Review by Vernon Young

MIGHTY LIKE A HARP and SELECTED POEMS 1975 (University of Queensland Press, 1975):  “His poems are a revelation to me.  Love and scepticism are judiciously blended in his work.  Steadily his poems embrace the wider view, the historical retrospect and prospect.”  -  Vernon Young, PARNASSUS:  POETRY IN REVIEW, NEW YORK.

Review by Veron Young

PARNASSUS: POETRY IN REVIEW, Fall/Winter 1978, New York

POETRY DOWN UNDER

By Vernon Young

Halfway through this assignment I became so depressed by the thought of what it must be like to live in Australia that I had to down three double-whiskies before I could resume: sheep-runs and socialism, gum trees and cockney voices in early-closing pubs, square bloody miles of suburban villas in which, embalmed, the characters of Patrick White’s formidable but tiring novels endure – precious few of them, I fancy, reading the verse of A.D. Hope (erudite and musical but oddly attached to the Augustan mode). Hope, himself, long ago called his landsmen “second-hand Europeans” and Peter Porter, who doesen’t live in his own country, has written the definitive anti-Australian poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod”, where he found “in the picture of/ Eubeoan husbandry” his own country “and its edgy manners…

And the same blunt patriotrism,
A long-winded, emphatic, kelpie yapping
About our land, our time, our fate, our strange
And singular way of moons and showers, lakes
Filling oddly – yes, Australians are Boeotians,
Hard as headlands, and, to be fair, with days
As robust as the Scythian wind on stone.

Judith Wright (The Double Tree: Selected Poems) need not be relegated so uncharitably to the role of Boeotian; nonetheless, her verse (which spans the years 1942-1976) is unmistakable evidence of how difficult it is for an Australian poet to achieve a distinctive modernism. That Judith Wright ”is plainly the leading Australian poet to our common reader”, as someone quoted on the book jacket has remarked, I have no doubt. By Australian standards of verse she is accomplished and that she speaks comprehensively to Australians of their common inheritance and its memorials, satisfying or galling, there is no doubt either. To a non-Australian reviewer, familiar with what American women poets have written during the same years, she presents problems of tact. She is so obviously sincere when, in her introduction, she says that poetry “must spring from the central core of one’s living and feeling” and indeed she has obviously attempted to express that core, celebrating and sometimes deploring an environment she knows by heart and hand, its fauna and flora, the back-breaking labor of its rural inhabitants, the country’s remoteness from its sources of culture, the stifled emotional impulses, the unlived life.

Her own career does not in synopsis suggest a deprived existence. Her family, of pioneer stock, were sheep farmers and she was herself raised in the back-country of New South Wales. She was University educated, however, spent a year thereafter traveling Europe, subsequently worked on a literary magazine in Brisbane, married a man of scholarship, and became president of a society for wildlife conservation which she helped found. The outward conditions for writing poetry do not sound radically unfortunate. Why, then, does her verse sound all along as if it were un-nourished by sufficient incentive to raise it from an agreeable to an original voice? The poems, themselves, provide many of the clues.

Her earlier work – which is still late by our calendar (i.e in the Forties) – was often in the spirit of Amy Lowell or in the echoed tongue of Emily Dickinson.

Standing here in the night
we are turned to a great tree,
every leaf a star,
its roots eternity. (“Night”)

Most of her verse has persistently alternated between an often metaphysical personalism and a sometimes focused, sometimes oblique, rendering of Australian bush country, the animal and bird life, the tenacious or obliterated traces of human effort:

Grass is across the wagon tracks,
and plough strikes bone beneath the grass,
and vineyards cover all the slopes
where the dead teams were used to pass.

To write in the Forties with so firm a stylistic recall of the 1890s illustrates the reticence or the diffidence with which Australian poets have approached a modern idiom. Noticeably, as one reads through her poems, she seems not to know when she should amplify, when she should stop in her tracks. The earliest are the most protracted, yet at any stage she tends to overstate the development of a poem and understate the intensity which we assume inspired it. Exemplary, both of the problem and of her best solutions, are the poems on birds and beasts which she wrote in the Sixties.

Funnel-web spider, snake and octopus,
pitcher-plant and vampire-bat and shark –
these are cold water on an easy faith.
Look at them, but don’t linger.
If we stare too long, something looks back at us;
something gazes through from underneath;
something crooks a very dreadful finger
down there in an unforgotten dark.

