Review: Toby Davidsonon Robert Harris

Robert Harris Redux

It was a pleasant surprise to hear of the publication of Robert Harris’ The Gang of One: Selected Poems, edited by Judith Beveridge. Harris (1951-93) is an Australian poet of the highest order. He is also a contrarian, a nature lover, a working-class Romantic, a navy recruit who detested nationalism, a lyrical memoirist, a historical dramatist and one of Australia’s finest religious poets.

Like so many post-1970s Australian poets, Harris has not been the subject of an extensive biography, but what quickly emerges from reminiscences by friends such as Tim Thorne, Robert Adamson, John Jenkins and Barry Dickins is a picture of a warm, intellectually generous conversationalist who was fiercely determined to place poetry at the centre of his life (as did his other friends Shelton Lea and John Forbes). Like Forbes, Harris would die in his forties. Dorothy Hewett remembered both men along with Martin Johnson in ‘The Ghost of John Forbes’, wondering ‘why are the they dying / these young men in their middle age / leaving the landscape diminished / the poetry poorer’. Hewett laments how ‘Robert Harris with a dickey heart / found God and died alone / in a rented room’; The Gang of One: Selected Poems brings what he left behind roaring back so powerfully that it brings to mind Robert Adamson’s elegy ‘Cornflowers’, where Harris tells his friend, contemporary and confidante that ‘there is no dark side … things / will glow, sing or die though / if we want them to, / it’s all alive’.

I begin with some (auto)biography to complement Philip Mead’s fine introduction to Harris provided in The Gang of One. Harris was around sixteen when he left Doveton High School in Melbourne’s outer East in 1967. His ‘Autobiographical Notes’, published posthumously in Overland, recall how ‘I read Christina Rosetti and [Robert] Browning in High School, the former by choice, and poetry began to claim me. It was to become a poet [that] I left the navy, and everything since has pretty much been dictated by that vocation.’

Harris’ characterisation of his first great encounter with poetry is reminiscent of Pablo Neruda’s famed remark that poetry ‘came’ for him — but he wouldn’t rise to the revered status of the Chilean Nobel Laureate and diplomat. Instead, after leaving a short shore-based stint with the navy in 1970, Harris’ ‘dreary variety of jobs … on the poet’s long haul’ included builder’s labourer, factory worker, carpenter, ‘adult’ shop attendant, undertaker and removalist. In a 2013 lecture ‘The Ultimate Commitment: The Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas and Robert Harris’, Robert Adamson recounts that ‘At one stage Harris and John Forbes worked together as furniture removalists’ and that the undertaking work included gravedigging and ‘actually carrying corpses’. Harris’ real job was always poetry, as a poet but also as an editor for New Poetry in the 1970s, then Overland in the late 1980s, where he published ‘Class of 1927’ by another great lyrical memoirist, Gwen Harwood.

In another posthumously published essay, ‘The A-Z of How to Be a Poet’, Harris credits his friend and Overland editor Barrett Reid with introducing him to Thomas Hardy and Wallace Stevens, then Adamson with plying him with Hart Crane and the French Symbolists, especially Rimbaud. A year after Harris’ audacious debut collection Localities (1973), he met Adamson at Readings Bookshop in Carlton and a ‘complex editorial relationship’ began, one which would last the distance, too — Harris’ award-winning final collection JANE, Interlinear and Other Poems (1992) was published by Paper Bark Press after an extensive collaborative process with Adamson as editor and Juno Gemes on cover arts.

When Harris’ second volume Translations from the Albatross appeared in 1976, the same year as he moved to Sydney from Melbourne, he was seen by some as an Adamson imitator. For Harris, it was ‘an irksome and silly criticism that ignored, among other things, my involvement as a reader of [Kris] Hemensley, [Walter] Billeter, [Robert] Kenny and other Melbourne poets who too briefly rejoiced in the title of the Melbourne internationalists.’.

