Rich humour in life and weather

NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
Nanjing Night Net

By Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Carcanet. $39.95.

In Time magazine a couple of years back, the American poet John Ashbery claimed that when it came to finding things to write poetry about ”there’s love and there’s death and time passing and the weather outside”. He could have been talking about Melbourne’s Chris Wallace-Crabbe, whose own poems (less opaque than Ashbery’s, but no less energetic) are characteristically concerned with those four elemental things.

The weather is, of course, not only elemental but also profoundly quotidian, the most ”everyday” of everyday things. The everyday occupies Wallace-Crabbe’s poems like a form of weather itself.

The Bits and Pieces, for instance, is an A-Z catalogue of ordinary objects – such as the artichoke, the yam and the tin opener – made remarkable through the poet’s estranging eye. The artichoke, for example, is ”a green knight’s club / or else an absolute rose”.

In Afternoon in the Central Nervous System, which begins ”Eating raw cabbage at a paper- / littered table at autumn’s end”, Wallace-Crabbe also uses the everyday to rehearse another favourite, and cognate, theme: identity. Despite a marked poetic identity (Wallace-Crabbe has an instantly recognisable style that mixes ”high” and ”low” linguistic registers), his poems are fascinated with the contingencies of identity.

In The Idea of Memory at 33 Celsius he asks: ”Who then is it speaking through me / in shorts and T-shirt, padding at ease / over the faintly dusty floorboards.”

Interrogatives – such as ”who?” – litter Wallace-Crabbe’s poetry, while agnosticism and bemusement is that poetry’s characteristic stance.

As he writes in Afternoon in the Central Nervous System, ”I am bemused by how / the musing of the world thus chose me here / out of, say, Scottish tribes and the plaited rush / of history from Plato down to NATO”. As the rhyming of ”Plato” and ”NATO” suggests, there is a great deal of comedy in Wallace-Crabbe’s ode-like poetry (just as there was in the work of his late contemporaries, Peter Porter and John Forbes).

Much of this comedy is verbal play. He asks, for instance, of the telephone ”Why does it drive me up the pole?”.

In The Thing Itself such verbal play is seen as the raison d’etre of poetry, the poet wishing to devise a sentence of utter originality, ”like nothing on the planet: / a structure of brackets and cornices, / twigs, pediments, dadoes and haloes and bells, / full of nuts, butter and flowers!”.

As well as a source of such aesthetic (or political or philosophical) play, Wallace-Crabbe’s distinctive comedy is always shadowed by an equally distinctive elegiac sensibility. As New and Selected Poems shows, Wallace-Crabbe has become simultaneously grimmer and lighter during the course of his career.

One might ascribe a biographical source to the grimness (the death of his adult son), but even in his first elegy for his son – called, without adornment, An Elegy – there is a hint of the comic in the poem’s final, tragic (and weather-filled) lines: ”So that I wish again / it were possible to pluck my son / out of dawn’s moist air / by the pylon-legs / in that dewy-green slurred valley / before he ever hit the ground, / to sweep under his plunge / like a pink-tinged angel /and gather him gasping back into his life.

The comic image of the poet as a pink-tinged angel of life returns us to a pre-modern sense of comedy, in which restoration and redemption are at the heart of the genre, as the title of Dante’s The Divine Comedy suggests.

In New and Selected Poems, Wallace-Crabbe evokes Dante, as well as the poet-priests Gerard Manley Hopkins and Peter Steele (the latter a close friend of Wallace-Crabbe’s), but his interest in religious matters generally concerns God’s absence.

As Wallace-Crabbe writes in Squibs in the Nick of Time, ”Approving mystery / with all my heart / I practise disenchantment.”

God or gods are therefore present in Wallace-Crabbe’s poetry only as remnants: the ”murmuring” of the first gods heard in Timber, or the assertion that ”God allegedly knows” at the end of More Loss.

In God, Wallace-Crabbe voices the divine father himself: ”I gave a big party / and the name of the party / kept slipping clean away / from my wooden tongue / but I reckon it was / called history.”

This selection, part of Carcanet’s Oxford Poets series, is Wallace-Crabbe’s third ”selected poems”. Having to jam in so many years – his first collection appeared in 1959 – gives the work an impressively Tardis-like appearance: it seems bigger on the inside than it does on the outside.

Wallace-Crabbe’s early years are, perhaps not surprisingly, dealt with efficiently, though poems like Citizen and The Wife’s Story show how early he was attracted to the strangeness of the everyday and comedy.

The poems from the 1980s and ’90s show what important decades these were for Wallace-Crabbe, but as the generous selection of his penultimate collection, Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw (2008) suggests, some of his most impressive work comes from this fecund ”late period”of his.

The many new poems presented in New and Selected Poems are characteristically catholic in tone and style, including The Poem of One Line; the surrealist statements of The Dream Injunctions (presumably gleaned from that eponymous state); verse essays on salt, skin, insects, torture and air; and a long elegiac sequence on politics, The Troubled Weather of Humanity.

As New and Selected Poems illustrates, Wallace-Crabbe has long been aware of how humanity’s weather is ”troubled” by the body’s frailty, the bloodiness of history and mortality itself.

But in his valuing of both the aesthetic and the ordinary as the realms of humanity, he always reminds us – despite what the end has to offer us all – of a different kind of weather, one where, even as darkness is falling, ”the lit clouds yet / sail sweetly over us / inhabiting a daylight of their own”.

David McCooey’s latest collection of poems, Outside, was short-listed for the Queensland Literary Awards as well as the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s best writing award.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.