Seeking the Romantic Amongst the Horror of the Civilized: Patrick McCauley Reviews ‘Poems 1957- 2013’ by Geoffrey Lehmann

Poems 1957- 2013 by Geoffrey Lehmann UWA Publishing, 2015.

LehmannGeoffrey Lehmann has published twelve books of poetry, one novel, two children’s books, and five non fiction books (including two anthologies of Australian poetry as an editor) during the last fifty years. This volume, Poems 1957-2013, Lehmann says ‘contains all the poetry written by me that I think is worthwhile including in a book’. It is divided into five sections, ‘Simple Sonnets’, ‘Earlier Poems’, ‘Nero’s Poems’, ‘Spring Forest’ and ‘Later Poems’. Apart from some of the Later Poems – all the poems have been published before, but many have been re-worked, and the organization of the work has been re-imagined. For example, ‘Simple Sonnets’, is presented first and separately, as fourteen sonnets – as if the titles of the section itself were a further sonnet ( and indeed a reading of the titles produces a syntax of Ern Malley proportions) The reader is drawn into a strange dream like world where the travelers never seem to arrive. The sonnets all have seven rhyming couplets without a volta. Sonnet XIV, for example draws the reader into a timelessness :-

These song birds flocking in the citron sky
have always been here” said the passerby.
“Time has no end and time does not begin.
Child, no one made the world that we are in.

These are indeed strange sonnets set in a European, perhaps seventeenth century world of horses and dragons and unrequited love. They are completely different from any of the other sections within this volume (or any other Australian poetry ) , and I agree with Geoff Page that they are ‘unique’. They seem to seek a Blakean romanticism that has been otherwise absent in Australian poetry. However, unlike Page, I enjoyed the relaxed patrician air of the patriarch which has largely been banished from poetry, even if it is a simulated vision as Nero or Ross McInerney. In fact Ross reminded me of Voss and I was surprised to be reminded on more than one occasion of Patrick White.

The second section, titled ‘Earlier Poems’, includes the poem ‘An Image which was first published in the London Magazine in 1958, when Lehmann was only seventeen. This poem together with the poem ‘Emperor Mao and the Sparrows’ (which explains, remarkably, that it was Mao’s dream of sparrows stealing his harvest, and the subsequent sparrow massacre, that led to the Great Chinese Famine) helped establish Lehmann as somewhat of a prodigy in NSW in the late sixties and early seventies. Throughout the ‘Earlier Poems’ Lehmann shows us the development of what Peter Goldsworthy calls ‘compressed ventriloquism’ and Geoff Page refers to as, his use of ‘masks’. Lehmann develops a deep empathy for the magisterial animals that were slaughtered during the Roman Empire in the name of progressive civilization. He inhabits the mind of Marcus Furius Camillus, Governor of Africa, as he traps and transports lions and dolphins to Rome for their slaughter and entertainment.

A Voyage of of Lions
Sea water stained with lion’s blood,
Our arrows caught a lion
Escaping in the foam.
The crowds edged cautiously back to the quay,
And so our convoy of lions set out
For Rome and arenas foul with blood

The reader can see the emerging of Lehmann’s ability to inhabit the past. He can enter the mind of Nero or Pope Alexander VI with ease and integrity. Every poem is worth reading and every poem rewards the reader.

InThe Trip to Bunyah: A Letter for Les Murray he notes

Your father has the gift, he hears the voices –
Memories licked into shape like cigarette papers

and in ‘Elegy for Sonnets he manages a vast understatement about the demise of the family (or chivalry or romance or love).

The sonnet is a house that’s been destroyed.
And more than sonnets: marriages, real houses

Lehmann maintains a strong contact with visual art and particularly painters, as can be seen by the stunning (and revealing) Charles Blackman drawing on the cover ( and also his dedication of Nero’s poems to Salvatore Zofrea). In the poem Roses we are given an idea of his aesthetics:

What matters is a rose grew in wild places
And that all space is immanent with roses.

Lehmann continually seeks the romantic amongst the horror of the civilized. He assumes the persona of the patriarch, the father, the tyrant and the Emperor (and later in ‘Spring Forest’, the outback farmer) We see him as father and single father, we seem him as a lover and as rejected and alone with his children. He seeks the Renaissance man (Homo Universale) and his vision is powerful, profound, male (unapologetically) and extraordinarily beautiful. He may be one of the last rural male poets to dare to use the word ‘cunt‘ – just once. InSpring Forest’ we are introduced to Mr Long who pops in and out of several poems.

Mr Long sometimes humped his swag for far off places
drinking metholated spirits, shadow boxing
and trying to kiss people.
I’ve tasted his johnny cakes

We hear the voice of Ross McInerney (1918-2010), Lehmann’s late father in law and inspiration, in many poems, and perhaps, the alter egos and dreams and fears of that part of the outback male, or the mad Emperor (in ‘Nero’s Poems) or Charon sweeping up the carcasses of slaughtered animals, that is simple, vulnerable and intelligent. Throughout the whole five sections of this work Lehmann remains vulnerable.For example, in the poem ‘Heat, Ross exclaims:

It’s night – heat without light

and in the poem ‘Witnesses, he notes:

we are witnesses of the conflagration
the fires are happening already all around us
Our possessions and protests are useless/
our despair is useless

There is the repeated image of a kerosine lantern, and many other literary devices throughout this life’s work of poems. Each piece is crafted and the book reads easily drawing the reader into strange other worlds and spaces. You could read this book for a very long time. It is accessible, lyrical, crafted and profound.

Lehmann attended the Shore School in North Sydney and graduated in Arts and Law from the University of Sydney in 1963. He worked as a lawyer, an international tax advisor, an academic, a writer/journalist, and a farmer. Lehmann is a straight shooter, unusual amongst a generation of psychadelic minded NSW poets with dark pasts, and American dreams. In the poem ‘Menindee’ – Ross tells us:

This planet which tries to house
half the men who have ever lived
Wants no one in particular
It does not want you either

Ross McInerney .. sleeps on an open verandah outside the house. I’d bet that Lehmann actually does sleep on an open verandah, just outside the house and his family … ready and vigilant against the great outback of the Australian diaspora and Australian poetry … to protect his family against the anti humanism of a post modern obscurity. An Emperor, farmer and a father… somehow solitary with his gift. In his poem ‘Advice to Young Poets he indicates the level of commitment required :

Murder your mother
Go live in a flat
And forget who you were

Along with Les Murray, Bruce Dawe, Robert Gray, Robert Hughes, Clive James and a number of others, Geoffrey Lehmann continues to explore the Australian male outsider into its numinous laterals and outbacks. There seems to be a romanticism of sorts amongst this genre of Australian writing, which now resides mainly in rural NSW and which can perhaps trace its origins back to Kenneth Slessor (Judith Wright, Patrick White). Eventually, the poets that matter do seem to find their voices, Geoffrey Lehmann found his when he was seventeen and seems to have spent the rest of his life trying keeping up with them. I read this book in a week because most of the time, I couldn’t put it down… and I have never before been able to say that about a book of poetry. Ideally it should be read over some time – there is plenty to ponder and meditate, and certainly it is a book I will go back to again and again.

 – Patrick McCauley


Patrick McCauley writes poems and essays, grows tomatoes and goes fishing around Clunes Victoria.

Poems 1957- 2013 is available from


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