Review: Lisa Gortonon Robert Gray

Precarious images: Cumulus: Collected Poems by Robert Gray

Critics often remark upon the Asian influence in Robert Gray’s poetry. True, Gray includes in every collection a sequence of short poems, which sometimes have the form of haiku, and they are often perfect in their way. In this, he has gone back to one source of modernism: the Imagists, with their desire for an unencumbered line, and for that clarity of thought and image they found in Chinese and Japanese poetry. In poetry, the Asian Century started more than a hundred years ago.

But there is more to Gray’s poetry than that. His images concentrate a votive sense of place and memory, which derives far more from William Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. In fact, it is the meeting of these two influences that makes his imagery so memorable: at once cool and rapturous. Yes, his short poems are often perfect in their way. Nevertheless, his reputation should rest on his longer and more entire poems: ‘Journey: the North Coast’, ‘Flames and Dangling Wire’, ‘Memories of the Coast’, ‘In Departing Light’, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, ‘Joan Eardley in Catterline’, ‘Sansouci’. As this list suggests, Gray is still underrated in Australian poetry.

The selection in Cumulus, good though it is, leaves out many of those studies of bare places, of place itself, which are at least as essential to Gray’s achievement as the shorter poems. It includes poems from eight collections: nearly four decades of work. Coming more than a decade after his New and Selected Poems (1998), it includes poems from his two most recent collections, Afterimages (2002) and Nameless Earth (2006), along with drawings from Ingres’ Violin. In an author’s note, Gray explains: ‘The free verse line in my poems I see as analogous to the spontaneous line in drawing. This written line is a gesture, also, although for the voice.’ Anyone who reads Robert Gray will want Cumulus. Yet Cumulus omits poems which, if not everywhere likeable, are nevertheless – or as a consequence – some of his most memorable: ‘Poem to Kristina’; ‘Greyhounds’, ‘Poem to My Father’, ‘The Swallows’, ‘A Country Town’, ‘Emptying the Desk’, ‘A Garden Shed’, ‘Ritual’. Many of these excluded poems arise out of Gray’s interest in country towns: their rituals, their poverty, the lives of their women and children, their overlooked places. Few Australian poets have noticed them or written of them so well, with such a combination of tenderness and rancour.

Leaving home, returning home, catching trains and ferries, watching the weather from the window of a hospital or hotel room, renewal and self-betrayal: these are the starting places of Gray’s poetry. If there are two influences at work in his poetry, there is a similar conflict built into his apprehension of place. The rooms that Gray sees whole are those rooms that he remembers: rooms he has left behind and rooms he is coming home to after too long away. In the same way, his images, for all their precision, are often troubling in some way.

Gray’s imagery is the first thing a reader notices. Individual, surprising, evocative – his images have more in common with Amy Lowell’s imagism than with the hard objectivism of Ezra Pound. Like Gray, Lowell wrote versions of Japanese poems and her interest in what she called polyphonic prose probably lies somewhere behind Gray’s prose poems, such as ‘In the Bus’ and ‘Damp Evening’. His images are not austere but complex and affecting, partly because they seem in the same instant true and precarious. Take an image from ‘Journey: the North Coast’, the poem that opened his second collection, Creekwater Journal (1974): ‘Down these slopes move, as a nude descends a staircase / slender white gum trees.’ It is unforgettable because it makes the mind work between stillness and movement. It is a downward stepping, pictured step by step and all at once. The image captures not only the look of the landscape from a train window when the movement of the train can make the land appear to move; it also captures the way in which memory holds a run of time in a single image. In this way, the image shows like a hairline crack the difference between something held in memory and something seen in an instant from a passing train.

Gray’s poetry is too often criticised for its remoteness. His poetry is solitary, certainly, and polished, but his images are almost everywhere sharp with feeling and often sensuous: ‘The slow effervescence of wind-lifted rain / on knuckle and cheekbone / a sweet / occasional prickling / that is met while I walk.’ Images exist in poetry because of how memory works in experience: they make some place or fact the votive of lost years and build in us the habit of involving ourselves in what we see. All this is to suggest that an image is never simply visual, and that precision itself may be a register of feeling truer than effusion. This is nowhere more evident than in Gray’s poem ‘In Departing Light’, which is everywhere vivid with painful intimacy:

Her mouth is full of chaos.
My mother revolves her loose dentures like marbles
ground upon each other,
or idly clatters them,
broken and chipped. Since they won’t stay on her gums
she spits them free
with a sudden blurting cough …

Gray’s images typically draw on his feeling for place, particularly for the North Coast of New South Wales where he grew up. This sense of the place of childhood is what connects Gray with Wordsworth, whose The Prelude (1850) is a study of the making of imagination: a ‘spiritual autobiography’. Gray’s ‘Memories of the Coast’, ‘A Day at Bellingen’, ‘Curriculum Vitae’: these all draw on it. ‘A Day at Bellingen’, for instance, describes a night rowing-trip so alive with the recollection of Wordsworth’s night rowing-trip in The Prelude that it serves as a meditation on it. Here is part of The Prelude:

Nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light …

Like an answer, returned from a different place – like a return of those echoes the child in The Prelude sets loose – Gray writes:

and there’s a daylight moon
among the shabby trees,
above the scratchy swamp oaks
and through the wrecked houses of the paperbarks;
a half moon
drifting up beside me like a jellyfish.
Now the reflected shapes are fading in the darkened rooms of the water.
And the water becomes, momentarily, white – magnesium burning.

