Review by Kevin Hart
SOMETIMES our louder contemporaries can deafen us, so it takes decades for us to distinguish the most original and enduring poets of our times. This has been the case with Robert Gray who, increasingly, presses upon the attentive reader as one of the few living poets we ignore at our peril.
He is not a poet who bullies us with his views about this or that, or who seeks to dazzle us with linguistic fireworks. Nor does he impose on us with books fuelled by ambition for literary fame. His poetry is of far more value than that.
When we first read him we think, rightly, that he seeks to teach us how better to sense the natural world about us. Yet when we reread him, we realise he is doing something more rare and more profound: he alerts us to those phenomena that are always nearby, that are deeply entangled in our lives, but that are in danger of not being seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled.
Not to attend to the world about us is to be in danger of reducing life (to work, ambition, responsibility, or programmed leisure), of living a life without proper nourishment. Gray’s poems are fine lenses for viewing the ordinary world we so often overlook. Often when we read him we are struck by the magic of his eye.
Coast Road begins with a lyric about taking an overnight train from Sydney up NSW’s north coast. The speaker wakes and sees “one of those bright crockery days / from so much recall”, and immediately we think of those blue and white tea sets so common in the 1950s and 60s. Perhaps only when we re-read the poem do we dwell on how the speaker wakes up, “as if on board a clipper / clambering at sea.”
Many poets ask the questions “What?” and “Why?” in their poems, but those who sustain our attention over many years prefer the more difficult question “How?”
Here, Gray perfectly captures the disorientation of waking in a moving train. More than that, the image of the clipper “clambering” over high waves is exactly right, caught in just one word, and the phrasing of the entire experience, with the phonic play of “clipper” and “clambering”, makes us realise the lines could be said memorably in no other way.
Those teacups might lead us to think of Gray as a poet of loss or even nostalgia, and such a thought would not be entirely mistaken. Yet loss is merely a moment of a far grander theme: the ceaseless metamorphosis of life.
Early on, Gray took Zen Buddhism as a guide. To the Master, Dogen Zenji gives us, in a compelling -adaptation of Ezra Pound’s manner, a re-creation of the great Japanese teacher,
founder of the Soto school. We see the young monk standing on the jetty “with his new smooth skull”; and it is there that he meets an old cook, unimpressed by the monk’s piety, who leads him to enlightenment.
That illumination is simply attention to “the ordinary things” (like listening to the horses clump past with their “lumpy hooves”), which can happen only if we acknowledge that “there’s no abiding self’.
The truth is that “Things tell us what we need to do”, not our minds, and certainly not our religious convictions: “And upon this leaf one shall cross over / the stormy sea, / among the dragon-like waves.”
If Gray is sometimes given to teach us, whether in poems or in aphorisms, he is most memorable when he shows us what we are all too likely to bypass, whether because something is unfamiliar or because it is overly familiar. What would we not notice without Gray’s help? Something like “late afternoon sun / in the back of the shed, / cornered and still.”
And what is something have we observed, time and again, in Sydney but never really seen? Why, a ferry crossing “the huge, dark harbour,” going “out beyond / the tomato stake patch / of the yachts”, with “the Bridge like a giant prop”.
If Late Ferry is suffused by melancholy, which is an irreducible aspect of Grays idiom, it is also brightened by sheer sensual delight in the scene. Watching the ferry float towards the city is “like tasting honeycomb, / filled as it is with its yellow light”.
One of the most extraordinary poems in this piercing collection is a study of the poet’s mother, “all of ninety”, as she suffers from Alzheimer’s. I call the poem a study for two reasons. In Departing Light is an investigation, a reflection; at the same time, it is a study in the way some paintings are studies: it has the air of being quick, unfinished, rough. Yet no one shows more care than Gray in presenting what is apparently artless.
The poem is at once merciless in its stark realisation that “If you live long enough it isn’t death you fear / but what life can still do” and tender in the care shown for the woman who “has to be tied up/ on her wheelchair”.
The final stanza of the poem is utterly heart- breaking: “My mother will get lost on the roads after death”, we are told, and, as we would expect, Gray refuses all religious consolation:
“This is all / of your mother, in your arms”, he tells himself, this woman whose mouth “is full of chaos”, who keeps losing her dentures on the grass of the nursing home garden, and who smells “like old newspapers on a damp concrete floor”.
Gray says his life has been “a hymn / to the optic nerve”. Perhaps so, but his other senses have been finely cultivated as well, as when he speaks of “the thick syrups / of a garden” or of “birdsong, which is like wandering lines / of fresh paint”.
But what I value most in his work is what he says of the writing of an old Chinese poet: “There is a sense of overbrimming life.” Not to read him is to be in danger of not living as fully as one might.
Kevin Hart’s Wild Track: new and Selected poems is forthcoming from Notre dame university Press.
He teaches at the University of Virginia.