Fate of the Modern Soul: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘Sunset on Santorini’ by David Foster

Sunset on Santorini by David Foster. Puncher & Wattman, 2012

‘Am I not seeking my own oblivion?’

sunset_on_santorini_310_445_sDavid Foster is best known as one of Australia’s most respected and lauded novelists, with accolades from the Miles Frankin to the Patrick White Award. It is always interesting, then, when a writer of this calibre publishes a work of poetry.

Often it seems writers of prose can struggle with the confines of poetry, though Foster is a writer who harnesses language effectively into whichever form he feels is required of the work. It also important to note that this isn’t Foster’s first collection of poems and he has often incorporated poetry into his prose writing in the past, such as in the brilliant The Glade within the Grove.

Sunset on Santorini is Foster’s third collection of poetry and a stark portrait of place, employing a unique poetic sensibility. Using various poetic modes and forms, from rhyming to free verse, this book is a rewarding read.

The poems are presented as a collection of ballads, and serve as a poetic journal recounting Foster’s stay on the island of Santorini, the site of one of largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history some 3,600 years ago.The poems explore the fall of the Minoan civilisation following the eruption, religion, myth and the state of current culture and social behaviours in the modern 21st century world.

Each of the short, numbered poems within the collection are filled with natural and mythological imagery evoking the landscape and the perceptions of an artist’s observational eye, recalling history and exploring the human condition as it was and is.

The opening poem describes Helios, the personification of the sun in Greek mythology, as he ‘Struggles across the sky/Dragging himself from his comfortable bed/Inclined to die’. The poet describes watching the tired sun from his bedside, when Helios must depart ‘bleeding into the day’ in order to ‘return bleeding into the night. Several Greek characters, such as Helios, reappear throughout the text, and this progression works nicely, despite lacking a clear narrative.

The ultimate strength in this collection is the way Foster creates small time-capsules in each poem, and the reader can open at any page and be transported and handed a portrait. Although clearly using the poet’s travels as its stimulus, the works dart in many directions and jump from past to present, reality and mythology, freely. This book is filled with an excellent knowledge of cultural history and mythology, while also employing a personalized lyricism that makes for truly unique poetry.

Santorini as a landscape exists as the remains of a volcanic eruption, a metaphor Foster employs to reflect on the landscape of our current civilization, and the possibility of an impending demise runs through the poems.

The comparisons between ancient and modern culture are provocative, personal and intelligent, as Foster compares the concerns of a civilization destroyed by natural disaster with the Western culture of the present:

‘I weep to think of all the tears that must have been shed
By convict eyes regarding this cover shoot for ‘Vogue”

Foster’s lyricism is very effective, and his personal commentary creates an atmosphere in itself. Although a series of personas are presented in many of the ballads, the reader also hears the poet, although never the direct subject, asking questions and reaching for impossible answers, where ‘there must be more to life/than thus far I have found’.

The poet’s comparison of cultures and time periods is particularly interesting. Christianity is dealt with carefully yet uncompromisingly, as Foster explores heresies in early religion and faith as a means of control:

‘Three times Rigby the church we march
Onward Christian soldiers
Christ has gone to visit hell
There’s a place we know full well
None of us would need rappel’

This kind of visceral imagery is used sparingly, and its impact is hard to ignore when it does appear.

In fact, the most effecting ballads face religion squarely, and the myths surrounding the Bible, in order to retell, question and criticize. When writing of the Virgin Mary, Foster asks for the church to ‘spare us an icon of her’. And when reflecting on the Christian beliefs of mortality and an afterlife, the poet determines the story of Christ to be ‘something to ponder when we die/The boy they couldn’t crucify.’

In this foreign land of ancient civilization where ‘a crucifix ascends the sky’, the poet is displaced, possibly due to being a foreigner or due to his ability to only imagine Minoan life so long ago. Evoking the surrounding terrain of rock and ocean, Foster creates a strong sense of this kind of uncertainty through simple, sharp lyricism:

‘Unspecified, unsung
Is where we belong
We do not know this place’

Undeniably a master of his craft, David Foster should be celebrated not only for his skill and achievement as a novelist, but for his contribution to Australian poetry. We can only hope there is more poetry to come from him.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn is an Australian poet. His latest chapbook, Before Bone and Viscera, is published by Rochford Street Press. (https://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/). He lives on a farm in Woodstock, rural Victoria and can be found at robbiecoburn.com.au

Sunset on Santorini is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/sunset-on-santorini


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