blue grass by Peter Minter
(Salt Publishing, 2006)
I started reading blue grass and after the third poem 'Jou', a title that I could only imagine as short for 'jouissance', I closed it to take a little moment of reflection. I read the back cover blurb -- 'Playful and intellectually alert, Minter distils experimentation and contemplative thought into pure poetry'. 'Yes, that's right' I thought, 'pure poetry' and then I noticed that it was a quote from The Sydney Morning Herald and realized it was something I'd said in a review of Pete's last book Empty Texas. I was agreeing with myself.
That ‘pure’ poetry angle is still the case but, with the addition of the last few years of reading and writing, Pete's poems have both loosened up and deepened.
This collection reveals an unusual idea of poetry -- there are clues or keys to his method so that if you take them on and surrender to the unconventional you can come to your own notion of what Pete's doing.
He has an almost perverse interest in mingling archaic words with the contemporary as if that's a completely natural or unselfconscious use of language. I say 'natural' because it appears effortless.
He often breaks into a kind of lush Victorian lyricism reminding me of Algernon Swinburne or Charles Meredith -- 'Thunderheads/raise incarnadine, into dark blue waste' -- how vivid.
He can use unusual adjectives as titles -- words like ‘elenge’ (when he could say ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ or ‘miserable, remote, lonely’ -- whatever it is, it’s terrible) He leaves the reader to make a connection with the poem so-called. He also tends to make up words -- like 'odelic' -- which, for Pete, is a combination of an ode and an idyll. Pick the rare words here ‘Your eye makes a karyotype of dark seeds', ‘As ash/embers quincunx/over pines’ -- There’s a poem called (siryne)‘Serine’ -- which, as far as I can tell, is a scientific term for a particular enzyme, unless, that is, Pete can’t spell ‘serene’ ? and another title ‘Valentinea’ -- does he mean a Valentine -- a gift denoting affection, or is there an association with the ancient emperor of Rome’s western empire ? From the tone and content of the poem I’d say it’s the former -- but, then again, it might also suggest a problem with hygiene of the feet.
Trying to 'match' a title with a poem here can be an unsettling experience. For instance the poem titled with that adjective 'Elenge'
At night I lift crows
from the dune's glow, a lake wherever it goes
with all unquiet things.
Why does a man run towards distance
as if two carbon rings
can make the soul ?
Included middle, new grass for the park's radiance
under like-grey solar panels.
As if I could remember
why this whole body curves
in heroic hope
where this silver was becoming from,
flesh & bone
in which the one tree slept?
The book is comprised of four sections -- 'History of the Present', 'Auto Heaven', 'Australiana' and 'Fresh Kills' and running throughout the collection is a series of precisely indented sonnets.
The first section 'History of the Present' does indeed have some very strong poems about present times -- like the utterly contemporary, long, and very moving, sorrowful poem which names names -- 'On the Moida of Roni Levi by Constable Rodney Podesta and Senior Constable Anthony Dilorenzo, the 'Awesome Twosome', at Bondi Beach early on the morning of Sunday, 28th June, 1997'. It reinforces one of poetry's important and enduring functions as a tool of social memory. From the Notes to Poems we find this poem was inspired by a similar title from Philip Levine's 'The Names of the Lost'.
This book has plenty of saltwater, freshwater, seascapes and swimming. We are taken to Lighthouse Beach, to a river, to a lake, to the coast many times. And the poet, musing on a 'half 'man' half 'fish' tells us 'In water we/ come back to real work, the what is to be done/ only partly revealed' . In one poem he goes fishing with the songs of US punkhippie folksinger songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy and elsewhere 'a stray breeze/on water slips bright crescent scales/between reeds & then literally away' ' a cube of water shivers blue' . There seems to be more water than grass in blue grass.
A long poem involving fire and vandalism is placed, as if to contain its fiery power, between two shorter, quieter sonnets of the ocean.
It's the amazing poem 'Super Georgic' which incorporates levels of meaning whilst describing a complex act of boys'-own vandalism setting fire to a petrol bowser in the outback. The poem begins on a 'good day' -- you feel a pastoral coming up, -- cruising along through the wheat belt, wedge-tailed eagles, white and brown butterflies in the air, a place called Lake Grace blurring/slipping into view to create an awe-filled state of being. With no hint, really, of the spontaneous destruction about to occur. The language in this poem is hyped up. The georgic is super -- a sort of sur-georgic. The petrol is super. The excessive feeling is super/lative. Setting fire to petrol bowsers is, obviously, a demented act and the poem's almost-desperate reclamation of a little marsupial, the dunnart, is quickly over as it 'springs burning from your fingers'. This is an unconscious tough guy scene and this fire is burning to a soundtrack, Pink Floyd's 'Chapter 24', on the car stereo. It's as if it happens simply because it can - out in the 'wilderness' -- and there's even a flash of lightning to cap this bright and weird moment. What a poem !
Loving and sexuality are a notable component of blue grass. Especially in two of the sonnets. 'Elope' -- which is almost adolescent in its intense romanticism. Its yearning, like most inchoate desire, remains unrealised. Later in the book there is a very sexy sonnet 'Black Star' that displays the Romantic equation of love and death and addresses a lover who has the 'satin eyes of Mallarmé'. Pete has no fear of excess -- listen to the heightened poetic intensity in this freely-associated stanza
The folding stem and labile edge
of wind across lunate metacarpal phalanges
meridians of lucid tessera
we triangulate with fire, sense & speech,
then bifurcate all words
The rhythmic pantoum called 'Wallpaper Codicil' is another sexed-up poem and the repetition makes it very funny . Here's the middle of the poem --
The dildo in the cupboard is a force to be reckoned with
an independent scholar dressed to the nines
so honey, don't cry, the cheque's in the mail
I don't know…no-fat, lite, or full-cream entrees?
