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The wild mind of Peter Steele

'A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies' by Peter Steele SJForty-six years ago, I knocked on Peter Steele's door in the Melbourne University English Department and asked, in my convent innocence, if he would explain Jonathan Swift to me. I might as well have asked him to corral the wind. But now, a lifetime later, I still remember being struck by the man's courteous patience. He seemed to take my puzzlement seriously and did his best to untangle it. But I also remember a spark, a glint — I was not so naïve as to miss that — a shimmer of wit that almost subverted the serious courtesy. And I thought, there's a wild mind at work and play here, and I will have to run prodigiously fast even to catch at its stirrups.

And so it has proved: it's been a long, vigorous, and exultantly grateful following.

But it's been more than that. To read, to grasp Peter Steele, you have to grow up, not just bask — though that's an abiding and surely allowable pleasure because he is a poet, a writer of such brimming praise, a hunter-gatherer of all that might beguile a human. His mind is 'a dulcet google', as Chris Wallace-Crabbe puts it in his poem celebrating Peter's 70th birthday, and published in Peter's book, A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies.

And yet, that dulcet mind takes you with it into places to confront, to daunt even a brave soul. 'If you write poetry,' Peter says in his introduction to A Local Habitation, 'it's part of your own freedom, a freedom which the poems offer to share.' Yes, and the freedom his writing heralds and shares is, for the reader who is game enough to accept the offer, an initiation into habits of moral acuity and exploration — if we can weather it, if we can bear the freedom, the vulnerability and the responsibility that comes with it.

There are some lines in one of Peter's earlier poems, 'At Tim Healy's Grave' (published by John Leonard in White Knight with Beebox: New and Selected Poems, 2008), lines that might flesh out my groping abstractions. Tim Healy, as many of you will know, was a Jesuit priest, onetime President of both the New York Public Library and of Georgetown University, where Peter himself has often happily lived and worked. A formidable man. Here are the lines I mean, from the first stanza of Peter's 'At Tim Healy's Grave':

We make a pair of sorts: me in my long
coat, and you in your long silence —
not that you'd long keep mum in any world:

And from the last stanza:
A good man with a phrase yourself, you urge
'a savage probity', coupled
with an open heart.

That's such a tall order: the coupling of 'A savage probity' with an open heart. One without the other — maybe. I can imagine that. An open heart — yes. And history is littered with savage probity. I'm Scots Presbyterian enough to be acquainted with a long list of its exemplars. But savage probity coupled with an open heart? That's such a vulnerable state of conjoined being — rindless, unprotected.

Peter is quoting of course, not exhorting — he so rarely does — and in the context of a long Jesuit friendship that allows for — almost mandates — wryness. But the words ring nonetheless.

And throughout A Local Habitation, with its 53 poems and 62 homilies for the seasons and occasions they resound. They are a ground bass to the book's delight. And sometimes they are the melody.

What a great thing to have done, to have put together this antiphonal work, with its poems and homilies talking across at one another, threading in and out and through as Peter's worlds strand, plait and unplait again into their distinctiveness. In the poems and in the homilies, he moves constantly between the street, and the sacred, between the conundrums of scripture and the graffiti of pell-mell life. The poems begin with a 'Reverie in Lygon Street' (that is the poem's marvellous title), and in his sharp, lavish way, he itemises what seizes his eye, a supermarket cornucopia:

The eye, they tell us, learns by little hops,
so good luck to the mind. I'm gawking
now at the avocados, now at garlic,
a sucker as ever for the cabbage in
its ostentation, for the blushing apples to which
the maddest George devoted a corer
as golden as his dreams, for the jokey banana ...

And he ends his list with an ominous cadence: 'and the mandrake called tomato'.

