Tag Archives: A D Hope

Stephen Edgar’s Strangest Place

Stephen Edgar, The Strangest Place: New and Selected Poems (Black Pepper 2020)

This is a daunting book. It opens with 76 pages of new poems in a section titled ‘Background Noise’, enough for a respectable book on its own. But Stephen Edgar has had poetry published since 1976, so it was time for a retrospective, and more than 200 pages follow, a selection from his ten previous books. It’s a lot to take in if, like me, you’re new to his work.

Here’s part of what Clive James had to say about him:

Stephen Edgar stands out among recent Australian poets for the perfection of his craft, a limitless wealth of cultural reference, and an unmatched ability to make science a living subject for lyrical verse … The quickest way of summing up my appreciation of his mastery would be to say that if he were a jazz musician, he would be the kind who, when playing after hours, leads all the others to pack up their instruments and listen. 

From clivejames.com

James doesn’t mention Edgar’s commitment to rhyme (a commitment James shared). A typical poem in this book has a complex rhyme scheme with a strict metric count, a form that as far as I know is often invented by Edgar for the occasion. The poems adhere to these forms rigorously, rarely even using a half-rhyme or adding an extra syllable. This extraordinary, and deeply unfashionable formal constraint is a wonder to behold. James’s comparison to a jazz musician seems at first blush paradoxical or even perverse, but it makes sense if you think of the poem’s form as the basic melody, the regular rhythm, around which the syntax, ideas and images play wildly.

For me, it’s not jazz that comes to mind, but sculpture. Thoughts or observations on things mundane or evanescent, tiny or immense, uncanny or terrifying are worked into solid, well-defined shapes. There’s no chance that the reader will mistake the result for simple expression of emotion or anything other than an artifice, one charged with the tension between the fixed form and the mercurial play of mind. The range of subjects includes a Sydney summer day that ends with a Southerly Buster (‘Coming Up for Air’); a group of naked children walking on Hampstead Heath (‘Hampstead Incident’); a performer who builds a structure of feathers (‘Feather Weight’); a slo-mo film of mating finches (‘Song and Dance’); a woman plagued by voices (‘Voices Off’); the death of our planet (‘Shadow Line’); a glimpsed insect (‘Dragonfly’).

If the poems are sculptures, they are both sculptured shapes on the page, and sculptures in sound: these poems cry out to be read aloud.

After I’d written this far I read Martin Duwell’s excellent review of The Strangest Place at this link. Rather than write more about the poetry in general, I recommend that review.

To pick one poem, here’s ‘Out of This World’ (pages 50-51). You can click on the image to open it in a new tab at a more readable size:

See what I mean about strict formal qualities? Each of these stanzas has eight lines. Most of the lines are iambic pentameters (that is, they have five two-syllable feet each); the lines that differ – the first, sixth and eighth line of each stanza – have three, two and four feet respectively. The rhyme scheme is abcadbcd; it may help understand the play of rhyme if it’s written abca-dbcd.

Each of the first three stanzas is a step in an argument: a) a prediction and a proposal; b) detail on the prediction; c) detail on the proposal. The fourth stanza ricochets unexpectedly, and the fifth arrives at an unexpected resolution.

So, the great man predicts,
The ruined body and robotic voice:
A thousand years, at most, till humankind
Exhausts the planet which it now afflicts
With the works that cry our claim to fame.
We'll have no choice,
He says, but to abandon it and find
Another one – and do the same?

The first two lines are mildly riddling: ‘the great man’ is of course Stephen Hawking. Shortly before he died in 2018, he predicted that our universe would eventually fade to darkness as the stars run out of energy, and he proposed that scientists might be able to find alternate universes. This stanza manages to evoke Hawking’s physical presence, put a version of his prediction and proposal into smooth verse (see above for what Clive James said about Edgar and science), and then challenge the proposal with a question that throws forward to the second stanza. It’s worth noting that, at least according to the report I linked to above, Hawking was talking about the end of the universe, whereas Edgar scales it back to the more imminent end of the planet, thereby introducing a moral element – the end of the planet is caused by the ‘works’ of humankind, whereas the end of the universe is due to inexorable processes. I guess that’s what my mother used to call poetic licence.

Which future will it be?
The nightmare we've been dreaming since the War,
The sunburst in which history will combust,
The twisted shadows of our artistry
Awash with ash? Or the Earth skinned
As landscapes pour
Their sunburnt pastures, continents of dust,
Abroad to feed the scouring wind?

The opening question may seem to be posing a choice, but it’s not so. This is not a poem for activists, nor is it an update of Robert Frost’s ‘Fire and Ice‘. The poem assumes that the prediction is correct, and catastrophe is assured; neither resistance nor preference comes into the question. There are two scenarios, nuclear holocaust and climate disaster, both of which have become more compelling in the actual world since the poem was published. Just as with Hawking in the first stanza, they are evoked by striking images rather than simply named. The effect is partly to draw attention to the poem as artifice, but also to invite an imaginative engagement with the predicted catastrophe(s).

What desperate voyagers,
Suspended generations, will pursue
Light's white retreating speed, and drift away,
The keepers of a purpose that refers,
Who knows, to nothing, while this sphere's
Now curdled blue,
Revolving slowly through its long decay,
Dwindles far off and disappears?

