Freedom and flight: Susan Fealy launches ‘Letters from the Periphery’ by Alex Skovron

Letters from the Periphery by Alex Skovron, Puncher & Wattmann 2021, was launched by Susan Fealy at the Armadale Bowls Club on 27 March 2022.

I would like to pay my respects to the Boon Wurrung elders past and present, on whose land we gather to celebrate the arrival of Letters from the Periphery. It is a great honour to launch Alex’s remarkable new book. I have been an admirer of his work from around the time that I began to write poetry in 2007. Today, I hope to bring some of my perspective as a poet, a reader and as a friend who has had the privilege of seeing this manuscript develop: his seventh in this his eighth decade.

The cover, designed by Miranda Douglas, is inspired by a Grace Crowley painting. The absence of figure in this elegant palette signals that this book is one where structure has a particular charge, palpable rhythms and tonalities, that can balance and unsettle at the same time.

We find Alex’s fascination with metaphysics, especially time, along with interrogations of Western history, urban society and the human condition. Many of the poems were written after the death of his father in 2013 and from when he and Ruth first became grandparents in May 2015. Arguably, the investment in time past, time present and time future has never been more profound.

Over the making of Letters from the Periphery, Alex published a short story collection in 2017 and kept writing short stories. With Josef Tomas he translated two collections of Czech poetry into English. He also worked with Josef to see his novella The Poet translated into Czech. So, it’s apt that the translations of a sonnet by Borges and a Canto by Dante are in this collection. More than prior collections, he has been inhabiting the poetic space across languages. Arguably, this is a kind of return to his early relationship with language. After all, he came to English in his tenth year after Polish and Hebrew.

Translation offers a heightened awareness of what makes a poem a poem and the translations are clean, musical poems in English, meticulous in preserving the original forms. I think we also see some of fruits of this metadistance in a number of poems about creativity including the meditation on its meaning and purpose by way of the stunning sequence ‘The Light We Convert’.

Alex has often said that he likes to push language. In this collection, language and poetic form are pushed in particular ways. He has returned to the long poem, a feature of his first collection. The long poem gives the poet room to move. Let’s focus on that idea because travel, journeying—in the world, across time, and in the mind—is a major theme of this collection.

The opening poem ‘On the Beach’ creates a spaciousness. We find a couple by the shoreline, under the open sky as the day declines. It is not romanticized by the moon. It is a vaster space than romanticism: more existential.

The boats are rearranged along the shore,
smoke trickles absently from hazy roofs
shadowed by clouds and the declining day.
No moon. Just rustle of insistent waves
that rummage back and forth among the grey
sand …

There is room to pause, to amble … in the distance, there is another couple, observing the vista. This liminal space offers possibilities, all the larger for being in the pause, before any particular journey. The music of the long As and Es works with the imagery to create that spaciousness. The poem ends with a recognition shared between the couple: that a choice must be made:

And we are left to ask each other’s eyes
if we should follow in their wake or stay
for the duration of the night, the week, the world.

Alex takes us to an experience inside his poem that is free, open: but nonetheless the world waits. He has described one of his writing processes as parachuting himself into a scene or situation and then finding his way out. It is consistent with his love of speculative fiction, with its freedom and flight and perhaps consistent with his opinion that poetry is fiction.

Across the poems in this opening section though, flight and the sky also become troubled with human history. This section ends with ‘Four Last Things’, a poem which depicts the incursion of drunk soldiers into a small rural town. Violence is inflicted on civilians as one night turns into dawn, and thus the only tone possible is lament: ‘a threnody uncurls/from an upper window hollowed by a burst/of misdirected gunfire yesterday,/a shadowy contralto, luscious, terrible,/trailing away into the reddened sky.’

The poem, which references Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’, offers music as an expression of suffering rather than lyrics of resolution.

The arc of this first section shows something of the two poetic impulses in Alex’s work: one towards the freedom of imagination, the unknown, and the mysterious, the other deeply invested in the world, humans and our history.

