Toby Davidson, Beast Language (Five Islands Press 2012)
In a recent post on the Southerly blog, Judith Beveridge quotes the Irish poet Michael Longley: ‘The poet makes the most complex and concentrated response that can be made with words to the total experience of living.’ That struck me as a reasonable description of what the poems in this book aspire to. She also writes, turning the spotlight away from the book and onto the reader:
What every poet wants I suppose are readers who are not necessarily other poets, who are not critics, who are not scholars, who are not dabblers, but people who are able to immerse themselves in reading so earnestly, so longingly that their experience of books is one of the best parts of their experience of life.
Well, I’m not necessarily another poet, a critic or a scholar, but as my regular readers would agree I’m prone to dabbling. I do know about earnest, longing immersion in the experience of reading: that’s how I used to read everything – Enid Blyton’s Finder-Outers in bed by light from the next room at 10, Agatha Christie when I was supposed to be studying for the Queensland Scholarship exam at 13, The Brothers Karamazov to challenge my faith as a pious Catholic 17 year old, Francis Webb as I was losing religion in my mid 20s. I could go on.
I still read a lot, but for whatever reason I’m less willing to commit myself these days. A writer – poet or otherwise – has to earn my earnest attention, and I’m more likely to approach a new writer with wariness than with longing. Something has to snag me before I can become, fitfully and imperfectly, that ideal reader.
As a dabbler, I enjoyed Beast Language. The language is alive and challengingly sharp, there’s plenty of wit and complex wordplay, and some brilliant images. Some elements, though, threatened to keep me at dabbler level: a lot of allusions (inevitably) left me mystified; some poems are compressed to the point of compaction; and I often found myself skimming without understanding (though not without enjoyment), starting with the very first poem, ‘Indian Ocean Dedication’, which begins ‘She has the genius of an ear / splitting hairs with either mind’ (I’m a lazy reader, but my couple of attempts at unpacking that have come up with nothing).
On the other hand, there’s a lot that makes me want to spend time with these poems. 1: I was predisposed to like them because Toby Davidson has done such a lovely job of editing Francis Webb’s Collected Poems and putting a spotlight on Webb more generally. 2: There’s a pervasive, attractive sense of seriousness, and of playfulness. 3. Where the poetry does communicate to me, I’m engaged. The second poem, ‘Genesis 1.2’, undoes the negative influence of the first with a sweet evocation of the effect of a cool breeze in a beach suburb. ‘Three Months Old’ inevitably invites comparison with Francis Webb’s ‘Five Days Old’, but shrugs it off: this is its own poem, a different person facing in his own way the experience of looking into a baby’s face: ‘Your eyes open mine like a sun strikes a planet / as planet eyes sun, our replete double-bond.’ And there’s much more.
So, the book is divided into three sections, ‘Juvenescence’, ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Hibernation’ – dealing roughly with childhood and youth, sex and art, and illness and death respectively. Starting with a child’s birthday party, an Australia Day punch-up, a zucchini, computer games, and especially, fabulously, car trips, the poems take us to unexpected, horizon-expanding places.
‘On Being a Toby’ is a poem I like a lot. Though it’s not particularly difficult, it’s a good example of the kinds of difficulty and pleasures I have found in this poetry. Here’s the whole poem, which I’ll assume is OK with Five Islands Press. Some bits are in bold because I can’t get WordPress to unitalicise words in quotes.
On Being a Toby
Triangular hat, jug of ale and a dog,
little brown mouse of children’s tv,
Hamlet’s cri de coeur incarnate;
all of my life it will be
———————me or not me.
What’s in a name? Put that to a stem cell
conjugating the infinitive root;
not yet splitting, earthing, bonding
micro-pilgrims to our next
Cut to lump we live with what we have,
no one asks any more. Bearers of the question
of my name have twisted from the rack
and melted through the chimes of passing
———————to a lower floor.
In what’s name? Ask hats, jugs, dogs,
mice, princes, star-crossed lovers and stem cells.
Ask them what it is to be
and they will say don’t play the Dane
———————but understudy artfully:
for just as poems are understudies to Poems
your name is the understudy to a Name.
The first stanza starts out playing with associations on the poet’s name and progresses to wordplay referring to Hamlet that I’m embarrassed to say I initially found inscrutable, but I won’t insult you by spelling it out.
