Island Songs of Experience

I like Upper Heights and Lower Depths very much and hope it is a great success. Ralph Spaulding writes in his introduction of these four Tasmanian poets, all born in the 1930s:

Apart from Gwen Harwood (born in the previous decade), these four writers made one of the most extensive contributions to Tasmanian poetry in the last decades of the 20th century. Collectively, over one thousand of their poems have appeared in magazines and selected works from 1950 to the present day, and thirty-three editions of their poetry have been published (eleven by Smith, eight by Hetherington and seven by both Scott and Harrex). On this basis alone their work merits consideration.

This supremely good book deserves a wide audience. Lovers of poetry would want to have it on their shelf to read and to own. It invites immersion. It invites the distinctive pleasure of returning to it and entering into what the four poets have discovered and expressed. It exemplifies excellence.

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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It is not only good because the poems pass the brown-paper-bag test of blind-tasting, a useful metaphor based on the unbiased sampling of wines, but because the book encapsulates the writing life of four significant voices in Australian poetry. The poems are well above the status of private musings or merely personal subjectivities.

Upper Heights and Lower Depths contains a whole curriculum of acquired human experience in a journey into a Tasmanian ethos and angle of attack, and with distinctive sensory and personal responses to that island place. Its particular brilliance also enables a wider view of humanity, metaphysical insights that command attention—in the light and darkness that the verse achieves and sustains in its register.

The Greek terms ὕψωμα and βάθος have been around for two millennia and find potent and fresh use here in the title Upper Heights and Lower Depths. Perhaps the connection with the Greek themes in Syd Harrex’s poems is unintended but I like to make that connection. Rob Spaulding’s incisive is a skilled precis of what the book offers. He locates the title Upper Heights and Lower Depths in lines from Wallace Stevens’s poem “Chocorua to its Neighbour”:

To say more than human things with human voice,
That cannot be; to say human things with more
Than human voice, that also, cannot be;
To speak humanly from the height or from the depth
Of human things, that is the acutest speech.

One cannot read such things and rush on to the next thing written. One must pause and ponder. Les Murray could offer the criticism that “the footnotes were longer than the poem”, but I think it is okay to go wandering into Wallace Stevens’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry. One day’s footnote search can be tomorrow’s presumption and commonplace. Research can go hand in hand with reading a poem and can inform rather than kill.

A sense of careful pausing, pondering and of selecting from the lifetime works of each poet marks this book, and marks it well. It condenses and intensifies. Thus there is not only Spaulding’s reference from Wallace Stevens but also Graeme Hetherington’s title poem, “Upper Heights and Lower Depths”—themes not too far from Stevens’s mountains:

What heights remain beyond our reach
When dog whistle and tuning fork,
Straining to listen though we may,
Sound notes too high for our ear …

               … they learn it’s better to,
With many a backward look and fall,
Climb out and up towards the stars.

While I am stuck on the Wallace Stevens in the room, something that Glen Macleod from the University of Connecticut wrote can add to the sense that Upper Heights and Lower Depths is a compendium of the best of the best from each of the four poets. In “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain”, Macleod says:

The poet has just finished re-reading a poem from one of his own books and has placed the book face down on the table next to him … The poet compares the sense of contentment and expanded vision he feels, for having read the poem, to that of a mountain climber who has reached the perfect outlook … But that apparently simple language is really a sharp tool, honed to a keen edge through years of practice.

Not only metaphorical heights, but the literal mountain figures in this book. Mount Wellington has a curious hold on the Hobartian psyche, visible so often in the background. Thus:

Mount Wellington has not yet been declared
one of the sacred mountains of the world.
It was my Athos and my Ararat,
my Fuji where a hundred views unfurled

in Vivian Smith’s “In the Grounds of the Old University, Hobart”. Or this, from Margaret Scott’s evocative “Encounter in Van Diemen’s Land”:

An old priest I met in the garden said, “Is that Mount Wellington?”
And the mountain drew a cloud across its face.
“How do you find this place?”

The graceless gum trees tittered in the sun.
“Your children grow among the convicts’ seed
and no one of account was ever sent,
only the scum of Ireland and the slums.”

The sea sighed and smiled.
The wattle powdered the air.
The garden shivered and grew and bred new life.
“Your hands are shaking,” he said. “Like leaves.”
Then the old man passed like a little stain
and the changing, changeless mountain shone again.

As Hetherington says, “With Syd and Margaret deceased, Vivian in ill health and the two editors in their eighties, the book has increasingly acquired a sense of urgency until now at last it is ready to join the very few anthologies of Tasmanian poetry.” It is an achievement that honours age and wisdom, and to borrow a current mantra, demonstrates that the second half can outdo or intensify the first. I draw attention to some lines from W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”, which can in some way be applied equally to the four poets and the editors, celebrating the achievements of age and the persistence of vision through decades; works condensed, sifted and collected. This volume is the standing challenge to Yeats’s lines:

That is no country for old men …
An aged man is but a paltry thing
                              … unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

The louder singing continues in this lovely and brilliant book.

