitary for a while,
Impossible not to see
Every existence is wonder –
He was a light-hearted, serious young man.
Miracles are the vast trees against the blue,
Trains riding over the hillsides,
The healing silence and their faces.
It was his to sort through until he found
It is only his for now,
It is not his.
This someone, he enters trying to say how
We are told there will be defeat,
So when there is defeat
We overcome.
They were not always exactly to blame
Who came to take him down.
Only when empty again
He raced to put the words in order
Knowing it can never be enough.
It is too late, it is not his.
It is not ours,
But we read
Sensuous, personal,
Angry, at the last fearless words,
Entry after entry.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Pasternak Time: “General Fear commands the theatre”

Pasternak Time: “General Fear commands the theatre”

General Fear commands the theatre,
His orders paralyse the provinces.
Sycophants are victims by daybreak,
Bragging dogs go silent.
Up in the gods they hold breath
Who prefer to attend nameless;
His box is empty after interval,
The players sigh with relief.
Out on the Front his same old words
Are enough for macho souls
Who by nightfall will be more
Of his brave, misplaced statistics.
But it’s into the best Red surgery he goes.
They attend to his secret wound
While his thieving mistress jokes outside
On her thirteenth cigarette.
She’ll be a footnote in biographies.
His kind of cancer’s inoperable.
The curtain will fall on old wars
As the provinces go out for a stroll.

Pasternak Time: “Cities stained with gold”

Pasternak Time: “Cities stained with gold”

Cities stained with gold,
Their streets rife with snowy walkers,
Their apartments edged with extra masterpieces.
Their promises increase with youth.
The promises of cities –
Vast as the shifting panorama,
Qualified by insistent commitments,
Oblique in their midlife directions –
Prove transitory, youth itself.
Someone should lighten up,
Turn crude surface into gold,
Take that choice even then inevitable,
Make the hard decision.
Not that the revolution would win,
No one said that,
No one said that then.
The revolution came into the cities,
Came with its own youthful ways,
With its speeches and kitchen cabinets,
With its own desolations.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Sentences in ‘Doctor Zhivago’ by Boris Pasternak

The grassy smell of earth and young greenery made your head ache, like the smell of vodka and pancakes in the week before Lent. (page 84)

The book fills up effortlessly with resonant descriptions. Having only this week started a book the plot of which I have known for over forty years, it is these close descriptions, together with the internal thoughts of the main characters, that stun with their immediacy. Here, for example, is an analogy that isn’t an analogy, more like an opportunity to raise up the evocation, for indeed nature and religion are at one in this seasonal image. Where else but Russia? we think And its reality of “vodka and pancakes” only enriches the nostalgia. We observe Lent at the end of the sentence, wondering in anticipation whether the church seasons will be mentioned in the same intimate way after the Revolution in 1917, or if they will be slowly replaced in the narrative by other ways of marking out time. Only by reading the book will we find out.

There he had command of a detachment of semi-invalids, whom equally decrepit veterans instructed in the mornings in a drill they had long forgotten. (page 133)

Chekhovian humour infuses the book, something I did not expect in quite such abundance, having only the film in my head. This one sentence vignette of some minor parade ground behind the main German-Russian frontline, is simply too absurd not to be true. In a single stroke Boris Pasternak shows the uselessness of the Russian war effort. The image is both a microcosm of the futile position of the men and a symbol of the macrocosm of the Russian Army itself, impossibly underprepared and reliant on outdated skills.

That June in Zybushino the independent republic of Zybushino, which lasted for two weeks, was proclaimed by the local miller Blazheiko. (page 155)

Ditto this bizarre claim on history, made after Moscow withdraws from the War and before the Revolutions of 1917 transform the country. Such is the state of flux and excitement, wonder and dread overtaking Russia, a statelet like Zybushino can be declared, Pasternak asserts, and survive for some weeks without any authority being able to uphold or suppress it. Zybushino is no more than a depot town for grain, somewhere in Russia or Ukraine, yet the locals (Bolsheviks or Mensheviks or Whoever) turn it into the prototype for a soviet. Presumably the Communist authorities in the 1950s did not want people to be reminded that such ludicrous pretensions could and did occur. The idea of Zybushino, ‘the mouse that roared’, is the sort of comic invention that must have been read with raised eyebrows by the comrades in the Kremlin. Is Blazheiko a hero or a fool? He could be both, or even neither, depending on how you care to apply interpretation. Is he an innocent Pasternak figure, or a puppet of sly satire?  

