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POETRY REVIEW. Scarp 23 October 1993. Craig Powell, Gary Catalano, Jill Jones and Martin Harrison.

22 Nov

 

Minga Street: New and Selected Poems, Craig Powell. Hale & Iremonger 1993. http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/minga-street-0075000

Selected Poems: 1973-1992, Gary Catalano UQP. 1993. http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/selected-poems-1973-1992-0054000

Flagging Down Time, Jill Jones, Five Islands Press 1993. http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/flagging-down-time-0135000

The Distribution of Voice, Martin Harrison, UQP 1993. http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/the-distribution-of-voice-0648000

(As these books are out of print I have provide links back to the Australia Poetry Library were the books reviewed are now online).

In the closing scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are battling the forces of evil on top of the Mount Rushmore monument. Saint falls and Grant scrambles down to save her. He is holding her with one hand while the other hand grips the cliff top. Just as the bad guy is about to crush Grant’s fingers under his boot, a shot rings out the bad guy falls dead. The camera then zooms onto Grant’s arm as he strains to pull Saint to safety. As the camera tracks back the scene has suddenly changed to the interior of a railway sleeping car. Rather than pulling Saint to safety, Grant is helping her up to the top bunk. Suddenly the scene changes again and we see the last shot of the film which shows an express train plunging into a tunnel.

Such symbolism, while very obvious and heavy handed, works because Hitchcock had his tongue very firmly in his check. In Craig Powell’s poetry very similar symbolism appears again and again, but there is no undercurrent of humour to relieve the ever thickening emotions. In fact the very image of a train plunging into a tunnel appears in one of the newer poems in Minga Street: New and Selected Poems, a volume which combines a number of new poems with a selection from his previous four collections of poetry:

miners or fetlers

With calcium grins and sooty jowls

A child knows they are cheering for him

Coalcliff now the deepest tunnel starts

And, just in case the symbolism of the tunnel escapes you, the poem concludes

And a cello sings in his throat

Of the shadow immense womb of rock

Where he sleeps with his eyes white and wide

‘In the Presence of Paul Tortielier’

Powell’s professional background as a psychoanalyst has obviously been one of the major influences on his writing. In ‘Visitors’, another recent poem, he writes of the fragile nature of a family’s perceived history:

whose mother’s lover fumbled at her at nine?

She is easily wiped out you being her only

witness and I don’t always want to hear you

And your mother’s friend plucks another scone and simpers

‘You must be very proud of your mother’

You smile you ask politely ‘How long have you known her?’

‘Visitors’

Throughout his work Powell continually attempts to break through the mental barriers to explore what David Brooks has called ‘the psychic depths’. Unfortunately, far too often, these depths are populated by the overused imagery of Freudian psychology. This is not to say that Powell has not written some very fine poetry. Rereading some of the Canadian poems which were written during the mid to late seventies, I was impressed by the intense lyricism of the best of Powell’s poetry. In ‘Canada Geese’, for example, Powell uses the image of geese flying south to suggest absence and renewal:

Some evening      when we are

Unaware      they will beat southward

invisible by the windy

stars      and frost will affect

our teeth

‘Canada Geese’

As a record of Powell’s work over the last twenty-five years Minga Street is, in the final instance, a frustrating collection. I was continually drawn towards Powell’s gentle lyricism which creates some memorable images. At the same time I found it difficult to accept the overuse of psychoanalytic imagery where, for example, old mens bodies “glimmer with the sperm/of sorrows” (‘Spoken to Women’), and where

the pure horses           half-sleeping rise

from the earth           so high

and so quiet           their eyes gentle

upon us            searching towards

a distance emptied of images

where they sway our seed in their thighs

‘in Spruce Woods’

or where trees are:

like women

sheathed in bark to their navels but

their eyes and breasts fervent and lovely

‘Lessons at Collaroy Plateau’

Gary Catalano’s Selected Poems 1972-1992, like Powell’s collection, also contains some previously uncollected poems. But while Powell delights in a poetry dense with imagery, Catalano, for the most part, is a far more subtle poet. At times, particularly in his early work, the simplicity of his imagery suggest the influence of haiku, Poems such as ‘Tree’, ‘The Blizzard’, ‘Against the Thunder’ and ‘The Exploration of a Continent’ from the 1973 collection ‘Remembering the Rural Life’, are short, simple poems whose impact is much greater than one would expect at first glance:

A horse

Shaking the dust

From his coat

flies

Noon heat.

In the clear

blue sky

no cloud to

expunge our defeat.

‘The Exploration of a Continent’

Complementing these short poems in the selection from his from his earliest work is a long poem ‘Remembering the Rural Life’. In this impressive poem Catalano recreates the landscape of his youth, a landscape lost to him both by time and the spread of suburbia. In the Parramatta of the late fifties and early sixties Catalano draws together the threads of his background – his family’s Italian heritage, his adolescent bravado and the growing conflict between a father’s vision of his son’s future and the son’s interest in art and poetry. The strength of the this poem is that it avoids slipping into sentimentality; instead Catalano has utilised an economy of image which is apparent in his shorter poems to create a narrative about memory and growth which effectively sets the tone for much of the other work in the collection.

