Tag Archives: poetry

Clive’s Dante’s Heaven

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book Three: Heaven, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214I was about 12 when I first met the notion that heaven might be boring. I sneaked the Collected Plays of  George Bernard Shaw from the good china cabinet1 to read Pygmalion, and progressed by way of Saint Joan (including its wonderful Preface) to Man and Superman before it occurred to my parents that Shaw might not be terribly age-appropriate. When a character in that last play (Don Juan, maybe?) argued that hell was preferable to heaven, my orthodox Catholic faith was robust enough to dismiss him as silly, but the fact that I remember it indicates that the idea struck a chord.

I mention this early adventure in transgressive reading because I suspect that if I’d read Dante’s Heaven at that age I wouldn’t have dismissed the idea so easily: Dante’s heaven, at least in Clive James’s translation, is boring. It’s like a prison where the lights are never turned off, except the inhabitants won’t shut about how happy they are.

In an exhilarating passage at the end of Canto 22, Dante looks down from his vantage point near Gemini in the zodiac and sees the earth:

______ And this paltry world we prize,
This little threshing floor where we have been
Always so fierce, was made plain from its hills
To river mouths, while I was wheeling there
With those eternal Twins. They turn like mills,
And I with them, the universe laid bare.

The thing is quite a bit of Heaven is preoccupied with just the kind of paltry fierceness that is put in perspective here, and I confess to not finding the subjects of that fierceness all that interesting. I can appreciate Dante’s magisterial erudition and his brilliant poetic skill (as filtered through Clive James’s translation). I have some grasp of the magnitude of his task – creating a literary Italian language, combining classical and Christian frames of reference, wrestling mediaeval scholastic philosophy and theology into elegant verse, exploring the relationship of earthly and divine love, inveighing against corruption in his contemporary church, giving lessons in church and secular history (some of which, impressive though it is, I wouldn’t want unleashed on the young without health warnings), writing fierce political polemic (and putting it in the mouths of blissful souls in heaven), combining elaborate doctrine with ecstatic visionary experience (though it looks to me as if the visionary experience is a laborious, almost geometric construct rather than the report of an actual vision, as in mystics like Julian of Norwich), all while spinning a yarn with enough fantastical invention to keep the less committed punters happy. The book would obviously reward extended study, but reading it as I did with minimal recourse to commentary was all too often like visiting a museum.

Beatrice has replaced Virgil as Dante’s guide. She’s a lot prettier (her eyes become more ineffably beautiful with each new level of heaven, culminating in Canto 30 in a breathtakingly wonderful declaration of the inadequacy of Dante’s words to describe them) but she’s also much more long-winded, and claims God’s authority for everything she says, not exactly a recipe for lively conversation. I imagine her lectures – and those of other garrulous blissful souls – were serious fun for Dante’s contemporaries, as poetic renderings of cool philosophy or science are these days; off the top of my head I think of Kathryn Lomer on sunflowers or Jennifer Maiden on the uses of liquid nitrogen. But 700 years later, these lectures are mostly to be endured rather than enjoyed, and where they are not politically barbed they are almost unbearably abstract.

Clive James’s introduction anticipates this response: ‘What kind of story,’ he asks, ‘has all the action in the first third [that is, in Hell], and then settles back to stage a discussion of obscure spiritual matters?’ He answers his own question:

But the Divine Comedy isn’t just a story, it’s a poem: one of the biggest, most varied and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated at the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on.

If that’s so, this translation is – perhaps inevitably – an honourable failure. I’m grateful to James for opting for readability, I love his mastery of the quatrain form, and I read whole passages aloud to my dog as we walked around Marrickville, just for the pleasure of hearing them, but suspect his awareness of his own mortality may have led him to rush things at times. I’m probably not the first to note that at 10:188-189 he has Christ adoring the Church, an error that wouldn’t have survived a Beta reader process.2

I did attempt to deal with my general discontent by paying close attention to a couple of the annoying passages. Here’s one (James 13:69–84; Dante 13:52–66):

———————————Of all truths, this is chief:
That which dies not and that which dies are there
As nothing but the splendour of our Sire’s
Idea, which, loving, he begets. Because
That living light – which, streaming from the fires
Of its bright source, is never, as it pours,
Detached from its first well, nor from the love
Which, with those two, makes three – collects its beams
Through its own goodness, mirrored there above
In nine angelic orders, without seams
Stitched into one forever, it descends
To earthly potencies from act to act,
Becoming such that all things have their ends
In brief contingency, the fleeting fact –
Things generated with, or without, seed –
Produced by movements of the heavens.

