Pas­toral sym­pa­thy of a son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

AT any other mo­ment in our lit­er­ary his­tory, Robert Gray would have gained the larger ac­knowl­edg­ment he de­serves. It’s not that his eight vol­umes of po­etry in four decades have been ig­nored ex­actly. Gray is reg­u­larly an­thol­o­gised, widely trans­lated and the re­cip­i­ent of ev­ery im­por­tant prize this coun­try has to of­fer.

But, like Ben Jon­son in Shake­speare’s day, this mas­ter in his own right has also done ser­vice as a valet to ge­nius: in Gray’s case, to the lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally im­mense fig­ure of Les Mur­ray. The two have been linked in the pub­lic mind since Mur­ray first recog­nised and wel­comed the younger poet’s emerg­ing tal­ent. Yet, for all the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween them — from their NSW north coast back­grounds to their con­ser­va­tive poet­ics — deep dif­fer­ences re­main.

For if Mur­ray is a bib­li­cal leviathan, mas­sive in bulk and with a spout that blows ‘‘ hot wild white breath out of the sea’’, then Gray is a por­poise, de­light­edly ag­ile and eco­nom­i­cal in ef­fort. Where Mur­ray’s verse is of­ten a ve­hi­cle for his dog­ma­tism, Gray’s po­etry is im­pec­ca­bly neu­tral. And where Mur­ray’s de­pic­tion of his fa­ther is a lov­ingly rev­er­ent if iron­i­cally phrased cel­e­bra­tion of an ex­em­plary cocky, Gray’s ac­count of his is acid- etched, a fas­tid­i­ous re­coil­ing from ge­nealog­i­cal fact that be­gins with the first sen­tence of his long- awaited mem­oir: ‘‘ My fa­ther was a re­mit­tance man in his own coun­try.’’

As, in­deed, he was. Gray’s fa­ther was the scape­grace son of a well- to- do fam­ily in Syd­ney’s east­ern sub­urbs. He stood out among that hard- liv­ing tribe, even at the height of the jazz age 1920s, for his ex­cep­tional ath­leti­cism, his wil­ful­ness and, later, his booz­ing and gam­bling. By the end of the decade the fam­ily had set him up on a ba­nana plan­ta­tion on the NSW north coast, ‘‘ on con­di­tion that he not re­turn to the city; and when he risked los­ing the prop­erty to fur­ther gam­bling and carous­ing, they set him up again, rather than have the em­bar­rass­ment of him in the har­bour- side av­enues of Vau­cluse’’.

Gray writes with el­e­gance and wry wit about The Land I Came Through Last By Robert Gray Gi­ramondo, 436pp, $ 34.95 th­ese early years. He is not blind to the glam­our of the times and can ap­pre­ci­ate, if only in the ab­stract, the ap­peal of such youth­ful reck­less­ness. How­ever, the au­thor was born into a later decade and rad­i­cally di­min­ished cir­cum­stances.

The plan­ta­tion was sold to meet debts. Fam­ily sup­port dried up with death of Gray’s pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther. It was left to Gray’s mother, a lo­cal girl from a mod­est ru­ral back­ground, to take on me­nial work as a means of sup­port­ing her fam­ily. Mean­while, Gray’s fa­ther drank away his war vet­eran’s pen­sion ( he served in Pa­pua New Guinea), read widely, punned con­stantly — he had a bit­ing sense of hu­mour, de­signed to en­ter­tain an au­di­ence of one: him­self — and main­tained an in­grained gen­til­ity even in his cups. Through­out his child­hood, Gray was the quiet and care­ful ob­server of his fa­ther’s al­co­holism. The ne­ces­sity of keep­ing on his toes in that dif­fi­cult and de­mand­ing pres­ence was a harsh tu­tor­ing of the senses.

This preter­nat­u­ral at­ten­tive­ness ex­panded into the young poet’s long, self- en­forced ab­sences from the fam­ily home, wan­der­ing in the coastal scrub and moun­tain bush he would later re­visit in his verse.

At one point Gray refers to William Wordsworth’s po­etic au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, The Pre­lude, and the best sec­tions of The Land I Came Through Last share some­thing of that great poem’s com­bi­na­tion of watch­ful­ness and vi­sion­ary ac­cess. The de­scrip­tion of a ba­nana tree has the del­i­cacy of a botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tion. Even an ac­count of the fam­ily’s pet kelpie is a small poem in prose: The dog coursed through­out its body with an ex­cess of in­tel­li­gence. He was alert like some spiny seed that is im­pos­si­ble to hold . . . his black coat, like his swag­ger­ing in­so­lent tongue, ran with light.

