A Sense of Courageous Innocence: Grant Caldwell launches ‘Four Plots for Magnets’ by Luke Davies.

The cover of the original 1982 Glandular Press edition

The cover of the original 1982 Glandular Press edition

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Luke Davies first collection of poetry, Four Plots for Magnets, was originally published by Glandular Press (run by Stephen Kelen) in 1982. Pitt Street Poetry have republished the original book (containing 13 poems), together with a collection of another 53 poems of the same vintage. (The original 13 poems are collected at the Australian Poetry Library – http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/four-plots-for-magnets-0365000) As Grant Caldwell points out in his launch speech below, it is interesting to notice the similarities between Davies’ early work in Four Plots for Magnets  and his later poetry, especially Totem and Interferon Psalms (Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper’s review of Interferon Psalms appeared in Rochford Street Review Issue 6.)
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Also of critical interest to this new edition is Luke Davies’ Foreward and Stephen Kelen’s Afterword. Both are of critical importance to anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of the Sydney poetry scene of the early 1980’s and highlight the critical role played by small presses during the period.

– Mark Roberts

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Grant Caldwell launches Four Plots for Magnets by Luke Davies. Pitt Street Poetry 2013 (original edition Glandular Press 1982) Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, May 15, 2013.

The 2013 edition

The 2013 edition

1. Not about me but…

Some fiends recently told me about a book launch they attended where the launcher spent most of the half hour launch speech talking about themselves. I hope I can avoid this but I need to warn you that I will need to talk about myself in relation to Luke and the original issue of this book because in this seminal period of 1981-2 for both of us our lives were closely connected in numerous ways. I will talk about the book and the poems but first I will need to establish some background in our collective histories, as I remember it. I might add that Luke has asked me to do this, for the same above stated reasons.

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2. 1981-2 ‘zen maniacs’

In 1981 I had been living in an apartment in the run down but amazing sandstone constructed original Darlinghurst Jail warders residence for about two years when two young poets moved into the apartment below me. The building was nine narrow addresses with three floors, and I had the top or third floor and Luke and Steve Kelen moved into the second. The fact that we were poets was entirely coincidental. I was 34 years old and they were about 19, so I must have seemed like an old man to them, but we quickly established friendship and conversation over the social lubricant of the day: the bong (sometimes the joint), oh, and poetry.

I saw Steve as an exuberant, somewhat whacky, friendly, excitable, energetic young bloke, whereas Luke was a scrawny, pale, more reticent even shy dude who wrote was I perceived as ultra-romantic poems* often laced with or concluded by references to odd contemporary or teen hero figures such as Jason and the Argonauts (the tv version!), Simon Templar (aka the Saint), Thunderbirds, Star Trek, Mr. Magoo, Tintin et al.

3. Heads, hash, speed, opium, cocaine, acid, seconal, mushrooms…

In what seemed a short period of time I saw Luke transform somewhat from the scrawny pale bong-addicted kid to a pasty-faced, sweaty, lip-curling free-basing dealer dude; he unfortunately took on what I call the dealer-power syndrome… But I saw, or see now, this was his way of ‘growing up’. His poetry remained a constant of nostalgic escape, but more of that soon.

4. ‘The bust!’

Each of the nine addresses contained three apartments, ground, second and third floors, and each had a common front entrance on Forbes Street and individual back entrances accessible through a side gate on Burton Street. Each apartment had a locked door on a landing, but because we knew each other so well we often left these doors open when we were at home. One fine afternoon I was reading the Sydney Morning Herald in my front room that was adjacent this open door when I heard someone coming up the stairs. I presumed it was Luke or his brother Felix (Steve had moved out by this time) but moments later someone knocked on the partition saying: ‘Police here!’ I quickly dropped the wide newspaper over the bong and mull bowl on the coffee table and stood up to face the plain-clothes detective. ‘What d’you mean, police here?’ I demanded, blocking his view of the coffee table and unsure if the newspaper had stayed where I had dropped it. ‘Don’t you have to have a warrant to come into someone’s place like this?’ The cop took a step backwards and looked unsure of himself. ‘We do,’ he said. ‘We do have a warrant for Mr. Lewis.’ ‘Well this is a private residence completely separate from Mr. Lewis,’ I said indignantly. ‘These are three separate flats on three separate floors.’ He didn’t say anything straight away. I could see him thinking. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’ He began to back away towards the door, saying: ‘D’you want to come down and see the warrant? It’s downstairs.’ I didn’t want to see the warrant but I wanted him well away from my place so I agreed. I grabbed my keys and shut the door and followed him downstairs to the landing. Luke’s door was open and I could see Felix, his seventeen year-old brother, and a mate of his, standing confused and terrified in the lounge room, with a lot of cops passing backwards and forwards around them. I waited on the landing, outside the door while the detective went inside. He returned with a piece of paper. But he didn’t come out onto the landing, instead staying just inside the door of the flat. ‘Here,’ he said, holding the paper out to me. ‘Come and have a look.’ There was something odd about the way he had stayed inside the flat, something weird about the look in his eyes. It occurred to me that if I stepped into that room I could be somehow implicated; and the cops would be legally entitled to search my rooms as well. ‘No thanks,’ I said. ‘I’ll take your word for it.’ ‘Please yourself,’ he said. I didn’t say anything more. I hurried up to my rooms, locking the door behind me. I locked all my doors and went out the back door, not returning until late that night. Luke received community service hours and a fine and moved out.