This stanza, step three, spells out Hawking’s proposal, again taking a familiar concept – this time a science fiction trope – and working it into the fore-ordained stanza shape. ‘Suspended generations’ neatly evokes those stories of spaceships full of people in suspended animation; ‘curdled blue’ draws great power from the way it evokes popular lyricism about earth as a beautiful blue planet. Unlike Hawking, the poem is pessimistic about the fate of the ‘voyagers’ – their purpose may lead to nothing. For all the strength of these images, and those of the preceding stanza, the poem is still fairly cerebral. And then, whiplash:

My mother's final day.
I sit with her in the grey sterile tide
Of afternoon. Her shrivelled body strains
Its sour breath. Her mouth gapes to convey
Its dry mute aria. Over her
The minutes slide
With useless protocol. Nothing remains
For them to do now but recur,

The focus shifts abruptly from the global to the intimate. The general ‘we’ in the first stanzas shrinks to ‘I’ and ‘her’. Where the strict adherence to form had a distancing effect in the previous stanzas, here not so much. There the effect is a kind of classicism – ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ Here, powerful emotion is recollected, if not in tranquillity, then some time after the event. ‘Her mouth gapes to convey / Its dry mute aria’ brings the terrible scene vividly alive.

Much of the power of poetry can lie in what isn’t said. In this case, the gap between the third and fourth stanzas cries out for attention. I can’t be the only one who, having just read an evocation of the end of the Earth, comes to the line ‘My mother’s final day’ and thinks of Mother Earth. Probably more idiosyncratically, I thought of A D Hope’s 1958 poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother‘, in which the mother is Earth, and the vaporising effect of nuclear war is imagined. I’m not saying that Edgar had Hope’s poem in mind, but in my admittedly patchy knowledge of Australian poetry, Hope is the poet Edgar most resembles, mainly for his adherence to rhyming forms, but also for his interest in matters scientific and his occasional venture into the erotic (Hope’s ventures there were more than occasional).

Back to the poem. It resists the gravitational pull of the mother / Earth metaphor. Instead, her ‘withdrawing mind’ is likened to the desperate voyagers of the third stanza, and to the possible nothing at the end of their voyage:

While her withdrawing mind,
Drifting, I fancy, like that future host
Beyond the reach of this blue globe, before
Day's end will leave the daylight dream behind,
Borne on the solar wind that sweeps
The icy coast
Of Pluto, pure dark energy once more
Bound for the interstellar deeps.

The two parts of the poem are brought together, and though it might be tempting to see one of them as a metaphor for the other, it’s not that simple. Abstract emotion about the end of the world and immediate personal grief each has its own powerful validity, and they illuminate each other. Climate grief becomes intensely personal; personal loss becomes cosmic. Much of the stanza refers equally to the dying woman and the survivors of earth’s destruction: ‘daylight’s dream’ means both an individual life (Isn’t there a mystical tradition somewhere that says our life is but a dream, and reality lies elsewhere? If not, there’s certainly a children’s song) and the aeons in the human race has lived by the light and energy of the sun. ‘The icy coast / Of Pluto’ refers to both the planet, beyond which the survivors must go, and the underworld of the ancient Romans beyond the shores (coast at a stretch) of Acheron. ‘I fancy’ in the second line, while working nicely into the alliteration that is so striking in this stanza, declares that the poem is an artifice, but that in no way detracts from the pathos of the final lines.

Hope and the Climate Emergency

There was an Extinction Rebellion event at Bondi Beach this morning. A couple of hundred of us sat in the shape of the XR logo, representing the planet and an hourglass. There were brief speeches, a drone photo, and some magnificent dancing by members of the Tango Rebellion. The handful of police didn’t have to do anything but stand and watch.

One of the speakers read what she called a faux elegy for the planet – faux because we intend to take action to at least minimise the results of the climate emergency. On the way home in the train, one of my companions expostulated that it’s not the planet that’s in danger of dying out, it’s us or at least life as we know it. The planet will survive just fine. But we all agreed there is such a thing as climate grief that needs to be faced.

I found myself thinking of A D Hope’s poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother’, the first poem in his A Late Picking (1975) that, according to my pencilled notes on the contents page, was written in 1958 with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in mind. I don’t expect many of my readers to know the poem, so here it is in full, the anger and, yes, grief beneath the irony as alive as ever:

On an Early Photograph of My Mother

Who would believe it to see her now, the mother
Of so many daughters and sons – and one of them I –
Dear busy old body, bustling around the sky
That this was indeed my darling, and no other?

Who would suppose to view her then, the tender
Bloom and dazzle of wildfire, and the stance
Of unripe grace, the naked eloquent glance,
Time could so tame or age despoil her splendour?

Or who imagine the imperceptible stages
From her madcap Then to this staid respectable Now?
One picture the Family Album does not show.
See where she ripped it angrily from the pages!

That is just the picture I should give most to recover,
When she changed to a molten mass and began to shrink
To a great smooth stone, and the stone began to think,
And she raged at her ruin and knew that her youth was over.

