Andrew Hamilton and Peter Steele: boys with writing in their blood

The Gossip and the Wine, by Peter SteeleEarlier this year many of us gathered at Newman to launch Peter Steele's, A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies. At one point in Morag Fraser's memorable words on that occasion, she described Peter, Brendan Byrne and myself as the three musketeers. She went on to say that she had never heard one of the three say a single unqualified good word about either of the other two.

Well, Peter, with Brendan in Vietnam, it seems that I am called upon to break a lifetime's habit. That by definition will demand of me unprecedented virtue. But it will cost no effort to speak with unqualified praise and gratitude for The Gossip and the Wine.

As I read the poems in the echo of Morag's words I was taken back to our first years at Loyola, Watsonia. When Peter and I joined the Jesuits together, we were boys really, both with writing in the blood. My fondest memories of Watsonia were of Thursdays, when we were free to walk out into the Plenty country. In winter we would walk 20 or 30 miles, dressed like tramps, with hobnailed boots ringing on the stone of the country roads.

Peter used to talk passionately of books and ideas, taking me far beyond the boundaries of my intellectual world. And when talking fell silent, he sang 'Farewell', the drinking song from White Horse Inn. Despite the absence of drink, the song always straightened our shoulders and lengthened our stride.

One of our longer walks took us down the Yarrambat Road, and over the crest of a little hill above Doreen. This was one of my paradise places. We had been on the road for an hour or so, muscles warm, and the winter sun just breaking through the clouds. From the rise, the fields sloped down to a clump of trees bordering a dam, and beyond the dam to the line of the Plenty river. I associate the scene with the liquid call of the grey bush thrush. It was a place at which I always liked to pause silently.

As I reflect back now on those walks, I can see the difference between Peter's urge to write and my own. I wanted to strip down words in order to speak as briefly and clearly as possible of what I could say. I was happy to be silent about what I could not say. My hero was the master of terseness, Tacitus. But Peter wanted to find words, and ways of putting words together, that could unfold the shape of what lay beyond words. This attention to what cannot be directly said always makes one a wanderer, not at home in the conventions of the world. One of Peter's heroes then was G. K. Chesterton, the man of paradox, who wore the air of a cultural exile.

As Peter's world expanded through ferocious reading, and his vocabulary swarmed, his ways of speaking also naturally broadened to include poetry, homiletic and pensées. And as I listened through the years to Peter speak of his latest adventures in ideas, my own world also grew larger. I began to see that words did not have simply to be marched in straight lines and sent back to barracks. Peter could make words dance, mimic, do somersaults, fandangle and echo silence. I heard Peter with gratitude, but also with the slight irritation that a stay-at-home-mind, set in its ways, feels when invited to go out at night, even to the most convivial of events.

In the opening poem of this book, 'Rounding the Year: Advent' Peter traces three of the seminal influences on his own intellectual journey: Odysseus, Dante and George Herbert. They were all, in one way or another, exiles. All knew what it was to be out of place, and when in one place to have their heart set in another. In two separated stanzas, Peter writes of his childhood.

All my life I've been at the school of yearning
where the masters come and go. Early
the gambler from Ithaca, brine in his beard and hair,
stepped from his latest ship to possess
a puzzled child and steep him in nostalgia,
that ache to be making the journey home ...
What could I make of it, there by another sea?
The swans manoeuvered, preening their sable
on a river named for them: pods of dolphin
engaged the current, fluent and peaceful;
but what I thought of was the veteran come home
to the figs and the fifty rows of trees.

Many of the poems in The Gossip and the Wine retell stories, some of them mediated by paintings. Poems on explicitly religious themes are hard to write well, especially if religious faith is tenaciously held. Religious images and words are familiar and often tired. Poets, too, need to deal with their own ironies, as well as to place themselves within a culture that is generally uncomfortable with religious faith. They experience the indigence of exile.

Peter knows the difficulties better than I do. In 'Reverie on Lygon Street', he says,

Believing Him here as in my folly I do,
the once and risen mortal, prompts me
to ask about the old days.

Folly is a strong word to use of belief. I wondered fleetingly and seditiously if the folly of which Peter spoke was the Newman dining room. But the reference to folly here does suggest that in his milieu Christian faith is a quixotic, even foolish, thing, and that Christ's presence can only be described when it adheres to the cloak hem of absence.

In the face of that sense of exile, some writers, like Chesterton, exult in creating religious poems that are like follies. Constructed consciously in the forms and language of the past, they flaunt their difference from the conventions of the day.

Peter's poems work quite differently. Faith has to pay its passage. Many poems in this collection describe New Testament stories of Jesus, But they mostly tell the stories from the perspective of the minor characters – Pontius Pilate the Governor, Caiphas, a soldier, Simon Cyrene, Herod, Peter, Malchus. They portray Jesus as a minor figure whose fate was settled routinely after a minor disturbance.

Peter's poem 'Moron', describes the mocking of Jesus from the perspective, first of the soldiers, and then of Pilate. Jesus is the moron who had pretentions, who didn't get out while there was still time.

