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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

James Stuart reviews

The Trees: Selected Poems 1967–2004
by Eugenio Montejo (Transl. Peter Boyle)
Salt Publishing, 2005. 150pp


Walking to Point Clear
by David Brooks
Brandl & Schlesigner, 2005. 79pp

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

The Trees at Point Clear

At first glance Eugenio Montejo and David Brooks appear a world apart, literally: Montejo resides in Venezuela and has published 10 books of poems since 1967; Brooks lives and works in Sydney, and offers here only his second collection since The Cold Front was published in the early 80s But a quick glance at the back cover caption of Walking to Point Clear and the Miguel Gomes’s introduction to The Trees reveals some common lyric ground.

Of Brooks’s poems, the formidable nun-academic Veronica Brady writes, ‘With the madness going on around us, their poise and refusal to posture fills me with joy.’ Gomes, on the other hand, urges us to recognise the simplicity of Montejo’s diction and its deferral of ‘any passion for newness’, which Gomes equates with capitalism’s hyperactive modes of production and consumption, although a reading of this statement in relation to the highly politicised 20th-century avant-garde would also be warranted.

Such statements place both collections firmly in the cadre (though not necessarily class) of a poet like Eugene Montale, Montejo’s quasi-namesake. For Montale poetry formed a lyric resistance to the strong-worded ideologies that pervade the world — especially the rise of fascism in his case. For Brooks, whose poems wade through the NSW south coast, there are multiple points of resistance: the problem of an Australian identity, environmental degradation and, above all, the issue of language and its relationship to life itself.

Take ‘The Cormorant / Elegy for RF Brissenden’, where Brooks weaves a mystical relationship to the landscape with the unutterable facts of our own mortality:

somewhere in the hollow dark
an owl
sits on the stone hump of your spine
wallabies tear
at the green shoots of you

your body
already the ant’s kingdom,
your eyes
high in the branches
staring down the stars.

The poem must be read in its entirety to be appreciated for its unpretentious tone, ontological despair and evocative affinity with the Australian bushscape, qualities that permeate much of the collection, though despair is by no means the overriding theme of the book.

There are celebratory poems such as the suitably reverent ‘Revenance’ with its ‘grey sky … immense vine of stars’ or the gently worded ‘Eschatology’ where Brooks affirms his ‘faith in Things’ through the simple acts of digging a wine cellar, of planting a garden, of watching his children grow; these are sites where the numbness of apocalypse, its oblivion, subsides.

The unusually engaging domesticity of ‘Eschatology’ is echoed throughout the collection, as are poems born from transformative lyrical moments, unique experiences that shift the metaphysical grounding of the speaker. Most notable are the mutating sense of temporality summoned by the Powerful Owl’s call in ‘Night Passage’ and the absolute internal calm of ‘The Forest Within Us’.

While theological arguments and poetic devices in this vein cannot be considered innovative, there is a great joy, as Brady writes, in finding them re-affirmed in the understated and humble diction that Brooks deploys.

There is also a certain gravitas when we contextualise the book biographically (even if to do so is unfashionable); as this is first collection in twenty years, we can assume that Brooks is not experiencing transformative moments on a regular basis.

But foremost, in between each word — the abyss of the adjective that has been deleted or the invisible scar where a stanza has been cut out — resides a depth of thought best described, perhaps, as meditative honesty; there is much to be said still for the poem that does not wind itself into a symbolic and linguistic conundrum, and for verse that avoids the dull wit of trying to say it all, to the very last adjective or the most didactic rhyme.

Moments where Brooks seems less successful are poems such as ‘The Vision of St Eustace’, which contrasts the daily rituals of a small village in France with the US President in the ‘White House half / a century away’ wiping his prick before declaring another war on Iraq.

In ‘Depot Elegy’ we are confronted with the gradual (and tragic) erosion of the South Coast environment at the hand of human ‘parasites’. But Brooks recalls the bountiful and pastoral times of his youth when he the catch consisted of ‘bream, trevally, parrotfish, yellowtail, gar / and a dozen others I could list’.

These poems seem too literal a return to the Romantic tradition, and the dialectic of an overwhelming corruption of human society versus the purity of nature, to be truly effective. Dichotomy does not serve Brooks well though it is a device he uses rarely.

In ‘Australia Day’ we find a far more nuanced study of the complex and interdependent relationship that exists between city dwellers and the coastline where they holiday, waking to ‘find at last, / wherever they have been, / they have been dreaming / of exactly where they are.’

But for all the affinity to the South Coast landscape expressed by Brooks, there is an underlying sense of alienation. While the specificity of his language in naming places, animals, plants and people evokes the idea of residence, he often entwines any “groundedness” in a particular place with the act of writing. And what writing reveals, it also defers:

on the way to a meeting in Bateman’s
I glimpse a lyrebird
on the edge of the Mt Agony road
gone as soon as I notice it

writing this down
I wonder what part of the self it is
hides amongst language
    — from ‘The Lyrbird’

Such site-specific imagery stands in stark contrast to Montejo’s relationship to place. Where Brooks might draw up a chair for us at his dinner table, Montejo’s invitation has no specific address. Instead, much of his poetry inhabits interstitial moments; we are presented with unnamed spaces, such as a hotel room in an unknown city or a dining table where ‘time dents the knives’ and ‘guests turn into ghosts’ (‘Table’). Such places, contextualized only by the poet’s experience of them, do not subscribe to a broader geographical reality.