Did you destroy it, my darling, that face of granite
Cracked and scarred by your volcanic heart?
Did you take one look and tear it across and apart,
The barren body, the gaunt, unlovable planet?

You could not foresee this lovely old age beginning,
The ripeness, the breeding beauty. How could you know
Yourself with your lap full of flowers, soft-shouldered with snow,
Royally wearing your waters, your children pinning

Cities of lights at your breast, to show how clever they are?
Take comfort, my darling, and trundle your bulk through the sky:
Your cleverest children—and one of them is not I—
Are finding the trick that will turn you back to a star.

Cunning and cautious, but much less cautious than cunning,
They split small pieces of rock, a cup or two from your seas.
'Helping Mother!' they say, 'and busy as bees.
The noise we can make is tremendous; the flash is stunning.'

'We can do better,' they say. 'A surprise for Mother;
She will be pleased when we show her what we can do.'
How long will it take? Just another invention or two
And someone will press a button. You need not bother;

You will blaze out with the nimbus of youth, the limber
Liquid gait and the incandescent air;
You will forget the middle-aged ruin you were;
Good luck to you, darling! I shall not be there to remember.

Lachlan Brown’s Lunar Inheritance

Lachlan Brown, Lunar Inheritance (Giramondo 2017)

Lunar-Inheritance At the beginning of 2013, the Carriageworks in Sydney hosted Song Dong’s extraordinary art installation, Waste Not, in which we were invited to walk about in the skeleton of a small house, along narrow pathways among the neatly arranged items that were found in the artist’s mother’s house when she died. The hundreds of duplicate humble household items – cakes of soap, hairbrushes, spectacles, shoes, plastic bowls, eggbeaters – had an uncanny power, like mute witnesses of a life lived with scrupulous thrift. As Song Dong says in the video below, the installation struck a chord with Chinese viewers: ‘This is not just your home. It is our home too.’

Lachlan Brown invokes that work in an epigraph to Lunar Inheritance*, and as we read on we realise it is a literal reminder of his own Chinese grandmother’s hoarding, as well as a rich metaphor for his own complex diasporic cultural heritage.

The book is neatly structured: two poems each consisting of eight eight-line stanzas (or call them sub-poems, because they don’t have the continuity of narrative or argument suggested by ‘stanza’), followed by a tightly rhyming sonnet; repeat four times; then one more 8×8 poem, and a final 7×8. Each of the sub-poems has a title in parenthesis.

As the structure suggests, the book has an over-all unity, which is woven from several strands: memories of growing up Chinese in rural New South Wales, memories of the poet’s grandmother, notes from a visit to China where, as the cover blurb puts it, ‘amidst the incessant construction and consumption of twenty-first century China, a shadowy heritage reveals and withholds itself.’

The book is exhilarating . There are so many beautifully crafted phrases, moments captured with brilliant clarity, sharp observations, surprising connections and juxtapositions – so much mind at play!

But I’m sticking to my policy of talking about just one poem, here’s the second page – the third and fourth ‘sub-poems’ – from the book’s third 8×8 poem, ‘Self Storage’:


(I had to look up a couple of words. KTV is Chinese Karaoke. Sorites is a term used in philosophy, but as far as I can tell that’s a red herring: it’s Greek for ‘heap’. Soteriology is the branch of theology that deals with salvation [I knew that]. I don’t expect many of my readers will have trouble with ‘HK’ or ‘KFC’.)

The first of these looks at first glance like a pure tourist poem, an outsider’s satirical observations with a bit of intellectual showing off in the reflection on ‘capitalism’s iterative power’ and a hint of traveller’s condescension in the description of the karaoke singers. Even the complex observation about the connection between poverty reduction and KTV as a kind of salvation is made from an outsider’s viewpoint. (Incidentally, the pun created by the line break ‘red-/uction’ is one of the sweet, sharp moments that make me love this book,) But the title, ‘(grandmothercountry)’, sets up a counter-current: even without reference to other poems in the book, it lets us know that the speaker is on some kind of quest to explore his heritage wit the result that the touristic commentary is tinged with deep melancholy. I doubt if Lachlan Brown had A D Hope’s 1962 poem ‘A Letter from Rome‘ in mind,  but the final reference to moped alarms reminds me of Hope’s final lament about motor scooters in Rome:

A song the Sybil’s murmur taught to grow
From age to age, until the centuries
Heard the high trumpets in their passion blow,
Now lost in mindless roar from the abyss.
The parables of history can show
Surely no sadder irony than this
Which brings that noble, intellectual voice
To drown in trivial and distracting noise.

The second poem doesn’t obviously follow on from the first, but the title does suggest links: ‘another traveller’s song’ locates the poem as sung by a traveller (remembering home, as it turns out), and ‘sorites’, a hi-falutin word for ‘heap’, is a part anagram of ‘soteriology’ – which you notice because both words stand out like sore thumbs – perhaps suggesting that there’s some kind of salvation to be found in grandmother’s piles. If so, that salvation isn’t worth much more than the salvation offered by karaoke.