Other, mostly male, poetic influences loomed large, in particular the American and European moderns (Pound, H.D., Ashbery, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rilke, Lorca, Pascoli, Apollinaire), but also Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, A.D. Hope, Henry Lawson, Virgil, Pindar, Homer, traditional Welsh poetry, Shakespeare and the Holy Bible. The last took on a personal resonance in 1981, when he converted to Anglicanism after being introduced to a charismatic form of it by Sydney poet and songwriter Michael Driscoll (a close friend of Brett Whiteley) and his wife Jenny, whom Harris also loved and versified in an early poem ‘Sonnet to Jenny’.

In her editor’s note which opens The Gang of One: Selected Poems, Judith Beveridge reveals that the volume’s title was one Harris himself had put forth along with a list of his works for a future Selected which never eventuated. Beveridge adds that     

After I had made my selection of poems from Harris’ five books, I looked over his provisional list and found that our choices were very similar, though he had chosen fewer poems from The Cloud Passes Over [1986] and Jane, Interlinear and Other Poems [1992]. Readers will note that I have made large selections from these books as I believe they are the pinnacle of his work, along with later poems not gathered in book form, and published here in the Uncollected Poems section.

I generally agree that the profound change in Harris’ work after his 1981 conversion to Anglicanism leads to a sense of two Harrises—the 70s poet still mastering his often incendiary talent and the 80s/90s poet who is more self-contained which enables him to work across larger canvases. One should not assume, however, that he was not contemplative and transcendent prior to 1981. Indeed, as The Gang of One shows, there are religious and metaphysical poems scattered throughout Harris’ five collections, including ‘Three Graces’ and ‘Cane Country’ in his impressive third collection The Abandoned (1979), but the poet is not tethered to any particular religiosity and he is still casting about somewhat, experimenting with subjects, themes, ethics, moods, structures and forms, often to thrilling effect.

The first poem to feature in The Gang of One, ‘Girl, Singing’ shows a poet already in possession of a well-honed eye and ear. It begins:

Out there in the laundry
she is softly singing,
dissolving and blending shreds
and shards of half-remembered dreams …

The insistent sibilance adds an evocative, mimetic sweetness, but the greater effect at play beneath this is the poet’s power to draw the reader in as he himself is drawn in, eavesdropping upon a stolen moment of suburban song. The poem finishes as the unnamed girl begins a new song, which

drops from her lips like a gambler’s perfect card
and the false weight of humility turns
to a road below in a willow pattern
where a balloon is ascending
steadily up to the white hot eye of the sun.

Suddenly Harris is thrown out of his reverie by this new song. Another poet might have recalled only their wonder at the first song and limited the poem to that, but Harris typically prefers his reveries hard-won and thus tested, contradicted — as his own young life was tested and contrasted. He was only 22 when ‘Girl, Singing’ was published in his 1973 debut Localities.

At this early stage, he was already capable of well-crafted and self-contained work in which there is a tenuousness to beauty and a compensatory joy in the skies above, where many of the early poems end. He is attuned to nature, but human nature in art and in urban life are more often his starting points, with the natural world weaving its way into or over these. In ‘The Dancer’ from Translations from the Albatross, he expresses unease at the veneration of Captain Cook in Melbourne, but he doesn’t show much understanding of Indigenous presence until his post-1981 phase, with ‘Cane Country’ from The Abandoned a rare exception.

Beveridge is correct that The Cloud Passes Over (1986) and JANE, Interlinear and Other Poems (1992) represent the two pinnacles of Harris’ career and cement his reputation as a first-rank Australian poet. In The Cloud Passes Over, which coincided with Harris’ move back to Melbourne, the whimsical, brooding Harris of the 70s is still traceable, but his contemplations are now explicitly tied to a higher purpose. Two early poems in the collection depict a stunning Christological encounter and its key lesson:

You’re an archetype, I flung back. So
go away. Or said, Nah. Listen, says Christ,
listen be deaf you are deaf now you aren’t,

listen. I will be back. Meantime keep
that wisdom. It helps you … To know you
are blind, now in My light, go seeing…     (‘Ray’)