If that takes some untangling, it’s partly because Clive James has twisted the language a little to make it rhyme and scan. I looked up the original, and found that the phrase ‘Of all truths, this is chief’ isn’t in Dante, and seems to be there to rhyme with ‘belief’ a few lines earlier; where James has one long, convoluted sentence, ‘Because … heavens’, Dante has two; the confusing stitching metaphor is James’s. But the difficulty is mainly because (I think) the passage deals in mediaeval theology about the Holy Trinity and the nature of Creation. It may have been demanding on Dante’s contemporaries but for us (and I include people like me who have actually studied a bit of Scholastic philosophy), without serious study it will remain incomprehensible, and frankly I don’t care enough to find out. Whatever pizzazz it once had is pretty dead, at least to me. And that’s true of too much of the book as a whole.

The next book I plan to read is Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a translation of The Iliad that leaves out most of the original. Maybe someone should do something of the kind with Dante.
1 We didn’t have a lot of books in my childhood home, and only one or two were kept in the china cabinet – whether because they were particularly precious or to keep them away from young eyes I don’t know.

2 Clive James: ‘the Church, the Bride of Christ, will sing / Matins to its dear bridegroom, that he may /Adore her’. Dante: ‘la sposa di Dio surge / a mattinar lo sposo perché l’ami’. With my limited Italian, I read that literally as ‘the bride of Christ rises to sing matins to the groom because she loves him’. James seems to have been momentarily distracted from the meaning by the need to make his lines scan.

David Malouf’s Earth Hour

DavidMalouf. Earth Hour (UQP 2014)

0702250139 As I was reading Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio recently, one of my unexpected small pleasures was the occasional recognition of a place name. ‘Fiesole – that’s Anny’s town!’ I would exclaim under my breath, or ‘Campagnatico – isn’t that where David Malouf used to live?’ My pleasure comes from my North Queensland provenance: if you live in New York, Paris or even Sydney, you’re forever walking down streets that have appeared in poems, novels, movies; if you’re from Innisfail, North Queensland, not so much. My Purgatorio moments weren’t completely without wider usefulness, of course, as they gave me a whiff of how Dante’s contemporaries would have read the poem: they knew all the places he mentions, and had a wealth of personal associations with them. Any personal connection a modern reader has is a pale shadow, but a shadow all the same.

The shoe was on the other foot as I read the poems in Earth Hour. The poetry may address what they used to call universal themes (do they still call them that?), but it often addresses them as they arise in places I know, and nowhere more dramatically than in ‘At Laterina’. For a start, the poem is dedicated ‘For Jeffrey Smart (1921–2013)’: I know who Jeffrey Smart is, I know his portrait of David Malouf as petrol pump attendant, and what’s more I have fond memories of him as Phidias, the artist on the ABC Children’s Hour of my childhood, all of which may not add to an understanding of the poem, but it does add to my sense of connection with it. The poem meditates on the passage of time in an Italian village (‘Centuries pass / unnoticed here; it’s days that are tedious’), and moves on to the ‘sweet loaded breath’ of the tiglio in bloom. I’m engaged enough to find out that tiglio is lime tree. Then:

__________________Was it always
like this? Did native sons high on a scaffold
in Piedmont, streaked with smuts in a smoky canefield
near Innisfail, North Queensland, feel the planet
shrink in their memory of it, the streets, the decades
one as each June makes them when we catch
on a gust of heated air, as at a key-change,
its green, original fragrance?

I certainly feel the planet shrink, and in a good way.

There’s so much to love in this book: renderings of Horace, Heine and Baudelaire that range from elegant close translation to wildly divergent variations on the originals’ theme; meditations on deep time, on what it means to be human, on our effect on the planet; profound pieces on ageing and mortality. I’m not able to do much more than name some of the poems that I am deeply grateful for: ‘Whistling in the Dark’ (‘Seeking a mind in the machine, and in constellations’), ‘A Green Miscellany’ (‘No, not nature but a green / miscellany, our years-in-the-making masterpiece’), ‘Touching the Earth’ (about worms), ‘Long Story Short’ (reminiscent of Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’), ‘Persimmons: Campagnatico’ (about trees bearing fruit at the end of winter), ‘Nightsong, Nightlong’ (about a bird, and a heart), ‘Eternal Moment at Poggio Madonna’ (about a sleeping cat). That will have to do.

David Malouf turned 80 recently, and was celebrated on the show that has replaced Ramona Koval’s Book Show on the ABC. You can hear an excellent interview with Michael Cathcart here, and a discussion of his work here, by a panel comprising Ivor Indyk, academic Yvonne Smith, and poet Jaya Savige.

