MELBOURNE LAUNCHING SPEECH FOR ANTHONY LAWRENCE'S THE SLEEP OF A LEARNING MAN (GIRAMONDO), AT LA MAMA, 8th February, 2004
I've been reading Anthony Lawrence's The Sleep of a Learning Man for several weeks. Of course, I look at other books too --I can't help myself in the bookshop I pass my days in! And most of the time that's what passes for reading : I look at books, I flick pages, I catch lines, passages, sometimes entire poems but rarely read as I once did, cover to cover! If I'm reviewing a book it's different, but left to my own devices I'm more likely to honour the responsibility to Poetry, per se, than to any particular book. This is an excuse but also a kind of rationale for which I'm unapologetic!
Reading Anthony's book I've been reconnecting with Poetry, enjoying the resonance good poetry invites, as well as reading the very particular poems of a very particular book. Reading other books I've been reminded of what was forming in my mind as Anthony Lawrence's project. For example,one of the first notes I made --on New Year's day, in a friend's idyllic, naturally lit, Mediterranean-like Richmond lounge, --was from Louis MacNiece's Selected Poems, -- "When we were children words were coloured / (Harlot and murder were dark purple) / And language was a prism, the light / A conjured inlay on the grass, / Whose rays today are concentrated / And language grown a burning-glass (...)"
Quite a metaphor : magnifying-glass, loved by kids, burning what it's made to examine! Tagore said something of the sort about Tennyson I think --in the East the flower remains intact as it's celebrated; in the West it's destroyed petal by petal as it's defined. MacNiece adds : "Now we are older and our talents / Accredited to time and meaning (...)"
I felt I was in the ken of Anthony's poetry --I felt I was in his den. And whatever MacNiece intended, I was understanding the distinction between the so-called child's and the so-called adult's relationship with language and of language's treatment of the world. And I was given a figure for Anthony Lawrence as a poet for whom sensation or the language of the palpable was a bulwark against the death-dealing of Time, --which is to say, the death-dealing of the Intellect in its vain attempt to transcend annihilation by, of course, measuring & controlling it; but even that language can sustain life if it is memorable, when its music is at least as important as its intended meaning.
And our host, that New Year's Day, had passed me Julian Croft's edition of R.D.Fitzgerald's writings, because I think she'd known his son, and I serendipitously opened the anthology on his discussion of Judith Wright's Gum Tree Stripping poem --and I excitedly proclaimed the synchronicity : the similar & exemplary contradiction of sensation & meaning or of saturation, immersion in palpable experience versus objective, rational interpretation.
And notwithstanding a high regard for Judith Wright, I would turn her caution against the "gluttonous eye" (that makes of Nature a bountiful "breakfast") into approval for a principal of Anthony Lawrence's poetry. I think Anthony's "gluttonous eye", his immersion in material, does in fact lead to the measure which is meaning; it leads to grace contrary to the philosophers' absolute distinction between matter & anything of mind & spirit. This language, Anthony Lawrence's poetry, has nothing to do with child versus adult, with the cliche subjective versus objective. It may be synaesthesic, but as gift and not pathology!
The poems in this book are fictions which bear the full burden of testimony. The brilliant first poem of the book, In late September the dunes, ends as a refrain of the first verse, thus : "In late September the dunes / shut down, and what has taken shallow root / - feather, footprint, rainfall, stone - / will flourish until wind erases them, beginning / again a ribbed advancement / of sand and curious animals."
I take from this that human being is also "curious animal" --curious to see & imagine, and animal, which brings this man into the Nature which defines him even as he seeks to define it. And in poem after poem, Anthony does very well that simultaneous being inside-&-out of experience --involved & observing. You might say that in an Anthony Lawrence poem, phenomena is always event.
The poem, Pastoral, invokes "amazement" twice. For me, to propose amazement is to admit limitation albeit via wonder. The perspective for limitation inevitably includes the anathema of the contemporary sensibility, the Absolute, here as always named as Mystery. "Not since the royal spoonbill / winnowing sandgrains and fish / that could pass as fractals of wave light / into the pulse of an open mudshell / have I been this amazed ..."
