Keep­ing a keen eye on the past

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­off Page

Syd­ney’s Bar­bara Fisher is one of a no­table group of Aus­tralian women po­ets who started (or re­sumed) late and had to make up for ‘‘lost’’ time. Oth­ers have in­cluded Bar­bara Giles, Amy Wit­ting, Joyce Lee, Vera New­som and Mar­garet Scott.

Fisher em­pha­sises this recla­ma­tion project in her ti­tle, Res­cued from Time (Gin­nin­derra Press, 108pp, $20). Many of her po­ems go back (of­ten nos­tal­gi­cally) to ear­lier pe­ri­ods in her own life and some­times, as in A Colo­nial Story, much fur­ther. Oc­ca­sion­ally, Fisher’s quo­tid­ian de­tails risk ob­scur­ing rather than re­in­forc­ing the main thrust of the poem. At other times we have a sharp in­tel­lect hold­ing the whole poem in bal­ance and a mov­ing and thought­ful point be­ing made.

A fine ex­am­ple of the lat­ter is found in His­toric House Visit, a tightly con­trolled abcb poem rem­i­nis­cent of Gwen Har­wood’s sly satires on “Pro­fes­sor Krote”. Fisher’s own “ab­sent­minded, bored and cross” pro­fes­sor is “en­dur­ing a hol­i­day with his wife”, view­ing the best colo­nial houses the out­post has to of­fer. In the “mas­ter bed­room” he sulk­ily fan­ta­sises about the “ra­di­ant flesh” of Ari­adne be­fore the last qua­train abruptly re­stores per­spec­tive: So it might be he mused, re­call­ing mo­tel rooms and car­pet-smelling air, their clothes on hang­ers side by side, and Ari­adne, naked, brush­ing her hair.

There are quite a few other po­ems of this qual­ity, if not ex­actly this man­ner. In the 11page nar­ra­tive poem A Colo­nial Tale, Fisher es­tab­lishes a del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween the sani­tis­ing ac­count of “Miss Phillimore”, a rather staid writer who has over-in­vested in one ver­sion of the story, and “Old Jim”, a lo­cal who gives a much more scan­dalous ac­count. Fisher is at ease with these sorts of po­ems where her con­fi­dent ci­ta­tion of do­mes­tic de­tails from ear­lier pe­ri­ods cre­ates a mem­o­rable au­then­tic­ity.

Less per­sua­sive per­haps are po­ems such as Syd­ney to Melbourne, where the poet seems un­rea­son­ably con­fi­dent that the pre­sen­ta­tion of such de­tails will, of it­self, make for a sub­stan­tial poem. On the night train, “sit­ting up” all night, the poet re­mem­bers as a school­girl the dawn im­age of the “bleached and empty pad­docks / stained with rosy light” and “a litany of dark blue hoard­ings / ad­ver­tis­ing Dr Morse’s / In­dian Root Pills. / What were they for? / And who was Dr Morse? / They haunted me / and seemed at one with the ache / of lone­li­ness and long­ing / for fam­ily and home”. The poet, not per­haps con­fi­dent of her younger read­ers, feels (ill-ad­vis­edly to this re­viewer) bound to spell out the poem’s “point” in the last cou­ple of lines.

Most younger read­ers who fol­low Aus­tralian poetry in any de­tail will know Kris He­mensley as the cheery, in­de­fati­ga­ble and quixotic owner of Col­lected Works, a Melbourne book­shop unique in Aus­tralia in be­ing solely de­voted to “poetry and ideas”. It’s in­ter­est­ing, in this con­text, that Wil­liam Wilde’s 1996 book Aus­tralian Po­ets and Their Works (Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press) notes He­mensley “has long been a colour­ful and im­por­tant fig­ure in the Aus­tralian lit­er­ary scene”.

It’s of equal in­ter­est there­fore to note also that Lu­cas Weschke, in his in­tro­duc­tion to He­mensley’s Your Scratch En­tourage (Cordite Books, 83pp. $20), ob­serves that “apart from a chap­book or two and a CD, it is 30 years since He­mensley’s last col­lec­tion was pub­lished”. At the very least this time-lapse shows a de­vo­tion to the work of po­ets other than him­self.

The ti­tle, and its back­story, are not the only cu­ri­ous things about this long over­due col­lec­tion. In essence, it reads like a rea­son­ably gen­er­ous sam­ple of all that He­mensley has been qui­etly work­ing on (in­ter­mit­tently, one would as­sume) across the past 20 or 30 years. The first 50 pages cir­cle around four po­ets (Frank O’Hara, FT Prince, Charles Buck­mas­ter and Ivor Gur­ney) who, at first glance, don’t seem to have much in com­mon. The po­ets tend to be cen­tres of grav­ity rather than the be­gin­ning of any­thing more sys­tem­atic. It’s Buck­mas­ter and Gur­ney who re­ceive the most ex­ten­sive treat­ment. Not many will re­mem­ber now but in the early 70s, shortly be­fore his sui­cide (Novem­ber 1972), Buck­mas­ter was con­sid­ered, along with Michael Drans­field, one of the new, postro­man­tic po­ets to watch. His only full col­lec­tion, The Lost For­est, came out in 1971 and in­cluded an ear­lier chap­book, Deep Blue & Green. From these slim ma­te­ri­als (and some per­sonal ac­quain­tance, it would seem), He­mensley has gen­er­ated a myth of In­dian poet Arvind Kr­ishna Mehro­tra’s work has a lot in com­mon with that of Aus­tralian po­ets of the same gen­er­a­tion un­achieved po­ten­tial that can never be dis­proved. In his prose poem, Each time I travel through Moreton, He­mensley sug­gests that: “In poetry’s spirit world he’s con­jured as younger or older as needs be, and cer­tainly, has never ceased to be.”