The second section takes us into the realm of self. There are vivid poems that create spots of time: dense with details of lived experience, yet, it is a spacious, fluid chamber threaded through with poetic meditations on consciousness, the allure of the mystical, and the enigma of time itself. It contains the achingly tender poem written across time to his older half-brother who shares his name. a brother barely two years old who died in the Holocaust. This poem is for Alex’s voice alone.

Let’s have a look at ‘Double Clock’, a poem about adolescence. A double clock is of course the two adjacent clocks that track each chess player’s playing time. This long skinny poem drops down into memory, shows how he and his parents are clocking time differently.

It creates 1960s Sydney where he would ‘sit, pounding/the double clock, an eye often/elsewhere’. The poem maps his return to loving parents at home: that ‘unduplicable domain’ . A home where his father turned the concreted back yard into a chessboard: ‘ with slide-rule/exactitude, metre by metre,/ each square a metre square’. The poet fancies ‘that magic grid, all red and gold,/still chessing the yard, faded yes,/but undisturbed, having earned/each new owner’s new accord./In truth it must be impossible/to erase, without excavating/all that I’ve buried there’.

Memory, and his father’s commitment to absolute precision and structure, hints at a kind of legacy that Heaney depicts in his poem ‘Digging’, where to follow in the wake of his father’s spade, Heaney takes up his pen.

There’s a medley of snapshots in the third section: astute observations of strangers, encountered on public transport or in a café. The tone is mostly, quizzical, witty; seeming to delight in the odd feeling of things being out of kilter. The sense of liveliness and being on the move is heightened by the jump of indented lines and the jolt of inventive language. Curiosity drives these poems but also leaves open the possibility of danger: ‘Travellers’ ends thus: ‘and my traveller is chasing the corridor,/gaining on the girl who rebuked him./How much slighter she looks,/ in her heels, clumping to the platform’. The curious gaze become decidedly strange in the charming ‘Through the Window-Glass’. This time, it’s Alice travelling on public transport.

Balancing these poems is the final long poem: a highly patterned meditation on creativity, set in nineteenth-century music. ‘The Light We Convert’ has an intricate structure. There are twelve poems each of twelve lines in keeping with the epigraph from Paul Hindemith: ‘There are only twelve notes. You must treat them carefully.’ Apart from the prologue and the coda, each poem in the sequence has the same number of lines in its first stanza as the place it holds in the sequence. We find biographic fragments peppered with self doubt, envy, talent which falters or is not recognized. The underlying question seems to be ‘why am I doing this?’. The sequence gains pathos and gravitas through the pressure of its exploration, its recognition of limits and that ultimate limit: mortality.

Keats said that the long poem is ‘a place to wander in’. The long poem offers room or rooms to search for meaning : to address the big questions: how do we live with our own darkness, with the world’s history of darkness? How do we live with others? How do we live with desire? Can we rescue another? This quest for meaning is explored further in the trio of long poems that complete this collection. At the centre is a translation of the first canto from Dante’s Inferno— the start of Dante’s profound search for meaning.

Now, let’s stop over at the next two sections. Section four returns to urban society and its discontents, disappointments and loneliness. Poems explore what it might be like to live life at the margins, for desire not to be met, for relationships to fail. ‘War Disposal’ is a comic yet sympathetic depiction of masculinity and its tropes: how a man might be trapped by ‘could have beens’, stay invested in heroic narratives; be unable to navigate a way to feel authentic and worthy:

…………………….So he wears black—
garnished with sunglass goggles from a war
disposal store up in Lower George Street,
near the Chinese restaurant he’d once taken
his one-and-only lady companion to, his
sole-and-single one-night stand that morphed
into an aircrash and him into a lonesome
cowboy, retired would-be gunner, armchair
troubadour, deposed dauphin, whatever.

‘Diminished Light’ has a gentle melancholy. It’s placed in the ordinary: a mother and daughter’s visit to a laundromat. But in Alex’s hands a world is built around the ephemeral: the time of day, the weather, and the distance between a mother and her young daughter. Yet, the poem is open to the possibility that this is a way of existing, a way of getting through. The poem hovers on the page, its membrane so delicate it seems about to blow away. This mother and her child haunt the mind along with a question about diminished prospects.

