The Observing Eye: Philip Radmall launches ‘Figure in the Landscape’ by Danny Gardner.


Figure in the Landscape, by Danny Gardner, Ginninderra Press 2022 was launched by Philip Radmall on Saturday, 28 May 2022 at Don Bank Cottage, North Sydney.

Poetry is an art of discovering. It forages into the depths of things, through the surfaces and into the inner workings. It seeks in order to uncover; it follows in order to re-imagine; it accompanies in order to question; it stays, patient, contemplative, digs in, to conquer the ordinary and proclaim the revelation. And mainly it is uniquely singular – always that solitary eye, noticing; with the need to speak out differently, through a struggle with words and meanings – to convey from the personal viewpoint, or the imagined persona. And so it gives voice. Loud or subtle, in differing tones and moods and tongues, through the common glory and complexities of language, as the poet – songbird, legislator, activist, herald – dares all, aware and alone.

Figure in the Landscape, this new collection of poems by Danny Gardner, champions these aspects of the poetic art: in the strict observances of confronted things – places, paintings, streets, birds, butcher shops, suicides, gardens, and, indeed, landscapes – re-calibrated through the uniqueness of the poet’s eye and mind; impressions turned into subtle resonances, into abstract interpretings, confident pronouncements, blunt rejoinders, melodic invocations. Each a new, distinct discovery.

Danny is a prominent figure himself in the poetry landscape of Australia. He is poet, performer, freelance journalist, editor, adventurer, co-ordinator of Auburn Poets and Writers and the holder of a tenureship of over 30 years as co-convenor and convenor of Live Poets at Don Bank – a monthly poetry gathering that has given, and continues to give, air to major poetic voices in Australia, and out of which Danny has edited and complied three marvellous anthologies – and he is an inclusive bonhomie to all whom he encounters. He is a respected, rousing champion of the art of poetry.

Figure in the Landscape is his second full collection of new poems after Before I Press the Trigger published in 2009. The wait for this has been long, but worth it.

This new collection features a host of smaller, diverse, impactful poems, together with two magnificent longer pieces that weave complex but visceral paths through very different countries – of the mind as well as of the visual world. All together though the poems in this collection exemplify the poet’s separateness to watch and respond and make a call on things, things suddenly spot-lit for others to look at too and consider.

In creating these, the poet does not hold back on his armoury of techniques: precise language, stimulating metaphors, deft sound-plays and strong visualising. The witty interplay of images in the poem ‘The Liar Byrd’, for instance, cascade over our senses, capturing the successive enthral of the bird’s mating rituals:

He crow-croaked like a politician
and she lowered her head in a spasm of concern.
He racketed like a thrush.
He cursed and dipped like a sorcerer
sent from God..
He rustled his chain mail like a scrub turkey,
hectoring, hee-hawing, braying
a real estate developer boning up,
honing in on closure.

Like the ‘Liar’ bird here, image is everything in this collection. And the ability to use images to conjure in us some distortion of the familiar pervades through the shorter works in the collection. As here, again in the poem ‘Derwent Water’:

Treading the crust of iced-lake shore
our lungs swallow our bodies
and the fells climb the sky.
While the water cracks under wind’s warming sweep,
the marsh is probed with phantom trunks –
and a sheep’s black head
is betrayed by its nervous eye.

This is the poet as an individual, here, even as he accompanies another, partaking of the world of experience and thinking about it in sweeping visual and cognitive juxtapositions.

Sometimes the images are laid down with a delicate painterly hand:

The wind in the pines.
The movement of light in the wind in the pines.
The figures of boys
running through the blue shadows
of the mist’s ephemera
under the uncrossed bridges of childhood.

A range of difference lies amongst all these poems in this collection. And in the topics as well as the images, it is a book of contrasts. Of fates and worlds and emotions. There are hard hitting poems here, as well as fine lyrical caresses. I think this is a reflection of Danny’s curriculum vitae. A sensitive responder to life, he also has the journalist’s objective, resilient eye – the one we follow through a war zone or through a political campaign, capturing the scene as well as the underlying resonances of emotion. The simple, direct bearing of the truth. As here in the poem ‘Smiley 2’, recording a man’s psychological struggles,

It was held firm, steady –
this man’s poisoned cup.
His still-civil paranoia made him laugh erratically
and forget his awful teeth when he smiled.
That’s what had earnt him his nickname.
‘Take a sip’, he said, gazing at the faraway light of the Anzac bridge…

Thirty-six hours later – he tried to hang himself from it
and fell to a banal splatter in the traffic;
the knot to his society’s latest war shrine, severed.

