Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tasman Littoral

Robert Gray is an Australian poet whose writing belies his name - it is intensely visual and colourful, and entangled in the New South Wales coastline. Though his poems are composed of vivid details from shore, sea, land and town, it is difficult to pull these details out of his syntax, which in its movement often mimics the seeing/thinking poet walking around his region.

The poems record the process of engagement between the eye of the poet and the natural world.

"My life, I imagined, must be a hymn to the optic nerve." ("In Thin Air")

I first came across Gray last year in an anthology of Australian poetry called Landbridge. A long poem describing a daylong seascape, "A Sight of Proteus", startled me by its quality and vision, and I sought out his New Selected Poems (Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney, 1998). I've been reading them, with pleasure, for a while. They are foreign to a New Zealand eye because of the botany and geology that we severed from 90 odd million years ago, but the social landscape that Gray interrelates with his natural landscapes is familiar: "A brick side wall had a Bushell's sign more deeply blue than / the sky" ("Memories of the Coast")

Gray is a kind of visionary materialist: what you see is what you get. But underlying the metaphors and similes that evoke a constantly morphing world of creatures and things and human society, is the void, which is fiery:

Light on the clouds opposite sunset
was like that in the foyer of a seashell.
White eucalyptus rose about me in front of the sea, their leaves
long like green parakeets.
The mind easily fragments within such dimensions: I felt it poise
far above, a second, as I was leaning
there, on the moist, thin rind
which is all that is delicacy, all that's edible fruit,
of this country. Then I realised how probably the land
I had just walked over was already owned
in some boardroom of Hong Kong or Japan. And all I'd just seen
became things that lay in a fire
in the moment when they still have their form.

("Under the Summer Leaves")

Gray writes about Buddhism in earlier poems, and there are Buddhist echoes in later poems. Though usually focussed on a solitary consciousness, he also brings to angular unpredictable life a shark, a meatworks, an ancient Chinese poet, the louche inhabitants of coastal towns, and numerous other creatures and things. Clouds keep billowing in his poems as they do over the foreshore, in every variation of colour, shape, and association. They are the classic symbol of mutability, but Gray skewers them with his sharp original eye and rhythm.

Gray occupies one side of the vast and turbulent lake of the Tasman, a margin dweller who calls to mind our own home-grown littoral poets: Allen Curnow, for instance, in his bach on the wild west coast of Auckland looking out into the guttering sun and the dark fissures beneath the breakers; Alistair Campbell trawling historic and bloody seascapes at Kapiti; Elizabeth Smither seeing an angelic kind of elevator rising in the sky over Cape Egmont (my memory supplies this image - I haven't gone back to the printed page to confirm - still it's the residue that poetry leaves us which is what warms us, the images and rhythms mutating, becoming part of our own metabolism); Peter Hooper's tenacious foothold on the narrow ledge of Westland; and the endlessly transmogrifying Pacific and Tasman clouds of David Eggleton. (To mention a few.)

In my recent literary beachcombing, Gray is a real find.

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