Rug yanked from re­al­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Poet's Voice - In a Sym­bol­ist Mood Graeme Miles Sarah Hol­land-Batt

If Sym­bol­ism was birthed with the pub­li­ca­tion of Charles Baude­laire’s scan­dalous vol­ume Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, it was for­malised in Septem­ber of 1886, when Jean Moreas pub­lished his Sym­bol­ist Man­i­festo in the pages of Le Fi­garo news­pa­per in Paris. As all good lit­er­ary man­i­festos do, Moreas’s procla­ma­tion in­veighed against the lit­er­ary pre­cur­sors it was hop­ing to re­place: in this case, the Par­nas­sians and the Ro­man­tics, who were once “full of sap and fresh­ness” but had be­come “dried out and shriv­elled”.

Sym­bol­ism, he de­clared, would be the en­emy of re­al­ism, “decla­ma­tion, wrong feel­ings, and ob­jec­tive de­scrip­tion”. It would in­stead cloak ideas in the “sump­tu­ous lounge robes” of sub­jec­tive and sen­si­tive analo­gies, and “lux­u­ri­ant and en­er­getic” lan­guage.

Rather than be­ing cel­e­brated for cloak­ing ideas in “sump­tu­ous lounge robes”, Baude­laire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was ruled to have of­fended public de­cency and cost him and his pub­lisher a 300 franc fine.

Nonethe­less, Les Fleurs du Mal — full of frank eroti­cism and deca­dent de­cay, lustily cel­e­brat­ing Paris’s squalor and be­moan­ing its mod­erni­sa­tion — ric­o­cheted through France and spurred po­ets in­clud­ing Paul Ver­laine and Stephane Mal­larmé in its wake, ul­ti­mately pro­duc­ing one of France’s great­est lit­er­ary move­ments.

On the whole, the Sym­bol­ists be­lieved, as Rim­baud once wrote in a let­ter, the poet “must be­come a seer … by a long, gi­gan­tic and ra­tio­nal de­range­ment of the senses”.

Their poetic out­look priv­i­leged dream, orac­u­lar vi­sions and the as­so­cia­tive quo­tient of the imag­i­na­tion; they were less in­ter­ested in re­al­ity than the sen­sa­tions that ac­com­pa­nied it.

This drowsy, sen­su­ous pas­sage from Baude­laire’s Evening Har­mony, with its synaes­thetic im­agery, gives a good sense of the Sym­bol­ist mode:

Now ev­ery flower stem swings a censer chain And ev­ery flower gives in­cense to the night. Sounds, per­fumes cir­cle in the evening light. Turn­ing in lan­guorous waltz, again, again;

And ev­ery flower gives in­cense to the night … The vi­o­lin trem­bles like a soul in pain.

Round goes the lan­guorous waltz again, again, The sky is like an al­tar, vast and bright.

This week’s poet, Graeme Miles, bears the in­flu­ence of the Sym­bol­ists in his third col­lec­tion, In­fer­nal To­pogra­phies (UWAP), which even in­cludes a num­ber of trans­la­tions of po­ets from the Sym­bol­ist or­bit.

The ti­tle evokes not only the com­bus­tive de­struc­tion of the bush­fires that have rav­aged the poet’s cur­rent home state of Tas­ma­nia, but also of Rim­baud’s Sea­son in Hell.

In­deed, these two ref­er­ence points con­verge in the apoc­a­lyp­tic post-bush­fire poem Salt and Ash, where, the poet writes, “It’s rain­ing now in the house that burned down this morn­ing, / the one built in the year of the Sym­bol­ist Man­i­festo.”

Dis­tant, un­touch­able night is stoop­ing over fin­gers of street-lights that push her away. And the chil­dren of night? The chil­dren of night are in hid­ing wher­ever the dark still is, un­der their mother’s gauzy veil or in the street where an am­bu­lance just passed.

I was drunk once in a dream, years ago.

The bush­fire sun was orange and I said that I wouldn’t re­mem­ber this.

So dis­junct things drop, as you for­get them, with an oily, lurid swirl of dream, a lit­tle drum-roll on the lids of the eyes.

Miles’s po­ems don’t eas­ily fall into the­matic clus­ters. Some cen­tre on the af­ter-ef­fects of the bush­fires and on ex­tinc­tion; oth­ers are lo­cated in the do­mes­tic sphere.

