Robert Gray and the shepherding of antipodean being
Pastoral: (Latin) pertaining to shepherds
—J.A. Cuddon, Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory
Since modern Australia rode to prosperity and nationhood on the sheep’s back, as it is said; and since the feet of millions of sheep—like four times as many roving jackhammers—have done unspeakable damage to soils never in their long history acquainted with hard hoofs, it behooves us to consider the kind of pastoral this dry continent now needs us to write.
Clearing the land for pastoral enterprise has been almost the definitive Australian project. Paddocks (increasingly saline and eroded) are our inheritance, part of our sense of Australian self; and it’s easy to look at them as though they are how the country always went. It can take a lifetime to learn to listen like shepherds until we hear those paddocks for what they really are and what they were before—and what they need of us, by way of poetry and pastoral care.
This paper is about the erosion of a pastoral conception of land in the poetry of Robert Gray, one of Australia’s great contemporary poets. It’s about his arrival home in country (and a poetic) made strange by a lifetime’s listening.
But I’d like to let the poetry speak before speaking about the poetry.
I’m struck again, writing and now delivering this essay, by a problem at the heart of criticism: we end up using so many words—none of them so painstakingly chosen or deftly laid out—to try to say what the poet used so few to say in the first place. If it’s a reading we offer, a reflection upon or a thinking about, the poem, then I guess the criticism finds its place. As long as we don’t lose the poetry with which we began. It’s that kind of reading, of some poems of Robert Gray, that I make (I hope) in this paper—a reading in the light of the landscapes they come from, in the light of the life of the poet himself.
Just so that Robert Gray is here in the room with us, then, from the start; just so you hear his voice; just so that his pastures, creeks and estuaries join us at the confluence of the McKenzie and the Willamette, let me read you some of my favourite lines from his poetry. They open his poem “A Day at Bellingen,” a work from the very centre of his oeuvre, from the heart of his third (of seven) volumes, Skylight (1983).
A Day at Bellingen
I come rowing back on the mauve creek, and there’s a
among the shabby trees,
above the scratchy swamp oaks
and through the wrecked houses of the paperbarks;
a half moon
drifting up beside me like a jelly fish.
Now the reflected water becomes, momentarily, white—
have paused, held in their hailing
and the long water is a dove-grey rippled sand.
A dark bird hurries
low in a straight line silently overhead.
The navy-blue air, with faint underlighting;
Has gauze veil hung up within it, or a moist fresh
I land in the bottom of an empty paddock,
at a dark palisade
(Gray 1998, 126)
There’s Robert Gray: doing what he does like no one else, this coastal pastoral, with its echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Zen masters; there he goes, stilling time, slowing it, at least, to the pace of a dinghy on dark water at dusk. There is his palette: dove-grey, mauve, magnesium white, navy blue. There are some of his motifs: the daylight moon, the saplings, the dark bird in flight, the rowboat, the hanging smoke. There is nature’s “wrecked house.” And there on the shore are the empty paddocks his voice grew up in.
THE EROSION OF THE PASTORAL—AN INTRODUCTION
What else could Robert Gray have become but a pastoral poet? He didn’t stand a chance. Okay, I can think of many other vocations than poetry that might have found such a boy born on a banana plantation in the midst of dairy country at the edge of a country town in northeast New South Wales—dairy farming, shearing, school-teaching, shopkeeping, gambling, the ministry, accountancy. But if it was going to be poetry, it was always going to be pastoral. When an interviewer asked Gray ten years ago what memories he had of childhood, this is what he said:
[All my childhood memories] have to do with nature—being exhilarated by the light and vitality and vividness of the bush, up there on the northern coast of New South Wales. After having to leave the plantation, which was just below the forest-line on a beautiful hillside, we rented a house that came with a small dairy farm, which my father ran. This was also in a very striking piece of countryside, under the mountains and beside a creek.
(Spurr 1995, 32)
Gray might be seen as a pastoral poet in two senses—his subject matter, and his approach to it. But in both senses, he is nobody’s idea of an exemplary pastoralist. He writes landscape, frequently paddocks and shorelines, the working landscapes of dairy farmers and fishermen and poet-scholars like himself; the locus of much of his work is, in other words, the traditional territory of pastoral poetry.
Gray writes other places, too, especially Sydney Harbour, by which he has long lived. But even when it is the city Gray’s poems witness, he seems to hold places up as precious stones, as archetypal realms, as dreams, where one longs to belong but feels one can’t. He writes gritty, hip, idylls, many of them rural, some of them urban. (It’s worth noting, though, as Jeffrey Poacher has (Poacher 2003, 223), that Gray’s best known, most anthologized poem is “The Meatworks,” a study of fibro houses and rural poverty,” which appeared in his very first volume thirty years ago.)
But if not all his subject matter is strictly pastoral, Robert Gray’s stance, his attitude toward the world, and his mood in its company, certainly might be so called. British poet, rock-climber and ecocritic Terry Gifford, tells us that pastoral is “a discourse of retreat” (Gifford 1999, 45). Conventionally, in the pastoral, the poet retreats from the social realm to the more than merely human, to the countryside, where a kind of idealized former world is still hard at work, and he seeks wisdom there. The pastoral poet locates virtue in nature, outside the world of men, except to the extent that those men are shepherds, country folk, fishermen, cowboys, oarsmen and ferrymen, sometimes poets. But mostly shepherds. Although you won’t find many shepherds in Gray’s poems, one could argue that it is a poetry of retreat that he’s been writing all these years, depending on what one means by “retreat.”
Pastoral, writes Gifford, takes a its maker on a journey from the court to Arcadia and back to the court, renewed (Gifford 1999, p 47). But Gray is a country boy—he grew up in Arcadia, as it were, not the court. If he writes his places a bit like the Chinese poet-philosophers wrote their mountain-side retreats, the way Gary Snyder writes his, or Wordsworth his, still Gray’s pastoral is the less rarified kind that a local is prone to write. For Gray comes from the places he retreats to. So his retreat is always also a coming home. He was never a visitor from the city. It’s home he writes. The place where they always have to let you in.
