'What are those Golden Builders doing?' asked William Blake in 1818, and went on to ask further might there be some showing of Jerusalem 'near Tyburn's fatal tree? Is that/Mild Zion's hill's most ancient promontory, near mournful/Ever-weeping Paddington?' The great private visionary in our literature, Blake was given, as we know, to finding eternity in a grain of sand, so more likely than anybody then and now to find the heavenly Jerusalem in the enduring ordinariness of Paddington.
Peter Steele's great friend and mentor, Vincent Buckley wandered purposively around the streets of Parkville and Carlton in the early 1970s asking the same question of our immediate locality — 'names of their lordships./Cardigan, Elgin, Lygon: Shall I find here my Lord's grave?' ['Golden Builders', I, page 46]. By the end of the 27 poems of the sequence 'Golden Builders', though certainly finding mournful ever-weeping Carlton, and for all the notated moments of his intense longing, Buckley heads out of town Romsey-wards, his birthplace up country, with that key question unanswered.
And what of Peter himself, another long-term denizen of these parts? Here he is, as early as 1972, out of bed one misty morning in time for 'Matins':
Out there in darkest Parkville it's a kind
____of animal country. Morning displays —
I thought it was the gardener — someone trotting
____hale and compulsive, barely attached
to four maleficent greyhounds, sleek and dumb.
____He's Bogart or Camus, a bigboned ghost
easing himself and his charges around the block;
____they move as sweetly and as bloody-minded
as if their talent were for treachery,
____not coursing and the would-be kill.
We've traded words on form in wetter days,
____sodden together into comradeship,
but not this morning. I'm praying in his trail,
____a sort of christian and a sort of man,
watching him get between us the police
____the park the children's hospital
the bolted shelter for old derelicts
____and the zoo, that other eden, where
some cruciform and prestidigious monkeys
____hang in the sunlight, and the sombre bears
rove their concrete to sweat out the duration.
Among the half a dozen new poems in his latest book, Braiding the Voices: Essays in Poetry, 'Monday' tells us that Steele is still on the alert for signs, easily mistaken for something else, often cruciform:
Monday is Day Oncology, where the dark
Burses arrive by courier, and we're glad
To see them stripped for action, hooked in the air,
Lucent against fear.
Maybe only Steele could see these bags of chemo as Christological signs, like 'the sixteen quilted maple leaves[?]/Their sugars candescent still, as is/To those who hope, scattered throughout the wards,/The upsprung Silver Man.' That's because Steele has always been a visionary; as with the zoo once, so now the oncology ward at St Vincent's Hospital offers hints of that other eden. If Buckley could surprise us with his essay 'The Strange Personality of Christ', then there's a PhD topic awaiting on 'The Strange Ubiquity of Christ in the Writings of Peter Steele'.
Christ is among us, he believes and his poems witness, in a thousand guises, seemingly mundane. Has anyone probed more constantly, more imaginatively, more in dialogue with contemporary culture, the Jesuit call 'to find God in all things'? His poems send sudden and often oblique glints, candescent moments, of what, of whom, he has seen glowing in the depths, the core, of things.
So I am tempted to say that Steele writes golden poem-bricks. He is one of our Melbourne golden builders, placing poem-brick on golden poem-brick. But Steele might well say 'But, mate, hold it, poems are not solid as bricks but fluid as words, pungent as voices. I've given you the clue in the title Braiding the Voices.'
How many voices are gathered into this book, as in all Steele's writing, voices past and present, famous and obscure, foreign and local? For Steele voices are presences, persons there before him and speaking to his attentiveness.
In this braiding book a dedicated essay of attentiveness is given to fellow poets Dante, Anthony Hecht, Buckley, Peter Porter, Les Murray, and Seamus Heaney. Other voices are called up for honour: in the Introduction Steele writes that 'two presences brood over this book' — Andrei Sinyavsky, the Russian dissident who celebrated Russian writers to keep the best of Russia alive, and Anthony Hecht, American poet and a personal friend of Steele's who saw the poet's task as 'braiding his loose ends into a coherent pattern'.
The Introduction, to go no further, mentions John Dryden, John Donne, Norman MacCaig, George Herbert, and Shakespeare, in that order. In the second poem, 'Audience', Steele lines up, like birds on a wire, in one line Cicero and Buddha and then in another four lines Johnny Cash, Von Moltke (hero of the July Plot against Hitler), and St Paul, before coming to the Good Lord himself, all of them braided together by Cash's line 'Convicts are the best audiences I ever played for', and by Steele's seeing that means just about everybody, but these four of course are full-on convicts.
