Gareth Morgan Reviews Cities by Petra White

By | 22 February 2022

In the last two sections we glimpse more of the world of the living, and slightly less taut pentameter work. Naturally, reflections on life after(?) COVID appear in ‘Journal in October’, ‘Journal in December’ and ‘Home’, all of which are subtitled with a place – London / Berlin – and that mythic year, 2020. (Harry Reid in June 2019 commented on White’s Reading for a Quiet Morning that we were living in ‘distinctly un-mythic times’. Could it be White’s attention to myth is relevant … ‘Now more than ever’?) ‘Penelope knew about staying home’, White quips, tugging hard at the string which connects us to those poetry gods. This is in ‘Home’ (London 2020), which dares exclaim ‘O the world– its passages!’. And why not go for the big O, and in this slightly guileless fashion? ‘The world– its passages!’ indulges in a timeless thrill. I really like ‘Home’, which gets a bit dirty and hippy-ish, winding up ‘Twenty years ago, on the Nullarbor Plain… / naked in desert air, shitting in soft holes, / desperately becoming, / this wild source’. It is presumably a memory, and may recall poems from A Hunger about hippies (see Duwell). The passage of memory buoys poet and reader above the doldrums of lockdown. Cities opens up, but remains ‘honeyed’ still.

Perhaps the city-ness of Cities can be thought of in relation to the rupturing effect on the individual that comes with life in the metropolis. When I think of the city, I think of Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ which seeks to understand ‘the essentially intellectualistic character of the mental life of the metropolis … against that of the small town which rests more on feelings and emotional relationships … a protection of the inner life against the domination of the metropolis.’ White’s poetry is intellectual – it draws intellectual comparisons with ancient myth, and those myths are available primarily to the(?) intellectual class or people who are self-consciously intellectually engaged (this is not poetry carved into pub bathroom walls, edifying as that may be for those patrons). White’s poems in Cities are (self-)protective.

To be clear, the intellectualism of White’s poetry is not that of the (Simmel’s) ‘indifferent’ or ‘blasé’ city-dweller; it is even a reaction to ‘indifference’. White turns away, back to the small town of feeling, of value, aka capital-p Poetry. Despite the intellectualism, there is a feeling the poems produce that is other than intellectual. What is that feeling? Is it ‘the deeply felt’, a thing produced by a poem’s carefully wrought gravitas, a kind of prime-cut feeling that poems ‘should’ (in conservative parlance) aim for? I am compelled to turn to cliched adjectives like ‘moody’, ‘brooding’ and ‘solemn’: shallow comments, imagined depths. I want to say more but I’m saying something familiar. Or maybe it’s just that the poems aren’t funny: ‘Departure from a city / and arrival in another, / seamless, shocking.’

Simmel again: ‘No longer [in the metropolis] was it the ‘general human quality’ in every individual but rather his qualitative uniqueness and irreplaceability that [formed] the criteria of his value’. Petra White seems to say no to all that differentiation, as if unbothered by the need to have or show a prominent ‘self’ all the time. Where Simmel is titillated by the ‘fruitful … inexhaustible richness of meaning in the development of the mental life’ in the city, White retreats into a familiar version of capital-p Poetry, a sturdy shelter against the possibilities and abjection of metropolitan life.

In Cities, White thinks long and hard about her mother, her daughter, and the abstracted, dreamlike, common world we sort of, arguably, live in.

The door opens—
the equilibrium of my organs as if in a jar!

The door feels not like a door but an idea of a door, the organs too, even the jar, but the exclamation mark stirs something in me. It breathes in life, takes a risk. Cities looks at mothers, life and death. It is a measured tribute to an individual’s mother, which wrings the mad world into submission, makes sense of myth.

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