Gray’s diction and manner are courtly, but his vowels come from the pastoral place of his birth. If virtue lies in the land, it is because for him, it always did. He doesn’t have to leave the city or the court to know that. He’s not escaping real life, as many pastoralists are; he’s remembering it.
In any event, pastoral ranges, as Leo Marx put it, from the sentimental to the mindful, the simplistic to the complex (Marx 1964, p 72). And Robert Gray’s is very much at the mindful and complex, the ecologically aware, the locally literate, end of the pastoral spectrum. At least, he has become so through the course of his work.
I should note here, as an aside, that in Australia “pastoral” describes the work of raising sheep or cattle—as opposed to crops—on the land, and “pastoralist” is the name that cattle- and sheep-men (and women) use for themselves. They are our ranchers. Everyone else is just a “farmer.” Pastoral is their work, and not much of it has to do with Arcadia—though it has always had, at least in the inside country, a lot to do with clearing forests to make pasture, with making over a scrubby landscape into something resembling a sheep or cattle run. Pastoralism takes place all over Australia, as it does in America, from the grassy (once also heavily wooded) ridges of the Great Divide to the vast pastoral leases of the rangelands of the country’s heart—even in the most arid reaches of the inland, where, if the rains get it right, some of the best cattle-fattening grasses in the world rise up out of the dead earth. So, pastoral, outside literary circles at least, has a certain tough swagger in Australia. And if it has contributed to the wreck of certain stretches of marginal country, it is also the place where you’ll find, these days, the fiercest love for and the deepest wisdom about the land.
“Pastoralist” is also, as it happens, the name of a popular style of Akubra hat that city folk, such as our prime minister, like to imagine countryfolk wear (and some of them do). That hat is a kind of symbol of conservative rural politics (is there any other kind of rural politics?), though my wife wears one, I confess, and looks fine in it.
Pastoral is part of our sense, true and false, of who we are in Australia, then. Although the term carries echoes, perhaps even to a landholder on Cooper Creek, of brooks and meadows and water water nymphs, its primary meaning—the life you make out of raising cattle on a dry continent—has adapted to local conditions and describes a tougher and sturdier aesthetic than the same word does in literary circles.
“Pastoral,” then, has a complex set of associations in Australia, and few of them have to do with shepherds and shepherdesses. Australian pastoral poetry only rings true to Australian places when, as in the work of David Campbell and Judith Wright, and increasingly of Robert Gray, it picks up the frequencies of Australian pastoral landscapes, where, more than anywhere else, the business of reconciliation with country and with Indigenous people is being played out; where the experiment in large-scale western landuse is being tested and found wanting; and where the price for all that tree-felling, for all that overstocking and all that plundering of the rivers and the aquifers is being paid.
In a powerful essay, “Getting off the Sheep’s Back: Farewell to Arcady” (Seddon 2003), George Seddon has argued that just as the pastoral attitude in farming practice has impoverished Australian landscapes, subject them to erosion, and effaced the land’s older histories, so in literature, the dominance of a pastoral attitude to landscape has diminished Australian places in Australian imaginations. Like Gifford, Seddon argues that we need on the land and in our writing a new kind of engagement with country, something more than merely pastoral, more aware of how the land really works and the kind of care it needs. Pastoral itself has been eroded in Australian conditions so that it is no longer sustainable. Arcadia doesn’t work here. You just can’t run that many sheep on pastures that green on soils like ours, under dry skies like ours—and if your writing pretends you can, it rings false.
But I’d like to suggest that an eroded—a sclerophyll, a drought- and fire-adapted—pastoral is precisely what Australia needs in order to see and serve and save the land. And that’s the kind of pastoral—or post pastoral—Robert Gray is now writing; and that’s what the land has done to him. It’s eroded his sense of place until it is this contingent, unsettled, uncertain, enduring love. What this erosion yields in literature is what it has yielded in his writing: landscapes given back to themselves, to their pasts and futures, and a practice of pastoral care that wants to write and serve the land as it has been since the beginning, not just the way it’s been since white men cleared and fenced it and tidied it of its indigenes.
Robert Gray began writing in a straight pastoral mode, party, without meaning to be, to the land clearing, to a Colonial, simplifying, idealizing (and destructive) apprehension of Australian places. You hear that in his very first published poem “Back There,” and “Journey: North Coast.” By reading an early poem of Gray’s against a late prose poem, I want suggest that time and weather have abraded Gray’s poetry and complicated his practice of attention to country. Over time, his poems have grown less pretty, less nostalgic, messier, more discursive, more aware (or, if they were always aware, then, more expressive) of three enfolded aspects of his country: the land’s long, long pre-pastoral history with aboriginal people; the sublime, as opposed to the merely beautiful, the sometime dead-set deathly aspects of Australian places; and his own untenable, subjunctive, yet finally adequate inhabitation of the earth. Gray’s coming into this more complex awareness of the land is his own. But it is not his alone. For it is representative also of a deepening into this place, a complicating of our sense of self and country, that many Australian poets and writers, me included, have undergone these past dozen years, out of which a new Australian poetic is coming. You can’t do Australian pastoral the same way anymore, not if you want it to witness truthfully in a land our pastoralizing forebears stole and began rapidly undoing not so very long ago. Post is what our best pastoral is becoming—various, changeful, complicated, sclerophyll, drought-affected, stark, just here and there lush. And Gray’s is our very best.
Also, by looking at some of Robert Gray’s recent prose (part of a memoir he is writing about his father and his childhood) I want to note how easily an old-fashioned pastoral aesthetic returns to our apprehension of our place, how readily we start fencing the paddocks, clearing the trees again, letting the land slip away, in our sentences, when we let ourselves slacken out of lyric engagement with country. If we are not careful, when we are not looking, when, in particular, we are not listening, the old world reasserts itself in our sentences and reassembles our sense of self, our sense of childhood country, and recolonizes our country—until, that is, we return to poetry. As soon as we stop listening, witnessing like shepherds, we start writing pastoral again.