But isn’t it a terrific eight lines? The piles of clothes that fill the room the way Sydney summer light does – which means completely; hoarding as a gesture of futile hope so beautifully embodied in the image of tracksuited ghosts of people who will never exist; the final line, its whispers a slight echo of the tone-deaf singing of the previous piece, so poignantly capturing the paradox that the piles of clothes embody both a hope and its pathetic nature.

I recommend this book. But don’t take my word for it. Eileen Chong has a brilliant review in the Sydney Review of Bookshere.

I gratefully acknowledge that Giramondo Publishing give me my copy of Lunar Inheritance.

* ‘In Beijing as well as in Gwanjiu and Berlin, it evoked strong responses from the audience, some of whom wept in front of it as if encountering a long lost friend or relative.’ The other epigraphs are Matthew 6:19 and lines from contemporary Chinese poet Ya Sha‘s ‘The Ancient City’: ‘what’s the use of writing poetry / in this ancient city / since the new era has arrived’).

A D Hope’s Dunciad Minor

A D Hope, Dunciad Minor: An heroick poem (Melbourne University Press 1970)


This book is an oddity which had its origins in a private joke between A D Hope and his friend and fellow literary critic A A Phillips. In 1950, Phillips gave a radio talk in which he attacked Alexander Pope, a poet much admired by Hope. The attack was exaggerated and at least partly tongue in cheek, but it got Hope’s dander up, and he wrote a Pope-like mock-heroic satire in which the goddess of dullness elevates Phillips to be king of dunces. He sent the poem to Phillips and that would have been the end of it, except that photocopies circulated in Australian literary circles, and the work acquired a kind of underground classic status. Twenty years later, Hope decided to re-establish authorly control and agreed to have it published in a lavish edition by Melbourne University Press. He used the occasion expand the poem and broaden the target of its satire by adding two sections.

At the time it was written, Dunciad Minor, a long poem in rhyming couplets, bristling with references to Ancient Greek mythologies and 18th century English literature, was already an anachronism. Even the sections added in 1970, which referred mainly to literary criticism written between 1930 and 1950, were out of time: who now has heard of Blackmur, or Henn, or Christopher Caudwell? And now, though maybe it’s a case of Too Late Too Soon, the whole thing is like a piece of rusty artillery from an almost forgotten war, covered in weeds and forgotten in a cow paddock. And insofar as we remember the war, most people nowadays would think of Hope as having been on the wrong side. (For instance, Pope and his friends in heavcen look at a piece of 20th century poetry::

Verse without number, statement void of sense,
Flat verbiage and verbal flatulence,
Called Four Quartets, it kept no time or tune.
Pope thought it a political lampoon
Writ by some parson much bemused in beer)

But I did remember the poem, and reread it today on a bus ride, and enjoyed it. A long work in rhyming couplets runs the risk of monotony. This one avoids that thanks to a) Hope’s technical virtuosity and b) the joyful malice of his satire. It speaks volumes that it was probably Phillips, whom it maligns mercilessly, who put copies into circulation.

On the back endpapers I found two little poems in my own handwriting. Perhaps I’m only blogging about this book so I can share them:

Alec Derwent Hope
should have his mouth washed out with soap
for writing nothing Striner
than the Dunciad Minor.


A poet named Alec D Hope
was in love with another called Pope
When Phillips on air
to Pope was unfair
Hope took six books to call him a dope.

But let Hope have the last word. In his 1970 Preface he suggests that the poem is ‘the protest of a poet against the arrogance of the professor who shares his body’. The two sections added in 1970, in which critics of many stripes compete for who can produce the most stultifying machine, take that protest to extremes. Here’s Book V lines 286, featuring US poet and critic Allen Tate:

His poems are golden but his prose is lead;
In Labyrinthine coils it crowds and squirms
With knotted syntax and entangled terms,
Strangles each poem, as the serpents once
Laocoön and his unhappy sons,
Enfolds and squeezes, crushes and extracts
Small crumbs of meaning and vast files of facts;
The poet crumbles and the reader nods
Yet on and on and on and on he plods.
The tulip's streaks are numbered, all admit,
But is the poem illumined? Not a whit;
For all his purpose is to demonstrate
The sensibilities of Allen Tate.

I can’t help but wonder what Hope would have done with academic prose in the days of Theory.

Southerly 71/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 71 No 3 2011: A Nest of Bunyips

In 2001 the National Library of Australia published Bunyips: Australia’s Folklore of Fear by Robert Holden and Nicholas Holden. Robert said in his introduction that writing and editing the book had taken him ‘down many byways of history, literature, folklore, superstition and cultural studies’, and that he had gleaned insights from palaeontology, evolutionary thinking and anthropology.

The title of this issue of Southerly might lead you to expect something along the same lines. You would be misled. It does include a scattering of atmospheric drawings dating from between 1890 and 1912, citing the Holdens’ book as the immediate source, but they are the only bunyips on offer. As David Brooks says in his editorial, the issue is filled with things from the backlog ‘of pieces too good to reject but refusing any easy categorisation, and the bunyip motif derives from Michael Sharkey’s long poem, ‘Where the Bunyip Builds it Nest’, chosen more or less at random from the pile. (The poem isn’t actually about bunyips, but it is a bit of a monster: a long poem in five parts made up of lines taken from other poems from settlement until now in roughly chronological order, all carefully annotated.)

