The Poetry of Rodney Hall
Earlier this year Rodney Hall published a new novel, A Stolen Season, which has been well received, and which will renew interest in his gifts as a fiction writer. As with his previous novels, including Just Relations (1982), Captivity Captive (1989), and Love without Hope (2008), Hall deploys his vivid style to create a morally engaged study of characters who are caught in states of psychological and emotional intensity. While Hall’s novels are themselves not as known as they should be, it is his significant body of work as a poet, consisting of a dozen collections from 1962 to 2002, which is especially forgotten. The interest around Hall’s new novel gives us the occasion to look again at his poetic oeuvre, which was once thought to be among the most outstanding in Australia but which now is seldom discussed or anthologized, and remains out-of-print.
The most striking feature of Hall’s poetry is its emotional intensity, often built upon dramatic and soliloquized speech capturing moments of distress, desire, and decision-making. Hall concentrates pain and longing into memorable phrases and lines that are marked by strangeness. The aesthetic value of pain is thus that it fortifies retention, especially when expressed with intensity and with formal control. This is the case in Hall’s poems, where emotional intensity meets a force of restraint or repression that prevents sentimentality and gives poems a quality of hardness. While often unmetered, Hall’s poems are tightly crafted rather than loose, rambling or garrulous. The combination of emotional intensity and psychologizing interiority makes Hall’s poetic oeuvre stand out from contemporary Australian poetry, which often adopts ironic, skeptical and rationalist tones, described by Sarah Holland Batt in an interview with SRB as a ‘refusal of earnestness’ and by the editors of Puncher and Wattman’s Contemporary Australian Poetry as a ‘suspicion of assumption’.
The thematic concerns of Hall’s poetic body of work show up early in his oeuvre, remaining present throughout until late collections such as Black Bagatelles (1978). The first poems that Hall published in the early 1960s examined acute psycho-emotional states such as relational strife, intense longing, obsessive and unrequited love, burning ambition and greed, as well as an oppressive sense of doom. One can find such poems, for example, in the collection ‘Statues and Lovers’ that Hall contributed to Four Poets (1962) along with David Malouf, Don Maynard and Judith Green, and in those of Forty Beads on a Hangman’s Rope (1963). The latter collection is a ‘progression’ composed of forty short poems arranged around a central theme. This collection inaugurated Hall’s recurrent use of sequences of short poems.
Hall’s poetry has also since its inception dealt with dualities, such as with faculties involved in both human joy and woe. The power of imagination, for example, often features in Hall’s writing as a source of moral understanding as well as the source of tenebrous, imprisoning fantasies. This is why all of the different shades of meaning of the verb to captivate (to allure, to charm, to seize hold of, to ravish) suit Hall’s concerns well, for the characters and voices of his writing are either held captive, are captivating others, or both at the same time. In Four Poets, for example, there is captivation to revenge and to unrequited desire in poems such as ‘Eyewitness’ and ‘Hailstorm’. Erotic suffering appears in ‘Serenade’, wherein a beloved comes to the window not to open it for her captivated lover but to ‘lock the steel framed glass’. Many characters are obsessed and transfixed by both life and death. In ‘The Climber’ from Four Poets, for example, a young man stands at a precipice, remembering his father who committed suicide as having jumped ‘deep in my genetic canyons’. He is exhilarated by life, but carries an unshakeable desire for oblivion, both of which, as typical with Hall, are interwoven closely by proximity of placement in the stanza:
My body thrums like trees
in wind. And yet uneasiness
patters trickles through me,
seeps beyond that point
to which we understand ourselves.
Here, the inherited psychological debt (the ‘stain’) of trauma and bloodshed looks forward to Hall’s later work on transference and reincarnation in The Law of Karma (1968), while ‘Fountain and thunderstorm’, also from Four Poets, commences a concern with extreme desire leading to dissipation and dissolution. A common theme are lovers who in lovemaking or intense rage achieve a state of frenzied oblivion. Speaking to the beloved, a lover likens their love to a storm that ‘rides down upon you’, constructing both rapture and threat:
My ecstasy hangs pearled on windows
roars off roofs and saturates
facades of granule stone and weeps
to swim a statue’s metal eye
and greyly seeps through warping wood.