Poets are often asked, ‘where do your thoughts come from?’ as if they have different thoughts. I think poets don’t have different thoughts. They are the same as everyone’s. And this sense of the poet’s separateness does not need to imply a sense of elitism. As Danny says in this collection, ‘The poet’s is seldom the privileged view.’ It is always what you do with the thought that matters. How the poet recognises the thought as something that can be uncovered, or developed, or which can act as a framework for something beyond, to some connection; sometimes a correlative by which we can better understand or feel. Hence you get the sense in these poems that he is always on the look out. Like here, in ‘Night on Mount Ann’ trying to get a shot of the moon:

The moon has not moved.
A bout of shivering has reawakened me.
Here I am, in shirt sleeves,
on the area’s highest mountain,
with a timing delay on my camera,
hoping to record the effect
of heaven’s light on the fellow peaks
bathed in post-midnight glow
far below…

That excuse/idea had become my tunnel vision,
assuming I’d need no other nourishment

And there is always the keenness to pronounce. To know the place you have reached in some journey and to say what matters to you, to want to say it with the forthrightness to evoke it in those you say it to. As here, in the poem ‘Birthnight’:

I was gazing
at the panoply of stars and the Southern Cross – by the tree
branches right over my head. Here was the full regalia! Of
castor sugar and salt flung against the velvet – and I just drank
it in for long moments.

Who wouldn’t, I thought, reading this.

The centre pieces of this collection are the two longer sequences – ‘Thameside Cohorts’ and ‘From Arles, Provence’, and I’d like to deal with the second first. ‘From Arles, Provence’ aims to capture something that is very hard to capture – the inner thoughts of someone else – and not just anybody, but someone very familiar, in body, mind and output: Van Gogh. The further aim is to create a sense of something – in this case, about the someone, and the someone’s life, – not by describing it as a poet, but by becoming that other for a moment, by occupying their inner state. That we might try to understand this state, or a sense of this state. This attempt to create a sense of something, something not always understood, but connected with, felt, is what good poetry does. To convey something that cannot easily be put into words, by putting it into words. To give it a locale in the consciousness while letting the unconscious still play a part in it. As Shakespeare said ‘to give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name’. Or, as Eliot said, about poetry being ‘a raid on the inarticulate.’

So here, in this sequence of poems, is a man expressing impressions, moments of experience, thoughts, but it’s in the way that he says it that conveys the deeper sense of how he feels. I admire what Danny has done here. They are poems of show; the inner workings of thought, the undercurrent of temper and emotion, blazing through act and scene. As all art tries to find a way of showing. And these are subtle poems. They succeed because there are no pretensions- it is the artist that speaks to us. What the poet does is simply present these evocations with a poet’s subtlety of language and structure and linguistic decisions to make them not just thoughts but feeling.

The poems are situational vignettes, and they go straight into that situation, in medias res – almost as if we are already familiar with the setting and the person in it. Which of course, in respect to Vincent’s life, we are. This is the start of ‘Bedroom in Arles’

I see people go out of this room
as I am about to step into it.
Are they hiding from my need of society?
Returning exhausted from the sunflower fields,
my studies of the clouds and the birds,
I fancy, too, I hear voices.
Are they from my childhood?
Or my still childish ambitions.
On the bed I lie, hearing the clucking of cuckolds;
looking from the cloud shapes to the tangerine ceiling,
the ruby flower design tracing the empty mirror.

And what we get thereafter are often poems of questioning, or of angst, or of dilemma, of the painter’s interrogation of himself or of the situation or his work. As here, at the very start of ‘Iris at St Remy’:

What possessed me?
What made me walk in that direction
in this garden?
What drew me on beyond my memory?
Beyond the sadness of a lost loved one
or an argument with a relative,
beyond my stillness . . 

What made me wonder instead
how the garden offers up such gifts.

There is an assuredness here; a confidence of voice that is the mind and conscience of the persona. For here is someone opening up to us, with simple honesty:

Gaugin said my sunflowers:
‘Were better than Monet’s lilies as Impressionist works.’
After a long walk with Gaugin
I painted the red vineyard – and, in the studio,
two portraits of the café owner
and then a start for the Sower –the canvasses just flowed!
Such intelligent company is good for my continuity!

The language of these poems is as free and dazzling as Van Gogh’s brush strokes, as here in harvest landscapes:

I looked again at the sketch I made last night,
the man and woman gleaners curled into
their warmth on the straw – and felt sleepy.
What did I think I was doing here?
I had walked beyond the hay cart’s wide compass
and the gruff brows of the unsuspecting farmer.
I listened to the starlings and wood doves playing
concerto-notes among the fences and the stacks.
I should have been sketching the wind-ruffled grasses
and huge, nodding sun-flowers
but the far roar of the black bulls stirred me.

