Spar­tan union of po­etry and phi­los­o­phy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Po­etry can do al­most any­thing (lyrics, nov­els, plays, es­says), but po­etry and phi­los­o­phy usu­ally make un­easy bed­fel­lows. It has a lot to do with the way each prefers to use lan­guage. Po­etry wants to use the lan­guage’s re­sources to evoke, to em­body, to en­ter­tain, per­haps to up­lift. Phi­los­o­phy wants to use it to de­fine, to nail down, to be clear — and noth­ing else. It’s no won­der Plato didn’t want po­ets in his Repub­lic.

All these is­sues, and more, are raised by Aden Rolfe’s new book (I hes­i­tate to say col­lec­tion) False Nos­tal­gia, which com­prises stand­alone po­ems, prose po­ems, se­quences of po­ems, a va­ri­ety of verse drama and a prose es­say. Its in­ten­tions are pri­mar­ily philo­soph­i­cal, a se­ries of dis­cus­sions/med­i­ta­tions on the is­sue of mem­ory and re­lated con­cepts.

The po­etry seems, al­most de­lib­er­ately, to be stripped of any­thing mu­si­cal or dec­o­ra­tive. Although the ideas Rolfe is con­cerned to ex­press can be in­ter­est­ingly elu­sive and com­plex, the lan­guage used is al­most al­ways straight­for­ward (though, hap­pily, not without a rhyth­mic im­pulse).

An in­ter­po­la­tion in Rolfe’s “verse play”, Ars Me­mo­ria, is typ­i­cal: “When we talk about the past, we say / I re­mem­ber. / I re­mem­ber how it hap­pened. // When we’re un­sure, we say / I think. / I think that was how.”

Although the book ranges widely, its es­sen­tial point is ex­plic­itly made in the es­say False Nos­tal­gia, where Rolfe uses ex­am­ples from poet Gi­a­como Leop­ardi and novelist Don DeLillo — along with his own chang­ing views of Michael Haneke’s film Cache — to show how, per­versely, we can be nos­tal­gic about ex­pe­ri­ences that were at the time un­sat­is­fac­tory — or worse. As he says about Leop­ardi: “Plea­sure … is some­thing that can be achieved de­spite un­hap­pi­ness, even be­cause of it.”

An­other of Rolfe’s points is in the lim­i­nal­ity of ex­pe­ri­ence, the is­sue of how can we be sure that what we’ve had or felt is ac­tu­ally “an ex­pe­ri­ence”. This may seem ar­cane but Rolfe is able to make it ap­pear in­trigu­ing — as in the poem Geese, short enough to quote in full. “Pay no at­ten­tion to those geese / that re­mind you of your aunt // they have the same fat an­kles / only it’s their necks that are fat / but then, they don’t / have necks at all / so what is it about them? / Let’s take an­other turn / about the pond, see if we can’t / re­mem­ber the last time / we had an ex­pe­ri­ence.” It may take more than one “turn / about the pond” be­fore False Nos­tal­gia is fully ap­pre­ci­ated by its read­ers but that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing.

Tony Page (no re­la­tion) has just re­leased his fifth col­lec­tion in al­most 30 years. For 20 of these Page lived in South­east Asia, par­tic­u­larly Thai­land and Malaysia. Part one of Dawn the Proof fo­cuses mainly on this re­gion and it is in­ter­est­ing to com­pare his “lived there” po­ems with the “been and gone” po­ems in­creas­ingly pro­duced by Aus­tralians tour­ing in those coun­tries.

Some­thing of the poet’s orig­i­nal mo­ti­va­tions for liv­ing abroad can be sensed at the end of The Van­ish­ing Trav­eller: “Pass­ports smudge iden­tity. / Never to be seen by fam­ily or friends / he trusts re­mote­ness to do its work.” It’s not in­signif­i­cant, how­ever, that in 2012 Page re­turned to Mel­bourne. A rea­son­ably typ­i­cal am­biva­lence comes through in his poem By the Burmese Bor­der, writ­ten, one would pre­sume, be­fore the re­cent demo­cratic ad­vances there: “The peas­ants pause / to smile at each other, / en­joy­ing a full belly // and peace all these years. / But what’s that over the bor­der — / what sounds slice the air?”

Parts two and three of this book range more widely, from child­hood mem­o­ries through to Re­nais­sance Italy, clas­si­cal mu­sic and an­cient Greece and Rome. Scat­tered among this mis­cel­lany are sev­eral “one-off” po­ems, such as My Brother Can­not Sleep, which rise well above their com­pan­ions and seem des­tined for an­tholo­gies.

Oth­ers no less com­pelling are The Model to His Mas­ter, Car­avag­gio (with its clever plea against mythol­o­gis­ing), When all Art Fails (an in­ter­est­ing med­i­ta­tion on soli­tude ver­sus lone­li­ness) and Fall­ing Leaves (an elo­quent farewell for the world’s van­ish­ing lan­guages). These, and a few oth­ers with sim­i­lar mer­its, are where Page’s strength lies. At times, as in Fall­ing Leaves, he flirts with aban­don­ing tra­di­tional punc­tu­a­tion (even syn­tax); he also varies his forms to in­clude prose po­ems and a vil­lanelle. This does help to di­ver­sify the col­lec­tion but it is the small core of hu­man­ist, com­pas­sion­ate and

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