Hetherington says in his preface:

With approximately fifty pages allocated to each of the poets, accompanied by an insightful guide to their work provided by Ralph in his introduction, this book aims to provide a representative but by no means exhaustive sampling from their many publications, leading to a desire to further seek them out and gain a fuller satisfaction.

The book is a satisfaction, and it does point to a fuller satisfaction. I also draw attention to the bibliography, where each poet has a half a page of significant publications listed.

Tasmania serves as the centre point, the point of arrival and return, of domicile and repeated domicile for each writer. For Smith (in “Tasmania”) it is in part

Water colour country. Here the hills
rot like rugs beneath enormous skies
and all day long the shadows of the clouds
stain the paddocks with their running dyes.

Departure, arrival and return are crystal clear in the arrangement of Smith’s poems that set up easy assonance and dissonance, and even resonance, between Hobart and Sydney. It is a pleasure to track this through his sequence of poems: “Early Arrival Sydney”, “Summer Sketches Sydney”, “Return to Hobart”, “Late April: Hobart”, “Back in Hobart” and “Letter from Sydney”. These are all beautiful poems, made stronger by the passage of time elapsed since first publication. “Red cockatoo crests caught on coral trees: / my Sydney emblems.” This is balanced by “My point of reference is this slope, / these paddocks stacked like long plates of bread; / and at day’s end, the black loaves of the hills.” The book contains and captures a sense of starting out, from small or obscure but distinctive places, of journeying “there and back again”.

One can ponder distance. I knew that Bruny Island in the south was called “the island off the island” and generated a deep silence—but think for a moment about how one might have travelled the 410 kilometres from Smithton to Hobart in the 1930s. And why? Was not Smithton the centre of its own world? Foolish people leave Tasmania off the map and forget that the centre can thrive at the edge. For a long time, the air link to Tasmania was solely by DC3, or one sailed. It led to a distinctive separation from the “mainland”. Gwen Harwood wrote succinctly about that point of difference as, somehow, a child of Brisbane became core Tasmanian.

Those places of journeying are in the mind and in culture as well as in literal places. Harrex and Hetherington in particular express a sense of journeying into a global culture with iteration through time. Margaret Scott can arrive from England. But here is one example from Harrex’s poem “And Agamemnon Dead”.

On the Acropolis a dark frieze
of people resembles characters in a script
that will forever remain indecipherable,

borrowing mystery from Time;
the cypress silhouettes,
corroded swords of bronze dug out of Mycenae.

It is not Hobart, but Hobart lies behind or within the insight in some way. The strangeness of arrival is well caught by Scott, in “Migrants”: “How I hated this strange island / when we first came, tired from the salt glare / and the liner’s arid gaiety”, or from the poem “Surfers”, where we read:

And idly through the memory’s hand
stream visions of a Cornish day
when effervescent waves and air
sparkled into glinting play.

Hetherington’s first poem selection, “from Renison Bell”, is bluntly confronting. It is worth doing a net search for the mainlander to locate Renison Bell on a map.

As a child the town of forty upwards
Was full of drunks …
Walked the air like stumbling trees
And called to Christ to raise them up
From broken bottles for tomorrow.

Pensioned men with silicosis for a diet …
The joke was put about that Bravo Wallace passed out blind
Between the railway lines and dreamt of centipedes in squeaking boots
That failed to wake him up in time for underground.

Centipedes in squeaking boots is a brilliant image. Hetherington follows a darkening metaphysic all the way to the core of Europe and its Middle Eastern and Mediterranean predecessors. None of the poets are ever trapped as Tasmanian poets immersed in a romance of local identity. They are equally and diachronically European. Here are lines from Hetherington’s “The Forest Journey”, set in the Hofburg Palace Gardens, Vienna:

Sculptured Homeric scenes of war,
Grim double-headed eagles, lions,
Great-bollocked, rearing horses, kings
Astride to show who rules, provide
The monumental milieu for …

The final poem selected from Hetherington’s works (from the intensely expert recent volume An Inherited Epic of Gilgamesh), stands as tribute to his friendship with James McAuley. It contains the confronting superscript: “seven days and seven nights he wept for Enkidu, until the worm fastened on him”.

Perhaps the scope of this four-poet book will be expanded. A more complete anthology of Tasmanian poetry, a self-sustaining curriculum, would add fifty pages from Gwen Harwood and fifty pages from James McAuley. That would be a treasury of Tasmanian poetry. Perhaps the Tourism Board could print ten thousand copies.

I am happy to finish this brief review by turning to the set-piece head poems of the twentieth century as accolades and reference points. Thus from T.S. Eliot’s definitive “Little Gidding” (1942), the last of Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

                      … in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

And to borrow the last lines from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” that honour the poets as in their decade of their birth:

Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”

Ivan Head writes regular reviews of poetry for Quadrant and contributes his own poems. He was Warden of St Paul’s College, Sydney, for twenty-three years and Warden of Christ College, Hobart, for four years

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