The Question of Adequate Symbolism

Marc di Saverio is a multi-lingual Canadian poet and translator. The cover tells us that many laud Crito Di Volta as a work of genius, an Ezra Pound occupying the high ground of literature but not readily understood or read for pleasure. An edition of Canadian Notes & Queries magazine hailed his Sanatorium Songs (2013) as “the greatest poetry debut from the last 25 years”.

My encounter with Crito Di Volta has not been without its challenges and I tend to criticise my own limitations rather than the poet’s. The author identifies his cover image only in Cyrillic script, and this locks out most English-speaking readers, leaving an ambiguous image of a sculpted male and female figure in heroic pose, perhaps in totalitarian mode, and less accessible than it would have been with a little kindness shown to the English-language reader (or purchaser) of the book. Crito Di Volta needs a code-key, but comes without one. It is the most difficult of the four poetry books under review. Hill and Morley both hold PhDs and Morley is committed to exploring dialect and rare words.

Reading Crito Di Volta with the other three books encouraged a leap (a volta in the time of Queen Elizabeth I was a court dance with a partner-assisted “vault”) into theoretical reflection on an essence of poetry, of poetry in itself. James McAuley and Les Murray contributed significantly to the question of an essence of poetry and I shall draw on them a little, partly because Barry Hill and David Morley make significant references to Murray in their poems.

Perhaps, as in wine or whisky tasting, done “blind” with the bottles in plain paper bags, poets could be read with no reference to their accolades or cover blurb. There is a poetic equivalent to properly evaluative wine-tasting.

McAuley asks the question of the human form, and human order, the “true form of man”. In his introduction to his Selected Poems (1963), he maintains that this form is profoundly important to the poetic task. It is also the topic of other, non-poetic disciplines. Sometimes the poetry might be directed to the service of other very different and powerful discourses which can dominate the poetry.

Where McAuley writes of the true form of man, or the true human form, Murray writes about “wholeness” in his essay “Embodiment and Incarnation” which he wrote as the 1986 Aquinas Lecture. This essay is found in his prose collection A Working Forest (1997). Murray distinguishes between whole-speak and narrow-speak; and the former was his then best metaphor for the poetic venture.

Marc di Saverio presses the same issue since his mental-asylum setting is concerned with nothing other than the true (or at least better) form of the human person, even if inferred by its absence. I could offer di Saverio a pun in French, not about inference but L’Enfer of a human order that is absent.

To try to find the code to Crito Di Volta, I noted that in Plato’s dialogue, Crito is unable to persuade Socrates, by reason, to escape his fate. There is something in di Saverio’s poetry that is pushing hard on the incapacity of reason alone to establish a stable and personal domain. In trying to find his code, I also began to explore his translations of the nineteenth-century Canadian poet Émile Nelligan in Ship of Gold: The Essential Poems of Émile Nelligan. Mental illness connects Nelligan and Ship of Gold with this book: mental illness as a potentially lifelong affliction, its treatment in institutions and its place in the mindset of modernity. A background in Nelligan’s poetry and life-story helps an approach to the poems by di Saverio.

Background and footnotes again raise the fact that some subjects invite access by non-poetic discourse and others by poetry. Crito Di Volta is opaque in some places, and at times I could not answer the question: Why is it opaque? I was helped by having read (in the non-poetic field of psychiatric writing) Thomas Szasz’s Ideology and the Myth of Mental Illness, which alerts the reader to the interpretative possibilities and challenges at the centre of what is simply called mental illness. But is this about the poetry—or about an affliction, into which the discourse of poetry has been drawn and held? Di Saverio is aware of this degree of difficulty between the obscure and the accessible, and discusses it in an interview. One could make a leap at this point and be mindful of the black dog in the poetry of Les Murray.

Murray once rejected a poem I had submitted and returned it with a note, “the footnotes are longer than the poem”. I had transgressed whole-speak with narrow-speak and he wanted more of what was accessible and recognisable as poetry. The reply had an arrow pointing to an early line, with a note which said, “the poem stops here”.