[Christ] called me through from the other side of lightning.
Now I would seek out a comelier praise;
then I felt like one in a room of crimes

as the blind rattles up, and the light crashes in.    (‘The Call’)

After Harris has been gifted these instructions, we find him seeking ‘a comelier praise’ in ‘The Cloud Passes Over’, ‘Poem on a Hilltop’, ‘The Snowy Mountains Highway’ and ‘Isaiah by Kerosene Lantern Light’, all of which are devotional poems in whole or in part. ‘The Cloud Passes Over’ continues Harris’ fascination with wind, rain and sun which began in Localities, but now the cause and reason for them is unambiguous:

              Some nights
                                        the Lord God of waters
              moves down the freshwater,
                                        the estuary, rivers
              veiled in darkness.
                                        In silence He inspects
              the snags
                                        where the bank drops away,
              examining every rotting trunk,
                                        every hole where fish sleep.
              He sets aside mullet and trout
                                        for Koori people,
              for dairymen mourning
                                        under the quota system.
(‘The Cloud Passes Over’)             

Like Adamson, and an increasing number of poets in the 1980s, Harris is aware of ongoing Aboriginal presence and the violent dispossession of the past (evident also in an uncollected poem, ‘Goolaga’). His lines, subject matter and tone are less reminiscent here of Adamson than they are of another contemporary, Kevin Hart. Hart tends towards darkness, apophasis and the via negativa of the Christian mystical tradition whereas Harris’ charge to ‘seek out a comelier praise’ is more closely aligned to kenosis and the via positiva which favours the celebration of divine works over the contemplation of (or union with) the divine.

Harris is attracted to biblical exemplars of kenosis, the prophets and singers of the Old Testament. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms and the Song of Songs all feature in his last two collections and in some of his uncollected poems. He doesn’t seem, however, to have been as attracted to the wider Western Christian mystical tradition, although in his essays, letters and reviews do reveal an affection for Protestant mystical poets Thomas Traherne and George Herbert, as well as the twentieth-century mystic and philosopher Simone Weil.

There’s a sustained gravitas to The Cloud Passes Over which is a major breakthrough for Harris. He was no stranger to idylls and nocturnes, but in this volume he slows down and contemplates across a whole collection. He becomes more attuned to history in ‘The Transportees’ Dormitory’ and ‘Tambaroora Remembers’ and this extends to personal history in ‘Six Years Old’, which traces the aftermath of his mother’s death after ‘a dressing gown on a door revealed terror’. Did Harris discover his mother post-mortem, or even as she died? There is a passing reference to Hemingway, himself a suicide, but the poem otherwise doesn’t reveal any cause. Fortunately, Adamson’s 2013 lecture clarifies that while Harris’ mother did indeed die when he was six, it was of heart failure, and that this can be traced back to ‘Going to See the Elephant’ in his previous collection, The Abandoned, where ‘Deaf to a withheld cardiograph / an elephant dances by itself’ and then no longer, which ‘haunts’ him still and leads him to write.

Although ‘Six Years Old’ describes the poet as an orphan, in ‘Autobiographical Notes’ Harris records that his father lived for an additional seventeen years (his father’s death coinciding with Whitlam’s political one), so he wasn’t an orphan like Shelton Lea, however much he might have felt like one. The tangible, but more so the implied bereftness in ‘Six Years Old’ is galling and suffocating as the child’s world transforms:

My work in life was to negotiate
each new regime with its wisdoms about
manners, teeth, education.
Cleanliness in every house smells different,
the kindnesses and cookery taste foreign…

I also remember a woman who was childless,
who got me alone, a sullen child,
and tickled me on an enormous bed.
How hilarious we were for twenty minutes.