4. ‘Four Plots for Magnets

These original poems, and the additional poems to this book, are poems of romantic examination of the sublime state of desire – Dante and Whitman meet Burroughs and Mister Spock; and Luke’s later productions, especially Totem and Interferon Psalms, continue in this vein, if more sophisticated.

Of significance is the preface quote to Psalms from Cormac McCarthy: This life of yours is not a picture of the world. It is the world itself, and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship. Worship is a key word for Luke, perhaps as a result of his Catholic upbringing? In any event this is my take of nostalgia for Luke’s poetry: a nostalgia for a better place, the El Dorado or Elysian Fields, or the promise thereof of his young Catholic days that had become lost but were still believed in. These lines jumped out at me in Totem:

‘we are ever in the arms of our exile
forever going one way and the other’
…………………………..(p. 6).

My question to Luke might be: exile from what or whom? God? Childhood? His drug taking, like all serious drug taking, was a form of worship to an alternative god when all supreme beings have failed. It is widely acknowledged that drug taking is ritualistic, which gives it further religious inference.

5. Heroin

The pervading sense of nostalgia in these poems, is perhaps a hallmark of all romantics. Not all romantics become heroin addicts but the few heroin addicts I have known were all romantics. It’s the perfect drug for their escape – their exile or their sense of exile. In “Sky by Day and Night”, part of 60 pages of additional poems in this new collection, Luke writes:

Maybe to sail away for a day
is more than a jingle, into the wide blue
yonder, over the jungle hills
and far away.

…………………………..(p. 85)

This also suggests to me a sense of courageous innocence, reflected in the references to Tintin and Jason et al. In “The Hollowed Picnic” Luke writes:

I left my heart in some sad disco. Now I’m
a compact unit looking snappy like a comedian laughing
at words too

…………………………..(44)

Is this “sad disco” the church or the institution of childhood? And now (1982 and now?) is he a comedian laughing at his own jokes in his poems, “looking snappy”, swooning at the girl object or the moon, distracting from and obfuscating the overt romanticism (is it really unapologetic as Kelen says in his short essay in the book?) through these common pop tv references?

Freud uses the phrase “the censorship of endopsychic defence” in reference to dreams in his interpretation of Dreams, and I wonder if this is not what some (or many) poets also engage in: covering up what they are really saying with distracting, funny-guy throwaways or obfuscations in order to avoid being obvious or even to avoid being understood except by their fellow travellers: their exercise of endopsychic defence?

If you like your romanticism with everyday references that are more than a jingle; if you like to soar on wordplay and image along with the heart and mind of a nineteen year old now 50 year old scrawny kid, with these poems of Luke’s you can sail blissfully away

for a day over the jungle hills, and far away “in a beautiful pea-green boat”.

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*Luke subsequently expressed concern at my take of romanticism in his poems, preferring to see his poems as ‘ecstatic’, from Marvell, Donne, Eliot, Berryman, rather than Keats, Emerson, Ginsberg; and while I accept the distinction, I do not have the negative view of romanticism that exists today. I believe the ecstatic and the romantic are siblings seeking or seeing or reflecting on their take on paradise (or anti-paradise) in the same pea-green boat. But if you find the distinction important, please replace romantic with ecstatic in the above.

– Grant Caldwell

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Grant Caldwell’s first book, The Screaming Frog that Ralph Ate, appeared in 1979. His seventh collection of poetry, glass clouds, was published by 5 Islands Press in 2010. He was also published novels and a collection of short fiction. He currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.

Four Plots for Magnets is available from Pitt Street Poetry: http://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/

An expression of awe & wonder: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews ‘Interferon Psalms’ by Luke Davies.

Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies. Allen & Unwin 2011

daviesThe title of this suite of poems refers to the treatment its author received for hepatitis C:

Interferons (IFNs) are proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of pathogens such as viruses,.bacteria, parasites or tumor cells. They allow for.communication between cells to trigger the protectivedefenses of the immune system that eradicate pathogens or tumors (Wikepedia).

He describes his treatment as follows:

I was on that stuff for 16 extremely debilitating months…It was actually a combination therapy (with an antiviral drug called ribavirin), the cumulative side effects of which are extensive, you could almost say comprehensive. Among the MANY side effects…the treatment, for separate reasons, reduces both the red cell count and the white cell count. This in turn leads to various unpleasant side-effects. (Comment on ABC website, 12 October, 2011)

His own perspective on the work:

I wrote a book of poetry in which illness was harnessed as a kind of metaphor for how one should engage with one’s life. (ibid)

The comparison that comes to mind for this long poem, with its sweeping changes of theme, mood and form yet complex architecture is the oratorio: ‘a large-scale, usually narrative musical work for orchestra and voices, typically on a sacred theme’, in spite of its avowedly secular nature. The mathematics involved in the 33 psalms on the 99 names of God also remind one of the mathematical relationships in Bach’s music, with its interweaving of point and counterpoint, theme and reply, prelude and fugue.

What it seems to be reaching for is an expression of awe and wonder not specifically linked to religion, though couched in the language and framework of a religious text. This seems very much a modern quest, where even atheists such as Alain De Botton (Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to Religion: Hamish Hamilton, 2012) and A.C. Grayling are acknowledging the human need for ritual and ceremony, Grayling even having produced a secular bible for such occasions (The Good Book: A Secular Bible: Bloomsbury, 2011).

Davies has said he is not in fact a religious man; however, he admits that his Catholic upbringing remains an abiding influence (Review, ABC National ‘The Book Show’, 12 October, 2011). The incantatory style felt good, he says, the music of the service is natural in his ear. He refers to Joseph Campbell, who talks of ‘the rapture of being alive’ (The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Anchor Doubleday 2011). He himself uses the phrase ‘the transcendent to be found in the every day’. Still, his relationship to the supernatural seems deeply ambivalent, is he an agnostic, or is he creating for himself a personal notion of the divine (if that’s not an oxymoron)? His struggle to reconcile the divine with the modern harks back to Apollinaire, a century and a half earlier, a poet whom Davies quotes in the ‘Psalms’ and whose tortured relationship with ‘Lou’ has much in common with the poet’s own love relationship (as represented in the ‘Psalms’).

Paul Auster (Introduction to The Random House Book of French Poetry; Vintage Books, 1984, p. xxiv) has described Apollinaire’s poetry as follows:

(it) ranges from graceful love lyrics to bold experiments, from rhyme to free verse to ‘shape’ poems, he manifests a new sensibility at once indebted to the forms of the past and enthusiastically at home in the world of automobiles, airplanes and movies.

This description could possibly be applied, with appropriate updating, to the ‘Psalms’, though I’m not suggesting that Davies is the equal of Apollinaire.

Bronwyn Lea, in her review of the ‘Psalms’ (The Conversation, 26 July, 2012), has also commented on the links between Davies and the French poet:

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – ‘I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks’ – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies…

I am reminded in particular of Apollinaire’s poem ‘Zone’ (Auster, op. cit. p.2), which is said to have been the jumping off point for modernism; even the style and tone have much in common with ‘Psalms’. In particular, Apollinaire manifests the same agony and ambivalence in regard to religion. On the one hand he declares that in this modern world:

La religion est restée toute neuve la religion
(Religion alone has stayed young religion)

but on the other hand

Vous avez honte quand vous vous surprenez à dire une prière (You are ashamed when you catch yourself at a paternoster)

translation Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps the divine, for Davies, ultimately equates to the aesthetic. (E. Dissanayake – Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, University of Washington Press, 1995 – has said that the concept of ‘meaning’ is of its very nature aesthetic.) It is in poetry that he finds the transcendent.

