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The beauty that was Peter Steele's mind

Morag Fraser |  28 June 2012

Peter Steele SJ – priest, poet, teacher, essayist, homilist, and friend – died on Wednesday 27 June 2012. 

During Eureka Street’s first months, in 1991, Peter Steele gave its editor some riding instructions. Media magnate was not his style. As Jesuit Provincial, he’d had to learn the rigors and language of authority, but cant, prescription, or proscription – they weren’t his style either. ‘Publish the very best writing you can lay your hands on’, he said. That was it. 

But it was more than enough. From a poet and a man as subtle, mercurial and profound as Peter Steele, the words were both guide and challenge. Anyone who had experienced his classes at Melbourne University, read his books, shared a meal or heard one of his pithy, grounded-in-life homilies, would understand what he meant, know how freighted his words were. How they pointed to integrity and élan in the wielding of language.   

We were sitting at the time in a pub in Richmond. It was called the All Nations, an old city hotel jammed in between Housing Commission high risers and the flats that were home to the Vietnamese who’d come here by boat in less politically expedient times. There was an old tailor’s dummy in the dining room corner, costumed and feathered to conjure the pub’s heritage of hospitality. She became a kind of totem for Eureka Street. And Peter Steele became its guardian angel. 

He’d grimace, or just laugh at my description. And in an ideal world, we would then have an argument or a meander about the varieties and meanings of angels. And how some of them are swooping, formidable presences, always at one’s back. Peter’s friend and fellow poet, the ever questing, unbelieving Peter Porter, wrote about angels in a way that struck home for both of us. In An Angel In Blythburgh Church Porter’s angels, in their ‘enskied formation’, are mute but exhortatory. He calls one a ‘stern-faced plummet’. ‘The face is crudely carved, simplified by wind / It looks straight at God and waits for orders.’

Over the years, I’ve waited for Peter’s orders to be transmitted to me, down here on the ground. They’ve come in code, in the poems, in the essays and reviews that he wrote for Eureka Street, and in all his books and talks and homilies.  I am still deciphering the code, and will for the rest of my life, with the kind of exultant gratitude that one feels in the face of a budding magnolia, or a rainbow, or the western sun. 

These past weeks, as Peter has been visibly dying, his flesh pared back to bone but the smile and the flash of his glance insisting that he is still the man we know, he has become a gathering place for so many. People have come to visit. They have written, whispered in corridors, sung his songs, smiled and cried, waiting on him. Poets and friends have written and rung and emailed from all corners of the world that Peter once ranged across and took in so avidly.  It’s hard to eat a meal, mend a glove, see a bird, trace a thought or intuition and not have Peter Steele spring into mind. He has inscribed in his prose and poetry so much of our fugitive longing, apprehension, our raw humanity. Often at a distance himself, he draws one close to understanding, and affirmation of a shared state of being. 

Peter sometimes wrote about sloth, and turned the accusation inward. It’s presumption to judge any fellow’s scouring of his own soul, but it used to make me smile. I was the editor who received Peter’s immaculate copy, always on time, to length, and according to his brief. I knew that if we found even the slightest literal (once or twice in thirteen years) Peter would look pained or even unbelieving. He was a driven craftsman. Technique obsessed him, but technique always as the conduit of meaning.  He knew the soarings and harrowings of human experience, but how to shape that in words? ‘James Joyce’, he wrote in one essay, ‘reporting that he had spent the morning on a sentence, and asked whether he was looking for the mot juste, said that, no, he had all the words – he was looking for the order.’

Peter found it, the order, over and over, and died, I am sure, still looking for it. What he leaves for us, who now have leisure to read all his words, and to puzzle through the maze of beauty that was his mind, is the heart to do the same, to keep trying, over and over, in his words, 'to find out what the devil is going on.'

Bless you, Peter Steele.

Morag FraserMorag Fraser AM was editor of Eureka Street from 1991 until 2003. She now chairs the board of Australian Book Review.



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Submitted comments

In paradisum deducant te Angeli: in tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

May Angels lead you into paradise; may the Martyrs receive you at your coming and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May a choir of Angels receive you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.

History of musical compositions

Myra 28 June 2012

In paradisum deducant te Angeli: in tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem. May Angels lead you into paradise; may the Martyrs receive you at your coming and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May a choir of Angels receive you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.

Myra 28 June 2012

So very moving, and so right!

Richard Divall 29 June 2012

Wonderful, Morag—especially that third last paragraph that names so accurately and gracefully what we've all been through these last few weeks.

Brendan Byrne 29 June 2012

a beautiful tribute, Morag, to a truly remarkable man. I have been reading Peter's homilies the last few days and savouring them. Peter wrote a lot about death and it was always both honest and uplifting. I wish he could send a few words from the other side. I urge everyone to read the poem 'Brother' which Peter wrote when his brother died: 'No day goes by without you haunting me.'

Michael McGirr 29 June 2012

Eulogy to Peter Steele Not often enough a starlit person Enters the galaxy of people peopling the planet. They rest among us for a while Grace us with presence and wisdom Stir passions and dreamings Awaken us to our potential Then - their work on earth done They go home. When you look for the secret It is crafted in the face. Eyes that have seen God Carry the love of God’s Joker As they refresh your soul Clearing it of cobwebs With a smile that carries Understanding of the world’s pain. For what we have received May the Lord make us truly thankful Amen

Karl H Cameron-Jackson 29 June 2012

Thank you, Morag, for a fitting and eloquent tribute to Peter Steele. All I can offer is a line from Peter's poem, "Crux" - "All that will come to heart is ‘Do not go Alone to Paradise.’"