This approach imparts, simultaneously, a sense of dislocation from our own circumstances and an entry into Montejo’s overriding concerns, namely the capacity of objects and places to embody or evoke personal and ancestral memory; and, a desire to regain spirituality in an evermore material world.

The poem-places he writes of are interstitial in the same way as bridges are; in this case the link is made between the material world and the almost cosmic construction of Montejo’s universe. But creating such places is a fraught task, walking the thin line between contemporary lyricism and outdated symbolist concerns.

Poems such as the beautifully restrained ‘Table’ and ‘In the Café’ are examples of how Montejo achieves this. The elegant translations by Australian poet Peter Boyle help capture much of the conciseness of the original Spanish as well as the quotidian diction that is the hallmark of Montejo’s voice.

While the personification of the rain as a penniless troubadour in ‘In the Café’ is an image that could easily fall into cliché, Montejo makes it the poem’s central metaphor. The rain returns ‘a music of lost sounds’ to Montejo as he sits writing in a café evoking the conversations of twenty years ago which ‘became so much ash in the mirrors.’ The poem concludes:

Poor as the gods who drink
in these bars frequented only by atheists,
even poorer perhaps, though it hides it,
from somewhere very far
the rain brings us its music for a moment,
perhaps because it wants to, or from nostalgia
or pure boredom,
but not for money.

Montejo succeeds because his diction is humble, almost penitent. There is a definite “lyric sensibility” to this poem but, rather than privilege what could easily be construed as a mystic vision, he transforms it into a quotidian, mundane experience, one shared by people as common ground in the human condition. We sense here the ‘resistance to newness’ of which Gomes writes, coupled with a spiritual version of the socialist ethos, perhaps.

‘The Nimble Spider’, which immediately precedes ‘In the Café’, shows that Montejo sometimes steps across this line, dragging us into an unconvincing portrait of the poet whose work is moved only by greater cosmic forces, embodied in this instance by a spider that weaves its web from a distant star.

Where Montejo relates to specific places, it is in the poems ‘Lisbon’, ‘Caracas’, ‘Iceland’ and ‘Departure’ which describe a mixture of “new” and “old” world cities (Rotterdam in the case of ‘Departure’). But these are never “real” sites, only imagined:

Today Lisbon is memory, absence, dream
but you felt its soil before seeing it

You must wait for it at each moment,
it mostly announces itself out of the blue.

It is a strange notion to be nostalgic for a place that you have yet to visit but it is the common approach in these poems. Is this Montejo’s way of drawing up a post-colonial world in which the European ideal has inserted itself into the colonised imagination? A closer study of these poems, especially in relation to other Latin American writers, might yield more satisfying answers, but it would also unduly shift focus from the strongly metaphysical bent of Montejo’s poetry and his emphasis on the commonality of human experience.

‘The Earth Turned to Bring Us Closer’ (which, as Salt Publishing repeatedly points out, was featured in the ‘Oscar-nominated film 21 Grams’) is arguably the finest poem in this bent, drawing together Montejo’s obvious affection for classical music and his affinity with the natural world. It is a testament to his craft that cosmic themes such as the world spinning a music that binds all humans together can be treated so directly without lapsing into sermon.

Montejo patently believes in a fundamental communion between all things past, present and future, an inter-connectedness that binds this world to the next (whatever this “next world” may be). He constructs the atheism of secular capitalism (and of the city) as a spiritual void that cannot relate this communion. His portrayal in ‘Caracas’ of the city as a concrete monolith that obscures not only his childhood but his very name clearly denotes this — Montejo is a world away from the Baudelairean dandy, wandering astounded and disgusted through the spleen and ideal of the urban environment.[1]

But, rather than filling this gap with denominational theology, he is open-minded as to how we might re-establish such spiritual links. Like Brooks, and indeed most poets, Montejo constantly questions the role poetry and art can play in this process. He offers an answer, found among the selection of prose fragments at the collection’s end:

We can’t demand that today’s painters believe in God or some form of divinity because no one can demand that of another, despite the fury of converts. But we can suggest to them that they try to paint the world as previously those with a religious vocation might have done. Only in this way can they escape a little from the sad dictates of the artistic marketplace.

This spiritual fervour permeates Montejo’s poetry without descending into the preaching of those furious converts. As such mortality is a key concern, alongside the strong sense of ancestral affinity, and dislocation from this affinity, that permeates Montejo’s poetry.

With such discernible grand themes, neither he nor Brooks belong to the urbanite avant-garde. They expound a lyric poetry in which the most important acts are those of communion with nature, language and memory; the transformative power of imagination; the act of simply telling.


[1] Nonetheless, there are great similarities in both poets’ worldview. As Claude Pichois and Jean Ziegler point out in Baudelaire (London: Vintage, 1991, transl. Graham Robb), Baudelaire worked in the tradition of French Romanticism which sought ‘to recreate that unity which, since the Renaissance and the advent of modern science had been lost. This unity can be reconstructed only through forms of thoughts which are intuitive, symbolic and analogical … [Baudelaire adheres] to a Romantic and socialist philosophy whose ambition is to reintegrate man into the cosmos.’ (pp 141-142).

James Stuart is a Sydney-based poet, editor and new media artist. He has been the recipient of several awards, including most recently the 2004 Newcastle Poetry Prize’s New Media category. His new media poem ‘In Between Berowra’ was featured as part of the Berowra Visions: Margaret Preston and Beyond exhibition at Macquarie University Art Gallery in 2005. He is currently completing a Masters of Creative Arts at the University of Technology Sydney, examining poetry as a material object.