Chris Wal­lace-Crabbe, who turns 80 next week, is a poet who is hard to for­get, writes Peter Goldswor­thy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ISTILL re­mem­ber the first time I read Chris Wal­lace-Crabbe: the year was 1975, the poem a tiny thing called Stars. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it was about stars: ‘‘very crisp and bunchy/Pleas­ing in their clar­ity and de­sign’’ but which ‘‘have no hearts/Do not give a hoot for our trou­bles’’. It must have been more mem­o­rable for me than the poet; it didn’t reap­pear in any of his later col­lec­tions.

Its cold-eyed per­spec­tive, how­ever, would reap­pear re­peat­edly. From Star­dust a decade later: ‘‘But how could the uni­verse have mean­ing?’’ ‘‘Would the stars be pat­terned dif­fer­ently? ... Or one ra­di­ant math­e­mat­ics/Would show up trimly in ev­ery­thing’’. From an­other 1980s poem, Gas­pard De la Nuit: ‘‘Our galaxy has no point at all/Nor do the oth­ers /Gleam­ing down/On our lit­tle lives that are/ soon to be rubbed out like a black­board les­son.’’

These galac­tic per­spec­tives could be stud­ies for one of Wal­lace-Crabbe’s finest achieve­ments, the book-length The Uni­verse Looks Down, in which we hear from the molec­u­lar end of the uni­verse. ‘‘Could some­thing tragic hap­pen to a gene?’’ is a line I’ve never for­got­ten.

Like David Malouf, Wal­lace-Crabbe turns 80 this year, on May 6, and a new book, My Feet are Hun­gry, is part of the cel­e­bra­tions. The new books by both poets (Malouf’s is Earth Hour) have plenty in com­mon: gar­dens, birds, ripe fruit, ele­gies for friends — a ter­rific one for Sea- mus Heaney in Wal­lace-Crabbe’s — and a some­times wry, some­times play­ful, but al­ways clear-eyed look at what looms ahead.

The first poem in Wal­lace-Crabbe’s new collection, Af­ter Bede, re­states an old theme: Our lives are built upon un­like­li­hood, Their poignancy oddly frag­ile At the best of times Like snow that falls softly Into a rav­aging bush­fire.

And — stay­ing on mes­sage — from Dip­tych: With­out gods we have A gi­ant over­ar­ch­ing blank­ness: Choose whichever you please. With God we can have coloured pic­tures, No­madic myths and Kin­dred ab­sur­di­ties,

A blunt choice, but on the other hand (with Wal­lace-Crabbe there is al­ways an­other hand; his po­ems come multi-armed, like Hindu deities), the all-sur­round­ing blank­ness al­lows for plenty of in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing, in­clud­ing with coloured pic­tures. The poet may take away mean­ing with his right hand but gives back hu­mour with his left; he may of­fer us the world of the mind with his north­west hand, then the world of


the senses with his south­east. And all those hands al­ways know what all the oth­ers are do­ing, even when they are shuf­fling their deck of tricks at high-speed.

Yet an­other hand holds a paint­brush: Wal­lace-Crabbe, notwith­stand­ing the bleak lines I have quoted so far, is an in­tensely vis­ual poet. An­other hand is that of the lover; he is a su­perb love poet. Old­ish Poem, in the new book, is a beauty. But as turn­ing 80 of­fers an oc­ca­sion to cel­e­brate old work as well as new, I will men­tion the ti­tle poem from The Amorous Can­ni­bal ( 1985), one of the finest love po­ems. An­other is In the Wilder­ness, which be­gins, ‘‘I am en­tirely you-flavoured’’, and ends, ‘‘to­mor­row we have names/we are shaken to pieces tonight’’.

Be­ing shaken to pieces — and piec­ing the self back to­gether each morn­ing — is a state that fas­ci­nates this poet. Claude Levi-Strauss wrote some­where that the an­thro­pol­o­gist must get up at first light, and re­main awake un­til the last of the na­tives has gone to bed. Read­ing Wal­lace-Crabbe is a bit like that: you have to get up very early. And keep your wits about you ’til well af­ter the poem has gone to bed. So much is go­ing on. And es­pe­cially in the zone be­tween wak­ing and sleep­ing, that dreamy, messy place where we catch a glimpse of the deeper tem­plates of the self.

Sev­eral of his best po­ems have the poet wak­ing into an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal Ground Hog Day.

Chris Wal­lace-Crabbe

cel­e­brates turn­ing 80 with a new book

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