WHERE SLEEPS THE SOUL?
Chris Wallace-Crabbe, who turns 80 next week, is a poet who is hard to forget, writes Peter Goldsworthy
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
BEING SHAKEN TO PIECES IS A STATE THAT FASCINATES THIS POET
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.
celebrates turning 80 with a new book