Head­long into po­etic

New and Se­lected Po­ems

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­thony Lynch

By Chris Wal­lace-Crabbe Car­canet Press, 204pp, $39.95

‘ BUT the mer­est bud or ap­ple core, / A cairn­gorm or a mouse’s paw / Can be your grist.’’ Writ­ten for Peter Steele, th­ese lines from one of the new po­ems in Chris Wal­lace-Crabbe’s New and Se­lected Po­ems pro­vide part­sum­ma­tion of the writer’s process as well as that of his friend and fel­low poet, who died al­most 12 months ago.

Wal­lace-Crabbe has long made el­e­gant po­etic play with small ob­jects and im­ages. Pen­cil sharp­ener, car­na­tion, saucer, gar­lic clove, can opener, coathanger — th­ese and other ev­ery­day ar­ti­cles are ren­dered quaintly strange and be­come em­blems of the quo­tid­ian and of our pocket-sized place in the uni­verse.

In this, Wal­lace-Crabbe shares ground with Amer­i­can poet Charles Simic and his po­tent evo­ca­tions of ob­jects such as a fork, spoon, or butcher’s chop­ping block. But whereas Simic’s po­ems have a dark in­trigue that some­times also ap­pro­pri­ates Chris­tian iconog­ra­phy, Wal­lace-Crabbe has a lighter, more whimsical touch. Se­quences such as The Bits and Pieces and The Do­mes­tic Sub­lime are sus­tained ex­am­ples of his wit in ac­tion.

The first quar­ter of New and Se­lected Po­ems, about 50 pages or 36 po­ems, con­sists of the ‘‘ new’’, with the rest be­ing selec­tions from no fewer than 14 pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions, in­clud­ing three po­ems spe­cific to the poet’s Se­lected Po­ems of 1995. Of the cur­rent ‘‘ se­lected’’, the weight­ing favours po­ems from Wal­laceCrabbe’s lauded re­cent col­lec­tions such as By and Large and Telling a Hawk from a Hand­saw.

It comes as lit­tle sur­prise that a con­cern with age­ing and mor­tal­ity in­creas­ingly oc­cu­pies the older poet — though the still vi­tal Wal­laceCrabbe, who turned 79 last month, largely es­chews cosy de­pic­tions of the for­mer. In po­ems such as Con­cern­ing Cheer and Oh Yes, Then (‘‘when I am rot­ting pa­tiently’’), the poet-nar­ra­tor’s post-mor­tal state is imag­ined, while A Lan­guage and While Half Asleep muse on the re­la­tion­ship of lan­guage to ‘‘ wilted mem­ory’’.

The pass­ing of oth­ers also oc­cu­pies the poet, with the se­quence The Trou­bled Weather of Hu­man­ity, writ­ten in mem­ory of Peter Porter, the long­est as well as one of the more com­pelling po­ems from the new work. Wal­lace-Crabbe’s la­men­ta­tions for his lost son (‘‘my dead son / De­cem­ber­ing round again’’) and for his fa­ther are among the most ten­der, mov­ing po­ems in his oeu­vre.

Amid re­flec­tions on mor­tal­ity, bib­li­cal themes and mo­tifs of­ten arise. But Wal­laceCrabbe is more re­spect­ful, if some­times be­mused, ob­server of Chris­tian rit­ual than par­tic­i­pant. It is po­etry that of­fers ‘‘ the cop­pery glint of gno­sis / along one edge’’ ( And the World was Calm).

Wal­lace-Crabbe’s won­der is Carte­sian; the big stuff of how be­ing, con­scious­ness and lan­guage emerged out of the cos­mos: ‘‘ I don’t know what paths / Lead up from the pool to where I think and talk’’ ( There). Tra­di­tional mo­tifs such as the stars and the moon of­ten ac­com­pany his med­i­ta­tions — lyri­cal maps by which to nav­i­gate a life.

From be­gin­ning to end, Wal­lace-Crabbe has made for­ays into the po­lit­i­cal arena. The first poem (hence one of Wal­lace-Crabbe’s ear­li­est) from among the ‘‘ se­lected’’, Prac­ti­cal Pol­i­tics, re­flects on the po­si­tion of the poet in the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal worlds. May­hem, from among the most re­cent of­fer­ings, is a mod­ern take on the nurs­ery rhyme as po­lit­i­cal satire. The pres­i­dents Bush, John Howard, and the treat­ment of in­dige­nous Aus­tralians are among his tar­gets. ‘‘ Busi­ness bas­tards’’ get it in the neck. Ren­di­tion, ar­guably the strong­est, and cer­tainly the most har­row­ing, new poem, imag­ines tor­ture un­der the watch of any num­ber of to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes.

Chris Wal­laceCrabbe hon­ours old friends in his new po­ems

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