Oth­ers yet take the form of omi­nous, sur­real vi­sions, in­clud­ing one in which the poet is “con­vinced / that I died at eigh­teen in a house / near the sea from too much bour­bon”, and an­other in which the poet’s “brother died from a dirty nee­dle in a dream”.

These mo­ments re­call the night­mar­ish jump cuts in David Lynch films, where the rug is yanked out from re­al­ity. As Miles writes in his trans­la­tion of Ro­den­bach’s La Vie des Cham­bres, “evening is / a mes­sen­ger of ter­rors who won’t be com­forted”.

Miles’s style, as these ex­tracts sug­gest, is one of dreami­ness and flu­id­ity; his po­ems have a pleas­ing slip­per­i­ness about them, a feel­ing of at­ten­tion wan­der­ing where it will. They tend to fo­cus, as the Sym­bol­ists once did, on the tac­tile and the sen­sory ap­pre­hen­sion of ex­pe­ri­ence, but they trans­plant this fo­cus into 21stcen­tury set­tings such as the bush­fire-rav­aged sky­line in the Huon and Tas­ma­nian High­lands.

Miles’s dream­scapes are re­plete with the dis­jecta of the past — her­mits crop up, as do or­a­cles, ta­pes­tries, ef­fi­gies, car­riages, mus­kets, tym­pa­nons, bronzes and ball­rooms — yet rather than feel­ing ar­chaic, these ves­tiges are viv­i­fied by con­tact with the present. “Mean­ing,” the poet writes, “can catch on any­thing: move­ments / in the cur­tains, net­ted veils over beds, / the petal by petal sui­cide of a flower / in the next room.”

There’s even an ap­pear­ance of dis­tinctly Baude­lairian swans in the poem Or­nithomancy — a term re­fer­ring to the An­cient Greek prac­tice of div­inat­ing signs in the move­ment of birds — in which swans pop­u­late a sur­real land­scape that evoke, cir­cling a sleep­ing woman:

They re­volve around a sleep­ing, preg­nant woman

clock­wise and make their two sounds at once: their cry, their wing

whis­tle. They verge on mi­gra­tion.

The poet goes on to de­scribe how “the myth con­flates these two species / of white swan, all over / like the flash of white un­der a black swan’s wing”.

Which myth Miles is re­fer­ring to is un­clear. It may be that of An­dro­mache, Baude­laire’s ref­er­ence point in one of his most im­por­tant po­ems in Les Fleurs du Mal, The Swan.

But in its ref­er­ence to a sleep­ing, preg­nant woman, I’m also tempted to read it as a nod to Leda, whose rape by Zeus in a swan’s form left her preg­nant.

These cor­re­spon­dences con­verge with­out res­o­lu­tion — in­deed, per­haps the ap­pari­tion is a myth of Miles’s own mak­ing.

In this week’s poem, Miles evokes the lan­guor just be­fore sleep, in which “dis­tant, un­touch­able night is stoop­ing / over fin­gers of street-lights”.

Night here is per­son­i­fied as a mother, whose chil­dren “are in hid­ing,” per­haps un­der a “gauzy veil”, or, the poet tells us dis­joint­edly, “in the street where an am­bu­lance / just passed”.

The dual pos­si­ble func­tions of “still” in the phrase “wher­ever the dark still is” — ei­ther as an ad­verb or a noun — hints at both sta­sis and ret­ro­spec­tion.

The sense of the poem’s set­ting slip­ping out of our grasp in­ten­si­fies with the mood shift to­wards deca­dent obliv­ion: “I was drunk once / in a dream, years ago”, the poet tells us, as each new line re­mov­ing us fur­ther from the present mo­ment and into in­tox­i­cated re­flec­tion.

The poem closes with the vel­veteen image of the “oily, lurid swirl / of dream”, and with the fi­nal flour­ish of a “drum-roll on the lids of the eyes”, we are sub­sumed fully into the poet’s Sym­bol­ist dream.

In a Sym­bol­ist Mood,

is a poet and an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the school of cre­ative prac­tice at the Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy. Poet’s Voice re­ceives spon­sor­ship from The Copy­right Agency and the Ju­dith Neil­son In­sti­tute for Jour­nal­ism and Ideas. She can be con­tacted at sarah.hol­land­batt@qut.edu.au.

Reg­u­lar po­etry sub­mis­sions to The Week­end Aus­tralian should be emailed to po­etry@theaus­tralian.com.au

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