Notable is the way in which the pathetic fallacy creates an image of exaltation as well as suggesting personality-disordered infatuation (limerence) or the obsessive transgression of boundaries common to stalkers. It is characteristic of his poetry that Hall maintains the tension between this ambiguous duality.
Tensions such as these gives Hall’s poems their particular energy, a propulsive drive that he often connects to wild natural elements or to ferocious animals like bulls or buffalo. Poem ‘XVIII’ from Forty Beads on a Hangman’s Rope, for example:
Black blood charges
Legs tucked under
And a supercilious
Curl of horns:
All in that moment
When hooves of decision
the turf of desire.
Carnal desire is again linked with oblivion in poem ‘IX’, in which a lover’s tears ‘hung bearded round its fragrance/strong as a hangman’s rope;/his teeth caressed her heat./And locked, their bodies sank replete.’ A precursor to mythological sequences such as Judith Beveridge’s Devadatta’s Poems, in Forty Beads Hall wove a cycle of death and rebirth. Images of freshness come with pre-dawn moments, frost, dew, ‘mosses underfoot’ to capture a world of excess always exploding with life. Against this, hungers that cannot be satisfied (‘fingers reach at nothing’) drive appetites that lead to destruction, ending with darkness that ‘crashes/about a blindman’s head’. The final poem ends with an ambivalent image seen from an objective or god’s-eye-view point in which
the whole assumes
a tranquil aspect,
a crystal gazer’s dream
twisting universal shapes
till nothing is and all things seem
It is from this period in the early 1960s that Hall’s poetry started to exhibit the strong influence of traditional Indian ideas in connecting craving to ignorance. In Indian traditions, avidya (which literally means ‘not to see’), is the lack of proper vision that perpetuates samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth in worldly existence. Since Hall’s work is not metaphysical or spiritual so much as psychological, such concerns with insight and blindness closely map onto Hall’s investigations into unconscious drives for action that lead to obsessive patterns and unconvincingly rationalized behaviours. In Eyewitness in 1967, Hall’s fourth collection, many of the images associate unconscious drives with torrents and floods as well as the common theme of bodily contortion, which meet in the image of a body being twisted underwater by the surging current of a swell in ‘Under the Icebergs’:
The cold is on me and a flood of sound
Drags me all mad ways in turn.
My twisted shoulder whitens
my torso bends to the tide’s will,
discovers order through submission,
but my open mouth – a womb of sound –
expels my argument against the logic
of mountains upsidedown and anchors of despair.
Frozen mountains thaw. The truth of song
becomes a current I ride beneath the waves
to greet far lands of my tongue.
Eyewitness contains examples of Hall’s ability to marshall emotional power without sentimentality. One method is examining how much we hold back in fear of social opprobrium, as in the last line of in ‘Clarinet Quintet’ where an anguished lover recognizes his old flame but continues to play on stage despite the shock: ‘It’s proof of the strength of custom that I don’t cry out’. ‘The Fence’ describes horses that ‘stand and moulder/in the knacker’s pen/still as thought that’s fenced/ by orthodoxy.’ The horses are left to dream of a precious vision in which ‘once they might have leapt/the rail like forest fire’.
With his ‘cutaway’ views into subjects, Hall’s poems often reveal humans not as rational agents but as ravenous with emotional hungers and addicted to deeply programmed needs and lusts. Sometimes what is unveiled in human psychology is terrifying and poignant, especially the desperation, the way Hall paints men and women as contorted knots of anxiety starving to love and be loved, such as in the sequence of The Owner of My Face.
Hall is fascinated by the ways in which we are cruel and the ways in which we are innocent. ‘Domesticity’ from heaven, in a way (1970) rips away the veneer of the mundane – in the form of a blubbering baby and a broken Hoovermatic – to probe a conjugal power struggle figured as giants throwing each other around the house, in which – another characteristic of Hall – ‘the piercing hurt was shared’. Hall calls this brutality between secret sharers ‘a shadow-play’, and one partner promises to ‘clinch again/ the brute Antaeus of your independence’. The effect of odd love poems such as these is to stress human vulnerability and weakness, how precarious we are in our own nakedness when stripped of social status and conditioning. The interplay of a basic humanist commitment to generosity, wit, beauty, and the search for wisdom with the hallucinatory and terrifying spectre of what Lacan calls ‘the imaginary’ charges Hall’s poems with frisson.
