Sydney Morning Herald 1994


Sydney Morning Herald 1994 (exact date unknown)

Poetic windows that illuminate the pervasive dark

Behind The Lines: Don Anderson

"A POEM is like a painting," said Horace (65-8 BC.) in his Ars Poetica. In the European Renaissance, it was a commonplace to refer to poetry as "a speaking picture", as Camoens, Dolce, and Vauquelin attest. The Elizabethan courtier and poet, Sir Philip Sidney, translated Aristotle's mimesis as "speaking picture", adding that poetry is, accordingly, an art of imitation, and not merely the art of versifying. "One may be a poet without versifying." Sidney averred. That may have opened the floodgates of modem poetry, I hear the ghost of Robert Frost groan. "Poetry, my ars!" as Flann O'Brien probably said.

These observations are prompted by the excessively tardy English publication of New York poet Frank O'Hara's Selected Poems (Penguin). O'Hara, who died in 1966, was a custodian at the Museum of Modem Art, wrote a monograph on Jackson Pollock, had the cover of the American edition of his Selected Poems illustrated by his friend Larry Rivers, declined to permit Andy Warhol to draw his feet—was, in short, the quintessential "poet among painters".

The striking feature of O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter" is that it in no way explains why he is not a painter. Rather, prompted by his friend Mike Goldberg's painting, "Sardines", the poem produces the difference between poetry and painting, offers a paradigm of the difference. So much for Aristotle and Horace. Though O'Hara does echo Sidney: "It is even in/prose, I am a real poet."

On the admittedly Procrustean bed of "Poetry and Painting", I want to address three distinguished new volumes of poetry from Angus and Robertson. Robert Adamson's Waving to Hart Crane features Piet Mondrian's "Victory Boogie-woogie" on its cover, and offers poetic "loz- enges", shape-poems, for Mondrian and Christopher Brennan. There is a "rock carving"" poem for Kevin Gilbert; a lament for Brett Whiteley; a crucial afterword—"The light is coming."—from Mondrian; and this luscious image: "a slug/pushing its fat way/across the purple/skin of an over-ripe/eggfruit."

Waving to Hart Crane is a volume of the first importance. I have no doubt that Adamson's 250-line The Sugar Glider is a major poem, a "poem of our climate", a set of notations towards a Supreme Fiction, to invoke Wallace Stevens. While it is far-fetched to see Adamson as Crane-Stevens on the Hawkesbury, his poems do suggest An Ordinary Evening in Brooklyn (NSW). They continually celebrate wonder through sight The sheer accomplishment of The Sugar Glider, in particular, takes one's breath away.

Luke Davies's first commeriaally published book of poems, Absolute Event Horizon, offers variety, coherence and an enviable assurance. Davies produces that rare thing, the Marriage of Poetry and Science, though not as Erasmus Darwin might have understood that union.

But light and habit beckon us
to daytime's intricate embrace
where polymers and calculus,
serene, indifferent, intermesh –
(Davies: Love and Light)

There are painter-poems in Absolute Event Horizon, and its epigraph from Roger Penrose's Cosmology Now suggests multiple applications: "It is the absolute event horizon which acts as the boundary surface of the black hole." This is science; it is also the dark night of the soul, and body; but it is also the borderline between nature and art as it, no less than the dark night, may be glimpsed in the late canvasses of Mark Rothko. While the intriguing design of Davies's book suggests painters, the sheer confidence-in-dubiety of this line affirms poetry: "No leap of faith without a cliff."

Nicolette Stasko's Abundance won the Anne Elder Award for the best first poetry collection of 1992. Black Night with Windows more than fulfils the promise of that volume. Her control, both emotional and poetic, is awesome. Often she suggests the spectres of American poetry of the '60s of whom John Berryman wrote, "we are wearing our skins for wallpaper,/and we cannot win." But it is Elizabeth Bishop rather than Sylvia Plath whom Stasko evokes for me—a triumph of critical and creative distance from the autobiographical self. At times, her intensely condensed poems recall the high points of Imagism. Ezra Pound would have approved several of them.

A sequence of van Gogh poems—Stasko acknowledges the painter's letters—are the high point of this triumphant book. Of all painters, van Gogh is the most likely to provoke uncritical adulation and artistic self-indulgence in poets and painters alike. Stasko avoids any such easily appropri- ated angst, perhaps because she goes to the letters, but certainly because of her self-control. Black Night with Windows amply attests that there is night, it is black—but that poetry illuminates with its windows.

Waving to Hart Crane by Robert Adamson (98pp. $16.95, ISBN 0 207 18347 3), Absolute Event Horizon by Luke Davies (112pp. $14.95. ISBN 0 207 18402 X) and Black Night with Windows by Nicolette Stasko (90pp, $16.95, ISBN 0 207 18659 6) are all published by Angus & Robertson.