WHERE THE POET WAS A CHILD
Robert Gray was born on 23 February 1945 with a hole in his heart. He has known his life as a gift from the start, an ordinary miracle, a fluke. Gray was born in Port Macquarie in northern New South Wales, not far south of where that poem goes on rowing home. His father, before the war, had been sent upcountry to purgatory by his well-heeled Sydney family. His father was a drunkard and a dandy, who dropped out of law school and the family law firm, survived his exile and shame by drinking and gambling even more, and who ran through his allowance in ten or so years. “All he ever did,” Gray said in that same interview, “was to read his way through the great tradition of English literature, when sober” (Spurr 1995, 31). Gray’s mother was a local farming girl, simple and uneducated. “Though she’d only ever read The Women’s Weekly,” he writes in his poem “Diptych,” she knew enough to practise unceasing “care for things,” an art she passed on to her eldest child. “The marriage was always unhappy,” Gray told Spurr, “except for [my father’s] occasional bursts of charm” (ibid.).
Between his parents and his place Gray got what a poet needs: a voice and a world. And he got his subject—(working) coastal landscapes, what they are and what they make of us. From his father, Robert Gray got words, a sense of style and a certain gentlemanliness; from his mother he got common sense and clarity. His voice lies between them: courteous but plain, formal but vernacular, bookish but sensible, romantic but down to earth. From the place—first the banana plantation on the hill that looked all the way out to the Pacific, then the dairy farm and then the cottage in town—Gray got bright but sultry yellow light and amplitude; he got pastoral forms and habits, fences and paddocks, clouds massing over the sea, horses and their wooden faces, cattle and sheds and fibro houses and ordinary kinds of beauty. He got from the plantation a dishevelled kind of formality, a ragged kind of rigour; from the view of the valley, he learned prettiness; from the paddocks and the shore he intuited an unsentimental kind of vernacular.
At school the only thing he was any good at was English—and History. Listening to a teacher read from The Wind in the Willows, Gray discovered, at twelve, a calling to write. Although he knew he’d need a different set of words, and although he sensed storytelling of that kind was not his thing, he knew suddenly that he would like to make words do the kind of things Kenneth Grahame made them do—which was to give a listener an experience of reality he wouldn’t otherwise have (McCredden 2003). Soon after, upon encountering Hugh McCrae in a school anthology he discovered poetry and felt its particular call. At fifteen, in D H Lawrence’s looser rhythms and conversational spontaneity, he heard the kind of poetry he might write (Spurr, 33–4).
Quite early on, Gray realised that he had only one gift, as he puts it, and that was for describing things, for atmosphere and emotion (McCredden). It wasn’t, he knew, for invention or fantasy. How things were themselves and just exactly what that was: that was what he knew he could write. That’s what he felt moved to know and say in words. That’s what History (his only other success story at school) investigates, too. It tries to understand what really happened. Poetry does that, too. Fiction is another game, and it calls for different skills. But Gray knew early those were not his. He knew his gift was for getting at the heart of a moment somewhere, and saying about it—implying at least—what could not really be said (Koval 1997, 42).
Being the kind of boy he was, the son of that man, and that women, being in that country, is it any wonder he grew up to write poems like this (the first poem, written when he was eighteen, he ever sent out for publication—it was rejected)?
A farmer in the brittle morning
struggles with solid milk cans, his gasping
all around him—
Across the yard
mud, the tangled branches
and a shed is going down sideways
on the walls
one side of the house.
A rusty plough
is stranded like the horns of a
out in the mouldy
And over the raw, stripped paddocks, up
the windy skyline,
all about that huge nerve-end,
a bare tree;
(Gray 1998, 14)
WHO THE POET HAS BECOME & HOW
Robert Gray has written seven volumes of poetry from Creekwater Journal in 1973 to Afterimages in 2002. He is read with joy by poets and readers alike. His work is admired by poets like Kevin Hart, Les Murray and Geoff Page. There is scarcely a poetry prize he has not won, a residency he has not done His poems are read at school. I even sometimes meet people in my classes, even in corporate Australia, who say they’ve heard of him! But Gray has not yet got himself the kind of international reputation you might imagine—the kind that Les Murray has, or Kevin Hart or John Kinsella. This may have to do with having failed to win much traction among the literary scholars. It may also have to do with his being, as Martin Harrison has put it the “dogged opponent of reader-hostile ‘experimentalism’ and of the empty American-influenced ‘internationalism’ which many of his generation of Australian poets engaged in” (Harrison 2005, 37). It may have to do with his poetry’s unfashionable “sensuous materialism”—unfashionable, I mean, within the academy, for sensuous materialism, that is, the description of the actual world, is always popular among readers. It may have to do with “the poet’s undoubted repugnance towards mere manner and emptily trendy gesture,” which Gray sees manifest in so much of the work of his contemporaries (ibid., 37). His is not a particularly erudite, pyrotechnical or sophisticated poetry. It makes sense and there are places in it. These can be drawbacks these days. So Gray is a poet readers read and poets respect and critics ignore or disparage.
Robert Gray is a lean, taciturn, gentle poet—priestly, but unceremonious, restrained but generous. Think of camp: he is its opposite. In his work you find no fat, no affectation, no games, no posturing. He is tidy and heartbroken. His mood is sad, tender, intimate. They are what loving, longing non-attachment sounds like. He is looking for the unsayable essence of the world and its moments, and for that you have to leave a whole lot of poem out. Think of a Japanese watercolor, and you have his landscape poetry. Indeed, painterly is another adjective you’re going to need in order to know his work. He is, as it happens, an accomplished drawer and painter. His last two collections have included some of his sketches, though he mostly uses drawing to help him find and begin to say the unsayable thing he’s after. He sees the world in line and tone and gesture; and he speaks poems the way a painter paints.
Most of the writing of the first half of his writing life—these “slim volumes … full of treescapes, seascapes, chiaroscuros and metaphors of vision” (Poacher 1999, 223)—uses visual imagery almost to the exclusion of the other senses. In intimate detail, with an emphasis on line and form and colour and texture, Gray describes the way things strike him. He witnesses with his eye. Remember the strokes and gestures of “A Day at Bellingen.” Listen also to these early haikus:
A waterbird lifts
out of dead grass; its slow flight
is water lapping…
Sultry night. The moon
is small and fuzzy, an aspirin
in a glass of water.
