Bril­liant vi­sions of a hip-pocket poet

Four Plots for Mag­nets

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven

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

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