In the skin of a lion
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.