On reflection, Brooks says, bunyips – nocturnal, haunters of waterholes, ‘strange hybrids whose shrill quarrellings can sometimes be heard late into the night’ – sound like some poets. So the motif gained legitimacy: the issue contains work by 28 poets, essays on and by a half dozen more, and reviews of seven books of poetry. And the online supplement, the Long Paddock, has almost as much again, plus a substantial interview with Laurie Duggan.

The riches on offer include:

  • Jennifer Maiden’s ‘The Pearl Roundabout’, in which the re-awakened Elanor Roosevelt continues the conversations with Hillary Clinton begun in the book Pirate Rain
  • Margaret Bradstock’s pre-elegiac ‘Ask not’
  • Julie Maclean’s ‘cassowary’, a North Queensland poem that compresses an awful lot into a small space, about colonisation, tourism, art, and of course the gorgeous, dangerous cassowary
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s delightfully old-fashioned, even archaic ‘The Angels in the House’, a meditation on inner city housing in heroic couplets
  • two poems by Craig Powell: a sonnet named from a line from Seamus Heaney, “and catch the heart off guard”, and a reinterpretation of an anecdote from Freud, ‘Fort Da’ (Craig Powell also reviews Toby Davidson’s edition of Collected Poems by Francis Webb, seizing the occasion to share some poignant memories of Webb).

Southerly is a refereed scholarly journal, and I tend to skip the scholarly articles, or at least the ones about writers I am unlikely to read, and those with Deleuze, Kristeva etc in the title. I did read Kevin Hart’s ‘Susannah Without the Cherub’, a fascinating discussion of A D Hope’s ‘The Double Looking Glass’. It may be, as Martin Johnston said, that A D Hope sent away for a Great Poet Kit, and then successfully used it to become a great poet. This essay bears out the second part of Martin’s quip.

It’s not all poetry. There are four short stories, all of which I enjoyed – Matthia Dempsey’s ‘One Week Gone’, about an old man a week after his wife’s death, is superb.

No bunyips, not really, but that’s not a terrible loss, given what’s there instead.

Michael Dransfield revisited & LoSoRhyMo #12

Michael Dransfield, Streets of the Long Voyage (UQP, Paperback Poets 1970) and The Inspector of Tides (UQP Paperback Poets 1972)

Around 1970, when Sydney poetry readings drew relatively large audiences, a young Michael Dansfield, roughly my own age as it happens, created something of a stir. With unruly shoulder length curls, he looked every inch the romantic. He was evidently much loved by the community of poets and his death of an overdose inspired a number of moving elegies. I bought his books and applauded his readings, but it was my guilty secret that I found his persona and his poetry vaguely irritating.

Recently a friend who was culling her bookshelves gave these two books to me rather than tossing them or lugging them to a secondhand shop (where the Internet suggests they might have been worth a bob or two, if not for a small child’s large writing in the margins of ‘Still Life with Syringe’ and elsewhere). I’d long since disposed of my own copies, and was glad of a chance to revisit the poetry after some 40 years.

Half way into Streets of the Long Voyage I realised I was looking for irritants, and finding them: the self pitying romanticisation of drug addiction (‘a needle spelling XANADU / in pinprick visions down your arm / what of nostalgia when/ the era that you grew in dies’), the hi-falutin’ name-dropping (no John Forbesian Ramones for this lad, just Chopin, Scriabin, Taktakishvili all the way), the crude social commentary, the weird nostalgia for a fictional(?) decaying family home; and a pervasive self-absorption. The self-absorption came into focus for me in these lines from ‘goliard’:

The driver wonders what I’m writing
but with the superb manners of an Australian
merely asks, ‘Got enough light there, mate?’

Anyone who understood the idiom would realise, as the speaker evidently doesn’t, that ‘the driver’ was indirectly – and yes, politely – asking what his passenger was writing. One imagines that the driver’s account of that moment would not include the phrase ‘superb manners’; nor for that matter would it include the essentialising ‘Australian’.

The Inspector of Tides was more of the same: more ‘this world is going to the dogs so I’m leaving it on a needle’; more ‘ah, my ancestral home now in ruins’; more social commentary that seems quite untouched by the upsurge of optimistic activism that was happening at the time. There’s even a unicorn. ‘Endsight’ got up my nose with its reference to

00000000000000000000000the Official Poets, whose genteel
iambics chide industrialists
for making life extinct.

Since the poem is dedicated to A D Hope among others, this is a reasonably transparent jibe at Hope. I couldn’t lay hands on anything by Hope about environmental issues, but perhaps Dransfield was thinking of something like ‘Inscription for Any War’:

Linger not, stranger, shed no tear;
Go back to those who sent us here.
We are the young they drafted out
To wars their follies brought about.
Go tell those old men, safe in bed,
We took their orders and are dead.

Iambics, yes, but genteel chiding? I don’t think so. It would still take guts to read that at a military funeral, or even a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan.

