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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Michael Farrell reviews
by Graeme Miles

Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2006 $22.95 77p + notes isbn 1 92106 472 2

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

Without wanting to over-read the title, Phosphorescence suggests an aesthetic of subtle effect; the title poem emphasises the framing darkness required to detect the grey: beginning with caffeine, ending blacked-out and black-eyed. The poem is a pattern of violences: ostensibly about insomnia, it suggests insomnia is a kind of style. ‘The Road in the Rear-view Mirror at Night’ is an apt companion piece with its bites, toys and doubleness.

It’s nice to think that all poetry aspires to phosphorescence, its radiation detectable once the agitation of writing is over, but there’s a reason things seem nice: because they block out, paper over unpleasant realities. So I want to be careful with figures that deal with light and dark; Miles is also careful. It’s nice to think of the poems as phosphorescences –
or analogical to the phosphorescence – of a white agitation long over.

    and a spray of thoughts purled where my head had been
                                    (‘Body’s Poem’)

     The colours are still burning a little
      and thoughts have fallen into text, the way
      that sailors are buried at sea

In Miles’ poems the body functions as a persona; the poems come directly out of this body like film; a middle way you could say, avoiding not just silk, snot and shit, but the landscape or over-there poem, and the turgid, book-stuck-in-the-bloodstream poem.

Any style has risks. In Miles’ examination of contradiction and doubleness, he can sound too immersed in the riddling, or the childhood memory-mining, and write too nice, too clever poems like some generalised English poet who wants you to know they have a sense of humour, despite their long-winded complaints in the literary papers. (‘Word Book’). His technical ability can have him going through the motions, as in ‘Cretan Music’.

     A voice that can speak about the circle and the line,
     the straight march forward and the curved unwind.

So begins ‘Circle and Line,’ the books great central poem. Many Australian poets have battled with using European figures in Australian contexts; Miles appears to be having a last word by depicting Orpheus on an Escher staircase. Then, by sleight of line, he avoids the stations of Heavy Irony and Academic Humour with the beauty of his Orpheus’ song:

    The chamber is a tortoise shell,
    a box for holding sound-tinged wind
     that meets itself surprised in crowds, and breaks
     over charcoal soil like shards of egg.
     A dome for lyre-backed lives to echo in...

A box for holding sound-tinged wind, a dome for lyre-backed lives to echo in ... at this point I’m ready to give up not just on phosphorescence, but on any other figure for a poem, for writing. Miles’ Orpheus is the lyrebird in the scrub, in a most sensitive way (‘Not the epic voice’) evoking the songlines of the crowded Australian landscape.

A whole book of poems can seem an overwhelming achievement. How could someone write so many poems, line after line, while staying on the money? Without straying into cliche, awkwardness, bathos, complacency, bad taste? Phosphorescence is one of those seemingly effortless, almost perfect books that our Marxists warned us about. But couldn’t Brecht be pleased with:

     The clean idea of a yacht is sailing
     on the ad hoc river.?
                                    (‘Your Backyard Dogs’)

The following poem ‘On My Way to Work’ suggests a puzzlement with holidays that aligns the persona with Barthes: ‘writers don’t have holidays’. By the time ‘Dugites’ arrives (p 53), I’m aware how much snakebite there is in this textual Eden. Miles splits such an assumption with the doubleness of two snakes in this poem. We aren’t just in Australia but Western Australia.

I’ve lived in places west of Eden, places like ‘This Town’ which circles around the imploded violence of: ‘A riot here couldn’t start’ the inversion suggesting that a riot is always already going on, or perhaps the syntax is merely a necessary error, the line the book circles around, evoking the violent in the silent.

A conversation between poems is expected. The snake poems hiss gently. ‘Mould Blooms,’ talks to ‘Green Paper Boat,’ and ‘‘If they’re not dead they’re living there still’’, and this poem talks back to ‘This Town,’ and ‘Maude’s Story’. ‘An Intrusion’ and ‘Ars Poetica,’ could have swapped titles. Contradiction’s allowed.

Miles demonstrates control over a variety of line length, occasionally employing rhyme for support. The line ‘to it’ in ‘Ars Poetica’ is almost too short, but its rhyme with ‘split’ five (short) lines above, means it exemplifies its meaning: ‘Once more/ and there was a beat/ to it’. But conversations and skill aside, is such a poem necessary? It comes to the poet, perhaps it clarifies something for the poet, it’s not bad – but if it’s not strong, what work is it doing? And if it is strong, its voice might be a bit too loud – or indiscreet. It serves to weaken what comes after. Poems may be objects but they are objects of reading, and though many poets claim publicly to read by ‘dipping,’ I read poems sequentially – as a book. Any poem may be – more or less profitably – more or less convincingly – an ars poetica. The excellent ‘The Ceiling,’ for instance, which again returns to the theme of the intruder, which has the ambiguous caustic line ‘... the ceiling is white as a headache’. A line like ‘Someone is missing who should live on that bareness’ (nor the conclusion of ‘A Telegraphist Invokes His Muse’) can hardly be read outside our post-colonial context. I don’t mean to reduce Phosphorescence by writing this, more to suggest that it is of its moment, and that all books are written by the culture, (‘and the one who writes is no one,’ ‘Silt and Green’) the ‘blooming mould’.

The image of water recurs, there’s a thirst in this book; a womb is a place of ‘dark water’ (‘Ultrasound’). ‘Ars Poetica’ returns in this context, scratching away for pearl status, ‘bringing down the moon/ into a glass of water,/ reflecting its cellular face’: a disturbing reconciliation, a domesticating dao? The poems circulate through mind, body, and earth-image, and though there’s green within reach (‘Silt and Green,’ ‘This Town,’ ‘The Neighbours,’ ‘X-rays’) it’s dark and light the poems are obsessed by. Like Judith Wright’s – but unlike Wright’s poems, in those of Graeme Miles, the symbolism is contested, dark and light get mixed, ‘voices ... soak in like milk into the sand beside a grave’ (‘The Neighbours’). In ‘A Telegraphist Invokes His Muse’ words and messages are addressed: ‘come encrypted in monotone music’; ‘few graves’ and ‘reduced’ voices are cited. The poems are not didactic, emotional, nor relaxed. As we swirl into the digital, Phosphorescence favours play over grey.

Photo: Michael Farrell, by Nandi Chinna

Michael Farrell wrote ode ode (Salt)
and wrote and drew Break Me Ouch (3 Deep). He has poems elsewhere in Jacket. He lives in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Michael Farrell, by Nandi Chinna