Then come books (this is Lygon Street, remember), and books, repositories of the word, are also there, like fruit, to be picked, or picked off, vulnerable to predation. Here comes the picker, Hitler, to command the poet's attention, his 'savage probity', in the second stanza:

For the canting psychopath flaunting a lousy haircut,
books in flames were just a beginning,
but lit the way to our kind's extermination,
blackened heart by heart. And if,
as we know, most of us, courtesy of the pages
retrieved from rags or the skins of beasts
or sodden or beaten reeds, the hectoring killer
has comrades of a kind, the soul
hangs at times between hope and despair, language
bringing its wounded self before us
to say that words are mummery in the face
of the sword and the drone; and yet, and yet
we know and they do not.

What do we know? That love is stronger than death? Is it? Look at the homily for Advent 2009, on page 41: Peter there invokes the poems called Laments, written by a 16th century Polish poet, Jan Kochanowski, and occasioned by the death of his daughter: '... there, certainly,' Peter writes, 'the intersection of love with death, the battle between them, is transparent. True, in such a case, poetry rescues something from that encounter: but it also engraves, with sharp edges, something of the cost.'

This interweaving, this moire patterning of poetry and prose is the structural device of A Local Habitation. We see the same mind, the same man questing, testing himself in different modes, asking questions, resurrecting dead men and women that we might think anew about them and what they mean to us. In another Advent homily, 'The Potter's Work', page 44, Peter writes this: 'For much of my life I have been trying to teach people about poetry, and one of the points I have stressed to them is that poetry is often a way of sorting through people's mixed feelings.'

Now look at mixed feelings in the poems that make up Peter's virtuosic sonnet sequence of dramatised moments from the gospels. Take 'Malchus', for example. Remember him, the guard (from Luke's Gospel, Chapter 22) in Gethsemane who has his ear cut off by the impetuous Peter?

Bull at a gate in the garden, Peter's out
With a stubby blade, and slashes in the dark
At the nearest of the looming figures — a lout,
and a slave with it, obedient to the bark

Of the officer bloke, to whom he's a waste of space,
Named though he is for a king. And now it's first
Blood to the partisans of peace in the race
To the hooked wood, the dangling and the thirst.

The stuff that crusted where the severed ear
Had been returned stayed with him through the night
And half of bloody Friday. He could hear
As well as ever, though he made a sight

For his mates to see while he talked about the stroke
And how the man commanded when he spoke.

Or another, where mixed feelings are weighed, and new life breathed into old skins. This is 'Prodigal', (again from Luke Chapter 15).

Sick of his father and his brother's claim,
He lit out for the country, walking tall
As though impossible to halt or tame:
Others, he knew, were riding for a fall.

Out there he sluiced money every way,
Good as his word, but only for a while:
Pigs at their pods became his only stay,
Expert in how to slobber and defile.

Back home his father, now a yearner, saw
The white nights through and fed the calf a treat,
Paced at the gate until his feet were raw,
Kept sandals, robe and ring beside his seat,

Hoping, the boy returned, by some wild chance
The brooding heir would join them in the dance.

Pair those sonnets with any of the homilies, and you will see the recurrences, the patterns of thought. Look particularly at the three homilies on 'The Eloquence of the Body', 'Spittle', 'Hearing', and 'Seeing'. What they share with the poems is an incarnational grittiness; they are down to earth, as Peter so often insists we must be to save our souls. For a poet, as for a homilist who wants to hold his listener, that grittiness, that solid conjuring is an imperative as a well as a gift. And Peter has the gift, as we say, in spades.

Listen to the way he conjures this local habitation in the poem, 'Dome: Newman College':

So much consigned, you never tire of this:
at blackbird call, to stand at the rim
of Griffin's dome, a world of sleep behind you,
and see a habitat come home
for us as for the dead.

You can see Peter, can you not, standing up there, as he has for decades, never shy of wonder.

And it is a wonderful thing to see, to hold this poetic and homiletic record of Peter's long time at Newman, and elsewhere, but principally Newman College, which has been what a university college, indeed a university, ought to be: hospitable, authentic in its prophetic role, a haven for honest enquiry, for debate, for fellowship, for freedom to think, to make, to commune. The photographs, historical and contemporary, in the volume are never merely illustrative; they are a testament to a long tradition of scholarship and friendship, to brotherliness — Peter's word.