I strike about at mosquitoes
with the axe.
Smokestack, evening sky;
And the smoke, a woman’s long hair,
who pauses underwater.
He announces in a poem that his work is “a hymn to the optic nerve.” Geoff Page has dubbed Gray “Australia’s premier imagist” (Page in Poacher 2003, 223). Among our poets, Page means, Gray is our most painterly, our most pictorial, and also the most clearly in debt (a debt he acknowledges) to William Carlos Williams: “no thoughts without images,” Williams famously enjoined, or words to that effect. In his later work, perhaps, consciously, Gray is exploring the world through his other senses: in the poem “A Poem of Not More than Forty Lines on the Subject of Nature” from Afterimages (2002), for instance, you will find as much of heft and sound and felt-sense and dreamed as you will of form in space and light. This is, I’ll suggest, one of the ways in which the work of “Australia’s leading imagist,” as fellow poet Geoff Page has described Gray, has grown up, in which his witness has become more resonant.
We tend to think of Gray, too glibly, as a poet of spare haikus (every collection has a sequence) and long, free verse, meditative lyrics of place and philosophy (“Mr Nelson,” “Dharma Vehicle,” “On Climbing the Stone Gate Peak,” “At the Inlet”). This is forgivable: Gray works his most lasting imagist magic in these two forms. But he is a master of many poetic forms. In his versifying, he is quietly virtuosic and nimble. From the start (Creekwater Journal (1973)), he has brought together two or three poems in each of his forms he works in—haiku sequences, prose poems, shorter and longer lyric poems, rhymed quatrains and tercets, long-lined Jeffers’ like schemes—to make his tidy mosaic volumes. And lately he has explored more traditional rhythm and rhyme schemes—for example, the ABAB quatrains of “Black Landscape”.
Paradoxically, it is, I think, by returning to traditional forms, with their rigours, and by speaking in a prosier (which is to say, more syntactically correct, more verb-rich and more prolix) voice that Gray is more truly witnessing the nature of his Antipodean realities, in particular of the pastoral and coastal landscapes to which his heart always returns him, and the way his mind and body wonder/wander here. It could be that a certain kind of lyric prose is what Australian places need, for it is how they speak; and it could be that, as is often the case in art, the most lasting originality of perception and expression happen when one takes old forms and makes them new (this is what Pound meant by his enjoinder to make it new)—rather than inventing new forms. Australia presents the poet and the pastoralist with just about the oldest, most enduring, forms one can imagine. Here tradition, in art and land management, has been practised continuously longer than anywhere on earth. You’re going to need a bit of respect for tradition to make sense of this place. For it takes both a feeling for the old and a tough freshness of perception to witness what is actually going on here—not least in oneself.
THE AMERICAN GRAY
Robert Gray does not, I think, write in an Australian tradition. But he may be inventing one—an Australian landscape imagism. He has turned to many other poets, especially the modern Americans, to find forms and rhythms and disciplines apt for what he has wanted to do in Australian places. In his essay “Poetry and Living,” presented at a conference, “The American Model,” held at Macquarie University in 1982, Gray talks about what he “looks for from poetry in general” before touching on the American poets whose work he particularly admires. One imagines that these poets influenced his first three volumes, in particular: Skylight appeared the following year, and he would have been working on it at the time he wrote this essay.
Gray acknowledges Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams as his two particular mentors, and you can readily discern the influence of those two poets in his work. Gray’s poetry is, come to think of it, pretty much what you’d get if you genetically modified Whitman with Williams. Gray has Whitman’s embrace of the world, his romance, but none of his grandiosity and bravura; he has Williams’ calm imaging, his leanness, but Gray is warmer, looser-limbed, less ascetic.
Whitman, writes Gray, “allowed words to be forced on him by his subject-matter rather than choosing them.” His poems are, Gray goes on, “what outside things feel like within him” (Gray 1982, 124). Whitman’s words seem as alive—and in just the same way—as the world was alive in and for Whitman. Clearly Gray wants this for his own work, though the world clearly feels very different (far less dramatic, for a start) within Robert Gray than it did in Whitman. They are different men; they knew different parts of the world. Gray also endorses Whitman’s edict on simplicity: “to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals…is the flawless triumph of art…The great poets are to be known by the absence in them of tricks.” Gray is not a tricky poet; he’s less tricky and much plainer, in fact, than Whitman.
From Williams, Gray says he learned that “poetry is conveyed, fundamentally, in a tone of voice, and that it can be based on the tone of voice alone” (ibid., 127). Gray admires Williams’ humanity and the fact that “he made poetry out of things never before thought fit: dry weeds; commonplace, gestures; the American suburbs; dishmops…wire fences” (ibid., 128) You’ll find such things in Gray’s lyrics of the everyday, too. Like Williams, Gray is trying to grow intimate with what is essential in the vernacular world and almost unsayable, and to sound it out without fuss or comment, in an ordinary voice, stripped clean of cant or cliché or flourish. Gray’s later work departs from the imagist purity of his early volumes, and yet the enterprise of witness seems the same; and the voice, also, though it ages and grows more verbose, is still the same; and it is that voice, as Gray notes of Williams, rather than any formal dexterity or brilliance of diction or mastery of beat, that carries the poems.
There is nothing oratorical about a poem by Gray or Williams, by contrast with Whitman. They quietly speak the inmost life of the world around the poet into being for a reader. Perhaps the critical emphasis upon the imagism, the picture-making, of these two poets misses the point. Each of them has, it’s true, a remarkable acuity: they see into the mystery and fabric of things. But they don’t, of course, paint: they utter. We are left not with images of things, and not with things themselves, but with phrases, rhythmic fragments, that speak of aspects of what’s real. We are left with snatches of a voice telling (what can’t be told about) the world. Somehow it feels like the lines these two poets utter partake of the very same energy, the same rhythm and music, of the things these poets witness. And yet, like the voice of each singer within the one choir, each poem speaks, utterly, in a singular human voice. If it did not, the poem would not engage us; it would not stand separate from the world whose being it is trying to say. The poem is something other than the ordinary or beautiful thing it speaks of, and yet it gives us a sense of that thing almost as though it—the poem—were not there at all. As though the voice had become the thing, the thing the voice. It’s a matter of timbre mostly, with these two writers—a speaking that is almost entirely made of looking and listening—that is the vibration of witness. Gray might say that what we hear is how the world sounds within the poet.