Finally, as a service to any drop-in readers looking for information about the translations in Earth Hour, here are links to the originals and literal translations: Horace Odes II, ii, Horace Odes I, xxvii, Baudelaire’s Spleen, Heine’s Der Scheidende and Morphine.

Maree Dawes brb

Maree Dawes, brb: be right back (Spineless Wonders 2014)

brb A friend of mine once suspected her husband of having an online affair. He was spending an awful lot of time on the computer and she was fairly sure some of it was in chat rooms. Oh dear, I thought, I spend an awful lot of time online myself – just look at my blog output. What suspicions have I been arousing? While it’s true I’ve made some good friends thanks to the internet, I’m glad to report that chat rooms, multi-user fantasy games, bitcoin, and perhaps especially cybersex have never had the remotest appeal. So brb, a verse novella about raunchy chat room experiences, was a long way from presenting a temptation, though it was a bit of a titillation, and something of an education.

Maree Dawes’s protagonist is known only by her online ‘handles’, of which Boadicea (shortened to ‘cea’ in chats) is the main one. Her spouse, known to us only as ‘he’, is often away from home, and has given her a number of hours online as a gift. (How time flies, that such a gift marks the story as belonging to an earlier epoch! You can almost hear the dial-up tone.) Boadicea ventures into a chat room. After a rocky start she finds a warmly affectionate community, where people exchange an awful lot of ‘huggles’. We learn that it’s nominally a room devoted to books and literature, but from the beginning Boadicea is looking for adventure. She falls in love and has at least one torrid erotic encounter with a disembodied lover. There are hints of cyber-bonks with other, less emotionally significant chatsters, and there’s one piece of serious nastiness.

The narrative never really forgets that it’s all a bit silly, and the tone is generally comic. At the same time real emotions are involved, and the poetry explores a strange twilight state where relationships forged using only keyboard and screen can sometimes seem more substantial than those in the physical world, lacking as it does the delete key and the logout option. [If you're worried about spoilers skip the next sentence.] For me the most powerful moments come when Boadicea is giving up her online life, tearing herself away from its addictive pull – in what feels like a cross between giving up cigarettes and losing faith in God. [End of spoilerish bit.] The poetry develops a deeper resonance, too, in moments that explore the relationship of words and sensuality, as in this non-computer moment from ‘me: 4 am’, rendered in online conventions:

me: ease under sheet

he rolls over grabs my breast, kisses my mouth smoothes my waist

me: stop
me: wait
me: back off
me: you have to tell me what you are doing
me: I need to know
me:  first the words
me: then the touch

me: these unplanned caresses
me: are too much

After eight lines in which she demonstrates the kind of words she means, there’s this:

oh forget it he says, I want to make love not lyric poems, it’s 4 am go back to sleep

And one is left wondering if ‘me’ was so wrong to want words. Do poetry and sex have to belong to different realms?

Appropriately enough, brb is published as an ebook, available from the pubisher as a PDF direct from Spineless Wonders or in Kindle-compatible or DRM-free ePub formats from tomely.com. I downloaded my complimentary copy to my tablet in the Kindle and ePub versions. The Kindle version was much friendlier. The ePub version made me yearn for the stability of words on paper. [Added later: The publisher asked me to enlarge on these comments, and I then did an experiment which I should have done before making these comments. Part of the difference was that the ePub version's font size was very large, which played merry havoc with line breaks and even page breaks, whereas the Kindle's font was of  a size that allowed the poems to sit comfortably within the page. This was not a fault of the file formats, but resulted from the different default settings on the apps I was using. What I said about the stability of words on paper still applies.]

awwbadge_2014brb is the fourth book I’ve read and reviewed as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Clive’s Dante’s Purgatory

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book Two: Purgatory, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214The devil gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost, and the Inferno gets the best press in The Divine Comedy. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything at all about Purgatorio, so as I began reading it, I was wondering if an obscure sense of duty was a good enough reason to keep going. Was I hoping for any reward beyond being able to say I’d read it?