I love particularly the several images of Peter with the other two musketeers ordained with him, so long ago, Andrew Hamilton SJ and Brendan Byrne SJ, concelebrating Mass, grinning for the camera (pages 81 and 114). And I've never heard any one of the three say a single unqualified good word about either of the other two. All for one and one for all has, in their case, a Jesuit translation and interpretation all its own. But I never want to hear a good word from them because the truth, the love, lies in the silent interstices of their deflecting utterances. Peter is one of the best exponents of humility I know. And little wonder: he's been tutored, or battered, by the best.

There is so much in here. I could talk for days just about the pithy joy to be had from Peter's parentheses, his digressions, his interlinear commentary. Here's the briefest snatch, from a homily on the Our Father, through the perspective of the Son who taught us the prayer: 'He sounds like us,' writes Peter, 'which of course is exactly what he is — one of us, only more so, if I can put it in a rather Irish way. And speaking of the Irish, I read recently that, during the fierce fighting in Belfast some time ago, it was a common view that the best long-range snipers in the city were teenage girls.' (Pages 128–129)

Peter tells us elsewhere that his father taught him the habit of looking, remembering and then trying to make some sense of the apparent randomness of what he saw. And he does, and because he does, so, in our way, can we.

Mortality sounds though this book of Peter's. As it must. But hear how it sounds, how we are eased towards it. This is Peter's poem called 'Rehearsal':

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.

And finally, and fittingly on this feast of the Ascension, another green poem, which rises, and rises, in lyric ecstasy. This is 'From the Chinese' (for Michael Ryan).

'If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing
bird will come.' A prayer of sorts,
charm for the good one, murmured into the wind,
day by tossing day.

There they go, a skyful at random, trying
the blue acres, miming the risen:
shearwater, brolga, avocet, tern, rosella —
bugling, whistling, calling.

'A bird does not sing because it has an answer,
It sings because it has a song,'
Happy at sixty. Good for the company, bless
The blackbird on your bough.

And bless you Peter, blackbird, humble sparrow if you will, but eagle in your exhilaration of our minds. Thank you.

Morag FraserMorag Fraser is a former editor of Eureka Street. This text is from her address at the launch of Peter Steele SJ's new book A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies, ISBN: 9780734041708

Topic tags: Morag Fraser, Peter Steele, A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies



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Existing comments

Wow. Thank you Morag. Thank you Peter.

Gwynith Young | 28 May 2010  


PHILIP HARVEY | 28 May 2010  

Marvellous. Now we are getting closer to what Eureka Street should be.....something with more than a tinge of the Sacred and less of the Profane. Great poetry and excellent exposure of Peter's ability and inner Soul by Morag. Don't know about the Scottish Presbyterian bit though. The Lovat Frasers are well and truly Catholic!

philip | 28 May 2010  

Morag, your quite special review has whetted my appetite, but who is the publisher? I can't find a supplier in NZ.

peter matheson | 29 May 2010  

Beautiful singing stuff, Morag, celebrating a splendid poet, a fine, questing and exciting mind and a wonderful bloke.

Brian Matthews | 29 May 2010  

In response to Peter Matheson's query...
Peter Steele's book is currently available through the University of Melbourne Bookshop, http://www.bookshop.unimelb.edu.au/ and through Readings http://www.readings.com.au and both will deliver to NZ. Hope this helps!

Angela Gehrig | 01 June 2010  


Marie O'Connor | 10 July 2012  

My brother - living in 'exile' in Aus from Ireland recommended Fr Peter Steele's writing. Thanks for your informative, insightful intro. Slan is Beannacht Philip O'Keeffe in N Ireland

Dr PhilipO'Keeffe | 26 April 2015  

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