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Some Reflections on the Poetry of Martin Harrison

by Peter Boyle

An intellectual poetry that is never purely cerebral or abstract

If we think of a poem like “A dog barking”, it is a profoundly intellectual poem. It is also a very “Martin Harrison” poem: enigmatic, both very Australian in feel and very intellectual or universal in its reach, playing off a background of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and a range of other theorists. It speaks of the unsayableness of familiar, backgrounded objects and events, and of how they define us. The wordless, experiential density they create stands against all the passions, angers, obsessions and pet theories, all the stuff with which we fill up our spoken world. We see ourselves, or people we know, parents or relatives, echoed in the sadness of the late-night kitchen. This something that puzzles us, that we can’t name: it is, seen one way, philosophy such as it might belong to anyone, fixing a downpipe or waiting for their rage or grief to subside. Martin’s style of intellectual poetry does not shut the door on a non-academic reader. And the poem finishes without finishing. Deliberately it wanders off; and its wandering off is part of the point. For me the poem suggests, but only tentatively, that these simple unsayable things – the redness of late apples, a dog barking, crickets trilling – save us from the chatter of our obsessions, the barriers we create through talk.

It is, in a way, typical of Martin’s poetry, a thinking poem that invites us to travel with it, to think our way into its world, and it does this subtly, unpretentiously, with no need for any abstruse language or display of learning.

To be thought-filled but dwell in uncertainty

There is a richness in Martin’s poetry that comes from dwelling in the immediate visual world. That visual world is not the “nature” of high romanticism, but a scruffy unpredictable focus of encounters that we never fully grasp or know. Take “Letter from America for Antigone Kefala” from Summer, with its reminiscence of sky “out west” and “a single stray cloud, small as a baby elephant”. The poem is itself a response to the reading of Antigone Kefala, to her situation of being between two languages and two worlds. Towards the end of the poem we read “Dead work has no idea / how language works – how things sing / between themselves and their names”. The “dead work” is cliquey anthologies that sideline between-world poets like Antigone Kefala. Harrison’s lines create the intriguing image of things singing in an intermediate zone between whatever they might be in themselves and the resonances of the names we give them in our varied languages. Other poets might have closed the poem at this point or devoted the entire poem to teasing out what is implied, but not Martin. Lightness and the state of always moving forward push him towards a different aesthetic, one committed to uncertainty and tentativeness.

Another fine example of an intellectual poem that is filled with thought but stays with uncertainties is “Remembering Old Chatham” with its questions about our world – “What sticks? What stays? What gets through?” Here Martin thinks modernity and how, by now, we differ irretrievably from a classic past where the word “errare” belonged, along with wild deer “loitering”. While there is a sadness in what is lost it is not a poem of nostalgia. The tone is much more filled with curiosity, wonder almost, than that. For all the ideas in this poem it is not, in its critical moments, made up of ideas – nor even (pace Mallarmé’s rather too easy riposte to Degas) made up merely of “words”. Perceptions felt, sudden intrusions of the natural world breaking in on our cogitations, perceptions articulated with the greatest possible precision, “pine-needle greenery”, “Dandelion-heads”, “wind rippling on floodwater”, form the crucial elements of this poetry. And these perceptual intrusions rule out any opinionative certainties.

A writing reader and a reading writer

Martin was a wide reader both in the traditional sense of books and in the cyber-world sense of news feeds, twitter and social media. The breadth of his interests was extraordinary. Politics, the media, Heidegger and philosophy, Latin American, French and North American poetry, ecology and eco-criticism, music both avant-garde and classical, sound engineering, rural Australia – its landscapes and peoples, social media and how they change us: Martin was an obsessive follower of it all (and of a great deal more besides).  Two conversations I remember well typify that breadth. One was on a writers’ retreat near Coffs Harbour in 2011 and Martin was excitedly relaying the latest revelations of the shady dealings of the Murdoch press but also analyzing how those machinations play into, define almost, the politics of our era. The second conversation came from many years before in Martin’s Darlinghurst flat when he had most kindly read through some quite early translations I had made of poems by the Venezuelan Eugenio Montejo. We were discussing the appropriate tone needed for these poems, neither romantic nor baldly matter of fact but somewhere almost impossible to locate in contemporary English that would stand between these two positions. It was a question not of what the poems meant but of how Martin (or I) heard them, listening as intently as we could to how they unfolded in their Spanish.

