Love alone can­not bring verse to life

Old/ New World By Peter Skrzy­necki Univer­sity of Queens­land Press, 350pp, $ 26.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Barry Hill

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.