It turns out I enjoyed it a lot. Partly I think that was because of a weird sense of privilege. Thanks to my pre–Vatican Two Catholic childhood and a young adulthood in a religious order just as things were changing, much of the theology that underpins the Purgatory is as familiar to me as gum trees. I didn’t need footnotes to explain the idea of the living praying for the dead ‘that they may be loosed from their sins’: we offered up our family Rosary each evening ‘for the Pope the poor, the sick, the dying, the suffering souls in Purgatory, for Aunty Hilda and Uncle Jack’s souls’. I recognised most of the Latin hymns that are sung in Purgatory, and can still hum a few bars of some of them. I have a passing acquaintance with the Thomistic philosophy that Virgil explains to Dante, most notably in Canto 17, where the notion contention that all virtue and all sin come from love might otherwise sound like intellectual play for its own sake. Even some fragments of the pervasive Church history/gossip rings a bell. What’s more, thanks to my parents giving me Kingsley’s Heroes and my membership of the Argonauts Club (I was Lebedos 5), not to mention 5 years studying Latin at school and university, not all of the classical allusions pass me by (though, for example, I hadn’t heard the rumours that Julius Caesar was gay until I read Canto 26).

I feel like a privileged dinosaur.

All the same, I confess to reading pages at a time enjoying the verse, the surface level of the narrative, and the imagery, but not having a clue what it all meant. In particular there’s an elaborate procession in the Garden of Eden in the last couple of Cantos, in which various maidens, mythological beasts, birds, trees and vehicles are clearly intended to carry allegorical meanings. Even Clive James’s kind practice of incorporating an occasional explanatory phrase into the text, and Dante himself explicating some of it left me bewildered. At base, for all my familiarity with elements of it, I found this a deeply alien text. To read it properly – to understand it – would take a lot of study, and I guess I’m lazy enough to be content with what I’ve got.

Plot summary (don’t read if you’re worried about spoilers): Guided by the great Roman poet, Virgil, Dante continues his exploration of the afterlife . He climbs the seven circles of Purgatory, each circle inhabited by the souls of dead people expiating one of the seven deadly sins – pride, anger, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, avarice. At the start Dante has seven Ps branded on his forehead by the touch of an angel’s wing, one of which disappears with each level passed. Virgil and Dante are joined by the poet Statius, whose time in Purgatory is up, but who elects to spend time talking shop with Virgil rather than rushing off to heaven. Finally, they reach a version of the Garden of Eden where the aforementioned allegorical procession happens, Virgil says he can go no further, and Dante’s great love, Beatrice, gives him a piece of her mind. Led by maiden named Matilda, Dante and Statius head for the mountain of heaven under a sky full of stars.

A nice bit of the translation: At the end of Canto 22, in the circle where souls of gluttons are suffering, Clive James has:

As beautiful as gold was the First Age:
Hunger made acorns tasty, thirst made sweet
Nectar of every brook, so you can gauge
How satisfied the Baptist was to eat
The locust and sip honey. Every page
About this in the Gospel shows, therefore,
His greatness and his glory. Less is more.

That sent me hunting the original of those last four lines, which I found at Canto 22, lines 151–154:

Mele e locuste furon le vivande
che nodriro il Batista nel diserto;
per ch’elli è glorioso e tanto grande
quanto per lo Vangelio v’è aperto.

(Honey and locusts were the aliments
That fed the Baptist in the wilderness;
Whence he is glorious, and so magnified
As by the Evangel is revealed to you.)

So James isn’t the most subservient of translators, and isn’t above inserting little anachronisms like ‘Less is more’. Purists would probably object, but it keeps his readers on our toes, and deters us from thinking we’ve actually read the original.

The best bit: I knew that Beatrice replaces Virgil as Dante’s guide in Heaven, because Virgil, having died before Christ, is stuck in Limbo. But I was quite unprepared for the intensity of the scene where Dante and Beatrice meet in Canto 30. She is the great love of his life, and he knows that it is thanks to her that he is being taken on this grand tour of the afterlife. She turns up at a moment when I was feeling that Clive James and I were doing our best to get through some impenetrable mediaeval allegorising with the least possible pain – and everything changes. Dante is thrilled to see her. But instead of embracing him warmly and joyously, she goes for him:

Yet royally, like one with the design
Of holding back the heat her words might mean
While speaking, said this: ‘Look. Look at me well,
For I am Beatrice indeed. How do
You dare approach this mountain. Can you tell?
For man is happy here, yet here are you.’

He responds incoherently, provoking her to increasingly vehement reproach for having fallen away from the paths of virtue after her death. It’s electrifying, and it feels as if all the preceding theology and inventiveness and sheer genius creation exist as scaffolding for this moment when Dante (and Clive James?) writes with authentic passion about the experience of being found deeply wanting by the woman he loves.

There are lots of other good bits, but that’s the one that takes the cake for me.

PS: I’ve just seen that this is my 777th post on this blog – very appropriate, I thought, as I’m about to head off to Heaven.