Superfluous furniture and superfluous rooms in the houses, superfluous refinement of feelings, superfluous expressions. (page 198)

The attack on the middle class is already well underway when Zhivago returns to Moscow after the revolution. The family has given over the ‘superfluous’ downstairs of their home to an Agricultural Academy and finds ways of adjusting to this intrusion on their lives by adopting the propaganda language of the new rulers. The implication of ‘superfluous’ is that necessity alone dictates how people will live their lives. Anything judged bourgeois can be dispensed with, even if that means coercive action by the state authorities. Creature comforts can go, yet in this sentence we see that feelings and expressions may be treated as material possessions in the same way as furniture and homes. Too much of the wrong kind of feelings and expressions can be judged ‘superfluous’ by the authorities and, as we know, this became the case a decade later. 

Alongside well-dressed rich people, Petersburg stockbrokers and lawyers, one could see – also recognized as belonging to the class of exploiters – cabdrivers, floor polishers, bathhouse attendants, Tartar junkmen, runaway madmen from disbanded asylums, small shopkeepers, and monks. (page 256)

The class of exploiters in carriage 14 of the train to the Urals is a cross-section of the predictable and unpredictable. While we expect stockbrokers and lawyers to be enemies of the people, the Bolshevik propaganda makes that explicit, the rest of the list is tenuous, if not contradictory. The class of exploiters, we are being told, consists of anyone the revolutionaries decide is an exploiter, or an enemy of the people. Anyone, in fact, could anytime soon be branded an enemy, including any of the Bolsheviks themselves. Little wonder the leaders of the revolution were paranoid. Cabdrivers, floor polishers and bathhouse attendants were all minor jobs that maintained the status of the middle class. A Tartar junkman may be there because he sold goods for profit (ditto small shopkeepers) or just because he was a Tartar. We can guess that the revolution broke up the charities of asylums, having no use for madmen. Monks make the list because they were, in dialectical materialist terms, of no earthly use and exploiters for generations; that this shows a complete lack of knowledge about monastic vows, is neither here nor there. The doctor and his family have an allotted bunk (something not shown in the film, where everyone scrambles for a place in the carriage), which can be read as a small irony. We assume that doctors too are from ‘the class of exploiters’, given that Zhivago is here in carriage 14, yet the novel rides on the unexpressed tuth that any society depends on its doctors. The old regime needs doctors at the battle front, the revolutionaries need doctors in the civil war. Doors will open for Zhivago because he serves life, an end that in any circumstances no one can deny without denying someone’s life. As we learn, this is driven not just by idealism but by necessity. 

Mischief and hooliganism were counted as signs of the Black Hundred in Soviet areas; in White Guard areas ruffians were taken for Bolsheviks. (page 386)

In other words, uncontrollable violent behaviour was typical of all sides in the civil war following the revolution. For those who did not take sides, each side may as well have been as bad as the other. Yet all sides wish to claim their own violence as simply the necessary end for the salvation of Russia. The short Part Ten (‘On the High Road’) depicts people in Siberia caught in the midst of this upheaval. No one is left untouched by the mayhem of words and actions, as each side battles to take advantage of a situation in which the old regime no longer controls society. While making every attempt to be realistic, Pasternak succeeds in presenting scenes that are by turns horrible, pathetic, absurdly comic, and hallucinatory. Without inviting the reader as such, Pasternak nevertheless causes us to ask how we ourselves would respond to such unstable social conditions, where anything you said or did now could be your reprieve or death sentence tomorrow.

What must one be, to rave year after year with delirious feverishness about nonexistent, long-extinct themes, and to know nothing, to see nothing around one! (page 453)

Although this is Zhivago’s response to seeing Reds posters in Yuriatin on his return from forced revolutionary service, one can hear the same complaints rising up all through the seventy years of Soviet rule. It is a response to propaganda, the same repetitious phrases and directives. The disconnect with reality is galling for those who must live with the enforced changes and are powerless to influence them. Pasternak is describing the same feelings many Russians would have felt in the forties and fifties when these lines were composed. Nothing was to change. Given such heartfelt rejection of the Party’s modes of communication, it is not surprising the Party experts saw Pasternak’s book, in passages like this, as a direct attack on their work. Something had to give. When we hear Zhivago’s protest  we intuitively hear as well the cry for a language that is not raving, delirious, feverish. He desires a world of new themes and knowledge, i.e. in the language used by Pasternak in this book.

To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horseradish by itself. (page 482)

Lara and Yuri agree that philosophy by itself is simply not living. They are talking in the lucid chapters of conversation after they are reunited. These chapters are themselves a change from the sort of novel that has lovers caught up in lovemaking to the exclusion of all else; they are a climax of emotional and intellectual rapport between the two, and Pasternak certainly built the tension before their reunion. Real relationships are about commonality. They agree, for example, that “philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life,” and will not read books devoted entirely to philosophy. Finding themselves brought together again in the midst of vicious civil war, Lara and Yuri hold out against the diminishment of life brought about by people who are all philosophy, and nothing else.   

