Phillip Hall Reviews Robert Harris’s The Gang of One: Selected Poems

By | 17 July 2019

The Gang of One: Selected Poems by Robert Harris
Grand Parade Poets, 2019

In ‘The Day’, Harris writes a stunning eschatology for Gough Whitlam. For Harris the dismissal was ‘the day of deceit’, ‘the day to lose heart’. As I write this review, I too am demoralized and anxious, despite the beta-blockers. In the crisis of another general election, the causes of a progressive and civil society have again been defeated. And in our election wash-up, the ALP seeks a new leader. Tanya Plibersek, our Kiwi-model hope, has already withdrawn her candidacy for the top job, citing family reasons (this does not appear to be an obstacle for her male colleagues). In this society, is any male (really) a ‘gang of one’? And while I hear the self-referential humor implied in the title, I also find myself butting up against its hyperbole: the allusion to romantic nonsense of one-off, singular (almost always male) creative genius. Will Connie Barber, Barbara Fisher and Grace Perry (amongst so many others) also be recognized/celebrated with the Selected/Collected milestone?

This being said, Harris is an incredible poet of place, of faith, of historical sequence; and many of his poems’ endings shimmer with all the ecstatic vibrancy of Hopkins (or Murray). I do not believe in miracles, I was grown in Baptist/Pentecostal faith traditions, but this book is miraculous – a triumph of its (crowd funded) gang of supporters. And I am so joyful that they have introduced me to this poet.

In writing place, and its settlement, Harris is capable of juxtaposing such lyrical imagism with strongly interrogative purpose. ‘The Dancer’ is a very fine example. Here the poem-sequence is centered less on narrative momentum, and more on an almost surrealist automatism and fizz of unforgettable imagery:

Miriam, in the hallway,

a girl wears a papier mâché mask
and tinsel stars down Brunswick Street

a bird a lumbering wagon of sky

                  - this ghost that can go with aphasiacs
rendering tithes
     without feeling panic
                                         arise, like a kite

Trout leap out of the river, command the night.

But this is also a place ‘before Cook’ where: ‘You have guessed Cook is a cipher / (but of what forest, my dear little trees)’. Historical perspectives might be as beautiful as ‘trout become water’:

but what Cook carried, along with slaves
the seven sheep on eleven ships

tenacious intoxications

conversations that of no volition rise like waves

:   my hands on my lover’s body are forgiven
everything they have been and touched and turned to
that did not feel good or auspicious

This lyrically interrogative intent is continued in ‘Clear Days in Winter’, another beautiful poem of place that is also attuned to ecological concerns:

I often feel walking on the flats
that I’m in a face that is laughing,
especially when the south-westerlies
set the ghost gums shaking. They have come back
year by year, throwing their suckers forward,
moving up saplings, bridging the old torn diggings
with roots, ignoring the hectic counter-attacks
of isolated chainsaws, the spiteful weekend
initiallings done with axes. Lanes and streets
have crumbled before them like redoubts
until they camp equably on mounds.
Then they throw up white arms, they spend
their modest torsos on a place between the earth
and air, loyal to old, unrestricted alphabet,
although the lesser banished them, wrote
lonely on entire skies, brought calves, found gold
and apparitions to worship every moonrise.

There are so many major poems of place in this book, all hinting at mystery and the exquisiteness of ‘creation’ while also adjusted to postcolonial/ecological commitment. There is ‘Concerning Shearers Playing for the Bride’, which is also a poem of ekphrasis in response to Arthur Boyd; and the poems of North Queensland sugarcane country: the sequence ‘Cane Country’; and ‘Canefield Sunday, 1959’. These poems are fueled by a searching necessity for a Treaty with First Australians, for social justice, and by such dramatic and vivid descriptive language. This is a poet, with strong convictions, in love with the world in which he finds himself.

This ecstatic vision is most evident in the way Harris ends poems. In ‘The Call’, a poem evoking the ‘eye of summer’, he concludes:

Christ, called me through from the other side of lightening.
Now I would seek out a comelier praise;
then I felt like one in a room of crimes

as the blind rattles up, and the light crashes in.

While ‘The Snowy Mountains Highway’ finishes:

The vivid blue & heat, at times
so thick it curved and shook,

recalled Bertolucci’s camera.
I have placed myself here in the poem,
at work, check-shirted, to help myself remember
black branches I snapped at dusk, snow
at the wind’s edge, a wombat. Also

to dismantle any aesthetic
ideal, keep, or Magian use
from which I might write.
A pair of shoelaces could be an event
if tools got me by, chains on

retreads and rising early, when
axe handles split, good hickory too,
how far then I drove in His paradigm,
early mornings on ochre roads
to see the light lift silver off slush.

These poem endings are unforgettable in the way they employ concrete imagery and sound to express such delight and wonder towards ‘God’ and the world ‘he’ has created. It is difficult not to be seduced by the simplicity and beauty of this language, but of course, this language also raises difficulties.

I still remember the first time I read Les Murray’s majestic ‘The Last Hellos’. I was a young adult (desperately) trying to maintain my faith, and this poem reduced me to tears. It is a beautiful hymn of love written for Murray’s father who had just died. In this delicate eulogy Murray addresses his father concluding (with a dramatic crash):

Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.

Like Murray, Harris seems to enjoy championing the unfashionable cause of God (though he is obviously more progressive in his politics); and in these convictions both leave me nostalgically longing, but also cold. In writing a poetics of faith Harris and Murray prioritize the role of individual submission to God, neither one examining their faith too closely, or asking difficult questions. In Harris this is especially problematic, because his progressive politics would seem to be so often in conflict with his obedience to God.

In ‘The Cloud Passes Over’ Harris writes a magnificent hymn of praise for rejuvenating rains. This is rain that breaks riverbanks as ‘water flows sideways / from faucets outdoors’:

Some nights 
                             the Lord God of waters
moves down the freshwater,
                             the estuary, rivers
veiled in darkness.
                             In silence He inspects
the snags
                             where the bank drops away,
examining every rotting trunk, 
                             every hole where fish sleep.
He sets aside mullet and trout
                             for Koori people,
for dairymen mourning 
                             under the quota system.

Leaving aside the issue of Harris’s non-inclusive language, in focusing only on God as the source of creation and renewal, this beautiful hymn of praise is not entirely honest. This ‘Lord of all / is at large throughout His creation’ as judgment and death also (flood). ‘He’ was never only about love and life – there were always strings attached.

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