More typ­i­cal in style, how­ever, than this rel­a­tively straight­for­ward as­ser­tion are some of the son­nets to­wards the book’s end in a se­quence called More Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream than Dante. The last few lines of #5 are char­ac­ter­is­tic:

“Her / hand’s pres­sure on my arm — the plea­sure when she kept / it there — not so deep a sleep that it’s for­got­ten / but bet­ter off it is. As­sim­i­l­able as / wind­blown’s in­ter­est. Scowl at the un­fea­si­ble. Gawk / at world as through gos­samer cowl. Good larf then cark.’’ It’s a strange mix­ture of rel­a­tively or­tho­dox syn­tax fol­lowed by se­vere dis­junc­tion — though the last three lines are not without mean­ing. The last sen­tence could al­most be an ex­is­ten­tial­ist maxim. One last thing, how­ever, should not go un­said about He­mensley and this col­lec­tion. De­spite his 50 years in Melbourne, with only oc­ca­sional trips back to Bri­tain, He­mensley re­mains, in a true sense, a poet of cer­tain English land­scapes, Dorset in par­tic­u­lar. His ap­proaches to them may some­times be oblique and idio­syn­cratic, but they also seem solidly based and strongly felt.

Gi­ra­mondo’s Aus­tralian pub­li­ca­tion of Arvind Kr­ishna Mehro­tra’s Col­lected Po­ems (309pp, $26.95) is a no­table act of ma­tu­rity and courage. Mehro­tra, born in 1947, is a key English-lan­guage In­dian poet whose work de­serves to be much bet­ter known in our part of the An­glo­sphere. This is not just be­cause such fa­mil­iar­ity would do us good cul­tur­ally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally but be­cause Mehro­tra’s work has quite a deal in com­mon with that of many Aus­tralian po­ets of the same gen­er­a­tion.

Mehro­tra too, in the 1960s, fell under the spell of Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams and, to a lesser ex­tent, the Beats. As he says in a lengthy au­thor’s note, he, at 20 in Bom­bay, con­sid­ered him­self (pre­ma­turely as it turned out) to be “an es­tab­lished poet, pub­lished in London, New York, San Fran­cisco and Five Dock NSW”.

As this com­ment in­di­cates, Mehro­tra is not without a sense of self-dep­re­ca­tion. Ini­tially there was also a semi-sur­re­al­ist di­men­sion to his work, though this has faded with the years. Many of the po­ems in the first two col­lec­tions sam­pled ( Nine En­clo­sures and Dis­tance in Statute Miles) are writ­ten in se­quences and, com­pared with later po­ems, are some­what oblique.

Songs of the Good Sur­re­al­ist (Part II), how­ever, has a typ­i­cal, wit­tily sur­real touch: Talk­ing of an­i­mals I’ve seen cats Sulk­ing be­side the sea There lies at its bot­tom A sub­ma­rine full of mice.

Quite a few of the po­ems have a cer­tain bit­ter nos­tal­gia for the Raj and its An­glophile af­ter­math. Al­though the clar­ity of Mehro­tra’s work helps en­sure its uni­ver­sal­ity, it is also highly In­dian, as is shown per­haps in the poet’s de­ter­mined re­luc­tance to give up his an­ces­tral house in Al­la­habad, even though it’s in des­per­ate need of re­pair. As he says in The Meal: “You know the game’s up / When the house you live in / Be­gins to eat you. // The tim­bered roof / Is the roof of its mouth, / The pit­ted stone floor // Its rot­ted teeth.” By the end of the poem the poet is watch­ing his mother “stand­ing / In­side a walker, / An un­paid bill / In her hand, / Su­per­vis­ing the meal”.

Many other po­ems through­out the col­lec­tion have a sim­i­lar im­press, stem­ming mainly from key de­tails given in ex­tremely sim­ple lan­guage. In To an Un­born Daugh­ter, for in­stance, the poet tells his sub­ject that he would, if he could, bring her into ex­is­tence by writ­ing a poem and that, so cre­ated, she would have her “mother’s / Close-bit­ten nails and light-brown eyes”. “I saw her / Only once,” he says, “through a train win­dow, / In a yel­low field. She was wear­ing / A pale-coloured dress. It was cold. / I think she wanted to say some­thing.”

The col­lec­tion ends with 80 pages of Mehro­tra’s trans­la­tions, most no­tably from the Prakrit an­thol­ogy of time­lessly sar­donic erotic po­ems and from the 15th-cen­tury Bhakti poet Kabir. It’s a gen­er­ous, non-ego­tis­ti­cal way to fin­ish a Col­lected for, as Mehro­tra says in the last words of his in­tro­duc­tion, “when it comes to the labour re­quired of you, the roles of poet and trans­la­tor are in­dis­tin­guish­able from each other”. is a poet and critic.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.