In a sweeping script, taking care that the appearance of the writing conveyed the living movement of his hand and did not lose its personality, becoming soulless and dumb, he recalled and wrote out in gradually improving versions, deviating from the previous ones, the most fully formed and memorable poems, ‘The Star of the Nativity’, ‘Winter Night’, and quite a few others of a similar kind, afterwards forgotten, mislaid, and never found again by anyone. (page 517)

A surprise shock ends this sentence describing Zhivago, as he writes his poetry through the night at Varykino. None of the poetry at the end of the book will ever be saved or read by anyone. The spectre of Osip Mandelstam and the poets of the Stalinist age rises up before us: ‘never found again by anyone.’ In his subordinate clauses Pasternak tracks the process of poetic composition in loving detail, only to end the sentence with the desolating conclusion that none of this work will ever reach its potential reader. We read the poems at the end of the novel, but within the frame of reference of the story itself none of these poems survive. We read poems lost in time. This long sentence is a premonition of more to come, for we are made aware that like the destiny of the poems, the people associated with the poems will also, likely as not, be ‘forgotten, mislaid, and never found again by anyone.’ The sentence anticipates the startlingly brief summary of Lara’s fate just before the Epilogue.

People from the sidewalks came over to the little group around the body, some reassured, others disappointed that the man had not been run over and that his death had no connection with the tram. (page 582)

At the very moment when Zhivago dies of a heart attack on a city tram, Pasternak does Chekhov. The internal life of Zhivago has been expansive and courageous, we have read much and will find more in the poems at the end of the book. But his own end is prosaic and surrounded by cynicism and blank looks. Like everything else that happens in the shocking section called ‘The Ending’, Zhivago’s death is a final humiliation. Pasternak places us in the midst of anonymous city life, where immediate compassion is scarce. This is not the end, family and friends will come to mourn and remember. But it is the end in the same way that so much of the novel is told, with a mixture of cruel irony and matter-of-fact reportage. The poetry is going on inside those we have come to know.

As swarms of midges in summertime
Fly towards a flame,
Snowflakes flew from the dark outside
Into the window frame.
(page 635)

Here is one of several uses in the poems of the image of a window. It is verse two of ‘A Winter Night’. Russia is a country of windows. The eye trained to read icons will view the image in a window frame with particular attention. Since starting these sentences I have watched the David Lean film again on DVD. How irregular it is to the story in the book, an interpretation rather than a deliberate retelling. And one of the cinematic motifs is his own use of the window. This makes sense coming from a maker of millions of little windows, but one wonders if Lean has not pondered windows while reading the poems. They serve numerous purposes in the film. Zhivago’s half brother watches the orphan girl come to his office at the hydro-electric plant, an office all windows. As a young boy, Zhivago gazes through a blue window after his mother’s funeral. As a young man he steps through the upstairs glass doors of his townhouse to witness the march and subsequent massacre of worker protestors. Soon after he witnesses, though double panes of interior glass, an argument between Lara and Komarovsky, thus discovering their tormented secret relationship. Zhivago watches the moon from the little window in the train carriage, free for a while to contemplate something other than his companions, especially the anarchist and his ravings. There is the unforgettable wall of ice at the carriage door, an opaque window smashed by a shovel to reveal the passing countryside of war ruin. At the dacha in the snow Zhivago scratches at a window of snow flakes, only to watch them turn into spring flowers, one of several visionary moments for the poet involving windows. The film was made about halfway through the Cold War, at a time when the outside world knew little about Russian life. The publication of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ was the smashing of a window. What was glazed over suddenly became crystal clear. The vast readership of the book saw how individual lives had been affected by the unbelievable course of politics inside Russia. Lean’s unconscious, or possibly very conscious, use of windows serves to identify how Western cinema-goers related to his country. Scratching at the icy window to see Lara one last time departing by troika across the fields, Zhivago knew scratching wouldn’t work: the plate glass had to be broken to give him a clear view.  