This diversity of reading and of interests doesn’t so much form the content of Martin’s poetry as the quality of attention he brings to whatever he may be writing about. It isn’t about opinion-based poems on a diversity of with-it topics. It is more about bringing a restless, inquisitive intellect to bear on a few areas that engaged Martin most deeply: the natural world and our part in it, our loneliness and vulnerability, our desire for love and for desire itself in the face of death. Readings, observations, curiosities, conversations – they all fed into the sensitive shaping of poems that function as meditations on life’s big issues. Martin’s poetry is quite remote from any mass outpouring of day-to-day observations. All the poems feel far more mulled over, more necessary than that.

The connection for Martin between intense, engaged reading and the writing of poetry also helps explain the impact he had as a teacher. His capacity to share enthusiasms and be interested in the widest range of ideas and poetic approaches was something contagious. To be a mentor and a source of inspiration for a generation of young and no-longer-quite-so-young poets is no small thing. When I think of the outstanding teachers of poetry in Australia in the last thirty or forty years the three names that come to mind are Dorothy Porter, Martin Harrison and Judith Beveridge. Meeting students of any one of those three, the buzz of excitement for poetry is palpable.

Here and not-here: what it might mean to be an Australian with the widest possible horizons

Rural Australia, with its people, landscapes, birds and animals, its scents and wind-shifts, recurs across Martin’s poetry. There is often an abundance of visual perceptions and a reticence as regards emotions that might seem very Australian, though equally it could be read as very English. That complex reticence, that maintenance of a personal sanctum and the extraordinary power that comes to his later poetry where it is laid bare, I will come to further on. For the moment I want to think about the breadth of horizon that Martin brings to his engagement with the natural world, the specific landscapes and places of Australia that form the content of so much of his poetry.

Martin’s Australia, however rural or remote, is populated with ideas, places, people, phenomena from a very wide grid of connections.  A poem like “Yachts at Scotland Island”, for example, ripples easily between analysis of the computer age, the Mojave desert, the Olgas, Plato’s differentiation between place and space, and the yachts moving off across the horizon and stingrays and gum trees. Embracing Australia, for Martin, was never about turning his back on the rest of the world or dampening down his passionate curiosity over what is new elsewhere.

One significant indicator of the openness of Martin’s interests is the inclusion in Who wants to create Australia? of his essay “Digitalism” with its appreciative, thoughtful analysis of Tranter’s Blackout and MTC Cronin’s Talking to Neruda’s Questions. It stands almost side by side with (separated only by an essay on Barthes’ Reflections on a Manual from) his perceptive, appreciative response to Les Murray’s poetry in the essay “Country and how to get there”. That Martin should engage deeply both with the poetry of Les Murray and with the experimentalism, the implicit internationalism, of Tranter and Cronin, says much about his generosity, his subtlety as a thinker, but equally about the complexity of what is achieved in his own poetry. So much of his poetry responds to the specifics of place, the textures of weather and landscape, of trees and birds, of rural environments and the speech of ordinary people, and yet this specificity does not involve any privileging of categories such as rural Australia, or any entry into the time-worn dichotomies of city and country and the endless quest for an Australian identity or the insistence that a certain sort of “Australian-ness” is needed to fit into Australian poetry. Sensitivity to the textures of place, to all those specifics that remind us we are only one living being moving about among interconnected systems of non-human others, is a powerful force in Martin’s poetry, as in so much poetry that matters from whatever time and place. Whether it is the outback, dairy-farming country, a gully at the back of a suburban block, or simply crows gathering on a bare tree in the asphalted space outside a patient’s hospital window, what matters for poetry is surely the quality of the engagement with that unknown thing called life, not the rhetorical posturing that goes into nationalisms or romanticisings of whatever kind.


The daring risk of leaving the heart open

Each new collection of Martin’s represented a move forward from the previous one, and the poems he was writing in the years before his death were the most extraordinary of all.

