The Sweeping Plain by Michael Sharkey
Five Islands Press, 2007
The Sweeping Plain is Michael Sharkey's fourteenth collection of poetry and follows the publication of History: Selected Poems 1978-2000 in 2002. On the cover of this collection is Eliel Saarinen's 1912 design for the Australian Federal Capital, which was runner up (second place) to Walter Burley Griffin's design in a town planning competition for our capital city. The cover image, title, and title poem, suggestive of Dorothea Mackellar's 'My Country', set the scene for the tone and content of the collection.
It is tempting to look for a hidden meaning – a metaphor for the collection – among the images of a land of sweeping plains, an ideal city imposed upon the contours of the land, the ornamental lakes and grand architecture. The opening quote from Byron's Don Juan also begs to be looked up for its context, to discover if there is a secret meaning or intent lurking there:
For my part, I pretend not to be Cato
Nor even Diogenes. We live and die,
And which is best, you know no more than I.
In Canto VI. 7 of Byron's poem, one may recall, Cato is described as 'Heroic, stoic Cato, the sententious' while Diogenes is referred to as 'the Cynic'. So if there is anything to be read into this epigraph it is the poet's declaration 'I pretend' – a pretence against both sententiousness and cynicism, which in actual fact is largely the tone of the collection, with a subtle comedic streak. Certainly the epigraph contains heavy traces of the sardonic and matter-of-factly states 'We live and die' as though that is all there is and we are powerless to change course.
The poems in The Sweeping Plain cover topics such as wine, fat, soap operas, silence, love, and children; the concerns and diversions of everyday life. The title poem offers a sardonic view of some familiar, yet somehow uncertain, scenes and the reader might be left wondering who are the 'they' of this poem from whom the speaker seems to be distanced? Who are the 'they' that do war well and 'are trained to shrug/and say it could be worse'; who 'fall in love with houses,/gadgets, cars and people that will wear out' then 'rush again' to 'get a new one'? Whoever they are, 'they are ecstatic' and think 'their world's an oyster,/they're its pearl'. They have been deceived by the allure of illusion. They are not the centres of the universe they believe themselves to be.
'Wine', on the other hand, is one of the collection's more accessible and easily understood poems. It personifies as it celebrates wine. 'I was in my late teens when I met you,/Though I'd seen you at the edge of things before'. The 'I' in this poem addresses wine in its many guises, in a range of settings. The dressed down and somewhat shameful flagon, the fancily dressed cocktail and liqueur, take their place in memory along with the exotic 'Spanish-labelled' wine and indeed the vine itself. The poem concludes with the memory of an afternoon spent in a rented room. It is obviously a pleasurable moment, suggested by the reference to it being 'outside time', although the events – the 'all that followed' – are left unspoken. Wine is the trigger of memory and with each encounter the pleasure of that afternoon is relived.
In 'The Smells of Others' Houses' we visit homes redolent with 'black pepper and oil', anchovies, lemons, 'clotted cream', 'succulent meat', and the scent of Woks, and on drought-stricken farms the smell of 'perished rubber' is a potent image of dry ruin. This is a poem rich with scents, and careful reading reveals that the smells of these houses are wedded to place. One house, for instance, is located in a place where Gondolas ride nearby, and another is outdoors with 'mist from a dam', and the smell of campfire. The seventh stanza talks back to William Carlos Williams' note poem 'This is Just to Say' – and muses, 'What did she think of his icebox raid'? – but leaves its own question unanswered.
'The Nations', a five part poem constructed almost entirely of unrhymed couplets, invites the reader to guess which nations are their subject, and clearly positions them as 'other' by the use of 'These people' and 'They'. For example, 'The Nations: 1' suggests a European country – Austria or Germany perhaps?
These people, as we know, admire music.
Their composers are required to drink coffee,
steal each other's wives, turn fairy tales to operas,
and provide the world with cliches.
They're renowned for spending all their lives just thinking.
Once, they worshipped spirits of the forest;
France is quite clearly the subject of part two for its 'frogs grow limbless where they settle;/gastropods retreat into their shells where they appear'. This is a cryptic, yet obvious, reference to the culinary delights of frogs' legs and escargot. In 'The Nations: 3', 'These people speak a language not unlike ours/ and the national dish is cod.' This could be England, especially as their 'population's sport is chasing animals to death' – a reference to the nation's hunting tradition. Part 4 must be Australia because its centre is stone and its citizens travel through the land despite there being 'nothing left to see', while part 5 is not so easy to interpret.
'Silence' is a long poem, at eleven pages, and is full of understated wit. It is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding poems in this collection (and it also features on a separate CD recording). This poem is a suite of short poems on various incarnations of silence, such as: 'Silence of a Gallery', 'Silence of an Inhabited House', 'Silence of a Spider', and 'Silence of Monumental Architecture'. These poems are disparate in their subject matter but are bound by their simple, yet clever, elegance and word economy, and also occasional resonances between stanzas.
The Sweeping Plain yields its strange geographies, its travellers, and its residents, from the generic isles of Colorbondia where people worship mirrors, to imaginary countries where the residents marvel at those in the 'real world' aping them. It dismantles the architecture and reconstructs the minutiae and epiphanies of contemporary life with a lyrical wit. In Sharkey's own words, 'Words inside a book are silent/Till their sound invades our eyes'. Open The Sweeping Plain to see these poems sing but expect to be challenged. Expect to find questions and uncertainties lurking between the lines.