Maurice Sendak’s Pierre

Maurice Sendak, Pierre (HarperCollins 1962)

20140309-072501.jpg I don’t generally blog about books I’ve re-read, but my blogging has been light-on recently as I’ve been reading mostly film scripts, which are exempt from my self-imposed task of writing about everything I read, so here’s a quick note on Pierre, which I re-read recently before wrapping it as a present.

Pierre: A cautionary tale in five chapters and a prologue was first published as a tiny book, cased with three others as The Nutshell Library. Our copies of those tiny books have long since disappeared after a huge amount of use and abuse. Besides Pierre, there are an alphabet book, Alligators All Around, a counting book, One Was Johnny, a book of the months, Chicken Soup with Rice. In case there’s anyone who doesn’t already know, Sendak was one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and illustrators for children, and though these books are in some ways very modest, absolutely obedient to the rules of their genres, each of them is a masterpiece. I have read them all aloud many many times to small co-readers and still love hem.

But Pierre has a special place. I think I first heard of it when my older brother took his eleven year old son on his knee and said,

Good morning, darling boy,
You are my only joy.

And when his son said, shockingly, ‘I don’t care,’ they both laughed.

And that’s the set-up: Pierre’s refrain is ‘I don’t care!’ Because it’s billed as a cautionary tale, the punitive saying ‘Don’t care was made to care’ can’t be far from an adult reader’s mind, as in the cautionary tales of Hilaire Belloc. For those who have so far been spared the delicious horrors of Belloc, let me mention ‘Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion’. The title tells the whole story really – and then there’s this (punctuated as in the original):

His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said. ‘Well – it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!’
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’ miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

As a child I enjoyed Belloc’s tales of appalling retribution, confident that my own parents could never be that callous. And I enjoyed Roald Dahl’s even more gruesome variants when I read them to my children. But Sendak pushes the form beyond lip-smacking crime and punishment. Like Jim, Pierre is eaten by a lion as a direct consequence of his naughtiness. But whereas the father imagined by Catholic Belloc goes on to moralise, the Jewish Sendak’s parents, realising that their son is inside the lion, spring into action:

They rushed the lion into town.
The doctor shook him up and down
and when the lion gave a roar
Pierre fell out upon the floor.
He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head
and laughed because he wasn’t dead.

I may be idiotic, but that last couplet never fails to fill me with joy.

There’s a nice discussion of the whole Nutshell Library on the We Read It Like This blog, where there’s also an excellent reading.

Clive’s Dante’s Hell

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book One: Hell, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214My rudimentary Italian isn’t up to reading the Divine Comedy in the original. I have started out on a couple of translations, Dorothy Sayers’ being the one I remember, but each time after a couple of pages it started to feel pointless: I mean, he’s in a wood, when a leopard blocks his path, or maybe it’s a wolf, a lion and a leopard, and the evening star rises, then Virgil appears – as they say on the Internet, WTF! Apart from my ignorance of 13th Century Italian terms of reference, it was clear the prose translations were missing something crucial. I haven’t had any more joy with verse translations, in spite of having been fascinated by terza rima, the Divine Comedy‘s verse form, since I read John Manifold’s ‘The Tomb of Lt John Learmonth, AIF’ as a teenager. So it’s no small thing when I say that Clive James’s version, in rhyming quatrains, is readable. The narrative hums along, the action is mostly clear, and even some of the references are glossed (that leopard, for example, seems much less arbitrary thanks to a little parenthesis: ‘was this the leopard, Lechery?’).

One other thing helped me approach the book as something other than an exhibit in the Travelling Museum of Great Literature. I’d heard the late Peter Porter in one of his turbo-charged radio conversations with Clive James describe Dante’s Inferno as repellent because of its mean-spirited punitiveness. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘so I don’t have to read it on bended knee.’ That and the romantic circumstances of the translation: Clive James’s wife is a leading Dante scholar; he has terminal cancer and they are estranged; it’s hard not to see this huge labour as a deathbed love offering.

So, the book itself? Dante is having a midlife crisis when the Roman poet Virgil appears and takes him on a tour of the mediaeval Christian afterlife (for reasons that remain obscure to me, but that’s just quibbling). The tour takes 100 cantos, of which the set-up takes one and Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in that order take 33 each. I intend to read the whole work, but I expect I’ll have different responses to each of the books, so Hell has its own blog entry.

As I said, the narrative hums along, with so much ingenious, graphically-described hideous suffering it’s surprising a video game hasn’t been made of it. There are lots of allusions, to Classical mythology, to the politics of Dante’s time and place, to Italian history, to Arthurian legend, to scandals in the Papacy. No doubt if you knew your Guelphs from your Ghibellines and your Boniface from your Celestine you’d get more out of the poem than I did, and I can see how someone could devote their professional life to studying it. But for instance, I’ve read Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, and know that Dante’s journey into hell refers to the section where Aeneas, like Odysseus in the Odyssey, visits the Underworld and has the shades of the dead speak to him. But knowing this doesn’t make all that much difference to how the story works.

