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Comradely with Ginsberg

Book Cover - White Knight with BeeboxSteele, Peter, White Knight with Beebox : New and Selected Poems. John Leonard Press, 2008. RRP $24.95. ISBN 978 0 9805269 0 5

It is always good to come back into the steadying orbit of a Steele poem, what with so much dark energy and dodgy Plutos moving about. This selection shows what a consistent object the Steele poem is, and just as we view the universe backward in time from today, so the book starts with the most recent illuminations then works back to beginnings.

The Steele poem is like this. It generally never goes beyond a page, or needs to. Concentration of information sometimes obstructs, sometimes enables clarity, but even with the simplest poem we know we are on an endeavour. The main form is a series of artful, usually long, sentences that combined make a fortified argument of considerable persuasiveness. Prose though is about the last thing we have before us. It is Auden's 'voluble discourse' in portable form.

Although not a beat poem, it is comradely with Ginsberg's aesthetic of the poem as measure of breath. Breath in the Steele poem is commanding like an original lecture, enspiriting like a true sermon, propulsive like a perfect dinner conversation. No matter what the extent of the references or the shape of the wit in a Steele poem, we can always be assured of cogency. The effort is worth the time. It provides a classical education and reminds the reader of how accessible and enjoyable such an education can be. It expresses the challenge of an idea, but once think it is all intellect, you will be taken by surprise with emotional subtleties.

If a poem can be called transatlantic Melburnian, then this is it. It is a gift, the construction of an intricate argument with fewest words. It is like John Donne: the apposite yet unexpected use of image and phrase, always at the service of the argument. It has Donne's showiness, his complexity, as well as his reality checks.

Perhaps two examples of different types will explain things in another way.

The 'picture' poems of recent times, mostly responses to canvases, suit the poet's natural mode. In 'Canaletto' he analyses one of the artist's great Venetian vistas, opening,

A Venice of water and fire, of earth and air -
     that, you'll agree, is the world he makes,
the four concerted as though to a private music.

The reader is invited to view the scene as would the observer in the foreground: 'all coheres' and 'happens to be as it must.' The view is recreated in words, while the poet's themes enter, mortality, change, emotional identification with the city and the world. The opening lines, with their poetic desire to universalise, are subverted by concern with the particular, the local, and personal concerns. 'We love to have it so in Venice,' he says, but the last verse further alters the perspective. The exuberance to make a poem of something, anything, ends in the Monteverdi-like voluntary 'I rejoice / to applaud this portraying of the Bacino'. Rejoice to applaud? How far can this go? Then, having made the words of praise, the poet withdraws, seeing in

the grey-coated gentleman hard by a column - myself
      to the life as I see, in impeccable costume,
            though I was never there.

And nor were we. Instead of the reader being the observer, the poet usurps that role. Instead of all of us being present at the scene, we abruptly recall that we are inside our own viewing of Canaletto (and Steele). Universalising tendencies must come down to this level of humility.

Peter Steele understands better than most that religiousness is a part of being human. 'A Mass for Anglesea' is his latest poem cycle, reminiscent in structure to Auden's Horae Canonicae. Like his hero, Steele takes an arranged ecclesiastical form, in this case the actions of the Mass, as the basis for personal and personalised meditation.

Father of each, as of all, remember those
Who are folded between our hills, in a little town
Stiller, so far (we are grateful) than Bethlehem.
(Kyrie Eleison)

Those to be remembered include 'keepers and pilers of cans in the supermarket', 'the moulder of surfboards', and 'the tugger at lolloping dogs'. We are definitely situated on the Victorian Surf Coast. Yet, in his retreat these are the parish, so he asks 'school us afresh, afresh, in the ways of mercy, / Who remember a little, and confess that we forget.' Prayer is a way of recollecting and where prayer meets poem, the recollections start close to home and close to the bone. By turns, comic, facetious, ruminative, annoyed, amused, reflective, peaceful, the cycle is an historical parade happening in the present moment, a literary extravaganza extolling honest modesty, a theological outing about quiet sharing. He is on retreat.

     So now, scentbark fringing wattle,
I'm back at school for love of the quick and the dead,
     touching their dish, and fingering their cup.

Peter Steele has been fortunate in having about the best poetry editor in Australia to arrange this book. John Leonard has chosen with a cheerful scrupulosity. A criteria for the 'picture' poems was that they require as little need for reference as possible to the surveyed work. Leonard allows us to appreciate the strengthening of the Steele mode through forty-plus years, especially its gradual relaxation of delivery and increased confidence with inclusivity. In retrospect we find that, in an age when free verse goes in all directions at once, where there are no endings, only closures, Peter Steele maintains firm metrics and a determined purpose that reproduce a unique voice. 'Even an autist or a lone wolf / makes his debut with with a budget of tips to go by.' ('Help') But Steele has a full hand. He is prudently gregarious, meaning he has any number of characters at his intellectual feast, and we are also made to feel welcome.

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is poetry editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: Poetry, peter steele, white knight with beebox, ginsberg, auden, transatlantic



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