Third, Gray acknowledges a twentieth century poet whose work I don’t know much about: Charles Reznikoff.
As well as the three Americans mentioned, Gray nods with approval toward James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop (“at her best, when she is writing out of sensual responsiveness and not whimsy”), Gary Snyder, Theodore Roethke, Hart Crane (before he got too mannered), and Wallace Stevens (although, Gray says, he lacked Williams’ humanity). Robert Frost he finds phony. Denise Levertov was narcissistic, he opines, in her discipleship to Williams. And then there are the posers, botchers, and camp followers: Ezra Pound, Charles Olsen, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley. Like many poets, he’s tough on his fellow poets, discriminating perhaps to a fault, even harsh. But you get a strong feeling for what he likes (authenticity, simplicity, spiritually loaded realism) and what he does not (self-concern, show, pomposity).
Recently, reading Kenneth Rexroth, I found myself listening, as it were, Robert Gray. There were striking resemblances here—the dance between philosophy and witness, the didactic and the image; the heightened conversational style; the lapsed bohemianism; the sensuality; the love of women and the love of places—as well as striking differences—particularly Rexroth’s insistent seven syllable line, which gives his poems an elegant, lean, but dense form and orderliness quite different to the openness and diversity you meet in Gray. But, above all, these two poets sound a fair bit the same. I happened to be talking to Robert soon after, and I mentioned the kinship I’d felt between his work and Rexroth’s. “You know, the only other person who’s spotted that was Denise Levertov,” he responded. He spoke affectionately and precisely about Rexroth’s work, distinguishing it formally from his own, and pointing me to some particular poems he said he had always loved (Mary and the Stars). When I mentioned I had been reading from a beautiful new edition of Rexroth’s collected poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2001), he said he was going to order in a copy.
Next time I talked to Robert he said he had the book and was enjoying it—as much for the creamy paper as for the poems, many of which he knew well already. Robert has long been a bookseller as well as a poet. He is a lover of good, straightforward design, in books and many things. Indeed, he has designed and illustrated his last two volumes (Lineations and Afterimages). As Martin Harrison has noted, Gray is as much a poet of the book, of the interior world, as he is of nature, of the exterior world (within him). He is an aesthete and a reader as much as he is a walker out of doors.
If you want to understand Robert Gray, read Kenneth Rexroth, read Walt Whitman, read William Carlos Williams. There you’ll find his peers and mentors. There you’ll find the tradition of poetry he is making new in Australia.
THE SHEPHERD OF BEING
But what did Robert Gray say, in this essay of his, he looks for in poetry? Or what, to put the same thing differently, does he think poetry can do? Two things. First, poetry “can be the most complete mode of apprehension…Poetry can be, and should be, what Francis Ponge has spoken of—a rational language that will resonate also in the body” (ibid., 122). Poetry is an activity, in the writing and in the reading, that marries sense and mind. Poetry is thoughtful and embodied witness. It is sensual contemplation of the world and one’s work within it. You can see how he sets about that task endlessly in his own work.
Second, seeking a definition of the kind of relationship the poet wants with his subject-matter and with his readers, Gray employs a lovely phrase he translates from Heidegger: the poet is “the shepherd of being.” The poet, Gray believes, must, most of all, care for things, for what they truly are. The poet’s duty of care is to shepherd the essence of the things he turns to into the kind of being they can only have in the witness a poet can make. The poet cares with mind and sense and word. Noticing things without using them: this is how poetry can be useful to mankind and serve the world. Caretaking is what it can model: the tough, unsleeping, tender care of the shepherd. It is hard to imagine a more pastoral metaphor for the work of poetry itself.
In Gray’s conception, then, poetry itself is pastoral. It is shepherding. The poet shepherds reality into words.
But true poetic witness is an especially demanding kind of husbandry. For what the poet cares for is the integrity of the world’s forms, their life independent of whatever use he may wish to make of them. If one cares like this, the being one attends to may keep on becoming something else, the world may keep on becoming more and more itself, and less and less what you thought it was; and it may demand of the poet a different kind of work of witness, of shepherding—different prosodic devices, less of what he wants, more of what the land wants. The flock may change the witness into what it needs him to be to bear witness to it. And it may erode and alter his very work. So it has been with Gray, I think. The world is not the place he thought he knew. And only caring for it as he has in his poetry would have allowed him to discover that.
It is chiefly in this way—through his evolving, eroding practice of care for things—that Gray is a pastoral poet. Really, despite his particular affection for pastoral places, people and things, and his sad, tender, nostalgic mood (and really pastoral is, above all, a mood—that mood), Robert Gray is a poet of things and thingness, as Martin Harrison might put it. Nature is not a retreat, not a resort, for him—at least it is that less and less. Nature is just what is. And nature is everything. It includes, for instance, himself and all of us—Mr Nelson, Gray’s mother and father, the abattoir, the light on the harbour, the flight through storm, the nation’s first peoples. And just what nature’s nature is goes on changing and eluding him and changing him by virtue of his sustained sensuous and mindful attention. And so the poet has grown and the poetry has changed, while the world has gone on becoming more and more the same.
The very first poem in Robert Gray’s very first book (Creekwater Journal, 1983) describes his going home. It goes like this:
Journey: the North Coast
Next thing, I wake up in a swaying bunk.
as though on board a clipper
lying in the sea,
and it’s the train, that booms and cracks,
it tears the wind apart.
Now the man’s gone
who had the bunk below me. I swing out,
cover his bed and rattle up the sash—
there’s sunlight rotating
off the drab carpet. And the water sways
solidly in its silver basin, so cold
it joins together through my hand.
I see from where I’m bent
One of those bright crockery days
that belong to so much I remember.
The train’s shadow, like a bird’s,
flees on the blue and silver paddocks,
over fences that look split from stone,
and banks of fern,
a red clay bank, full of roots,
over a dark creek, with logs and leaves suspended,
and blackened tree trunks.