It's moron time, so now he's out on the flags
To get some thorny burnet into his head
And more than a touch of scarlet, as the wags
Affect belief in what, a king, he said.
Back-handing's how they do it here, the face
Worked to a ball of meat and bone, the eyes
A dullard's willy-nilly as the lace,
A whipsaw reed's achievement takes the prize.
It's too soon yet for him to have a turn
At the bitter posca, or the broken legs;
And all too late to measure or to learn:
He is, they need not tell him now, the dregs.
Inside, the governor's reasoning with his wife:
Dreams, as he knows, have nothing to do with life.

'Moron' describes the event as the systematic stripping away of any hope for the future that Jesus might have, and of any claim that he mattered. It may too late for him to learn. But he has been learned that he is definitively the dregs.

The cool and knowing telling of the story takes it out of the past. This sort of thing happens everyday wherever security forces gather: whether it be in Guantanamo Bay, Rangoon, Colombo, Harare or Lhasa. Suspect people are dehumanised, and any reason for resting hopes on them, for dreaming of them, or even for remembering them, is stripped away. Pilate knows from a lifetime's experience, in which Jesus' couple of days in the system are just a comma, that dreams have nothing to do with life. And so does the reader.

On the surface the poem tests the grounds of faith and judges it groundless. But at a deeper level it creates a space for possibility. It gives the soldiers and Pilate better words than those they themselves would have found. But against the seriousness embodied in the formal structure of these poems, Pilate's words still weigh in light. As religious poems, these are minimal in their claims, but large in possibility. The fact of the poem intimates that the moron may have a future, which in turn will play folly onside, and suggest that life may have everything to do with dreams.

'Moron' is a tightly compressed poem. In The Gossip and the Wine there are also many expansive poems. Peter constantly celebrates the variousness and beauty of the world, of the minds that measure it, and of the words that we conjure up to represent it. His poems introduce us to more things and to more words than we ever knew existed. They all come as gifts.

In his poem, 'Genesis 1: Third Day' God lists some of the plants and herbs that he has made.

Hyssop and spikenard, mandrake and pomegranate, vetches
that grow with the gazing, melons and cumin,
rue by the hazel-bush, mustard and bilberry, flaxes
creamy and sage-green, barley and cinnamon.
Mulberry's promising, laurels enchanting, and everything's
coming up roses, except for the apples.
They call for attention: I must see they're given their due.

This is a portrait of the creator as chef. The vegetative world is to be celebrated through being cooked. The poem reminds me of the many times when I have arrived at Anglesea by bicycle and there have found Peter in his cooking apron and his Kingdom. A selection of knives, vegetables and spices lie front of him, each measured out generously enough to include chance comers like myself in the hospitality. The soup and the poem open out to something deeper. Apples will get their due – certainly in the cooking pot, but perhaps also in the invention of Eve.

If Peter's world is a gift, The Gossip and the Wine is a gift catalogue. And it comes attractively wrapped. The book is exquisitely produced. The paper, the typeface, the notes, the number of poems chosen and their setting on the page are all measured to encourage attention and celebration. They represent poetry as a serious and convivial business. We would expect no less of John Leonard of course, who has shared so much of Peter's journey and his love of poetry.

The search to find words to point to what cannot be said makes the poet a wanderer. But in Peter's poetry this is not a plangent condition. His poems model a light and passionate attention to the intricacies of the world we live in. They are a rehearsal, inviting us to return to the significant points of our lives, the Paradise places of which Vincent Buckley wrote,

'I must touch my forehead to the ground still,
Because its radiance is in my body.'

The poems are a rehearsal also in the sense in that the smallest things we do are freighted with the hope of future performance.

The Gossip and the Wine finishes appropriately with the lovely poem, 'Rehearsal'. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Peter's friend and fellow teacher and poet, will read it for us.

Upright again, fritters of mint in my fingers,
I'm given pause in the kitchen patch
by the cars' whine, the loud harrumph of lorries
that round the stand on Two-Tree Hill
and hustle past the boneyard.
I've taken leave of the Cliffs of Moher, the unsmiling
campus guard at Georgetown, the fall
of Richelieu's scarlet enclosed by the London gloom:
I've watched my last candle gutter
for dear ones, back in Paris,
sung, as with Francis, the spill of an Umbrian morning,
each breath a gift, each glance a blessing:
have said farewell to Bhutan of the high passes
and the ragged hillmen, to the Basque dancers
praising their limping fellow,
to the Square of Blood in Beijing, to the virid islands
that speckle the Pacific acres,
to moseying sheep in Judaean scrub, to leopard
and bison, a zoo for quartering, and
to the airy stone of Chartres.
But here's the mint still on my hands. A wreath,
so Pliny thought, was 'good for students',
to exhilarate their minds.' Late in the course,
I'll settle for a sprig or two —
the savour gracious, the leaves brimmingly green —
as if never to say die.

Thank you Peter for the gift that your poetry is, and for The Gossip and the Wine. And for the rest of us, let the gossip continue, the wine flow freely, and our treasuries open to buy books!


 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street. The above text is from a talk given at the launch of Peter Steele's latest book, The Gossip and the Wine, St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2010, ISBN978 0980526998

Topic tags: Peter Steele, The Gossip and the Wine, St Kilda, John Leonard Press, Andrew Hamilton

 

 

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