The diction is not, of course, adequate to the revulsion but let that pass to learn that in the second stanza she counsels turning away, to look up, instead, at “the well-turned, well-carved pelican/ with his wise comic eye…” She may have thought that her advice was given ironically but the evasion is, in a sense, repeated in “Lyrebirds”, where this time the glimpse refused is not that of ultimate horror but of a subliminal vision:

Over the west side of the mountain,
that’s lyrebird country.
I could go down there, they say, in the early morning,
and I’d see them, I’d hear them.

Ten years, and I have never gone.
I’ll never go.
I’ll never see the lyrebirds –
the few, the shy, the fabulous,
the dying poets.

I should see them, if I lay there in the dew:
first a single movement
like a waterdrop falling, then stillness,
then a brown head, brown eyes,
a splendid bird, bearing
like a crest the symbol of his art,
the high symmetrical shape of the perfect lyre.
I should hear that master practising his art.

No, I have never gone.
Some things ought to be left secret, alone;
some things – birds like walking fables –
ought to inhabit nowhere but the reverence of the
heart.

I think she should have ended the poem with the line: “No, I have never gone”. It would have been sufficiently poignant without that three-line explanation, which is likely to seem maudlin if you consider that she was in effect refusing the lyrebird its identity except as an idea! All the same, these wildlife poems are certainly her best; they objectify, to a degree, the personal sentiment which, when she speaks on other subjects, is less controlled, betraying her inability to articulate the full force of her aspirations and her disappointments. Among her later poems are not a few in which phantom lovers appear and in which postcripts of anguish are sent to people the poet met too briefly or to whom she never spoke the revelatory last word. Failure of communion – if not a rage of self-effacement – becomes her most prevalent theme.

What is the space between,
enclosing us in one
united person, yet
dividing each alone.

Frail bridges cross from eye
to eye, from flesh to flesh,
from word to word: the net
is gapped at every mesh,

and this each human knows:
however close our touch
or intimate our speech,
silences, spaces reach
most deep, and will not close.

Again, it occurs to me, an unnecessary last stanza. To reiterate will not close those spaces. I would go further and suggest that they should not be closed. The desire to be wholly absorbed in the other is, pure and simple, a death wish.

Wright’s unleashed attack on her own heartland, “Australia, 1970”, is an extraordinary release of the passion she had heretofore curbed; there is more in it than meets the eye, even as there is too much in it to create a masterpiece of polemic, I quote three stanzas of six.

Die, wild country, like the eaglehawk,
dangerous till the last breath’s gone, clawing and
striking.

Die like the soldier-ant
mindless and faithful to your million years.
Though we corrupt you with our torturing mind,
stay obstinate; stay blind.

I praise the scouring drought, the flying dust,
the drying creek, the furious animal,
that they oppose us still;
that we are ruined by the thing we kill.

Donald Davie has nominated Judith Wright as “the voice of her unhappy nation”. To what extent Australians can be thought of as unhappy he may know better than I. Significant it must be, of something, that the citizens of two countries – Sweden and Australia – who spend an excessive amount of time boasting to the rest of the world their superior social system disclose in their art (respectively, in their movies or their poetry) that they are, at root, unhappy. Yet the poems of David Rowbotham do not support this impression. An encouraging figure on the Australian scene, his “Selected Poems 1975” are a revelation to me, heavily qualifying the eminence I had attributed to Rodney Hall (q.v.), whose work I had read with no knowledge of Rowbotham’s existence. In a less petulant idiom than Hall’s and with fewer misgivings than Judith Wright, Rowbotham has been critically taking the measure of his personal history and that of his country. Nor does he exhibit the false confidence which has aroused the scorn of Peter Porter. Love and skepticism are judiciously blended in the body of his work.

“The Bird-Lover” (from the Fifties) is an early, tempered example of his memory for detail transmuted as a metaphor; it is sub-titled “In my father’s shop in the 1930s”.

He is the bird-lover and the solemn mender
Of shoes; in shop half-light endures the leer
Of a ceiling, leather’s irritation, the taste
Of tacks and the petulant thump of a hammer’s head
Beating above the tremor of his heart.
Around his feet the chips of leather fall
And tumble like the crumbs he throws to wagtails,
sparrows
And pardalotes in spring, when “weekend” means
A closed shop door, an open heart, and the songs
Of a valley miles away by zig-zag track,
A wing by a thought of love… The valleyed trees

There brush from him the dungeon-dust that smells
of drab routine. Cupped in the earth’s contours,
He drinks a thousand lyric syllables
To toast the day and sits against a rock
Lit with flecks of congealed sunset, feeling
A legend warm his bones… Here he pounds
A mite of pointed steel into a shoe
Which, in its dark restored perfection, seems
To his dreaming eyes a moment like a bird
At rest… and he fondles it with rough hands.