Down these slopes move, as a nude descends a staircase,
slender white gum trees,
and now the country bursts open on the sea—
across a calico beach, unfurling;
strewn with flakes of light
that make the whole compartment whirl.
Shuttering shadows. I rise into the mirror
rested. I’ll leave my hair
ruffled a bit that way—fold the pyjamas,
stow the book and wash bag. Everything done,
press down the latches into the case,
that for twelve months I’ve watched standing out
of a morning, above the wardrobe
in a furnished room.
(Gray 1998, 2)
This is in every way a young man’s poem. Hear how happy he is to be coming home from the city—he’s shut that suitcase and he’s on his way home. He’s slept, for God’s sake, in pyjamas, which now he folds away! He’ll leave his hair ruffled (a young man’s vanity). All there is in the world is this young man’s coming home and the country that allows it to unfold. Here I am, the poem cries, and here is my old familiar country unfurling again about me.
You can also feel Gray’s gift for description here. Though it moves with a beautiful, uneven rhythm and narrates a simple homecoming, “Journey” is essentially a descriptive poem. The imagery is easy and not particularly arresting. But it’s vivid and tidy. I’ve never been able to forget the feel of that so cold water, joining through my hands in that basin. Nor the sound and dance of the poem and the country it tells: the swaying bunk, the swinging man, the boom and crack of the train as it tears the wind apart, the train’s fleeing shadow, the shuttering shadows (okay, I know it’s a visual image, but listen to it), the clattering sash, the country bursting open, the whirling compartment.
There’s real country here, but it’s uncomplicated, and the imagery Gray uses belongs to the books he’s read and the kitchen his mother kept: these are the “bright crockery days” of memory (that nostalgic note already); these slender trees are nudes descending a staircase. The beach is calico (a perfect choice of colour and texture, by the way, but a particularly interior, colonial and housekeeping reference). In the whole poem only the “gums” and, at a stretch, the “blackened tree trunks” mark this as an Australian poem. When I realised this just now, I was shocked. The poem always evoked for me the north coast of my country, too, but somehow it does it without many images that place it there. It does it by its coastal and sclerophyll feel, I guess, not to mention its title. It really lives in the country of common European memory. This is a pastoral—it could be happening anywhere there are pastures edged with trees and opening onto the sea.
This is a landscape not really seen or heard—its own being is not deeply felt and limned. This is landscape as a furnished room passed through at speed, filled, appealingly, with slender nudes: I told you it was a young man’s poem. Only the man who’s gone disquiets this poem of excited return. And not for long. There’s just a small suggestion in this reference that the young man knows this room is not really his own, or not his alone. There was someone else here before.
Then the country bursts open—but not to the poet, just to the sea. Really the country is still closed in its being from the man, yet what he sees of it and how it makes him feel, he loves. That love carries the boy home and it carries the poem.
Still, this is a fresh and beautiful poem, I think. I’ve never been able to shake it since I read it first in 1986. That journey goes on and on. (I was touched to read in my research that Gray’s contemporary and friend, the poet and philosopher Kevin Hart, says he’s reread this poem in particular countless times over the years—this poem and many others, of course. “It is easier to quote poems by Robert that I love than to say why I am so drawn to them,” Hart admits (Hart 1999, 9), though he too notes Robert’s “care for things,” his tenderness of attention and his gift for curious and intricate image, not profoundly evident in the poem both Kevin and I love. Hart quotes “The night as filled with rain as a plank with splinters” to illustrate Gray’s real gift.)
ARRIVAL—A STRANGER HOUSE
Between that poem and “A Poem of Not More Than Forty Lines on the Subject of Nature” (Afterimages, 2002) stretch thirty years, and you can tell. Between the poems lies a career made of lines as quintessentially Australian as the one Hart quotes, a hundred fresh ways of getting close to the very being of eucalypt leaves and the light upon the harbour.
“A Poem” is the work of an older poet. It’s a more jaded pastoral—of arrival, this time, not passage. Between the poems the poet has lost his pastoral innocence. The erosion of his witnessing self, of this shepherd, has exposed to him a more animate, broken yet enduring and resonant landscape. His familiar places sound strange in him now. The poet who arrives in this poem to a place very like the one he has always belonged, is not the same man at all as the one who was coming home in 1973.
Both poems begin with a waking. The first woke to light, the second to an animate darkness, and in this later waking, though you feel the poet’s weariness and unease, you discern a fuller awareness of things beyond the waker, and a connection between them all. Gray’s world has grown less pretty, his poetry less clean and simple.
A Poem of Not More Than Forty Lines on the Subject of Nature”
I awake to rain blown against this one room, beneath the cliffs of
forest, on a slope above the valley that has welled with night.
All evening the rain riddled the lamp’s beam, that stood outside as if to
brace the shack. What I hear now is only the aftermath, shed thickly by
the branches and settling like fishing lines through the sea, many small
weights sounding separately on the tin.
The night creatures have streamed forth again, to exult after the storm.
It was a bird that with a shout opened my sleep, and that I dreamt for-
bore, in its natural economy, where it glared down upon me.
I hear insects, as constant as water running off the slopes, and imagine
those whirling particles tied into a form, like the finely entwined column
beneath a tap that’s left to run in a certain amount.
Lying here, half awake, I feel this shack is a room within some great
house, which creaks and strains about me, an empty place.
And it seems I am listening for someone who is responsible here to
come back. I hear the stairs crack, high ceilings drip, the sift of plaster, a
billow of wind pushing in, and boards that whine. I even hear a low burr
like a telephone, that stops short as though picked up. I have to remind
myself of where I am, and that no one needs to come. It is all going on
as it began.
This house, though, where I lie: I could find within it, through cer-
tain rooms, through many rooms, things that seem laid out for me. It is
a house left me by default. A strange house, that was not made with
I go outside to urinate under the small awning. The now clear sky, in
autumn, is shaggy, ice-encrusted. Twisting above the ranges, all of those
jammed-together, dilated stars. So clear is the night, and so heavily-laden,
I think I can hear, far off, the roar of its terrible, rampaging machinery.
