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

By | 17 July 2019

Harris also writes many poems in response to Old Testament prophets, he is especially interested in Isaiah and Ezekiel. For Harris these voices in the wilderness are rejected at home for the hard love of their message and are, therefore, the original ‘gang of ones’. These men (they are always men) might represent self-sacrifice and commitment (love for God and not religion), but they are also the justification for dispossession and genocide. The Israelites (so the biblical narrative goes) were right to invade the ‘Promised Land’ and murder its First Nations because only they worshipped the ‘One True God’, and their continued prosperity was contingent on this intolerant and bigoted faith position. These scriptures have, forever since, accompanied European imperialism. For a poet usually so sensitive to the nuances of postcolonialism, Harris seems unable to interrogate these hard truths. It might be novel to champion unfashionable causes, but some critical reflection on the reasons for these positions becoming unpopular seem necessary.

‘The Eagle’ is another magnificent religious poem, and once I would have been totally seduced by its euphoric language. This poem concludes:

There, in His praises,

the eagle rests on an updraft,
as He dwells above time in His praises,
past and future. And those who pray
with you know also that each heart’s a desert,
flesh is as grass, its joy as a wildflower.
But the eagle rests, a freed spirit,
and the lilies rise with the river.

The eagle, as a metaphor for God, does not ‘rest on an updraft’, but is a raptor (a predator) not only seeking prey but also punishment for those who have strayed from a path of righteousness. Christianity has always been a set of beliefs equally concerned with judgment and consequences (which is why the religious right are so fixated on their anti-choice crusades) as with love and peace. I think that a Christian poet, especially one that makes spirituality such a preoccupation, needs to be acutely aware of these nuances. The critical love that Harris displays in his magnificent poetry of place (so attuned to postcolonial environmentalism) needs to be extended to his love for God.

Is it this unreflective love for God that also explains Harris’s deafness to his non-inclusive language and portrayal of gender stereotypes? In ‘Australian Rules’, another beautiful celebratory poem (this time of the joy of footy and of AFL’s multicultural inclusion programs), ‘girls’ are on the checkout ‘smiling’ as they sell footies, while the boys get to play because this is a game for ‘for Italian boys / for Protestant boys, for immigrant boys, / for Catholic boys, for the iceman’s son’. Obviously, it would be unfair to expect that Harris might have anticipated the explosion of women’s footy that we witness today in the AFLW, but VFLW began in a formal sense in 1981 (while the Doggies had a women’s team tour South Australia in the 1950s). So, even in Harris’s lifetime, footy was not exclusively for boys.

In ‘Girl, Singing’ women do the laundry, in ‘Tobacco’ the ‘thin housewives will light up another one’, while ‘Sonnet to Jenny’ is a splendid expression of love and appreciation for a very male centered relationship:

Autumn returns like a woman
tempered by spring and summer rain,
as quietly as one month
changes into another
and still as the movement of a leaf
stirring before a diamond breeze,
it is she who loops and arcs
very lightly with slim fingertips
in the fine dust on pianos
left too long disused in locked-up rooms
where resonant emptiness stares outside on the creeper
grown throughout cold to softly tap the big window
and wake you to warm mornings inside, Featured Sleeper.

While I hear the self-depreciating irony hinted at in that final image of ‘Featured Sleeper’, I couldn’t help but wonder if the piano isn’t left unused because of all the housework she has to do.

‘Goolaga’ is one of the final poems in this splendid if flawed book. It is another magnificent example of Harris’s celebratory, vivid and straightforward language, of his delight in being counter to counter-cultural positions, and of his intuitive searching for ways to make Christianity endemic to Australia:

The mountain, the law’s source, hangs overhead;
four hours downhill from the Teaching Rock
big goannas cling at dusk to golden wattle
and everything quietly closes in.

Two familiar accents’ intonations
equally faded, the black and the white.
Two protocols were balanced by
my solitary footfalls

down the narrow track
to the tent where I kept my salvage
gazing out into the late gold-blue from shadows
at an aircraft’s silvery empennage.

And I was neither Jew nor Greek
with a kettle fired by candle stubs.
The hills were filled with stoned women
who sought astral travel gods and clever-men

and I, would hide off the road
to escape accepting a lift from them
and say, Grace, Grace, to this mountain.

With the publication of this book, a consideration of Harris will become compulsory to any formulation of an Australian poetics of place. And this makes me very glad. It is so important to celebrate the memory of such creative and insightfully productive people. But as a religious poet of ecstatic vibrancy, his vision only confirms my Christian agnosticism. In developing his poetics of place Harris balances his love for country with the demands for a Treaty with First Nations, for social justice, and is also attuned to environmental concerns of living lightly and of undertaking justice to the earth. But, in expressing a poetics of faith, he is content to submit his will to God, to praise both God and creation, and not ask difficult questions (of contradictions which his progressive politics should have made quite urgent). If love for God is as robust as love for country, then surely both can withstand critical examination.

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