Fraternal tenderness to the fore
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