Spartan union of poetry and philosophy
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