Friday, September 08, 2006

Two Poems

The best novel I've read recently has been Peter Carey's Theft. David Mitchell's Number9Dream was a little too tricksy for its own good, a series of clever-clever experiments tied together by a narrative whose increasing tendency towards hysteria was a clear sign of having to bear too much weight - a Yakuza mass-murder and an organ theft and sex slavery ring exposed by email virus in a fairly conventional coming of age story, for Pete's sake - and Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, whilst an interesting and at times beautifully written exploration of the varieties, the successes and failures, of love, is a little staidly middle class - narrated by an art history professor, married to an English professor, with a successful artist, himself married to a kind of intellectual historian, for a best friend - for my tastes.

Theft, though, Theft is really bloody good. The prose is captivating. Calling it an effortless evocation of the interiority of the twin narrators doesn't do it anything like justice, because evocation implies too much artifice, the idea of pentagles and incense, of summoning something that wasn't there before. They just are, natural objects that didn't need creation, helplessly alive. Neither is it effortless: they struggle, they rage, they are stubborn and stupid, hardly slipping through the world with barely a backward glance. It's unashamedly full of sweat. It's almost like it's not written, like they just spewed out onto the page, except, of course, it's about fakes and putting on a face to the world, and particularly the way Australians both live up to and disappoint others' expectations of them, and so it's well aware that it's putting on a face for the reader. It's demotic in the best possible way, subversive and grumpy and unreasonable, with raw cunning and wit, laugh-out-loud funny, and it knows it is, so it doesn't feel hectoring. I'm quite happy to call it brilliant. If it doesn't win the Booker, it'll be a f*cking travesty.

Bringing it up here though, the point is that it is about, like the couple of other Peter Carey novels I've read, the myths we tell about ourselves and others tell about us. The artist who is feted for his anger, his lack of decadence, his rawness and authenticity, ends up producing fakes, happy with himself because in a way, that's what he's always been doing. That, the implication is, is what Australia has been doing since well before Glen McGrath started, in a quite calculated attempt to psyche them out, naming opposition batsman he was going to target before Test series. Surely though, however well put - and it is damn well put - this is just Hegel and recognition over and over again: the master and the slave, with the frictionless world of absolute power lacking anything to interact with. You need something to kick against, something that kicks back, partly so you know you're kicking against something, so you've got a target to aim at.

The first summer I was seeing the now ex-other half was very difficult, which isn't to say it wasn't good for me. I wrote this for example.

In your eyes that leap as you smile,
Pools of polished oak,
Rich with whorls
And a grain poured full of love,
I have seen the world
Crafted with a gentle hand.

I make a burnt offering of part of my heart
And hope a wind catches it to bring it to you.

Here is the offering,

A song to fit the world it describes,
Warm amber, golden at its core.

I taught myself to be contented, which wasn't easy, and I got quite good at it. Maybe I ought to have been more like this, written I think sometime that same summer, drawing on an evening's drunken conversation with a middle-aged closet gay, confused, unhappy and profoundly religious man two friends and I met in Carcassonne whilst inter-railing a few summers before.

"With my own hands
When I make love to your memory
It’s not the same
I miss the thunder
I miss the rain"

He is an outgrowth of the frame,
The painstaking marks’ monochrome
Describing sinews as cables pulled taut,
Tiredness twined into their weave
As they dive into the shadow above the collarbone
And cling to that below it,
The arms a pair of wretched cranes
Overloaded with the stark gravity of the body.

Hung high and weighed down,
The penitent’s perfect release
In the nails and the sorrowing eyes,
The sacrificial lamb gradually bleeding out.
That is what you saw on your mountain
During your epiphany of pilgrimage,
By the grace of God,
Finding the infinite made carnal flesh.

How appropriate that
We met in that town:
Clutching to cheap histories
And faded associations
Like a tramp with a faded locket,
Much fingered and never quite pawned,
A cauterising, distant reliquary,
The saint’s bones mere skeletons of hopes.

Whispered promises sordid in the night
Made intimate the simple secrets of summoning,
The parallel lines etched acid into dreams,
Compasses for seeking out tarnished absolutes:
Sublimation into a frenzied dance
Where we imagine ourselves gods
Elevating one lust above all others
And not caring for the world outside.

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