Magic eye mag­ni­fies the world about us

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kevin Hart

Coast Road: Se­lected Po­ems By Robert Gray Black Inc, 96pp, $22.99 SOME­TIMES our louder con­tem­po­raries can deafen us, so it takes decades for us to dis­tin­guish the most orig­i­nal and en­dur­ing po­ets of our times. This has been the case with Robert Gray who, in­creas­ingly, presses upon the at­ten­tive reader as one of the few liv­ing po­ets we ig­nore at our peril.

He is not a poet who bul­lies us with his views about this or that, or who seeks to daz­zle us with lin­guis­tic fire­works. Nor does he im­pose on us with books fu­elled by am­bi­tion for lit­er­ary fame. His po­etry is of far more value than that.

When we first read him we think, rightly, that he seeks to teach us how bet­ter to sense the nat­u­ral world about us. Yet when we reread him, we re­alise he is do­ing some­thing more rare and more pro­found: he alerts us to those phe­nom­ena that are al­ways nearby, that are deeply en­tan­gled in our lives, but that are in dan­ger of not be­ing seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled.

Not to at­tend to the world about us is to be in dan­ger of re­duc­ing life (to work, am­bi­tion, re­spon­si­bil­ity, or pro­grammed leisure), of liv­ing a life with­out proper nour­ish­ment. Gray’s po­ems are fine lenses for view­ing the or­di­nary world we so of­ten over­look. Of­ten when we read him we are struck by the magic of his eye.

Coast Road be­gins with a lyric about tak­ing an overnight train from Syd­ney up NSW’s north coast. The speaker wakes and sees “one of those bright crock­ery days / from so much I re­call”, and im­me­di­ately we think of those blue and white tea sets so common in the 1950s and 60s. Per­haps only when we re-read the poem do we dwell on how the speaker wakes up, “as if on board a clip­per / clam­ber­ing at sea.”

Many po­ets ask the ques­tions “What?” and “Why?” in their po­ems, but those who sus­tain our at­ten­tion over many years pre­fer the more dif­fi­cult ques­tion “How?”

Here, Gray per­fectly cap­tures the dis­ori­en­ta­tion of wak­ing in a mov­ing train. More than that, the im­age of the clip­per “clam­ber­ing” over high waves is ex­actly right, caught in just one word, and the phras­ing of the en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence, with the phonic play of “clip­per” and “clam­ber­ing”, makes us re­alise the lines could be said mem­o­rably in no other way.

Those teacups might lead us to think of Gray as a poet of loss or even nostal­gia, and such a thought would not be en­tirely mis­taken. Yet loss is merely a mo­ment of a far grander theme: the cease­less meta­mor­pho­sis of life.

Early on, Gray took Zen Bud­dhism as a guide. To the Master, Do­gen Zenji gives us, in a com­pelling adap­ta­tion of Ezra Pound’s man­ner, a re-cre­ation of the great Ja­panese teacher, founder of the Soto school. We see the young monk stand­ing on the jetty “with his new smooth skull”; and it is there that he meets an old cook, unim­pressed by the monk’s piety, who leads him to en­light­en­ment.

That il­lu­mi­na­tion is sim­ply at­ten­tion to “the or­di­nary things” (like lis­ten­ing to the horses clump past with their “lumpy hooves”), which can hap­pen only if we ac­knowl­edge that “there’s no abid­ing self”.

The truth is that “Things tell us what we need to do”, not our minds, and cer­tainly not our re­li­gious con­vic­tions: “And upon this leaf one shall cross over / the stormy sea, / among the dragon-like waves.”

If Gray is some­times given to teach us, whether in po­ems or in apho­risms, he is most mem­o­rable when he shows us what we are all too likely to by­pass, whether be­cause some­thing is un­fa­mil­iar or be­cause it is overly fa­mil­iar. What would we not no­tice with­out Gray’s help? Some­thing like “Late af­ter­noon sun / in the back of the shed, / cor­nered and still.”

And what is some­thing have we ob­served, time and again, in Syd­ney but never re­ally seen? Why, a ferry cross­ing “the huge, dark har­bour,” go­ing “out beyond / the tomato stake patch / of the yachts”, with “the Bridge like a gi­ant prop”.

If Late Ferry is suf­fused by melan­choly, which is an ir­re­duc­ible as­pect of Gray’s id­iom, it is also bright­ened by sheer sen­sual de­light in the scene. Watch­ing the ferry float to­wards the city is “like tast­ing hon­ey­comb, / filled as it is with its yel­low light”.

One of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary po­ems in this pierc­ing col­lec­tion is a study of the poet’s mother, “all of ninety”, as she suf­fers from Alzheimer’s. I call the poem a study for two rea­sons. In De­part­ing Light is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, a re­flec­tion; at the same time it is a study in the way some paint­ings are stud­ies: it has the air of be­ing quick, un­fin­ished, rough. Yet no one shows more care than Gray in pre­sent­ing what is ap­par­ently art­less.

The poem is at once mer­ci­less in its stark re­al­i­sa­tion that “If you live long enough it isn’t death you fear / but what life can still do” and ten­der in the care shown for the woman who “has to be tied up/ on her wheel­chair”.

The fi­nal stanza of the poem is ut­terly heart­break­ing: “My mother will get lost on the roads after death”, we are told, and, as we would ex­pect, Gray re­fuses all re­li­gious con­so­la­tion: “This is all / of your mother, in your arms”, he tells him­self, this woman whose mouth “is full of chaos”, who keeps los­ing her den­tures on the grass of the nurs­ing home gar­den, and who smells “like old news­pa­pers on a damp con­crete floor”.

Gray says his life has been “a hymn / to the op­tic nerve”. Per­haps so, but his other senses have been finely cul­ti­vated as well, as when he speaks of “the thick syrups / of a gar­den” or of “bird­song, which is like wan­der­ing lines / of fresh paint”.

But what I value most in his work is what he says of the writ­ing of an old Chi­nese poet: “There is a sense of over­brim­ming life.” Not to read him is to be in dan­ger of not liv­ing as fully as one might.

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