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The Whispering Gallery (Peter Steele)

The Whispering Gallery : Art into Poetry, by Peter Steele. Macmillan Art Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1 876832 85 1, RRP $88.00.

Reviewed by Philip Harvey in Eureka Street at the time of the book's publication.

Johnson, deploring an absence of trees in Scotland,
     claimed that one would foster gaping,
‘as a horse in Venice.’ Homebound or hapless, the mind
     will have its fling, essaying.

(from The Bridge)

Peter Steele’s poems are miniature essays, assemblies of words and ideas compacted into easeful lines with well-tempered rhythms. Steele is well-tempered always, even when the subject is not. Aphoristic gambits, different sides of a paradox, colours occasionally nailed to the proverbial, the personal in play with the like-minded or other-minded, criss-cross paths of the argument – all good features of an essay – animate the Steele poem. He is insistent on the conjunction; we can sense the word ‘but’ about to turn a vignette about face. It makes us pay closer attention.

A lifetime of university teaching and marking has shaped his special form of address, though his poetry is blessedly free of the post-modern jargon some writers feel a necessity to use in poetry of ideas. He is old-fashioned enough to employ ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ as though it were normal. Steele relishes the multiplicity of the world and the mind, flourishing quotations - “… this fellow who looks now / like scribbled pain, and now like a cast of grief, / may not be God’s last word” (David) - while desiring to square things up in verse. If a poet is the line manager of his own language, then Steele is the model of sober good manners; words are taken on their merits, so we find nothing excessive or wildly eccentric, likewise nothing mean or tyrannical.

Though by way of warning, Steele may avoid the new jargon but not the old strays of English. Pond, his poem on Edward Haytley’s ‘The Brockman Family at Beachborough’, purposefully contains ‘abroach’, ‘ambages’, ‘sparkish’, ‘gasconading’, ‘brandling’, ‘routiers’, and ‘gudgeons’, so some knowledge of 18th century British mores and a familiarisation with these words speeds our enjoyment. The poem itself shows us, in a mannerly way, why manners aren’t everything. “Lessons in worldliness” (Reliquary) are Steele’s game.

This second collection of picture poems gives further access to his manner of talking. In Plenty : Art into Poetry (2003)  Steele enthuses about ekphrastic poetry, his chosen practice, as a way “in which poems ‘speak forth’ real or imagined works of art.”  I hesitate to agree that this is the central thing going on in all of these poems, some do little more than prompt a broader response or force an issue into the open, but the richest are making new out of old. Not glosses, but glorifications. 

What is Steele’s pursuit? To make, in the same measured tones, educated observations of human dreams and human dilemmas. In In Memory of Anthony Hecht he asks that American poet to “look and rejoice at another country’s beach … fashioned by God and man to discharge their fullness.” The painting is of Sorrento back beach, as rendered in vivid swathes and dots, unmistakeable John Perceval. In Italy Steele notes the vestiges of human meaning in Rosalynd Piggott’s bare Italian landscape, while aware of their dark reflections, “the void and the terribilta”. Steele will always have his Swift side.

Poems about art objects is a prolific modern business. Keats and Browning set the pace. Today we thrill to the social comedy of Durcan’s gallery excursions and survive the considerable canvases of Ashbery. But Steele is up to something different, one template being what is probably the most famous example of the genre, Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts. Whatever he talks about, Steele is unstintingly highbrow. He expects a vast range of reference of his readers, an impossibility that excludes many from the discussion. The discussion is, after all, the reality of his own interactions with the painting, sculpture or other creation of his choice. Though Steele wears his learning lightly, the layered look can at times be overwhelming. Still, the presence of the excellent reproductions opposite each poem is a godsend, whereby we fall into an enjoyable view of the interlocutor’s transferred thought processes. Whether some of these poems can stand separate from the images that inspired them is a question open to time. Unlike its predecessor, all works printed here are housed in the National Gallery of Victoria, making the book a lifetime companion for those who live there on a regular basis.

Latter-day Steele is more perfected, both in voice and structure. Thankfully he keeps his alliterative tendencies in check these days. His adopted position of imperious certainty is a given, frequently the starting point of the poem. He starts at a high standard and more or less talks unwaveringly at that level for the remainder. This is something some readers find hard to take in Steele. (Likewise his hierarchical vision of the human race, it could be mentioned.) Even when his themes are modesty, doubt and brokenness, it is all said at the same level of unquestioning certitude. Personally, I find this the real test of the poems. Unrelieved high style is a heady place to be, but can we live there all the time? I’m sure Peter Steele would be the first person to say No, and this is the collection’s limitation and glory. We all know a disquisition on the belly laugh is not the same as a belly laugh, but why not have both? In the real world we need Racine and Rabelais. Steele’s poetry is not of the moment but of the true occasion.

There are at least two ways he achieves this grand style. First, the structured verse forms are diverse and their maintenance a fascination to the senses. Rhyme patterns serve subtle purposes, for example notice what is going on in the last verse of Magi:

Pomegranate and cherry
Banner desire it seems
In robe and caparison;
In the golden vessels, myrrh
Awaits the first-born son
As heady incense gleams
For a prince, and all defer
To the one others will bury.

Second, and above all, any reader of Steele needs to be conditioned to the long, measured sentence. His sentences are a deep breath for a steady statement. His sentences are each large thoughts duly controlled. Within any one tailored sentence we may expect a haiku, a Continental trumpet call, a blithe shift of Augustan tones, a trenchant moral, and an unfussy analogy – all with the flow of the same Samuel Johnson.

Peter Steele once commented that Auden was “a walking civilization”, an image useful in describing Steele, solitary in gallery and study, walking from painting to sculpture to object and bringing to bear a combination of knowledge that cannot be produced by a search engine.


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