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