Pruning the Book of Nature
Cumulus (Collected Poems) by Robert Gray
John Leonard Press, 2012
Though Robert Gray’s status as a major poet is well established, both in Australia and overseas, he is sometimes dismissed as ‘merely’ a nature poet or, worse still, a poet of description. While Gray is narrower in scope than say Yeats, Auden or Murray, this charge is, of course, irrelevant to both the reader’s enjoyment and the place his poetry will find in any canon. Many leading poets of the second half of last century – Plath, Larkin, Wright, R.S. Thomas – could, to varying degrees, be similarly accused.
Gray’s philosophy could be described as Common Sense (albeit of a far more skeptical nature than Thomas Reid’s), and while his work is informed by various Buddhist traditions, he never wholly embraces the supernatural truths of religious dogma. The poetry is grounded in the material, as Gray continually reminds us that: ‘Things as they are are what is mystical’, from ‘A testimony’. He is always a traveler but never a tourist, at home in the decaying world of things; his voice tinged by an unshakeable melancholy not dissimilar to the Romantics.
As readers familiar with Gray’s work would expect, Cumulus is not short on figurative brilliance and elegant expression. From ‘The South Coast, While Looking for a House’, for example:
... Around fried chicken shops, the young, out of the surf, are stringy, idle, opportunistic, like nosing dogs ...
Or, from ‘The Circus’, the elephants: ‘swaying weightlessly, as plants underneath the oceans’. Or, to quote two of his many exquisite haiku:
Smokestack at dusk, And a woman’s long hair Who pauses underwater. The sky, thick with stars, Is the floor of a saucepan That’s about to boil.
These lines could be exchanged for hundreds of others, many no doubt more resonant to the particular tastes and experiences of a given reader. Gray’s instinct for fitting language and form to subject is manifest throughout the book. Consider the ‘hungry face’ of the kangaroo which:
moves on the grass, in the way that a final pencil will retouch, or the artist erase. (‘The Kangaroo’)
These lines capture the kangaroo’s movement not only through enjambment but their concrete form. The sketch of a defeated character in ‘Visiting in Fife’ is, appropriately, expressed through formal verse. The final stanza reads:
These damp trees, too, like days Packed together that hunch And sway as a boxer Does, waiting with a punch.
Here the rhyme carries an ironic stamp of realisation and the closed cadence is wholly fitting. Gray’s voice is unmistakable and, in poem after poem, he amplifies the world in which we live: ‘we are given the surface again, but renewed with awe’ from ‘A testimony’.
While less pronounced in later collections, Gray’s preference for simile over metaphor is indicative of his contract of honesty with his readers and compliments the organic nature of his work. Readers get the sense that he has lived these things. His conclusions feel instinctively right and, in this way, his work compares favourably to a nature poet like the Pulitzer-winning Mary Oliver, who strays too easily into the prophetic.
The content of this attractive volume, which includes a number of the author’s drawings, may surprise the more attentive followers of Gray’s work. A number of poems, redrafted from earlier Selecteds, undergo further revisions – many reflect the minute tinkering you would expect from a poet of Gray’s precision, but a few alterations are substantial. Some of these are improvements – few would question that: ‘That the mind can exist apart from the body’ is an improvement on: ‘That the mental component within us can exist separate from the body’ from Illusions. Others are regrettable. The magnificent ‘Summer, Summer …’, an evocative description of an idle afternoon’s cricket match, ends with the lonely figure of an old man who witnesses a young couple flirting. In the original version, the man:
who has become so quiet is one who must have realised he will never have his hand upon a firm breast again.
This resolution, rich in pathos and immediate physical detail, has been replaced with a summarising metaphor. Now, the man:
... who has become so quiet is one who understands that being alone now so he will remain and having lost his house he won’t build again.
While there may be good reason to revisit these lines (aside from the blush this Larkinesque honesty might cause in a few readers), the new less-specific ending feels grafted on and at odds with the immediacy of the rest of the poem: the author is imagining what the man is thinking and making this thought a metaphor. This is not the only place in the book where a sensory image has been sacrificed for an abstract metaphor or allusion.
Gray’s past New and Selected poems seem justified in their generous inclusions and led me to expect a longer collected works. While the poetry runs to 330 pages, some of Gray’s best work is absent. I missed ‘The Girls’, ‘The Calm’, ‘Mr Nelson’ and ‘Wintry Evenings’ to name four of many. I was also unable to find Gray’s most memorable epigram:
So this is the castle of your ideals – now show me the dungeon.
While these omissions underline Gray’s quality, I am left wondering why so many great poems were culled when lesser poems remain.
Poets are, ultimately, remembered for their best five to ten poems. Posterity is most likely to remember Gray for his evocation of place (peopled or otherwise) and, maybe, for a few of the poems about his parents. The elegance of Gray’s discursive free verse poems will weather the passage of time better than his neater formal verse. In Illusions, Gray states that ‘Bad art justifies itself with theory; good art with its immediate sensory appeal’. This should be the defining aesthetic for a book that is, in truth, a selected poems. Gray states in his author’s note: ‘The latest versions of my poems are the only ones I acknowledge, and only those that appear in this book.’
Whatever the author’s wishes, Cumulus should not be seen as definitive. While the book is a fair introduction to Gray’s work, I’d recommend readers return to the original collections and the various New and Selecteds for the full glory of Gray’s achievement.