Deeper levels of meaning resonate, of course. I dare to disagree with Peter Porter. Rather than being mean-spirited and punitive, I read Dante as challenging the orthodox doctrine of eternal damnation: over and again, his character feels pity for the suffering souls he encounters, which creates an undertow of implication that God is less compassionate than humans. I have no idea of course if such a challenge was in Dante’s mind, but there’s definitely a tension between an emerging humanist sensibility and a mediaeval doctrinal view. The mixture of classical and Christian references is another marker of that tension.

Less portentously, there’s a strong element of crowd-pleasing satire. Public figures who lied or murdered or allowed evil to triumph by standing by and doing nothing are all punished in gruesomely appropriate ways (and forget what I just said about compassion). Splitters are split; muckrakers drown permanently in muck; and so on. The idea of eternal damnation may be abhorrent to a modern sensibility – I remember fondly the Marist Brother who said to us in 1969, ‘I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the church, but I don’t have to believe that any human has ever been sent there by a merciful God’. Even in my traditional Catholic childhood we were told that none of us could know if any individual had been damned: even Judas may have repented as the rope tightened around his neck. But as I read Dante via James, atavistic vengeful impulses surfaced: I wondered what punishment should be meted out to those Labor Party MPs who undermined Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership and so gave the government of Australia to the current ruthless gang, and I wondered about the immortal souls of ostentatiously Christian political leaders who equivocate and plunder and gloss over deaths that happen on their watch. Satirists these days can do little more than mock and reproach: Dante could threaten the objects of his rage with eternal suffering.

Now, having passed through the knot at the centre of the earth and climbed back up to see the stars again, it’s time to move on. I’ll write again after Purgatory

Dorothy Porter’s Bee Hut

Dorothy Porter, The Bee Hut (Black Inc 2009)

1863954465 I found it hard when reading this book to separate the poetry out from the circumstances in which it was written, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The doctrine that the author’s biography is irrelevant to an understanding of her work may be useful in the classroom but not so much anywhere else.

Most of the poems collected here were written when Dorothy Porter was dealing with cancer – diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, remission, recurrence and the expectation of imminent death. The poetry is permeated by a sense of mortality and – as with the last poems of Dorothy Hewett and any number of other poets – the knowledge of the real-life situation adds tremendous poignancy for the reader.

Some of the poems address the cancer story directly – as in ‘The Ninth Hour’ (‘it’s your shriveling / flesh / that has the whip hand’), or ‘Not the Same’ (‘When you climb / out a black well / you are not the same’), or ‘View from 437′, written days before her death (‘Something in me / despite everything / can’t believe my luck’). Others, possibly most of the poems in the book, might otherwise seem elegant meditations or slender lyrics, but in this context read as heroic moments of facing reality. I particularly like ‘Numbers’, otherwise a slight, self-derogatory reflection, for the way it is transformed by knowledge of the circumstances of its creation:

I get magic
sometimes I get more
than I bargain for

but I don’t get

Numbers do worse
than humiliate
or elude me

they don’t add up.

I am no algebra tart
by the meretricious music
of the spheres.

My eyes and nose
never streamed
with incontinent ecstasy
through geometry classes
as my disastrous triangles
collapsed in a cacophony
around me.

Perhaps it’s a failing
to grasp
or even want
the utterly perfect number
burning through my retina
like the utterly perfect morning.

Instead I peer
with nauseating vertigo
into the deep dark pitch
of numbers
like an exhausted mammoth
dangerously tottering
on the edge
of a bottomless mystery.

I may be playing a version of that game where you add ‘in bed’ to the quotes on a desk calendar, and almost without exception the quotes still make sense, usually quite a different sense from the original. But is it too far-fetched to read ‘Numbers’ as responding obliquely to all the calculation of percentages and probabilities that accompanies cancer diagnosis and treatment? Or is it just that, as I’m sure someone has said, all true art deals with mortality?

This isn’t a gloomy or single-minded book. There are traveller’s tales, some of them recalling moments from the poet’s variously brash, optimistic and judgmental youth; love poems; lyrics commissioned for performance; responses to other poets, including Byron, Blake, Bruce Beaver, Baudelaire, some that don’t start with B, and a possibly ironic lament for not having read enough Rimbaud (or more accurately not having read Rimbaud enough); and more.

