Brilliant visions of a hip-pocket poet
Four Plots for Magnets
By Luke Davies Pitt Street Poetry, 125pp, $20
YEATS, arguably the greatest 20thcentury poet in English, said everyone strove for a possible ecstasy or a possible wisdom. In his own experience, and in that of the hippie generation long after him, the two could be compounded because it was possible for the spiritual seeker to imagine the eye of God shone from the heavens in some fix or tripped-out experience.
Luke Davies, one of our most ambitious and variegated poetic talents, has paid homage to enough hypothetical wisdoms and ecstasies in his time.
His 1997 debut novel Candy, filmed with Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, was a junkie story. His Interferon Psalms, which won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry last year, was an attempt to invoke the dark night of the soul as well as the visions of illumination that may come to the seeker who accepts his affliction of body as the sign of his affliction of soul and heads for the dark wood, with heaven and hell as possible ports of call along the way.
Davies is an extraordinary poet. There are the rhapsodic love poems of Totem( 2004), and there’s God of Speed (2008), his flawed prose narrative about Howard Hughes, that doesn’t work, but includes passages of such sustained realisation that the credibility stretches at the thought of how major the talent is.
Still there are not many poets who have seen their songs of the self, however crumpled and depressive, however coffined and confined by a hard drugs story, turned into a Heath Ledger movie, just as there are not many Australian poets who would dare wreathe their own experience with appropriations from TS Eliot or Rilke or the Book of Job or attempt a long poem that is about whatever meaning life can attain or defy.
So Davies is an interesting character. I first came across him 25 or so years ago when I was editing Scripsi and the wonderful poet John Forbes told me Davies was a young man to watch. In Four Plots for Magnets, a slightly weird revisiting of his juvenilia, he is watching himself and it’s not hard to admit the vision is, with the passage of time, rather spectacular, pictorial and engaging.
This volume essentially is the re-publication of Davies’s first pleasure-soaked book plus a collection of poems he wrote about the same time. ‘‘ The current reissue,’’ he writes in his introduction,’’ consists of the 13 poems that make up the original Four Plots for Magnets and 53 other poems . . . none, so far as I can establish, was written later than July 1982.’’
So these are poems by someone in his late teens, by a boy who is in love with language, who has ‘‘ been obsessed with poetry from age 13 when I’d written [my] first poem’’, which was precociously but endearingly ‘‘ a small hymn of praise’’ to the laid-back alcoholic bums in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
I suppose there may be a caveat in there somewhere but Davies’s account of his novice poet days is gentle and funny and, despite remembrances of being a ‘‘ minor teenage pot baron’’, shouldn’t be too scary to anyone with teenagers.
It’s certainly an attractive kind of infatuation with poetry that Davies rehearses as he tells the story of how fellow poet Steve Kelen (who contributes an afterword) introduced him to the work of American poets such as Frank O’Hara and how the ‘‘ Penguin European Poets were particularly exciting to me: my Rilke and Apollinaire, which fitted so easily into a jeans pocket, psalters rather than Bibles’’.
Early on in a poem called The Spin Trade (Adventures In), punning on Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade, we read: ‘‘ like ferris wheels in liliput on sunday afternoon, / the river was a magic rune // beneath a burnished sky / of distant high— // circling hawks . . .’’
The image, with its reference to Gulliver’s Travels, is purest fantasia. And there’s plenty of exclamatory bravado. ‘‘ ... Something snaps / like looking down a well in Chaucer’s England . . . // Give me green, I want to die. / Give me a death something like cobalt’’ ( Manifesto).
It’s fun that Davies turns DH Lawrence’s ‘‘ never trust the teller, trust the tale’’ into ‘‘ Never trust the starfish, trust the whale’’, and the whole of this book has a rather gorgeous grace, as in this from Jason and the Argonauts: ‘‘ give me light in the plain style/ and light this cone: for a while// seeing only a red sun/ wherever we gazed was like one// blind at the edge of the world. / from star to wild star hurled.’’
This shows a fine ear as well as a fresh capacity for extroverting easy, confected pleasures. There is a snazziness and a dash that means it remains a pleasure to read even when the poems seem to be playing with