Catalano is one of the few Australian poets to work extensively with the prose poem. Selected Poems brings together a handful of prose poems from Heaven of Rags (1982) (http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/heaven-of-rags-0359000) and a selection from his book of prose poems Fresh Linen (1988) (http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/fresh-linen-0360000). Catalano’s style is ideally suited to the prose poem as he is easily able to avoid the poetry being subsumed by the structure of the prose. In one of his best prose poems ‘At the Source’, Catalano uses water flowing from the source of a creek to the ocean as a metaphor for speech:

It is here that we find our clearest

image of speech. They taste so clean,

these syllables of the dark, and they

make us realise that all our words

should be pitched at a whisper.

But, once speech, “these shy waters’ flow into the ocean, their nature changes:

Here it bends

itself on the ear like a sheet of fresh,

unscored linen…and here it offers an

escape from the inchoate music of

the world.

‘At the Source’

There are also a number of prose poems among his new work including the very brief poem ‘Silver and Gold’ which once again highlights the beautiful simplicity which Catalano can achieve at his best:

The waves look like silver-foil. But

when they break on the shore, I hear

the sound of a hand sifting through a

bag of grain.

‘Silver and Gold’

While Jill Jones has not yet reached that point in her career which would justify the publication of a volume of selected poems, at her current rate of production she could very soon reach the milestone which Powell and Catalano have just achieved. In fact, the success of her first book, The Mask and the Jagged Star (1992) http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/the-mask-and-the-jagged-star-0062000 has ensured that her second collection, Flagging Down Time, will attract more than its share of critical attention.

As the title would suggest, Jones’ book is concerned with the concepts of time and change. For Jones, time represents the potential for both growth and decay, and among the images that recur throughout the book is that of the garden. Grass seeds in the desert, for example, lie dormant until rain falls:

She’s like plants at ground level

surviving as seeds through dry periods –

tough outside while inside

she’ll grow the grasslands of dreams.

This poem concludes with one of the most striking images in the book:

that road where past and future meet

only at the horizon

and there’s all that walking between

‘The Desert’

The idea of time running from the past through the present to the future is reflected in the title poem where time is a taxi that can be flagged down:

the meter is silent now

but just as inexorable

as the ticking of my plastic watch

‘Flagging Down Time’

Flagging Down Time concludes with the impressive longer poem ‘Eleven fifteen’. While time can be a road which runs from horizon to horizon, one has to remember that the horizon also runs in an arc which joins the two ends of the road. This sense of the cyclic nature of time is picked up in ‘Eleven Fifteen’ where the final line of each stanza becomes the first line of the next. Such a structure reflects the repeated rituals which seem to merge days together while, in fact, weeks, months and years may pass:

……fantasies

which take on a stranger syntax as I travel

through the midnight hour that has always stood

like a dark faery nought, round zero of change

‘Eleven fifteen’

Flagging Down Time should confirm Jones’ reputation as a major new voice in Australian poetry. It will be interesting to see how much longer we have to wait for her third collection.

Martin Harrison’s poetry can appear difficult to come to terms with on a first reading. It is a dense poetry with rich images overlapping and merging, driven by an often sensuous use of language which at times seems almost ready to rebel being restricted to the page. Indeed, to appreciate Harrison’s work, the reader must realise that often the sound of the language is as important as the meaning of the word.

As well as being a poet, Harrison has a background in sound/text performance and is a teacher of sound composition. While his poetry may not be performance pieces in the way Amanda Stewart’s work is, the influence of sound and film in his work is obvious. At times, for example, Harrison’s descriptions are so intense they are almost filmic:

You want it all to come back –

April’s sharper lights,

Light-grids, networks, windows off

A shady green

‘Beauty Line’

But it is a film with a distinctive sound track. The best poems in this book seem to invoke an image which is aural as well as visual. In ‘Meeting’, a poem within the long sequence of poems called ‘Films’, Harrison captures the sound of the wind rustling through the grass:

Wind jiggles the shell-grass

Making itself visible

Like someone brushing a mobile

‘4. Meeting (from Films)’

In another poem, ‘Marriage and Soundscape’, Harrison takes great care in describing a sound:

Then a shag took off from these waters, making an interval, a year,

My wife has just seen it – calling it ‘hair on a lens’ and ‘shadow noise’.

(There is green, there is a clapping-Sound, there is wind.)

‘Marriage and Soundscape’

Harrison’s imagery often flows together in the same way that a sound can gradually be transformed into a completely different sound without a casual listener being aware of the change. In ‘Then and Now’, for example, a description of the wind blowing leaves in a tree becomes, within the space of four lines, a lion and the entire poem moves off in a completely different direction:

Late wind arrives, shakes the leaves

in a porridge of shimmers, like a mane-

A lion gets up, wlks about

Caged. foetid, in a fitful mind

‘7. Then and Now (from Films)’

Mark Roberts 1993

(Note: the layout of the quoted in poems in this review in Scarp was a little problematic. We possible I have gone back to originals poems to try and ensure the layout is correct in this version. From memory I also beliee there was a final paragraph to this review. But as I no longer have the original copy I have left the last section as it appeared in SCARP)