Reviewed by Geoff Page
There used to be a printer’s reason why poetry collections were 64 pages long. In recent years they have stretched to 90 or more. At 346 pages, Robert Gray’s Cumulus: Collected Poems presents an interesting problem -especially for someone who has read all its constituent volumes as they emerged. Does one simply put the book on the shelf for future reference? Or does one read it right through at normal speed? Ideally, one would read (and re- read) one of its poems per day for the best part of a year.
Taken at normal speed, however, Cumulus reminds one overwhelmingly of Robert Gray’s uniqueness as a poet. Though he owes a debt, now some distance away, to the American poet, William Carlos Williams, and though he has been somewhat imitated by other Australian Imagists, Gray is never to be confused with anyone else. It was Les Murray who, long ago, pointed out that “Robert Gray has the best eye in Australian poetry”. Gray himself, in his poem, “Thin Air”, surmises that “My life … must be a hymn / to the optic nerve.” It’s significant though that in “Thin Air”, dedicated to his long-time partner, Dee Jones,
Gray adds immediately that “Other senses, you have proved, / will have all they deserve.”
Some critics like to consider Gray a painter manqué. His most typical poems are minutely-detailed descriptions of loved landscapes in various lights and weathers, often using metaphors and similes derived from the visual arts. A typical example can be found in “Home Run”: “Of all
the colour, this is the colour to have seen. The sea / is blue as ink, / or as a dye, newly pulped, / from which a great billow of fabric has been lifted, / the slightly lighter sky.”
In this context, some might consider the addition of a small sample of the poet’s own drawings at the book’s end to be a self-indulgence but, as Gray says in his Author’s Note, “The free verse line in my poems I see as analogous to the spontaneous line in drawing. This written line is a gesture, also, although for the voice.” What lifts Gray’s poems well above the “thousand words” a picture is proverbially worth is the presence of the other four senses – and a deeply meditative habit of mind. Gray once described himself as a “Buddhist heretic” and there is no denying the influence of that outlook on his work – even
though he remains an explicit materialist. Occasionally, as in the manner of a sage, Gray allows himself a series of aphorisms, most of which are intellectually or spiritually persuasive but which exist only at the edges of poetry as we normally define it.
Take, for instance, the undeniable yet original wisdom in “We’ve come to fear science / because it brings bad news. / It is our only friend” and/or “Good is the conclusion / that we draw from evil”. Gray is here attempting something similar to Wallace Stevens’ famous sequence of aphorisms about poetry, ” Adagia”. It’s significant, however, that we don’t find ” Adagia” in Stevens’ Collected Poems.
On the other hand, when these sorts of perceptions are seamlessly woven into the poems we do have a part of what makes Gray’s work so distinctive. His poetry is not simply an effort to reproduce “Nature” as accurately and evocatively as words permit. What we see in his poems is the movement of a highly attentive mind, informed by all it has read and experienced hitherto. It’s worth reinforcing here too, that Gray is concerned to give us, as implied in “Thin Air”, the taste, touch, sound and smell of what he isobserving or remembering.
This is something well beyond the resources of the painters whom Gray obviously admires and on whom he is plainly something of an expert. Almost any of his haiku will give a sense of it: “Flesh-pale, a wet floor / and scaffolding. A train’s sound. / The rock dreams a tree of stars” or “Open the door on / the gunshot of the morning – / work all day wounded.” (from “13 Poems”).
Although Cumulus has, literally, scores of such poems it is probably Gray’s longer, more ambitious poems which are most impressive and which have already (and deservedly) been extensively anthologised. They include early poems such as “The Meat Works” and “Flames and Dangling Wire” as well as later ones like “Malthusian Island” and “In Departing Light”. All these poems – and others such as “Flemington” and “The Circus ” – have a strong moral, even prophetic dimension. The poet not only notes and evokes, he suggests unwelcome complexities – and compels us to take them into account.
