In the skin of a lion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Goldswor­thy

Po­ems 1957-2013 By Ge­of­frey Lehmann UWA Pub­lish­ing, 384pp, $29.99

IN 1971, Pierre Ry­ck­mans pub­lished (in French, as Si­mon Leys) The Chair­man’s New Clothes, one of the first books that helped a gen­er­a­tion of ado­les­cent rev­o­lu­tion­ary ro­man­tics be­gin to see through the false garb worn by Mao Ze­dong. In 1958, 17year-old Syd­neysider Ge­of­frey Lehmann was well ahead of that gen­er­a­tion of slow-learn­ers, which in­cluded me.

Lehmann’s poem Em­peror Mao and the Spar­rows chan­nels Chair­man Mao and his in­fa­mous de­cree to ex­ter­mi­nate spar­rows (among other pests) from China be­cause they ate too many crop seeds. The lu­di­crous spar­row slaugh­ter that fol­lowed might have been com­i­cal if it weren’t also geno­ci­dal. Like so many of Mao’s top-down de­crees, it ended in dis­as­ter: spar­rows are also in­sec­ti­vores. The re­sult­ing lo­cust plagues might not have been the main cause of the famine of the late 1950s that killed per­haps 30 mil­lion peo­ple — col­lec­tivised farm­ing killed more — but it mul­ti­plied the deaths.

Ahead-of-its-time po­lit­i­cal savvy aside, the poem is a pre­co­cious ac­com­plish­ment for a teenager. It would not be out of its depth in the company of WH Au­den’s mag­nif­i­cent Epi­taph on a Tyrant, or Zbigniew Her­bert’s var­i­ous Stalin-in­spired em­peror po­ems.

Po­ets, like math­e­ma­ti­cians, of­ten flower in their teens but can wilt all too soon there­after. Lehmann was a freak early-bloomer but has con­tin­ued to flower peren­ni­ally. His gift for what might be called com­pressed ven­tril­o­quism be­gan with the Mao poem, but he filled an en­tire book ( Nero’s Po­ems) with po­ems that in­habit the mind of an ear­lier em­peror, also cor­rupted by power and mega­lo­ma­nia.

Another poem Lehman pub­lished at 17, An Im­age, re­veals another early-bloom­ing gift: tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­ity. It be­gins with, well, an im­age: Lions on a beach at dusk. A strange qual­ity is in this im­age, a qual­ity of same­ness. One can imag­ine the lions, calm as the sea Great and mo­not­o­nous, pad­ding through the calm­ness

It’s a dream­like poem in which the poet al­lows the for­mal struc­ture — the rhythm and rhyme — par­tially to de­cide the di­rec­tion of the med­i­ta­tion. Well, a sand-coloured lion is a bit like a beach, and vice versa, but we are fol­low­ing the mu­sic here as much as the sense.

Lions crop up re­peat­edly in Lehmann’s later po­ems, like a sig­na­ture tune. On the beach, the mighty beach, the lion sleeps tonight? Not ex­actly, but he is a lit­tle ob­sessed with them. And why not? A poet can never have too much of a good ob­ses­sion. It’s the stuff of lit­er­a­ture, although it can take time for us slower de­vel­op­ers to learn to trust our ob­ses­sions.

Lehmann seemed to have been born know­ing them; per­haps that’s the se­cret of be­ing a prodigy. An Im­age pre­fig­ures another of his finest achieve­ments, the lion po­ems in his Med­i­ta­tions for Mar­cus Furius Camil­lus, Gov­er­nor of Africa, and also in his later, odder Colos­seum po­ems.

Ec­cen­tric­ity is also the stuff of po­etry — part of each unique poetic voice­print — and one of the more ec­cen­tric threads that runs through Lehmann’s Po­ems 1957-2013 is the story of the lions, and the hip­pos and ele­phants, that ended up dy­ing in the Ro­man are­nas.

Other po­ems deal with more hum­ble Ro­mans than em­per­ors: the work­ers who dig out the ice from the moun­tains and bring it to the ci­ties, the clean­ers who sweep up the hu­man and glad­i­a­to­rial en­trails, who lift the dead hip­pos and ele­phants out of the arena.

The odd lion also roars in the ur­ban jun­gle of those Nero po­ems. Both strands of Lehmann’s teenage pre­coc­ity — ven­tril­o­quism and tech­ni­cal abil­ity — come to­gether in th­ese as­ton­ish­ing pieces. Some are col­lo­qui­ally writ­ten jokes; some are suc­cinct pieces of a type that Lehmann dubs in another se­quence long-play­ing haiku. Still oth­ers are fully re­alised, for­mal mo­saics of great beauty, such as the two po­ems on aque­ducts, or Nero, Hades, Pop­paea, a stylish take on Rilke’s fa­mous poem Or­pheus. Eury­dice. Her­mes, in which Nero takes his lyre down into the un­der­world to re­claim a dead wife.

Many of the lighter po­ems have the dark hu­mour of a Mar­tial or a Cat­ul­lus. Ei­ther poet could have writ­ten Sweet Suite, which be­gins: Ev­ery big wooden beam has a bee­tle inside it, The rank­est de­sires lurk un­der the most con­ser­va­tive to­gas.

Nero’s love po­ems to his wife also have a Cat­ul­lan feel: Each glance, each kiss is con­tra­band. “Fancy it’s you again,” we laugh and ev­ery night’s a one night stand.

In The Grand Tour of Greece the em­peror is forced to lis­ten to other po­ets at in­ter­minable nightly read­ings and is con­stantly in­vent­ing bouts of gas­tro to es­cape. but they de­claimed all the while as I was dy­ing in the lava­tory.

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