The last line’s bitter, brutal honesty hits like a truck. Everything will now be measured in temporariness, always falling back to the ache in place of maternal immortality. ‘Cane Field Sunday 1959’ from JANE, Interlinear and Other Poems also returns to this seismic time when the Harris family moved to cane fields near Bundaberg, where blank-eyed children ‘wear shoes today and wait. By the cattle-grid / in the leaf blue shade. / Their houses are stilts in this paddock’. An earlier sequence from The Abandoned, ‘Cane Country’, is more revealing of his interior struggle in its fourth poem, ‘Mercy in 1958’:

Are you there at the door?
To see I am asleep by eight
years of age, you
the door? …

Does your wrist
turn the handle?
No? Not tonight.
It floods back so


I can’t help but wonder how this moment made Harris the man, as well as Harris the poet. In ‘Six Years Old’ he holds firm to the belief that ‘one day I would re-interpret / every chance word of hers I would remember’ and claims to have achieved this ‘so that, on the whole, I have not suffered as once I thought’.

The sheer impact of this parental severance reminds me of that of John Berryman, whose influence can be seen in Harris’ 1979 piece ‘The Dancer’. It also reminds me of Francis Webb, who lost his mother to pneumonia at age two and his father to Callan Park Mental Hospital shortly thereafter. Harris doesn’t evoke Webb in his published poems (unless one considers ‘Six Years Old’ invocative of Webb’s ‘Five Days Old’), but at the time of his death he had penned two unfinished poems called ‘Francis Webb’, possibly one as a draft for the other. The more developed poem (which, regrettably, is not in The Gang of One) characterises Webb as one to whom ‘The term “great” / comes as a drab charge’ and praises his ‘Ecclesiastical sun’ and ‘luminous art’. In an interview with Webb biographer Michael Griffith in the early 1990s, Harris acknowledged Webb’s profound influence on the development of his own historical imagination, having first read A Drum for Ben Boyd at twenty — roughly the age Webb was when composing it straight after the second world war. Harris’ 1992 sequence ‘Seven Songs for Sydney’ could even be considered as a reimagining of A Drum for Ben Boyd, where the absence at the centre of the poems expands from a single colonial figure to a wartime crew of 645.

Of Harris’ five collections, JANE, Interlinear and Other Poems was by far his most recognised, winning the C. J. Dennis Prize for Poetry in the 1993 Victorian Premier’s Awards and being shortlisted for the 1993 Kenneth Slessor NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry behind Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World. The thirty-part title sequence set around the execution of Protestant Queen of England Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554) shows Harris on his largest canvas. On a technical level it is his finest achievement, but for some it won’t hit home as powerfully as ‘Seven Songs for Sydney’, his seven-part sequence for HMAS Sydney, ‘sunk with all 645 hands in action against the [German] raider Kormoran, November 19th, 1941’. Harris’ Melbourne-based navy stint during the Vietnam War adds a technical specificity and a fraternal empathy to the work, especially for those left behind as theories swirled of ‘our fellows, lost. Machine-gunned in the water’ and children were told their father lived on an island or ‘There’s your father, / the man in the Moon.’ There are also passages that are quite extraordinary in light of the HMAS Sydney’s recovery in 2008 off the West Australian coast:

life isn’t shunted off but simply lifts
from gasping blokes gone down with their Old Girl,
one wedge of dark that opens with each door
goes leagues below, where history has no rifts.

Try following reasons right down to the root,
sift evidence with guesswork grown astute,
fifty years late, through jamming and through raster,
Sydney called, and called again, might answer…

Harris’ unsparing social eye ranges across the postwar era, ‘the search not so much abandoned / as little by little turned into something internal, / inwoven in other silence, argument’ as rumours of survivors spotted in Japan or at the pub petered out. He also imagines, perhaps aurally hallucinates, a lingering presence of vessel and crew in their namesake’s gaudy streets fifty years on. So what’s a poet to do? Find a comelier praise, even at the terrible moment of the sinking itself. The fifth poem, ‘Everything Sang’, concludes with the elemental magnitude of the Indian Ocean on the night of 19 November, 1941:

The stars spread out in navigable beauty.
The universe sang. It sang. The night, superb and physical, sang.
The waves sang with unforeseen vehemence.

I sing, one.
I sing with the awe of the drowning.