All quotes here are from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics Edition, Random House, 2011)

Saturday, 4 January 2014

New and Selected Poems by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

A Trick of Lightness

New and Selected Poems by Chris Wallace-Crabbe (Carcarnet Oxford Poets; 2013)
Chris Wallace-Crabbe, New and Selected Poems
Chris Wallace-Crabbe, New and Selected Poems
Reviewer: Philip Harvey
Weighty words and heavy ideas are the very stuff of this poetry, and yet one after-effect of reading Chris Wallace-Crabbe is a sense of lightness. Lightness was a recurring theme of praise for his work at the recent Melbourne symposium held in his honour, as he entered his eightieth year. The Psalmist talks of fourscore years being one of labour and sorrow, but this is not the main impression given by the new poems here. A marvellous delight in wordplay is coupled with a stable ability to describe the multidirectional mind and blessed body, as they walk lightly across the earth.
Lightness does not mean lightweight, for indeed this book is packed with material that obeys the laws of gravity. One eye is trained permanently on tradition. Nor by lightness are we talking about light verse, that underrated charm of English poetry, though Wallace-Crabbe is a dab hand with the occasional and the comic. Lightness can mean keeping all the oranges in the air, it means knowingly mixing the metaphors if that achieves the desired effect. Reading this poetry purely for pleasure we observe in passing the tricks and devices this poet uses to leaven the lump of dough.
So many of his poems open with an object, like show-and-tell. This poem then expands and flourishes around that first fact. Empiricism leads to metaphysics.
‘The moon is full as a goog,’ he declares at the opening of ‘Puck in January’. Australianisms turn into pun and précis and purpose; they set up new meanings beyond their day job. The local lingo lightens the load. Here Puck is saying at once that the moon is full and roundish like an egg and has perhaps had too much to drink. Only later in the poem do we learn ‘the warm stars seem to go walking / all over my body’, with its implication that Puck himself is the tipsy one, tipsy on everything in fact, like the moon. Such is the advanced state of reverie that at the end of the poem we read, ‘My very name/has wandered away.’
Which, some say, is the poetic state of complete identification with the sense of the words; we are temporarily freed of the constraints of the self. Even our true name is on the move. Wallace-Crabbe’s lightness assists toward this state.
Puck is one of the favourite personae of this poet, which itself is an indicator of his sensibility of lightness. When the poet adopts a heavy persona, as when he utters the immortal ‘I’m deadly serious’, we are not sure exactly how seriously to take him. This is in part because his favoured tendency is toward the ludic, the playful, even the mischievous.
Puck is one of his favourite personae, but the poet’s name on the electoral roll reminds us that poets take an insatiable delight in hyphenation. They are forever sticking different and unlikely words together to test effects. A random browse by this reviewer yielded ‘redgums doze’, ‘hydra-headed showerfall’, ‘conceptual furbelow’, ‘multinational magic’, ‘mingy Austria’, ‘elastic familiarity’, ‘scribeless tribes’.
To add to the show-and-tell world spoken of before, there is often a child-like approach to discussion of major adult subjects. The child becomes the adult and the child is inside the adult, as we find in the lightness of argument in a poem like ‘We Live in Time So Little Time’. As he stands ‘on the shifting slabs/of glamorous centuries’ the poet asks the same questions he did when young, but with a grown-up’s seasoned skill at deduction and conversation. We wonder at how a series of questions about creation, evolution, and self could keep a lightness of tone while balancing the ponderous imponderables, and all in strict order.
A related trust in innocent observation backed up with a ton of experience is expressed in the epigraph to ‘The Bits and Pieces’, where Andrei Sinyavsky says nothing uninteresting exists so long as there is an artist ‘to stare at everything with the incomprehension of a nincompoop.’ The objects the poet then describes in twenty-six short poems remind us how the alphabet is all the poet has for basic building materials. To be buoyed up by the possibilities of the letters is a poet’s recurrent joy. This suite of poems is also a sideshow of forms, and the sideshow itself is lightness. Wallace-Crabbe goes to pains to make it look and sound easy, never more so than when shaping a sonnet or trialling a villanelle. Another feature here is his riddling nature, as when he lightly ends the alphabet with ‘Zephyr’:
Yellowish, crumpled, frail,
the leafboats lie
on water black as hair
under a marbling sky;
The secret wind moves through them
unseen but visible.
The aforementioned ‘scribeless tribes’ come in ‘Salt on the Tongue’, another riddling poem. Here the poet lauds ‘the spice of our lives’, listing carefully and briefly different attributes of salt. The final lines demonstrate another trick of lightness in his poetry, one in which meanings hang in the air. Much is said with so little. In this case the last two words are fact, joke, and affirmation, as the conventional two-liner turns into a shared recognition of existence in this our place in the universe:
Between these angular crystals and
Their dark blue sea we live.
Poems are themselves lightness, they are thought and breath and quiet scripting. Hence the irony, sometimes, of poems being bound in gravitational containers like books. There are other ways of talking about the work of Chris Wallace-Crabbe, but lightness will always be in the air. This rock solid object will help along that kind of talk.
This review first appeared online in Sotto Magazine: http://www.australianpoetry.org/2013/12/11/a-trick-of-lightness/