There are plenty of things to enjoy in both these books – especially when the poetry relaxes, as in ‘Ryokan’:

at the window

the sparrow
feathers puffed out

sings brightly but alone

my hand makes
black marks on white

the sparrow
pink marks on grey

But this is a blog entry not a review. Dransfield is a much better poet than, for example, I will ever be. He just brings out the irrits in me.

And since it’s November and I’m behind on my quota of sonnets, a quick question in rhyme:

Sonnet 12: Re-reading
Oh you who love to read again
the books you loved, who tell us how
the love you had for Austen when
you were fourteen is burning now
with brighter and more subtle fire,
how Dostoevsky, then so dire
a challenge to your questing brain
now sparks your neural paths again,
you haven’t said, do you re-read
the books that stirred you not at all,
or those, perhaps, that made you fall
asleep mid sentence, ‘Meh!’ indeed?
If it annoyed in sixty-seven
what hope for it in twenty eleven?

Robert Dessaix’s Arabesques

Robert Dessaix, Arabesques: A tale of double lives (2008, Picador 2009)

Consider a hypothetical book that opens with two wealthy European men visiting a developing country. The elder of the two men asks the younger if he’d like to have sex with one of two adolescent musicians who are playing for them. When his friend answers in the affirmative he roars with laughter, and continues roaring as they drive away in a cab accompanied by the two boys. The younger of the two Europeans later reports that he had a great night with his boy. You’re likely to expect the book to be about sex tourism.

What if the Europeans were famous, not as sportsmen or politicians (which would make it a book about sex scandals), but as writers – one a great wit, playwright, essayist and children’s author and the other as a vastly erudite man of refined sensibility, a Nobel Prize winner? They’re still sex tourists, do I hear you cry? Why should having a way with words bestow immunity from ordinary moral considerations?

That hypothetical opening scene is strikingly similar to the opening of Robert Dessaix’s Arabesques. The Europeans are Oscar Wilde and André Gide, and the incident happens in the casbah of Algiers in 1895 . I don’t think I’m being unfair to Dessaix if I say that he appears to regard the power imbalance between the ‘moneyed’ writers on one hand and the Arab boys on the other as of no consequence – nobody forced the boys to do anything, after all, and it’s not paedophilia, because they were adolescents (which makes it pederasty, quite a different thing). When Dessaix’s friend Albert uses the mild word ‘sordid’ of this incident and Gide’s lifelong habit of visiting North Africa to have sex with adolescent boys, Dessaix wonders if Albert ‘secretly found something about homosexuals in general unpalatable’. Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism is mentioned only to be dismissed as ‘pretty one-sided, even wrong-headed, these days where I come from’. The word prostitution is never mentioned, nor is the phrase sex tourism. That would just be crude, rather like the pink tourists who turn up plodding and stunned at intervals throughout the narrative.

This is a very attractive book, beautifully designed and illustrated, written in mellifluous, finely nuanced prose, but it’s not a comfortable read. The casbah moment turns out to have stuck in Robert Dessaix’s mind from when he first read it at the age of 14, and he offers it to us as a moment at which Gide could ‘start living out who [he’d] been all along, at first in the shadows and now in the light’.

It’s a travel book. Dessaix visits Normandy, the south of France, Portugal, Algiers, Tunis. He does have living companions – a number of Parisians, an enigmatic north African – but his main travelling companion is André Gide. Dessaix visits Gide’s childhood home; the house where Gide lived with his pious wife Madeleine, whom he loved without sex and made miserable by going off on his sexual adventures; cities, towns and oases that Gide visited and wrote about. As well as the physical journey, he takes us on a journey to get to know Gide, and to get to know himself in relation to Gide. Though he eschews quick moral judgements, he does explore the ‘who’ that Gide lived out, questioning the effects on other people, defending him against criticism and then questioning his own motives for defending him.

The double lives of the subtitle are manifold. Dessaix sees himself as a kind of double of Gide: their lives have an astonishing number of similarities (a love of an eroticised North Africa, intensely Protestant adolescence, commitment to the writing vocation, marriage to a woman soon after discovering the joys of sex with men, and more). He and Gide each have a kind of doubleness – tension between adolescent religion and powerful homoerotic impulses that comes to a point of crisis and self-knowledge in their early 20s. And the book fairly teems with other doublings, pairings and dichotomies: the sexually active Gide and his wife Madeleine, who lived and died a virgin; Madeleine and the young man Dessaix describes as Gide’s beloved; European and North African attitudes to sexuality; Protestantism and Catholicism; and more.

One of the most interesting mini-essays deals with an ‘epiphany’ in a church in Oporto, in which Dessaix realises he is a Protestant. The moment of self-knowledge arrives when he looks at some women hearing Mass and realises that ‘every last loose thread’ of their lives ‘had already been lovingly gathered up and woven into the sacred tapestry of the Church’, that their ‘lives had been redeemed, not by understanding, not by seeing Truth face to Face, but by being gathered up into the Church’. His ensuing discussion of his own Protestantism is very interesting, but something about the scene gave me pause. Dessaix expresses his ‘realisation’ so beautifully that the reader almost fails to notice that he doesn’t know those woven women at all, that he’s projecting something onto them to  as a springboard for talking about himself. Which brings me back to my central worry about the book: when it talks about Gide’s sexual compulsions (another crude word that doesn’t darken its pages), isn’t there a similar projection involved? Edward Said may be old hat where Robert Dessaix lives, but those adolescent boys don’t emerge so much as individuals in their own right as dark-skinned screens onto which the finely tuned European can project his own desires.