As was the case with John Keats, Gray’s boy­hood and youth is death- haunted: a wrongly di­ag­nosed heart de­fect en­forces a sep­a­ra­tion from fam­ily and peers that he never quite shakes. It makes a stoic of him and some­thing of a loner.

His clos­est friends dur­ing his teens are a lo­cal teacher who awak­ens in him a fu­ri­ous au­to­di­dac­ti­cism and an artist cou­ple, his first bo­hemi­ans, from whom he learns an equal pas­sion for the vis­ual arts. To this day, Gray re­mains the most painterly of Aus­tralian poets. ( I should ad­mit that I worked with him at a book­shop for a time more than a decade ago; he re­mains one of the best- read peo­ple I have en­coun­tered.)

Adult­hood, though, brings dis­ap­point­ment for the reader. Those sec­tions deal­ing with Gray’s po­etic vo­ca­tion are passed over with a frus­trat­ing light­ness. Amer­i­can poet El­iz­a­beth Bishop once de­scribed her­self as a sand­piper, skirt­ing along the mar­gins of many coun­tries, search­ing for some­thing, and it is fair to say that in that rest­lessly quest­ing spirit laid the great­ness of her work.

Gray also skirts along the mar­gins, but those of his own ex­is­tence. His po­etry ac­knowl­edges the ten­u­ous pur­chase of the ‘‘ I’’ on the world through which it moves, and it prac­tises an ex­tinc­tion of the self that owes as much to Zen as to T. S. Eliot.

But the poet’s virtue is the prose writer’s flaw. Even those sev­eral chap­ters deal­ing with fel­low writ­ers — Bruce Chatwin, Mur­ray and, most sig­nif­i­cantly, Pa­trick White — have the feel of high- grade gos­sip re­lated by one who fig­ures only as a ghostly spec­ta­tor to other’s lives.

It is only when Gray re­turns to his par­ents and their fi­nal years — or­deals in age­ing that he ob­serves with ob­jec­tiv­ity and pre­ci­sion — that the nar­ra­tive taut­ens once again.

His mother’s de­cline is into an orig­i­nal sweet­ness, a de­men­tia whose bless­ing is the era­sure of decades in servi­tude to her hus­band. Like­wise, her re­li­gious de­vo­tion ( she was a Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness) sub­sides into a mildly ec­cen­tric wor­ship of house­hold gods, from gos­sip mag­a­zines to plas­tic spoons. As with Felicite in Gus­tave Flaubert’s story A Sim­ple Heart, Nina Gray ends her life as she be­gan it,

a poor coun­try girl, pi­ous but mys­ti­cal, qui­etly de­voted, and as ten­der as fresh bread’’.

Not so Gray’s fa­ther. Al­though ex­tended ill­ness in his later years made ab­sti­nence a ne­ces­sity, his new- found so­bri­ety was un­ac­com­pa­nied by self- ex­am­i­na­tion. As his son dis­pas­sion­ately con­cludes: He never joined AA, or would have dreamed of do­ing so; never went on the wagon, showed the least re­gret, apolo- gised, wa­vered, or wanted to change. No Strug­gle. His only prob­lem was our ob­jec­tion. A ruth­less con­ceit. Al­most ad­mirable, in its in­de­pen­dence. The ques­tion of why so much of this mem­oir should be given over to a man so sealed to the opin­ion and de­sires of his own flesh and blood is one Gray asks him­self. On one hand the poet ac­knowl­edges bi­ol­ogy’s in­eluctable claims: The whole panoply of our selves is vis­ited upon us. The genes have come up through the con­duits of the spread­ing fam­ily vine, over thou­sands and thou­sands of years, to where we have ap­peared, at the tips of its ten­drils. Yet, like some cau­tion­ary homily nailed to the wall above our beds, he also ar­gues that such de­ter­min­ism can be a spur to free will.

Take this, from a poem writ­ten soon af­ter his fa­ther’s death: If I think of you I’m hor­ri­fied — I be­came ob­sessed

with you. It is like love. I am filled with pity.

I want to live. Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is a Syd­ney- based lit­er­ary critic.

En­dur­ing in­spi­ra­tion: The coun­try­side near Bellin­gen in north­ern NSW has in­formed Robert Gray’s po­etry

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