Caitlin Maling Reviews Randolph Stow

1 September 2013

Stow also refuses to limit the boundaries of his consideration of ‘Australia’ to the geographic spaces of the nation. Poems stretch to examining Australian Papua-New Guinean relations, as in The Dying Chair’ and ‘Kapisim! O Kiriwina’. Other poems look towards early Portuguese seafarers to Australia: ‘The Embarkation ‘and ‘The Recluse’. Kinsella describes the sea as an obsession for Stow, and several poems in ‘Outrider I’ & ‘Outrider II’ find themselves on the ocean, where ‘how long it is since I put out from the land/ no man remembers’ and ‘man/ is tendril and tideless sea, and I am man,/ and the shore, the shore – no man remembers now’ (‘The Ship Becalmed’). Stow left Western Australia to spend the majority of his adult life in England, where most of the work in this volume was composed. Reading through this volume I was reminded of Martin Harrison’s remarks on the poet John Mateer, that his ‘work belongs in [the] larger world tradition of poetry written in and from displacement and exile, that state (or rather non-state) in which key perspectives not visible to the settled inhabitant become self-evident’ (13). In his introduction to John Mateer’s The West: Collected Poems 1989-2009 (2010), Harrison writes: ‘displacement for Mateer is not just national and external, but internal, in the mind’. Although Stow was not in exile, this sense of displacement, of being adrift, is pervasive. It allows his work to complicate nationhood in a way it would not otherwise have been able to.

As for internal displacement, we see how this interacts with Stow’s fascination with myth and his desire for privacy in the selection of poems from ‘Masks’. The ghosts in ‘Masks’ are personal ghosts. Stow writes that these poems are ‘private letters written to people with whom I have a relationship, about which, for one reason or another, I want to say something to them, directly; but I say it through the circumstances of the myth-figure, who gives each poem its title’ (42). The myth-figures covered range from Ishmael to Endiku to Setthathirath. In ‘Ishmael’ we encounter another man wandering his memories of ocean in long song-like couplets:

Antarctic seas work statuary of ice,
and sand-toothed wind, in the hungry waiting country,

raises unseen its pale memorials
to lioness, sphinx and man. These blinding images

I call to mind to mould the mind, inviting
desert and sky to take me, wind to shape me

Here Stow displaces his emotions onto Ishmael, who in turn seeks out the wind to take them to an even more distant location.

One of the best things this collected work permits is the consideration of these deeply personal lyrical poems alongside those which are more outwardly focused, such as those in ‘Outrider I’, ‘Outrider II’ and ‘Stations’. In The Triggering Town the poet-critic Richard Hugo differentiates between private and public poets, where for ‘the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet … the words, at least certain key words, mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader’ (14). Stow is definitively a private poet: his key words are of the ocean, myth and childhood. This expertly curated collection permits us to see how the private relationship of Stow to the public issues surrounding colonialism and nation-making allow him to create a richer and more complicated poetry than a poet who was willing to reveal everything may have been able to do.

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About Caitlin Maling

Caitlin Maling is a Western Australian poet whose first collection Conversations I've Never Had was released in 2015 and shortlisted in the Dame Mary Gilmore Award and the Western Australian Premier's Awards. A follow-up collection, Border Crossing is due out in February 2017.

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