Of course, we were always also going to meet the dark side – the darkest of sides. To come to terms with the wheat field and the crows. And again the words do not disappoint in their unpretentiousness and honesty:

You think the picture can come to you
on demand, through endless beginnings and dead ends
…….
Outside, the corn field stretches ever ahead.
You wade into it as though entering a wave.
It lures, coiling around your legs and arms.
Your breath fails you
drawn on by a carolling in your head
and a sky jarring, broken by that melody;
clouds black,
with the repeating gale of wings.

These poems draw on particulars – and they remind us that life is particulars. In the end we are left with a sense of empathy – the awareness of someone else’s vulnerability and inner strife. The melancholy, but also the joy of the spirit that can be so alive to the world. They are not just descriptions. Not just show.

They are a conversational voice – beautifully interlocuted by the poet; and the feeling in these words, what we empathise with, is in the voice raiding the inarticulate, conveying that feeling beyond words by observing and expressing the small particulars of experience in this open and genuine expression that lets us feel too.

In the second sequence, ‘Thameside Cohorts’ – we go from the sweeping psychological colouring of Arles to the monochrome grunge of 1980’s London. Again, the observational eye, but this time what it sees is harder, fiercer:

The people here wear battledress
and flit between the bars of wind.

The eye picks things out – again, the particulars, eclectic, sparse, essential:

From nowhere comes the smell of bagels;
the rising smile of an Indian girl.

Things take on different meanings in a big city. Sights and sounds that might be purely lyrical in other settings, adopt an ambivalence when there is so much else around being noticed which bombards the senses with harsher realities: undersides, slum basements, darker alleys to go down. It’s hard to hide from the sharp edges of life here:

On the Fairlea council estate
a door bangs black with grime.
Kids kick a ball.
A slumped body in the courtyard
is drunk or dead.

They are edges that lurk even in the seemingly innocent:

Windy and bare – over and over
the Whippy van refrain
vomiting cheer.

This is the ambivalence of city living. Even intimacy is sharp edged:

skin flowed with skin
in the night cut with cries

That the poet brings this to us is testament to his ability to depict all these varying aspects of life. The simple, the intensely beautiful, the erotic, the melancholy, the violent, the uncomfortable and the confronting – all with an open realism, seeing always the human in these hard urban landscapes, as here in the minds of those who might ignore the stranger behaving strangely on the platform, observed but ignored:

Then the train was coming.
The strange guy sighed.
He walked right up to the edge of the platform.
He was solemnly staring at something in front of the train
as it approached
and, before he jumped,
I knew, again.
despite all our fine words we would say to our conscience
it was we others who were powerless.
We, who had failed.

But it is the poet here who finally speaks out – who notices and uncovers what underlies the situation, even if afterwards, even if uncomfortable. For that’s what you see sometimes, when you look closely.

But, finally, I would go back to a moment in Vincent’s asylum garden in Arles for how we can always find something to redeem us. And this final excerpt sums up I think this whole collection and what Danny has presented.

I have, I think, a predisposition for order,
like these garden beds, their regimentation of colour.
A place for each individual and a variety all included.
And the grounds here, the walk in the garden
of green, and by the pond where the birds gather –
how could they not be designed for a similar grace and function?

It takes a lot to be able to produce this so deftly. Yes, to have the first thought, and then to do something with it. To capture and convey the essence of the thing, from the instances of life that are seen, or seen through others, with an honesty and genuine voice.

Poets are their own company. In exploring an idea, a thought, they reach their own vantage point to see what was already there but as yet unseen by anyone else before. And then the sharing of that with us, as we are given entry into their vista, to see their discoveries, allowing us also to be seduced and dazzled, to go there too and to admire and thank the figure who allowed us in.

So thank you, Danny, for allowing us in to your landscape. I am extremely honoured to pronounce this collection launched.

Figures in the Landscape, by Danny Gardner being launched by Philip Radmall on Saturday, 28 May 2022 at Don Bank Cottage, North Sydney.

 – Philip Radmall

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Philip Radmall is an award-winning poet based in Sydney. A senior teacher of English language at Macquarie University, his poems have been published widely in literary journals and anthologies in Australia and Internationally. Awards for his poetry include two third-place prizes and a commendation in the Newcastle Poetry Prize, and an editors’ commendation in the 2018 Hunter Writers Centre Grieve anthology. His first full poetry collection, Earthwork, was published in 2017, by Ginninderra Press. His second poetry collection is due in late 2022.

Figures in the Landscape is available from https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/store.php?product/page/2457/Danny+Gardner+%2F+Figure+in+the+Landscape

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