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
feathers puffed out
sings brightly but alone
my hand makes
black marks on white
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?