John Kinsella has written that when he first came into contact with them, ‘Rodney Hall’s poetic sequences opened a territory I had not encountered before.’ An example of such new territory in Australian poetry would be The Law of Karma (1968). The book is separated into eleven cycles. Each cycle depicts a rebirth and death. The movement of metempsychosis begins with a holy man in India and ends with a Reichs-Kommisar in Poland in 1944. Poems deal with savage conflict, especially strife between allies, friends and relatives. The Law of Karma, as with ‘Romulus and Remus’ and ‘Folk Tales’ from A Soapbox Omnibus (1973), is concerned with foundational mytho-political narratives in which annihilatory violence is doled out by priests, mythical beings and colonial torturers in power-fantasies. Hence the presence of lust and sado-masochism. This violence is married with vivid images. In ‘The Eighth Decline’, for example, in which a slave-trading Captain is aroused by floggings, Hall creates cinematic backdrops to the human depravity:
The waters of the war lay coiling to a standstill
soon to be blotted up by sand and lost
till the magnet moon should spin its giddy course again.
Slit by the keels of squalid ships, each wake
a laceration on the Gulf of Guinea
opening and opening again the weals across its back.
The body is always present in Hall’s poetry. Nerves, neuron, and muscles are especially present and act as sites of linguistic charge and motion; skin is a site of ecstasy and pain. As Kerryn Goldsworthy stated in a review of Hall’s New and Selected Poems (2002), ‘even the poems tackling large philosophical abstractions loop back again and again to the body as a focus for thought and belief.’ The brain, for example, memorably appears in Law of Karma as two interlinked metaphors. In ‘Prince (1435-1465), Persia’, the folds of skin on the prince’s baby seem ‘wrinkled like a brain’ to the prince’s dying father. The degeneration through successive life-cycles compounds ignorance and sociopathic behavior until the very last poem ends with apocalypse in a Polish death-camp: ‘a spout of blood, man aflame/fountaining smoke that clotted, bunched, hung like a wrinkled brain above.’
Hall’s interest in Indian ideas persisted through to the late death-themed collection Black Bagatelles (1978), in which the untitled poem that begins ‘When I was born I coughed the world’s/Coldness into rubber lungs’ ends with how the newborn’s ‘stomach cheerfully pushed claims of empire/far into fingers legs chest cock’. The reference is to the Indian system of chakras, in which the third chakra located at the solar plexus (manipura) rules expression of will, personal power and self-assertion. Hall’s concern with Will and craving has affinities with Schopenhauer’s philosophy (aspects of which are themselves predicated on Indian thought). Schopenhauer’s assessment that ‘the sexual urge is the most violent of our desires: the desire of all our desires’ could be the epigraph to many Hall collections. The Cain and Abel struggle of Hall’s ‘Romulus and Remus’ sequence from heaven, in a way is depicted as close to coitus as possible, with the once conjoined twins even sharing a dream of conjugal union before they set upon one another. The moment of killing brings with it a shocking inversion:
Romulus caught his brother by the throat,
pitting hard with thumbs and fingers.
Suddenly he knew how death should feel,
saw himself the victim, sensed the life of nerves
intensified, the total organism signalling
its needs and nature in silent pandemonium.
Needs, nature, pandemonium. Hall’s gift is to incisively examine human needs, churning like shifting molten just under the surface of mundane life and its supposed reasonableness and stability.