Death had earlier registered its presence in Martin’s poetry with poems like “The Driver” and “Now”, both published in 2005 in Music. The first of these, concerning the death of an unknown other seen from the outside, is a recording but much more than a recording of what was seen and felt. The numb terror of brushing that close to death is caught in simple familiar colloquialisms: “His standing there beneath the trees has got to me” and “That moment, traveling at the speed of light, caught me out”: but the locusts entering the house, following the speaker, rising and then crashing to earth, enact something far more than reflections can. In “Now” death has come even closer – it is all about the speaker with his knowledge that death could be at any moment. The attack by a brown snake – part memory, part imagining, part vivid unstoppable nightmare – spills out into the two long, twisting and turning, halves of the poem, ending with the sense of a protective gap of space around the self suddenly emptying into “now”. The poem is located in a rural place, the house at Wollombi presumably, but it feels already to have taken a leap away from Martin’s previous style, already to be risking something quite different.

These two poems, for all their emotional grip, and even with the allowance that “Now” marks the beginning of something very different, still seem to fit within the general pattern of Martin’s poetry. Looking back at Martin’s poetry overall as presented in the publication of Wild Bees in 2008, I see it as work shaped most of all by a rational speaking voice, to some extent a tone of understatement, and a vast, in many ways reassuring, presence of the natural world. It is a poetry that it has taken me a long time to appreciate properly, to grasp with the right openness, to hear the way Martin and I worked together to hear Montejo. When I first read The Distribution of Voice and The Kangaroo Farm in the mid 1990’s I missed a lot, as both the content and style were so very different from what I was writing or trying to write. When poetry is subtle, as Martin’s is, it probably takes longer to reach a reader who doesn’t share the same experiences or preoccupations. Close visual observation, registered in a fine slightly jagged style, does most of the poetic work. There is, to me, something very Australian, or very English, in the way the speaking rational voice maintains control, holding itself together, with the detailed specifics of settings to balance what is being contemplated. The very late poem “Hundreds of Ks of It” is quite a different story.

Thirty six lines of a single unbroken sentence that, as the three dots at the beginning suggest, is only the continuation of a sequence much bigger than could fit into any space. Repetition after repetition of “in the wind” or “in the warm wind”. A lavish, unstoppable flow of grief that dispenses with specifics and scene-setting. This is surely one of the most extraordinary poems written in Australia in the last twenty years. The poem seems to surrender itself to the wind, relinquishing the mind’s desire to protect itself and hold onto structures of discourse that bring grief into the security of shared phrases.

Terrible loss, grief, physical pain and disability, all descended on Martin in his last years. Such experiences are more likely to silence writers than produce extraordinary poetry. The mind and the eye arguably were dominant in most of Martin’s poetry and, as “Hundreds of Ks of It” shows, there come times when only the heart is left – and ours is not a culture that, once removed from conventional frames, knows much about how to give voice to the heart. Opening up his poetry to these forces is a remarkable achievement, since to talk of such things, other than in a minimal, guarded way, is taboo not only in academia but even in serious, high-brow poetry. The command to avoid sentimentality all too easily becomes a habit of side-stepping the most powerful emotions. They can simply seem too “risky”, too liable to leave one exposed to accusations of platitude or self-centredness or “wallowing” in feeling. Quite apart from such considerations, few poets speak to us of their own death and loss with a strength that entirely grabs us. For every one Keats or Plath, Vallejo or Mandelstam, thousands find only numbness or, at best, write the line-breaked equivalent of the diary entries countless others write, moving to those around them but unlikely to survive except accidentally. To write powerful poetry in any way adequate to the enormity of death and loss is an extremely difficult task. Martin himself was very conscious of the fragility of all we write. That he wrote “Hundreds of Ks of It” and many other poems in his final years is testimony to an immense courage, resilience and inner strength as a poet and human being.

Published: September 2015
Peter Boyle

is a poet and translator of Spanish and French poetry. His latest book is Towns in the Great Desert: New and Selected Poems. He first met Martin in the 1990’s through other poets and later participated with him in Kangaloon, a fellowship of creative artists and academics concerned with the ecological crisis.

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