This is not to suggest the poem is derivative. What Gray takes from Wordsworth is the setting of an encounter – in this case, between the solitary rower and the moon’s reflection in water. From there, the perceptions, the images, the conclusions are his own. It seems to me Gray’s poem traces how the memory of a poem can enter into the perception of a place: ‘reflected shapes … fading in the darkened rooms of the water.’ Here are more of those rooms we cannot go back to. In this way, the poem also questions how a Romantic sense of place might work in Australia now, ‘among the shabby trees … and through the wrecked houses of the paperbarks.’ In Gray’s poem, there is a rapturous involvement with place, built up through the list: ‘and … among, above … and through.’ Yet that involvement is undercut by the haiku-like clarity and surprise of his images. Wordsworth’s circles of light on water melt ‘all into one track’. Gray’s images are sudden perceptions; they don’t last long enough to melt, and even in memory keep that quality of surprise. In Gray’s poem, ‘the water becomes, momentarily, white – magnesium burning’. Momentarily: Gray’s images almost always appear, in this way, at once exact and precarious. He takes up the Romantic poets’ interest in the nature of imagination, in how we form out of some place a landscape of memory. But the precariousness of his images suggests that he would rather discover, not his mind in things, but things in themselves. As he puts it in ‘Minima’: ‘What we love about nature / is its unresponsiveness – / it is precisely / that it does not “care or know”.’

This is what makes Gray so interested in motel rooms, which illustrate how quickly and even helplessly we manufacture familiarity with places, and take possession of what we do not own. Gray’s attentive descriptions of the natural world have a similar restlessness built into them. He is always leaving behind the images that he makes, just as he is always leaving the rooms that he has inhabited. ‘I realize I am in the future,’ he writes in ‘Flames and Dangling Wire’.

Wordsworth revised The Prelude throughout his life. Taking that as a model, perhaps, Gray revises a number of the poems that he includes in Cumulus. A poet has the right to rewrite work. In the main, Gray’s revisions make different versions of the poems: not always better, and not always worse. He does nothing so radical as Marianne Moore’s revision of ‘Poetry’, in which she cut a poem of several pages back to four lines starting: ‘I too dislike it’. His revisions work more with prepositions and line breaks, titles and word changes. Take the first poem in both Creekwater Journal and Cumulus, ‘Journey: the North Coast’. In Cumulus, Gray changes the title to ‘Journey, the North Coast’. In the first version, the poem starts:

Next thing, I wake up in a swaying bunk,
as though on board a clipper
lying in the sea,
and it’s the train, that booms and cracks,
it tears the wind apart …

The version in Cumulus starts:

Next thing, I wake-up in a swaying bunk
as if on board a clipper
clambering at sea,
and it’s the train that booms and cracks,
it tears the wind apart …

That is to say, in just four lines he adds a hyphen, changes ‘as though’ to ‘as if’, changes ‘lying in’ to ‘clambering at’, and cuts two commas. Later in that poem, he cuts a reference to pyjamas. As this might suggest, in general his revisions clean up punctuation and cut prepositions. Subtly, this changes the rhythm of some lines, making it cleaner but sometimes less various.

Cleaner but sometimes less various: that is also how Cumulus stands in comparison to Gray’s New Selected Poems. In his author’s note Gray writes: ‘The latest version of my poems are the only ones I acknowledge, and only those that appear in this book.’ What T. S. Eliot said about tradition and the individual talent could equally describe a poet’s relationship to all the poems he has written before: ‘What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.’ Gray is writing poems as good as any he has written. Possibly the poems that he is writing now draw most upon the poems collected here and he has for that reason modified this selection. Possibly he or his editor have looked askance at something domestic and awkward in the poems he has left out – much as he has cut a reference to pyjamas from ‘Journey, the North Coast’. Unacknowledged or not, a number of the excluded poems will persist: poems of bare, poor places. That is to say, Cumulus is not a complete picture of Gray’s achievement and does not replace his New Selected Poems. Still, a number of the poems that it includes from Afterimages and Nameless Earth – ‘After Heraclitus’, ‘In Departing Light’, ‘In the Mallee’, ‘Flying Foxes’, ‘Joan Eardley in Catterline’, ‘Sanssouci’ – are among his best, and that is saying something.