Metaphor and other devices: Alex Skovron launches ‘Libation’ by Earl Livings

Libation by Earl Livings was launched by Alex Skovron Balwyn Library on 9 December 2018.

I frequently begin a launch speech by saying something about my connection with the launchee. This occasion will be no exception. However, there is a slight question-mark as to when exactly Earl Livings and I first met. We seem to agree that it must have happened at the poetry readings in the Lower Town Hall at Hawthorn, which we both attended from the late 1980s into the mid ’90s. We even did a live three-way collaboration there with the composer Roger Alsop in an event featuring some of our poetry set to music in electronic, computer-generated form! So this poet and I do go back a fair way.

And this poet is a man of many parts—and certainly of many pursuits. His natural modesty would probably prefer that I didn’t mention his BSc, his Masters or his Doctorate, so I won’t. I can’t resist revealing instead, though, that Earl’s honours thesis was on the subject of black holes, and that he once seriously considered mathematics as a career. Among his passionate interests are cosmology and the origins of the universe, relativity, quantum mechanics—you get the picture. So it’s no surprise that science fiction plays an important role in his thinking, and in his writing. But wait. Earl is also a seasoned exponent of the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun, he has gigged as a musician on both lead and rhythm guitar, and is even an amateur ornithologist. It’s all part of an ongoing quest: maths, music, nature, martial arts—and it’s all to do with ‘the imperative of life’, as he puts it—from the macro to the micro. Oh, and I almost forgot: then there’s the poetry.

In my back-cover endorsement of Earl’s first collection, Further than Night, back in 2000, I underlined the qualities of patient craft, a fine and broadly tuned imagination, and an eclectic concern with both the outer and the inner world. In this second offering, Libation, those qualities not only hold true, but have been refined in the poetic mill of two or three decades’ writing and experience. As in his life, so in his poetry, the eclecticism is in full play. A flick through the contents list is immediately suggestive, and titillating: Experiment with Soul, The Silence of the Daguerreotype, Spanish Bluebells, Alien Dispatch, End of the Universe, Music for Nothing, Tawny Frogmouth, Easeful Death, Orchids and My Father, Initiation, Scripture in the Round, Looking for Grace, How We Come to Touch …

The book opens with the title-poem, ‘Libation’ [9]. Appropriately, this strong, 50-line monologue, a kind of manifesto, is a touchstone of the collection, a humble, questing voice from the crossroads of the worldly and the metaphysical:

Though I can never be sure
Of anything, life itself
A mask out of mystery,
I have once or twice found grace
In meditation and out
Of the corner of an eye,
In forest, at seashore,
With lover or newborn,
A scintillation, a keen trace,
Unplucked string resonating
To a distant rare music […]

The prose-poem that follows, called ‘Cleave’ [11] and this time in the third person, underlines the younger Earl’s early sense of the amplitude of creation, as ‘The boy rests on the soft slope watching stars entice him, incite him’. That sense of cosmic wonder has long been complemented by the poet’s fascination with the ancient. In recent years, while working on his novel at several residencies in Wales, Earl became something of a historian, archaeologist and blogger, as you will know if you were on his mailing list. These sojourns have provided a perfect culmination to his longstanding interest in antiquities. The stopovers in this volume include a pyramid complex in Saqqara, Egypt [40], a Megalithic cemetery in County Sligo, Ireland [ 41], even a 5000-year-old tomb at Newgrange, County Meath [43]. That cemetery poem, ‘Dolmen and Circle’, is incidentally the only poem in the book that is set entirely in lower-case.

A few pages earlier, the poem ‘We Survivors’ [39] sweeps out of the shadows of history and across the millennia of the human adventure. Its 20 lines give us some of the best rhetoric in the book. Here are the first two stanzas:

Then came the time of wheeling voices.
We killed smiling foes because they told us to.
We razed cities because they said nothing.
The earth neglected its fields of grain.
Priests began listening to stone.

It was the time kings bound themselves with spies.
We invented laws to cope with silence.
We bent our knees to all things absent.
Armies drilled themselves towards slaughter.
Each generation decreed the next.

The poem ends with the line: ‘The last voices to question are our own.’ Its message is unmistakable. Here and frequently elsewhere, Earl displays his deft touch with the crucial skill of closing off a poem to strong, resonant and (above all) thought-provoking effect.

Almost exactly at the collection’s centre comes a poem that encapsulates and extends the historical and human vision of some of these earlier poems, a concentrated unified field (if you like, Earl) embracing humanity’s propensity for division and strife in its very quest for transcendence. It’s called ‘Scripture in the Round’ [44], and I’d like to read two stanzas from it. The observer is in the British Library at an exhibition on the sacred:

We cannot touch the papyrus
Unearthed from the rubbish tip
Of ancient Oxyrhynchus, nor the gold
And vibrant ink letters and images
On vellum, the marriage contract,
The ceramic lamp – all transfigured
By the music of visionary tongues.

Can only stand before each
Torah, Gospel, Qur’an,
As if before an opening star,
The heart thrumming with silence
We nourish outside.

Speaking of the ethereal and its kin, I could mention, among my other favourites, ‘Experiment with Soul’ [13] (which begins: ‘In science one day he tried / To weigh his soul, the Devil / On one shoulder, an angel / On the other’); also the mysterious, seductive extended simile ‘Above, Below’ [57]; ‘The Dream Bird’ [54], a tender invocation in the imperative mood centred on an injured creature; and the ecstatic ‘This Charge Between Us’ [65], a poem on a more intimate dimension of the ineffable. In this poem Earl completely abandons punctuation.

