Fra­ter­nal ten­der­ness to the fore

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Ken­neally

how­ever hard he tried, / how­ever care­fully and need­fully. / The mys­tery of it would never square. / Never, never, never, never, never.”

Fur­ther out into space, Peter Rose, the long­time editor of Aus­tralian Book Re­view, passes regularly by other top­ics — they might even be called tropes by those so in­clined — of lesser grav­ity. He is quite of­ten out and about, ob­serv­ing, through a rue­ful prism, seem­ingly in­nocu­ous go­ings on: ‘‘That man in the park, / phleg­matic new­comer / with a Plan­ta­genet cut, / still bleary this morn­ing, / his turn to en- ter­tain the tot.’’ This ex­plo­sion of con­so­nants is a warn­ing, and by the time Rose has fin­ished with this hung-over dad the scene is like some­thing from Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni’s Blow-up.

Or, worn out from edit­ing and proof­ing, watch­ing cricket and read­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Harold Pin­ter, con­jur­ing up a cash­mere-wear­ing (and, as we know, cricket-lov­ing) Beck­ett, “… ever more gnomic. / ‘ Won’t you stop talk­ing?’ / he says to a bol­shie ac­tress / and then plays Haydn at the party.”

Po­ems like this are rem­i­nis­cent of Peter Tyn­dall’s never-end­ing art se­ries A Per­son Looks At a Work of Art / some­one looks at some­thing ... but, as with Tyn­dall, Rose al­ways finds a new an­gle, and the charm of the no­tion makes the poem non-ref­er­en­tial, au­ton­o­mous. Like Peter Porter, he is gen­er­ous with al­lu­sion, but it is the ar­ma­ture of the po­ems that re­ally does the work, and there are no ques­tions af­ter­wards.

Mov­ing through the book, it feels as if the in­ten­sity of feel­ing in the po­ems of re­mem­brance has spread out like an old ache: where there is en­nui, it is more pro­nounced; long­ing, more pained. His mini-bi­og­ra­phy cum el­egy to Maria Cal­las mixes or­nate emo­tion and pedes­trian re­al­ity in a way that takes it far be­yond aes­thet­ics. A yearned-af­ter ath­lete from long ago queues up for the poet’s au­to­graph at a book sign­ing, trig­ger­ing an avalanche of long­ing from decades, even cen­turies, past.

So it is that Cat­ul­lus, top­ping the bill and tak­ing sev­eral en­cores, as he has done in so many of Rose’s books, seems more het up than en­er­vated this time around, de­mand­ing more at­ten­tion. Pro­fes­sor Socra­tion still pompously an­noys, and the usual en­vi­ous, mal­odor­ous ri­vals try to rain on Cat­ul­lus’s pa­rade: but this time there’s a touch of Joe Or­ton among the faux-clas­si­cal bitch­ery and dal­liance. Les­bia, though, is as en­thralling as ever, and their tryst in a laneway bar, rev­el­ling in po­etry to­gether, is the per­fect an­ti­dote.

If Cat­ul­lus is des­per­ately try­ing to hang on to some­thing — fame, beauty, wit, an ideal of love — he is still for­tu­nate in his des­per­a­tion be­cause he can, in the end, just let go. Some things, as Rose re­minds us so ar­rest­ingly once again, can never be re­lin­quished. Never, never, never, never, never.

is a poet and critic.

De­tail from the cover of The Sub­ject of Feel­ing show­ing Robert and Peter Rose with their mother

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