Both Murray and McAuley talk about reason in their critical theory of poetry. Murray cites Goya’s “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters” and McAuley is happy to call poetry “the rational paradise”. Reason and order are themes that float around these poems, and reason might haunt the wards of an asylum. Yet I have never thought there was much poetry in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

I turn to David Morley’s Fury by way of di Saverio’s cryptic poem called “Page 1. PHONETOVERSE Terrace Sonnet (Dove + Cardinal + Hawk)”. The poem is fourteen lines of what appears to be bird calls or bird sounds transliterated into English phonemes. From time to time, Les Murray got intuitively inside the minds of birds and animals. His poems stayed sufficiently within English semantics so that the animals were humanised sufficiently for the reader to get closer to them, to intuit them in their animality and creaturely otherness-and-with-us-ness. But in this poem, the interspecies gaze simply gives us an opaque wall of sound of the bird cries: “cheer … wacheer … coooo … coo-ah … weerooweercheroo … KEEEEER Cooh-ah …” continued across the sonnet form of fourteen lines. It is either debunking, or it remains inaccessibly profound, but it does not open up the world of birds to the reader. Perhaps it is not meant to, and we are simply reminded that the world in which we participate is opaque, obscure, cruel at times and weird.

Les Murray explored this theme of the inter-species gaze in his 1992 collection Translations from the Natural World. I draw attention to his poem “The Lyre Byrd”. He calls this bird a “tailed mimic” and the themes of sounds, mimicry and mimesis ask questions about the poetic venture. Onomatopoeia is being pushed hard to become, almost, a theory of poetry; that which gives the non-human creatures their identity within verse.

David Morley deploys birds as rational and creaturely links throughout his highly awarded volume, Fury. I suggest that his sevenfold use of the lyrebird is a specific gesture to these works of Murray and a way for the poet to engage with Romany dialect that, at first, is a wall of sound, obscure to the mainstream user of English. Morley finds the way in and gives the code for the book as also about things other than birds. The cover notes tell us that he gives “imaginative voice to the natural world and to those silenced or overlooked in modern society, ranging from the Romany communities of past and present Britain, to Tyson Fury and Towfiq Bahani, one of the forgotten inmates of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre”. My interest was caught by his frequent return to lyrebirds.

Poems from “First Lyrebird” through to “Seventh Lyrebird” populate and frame the book. And lyrebirds reappear in the final section as a pun on liar and lyre. Here is the opening line of the very first poem and with an Australian referent flung from distant Bristol: “Your vow is the Lyrebird’s thesaurus of mimicry. / Your vow yaffles with the laughter of a Kookaburra.” Morley displays an intense love of words and wordplay, some of which arises from his studies as a naturalist and geologist, though I am not sure that a kookaburra really does yaffle. The pun on liar and lyre and made real by its mimicry (it doesn’t makes its own true sound) is possibly original, but more likely references the first line of Murray’s poem where the lyrebird enters as “Liar made of leaf litter”. Fury began with “Your vow is the Lyrebird’s thesaurus of mimicry” and effectively ends with the Seventh Lyrebird’s: “My vow is the Lyrebird’s thesaurus of memory”.

There is a great deal of delight in the stretch-zones of the English language where Morley’s embrace of Romany dialect and his celebration of it as a cosmion in which people live and move and have their being. The book I pair with Morley’s is W.W. Skeat’s English Dialects from the Eighth Century to the Present Day from which I offer one sentence:

After that time our literature was mostly in the Southern or Wessex dialect, commonly called “Anglo Saxon”, the dominion of which lasted down to the early years of the thirteenth century, when the East Midland dialect surely but gradually rose to pre-eminence, and has now become the speech of the empire.

The point is that Morley is not simply urging respect for Romany people and culture. He is demonstrating Romany’s poetic quiddity and capacities so that the poetic insight, the poesis of the writer and the poetic capacity in the language shine through. One might love the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer by making the effort to enter his vocabulary, diction and pronunciation, and not simply settle for a modern English version as if he were writing in the 1960s. Dialect may simply be a small mainstream on its way.