I’m reminded of one of A D Hope’s ‘Sonnets to Baudelaire’ (just the last seven words, really, but here’s the whole thing):

You saw it rise, I see it set, that sun,
The bright aubade, the serenade's dying fall,
Between us, brother, we have seen it all.
But was it worth, now all is said and done,
The great Romantic theme: My heart laid bare?
One thing, like Ozymandias, they forgot:
To make it worth the trouble, someone must care

To watch Narcissus give himself a hug
Or Onan practice on his magic flute.
Now as the stars light up, for better or worse
Time throws away the key that locked those smug
Museums of self-regard, the universe
Expands, but something's slimy underfoot.

PS: If there’s a further edition I hope someone corrects the slip on page 242 where Gide is described as ‘reading the Aeneid in the original Greek’. Virgil wrote in Latin, chaps.

The Tree of Man revisited with the Book Group

Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955, Vintage 1994)

Before the group meeting:
My mother’s letters in the 1970s would occasionally report on her reading. She once transcribed a paragraph from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children because it seemed to describe the noses of our family. The other day when I read the first page of the Drought chapter of The Tree of Man, I wondered if she’d thought, as I do, that this description of Stan Parker evokes aspects of my father (allowing for the fact that Dad grew sugarcane rather than running a dairy, and was never ‘broad’):

He was respected. He was inseparable from the district, he had become a place name. His herd was small, but of good quality for the herd of a man in a small way, neither rich nor ambitious, but reliable, the cans would always reach the butter factory to the minute, without fail. He went to church too, singing the straight psalms and rounder hymns, in praise of that God which obviously did exist. Stan Parker had been told for so long that he believed, of course he did believe. He sang that praise doggedly, in a voice you would have expected of him, approaching the music honestly, without embellishing it. Standing in the pew, singing. the back of his neck was by this time quite wrinkled, and the sinews were too obvious in the flesh. But he was a broad and upright man.

I’ll never know if she made that kind of connection, but she mentioned the book in passing in a comment on Cancer Ward:

It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like [Solzhenitsyn], so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

Not bad, eh? She made no claim to literary sophistication, but she picked White’s affinity with the Russians. And she found his prose simple!

The prose is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s also impossible to read fast, lacking what A D Hope believed a novelist needs: ‘a plain style, a clear easy stride, a good open texture of language to carry him [sic] to the end of his path’. But it’s certainly not ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’, as Hope famously described it. It does constantly pull you up and make you look at a particular word or image – or, if you don’t stop, leave you with an uneasy feeling that you’ve missed something. The point of view frequently moves around within a single short sentence, or rather within a grouping of words between consecutive full stops, since White is a great user of what are sometimes known in the editing trade as frags. Even the very first sentence, innocuous enough at first glance (‘A cart drove between the two big stringybarks and stopped’), has the reader slightly wrong-footed with its abrupt rhythm, its lack of a human, or even animal, subject, its slightly skewed use of articles (‘the cart drove between two big stringybarks’ would be more natural, but of course it would mean something quite different).

The book’s peculiarities, and its arrogance, intimidated me in first year university in 1967. But not this time. True, I came close to genuflecting at the first four chapters, which tell of the primal encounter of ‘the man’, ‘the woman’ and the bush. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the intensity of the prose for the whole 480 pages. But once the narrative emerged into something resembling a social world, I was less enthralled. In fact I became increasingly irritated. I just don’t believe in the nastiness of most of the characters. I can’t stand the snobbishness of the narrative voice. The drunken Irish shenanigans (read domestic violence, despair, wretched poverty and, towards the end, dubious religion) of the O’Dowds fail to amuse me. The pretentions of the nouveaux riches Armstrongs are awkwardly unconvincing, as is almost everything about the younger Parkers. The book seems to assume that some people, inarticulate or otherwise, have an honest capacity for rich inner lives, while others (most?) don’t, and must settle at best for synthetic souls with occasional exalted glimpses. For all the towering strengths of the book – and they certainly aren’t limited to the first chapters – I became increasingly obsessed with calculating what fraction of the pages I had yet to read.

Perhaps the most striking disappointment is the vast, gaping silence about Aboriginal Australians. When Stan’s cart stops between the stringybarks in that first sentence, it’s definitely in terra nullius. ‘Blacks’ are mentioned twice, once when young Ray refers to their arcane knowledge of how to survive in the desert, and again in the closing pages when the missionary mentions sex with black women as a sign of his youthful depravity. The phrase ‘dream time’ occurs twice. The first time, Stan and Amy have come to an ‘uneasy dream-time’. Since that probably signifies that neither of them was fully awake in relation to the other, the Aboriginal reference may be coincidental, but in the second, near the beginning of the fourth and final part, Stan looks back on his first days at the farm as ‘the dream time’. Here the phrase does refer to a time of creation, of beginnings, and it must disturbingly invoke for any Australian reader now, and surely for some in the 1950s, this continent’s history of genocide, dispossession and cultural appropriation. Invoke without acknowledging. The Irish are despised. The working class barely exist. Aboriginal people have been erased and over-written.