I am on a planet that is lying face-up to those burning faces like a dice.
(Gray 2002, 4)
Notice, first, where the poet is. He’s back there where he was as a child (I don’t mean in exactly that same house above that same valley), and where much of his poetry seems to reside, at this edge between pasture and timber, between the tame and the wild: he’s just below the forest on the slope above a cleared valley. (Recalling his childhood country in the passage I quoted earlier, Gray said he grew up “just below the forest-line on a beautiful hillside” and then “under the mountains and beside a creek.”) But night has welled in the valley, and the place is no longer the same. It has all become strange to him. He is no longer at home, though he is more fully present, one feels, in this terrain. The poet hears things, which go on tonight, he realises, as they always have, but which he never knew and which seem laid out for him now. The place is at once empty and darkly, insistently alive. He hears things inside—over, beyond and under—what he hears and sees. He hears the roar of the night’s “terrible, rampaging machinery.” The silence is alive with threat and suggestion. The house of the night above the valley is haunted, and its emptiness creaks and strains, as once the train did, about him.
This house—the place about him—has come to him by default. We all stumble into our particular place on earth. And there it is going on about us. It is someone else’s house that’s come to us.
Nature is for Gray no safe harbour any more. It is no idyll. Nor is it a place, the poet knows, from which the human can be banished. Nature in its indifferent way includes us. Nature has become for Gray a strange house—a stranger’s house. It is not his, it is not ours, and yet it is where we must live, our only home. In “A Poem” you find the poet reasonably at ease, if not quite at home, within this teeming, empty, unsafe house; and here in the night, in all the rooms of the house, are the voices of the men and women who used to be here—along with all the living beings (“the night creatures”) whom we can not hope to know, and yet which we can hear beyond hearing. The land, this house, goes on “as it all began,” regardless of the man, and yet cognizant enough of him to lay things out for him, if that man (or woman, of course) learns to stay and listen.
The echoes of his very first poem strike me more each time I read this late poem, as though Gray had it in mind. Apart from the waking and the creaking and booming about him (which was the train in the early poem, and is now the whole place, an interesting shift, suggesting that the land itself has grown animate for the poet), there is the abandonment of the space (to him, by default) by the previous tenants. The insects in the night now “whirl,” where the compartment did before, in the light of day. The same verb elaborates here an awkward and unsettling image of the infestation of emptiness.
Here, the poet’s sleep, the poet himself, is opened up by the place—by a bird and a dream of a bird standing over him, glaring but not attacking. In “Journey” the country itself burst open, but not upon the poet, you recall.
The “so clear” water in the early poem, part of a small moment of personal domestic economy, has become a sky “so clear” the poet can discern in its clarity the awful spinning of the planet, the machinery of the world—a quality of a massive and overbearing natural economy in which the poet is dwarfed. And this time the poet does not rise to wash but to urinate. He is connected in this way with the whole streaming night—which is also, suddenly, miraculously clear.
Gray’s closing line, in which stars have become “burning faces” and the whole world a prone body, spinning helplessly beneath those faces’ glare, is sharp with threat and beauty. This place is haunted by the dead with their fiery eyes; the whole world is.
This is antipodean sublime. The country Gray has always inhabited and shepherded in verse has turned out to be something much more strange, something much less lovely than he had thought. It has aged back into itself, and Gray’s witness has aged until he can discern it. By “country” here I mean this familiar setting of his poems, I mean the shack at the edge of the eucalypts, above the valley, and I mean Australia. I think the poem may be read as Gray’s acknowledgment that the whole continent here has come to us by default, that there is hell to pay for the beauty laid out for us, that our belonging, our sleep within it, will always be troubled. And nothing and no one can make really make it right—“no one needs to come.” That’s just the way it’s going to be.
The country is inhabited by everything beyond our control and ken, and by the sleepless generations who came before. Except that the place itself is quite alright: it goes on as it began, and takes us with it, part of its cargo of night creatures, of rain, of ranges and moving trees. It is good to remind yourself properly where you are, who was here first, and how it all goes on and on regardless.
I should add that there is even less in this poem than in “Journey” to tell you it’s an Australian place. You can expect many more identifiers of Australian places—eucalypt leaves, paperbarks, kangaroos, currawongs, white-faced herons—in almost any other Gray poem. All the same, I feel an Australian night welled in an Australian valley here; it’s eucalypts that creak and strain against sandstone scarps. But without the body of the poet’s work that gone before and gathered itself in this place, this could, of course, be anywhere.
Finally, I want to note that this poem is made of prose. Gray’s always written one or two each book, so there’s nothing new in that. This stretch of prose is manifestly a poem—but how do we know? There’s a compression of language, a texture, a rhythmic quality (albeit irregular), richness and strangeness of imagery, and a refusal to explain that are characteristics of the poem. This is uttered—this is a mind at song. Though mostly it doesn’t, poetry may happen, then, in prose. But it isn’t guaranteed.
PROSE & PROSODY
Robert Gray is writing a memoir. Its first chapter appeared in late 2003 in the literary journal Heat (The Waters Beneath the Earth). The chapter is mostly about Gray’s father. Something about writing prose—as prose, not as poetry—changes Robert Gray’s voice. It is hard to recognise the writing as the work of the same man who wrote the lines I’ve shared with you here. While the prose of the memoir is elegant, it is strikingly different from the prose, for instance, of “A Poem.” All the qualities I noted in that prose poem are missing here. The memoir has a “once upon a time” feeling about it. It’s loose and discursive, narrative not lyric, composed with little concern for its music, for its voice.
Prose, memoir in particular, doesn’t have to sound so prosy. Think of Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, Joan Didion’s Where I Was From or John Haines’ The Stars, The Snow, The Fire. You can write extended prose works out of a poetic space, in other words. Gray does not do that here. And I would have to say that in our prose in Australia, we have not often written out of the ruthless attention to the world (even of our own childhoods) that poetry insists upon; and so our prose, much more than our poetry, often ends up sounding as though it had been written by—someone like Robert Gray’s father. Or else we sound like some parody of ourselves as Aussies.
