Pastoral sympathy of a son
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