Moreover, Steele has honoured many of his friends and companions, including myself, and in this book Bill Uren (the rector of Newman College), with poems dedicated to them: we have the honour to be conjured presences in his work, the only chance of immortality this side of the grave for most of us. On their behalf I am bold to say, 'Thank you Peter, we are honoured more than we can say.'
Then there is the braiding voice itself, Steele's own: welcoming, celebrating, turning things over aloud in his mind and heart, testing — after all, as a man instructed long ago by Dean Swift, Steele still sometimes finds himself in the tiny southern continent of Lilliput and the truth of how things are with us here still needs to be told. And humorous, as his A to Z celebration of food in 'Auguri!', dedicated to Uren, shows us — he likes his lists does Peter Steele, and so in comic Homeric mode takes a deep breath in this poem to get us through a feast of food words. Comic exuberance suggests the Rabelaisian Steele, the man is a pubful and a choir of voices.
Steele's core voice is conversational, so suited for evoking presences and for braiding loose ends into coherence, always alert to the variety of the other, quickly shifting into different registers and back again and so holding and repaying our attention, sounding out the vastness of the world.
Given the encyclopedic range of voices and references in his work, we might suppose that Steele is the last Jesuit polymath, but living as I do, out there in darkening Parkville, at Jesuit Theological College I can tell you that is not the case, but Steele is master of us all in getting his knowledge to work and to the point — well, maybe only poets can do so. I find it exhilarating that Steele can round up so much into his work, ordering recondite references and fabled names into place, lining them up, with the gentle nudge of his voice, sonorous and quick. Read him aloud, readers; study his diction, poets and essayists.
The 18 essays in this book, seven for named poets, explore and celebrate poetry, and two the relationship between art and poetry, with titles that tease the mind: 'Poetry's Fugitives: A Christian Hearing', 'A Poet's Horizon: Four Faces of Reality', 'The Rocks and the Riot: Making Poetry'; most sweet of all, 'Past, Present, Future: Poetry as the Mind in Love' makes me want to read not only it but also re-read so much poetry. I think, however, my favourite will be 'A Blessing of Creatures: Birds, Beasts, Verse'. Here's how the essay concludes:
If I ask with this essay's title in mind, 'How is this bird blessed?' then the simple answer is that it is blessed by being chosen — chosen to sing God's presence, even if sometimes in a blues key. And if I ask, 'How is this bird a blessing?' the equally simple answer is that, in haunting its hearer, it may be said to mediate that greatest of all haunters, the Holy Ghost. Its mission is, after all, sacramental, because such is its song.
Little surprise I think that birdsong in this key should finally remind us that Steele's own voice is one ready to praise and give thanks and bless, a voice echoing and conveying gospel voices, a voice seeking out above all the Good Lord — who surely appears in 'Auguri!' as the Bread Man, as 'the convict's-in-waiting' in 'Audience', as 'the upsprung Silver Man' in 'Monday', and baldly as 'the Man' in 'Motley'.
And there's an essay here called 'Elemental Man: Contours of Christ' in which Steele givers us four of his own poems that align the Good Lord with the classical four elements: 'Breathing Days' for air, 'Star Man' for fire, 'Green Man' for earth and 'Water Man' for water. The essay gives us the experience of reading four of Peter Steel's poems through the eyes of Peter Steele. He is surprised at what he himself has written, partly because that is how poetry is, but mostly because they are poems about Christ. 'You write a poem', he says, 'partly to see what will happen, this time round, when you put yourself in the presence of mystery'. Poems, this essay tells us, can by their very facture mediate the Good Lord.
The essays in this book are a form of thank you to many of the significant presences in Steele's writing vocation. And surely all the poems of these last years are a hidden 'Hymn to God, my God, in My Sicknesse', John Donne's last and greatest poem. What more could any of us ask for ourselves, or for him?
So thank you Peter Steele for all your words, over many years, prayers and blessings, essays and poems. Thank you to your editors and publisher, and all the enablers of this book. All of them carriers and handlers of a hodful of essays and poems, worthy helpers in your task of laying a few more golden bricks of what we can boldly call the new Jerusalem. I'd bet on it, Marvellous Melbourne to a brick.
Adapted from the speech given by Fr Andrew Bullen SJ at the 12 June 2012 launch of Braiding the Voices, the latest book of poetry and essays from Fr Peter Steele SJ.
Listen to the live recording of Andrew Bullen delivering the speech.
Listen to poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe reading a selection of Peter Steele's poems during the book launch.