His facility at genre-painting of this kind increased during the Sixties and his diction retained classic gravity with an ease of discourse never remote from the conversational cadence. “Three Horses”, commendable for this reason, incidentally bears an uncanny resemblance to the inflections of Robert Frost.

… They had the power to break the fence right down
and leap straight forward, but then they would have
been
No longer thinkers or masters in that hour.
The fence held them in to a wisdom they had found…
There was a stopping-place for everyone
Before the end and the beginning out beyond,
And he who did not stop could not sum up
And bring all life to a fence, and with this know
There was no further need at all to leap.
The three old horses did not notice me.

This remains the genre in which Rowbotham excels but his striving to include the world beyond the fence (the further need to leap!) has been an admirable endeavour. Steadily his poems have embraced the wider view, the meditative generalization, the historical retrospect and prospect (“The Vision of Von Braun”, “The Bus-Stop on the Somme”, “New Polonius”, “The Mole”, “The Magpie”). In the process, Rowbotham has not been tempted to claim more for himself, in the modern romantic manner, than he has sensibly achieved. “Pen of Feathers”, an apologia for his verse written in the late Sixties, somewhat constrained by the chiming eight-line stanzas, is otherwise an impressive self-measurement. I should like to quote the whole of it (six stanzas) but reasonable limits forbid:

When you take notice or my words take hold,
Today, later, tomorrows out of sight,
Allow that I kept an individual flight.

By flight, I mean the ranging way I went,
Whether up or down, inward or outward bent,
More with the walker’s sense I learned from hills
Than that of any special bird’s or bell’s,
However I sang or chimed or did suppose.
My symbol, if I deserved one, would be shoes.
Patience, I ask of you, and similar sense
To say I escaped presumption or pretence.

“Brisbane” (also from the Sixties) is the statement which, sooner or later, every Australian feels compelled to write: the poem in which he faces the unfaceable reckoning with the anomalous continent over his shoulder. Rowbotham’s version is in the form of a dialogue with those who believe that time redeems origins:

Born in 1824, by rape;
Whipped, remote-colonial, into shape
By military British, penal-bent;
Then, martially begun,
Left without the teeth to go to war.
No need, perhaps, for barrels full of rage.
But Brisbane lacked the ethical and tough.
It still repeats the meek and musket age.

Turn yourself and the map upside down
The Northmen made, prison town.
See South as uppermost, a high place.
How can the compass name what spins in space?
Tall republican New York
Becomes low latitude with London then –
The dominant top world down-under.
And look!
The Pacific reaches all ways in…

God save you in your fond illlusion’s noise
Of nonsense, town of banished truth,
Of board-room lies and parrot-paper boys.
Your best strength is the compound common oath.
The committed, the convicted and the whipped
Labor still, the lag-and-weary-lipped.
The past is still in front, the cell about,
The manacle the anchor of your lot.
Home Offices direct their penal-guns
At your descendant-captives yet…

While this poem specifically refers to Brisbane, it may be in part Rowbotham’s argument with the self which had written “Maritime”, placed earlier in the book, an idealistic portrait of the Australian adventure.

In his “New Poems”, titled “Might Like a Harp”, Rowbotham engages many spirit-of-place subjects, as before, and ambiguously contends with issues of a global nature. Yet I think we can respect his earlier claim of having “escaped presumption and pretence”. Among the outstanding, as fine as any poems he has written, are “The Goats of Aden”; “The Rockies”, (on a painting by Bierstadt in the Met); two related poems, “Melville in Space” and “Speed” (on “the moment of Sputnik”); “Sum”, a sardonic light verse about theory-of-value: “I’m finding out/ My financial age,/ My surrender value,/ Grossest wage…”; and his poem of the atomic bomb formula, a grandiose theme for anyone, which Rowbotham treats, inspiredly, in terms of its reflection in the physiognomy of Einstein:

It went off in his face.
The domed forehead was furrowed
And the mushed hair was blown more symmetrical.
Into the neck stemmed the chin’s ellipse in a fold,
And the bridge of the nose was cut
Between the eyes to the great ravine of vision,
Ridged in a curved geometry
To the corners of jaws that had compressed
Warnings to two presidents: make
The bomb before Berlin; now
Don’t drop it.
The eyes burned black:
Inextinguishable fire internally consuming,
And the underlapping pain
Left marks like hieroglyphs on papyrus. (“E=mc2”)

On the whole, Rowbotham appears to have suffered less from the hazards of being Australian than certain of his contemporaries, like Judith Wright, John Manifold, or Rodney Hall. [Reviews of Manifold and Hall]

Signed: VERNON YOUNG