Love alone cannot bring verse to life
Old/ New World By Peter Skrzynecki University of Queensland Press, 350pp, $ 26.95
PETER Skrzynecki is possibly our bestknown multicultural writer. His work is much taught in schools, and in 2002 he was awarded the Order of Australia for his contribution to multicultural literature, a reputation that began with the publication of There, Behind the Lids in 1970, when he was only 25. The title poem begins: Feel the trembling, there, behind the lids, when you close your eyes and press index finger and thumb against the hard sockets: against the darkness . . . This is tender, heartfelt; and it is not about the poet ( as one would expect of a first book) but about the poet’s migrant parents, or people very like them who might cross over chasms and oceans to return to new landmarks. Many slept on deck because of the day’s heat or to watch a sunset they would never see again — stretched on blankets and pillows against cabins and rails: shirtless, in shorts, barefooted, themselves a landscape of milk- white flesh on a scoured and polished deck This is from Crossing the Red Sea. Plain diction, a lucid arrangement of the graphic, and a touch for the image that resonates metaphorically: these are typical of Skrzynecki at his best. Once he applied these techniques to his school days, his parents’ quiet lives, the dreams of his parents’ friends, he soon had a gallery that represented a whole epoch of Australian- European history, each picture haunted by a subtle sense of what remained dark and unsayable as settlements sprouted in the new country.
Skrzynecki arrived in Australia when he was four, having been born in a displaced persons camp in Germany at the end of the war. His father, according to his biographical note, was Polish, his mother Ukrainian. A memory of the camp seems to be part of the darkness that pressed into many poems. At the same time, though, it is the source of another primal feeling: that of his mother’s devotion, which seems to have created in him a kind of golden sense of worth, an unusual egocentricity that has informed his compassionate and keen eye, and which is inseparable from his gift for painting clear pictures in which he can afford to be invisible.
There was another thing going on. From the beginning Skrzynecki was also vividly painting the Australian landscape, especially the high, hard country of New England, with its granite and gorges, its profusion of flora and fauna.
His second book, Headwaters ( 1972), is tremendously strong as he works his way into the country, growing up to be a schoolteacher and departing, a little, from his mother and father’s garden.
Many of these poems stand alone as good landscape poems, but they are much more than that as they brood on the European backwaters the poet has to resolve in himself. The headwaters, one keeps feeling, must eventually burst and the poet — the quiet, watchful and strangely self- satisfied soul that voices the poems — will come fully into his own, out of Europe’s shadow.
Early on there is a striking poem, Diamond Snake, which offers such a prospect. For a moment the snake lies coiled along the poet’s arm, ‘‘ tongue flickering at a kerosene lamp’’. Then it must be off, as it would be in a meditation by D. H. Lawrence or Ted Hughes. Skrzynecki writes: Gleaming like a scythe you sweep and cut through shadows of grass. Each time, face on, I see your eyes like stains of water on the pages of a book I must find and read. Any selected poems will raise the question: What was the poet compelled to find and read? What did they dare do with that complex creature called experience?
As you go deeper into this book, following the course of the poet’s ordinary life as a teacher, a parent, a middle- aged man who re- couples, an older man who eventually grieves for his beloved parents, who sells his old family home without remorse, as time in their suburb has simply moved on, there is little to signal any reconnection with that diamond snake.
Rather, Skrzynecki returns time and again to the places where he began and which prompted his first poems. The pity is that in this eighth book of an increasingly repetitive oeuvre there is such a falling- off of quality. ‘‘ Words come easily, almost indifferently,’’ the poet writes in a late poem, Only Child, and that is how it feels, as he seems to wallow in sepia. Poems that were once tight, clear, sharp, are now pat and prosaic.
Yet, amid this trend, a poem can still spring into life, especially when Skrzynecki is touched by others. In Time’s Revenge ( 2000), there is an unforgettably poignant poem called Leukaemia, a sustained entry into the illness of the poet’s partner. And in Blood Plums ( 2006), the book of new poems within this book, there are two poems out of Germany — Three Faces and The Holocaust Tower — that live up to the poet’s talents and redeem his journalistic jottings from other travels.
But there are also many pages of verse ( or prose cut up) that detract from his main achievement, and which his editors did him a disservice by including.
Blood Plums includes a poem that offers the best and worst of Skrzynecki, and which left me mystified. It is called Mother and Son, and in it the poet recounts that the night before her death his mother told him that his father — about whom we have had a lifetime of Skrzynecki’s poetry — was not in fact his father. When I read this a chasm opened up in me, as I felt I had got to know and like that Polish father. But the poet writes, in what seems to me to be an unresolved mix of soppiness and an incurious, childlike denial of reality: All that matters to me is that smile of pure love; all the money in the world couldn’t buy it and it would never be for sale. I imagine that Skrzynecki wants us to feel that love suffuses the world as it does all of his poems. But that alone can’t make for the strongest poetry, not unless a poet dares to work the darkness through. Barry Hill is poetry editor of The Australian. His new book, As We Draw Ourselves, was launched by David Malouf at Adelaide Writers Week.