‘Seven Songs for Sydney’ is especially tender in its exploration of how everyday Australians cope with unresolved tragedy, in contrast to the top brass and official record. A barmaid turns to hide her tears from customers in a Carnarvon pub. The latest barrage of shocking news stops people in their tracks and empties the city. Decades later, a surviving daughter, ‘her children now at mild colleges’, is told by younger voices ‘over the bright, modern table / it’s not about hate, / the war’s long gone’, but for her the ‘long flotsam’ of the tragedy can only drift and drift. Her father became a myth overnight; at twelve she finally received the truth, so far as it could be determined.

Harris is idiosyncratic in his (non-)punctuation, spacing, line length and use of capitalisation for both speech and emphasis, so much so that Beveridge states in her introduction to The Gang of One that she has been forced to standardise the punctuation and provide further notes on his vocabulary and references at the back of the book. Harris is typically less radical it comes modes of reading, other than his early experiment ‘One Short Jacket’, which makes his ‘interlinear device’ in ‘JANE, Interlinear’ all the more extraordinary. To give just one example of this, when Lady Jane Grey has been deposed by her cousin Queen Mary, poem XIX begins:

Queen Mary                merciful. Narration                 on betrayal. Is
inclines to be               proceeds, betrayal                   received, impermeable.

Harris explained the rationale behind his ‘verse clusters’ in a long 1992 letter to John Kinsella. Harris had long been interested in the spatial renovations of the Dutch and German ‘concrete poetry’ he discovered in Europe in the mid-1970s. However, for ‘JANE, Interlinear’, he took his three-column model from the Interlinear Bible’s interspersed columns of languages and notes. He found it ideal to slow down the reader and to represent the fragmentation of Lady Jane Grey’s life across thirty poems. Harris claimed that its tension between left-to-right and down-to-right readings also implied infinite meanings, so ‘It is isn’t ever over … the weight of a life, of any life’. This is how Lady Jane, the Nine Days’ Queen, arrives at the execution’s block:

as if, awake                          struggles again                      people, I am
and wakeful she                 to waken, ‘Good                come here to die…’

Does so in linen.               jet of
A long                                        blood splashes                          onlookers.

Even when I know the down-then-right movement of the main narrative, I am still pulled sideways into other meanings (eg. ‘and wakeful she / to waken, Good /come here to die’). This creates a disorienting echo which mimics the auditory flux of the crowd throughout the poem, their cries, hubbub, gossip, whispers and, indeed, their own confusion. In other poems it rebuffs and recaptions intrigues that have determined Lady Jane’s fate from marriage prospect to Protestant monarch, to prisoner of her cousin ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary in the Tower of London, tending to Anne Boleyn’s rose garden:

we take the garden

that we leave behind.              hardly sad,                  makes us grow
Botany may be dry, it’s          only differentness        acute, as though

they were ourselves                and strangely to           Returning, we can
still clung, freely                     us, and apart.               name flowers:

pelletary-by-the-wall               forget-me-not,             heart.
 and maiden’s blush                  camellia, bleeding

Not all of ‘JANE, Interlinear’ is structured in this manner, and the sequence benefits from shifts in time as well as space. One shift sees us flung together with modern day tourists, ‘19 year old exports / from Kansas and Osaka’, attracted to the Lady Jane story because ‘she, divided / attracts those who are divided … and always, always, narrative defeats them.’ Towards the end of his letter to Kinsella, Harris stresses that ‘I think the Poem is about a search for personality, a character and an outlook which necessarily deals with the divisions in perception: left and right, Hebrew and Greek and with the metaphysical limitations of post-modernism.’  He places Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew and Katherine Parr within what he calls ‘a female Reformation tradition’, with Jane ‘the last and most erudite of these women and she was loyal to her intellectual cradle. In this sense my poem is pro-feminist and pro-women in the current Anglican debate.’

