Headlong into poetic
New and Selected Poems
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