Next, we encounter tyranny in its many forms: across history within and between nation states, and we also find that inner tyranny; obsession. For example, ‘Stylite’ is written in the ancient voice of St Simeon of Aleppo: ‘For thirty years now I have lived/Atop this pillar,/Six square yards crowded /With my devotion.’

Alex’s scholarly if not encyclopedic bent, his compassion and imagination offer many voices and tonal registers: we find dread, helplessness, regret.

Most poems are precisely situated in historic conflicts, others are eerily uncoupled from them. What unites these poems is the sense of bearing witness, often communicated powerfully by a first person narrator. Weaving through is an interrogation of individual responsibility. The option of gazing versus looking away, of acting versus not acting, troubles these poems. The narrator in ‘Antietam’ drifts through a photographic exhibition labelled ‘Images of the Civil War’ and is confronted with a dying soldier, ‘his gaze/probing past mine with such urgent knowledge/that I turned away to see what lay behind.’ By the end of the poem, the narrator seems disturbed by his ability to look away. There’s an inescapable relevance as our screens show the war in Ukraine., yet the chilling implication of this chorus of voices is a constant relevance.

And so to the title poem ‘Letters from the Periphery’: a seventeen part sequence about a particular form of inner tyranny: the inability to look away. Each poem is a letter written to a woman with whom the writer is infatuated. The letters begin as courtship: to impress her with his affection and with his knowledge of philosophy, and music, to try to find common ground. He starts out well-intentioned with awareness of her right to privacy, but from the start there is a compelling desire to be known: ‘I do not really expect you to respond,/Or not just yet, so I trust that you will let me/Offer you these notes intermittently’. (ii)

It is an incisive probe into the state of mind which can lead to the coercive control of another. The love letters are polite, interesting, but in the absence of her response, he continues to write letting her know in letter (vi) ‘I followed you to where you work/(Oh, please do not dismiss me as a “stalker”)’.

His knowledge is co-opted to fuel the narrative that they are destined to be together. We find him cherry-picking his philosophers. For example, in letter (v) he learns from reading Schopenhauer ‘the life-force is identical with the will’ and concludes ‘Your presence and my wanting are the same./They are identical, and they want to merge.’

At times, the letters achieve pathos, or are darkly comic. But the sequence is also deadly serious. Arguably, a metaphor for how knowledge of Western culture and philosophy does not necessarily lead to self-knowledge nor understanding of the other.

The letters portrait a man who seemingly cannot redirect his gaze because he cannot challenge his omnipotent belief that the other exists on his terms. The poem is compelling because it risks pushing this dynamic to the limit.

In declaring this fine and searching book launched I would like to leave you with the exquisite wisdom and music that Alex gives us in the final section of his canzone ‘For Length of Days’:

I am no Virgil—it is on your own
that you must make your reckoning with time.
You’ll need raw nerve, the vision to be shown
every delusion that impedes your own
emancipation—never let’s misplace
the dazzling, daring legacy we own,
on earth that we have scratched and soiled and sown,
and travelled end to end and travel still,
not always certain where to go, but still
claiming each destination as our own.
No other journey can I offer you,
no other joy. Your rescue’s up to you.

Well, I have had my say. Now only you
can summon up the passion that might still
transpose this time-worn, enigmatic place
into a key that could reconquer time.
A world truly our equal, and our own.

 – Susan Fealy

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Photo: Alex Skovron

Susan Fealy is a poet and clinical psychologist. Her first collection, Flute of Milk won the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize, the 2018 NSW Society of Women Writers Book Award (Poetry) and shortlisted for the 2018 Mary Gilmore Award. A bi-lingual collection, The Earthing of Rain, published in 2019, was translated into Chinese by Iris Fan Xing.

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Letters from the Periphery is available from  https://puncherandwattmann.com/product/letters-from-the-periphery/

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