Simon Hansford 29 June 2012

So sorry to learn of Peter's death. He was a lovely man, a beautiful writer and a wonderful priest. And this is a lovely piece Morag.

Hugh Dillon 29 June 2012

Morag, what a wonderful homily to a great man. He would have loved it.

Shirley McHugh 29 June 2012

I am not a connoisseur of poetry, even though I have a poet brother. If the time ever comes when I can't find time to read all of Eureka Street's daily offering, the first thing I drop will be the poetry. But there have been times when I was so wowed by a poem of Peter Steele's that I praised it to my wife, another poetry ignoramus. I never met him, but I feel almost as if I've lost a brother.

Gavan 29 June 2012

Thankyou Morag. From all lay people who worked with Peter over the years, a most fitting tribute to a great Jesuit. A number of us were at Xavier for a meeting when Peter entered the room to tell us of the death of 6 Jesuit priests and 2 staff in El Salvador. He was so moved and so hurt, you could not help but feel, through Peter , the work that must the done to make this a better world.

Shane Hogan 29 June 2012

I am so sad to learn of Peter's death. Thank you Morag for your superb tribute - "it's hard to eat a meal, mend a glove or see a bird..and not have Peter Steele spring to mind". I have on my desk a card I intended to send him to honour his recent AM award. It shows a breaching whale,his article 'The Creatures and their Word' in mind - "blue in the water's blue,which is the shade of thought" It is a privilege to have known him and to be sustained by him.

Denis Quinn 29 June 2012

A wonderful tribute to a wonderful man, Morag. It was a privilege to know Peter, even though I saw him only rarely.

Andrew Taylor 29 June 2012

One for the Road

God grant we meet again
in heaven's great hall
where broad cup brims
and plenty-plate is full
in company with our dearest
Word of words
and all his friends:
our Christ-lord
and his merry throng,
all home at last . . .

And let the Spirit of him
and Father of all
the Mary-mothered
light up in us
full-bodied words and songs
of joy and thanks and praise
that raise the heavens' roof
in din so glad
that our here-world's
sad noise and strife
be strung with hope
and enemies feel welcomed in
and hurts and hates and harms
heed heaven-sent overtures
of forever-peace . . .

our final course must be run,
each parting laced
with conscious loss and separation
(Eve and Adam's mark on all our kind) . . .
Now, here and now,
Christ be strongest with us
where battle's thick
with smell of death,
the merely mortal
all too close for comfort . . .
You, Christ-saviour,
full-true to you,
now and ever,
earth and heaven
for pilgrim's passage,
this journey's ending,
exile's homing . . .

John 30 June 2012

Thank you Morag. His is a sermon I will sorely miss.

David Fernee 30 June 2012

Morag, what a beautiful tribute, in sadness we can celebrate the legacy of this gifted man. As you said: 'I am still deciphering the code.' Surely this code is the eternal exhortarory language of the angels that Peter somehow understood and communicated to us in his writings.
My sympathy to the Jesuit community for their pain in loss of a gifted fellow.

Trish Martin 01 July 2012

What a beautiful epitaph.

L Newington 01 July 2012

My comments? I'm afraid they aren't terribly profound, pithy or tidy- I just feel like weeping. I am no intellectual, just a bumbling Catholic who had the good luck to go to quite a few masses said by Peter and who is an avid reader of his poems. "The beauty that was Peter Steele's mind" is an excellent title Morag- well done. We are told in John that 'The Word was God' (1:1). Thank you Peter for your gift through the word, of showing us the beauty that is God.

Warren Featherstone 01 July 2012

Peter’s words echo still in my life, as God’s did in his. Thanks, Morag and Michael, for your own beautiful tributes to Peter and the resonances they have drawn from us: both those who keyed and posted a few lines, and the many others who read and waited in front of their screens and, perhaps, prayed. To his jesuit brothers, our sympathy; to you who honour his founding charge, our thanks.

Quentin Dignam 03 July 2012

Thank you Morag for a very moving insight into Peter Steele. You made wish I had known him. Sounded like a very special man.

Paul Arnott 04 July 2012

A fitting tribute. I've read many moving reflections of Peter's in Madonna magazine -he will live on in his work.

Kathryn 05 July 2012

Thank you, Morag. Wonderful, evocative!
A great reader of literature, who loved words and was a Supreme Court Judge, always went to listen when Peter came to town. He couldn't always follow Peter's argument but simply loved being immersed in his use of the language.
"The words are nothing till they match desire"

Paul Fyfe 05 July 2012

Although he would have hated to have been described thus, Peter Steele was an examplar of the Ignatian way of life. A man of pristine intellect, a man for others, a man of compassion and dignity. Morag Fraser's essay captures his complexity wonderfully.

Allan Behm 10 July 2012

Rest in peace Peter, and may all your friends be comforted by the poetry of your life.

Chris Chatteris SJ 18 July 2012

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