It doesnt alter the fact when he adds, "amazement is never sufficient / when grief is bloodflow and ebb." This isnt a caveat but a following to its depth of an intertwined thought & image. This pastoral isnt landscape, it is blood-scape whose extreme is the okel dama, the field of blood, of life & death.
In this book, Anthony Lawrence is the poet of flesh & blood which gifts him places as the fluid events one might be tempted to call mystical, but which materialism can also claim if matter is properly understood, and poetry often appears to understand it. The task --I also say the trick because there's more than a little magic of acute sense & perception at work here --the task is to be so immersed in the matter at hand that, almost unbeknownst to oneself, one exceeds the facts and enters the sublime...
Within a poem, namely Another Kind of Death, about the tragedy & mystery of beached whales, there is invocation of The Poet (here it is Delmore Schwartz, "who understood / that to be alone for too long is another kind of death") and of the dead father ("another [whale] tail-whacked the sand, then made a sound / he'd [the narrator] heard in the palliative care ward // on the night his father died.").
These privileged if not esoteric analogies again require us to recognize Anthony Lawrence's poetry as one whose drive for connection suggests the mystical axiom of the world in a grain of sand. The meaning Anthony Lawrence makes of life --of being alive --depends upon its coherence. Without the chain, the net, the web of connections there isn't meaning.
And I'm suddenly reminded of the idea of Deep Image and sense Anthony's affinities with its modes. Those American poets of the late 50s, 60s & 70s, principally Robert Bly & James Wright but affecting others --from James Dickey to William Stafford & Galway Kinnell, from Kelly to Rothenberg... In the late '60s I thought it was a tendency characterised by effects which had something to do with a conflation of European symbolist & surrealist poetry. But dwelling on, and dwelling in, Anthony's book over the past few weeks, I've been won to the idea of underlying & overlaying meaning, articulated in as rich & redolent an imagery as can be created. And created in such a way as it feels as though it's been found --as the favourite of my youthful practice, Charles Olson, said of the poem, "that it be like a thing of nature, there amongst Nature's things..." And you can even hear Holderlinean romanticism rustling, nestling there too!
Deep Image or hologrammic poetry --where the specific part or detail implies the whole story or picture...
No contradiction at all when I say Anthony Lawrence is a literary poet. Often when mentioning speaking or speech he immediately names poetry if not a particular poet : "knowing how well / the spoken word travels over water / I want to read them a Lorca poem". Maybe subconsciously this is Homeric --the apposition of sea-faring & story-telling, of water & history, of work & poetry... "his breath renaming several species of bird..." ; "a fisherman unclips the outrigger of a thought..."
An English acquaintance from the '70s, a great writer in the pastoral mode, unknown poet these days, name of Michael Chamberlain, referred to work that was more than merely generically acceptible (that it was, without saying, good stuff) as the BIG poems. I think he had the following in mind or the following is what I've made of Michael Chamberlain's comment : that BIG poems somehow hit the nail on the head, they touch the ineffable, they reveal something in the course of their making. They're BIG poems and they're memorable poems, because the good-stuff-without-saying has risen to the somewhere-else, the something-else.
Prim & proper poetics worries about the hurdy-gurdy music of the kind of poetry I've been thinking & talking about, but maybe even that position could be assuaged by the experience of something being spoken out of the song & dance!
So let me conclude : I think AnthonyLawrence's The Sleep of a Learning Man, beautifully designed by the Giramondo Press and published by Ivor Indyk, is a memorable book of poetry featuring many memorable poems, --by which I mean that the language is memorable, that it sings memorably, that it isnt shackled by the pieties of anti-lyrical ideology which refutes the notion of author & poetic authority and decries the pursuit of the last word --the last word which is the epitome of the memorable because it is the fitting word, the word that completes, the poetry that actually lasts.
I'm happy to declare The Sleep of a Learning Man hereby launched!
[At the same event, Chris Wallace-Crabbe launched Judith Beveridge's Wolf Note, also published by Giramondo.]