Hall stands out among Australian poets for his gift in dramatisation. Autobiography of a Gorgon (1965) and the gothic, comic Black Bagatelles (1978) show Hall commanding passionate speech to foster irresolvable tragic conflict. Hall’s gorgon is an outcast who has the ‘gift of permanence’. She attests that the ‘fossil is a holy pledge’ and that her ‘mission is to save the world from age’, since the stone of her creating is ‘more human than machines’. Hall’s sequence recalls the Mythistorema of Georgios Seferis, in that the element of stone is an emblem of the artificer’s heroism in labouring to keep alive the memory of heritage, the presence of the past and its weight, and the grief of humanity. Yet, unlike the nobility in Seferis’ myth, Hall’s gorgon finds the process of remembering a process of cognitive dissonance and being torn apart: ‘I’m so afraid I shall hate myself’. The secrets of the gorgon are what the poet and artist deals in (‘I understood my power’), but buried secrets are so shocking they threaten to turn the ‘conceited heart’ to stone. The connection may be made to language and art in the Australian context. We are seeking in art myths appropriate to this place that will speak of our needs and longings. The problem is that the desires and loves of colonial arrivals are inextricably bound up in the killings that have taken place here, which continue to be averted and denied– and thus we live contorted like Laocoön and his sons:
How could I have lived, if once
I’d learned to hate
The murder there is husked
In my desire?
It is, as readers of his prose will know, Hall’s gift for taut rhythms, predicaments, mystery and a sense of danger that make the writing of his novels so captivating. Hall’s poetry traverses territories less explored in Australian poetry. His body of poetic work over four decades should be re-read as a sustained examination of the primal desires and compulsions underneath the mask of the post-Enlightenment individual self as rational agent.
Veronica Brady. 2004. “Rodney Hall,” in Selina Samuels, ed., Australian Writers 1950–1975. Detroit, USA: Gale Research. 87–96.
Goldsworthy, Kerryn. 2002. “New and Selected Poems by Rodney Hall.” Sydney Morning Herald, September 27, 2002.
Hall, Rodney. Penniless Till Doomsday. Walton-on-Thames, UK: Outpost Publications, 1962.
—“Statues & Lovers” in Four Poets. Melbourne: Cheshire. 64–82. 1962.
—Forty Beads on a Hangman’s Rope. Launceston, Tas: Wattle Grove Press. 1963
—Eyewitness: Poems. Sydney: South Head Press. 1967
—The Law of Karma: A Progression of Poems. Canberra: Australian National University. 1967
—The Autobiography of a Gorgon and other poems. Melbourne: Cheshire. 1968
—Heaven, in a Way. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. 1970
—A Soapbox Omnibus. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. 1973.
—Selected Poems. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. 1975
—Black Bagatelles. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. 1978
—J.S. Manifold: An Introduction to the Man and His Work. St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. 1978
—The Most Beautiful World: Fictions and Sermons. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. 1981
—Just Relations. Ringwood, Vic. : Penguin. 1982
—Captivity Captive. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1989
—A Dream More Luminous Than Love: The Yandilli Trilogy. Sydney: Pan Macmillan. 1994
—The Writer and the World of the Imagination [Lecture notes, Sir Robert Madgwick Lectures, 1995]. New England: University of New England. 1995
—The Island in the Mind. London: Granta. 2001
—The Owner of My Face: New and Selected Poems. St Leonards, NSW: Paper Bark Press. 2002
—Love without Hope. Sydney: Pan McMillan. 2007
Holland-Batt, Sarah and Sarah d’Urso. 2018. “Invisible Labour: An Interview with Sarah Holland-Batt. Sydney Review of Books.
Kane, Paul. 1996. Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kinsella, John. 2002. “Preface” in Hall, Rodney. The Owner of My Face: New and Selected Poems. St Leonards, NSW: Paper Bark Press.
Langford, M., Beveridge, J., Johnson, J., & In Musgrave, D. 2016. Contemporary Australian Poetry. Glebe, NSW: Puncher and Wattman.
Nayman, Shira. 1993. “Part of the Emptiness: Rodney Hall’s Vision of a Troubled Australia” in New England Review, Vol 15, No 2. Middlebury College Publications. 210-224.
Geoff Page. 1995. “Rodney Hall,” in A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. 96–99.
Felicity Plunkett. 1994. ‘All Those Layered and Clotted Images: An Interview with Rodney Hall,’ Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 11. 1–12.
Ratcliffe, Greg. 2000. The Grotesque Poetics of Rodney Hall’s Dream Trilogies. [PhD thesis, University of Wollongong].
Tacey, David. 1995. “Rodney Hall: Old, New, Black and White Dreamings” in Edge of the Sacred: transformations in Australia. HarperCollins. 170-174.
Williams, Barbara.1989. In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 36-50.