Gray’s memoir does not express the same state of being in the world, the same care for the nature of things, his poetry does. He is being, in a sense, his father; he is not being here and now, as he is so powerfully in his poetry. He is not being-with the land. What he’s doing is remembering, and memory (expressed in prose, anyway) seems to have a different syntax and diction for him. So it is his father, or at least, a bookish kind of self, who writes these sentences, as though they were a continuation of all those books his father, and young Robert himself, read in that house among the paddocks, when he was finding out he could write. He has become ratty or mole or Mr Toad or Rudyard Kipling. He has become his father.
Here’s an example:
My mother, in telling me of the early days of her friendship with my father, whom she had met on the coast, remembered how whenever he began to slip beyond her into drunkenness he would mutter about the Metropole Hotel, which once stood at the centre of the city, and would name the mates he imagined lining the bar. All of them, she said, had easily lost contact with him.
When he did break the family’s edict and return to Sydney, on two or three occasions while his father lived, it was never unobtrusively enough. My grandfather, a much tougher man than his son, although at times equally a drunkard, could at once have his will enforced on my father, through hired men, without even needing to appear. Within a day or two of arriving in town, my father was debarred and brusquely treated in all of the better drinking places…
(Gray 2003, 58)
I don’t mean to disparage Gray’s new prose. It is accomplished enough. But it draws out and concentrates a courtly, English tone of voice that has always been there beneath his poems—the waters, if I may use his metaphor, that run beneath his earth. How out of register this tone was with that of his poetry struck me with some force when I first read the extract in Heat. Gray sounds, more than he would like to know, like the gentleman his father always aspired to be. “The gentleman was proverbial in this country,” Gray writes, “until the nineteen-fifties, invoked in homes, in schools, in the streets…Those who experienced this ideal through their imaginative reading, as my father did, were surely the most susceptible to it” (Gray 2003, 60). If that is true, it was true not only for Gray’s father, but for Gray himself. And for a man like me, like pretty much any Australian who grows up among books and imagines he or she might someday like to write this place.
How is it, then, that a poet can write poetry in a voice increasingly indigenous to his country, while at the same time writing prose that speaks a kind of Colonial patois, so at odds with his poetic voice and the country itself? I think what’s happened is that an unconformity in his life’s geology—between the father he has spent his life trying not to be and the poet the landscape has made him into—has been exposed by the passage of time, and the weathering of his witness—by the land’s genius for finding us all out. It’s a split many of us—I in particular—recognise in ourselves. It’s the one between our bookish selves, which are Anglophone and Eurocentric, where we are, as Gray is, palefaces to a man and woman, pastoralists to the bones; and our antipodean selves, which are in love, more and more, with a land that will not be caught in the language we learned in school.
Sometimes this unconformity within an Australian writer sits there as part of their work, unsettling it, unexpressed. I think this is how it was in Gray’s earlier poetry. Sometimes it is exposed by the erosion of our deepening belonging, and we are forced to speak of it: we are forced to find the language of and for our disjunctive sense of ourselves in this land, of this land in ourselves. And that is what Gray is attempting, I think, in his recent poetry. But in this memoir, Gray’s internal unconformity has also been inadvertently exposed, I suspect; we get down to the colonial bedrock upon which his antipodean sandstones have been deposited since. And it speaks, despite himself.
Yet in this memoir, Gray is coming, at the age of sixty, to own the shadows, as well as the light and the vistas, of his growing up. He is allowing himself to be his father’s son. And that is part, of course, of who he is. It needs to come into the poetry and the belonging. At the same time, as we’ve seen, he’s uncovering in his poetry the violence and grief that underlie the country of his writing, all those cleared coastal paddocks, those paperbarked creeks. In his prose he remains, just now, the man his father and all those books made him, and he speaks like a visitor to this land; in his poems, he is the land itself, and he speaks its language. This contradiction is where many Australian writers of place (in poetry and prose) find ourselves just now: this is where the pastoral stands, dancing awkwardly to two different musics, failing and falling and trying again. This is the unconformity, this is the disjunction, out of which we write Australia now. This is how we shepherd her and how we must—uncertain of our selves, trying to be who we are while listening for what the place needs us to be.
Catalano, Gary “Hymns to the Optic Nerve,” Overland 142, 1996, 54–8
Gifford, Terry Pastoralism, Routledge, London, 1999
Gray, Robert “Poetry and Living: An Evaluation of the American Poetic Tradition,” in Kirkby 1982, 117–36
—————— New Selected Poems, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 1998
—————— Afterimages, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 2002
—————— “The Water Under the Earth,” Heat 6 (New Series), 2003, 57–72
Harrison, Martin “Robert Gray and the Revision of the Senses” in Harrison 2004, 37–44
—————— “Self, Place, Newness” in Harrison 2004, 53–66
—————— Who Wants to Create Australia?, Halstead, Sydney, 2004
—————— “The Degradation of Land and the Position of Poetry,” Unpublished paper presented at “Be True to the Earth,” first ASLE-ANZ conference, Monash University, Melbourne, April 2005
Hart, Kevin “Gray’s Images are Both Fresh and Tender,” Australian Author, vol 30, no 3, March 1999, 7–11
Kirkby, Joan The American Model, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982
Koval, Ramona “Interview with Robert Gray,” Australian Book Review, February–March 1997, 42–3
Marx, Leo The Machine in the Garden: Technology & the Pastoral Ideal in America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1964
McCredden, Lyn In Dialogue with Robert Gray, http://www.doubledialogues.com/issue_five/gray_mccreddin.htm
Poacher, Jeffrey “‘A Hymn to the Optic Nerve’,” Heat 5 (New Series), 2003
Rexroth, Kenneth The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, edited by Sam Hammill & Bradford Morrow, Copper Canyon, Port Townsend, Washington, 2003
Seddon, George “Getting off the Sheep’s Back: Farewell to Arcady,” photocopy.
Spurr, Barry The Poetry of Robert Gray, Pascal Press, Glebe, 1995
Tredinnick, Mark “Belonging to Here: An Introduction” in Tredinnick 2003, 25–47
—————— A Place on Earth, University of NSW Press/ University of Nebraska Press, 2003