Other unforgettable poems include “Bondi” and “A Sight of Proteus” , both of which have a fine balance between beauty as we traditionally understand it and the human- generated detritus in which it is often to be found. In “Bondi”, for instance, Gray starts by noting “big, plastery, such as “of a sudden” when most would say “suddenly”.
They might even take exception to Gray’s (intermittent) use of rhyme schemes that are so flexible in sound and structure as to be almost invisible, even while they make a significant impact on the poems’ syntax, imagery and word choice.
There is no doubt, however, that Cumulus: Collected Poems is an essential book to have on your shelf – even if you already have the collections from which it was compiled. As Gray says in his Author’s Note “The latest versions of my poems are the only ones I acknowledge, and only those that appear in this book.” A few readers have been frustrated by Gray’s habit of revising his poems long after their publication but they will find that the (usually quite small) changes made in Cumulus are definite improvements. For such a visual poet, the book’s design is perhaps too rigorously plain but that may be not so much a cost-cutting measure as a deliberate contrast to the richness of imagery within.
ROBERT GRAY – EMERITUSAWARD REFERENCE
Robert Gray’s standing as an international figure is not in doubt. When contemporary Australian poetry is discussed abroad, his name is one of the first that is invariably invoked; and it is notable that he is admired and championed by an unusually broad spectrum of readers and critics. Gray’s own ability to elude labels,
his gift for transcending narrow stylistic confines and for disregarding critical factions, is an important factor in this regard. He achieves distinction across a wide range of genres and styles, formal and free, sometimes writing with narrative verve, at other times displaying the pithy delicacy of a haiku master.
He is an international poet in the fullest sense – Australian in voice, Asian in sensibility and European in influence. The freshness and originality of his perspicuous poetry are so immediately striking that there can be little surprise that he is establishing himself as a sought-after poet by organisers of readings in many countries. In recent years, he has been an acclaimed participant in the major Berlin International Literature Festival, and has read elsewhere in Germany, including the Dresden Literaturforum. A guest at festivals and other venues across the UK, he also travelled to Ireland under the auspices of the national poetry organisation, Poetry Ireland. Moreover, he is one of the select number of eminent Australian poets whose books are published in England as well as Australia; some of his finest work was first seen in UK journals. He has been a writer-in-residence at the prestigious Meiji university in Tokyo and is a translator of the poetry of the German poet, Joachim Sartorius. His own work has been translated into many languages and, at book length, in Holland, China and Germany.
With his Zen-influenced sensibility and his acuity as an observer of the natural world, there is some kinship between Gray and American poets such as Gary Snyder. But Gray’s ingenuity as an image-maker sets him apart from other poets. As an example of his imagistic genius, I would instance ‘The Fishermen’, a poem of astonishing inventiveness and vividness; it is among the finest contemporary poems. Gray’s range can be seen by contrasting this poem with another masterly example from his later work: The Dying Light’, a brutally honest and deeply affecting poem about his ninety-year-old mother.
Few poets evoke landscapes more vividly or accurately than does Gray; an outstanding nature poet, he will doubtless be championed by adherents of the growing eco-poetry movement. His forthcoming Collected Poems will be a major event in poetry and, in showcasing all eight of his previous collections of poetry, will consolidate his reputation internationally as a pellucid poet of verbal radiance and visual precision whose work is distinguished by its emotional power, photorealist exactitude and lively engagement with the natural world.
Gray is himself a canon-making force in Australian poetry, co-editing three important anthologies, and now at work on a further comprehensive volume. And he is an independent, measured, authoritative critic, read and trusted at home and (via the internet) abroad. His riveting autobiography, The Land I Came Through Last, a new departure in his work, proved him to be a compelling narrator, astute observer, and elegant prose stylist.
Tirelessly devoted to the art of poetry – which he has practised with singular distinction, fastidiousness and commitment over many decades – Robert Gray would be the ideal recipient of an Emeritus Award. It would represent just recognition for his past achievements and a vital encouragement, at this crucial phase of his career, towards the masterworks he can be confidently expected to produce in the future.
2 May 2011