Saturday, 5 March 2016

Peter Goldsworthy: The Rise of the Machines and other love poems

Speaking of the un-
spoken, jokes are a smoky

This near-haiku is not so much a final definition of jokes as one definition of poetry. It shows up in Peter Goldsworthy’s sequence ‘Ars Poetica’. What he means is the wordplay of jokes we make every day is a microcosm, a type and model of the more grandiose verbal surprise packages known as poems. By this measure, Goldsworthy himself is quite a joker.

Quips, puns, quadruple entendres, comic allusions, irreverent cross-references  and punch lines are the very stuff of his poetry, oft times their driving force and final destination. Laconicism gets the better of him on a visit to the Uffizi:

About babies they were mostly
wrong, the Old Masters, even
when they stuck wings on them.

Satiric, benevolent, worldly – his humour conveys more serious intentions, always implies an inhabited culture, and is part of an achieved art. (Those lines expect that you know Auden’s famous sonnet.) Irony, for example, can be a humourist’s superhighway; it can also be a dead end. Dead end streets in Dublin are charmingly called cul-de-sacs, nice self-satisfied corners going nowhere. Australia has the No Through Road. Peter Goldsworthy mistrusts irony. One time he stopped writing poetry altogether because everything was just coming out ironical. Admittedly, irony still glints and glows in Goldsworthy but it is not enough to strike while the irony is hot. Or string out the reader with one interminable comedy festival. Goldsworthy’s solution, evident throughout this 21st century collection, is paradox. 

‘Quintets for Twiggy’ was the first Goldsworthy poem I ever read, a response to Les Murray’s ecstatic encomium on sprawl, it was a parody in praise of the thin. Counter poems are common in his work, but this early poem was also one of self-disclosure. It revealed his belief in the virtues of slim, his lean towards the lean. His verse shapes up this way on the page, as does his line of argument and his syntactic shifts.

A delightful set of counter poems is ‘Decalogue’, where Goldsworthy seems almost to treat the commandments in Exodus 20 as a set of short poems deserving his closer attention. His ear for the vernacular, the twists and turns of daily speech, is trusting and rewarding. Poetry usually has an element of the child’s-eye view of adult circumstance and here the poet’s ten-year-old self is appreciated through grown-up memory.

Honour Thy Father
and Mother?
Too easy.

And so say most of us,
not necessarily
in that order.

Admitting that ‘by mid-teens / I’d forgotten one or two, / And broken the best of the rest’, the poet nevertheless continues to live with the paradox of a world in which actions do have consequences and laws may be there for a reason. His ten-year-old self explains more about modern Australia than ancient Israel:

And what the fuck
was adultery?
No adult would ever

to an answer,
even though

I was always
asking for it.
Thou shalt never

grow up? If so,
the grown-ups were all
as guilty as sin.

Likewise, in his Arian meditations ‘Son to Father: Easter Poems’ the poet asks his own personal questions about existence while toying with theological paradoxes. Trinitarians will observe the lack of relationship between the three persons, roll their eyes at mention of that old chestnut about the shape of our world, but perhaps smile at his concluding jab at Voltaire:

Ghostly Holy Father, haunting
Your thingless heaven,
If this world did not exist
You would have to invent it. 

The title sequence, more than any other part of this book, exhibits the quandary of wit, which is how to plumb deep and meaningful while still fishing for a laugh. Like the rest of us, Goldsworthy is highly conscious of how we sentient feeling beings today co-exist with a highly sophisticated digital and machine world over which we have little control and no choice. His mockumentary of different encounters with technology, each more symbiotic than the last, is presented with an amused, and discomforting, dispassion. The body may be described using machine metaphors but their half-life is brief. Inviting your lover to go through the motions can be disconcerting when you are being so literally mechanical.

A poet with an alchemical name like Goldsworthy will focus on how leaden words are turned into something brighter and more valuable. If asked to explain the pleasures of reading this poet I would say his pragmatic imagism (‘Aphrodite / rises, legless and headless, / and I am breathless, / the goddess wears / your nakedness exactly’) his proverbial inversions, and intellectual fertility.

Asked to identify one unifying theme I would suggest all his poetry is intensely enthralled with the marvellous nature of relationship, whether it be with his girlfriend, his colleagues, his body, the uncanny objects of this world, or this world itself, floating in space: “Our Earthern Dish is seven parts water, / one part China, and a tiny bit japanned.” It is this last attribute, relationship, keeps us on side as we identify with familiar things, while yet prepared for the unfamiliar. As he puts it in ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Schrödinger’:

I trail a hand behind
as if by accident,
a periscope of touch.
Doubt slows me in the hope
a feather of breath
might brush my neck;
but if thoughts are deeds
you are gone already,
or never there, or both
and I remain
yours, paradoxically.

This review first appeared in the Australian Book Review, March 2016, under the title ‘The Paradoxer’.