There are three interwoven motifs, three parallel tracks Davies takes us on, but to untangle them would be like trying to listen to one voice in a multi-voiced contrapuntal musical work. These are: illness; love and loss; travel and alienation. The way in which he has woven these together, the startling shifts between them, sudden turns and dissonances, create unexpected and fresh connections:

My blood was crawling with messianic impropriety. I was a plasma-electric hybrid; it gave me more staying power through the galaxy of my auto-disdain. Or love, I forget which. Or loves. (18)

He is almost forcing us to take the journey with him and sometimes it feels uncomfortable, like looking at the inside of someone’s head, but we know that this is carefully crafted and it is not necessarily his head, but one that he has created. Each of the major themes contains its own narrative: a process, a development. But it is not a straightforward progression, more one step forward, two steps back.

At least I got to bed a minute earlier at night, a minute at a time. (12)
Nature came back to reclaim pretty much everything…The feral geraniums didn’t give up either. (13)
‘That I would narrow down the tasks: one thing, then one. (57)
Mine is to be content with you and not to adopt any one line of action other than that which I’m in… (84)
to overcome certainty was to accept it (85)
… Abide in the mind of the unknown.(85)
The salmon of wisdom was upon me. (85)

Eventually the treatment stops, at first that is difficult, but gradually he begins to thrive. At the same time, he learns to deal with the loss of his lover, and, in terms of his travel and alienation he ‘landed like a bird inside myself’ (97). Part of the ‘answer’ he finds is in the development of the work itself, in the artistic process. I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’, where the poet admonishes herself to ‘Write it!’

The lessons the poet learns are hardly earth shattering, but they are tempered by his humour and his humility, and the fact that this wisdom is discovered, rather than merely learnt.

The poet links his experience of treatment to themes of love, of travel, of identity, and even with the fate of the world and the universe. His appreciation of literature, of nature, are so embedded, that they are integrated into his language, even altered in a spirit of humorous punning, as he distorts them to his purpose. In particular, he plays with notions of time and space:

The ice came back. If you sped up the centuries you could hear the moraines screeching.

Retreated, too. The forests grew again. We would have gone insane with the dripping of the leaves had we been around to hear it. But millions of years passed first. (11)

Of the three motifs, the one I most engaged with was Davies’ representation of his treatment, possibly because I have myself experienced chemotherapy, but also because it is the driving force. He evokes within the reader the sensations of the treatment ravaging the body, making the language breathe with them:

The cells bubbled silently in my liver … (20)
Everything that could sting would sting. (21)…
Then all the injections thinned my blood, and with it my hair, and thus my Great Goat Self.(24)…
Day by day the hours evaporated; hour by hour my hair fell out. Then everyone and everything was gone, except for whatever was most inappropriate. I could not be trusted to drive, there were no bad drivers, only me. Rage peppered the weeks. (32)

We can feel the breathlessness in these short phrases, the fatigue in the repetitions.

In the midst of this breathless, hurtling prose, we come upon a gem of stillness, of repose, of rhyme and structure:

I missed a girl I could not help but miss.
Such missing was colossal in the face
Of all the tender hours that came to pass… (53)

Love and poetry provide a reprieve from ‘the pitch and drag of days’.

What ultimately distinguishes this epic poem is its emotional and formal range; the seamless transition between moods, themes and forms of language, its capaciousness, where in one breath, the deeply personal and the macrocosmic are linked in a universe in which absurdity and meaning are equally present.

Most reviewers have been enthusiastic about the ‘Psalms’. Peter Craven, in The Australian (August 27 2011) has praised it in the following terms:

a tremendous attempt to wrestle meaning from suffering.

It is one of the most ambitious performances in modern Australian poetry and it will command the world’s attention.

Philip Salom, in in the So Long Bulletin, begs to differ. What I have termed ‘emotional and formal range’ is, in his eyes, a ‘sadly uneven’ work. Salom admits to the seductiveness of the poetry, of the ‘wildness that a reader is supposed to swept up in (sic) and might well enjoy, for the wild ride…a seductive otherness.’ He acknowledges that the self-mocking humour is its ‘saving grace’ but his ultimate judgement is that the work is ‘sadly uneven’. Above all he bemoans the trend to ‘overblown personal…over inflated romantic voicing’; a trend he finds disturbing in contemporary poetry.

I have been somewhat shaken out of my trance by this cool assessment, and perhaps rightly so: the reader should be able to depend on the reviewer to stand back and not be swept along. On the other hand, at the heart of even the coolest critique is a gut reaction. I agree the work is ‘uneven’ but not that this is inevitably ‘sad’. Might it not be worthwhile at times to attempt something wildly ambitious and not quite succeed? Perhaps Beethoven is a better metaphor for the ‘Psalms’ than Bach. I prefer Bach, but at his best, Beethoven sweeps you away.

– Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper

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The Interferon Psalms are available from http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781742370347

Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.