Meaning can catch on anything: John Bartlett reviews Graeme Miles ‘Infernal Topographies’

Infernal Topographies by Graeme Miles, UWA Press 2020

In approaching a new collection of poetry, a reviewer hopes that a series of themes or poetic preoccupations will quickly emerge to give the necessary “hooks” for said reviewer to arrange some neat conclusions. With Infernal Topographies this task is not quite so simple or straightforward. In this third collection by Miles, clear themes and resolutions are not so apparent and often meanings are left dangling.

But with some perseverance and background research, these poems soon become deeply rewarding even when a first reading may seem confusing. Graeme Miles is a Lecturer in Classics in History & Classics in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania and researches Greek literature (especially of the Roman Era) and philosophy (especially the Platonic tradition). These are indeed the areas that preoccupy Miles but there is much more to discover.

It doesn’t take long, with further referencing, to conclude that Miles is also exploring the poetry style of the Symbolists and once you learn that Symbolism was the enemy of Realism, many of the poems in this collection begin to make sense. In an early poem ‘In a Symbolist Mood’, the poet gives an early indication that he is interested in going beyond the surface imagery to something much deeper.

……………….I was drunk once
in a dream, years ago.
The bushfire sun was orange
and I said that I wouldn’t
remember this.
……………….
So disjunct things drop,
as you forget them, with an oily, lurid swirl
of dream, a little drum-roll on the lids of the eyes,

The subject of the poem does indeed seem to be the reality of a bushfire, and the poet in this collection does deal with contemporary issues even though sometimes his language and subject matter can seem in the Medieval or Gothic mode. But in this particular poem Miles seems to be searching beyond immediate reality. There’s also more to say later about this role of dreams in Symbolist poetry.

Symbolism in the arts was a late nineteenth century movement particularly in France, Belgium and Russia whose adherents wanted to push past the obvious realities of Realism and Romanticism to learn what lay beyond. For them realities were merely metaphors and allegories for a deeper, more mystical meaning. In an interesting poem ‘Vanishing Point’, Miles sees mundane images as unreliable.

In a reeking public toilet
the green light of trees reflects
through glass cubes, images
of the liquidity of vision.
From a smoky mirror
your face coheres semi-enduring.

It’s this ‘liquidity of vision’ that allows readers to venture beyond the obvious, to move into the gothic or the spiritual realm.

The Symbolist Manifesto was published in 1886 by Jean Moreas in Le Figaro newspaper in Paris championing the idea that representations of life, art and nature don’t stand on their own. What interested them were the archetypal meanings that lay below the surface.

Stéphane Mallarmé, one of the leading proponents of the movement, was concerned ‘to depict not the thing but the effect it produces.’ In a poem ‘Dreaming about Jiu Jitsu’, dedicated to Miyamoto Musashi’s ‘ Book of the Void’, Miles says:

The body is information, all angles
velocities. Even its tides are there
somewhere at the bottom end of awareness.

In the Book of the Void Musashi himself says that “by knowing things that exist, you know that which does not exist” which also sounds like a perfect Symbolist manifesto of its own.

Once we realise that the poems in this collection are on a journey to beyond reality, the collection makes perfect sense because with Miles there’s always more than appears on the surface of a poem. Everything is a symbol of something deeper. In ‘Bells speak the language of hammers’, he says

and each stroke strikes a nail in
somewhere unseen.

and in the next poem ‘In Rodenbach’

Meaning can catch on anything: movements
in the curtains, netted veils over beds,
the petal by petal suicide of a flower
in the next room
and
Symbols never ascend, point instead
to each other…

There’s a fluidity too in the concepts of time and geography in this collection which often merge into dreamscapes. The long poem ‘Dream Genres’ seems to be exploring these ideas where the poet is depicted wandering through the rooms of an old and decrepit building which not only recalls the past but it seems the past is being experienced along with present realities and ‘everything flickers / becomes a bit unreal as he says it.’

To that century belong all passages
hidden under pubs and courthouses
on this island where the bricks
record prisoners’ hands.

Further on the poet meets a dead friend, not merely as a memory but it seems in reality.

My friend is back, still alcoholic
ambushing people as a fleshy ghost.
I don’t forget even for a moment
that he’s dead

The friend is

still
somehow employed, despite his death
and resignation, so we pose together
for a university calendar

This is a poem that makes us question how memory fits into the concept of time. Is it more than a nostalgic looking backwards or rather the key to making the past actually present?

There’s more fluidity too towards the end of this poem in the concept of geography. The poet looks out the windows of

An old hotel in the country, evidently
In Europe, probably France

but then

………………….Outside it was never France,
it was Australia, the southeast where
if you squint it could almost be Europe

and then

Outside it’s near Perth

and then later

Outside is the nearly tropical air
of Sydney

and finally

…………………..Outside
It has always been Tasmanian winter

As readers we are discombobulated, marooned in a dreamscape, exactly where the Symbolists want to take us, to make us question whether what our senses show us is the full extent of the truth.

Miles also pays direct homage to the original Symbolist poets and artists with what are either translations of originals or riffs on their work. Titles include ‘Your Hands – Jean Moreas’, ‘Hands in George Minne,’(a Symbolist sculptor), ‘The Washerwoman of Paradise – Maurice Rollinat’ and ‘from La Vie des Chambres by Georges Rodenbach (a Belgian Symbolist poet).

And as you would expect from a professor of Platonic Philosophy, several poems are dedicated to some Platonic thinkers and poets. There are poems on Callimachus, Croesus and Antipater of Sidon. Plato and his followers were particularly interested in exploring what exists outside space and time and so a perfect fit with Symbolist poets. In a poem with a Gothic mood, ‘In What Sense Books Make Immortal’, a poem which appears to be about doors closing inside books, the poem begins with the enigmatic

As you enter, the opposite door has just
slammed shut
and continues
the light will fall like this
from now on and no one will see it

Despite many of the poems in this collection appearing disjointed or without resolution on first reading, deeper attention delivers real rewards. There’s also a playfulness and irony to be found. For example, how could we pass over the poem entitled ‘A few roos loose in the top paddock’ or ‘Some Similes about Similes about Similes’? This is a multi-layered collection which takes us beyond simplistic or surface interpretations and although it may leave the reader sometimes giddy and confused, it’s a perfect reflection of our own daily lives. I welcome this satisfying, Australian-themed return to, and preoccupation with, the Symbolist oeuvre.         

 –  John Bartlett

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John Bartlett is the author of three novels, Towards a Distant Sea, Estuary and Jack Ferryman: Reluctant Private Investigator. He also published a collection of short stories, All Mortal Flesh and his collated non-fiction A Tiny and Brilliant Light. In 2019 his poetry Chapbook The Arms of Men was published by Melbourne Poets Union and a second Chapbook, Songs of the Godforsaken, in 2020 by Picaro Poets. His full poetry collection, Awake at 3 am was recently published by Ginninderra Press. He was the winner of the 2020 Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize. His blogs and podcasts are found at: https://beyondtheestuary.com/

Infernal Topographies is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/infernal-topographies