In the second stanza the plot thickens. It’s the kind of thing it’s easy to glide over when in dabbling mode. But when I reach it I’m feeling pleased with myself for having got the ‘to be or not to be’ reference, so I’m willing to do a bit of wrestling. Having invoked Hamlet‘s most famous line the poem now quotes the most famous line from Romeo and Juliet. (If you didn’t know anything about Shakespeare, this transition would still work, of course, but would give less pleasure.) Toby’s answer to the question couldn’t be further from Romeo’s. A name, he suggests, has something in common with a stem cell, whose development is described in a kind of metaphor mash-up of linguistics and embryology: stem cells act like etymological roots, and they develop as verbs are conjugated; cells and infinitives split, and the infinitive, now that it’s been mentioned, suggests something of the mystery of coming into being, from the infinite to the particular. A name is an abstract thing, all potential, as a stem cell is unspecialised, until complexity and experience give some shape, a gnarledness. (Skip that ‘suit’ for now. It stands out oddly, but sometimes skipping isn’t laziness, but negative capability.)
The next stanza isn’t easy either. Cut to lump? At first, looking for complication, I thought this might allude to the oafish character in She Stoops to Conquer. But no, Google tells me his name is Tony, not Toby, Lumpkin. I decided to read the phrase as a direction to the reader: cut from the image of delicate micro-pilgrims to the lumpish complete human. And of course there’s a hint of ‘Like it or lump it’. With ‘Bearers of the question / of my name’ we realise that the whole poem depends on getting the Hamlet reference. If you missed it back there, this phrase is pretty much a handful of nonsense. But what is this rack of which it speaks? The torture of indecision? And if so, what are the chimes? (Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’? Nah.) I take ‘a lower floor’ as my key: the poem has leapt to a department store (a leap, I now realise, that was foreshadowed by that ‘suit’ earlier), where some suits have twisted from their clothing rack and taken the lift (which chimes on arrival) downwards. I first read this as suggesting a descent into hell – suicide or failure to function, perhaps – but I think that’s a dead end: the lower floor is closer to the ground, so their movement is a continuation of the ‘earthing’ movement of the ‘micro-pilgrims’, from abstraction to the particular. (I wonder momentarily if ‘Cut to lump’ is a tailoring term, which would make the transition from microbiology to department store less abrupt, but as far as I know it’s not.)
‘In what’s name?’ At this point, extraneous information comes into play in my reading. I know that Toby Davidson has a book coming out this year entitled Born of Fire, Possessed by Darkness: Mysticism and Australian Poetry. So maybe we’re moving into mystical territory. The question seems to assume some deeper reality, perhaps a Platonic realm. But whereas the earlier question was to be asked of a stem cell, this one is to be put to the whole array of things, people and imagined entities evoked in the poem so far (including Romeo and Juliet but not off-the-rack suits). And they all line up behind Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (no I didn’t have the reference in my head, but the phrase ‘play the Dane’ rang a bell, and I found this online):
It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life, when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane.’ When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases.
Just as the poem gives a different answer to Romeo’s question, this means something different from Uncle Monty: as I read it, the ‘hats, dogs, jugs’, fictional creations and scientific knowledge, all are invitations to engage with the world – ‘don’t play the Dane’ means something like ‘don’t get lost in metaphysical introspection’.
And then the last two lines reassert the metaphysical world view that the chorus of hats etc has just rejected. I don’t actually know what’s being said here beyond a general sense that the lines are urging an attractive modesty, and I realise that that’s quite enough for me. When I was studying George Herbert in an earlier life, I was shocked by a distinguished scholar’s reading of ‘The Flower‘ that silently ignored that wonderful poem’s last stanza, in which the poet addresses God – clearly unnecessary to the scholar’s humanist sensibility. Maybe I’m doing that to this poem, but, well, at least I’m not being silent about it. I ought to point out, as an afterthought, that one of my favourite lines in the whole book could be read as expressing a spiritual / mystical / transcendental yearning, but whether it does or not it embodies a similar, though definitely less cheerful reconciliation to the actual world as ‘On Being a Toby’. After describing a drunken punch-up on Australia Day, the poem ‘Skyshow’ ends:
__________To summarise: we are a noble people, unable to bear
ourselves without booze, if we can’t blow things up we just fight
for the hell of it, our national day is a crucible of destruction,
and I want to go home, I just want to go home, but this is where I live.
So there you are. I’ve barely given any kind of sense of the book as a whole, but that’s all my blogging time used up.
(I ought to mention that Five Islands Press gave me a free copy of this book. I would have bought one anyhow.)