We will never know what else Harris might have achieved in subsequent collections, but the twenty-two uncollected poems in The Gang of One offer some tantalising clues. In particular, the ‘Little Iliad’ suite of eighteen sonnets also demands some focus. Its Homeric source material soon turns the late 1960s and his own non-combat experience (‘the navy was the best war I could find / and fairly distant, danger was sublime’), the Prague Spring and the hanging of Ronald Ryan. This is interspersed with the social phenomena of the 1990s from celebrity culture to Melbourne child killer ‘Mr Cruel’, to grunge band Faith No More blasting out from a CD jukebox at the pub with their ‘industrial-failed-derivative-literature / helpless as shadows’ earning his ire. The song is almost certainly their breakout hit ‘Epic’, which implicitly loops back to Homer and further reinforces Harris’ point this is a form of junk literature whereby ‘rote catharsis follows the rote-seduction.’ At this point, my inner 90s kid is preparing to counter a ‘youth of today’ diatribe with a devastatingly-timed ‘whatever’, yet the diatribe never arrives. Instead, Harris reserves his cynicism for what he sees as the dumbing-down of literary study and radical politics in his time. Students who whine about reading Homer are parodied hardest: ‘AARGH, they snivelled, we don’t actually get it … Accessibility is our sweet concern … m-a-a-a-t-e, / we want familiar ships that burn.’

The other uncollected poems offer more grounded excursions and versions of Harris to go with them, for example the Kings Cross poet of ‘Grip’ or the Balmain poet of ‘Annoyance Poets’. Much of his poetic identity is based in a sense of separation from postmodernity and the future-facing 1990s. In ‘Don’t Feel Sorry About It’, a poem aimed for posthumous readers of his own generation who ‘remember blue Darlinghurst nights’, he asks that they ‘only say for me I walked an older road / where poetry was rare and hard, and, frankly, good. / That’s when I had worked it out I laughed and laughed’—much like the skull of Yorick that laughs for ever and ever in Francis Webb’s ‘Cap and Bells’, which Harris undoubtedly knew. ‘Don’t Feel Sorry About It’ was a very late poem, but in The Gang of One it is surrounded by gorgeous reminiscences and idylls that recall his time in the country, an era which broadly coincided with his conversion. ‘The Lullaby’ combines pastoral overtones with Christian ovine imagery, including a comforted orphan lamb who is ‘watching the snow flock / and sleep, flock and sleep’. ‘Bush Cemetery’ begins ‘White gums crowd up to the fence, / surround an acre and frankly wince / at this still waiting. Hush / that noisy pale sun.’. ‘Winter Firesong’ likewise keeps the chaotic wider world at bay: ‘We talk. The fire makes towers / Which glow like distant cities before they collapse. / Poetry, mankind, state of the world: perhaps…’. The fire swiftly becomes the true subject of the poem. It ‘taps / An eloquent pause’ and ‘listens’, but it is also its own enigmatic dance, ‘the fire’s ragtime, its many prisms … and just what kind of dance / A fire is nobody knows.’ Harris’ creative fire deserves to be considered as no less a wonder and, thanks to publisher Alan Wearne and editor Judith Beveridge, The Gang of One provides the best opportunity yet to get close and poke through his smouldering coals from which rear fierce tongues of flame.

The Gang of One will be launched in Sydney at Better Read than Dead bookshop on 26 May and in Melbourne at Readings Carlton on 28 May. 

Works Cited

Robert Adamson, ‘Cornflowers’. Australian Poetry Library.

— ‘The Ultimate Commitment: The Poetry of Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas and Robert Harris’. Rochford Street Review, 2014.

Dorothy Hewett, ‘The Ghost of John Forbes’. Australian Poetry Library.

Robert Harris, Untitled Interview c.1992 with Robert Gray and Michael Griffith. Audio recording kindly provided by Judith Beveridge.

— ‘To John Kinsella, Poet, Of Jane R (Letter dated 2.2.92)’. Scripsi 9.2, 1994: 23.

— ‘Autobiographical Notes’. Overland 131, 1993: 5.

—The A-Z of How to Be a Poet’. Overland 131, 1993: 7.

—  ‘Francis Webb’ (typescript). Unpublished poem kindly provided by Judith Beveridge.