Morley asks us to value poetry that is immersed and alive in a dialect form of English that has remained in a discernible community. But the journey also makes a return into central Englishness, like springtime birds returning. The poem “When I heard the Calling of Birds” by itself justifies the purchase of this book and immersion in it. The prisoner, presumed worthy of freedom, is still held, but is illuminated by memories of a humane past filled with love and relationships. Each of ten birds comes within eye-range or sound-range and generates a powerful image of elsewhere and conveys in its call that memory of a wholeness that is still Bihani’s to cherish, despite the outward imprisonment of body. The bird conveys the human in its very inter-species sounds that are not rational speech, but to which core-human or whole-speak memories have been attached. The eleven two-line stanzas combine to carry that wholeness, making the poem itself a participatory symbol, both for the poet as writer and the participant within the poem and the reader of the poem. The messengers in the poem are “emerald hummingbirds, a palm swift slipped from her nest, a lazuli bunting, a saffron finch, the rapid fire woodpecker, scarlet tanagers, orange cowled oriole, stygian owls, a mourning dove, and squawking macaws”.

Fury is a lovely and remarkable book, worthy to be the Poetry Book Society’s choice and to be shortlisted for the Forward Prize. The author has been the Ted Hughes Award winner. The book does contain footnotes and endnotes, but they are judicious and not intrusive or intellectualised.

Barry Hill’s Kind Fire does not come in a brown paper bag from which one might sip an anonymised wine. The back cover is a litany of Dr Hill’s publications and awards dating from 1990 to the present, and noting seven books. He has won premiers’ awards, the ACT Judith Wright Award, a commendation in the Prime Minister’s Award, and has also been shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Critics and reviewers use terms like “major work”, “intense and powerful”, “miraculous gift” and “masterpiece”. There is enough in that to warrant reading the book, to engage in a tasting where there can only be high expectations.

It is largely comprised of personal and anecdotal narratives drawn from life and written in blank verse where one does not expect to find formal rhyming patterns or regular metres. The story or narrative may be contrasted or held up contrapuntally by a reference to a Buddhist or Chinese or wisdom text, prefixed as an aperitif to some poems; or engaging with Buddhist or Aboriginal tradition within the text. There is intense intergenerational remembering, and stories of relationship are told with luminescence. This is especially so in the stronger poems that shape and name the collection.

Hill was born in 1943 and these are works of mature consideration. The theme of fire in its destructive form, and fire as kind fire, shapes the collection, and is evident in three poems in particular, though the theme of fire as flux and transitoriness is throughout. The poem “Kind Fire” is about a son on a father’s bicycle, dinking as one might have said. The image of the lungs as bellows at a forge is central to the poem and collection:

me sitting on the little padded seat
the iron-framed perch between his arms
near the handle bars
his breath a bellows on my neck
his kind fire always there
as he peddled me into the Southerly.

In “Photographs of My Father in Hanoi, 1972”, the fire is less kind and more damaging simply by the way the world is. He was in “the burning world”, seeking to “affirm / Humanity on the pyre of war”. He is seen by his son as one who “held on, like grim death, to Humanity”. The mention of Humanity with a capital H resonates with McAuley’s concern, no matter the different paths.

It is possible that the following poem, “Ambassador (Saigon 1964)”, sits at the heart of the collection and is the exemplification, paradoxically, of the book’s title. The poem is an extended, graphic description of the self-immolation by fire of the Buddhist monk, the Venerable Thich Quang Duc. Here, the anecdotal and the narrative form are scarcely adequate to the symbolic and metaphysic raised, the core questions about personal existence and persistence, and the end-visions that sit at the heart of religions of faiths and the core brutality and cost of war. One might also note the emergent power of the media image in modern warfare or political conflict.

In “Ambassador”, Hill touches on those master poetic forms that Murray identifies in religious and political movements and in some ways in all human achievements and endeavours of note. The burning monk is simultaneously revelatory and shocking.