My previous acquaintance with Dorothy Porter’s work has been through the forgettable movie made from her verse novel The Monkey’s Paw, and her verse novel What a Piece of Work, which I hated for its vilely misogynistic Francis Webb figure. I’m glad I decided to have another go at reading her work.

awwbadge_2014The Bee Hut is the second book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Evidently I was one of the two most prolific reviewers of poetry for last year’s challenge. I confess to feeling like a fraud, since a number of the poetry books I reviewed had fewer than 20 pages.)

Blogging from New Caledonia

I’m writing this in a house in Portes de Fer, a suburb of Nouméa whose name translates as ‘iron gates’. We’re here for 10 days, on a holiday that was handed to us rather than planned for. A couple of months ago we received an email via homeexchange.com asking if we’d like to swap homes with a New Caledonian family. The dates fitted both our schedules, the cost of travel wasn’t prohibitive, and we knew almost nothin about New Caledonia. So we wrote back accepting, and here we are.

That’s my excuse for not being among the first to report that Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, which the press release evidently described as the richest literary prize in Australia. JM commented that in the absence of superannuation it was a very welcome contribution to her finances. Just in case there’s anyone out there relying on my fannish notes to find out such news, I’m telling you now, a couple of days late. John Kinsella has a nice piece on the award in Crikey. Other Australian news, including Tony Abbott’s continuing war with the real world, does reach us, but I’m confident no one depends on this blog for that.

Inspired by the streets around here, which like those in Byron Bay are named after poets, I’m indulging my sonnet fixation:

First Impressions of Noumea, January 2014
With no rough strife at Portes de Fer
we’re lazing in rue Mallarmé,
a stroll uphill from Baudelaire
or down to bus stop du Bellay.
In town we hear no hostile gun
on Austerlitz, la Marne, Verdun.
These tricouleurs the only flags
though tri means sorting garbage bags
and colours won’t be kept to three:
dark skin, bright clothes and humble stance,
the Kanaks say, ‘We’re not in France!’
Some took up arms for Kanaky,
and died, but now if art’s a word
these words of colour will be heard.

Les Murray’s Boys who Stole the Funeral

Les Murray, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral: A novel sequence (Angus & Robertson 1980, Minerva 1993)

Here’s Laurie Duggan’s ‘translation’ of Martial’s epigram VIII lxxv, written less than a decade after The Boys Who Stole the Funeral was published:

After reading at the Lions Club
the Bard slipped and sprawled
on Taree shopping plaza’s
_____crazy paving. His weedy acolytes
couldn’t shift the bugger an inch.

Luckily for him, a hearse stopped
and two burly undertakers
winched and crammed the great man
______into the back,
splintering the neighbour coffin.

Was he taken home to Bunyah, you ask?
Or was he stolen by the funeral?

I like the way this capitalises on the serendipitous resonance between Martial’s scenario of the ingens dominus (huge master) who is heaved onto a funeral bier and the fact that bulky Les Murray wrote a ‘novel sequence’ about a funeral. I also like the way Martial is transposed into an Australian vernacular  But there’s something else: if there’s malice in Duggan’s image of the ‘Bard’s double humiliation, it’s a pallid thing compared to this book’s savage caricaturing of intellectuals, city people, socialists, feminists and their multitudinous ilk. When I read Duggan’s poem a fortnight ago, before I’d read The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, I thought it was a bit of mischievous fun; I now read it as a tiny piece of retaliation against a massive attack.

1bsf A story outline would lead you to expect a great yarn with a thread of dark humour running through it. Two young men, university drop-outs, steal the corpse of an old soldier friend and take him to the country town where he has said he wanted to be buried, but where none of his family could afford to take his body. His funeral is the occasion for a great coming together of country folk, but the consequences for the boys are greater than they could have imagined – one dies a violent death and the other finds spiritual wholeness in a new, profound connection with country.

It should have been a great yarn, but alas, for all Les Murray’s greatness as a poet, he is a lousy story teller. None of the characters emerges as more than a type. A number of the barely distinguishable country folk seem to represent different aspects of salt-of-the-earth people that Murray approves of, and at the other extreme a rabid feminist–pacifist character is spectacularly implausible. Implausibility is a strong feature (reaching a peak in the boy’s killing). There’s quite a lot of dialogue, but it’s often all but impossible to tell who is supposed to be speaking. The narrative, such as it is, progresses with little regard for pacing, or motivation, or sense of place. The latter is particularly odd, given that Murray’s poetry elsewhere can evoke place with powerful specificity. Everything seems to be in the service of a weird anti-modernism. Perhaps the intention was to put forward a spiritual vision of some sort, but the vision is lost in the welter of negativity that accompanies it, so that the effect is of a mean-spirited nastiness about human beings.