Then, here’s Stan, further down the first page of the Drought chapter:

There were certain corners of his property that he could not bring himself to visit, almost as if he would have discovered something he did not wish to see. […] Once he had been looking at a crop of remarkably fine sorghum that was almost ready to bring in, when he remembered that same stretch of land after he had cleared it as a young man, and on it the white chips lying that his axe had carved out of the trees, and some trees and young saplings still standing and glistening there, waiting for the axe. So that he forgot his present crop and went away disturbed, and thinking.

In a book that makes much of ‘things that are too terrible and wonderful to speak of’ is it too much to imagine that in this moment the thing Stan does not wish to see is the silenced Aboriginal history? That the dispossession on which Stan’s settlement of the land is built is almost forcing its way into the narrative? Surely it’s not just my idiosyncrasy that those white chips of wood remind me of the bones in the red earth of a massacre site in a William Yang photograph?

There may well be hundreds of learned articles about this disturbed silence, but that’s my two bob’s worth.

After the group meeting:
Tonight we met in a pub in Paddington, rather than in someone’s home. All but one of us turned up, and almost half had read all or most of he book. We had an animated discussion. Only one of us really loved the book. One, who may not have read it, considered it to be dated imperialism. The two of us who read the Vintage edition agreed that the cover was absurdly inappropriate (a horse? northern hemisphere trees?) No one shared my unease about the absence of Aboriginal characters: the consensus seemed to be that the original inhabitants of the Parkers’ land had been dispossessed long before Stan and Amy arrived, and that my reading of the white chips passage was drawing a long bow. As someone said, what’s the point of a bow that’s not long? And I still think that the general silence enacts a kind of genocide.

Whatever, unlike Anna Karenina, The Tree of Man couldn’t hold its own against the need to discuss Other Things – the sins of the ALP and the worse sins of the Coalition, our various adventures in work and education, travel and the weather. As always it was a fun evening.


Anaïs Nin, A Spy in the House of Love (©1954, Penguin 2001)
—-, Delta of Venus (©1969, Penguin 1978)
Alessandro Baricco, Silk (translated by Guido Waldman, The Harvill Press 1997)

Tonight at my book group (this is the all male one) we turn our collective attention to erotica. (Welcome everyone who found this entry via a google search.) A number of us had heard of Anaïs Nin, so we decided to go with a couple of her books, though there was an invitation to bring along a passage to read aloud from anywhere else. I’m posting this before the meeting.

810Of A Spy in the House of Love, the less said by me the better: not so much erotica as neurotica. The long, ecstatic paragraph near the start that ended ‘but only that one ritual, a joyous, joyous, joyous impaling of woman on a man’s sensual mast’ had me thinking that if that was erotica I’d happily do without it. Thankfully there were no recurrences.

Maybe I’m showing my age, but I can’t say I warmed to Delta of Venus, either, 0140184708which had lots of impaling. The most interesting thing about the book is probably the introductory pages, excerpts from Anaïs Nin’s 1940 diaries describing the way she and a swathe of her literary friends churned out erotica for a mysterious ‘Collector’ for a dollar a page.

Back in 1970 or so, there was a lot of anti-censorship activity in Sydney, including the publication of pornographic editions of student newspapers and “Porn Fests”, at which distinguished academics and undistinguished enthusiasts read rude bits from Henry Miller, Sam Shepard, John Wilmot second earl of Rochester, the Marquis de Sade and so on to crowded lecture theatres. It was all in a good cause – blows struck in the struggle for free speech – and some of it was funny, but overall it was squirm-making. Delta of Venus seems to me to belong in that context: it does contain some characters and narrative, but the ‘dirty bits’ are its raison d’être. Already dated in 1976 when Anaïs Nin decided to publish it, it reads as totally quaint now, quaint and vicious in its playing with paedophilia, incest, rape and so on. However, I did read it from cover to cover, so it clearly has titillation value. What I’ve realised is that if writing is to work as erotica for me, it needs to arise from a complex, recognisably human reality. Maybe we should have agreed to read Anaïs Nin’s diaries, where presumably she talks about more than who is doing what to whom with what.

1860462588I went to the theatre on Sunday with another group member, who was similarly unenthused by the Anaïs Nin books. Someone had recommended Silk to him, and he lent it to me with his recommendation. It’s a very short book, something of a fable about love and passion. Most of it is taken up with a slow-building sexual charge. Then there are a couple of explicit, erotic pages – which work because they’ve had 80 pages of build-up. Then the tale ends with a bitter-sweet twist that makes one want to re-read the erotic pages again …

At the moment I’m tossing up what read-aloud to take tonight: A D Hope’s ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Dream’ perhaps, or Kathryn Lomer’s ‘Tentative love poem’, which begins:

Snow comes late; only the air
between our mouths is warm,
a microclimate in which whispered words
are storms building. Our skins catch

what little light is cast – mine reflects,
yours absorbs.