More than a dozen of Hill’s poems begin with dedications to friends or colleagues, some of them perhaps personal friends, some more public, or known in the domain of writers and artists. There are another ten or so citations that preface the poems and some helpful notes at the end of this late work—urbane and at the peak of the writer’s confidence and skills. Hill also gestures specifically in one place to Les Murray and dedicates a poem to him, a poem balancing the Beach against Bunyah.

Anne McCosker’s Light held my interest for several reasons, some of them to do with poetry and some to do with Rabaul and Papua New Guinea and the Second World War. The theme of fire also appears in this collection, in connection with the fire-bombing of Dresden, and also via destruction by volcano. McCosker was born in Rabaul in 1940 and was evacuated to Queensland with some of her family in 1941. Rabaul was then the administrative centre of the territory that had been mandated to Australian rule by the League of Nations after the First World War and had been, in part, created by volcanic activity (Tarvuvur) and more than once destroyed by it; as volcanoes have destroyed other civilisational centres in Papua New Guinea.

I write in the season when Anglicans remember missionary martyrs in wartime New Guinea, following the Japanese invasion. This domain of loss was not confined to Anglican missionaries or even to 300 other Christian missionaries. The list does not stop with the 1300 lives lost from Rabaul in association with the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. All these themes are intense, and McCosker takes poetry as the medium for exploration.

The poetry is shaped by personal memory and by a sense of participation in an Anglican milieu. It is age remembering childhood and the world of parents. I greatly enjoyed “Easter Monday Matala Journey”, a six-page narrative work. The poet takes an increasingly impossible car journey south from Rabaul to the site of the family home left behind when war broke out. What once existed, exists no longer. Where there was once a thriving humanity, there is now aridity and decay. The bridge is down. The journey cannot be completed.

Perhaps it is best when the past is locked off in some way? McAuley sometimes thought so. The poem contains a repeated naturalistic detail: three figures walking and as if seen from the car. The literate know that she is referring to a resurrection story from the end of St Luke, and that is inserted into the light and shade of a seventy-year span that embraces both Eden and a wasteland.

Most of McCosker’s poems are discursive and descriptive, independent of rhyme and with some musicality. The Rabaul poems seem to have arisen from an Easter visit to the place in 2007 and their strength lies in the effective narration of core memories that rise up to ask what the passage of time means, and to ask about a sense of loss and decline.

It may not be fair or possible to conduct a blind tasting of four poets as if each were a Grenache from an ancestor vine in the Barossa. Some may be hard liquor; some sherry. I found that pondering the use of birds gave me one avenue of access.

I close by referring to two of James McAuley’s poems from A Vision of Ceremony (1956). The poems are “To a Dead Bird of Paradise”, and “To the Holy Spirit”, in which the bird of paradise is central. McAuley wrote in the introduction to his Selected Poems:

the hardest problem confronting the poet … is the struggle for an adequate symbolism. I use the word in a wide sense. Even a selective stress upon certain details in a realistic account of a situation can charge those details with meaningfulness beyond themselves … The image of the bird of paradise attracted all this concern into itself, and thus became a powerful symbolic idiom …

Each of these four collections has a symbolic dimension, however much dominated by narrative or discursive memory. It seems to me that each expresses a quest for symbol which would hold together experiences that tend towards the disparate or the fly-away: the centre-fleeing (centrifugal) forces that throw apart. To the extent that they achieve this for the reader, they have met the etymological origins of the terms symbolical and diabolical and make the venture of close reading worthwhile today.

Dr Ivan Head was Warden of two Anglican university colleges in Australia for twenty-seven years. His previous omnibus poetry review appeared in the May issue; his poetry most recently appeared in October.

Crito Di Volta: An Epic
by Marc di Saverio

Guernica Editions, 2020, 177 pages, Can$25

by David Morley

Carcanet, 2020, 90 pages, £10.99

Kind Fire
by Barry Hill

Arcadia, 2020, 114 pages, $24.95

by Anne McCosker

University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop, 2017, 68 pages

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