I found this book deeply horrible, and also not much good. Some reviews I’ve read seem to think its wonderful – one US reviwer said that Murray’s skill made Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate look amateurish. We live on different planets. Maybe the book really is up there with the great and I’m an idiot.

Laurie Duggan’s Old New and Selected

Laurie Duggan, New and selected poems, 1971-1993 (UQP 1996)

1ldOne result of reading poetry as it turns up in the secondhand bookshops is that I meet things out of sequence. As a retrospective of Laurie Duggan’s work, this book was superseded by 2005′s Compared to What: Selected Poems 1971–2003, and Duggan has published a number of books since then, not to mention his mainly photographic blog, Graveney Marsh. Still, this is the book I’ve got. It’s a fabulously mixed bag.

Laurie Duggan strikes me as a poet’s poet: not necessarily in the sense that he writes primarily for an audience of poets (though that could also be true), but in the sense that much of his work is concerned with the poet identity. You know how there are gay poets, and feminist poets, and nationalist poets? Well, there are also poet poets. Other poets turn up in his poems with extraordinary frequency, in two ways.

First, there are references to their work: there are poems imitating Rimbaud, Alan Wearne, John Forbes, John Tranter, and taking satiric digs at Les Murray, Robert Gray, A D Hope – ‘the last / Augustan poet claimed alive’ – and a number of translations from poets ancient and modern. I probably miss most of the allusions, but I spotted lines from Kenneth Slessor, James McAuley, Martin Johnston, and a number of 20th century US  poets.

And then there are poets as enemies, or more frequently as members of the community he belongs to:

Anna & Ken’s blue V.W. crawls up the opposite hill
off for milk___cottage pie ingredients

That’s Anna Couani and Ken Bolton. I was reminded of a moment in Ken Bolton’s essay ‘Some Memories of John Forbes’ in Homage to John Forbes (2003):

I remember driving, with Anna Couani at the wheel and Laurie in the passenger front seat. The blue Vee-dub, … the car loaded up. As we got to the Broadway end of Glebe Point Road … we spotted John’s familiar figure steaming along ahead away from us down the footpath. … Laurie leaned out the window and called Heeeeyyy, POET!

And a host of poets, mostly of the so-called ‘Generation of 68′, turn up by first name as the book progresses. The sense of a community of poets persists to the final poem ‘Ornithology’ which starts out as an elegy for poets Bob Harris, Martin Johnston and Jas Duke (misspelling the title of Martin’s ‘In Memoriam’, incidentally), becomes an extended soul-searching, and could now be read as a foreshadowing elegy for John Forbes.

I don’t want to give the impression that these are coterie poems or an exercise in navel-gazing. In general, there’s a seductive, self-deprecatory wit and, especially in the continuing Blue Hills sequence (recently gathered into a single book by Puncher & Wattman) and The Ash Range from the mid 1980s, a deep engagement with place.

In a 2010 interview with Fiona Scotney published in The Long Paddock, the online component of Southerly 71/3, Duggan said this about his poetic approach:

I like the idea of plonking something here and something there next to it and the result is something else.

‘Plonking’ is a way of describing bricolage – a kind of verbal scrapbooking, of which Duggan is a superb practitioner. ‘Clayton West 1′, the first poem in the book, includes this:

____________________my Grandmother’s cup
clinks in its saucer, table ordered with
teapot, grapefruit, marmalade

It’s just a newspaper headline at the breakfast table, but the result here is something else – what that something is, the poem leaves up to the reader to decide. I could give a hundred examples.

‘Plonking’ also happens in Duggan’s translations, especially of the epigrams of Martial, of which there are 50 here. If you compare them to a literal translation, again and again you see something from ancient Rome plonked down next to something from 20th Century Australia, to delightful effect. Take Epigram VII xx,

Cum facias versus nulla non luce ducenos,
Vare, nihil recitas. non sapis, atque sapis.


Though you write two hundred verses every day, Varus, you recite nothing in public. You are unwise, and yet you are wise.

And in Duggan’s ‘translation’:

Dransfield, who wrote
__200 poems each day,
was wiser than his editor
__who printed them.

This was my introduction to Martial, and I find it hard to imagine a better one.

As a reintroduction to Laurie Duggan, the book is pretty good too. Oh, inspired by a page of anagrams of contemporary Australian poets  (to stick with Michael Dransfield: ‘Dead man chills fire’), I offer one of my own: I laud a grunge.