With regard to technical matters, let me comment briefly on some of the formal aspects of the poetry across this collection. Free-verse predominates, but with a variety of approaches to architecture and stanza. There are couplets, triplets, quatrains, quintains, block poems, a poem made up of three 10-line stanzas [47], a few with long, visually effective overhangs and indents [38, 57], one with widely-stepped lines [67]. Earl deploys a variety of line-lengths; his line-breaks and enjambments are carefully chosen. He is not a rhymester, at least not in this book, but has an adept way with metaphor and other devices, and deals in some startling imagery. The three prose-poems spaced across the book remind us that Earl is also a polished writer of prose. The language, as we turn the pages of Libation, is clear and well-tuned, unostentatious, and the poet’s voice comes across as honest, companionable—and ever respectful of the human odyssey to date, while humble at what insights and discoveries still await us.

Side by side with Earl’s speculative and metaphysical peregrinations are poems dealing with experience on a more personal scale—with family, friends, and love. ‘What is love but an unlocked mask?’ the poet reminds us in a more otherworldly context [20]. There are, for instance, several moving tributes to his parents. ‘Bardo for Mother and Son’ [32] recounts a dream in which the mother’s vivid presence is undercut by details about the family house that are not quite right. ‘Portrait in 4D’ [34] charts the slow transformation of Earl’s father, after the death of his wife: from uncompromising rationalist to dabbler in faith-healing and the paranormal in an effort to reach her, all the while ‘His vision winding down, winding down’. The death and burial of a longtime pet cat, ‘Black, with One White Spot’ [36], is also memorialized. And a powerful, shocking poem about an early friendship, ‘Fall Out’ [28], is a true study of the divergent paths that two lives can find themselves upon.

On the subject of paths, I should reveal here Earl’s mountain-climbing prowess, which we witness in ‘Design: Mt Ngungun’ [51], incidentally the only other poem where the word ‘libation’ occurs. But in ‘Climbing Glastonbury Tor’ [48], we come across this pastime as a dual performance, so to speak, dedicated to his partner Jo—a poem about ascending, reaching and overcoming, full of delicious hyphenated compounds (‘dangle-scramble’, ‘hammer-huddle’), its exteriority an obverse counterpart to the interiority of ‘This Charge Between Us’, mentioned earlier. 

Earl addresses, as well, two companions of a rather different ilk, in the poems ‘Easeful Death’ [30], which is an ode to Keats, and in ‘Letter to William Blake’ [47]. Here is the opening stanza from the letter:

Two hundred years on
And we’re still not listening,
Even with the Age of Aquarius –
All that free love, those drugs
And rituals for raising
Consciousness – so that for most
The bear and bull of profit,
The spree of instant possessions,
The whiz-bang amusements
Of technology still hold sway.

Indeed. Perhaps it was when replying to Earl’s letter that Blake gave him permission to quote one of his lines in the nicely chosen epigraph to the book: ‘As a man is, so he sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.’ Which really brings me back to the universe—and more specifically, to a number of poems that betray Earl’s unbridled passion for the unknown just beyond the edge of the slowly growing knowable.

Take ‘Palette’ [61], where the poet whirls into lyrical freefall as he enthuses on nebulae and the many shapes they make:

Helix, Boomerang, Red Rectangle,
Tarantula, Butterfly, Eagle,
Hourglass, Cat’s Eye, Rosette –

Such swirls, veils, ripple-bursts of energy,
Incandescent pillars, Catherine wheels,
Flickering lattices, florid spumes […]

At the other end of the scale, in ‘Music for Nothing’ [21], Earl projects a terrifying scenario that encompasses the end of everything, in the wake of ‘the final / Still note’. Don’t read it when you’re feeling a bit down. And in ‘Further Propositions on the End of the Universe’ [23], a catalogue both entertaining and scary, we are advised, among other determinations, that ‘God is an unpublished science fiction writer’, ‘The universe is a dream / Dreamt by another universe’, ‘There is no universe’, and, more reassuringly, ‘If a universe did not exist / Nothingness would invent one’.

I mentioned at the outset Earl’s ornithological tendencies. The several poems in Libation that feature birds are well exemplified by ‘Little Wattlebird’ [72] and ‘Summer Adepts’ [70], the latter a celebration not just of the rainbow lorikeets that inhabit the poem, but of all nature. Permit me to read the poem’s closing stanzas:

Their cries are companionship. Their cries
Crescendo and echo long after bodies fall
From the treetops of other seasons, long after

No one remains to remember them, long after
Nothing remains but the last lightning,
Its flash and crack and flickering silence.

Well now, before I too flicker into silence, let me do what you’ve all been waiting breathlessly for me to do. Congratulations to Earl Livings, and to Ginninderra Press, on this solid and handsome volume of poems, with its striking cascade of a cover. I’ll hand you over to the poet, after which we’ll invite you to go and pour out your own libations. Meanwhile, I’m honoured and very pleased to declare this Libation officially launched.

 – Alex Skovron


Melbourne-based Alex Skovron is the author of six poetry collections, including Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems, which was short-listed in the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. He has also written a book of short stories, The Man Who Took to His Bed, while his earlier prose novella, The Poet, was recently translated into Czech. The Attic, a selection of his poetry translated into French, was published in 2013. Alex has given numerous public readings, both in Australia and overseas, including appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland, and on Norfolk Island.

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