An independent scholar dressed to the nines
the exit wound smaller than a dime in the end
I don't know…no-fat, lite, or full-cream entrees?
brand loyalty is oedipal, your coterie few
I've detected a kind of unspoiled admiration for the concept of the bohemian intellectual who is to quote Pete quoting Bob Adamson 'Tho not calm in the head…' and Robert Duncan 'they cease to care' in the one poem. It's worth remembering that the bohemian posture is a construct, you don't have to believe in it even if you take it on.
But then again in another turn Peter Minter's poetry can bring to mind the 'raw' poets of the USA in the 1950s. (Charles Olson & Robert Creeley) There's also sometimes, not too often, but sometimes, lines that read like distilled essence-of-Forbes and some actual quotes from John Forbes -- 'the planets line up and nothing happens'. And in another instance of a kind of mutable diversity he has pop culture eliding the nineteenth century -- you'll find that wonderful punk chick from alternative comix Tank Girl, and quotes from Blade Runner, Pink Floyd -- to mention only a few.
And in yet another twist there's the long poem "Political Economy & Raphael's 'Madonna of the Pinks'". It's not romantic -- using real names -- it's a poem that's not distanced by coding. Basically it's an anti-hype anti-spin critique of commercialism in art and politics.
Many of Pete's lines of poetry sound like lines from songs. They have that element that the French poets, if you give them the time, go on and on and on about -- 'La sonorite' -- there's really no English language word for this. We use 'sonorous' to mean kind of grandiloquent sound or profound sound -- but Pete's poetry, although highly imagined, never engages with that kind of pretention.
For example lines like these could be sung -- 'dark as the well is the water there', 'Morning then was deep/& wide, sea water glittered in the round/ my hand cupped…', and even in a sombre war poem -- the irony is absorbed by rhythms
'On a fair and pleasant day
as they waited, and they wept, children
sold their stocks in tempests
while a mackerel sky & sunset let
Hercules appear transcendent
as they sank in rows towards the hangars
by the bay.
This poem, 'War in the Filigree of Peace' as it continues is reminiscent of poems by the Beats and the last couple of stanzas also bring to mind resonances of Baghdad imagery from our tv screens and even the earlier Desert Storm, in the exaggerated stylisation of recent films like 'Jarhead' --
Of course they knew that daily men
were dying, that other men in pieces
praised the power of green wind, green branches,
the bright red morning in split trees
& arteries aglow with TNT, that crazy air,
gold patina in the fire
awash along palladia of gilded stairs.
So they waited then beneath that oily sky, old-growth
oxidised in plumes the way
banners roll in wind like keels of ash
as they appear through glowing clouds, a rumour
swelling with a thousand seeds, a trace
of thousands of the coming dead.
To change tack now, my impression of the 'Australiana' poems are that they are that - recognizably local, with recognizably local people --
'she was born in the early 70s
& absorbed something of that fuck you
unfurling from her lips'
red tulip torsion equally intense…'
This urban poet, living in a big city, is concerned with the natural world and its imperilled status and with ecology. He makes a nice human joke of this -- fixed by the gaze of a fruit bat -- not man to man but 'mammal to mammal'. But further on, the first part of the sonnet 'Extinction' minces no words --
I was there when the dieback began.
First I felt the dead drive
toward total florescence, company drying-out
as the sun went down
on prime real estate, sandalwood, cedar
feathers in the red sun, charred
plains of old geology
bled maritime types into eternal light
spectral as money gluts.'
and in 'Besides Good & Evil'
as hydrocarbon fallout rouses
ex-nihilo flowers, spitfires
In the eucalypts' trim.such
coincidental similes forced gently
through cat shit
Newtown's permaculture terraces…'
Where in another instance the poet finds an old collection of feathers -- 'the lorikeet, the sulphur-crested/cockatoo, an eagle, a sooty owl' and wonders why he kept them and then he hears them outside in the city amidst the morning peak hour.
And another striking poem -- a city approached from a helicopter that undoes some of nature's tasks
the chopper flies in low
over flowering apartments, rotor shadows
unfurling long dark seed heads
into roof-top pools, empty & shivering
I can't finish this glowing panegyric without mentioning the clear, strong poem in which Pete remembers his friend and mentor Dorothy Hewett.
I haven't even mentioned 'The Knitcap Sutras' -- so you can discover them when you buy the book. But I'll just ask a question -- as a clue -- 'What is Beauty?' -- it is a promise. Beauty promises…
These poems are fully conscious, informed, but not cynical. In fact they can seem like dangerously optimistic leaps of faith . In short , they'll amaze you.
The book's final lines imagining Zukofsky mark a change of direction, possibly signalling poems to come
'guess I'll xerox the other
bits and pieces'
I have nothing but praise praise praise for Peter Minter's blue grass.
Pam Brown has published many books including Text thing (Little Esther Books, 2002) and Dear Deliria (Salt Publishing, 2003) which was awarded the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2004. In September 2007, Tinfish Press published farout-library-software, a collection of collaborative poems written with the Seattle-based Egyptian poet Maged Zaher. Her next collection of poems, True thoughts, is forthcoming in 2008. Pam Brown is the associate editor of Jacket magazine and a contributing editor for Fulcrum and How2. She keeps a blog -- http://thedeletions.blogspot.com