Things as They Are, and Were

The Land I Came Through Last: A Family Memoir by Robert Gray.  Giramondo, 2008, $34.95.

“We are the children of our landscape,” Lawrence Durrell observes in Justine. “It dictates behaviour and even thought to the measure to which we are responsive to it.”

Few poets have been as responsive to the Australian landscape and so obviously and unashamedly its child, as Robert Gray. The Land I Came Through Last is described as a family memoir, and the family includes not only Gray’s parents (an alcoholic father and pious mother), his aunts and siblings, but also painters, lovers and writers, and, above all, the Australian landscape itself, particularly the north coast of New South Wales, which Gray brings to life in prose that is as fresh and elegant as his poetry.

The work opens and ends with Gray’s father. A “remittance man in his own country”, he was set up by the poet’s grandfather on a banana plantation on the north coast to keep him away from Sydney. He keeps contact with his family periodically through his sisters’ correspondence; and with the city of his childhood by irregular visits by train where he frequents the hotels and is assiduously avoided by his father (when he is not being muscled out by his hired men). Condemned to exile, he recognises:

the beauty of the place, Korora, but would have felt, in the folded heat of one of its close valleys of an afternoon, as if life had passed to another shore. Everything seemed embalmed in a bright stagnant fluid, where the occasional bubble broke loose, and that was all.

Although Gray muses that on the surface his father’s life—with enough money to live rent free, without working, in a beautiful landscape—seemed ideal to him as a young man with artistic aspirations, he accepts that the nature of his father’s unhappiness was such that it could not be relieved by any external circumstances, however propitious, much less by the gambling and drinking through which he sought relief from his exile. The poet, perhaps reacting to his father’s fate and determined to break free from its shackles, does what his father cannot—returns to live in Sydney as a young man, and, to counter the sense of life passing “to another shore”, becomes a poet, in order “with my imagination, to pluck the things I valued off the river of time, as it went careening by; to save them, or at least the feeling of them”.

Notwithstanding the particular “anxiety of influence” suffered by the young writer, the influence of his father on his development cannot be reduced to that of a sad example against which the poet reacted. His father had a major gift for the minor art of punning, for instance, which showed a felicity with language and an appreciation for the pleasure of correspondences that is analogous to the poet’s more considerable gift for simile. Unlike his son, though, who finds supreme satisfaction in savouring and refining visual images, his father’s gift for punning leaves him with a sense of the ultimate unsatisfactoriness of life. No one, except the poet in his maturity, picks up his father’s puns, much less appreciates them, which only increases the father’s awareness of his acute intellectual and emotional isolation from other people:

He made a pun to a neighbouring woman and my mother, which I chanced to hear, when they were talking over the front fence on a Sunday morning. It was about the milk teeth of the child who was holding the woman’s hand: she had fine, pre-carious teeth, my father said, emphasising for the sake of his meanings. I doubt that he was understood.

It is no accident that the poet himself, notorious for his neverending revisions of seemingly minor poetic details, has always emphasised as a critic and poet the supreme virtue of comprehensibility. Like Robert Frost, who made this point about himself, Gray belongs to the class of poets who write to be understood. More is at stake in the task of revising, certainly, than mere aestheticism. Like his father, Gray always emphasises for the sake of his meanings. Unlike his father, he is usually understood.

This essential connection as well as the fundamental difference between father and son is beautifully captured in the memoir’s closing pages, in the description of the father’s death:

He died before a full-length mirror fitted on the inside of his wardrobe door. Life exceeds art: in his heart attack, he fell forward, and was left kneeling, his forehead propped against his broken image.

For an imagist who has striven to reflect “things as they are”, this description is telling. His father’s “broken image” reveals the discontinuity between the way he saw himself—as a gentleman with perfect manners—and the reality of his life, which included his neglect and psychological abuse of his wife and children. The poet’s vocation is to restore the continuity between reality and its representation, and to preserve the distinction “between fantasy and empirical fact”—to fix the image, as it were. His father’s failure, as such, becomes his opportunity, even as it testifies to the teasing difficulty of the task. Something of this tension is already acknowledged in the author’s preface:

I felt a need for objectivity, but was assured by friends who knew the intellectual fashion that it was impossible to be accurate about another’s past or even one’s own.

It seems to me that memory must be as we find it, pragmatically: something that can usually be relied upon. To deny this, in principle, is to deny there is a distinction between fantasy and empirical fact. We could not function unless it were so. Memory is a particular ability, which differs among individuals. For some, images will step forth in detachment and speak for themselves.

It is fitting that the memoir ends with a description of a death, for death is the reality which, so the poet believes, gives life its ultimate significance and frisson. A sense of the fragility of life and the need to appreciate it at each moment permeates the work. Indeed, when the poet learns that the death sentence relating to his chronic heart condition (which had hung over him throughout his childhood and adolescence) is lifted, he momentarily loses his sense of self and of reality. This is only returned to him after he unwittingly steps under a bus and emerges unscathed:

As I hurried off, tapping lightly on my leg with a rolled newspaper, for the bystanders, my new heart was vibrating like a punching ball … Why not live as though still under the sentence, but permitted a short reprieve? We cannot control what we experience. Our daily efforts deny this, but perhaps it was possible to avoid complacency by holding onto that realization. Then the days might have again their strange interest.

This creed contrasts dramatically with his mother’s, who, partly in reaction to the news of her young boy’s illness, takes refuge with her children in the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith. What saddens the poet about this faith—indeed all religions that teach the existence of everlasting life—is its preferring life after death to life here-and-now. In living for the future the adherents of such faiths, so the poet suggests, lose sight of the present. Whatever one makes of Gray’s critique of religious faith (which includes at least one factual error: the assertion that the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith does not differ in most essentials from Protestant fundamentalism), it offers an important insight into the philosophy that informs his poems, and the tension so many of them embody—between the competing, mutually enriching claims of classicism (aligned imperfectly with scepticism and realism) and romanticism (aligned imperfectly with faith and idealism). His father represents some of the values of the former, his mother some of the latter. The poet’s life is the product of both, “the third who lay in our embrace” (in Judith Wright’s memorable line), and of the landscape, his friendships, his reading and his travels, and so much more. This fine memoir captures but is never overwhelmed by this rich and complex tapestry.

One reviewer, Andrew Riemer, has lamented the relative absence in the memoir of detailed discussions of those writers whose work most influenced Gray, while another, Geordie Williamson, yearned for more and meatier literary anecdotes. Although references to seminal poetic influences are few and although literary anecdotes are more or less limited to the superb chapter on Patrick White and a less successful discussion on Bruce Chatwin, these criticisms miss the point slightly. Gray’s formation as a poet is certainly his subject, and the attentive reader will find in his discussions of his labours as a journalist and copywriter, and his reading of Chinese poetry and writers such as Chekhov and Kenneth Grahame, enough clues to establish the major influences and anti-influences on the poet’s development.

For all that, Gray’s emergence as a writer owes less to direct literary influences than one might expect. In fact, the poet owes his vocation as much to his early discovery of landscape painting, his rejection of his mother’s faith and his father’s excesses, and the chronic heart condition which he mysteriously overcame, as he does to the influence of any single writer. His discovery of various poets confirmed him in his task, rather than inspired it. It is the former concerns, therefore, that rightly comprise the essential core of this superb memoir, which establishes Gray—already acknowledged as one of the country’s finest poets—as one of our most accomplished prose stylists.

Stephen McInerney lectures in English at Campion College in Sydney. His poem “After Wendy Cope” appears in 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know, edited by Jamie Grant (Hardie Grant, 2008).

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