Poetry Journal

Latest writing / 18 Nov, 2015

A lighter knowing

Richard Freadman

The speaker in one of Alex Skovron’s beautifully-wrought poems, this one a sonnet, says ‘The path to wisdom is difficult, rich and mundane.’ Though never a poet of the easy answer or swaggering insight, Skovron’s poetry does constitute, among many other things, a search for wisdom – a search which engages many different poetic forms and voices, which finds expression in a superb array of subtly-differentiated emotional states, and in strikingly diverse cultural registers, from ‘difficult’ erudition to an instantly-intelligible phrase like ‘larrikin breeze’ – a nice earthy turn from his great narrative poem “The Man and the Map”.

The poem I quoted from first, “Sisyphus”, is spoken by that epitome of mythic misfortune, Sisyphus himself. It is typical of Skovron that he deepens the mythic story, investing the protagonist with a rich – albeit fleeting – interior life; it is also highly characteristic of Skovron’s work that in this poem speech, and indeed the right to speak, is delegated to another. Seldom, if ever, in this remarkably accomplished 300 page volume of New and Selected Poems do we feel that we are being rhetorically manhandled by a narcissistic poetic ‘I’. Many of the poems are relational: that is, poems of shared experience (like the volume’s superb title poem), or poems of address to another person, or ones which, bespeaking the myriad perspectives that make a community, reveal facets of that community to which the poet owes his lyric existence. The book sometimes reads like a vast whispering gallery of voices, some named, some not; some seeming close to Alex Skovron’s own personal voice; others mysterious, or exotic, creations of his wonderfully rich imagination.

In a letter of 1818 to a friend, the poet Keats drew what has become a famous distinction between two sorts of poetic disposition: the ‘egotistical sublime’ and ‘negative capability’. By the first, which he associates in this instance with Wordsworth, Keats means a poetry in which the personality of the poet dominates, and in which it lays narcissistic claim to some special kind and degree of cultural significance or salience. It may be (and here I’m elaborating Keats’ idea somewhat) that the narcissistic poet proposes his own self and world view as a cultural ideal, a way of being that he enjoins others to emulate. Or it could be that, like say Walt Whitman, the poet sees himself as culturally quintessential, as so typical of what is most affirming in his culture that to sing the song of the Self is also necessarily to sing the song of the tribe. ‘Negative capability’, on the other hand, is the hallmark of the writer who, as Keats puts it, ‘is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Such a writer, epitomised for Keats by Shakespeare, has a mysterious, almost quantum, capacity to diffuse him/herself through innumerable registers of consciousness and character while still retaining a distinctive poetic personality.

Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability’ is extremely apt for Alex Skovron’s work: the speaker in “The Needle” wonders whether the sky might be about to ‘drag the curtain / down on accustomed certainties’. It is typical of Skovron that his previous volume of poetry (in fact, prose poetry), Autographs, takes its title from the practice of signing one’s name – the very stamp of individual identity in our culture – but that the book seldom identifies who its many speakers are. This is what I mean by the whispering gallery effect: many voices, but no one domineering ego calling the tune.

If in one sense Skovron’s poetry eschews narcissism, the ‘egotistical sublime’, in another it seeks it out. There is a streak of the Catskills Jewish stand-up in this deeply serious Jewish poet. Skovron’s poems are often very funny, as when we read in “Sentences” that ‘The ostrich has drunk all the sand’, or when “Palace Coup” refers to the chair of a corporate thug as his ‘ergomaniacal seat’. A particular comic highlight is Skovron’s poem about another of his mythic protagonists, Narcissus.

  In the end, of course, he got married 
  to himself. A civil ceremony, nothing too glib, a friend 
  or two, a reporter from the Mirror, the odd flame from 
  the past, a waiter with icy water;
  his watery parents, a little perplexed, looking around,
  confused because no engagement had been announced.
  The celebrant was vague, her words left an eerie
  echo, she quickly left. Nobody spoke. At last, he escorted
  himself into the Bridal Suite: nervous, a little beery,
  he sat there blushing on the edge of a single bed.

Negative capability refuses reductively schematic ways of understanding the world; it distinguishes, we might say, between crude knowing and ‘wisdom’. The speaker in the marvellous title poem of Skovron’s first collection, The Rearrangement, is an obsessed systematiser, possessed by a compulsion to rearrange his library until it achieves the ‘true order of Book’ – a sort of deranged Platonic quest to get all the information in and fixed in its supposedly proper order. This figure, in effect an emotionally desiccated taxonomer of experience, appears intermittently throughout Skovron’s work. Another example occurs, fittingly enough, in the prose poem “Shadow”, where a spectral character called ‘The Keeper of the Registry of Dreams’ slogs away at his ‘task, the day-and-nightly rubrics of the soul that he must catalogue and annotate while his own history slumbers.’ In other words, these wretched figures are exiles from their own lives: unable to experience the lives they lead they must settle for the illusory consolations of control, orderliness and tabulation. Here the poetry’s lyric impulse encompasses biting topical social critique: the Keeper of the Registry of Dreams is the embodiment, among other things, of the bureaucratic mind that subjects to its ideal of efficiency the threatening and unruly richness of life in which it cannot, or will not, participate. Its credo is: ‘The spirit killeth; the letter giveth life.’ Social critique in Towards the Equator extends also to totalitarianism, genocide, asylum seekers, indigenous rights and much else.

We would not expect a lyric poet (as opposed say to an epic theological poet like Dante) to map in some diagrammatic way an ‘alternative’ to the bureaucratic-taxonomic approach to life, and indeed Alex Skovron makes no such attempt. But the poem “Chalkmarks” speaks suggestively, and I think indicatively, of another way of being in and towards the world; of ‘something stronger’ than living ‘life to the letter…a lighter knowing, like chalklight, operetta.’ To know lightly is to live with open, responsive attention to the world and to possess the capacity for surrender (that disposition so challenging to Skovron’s Narcissus), so that the ego, rather than having to dominate, lives in a state of open exchange with the world and those who people it. Surrender, which is a giving-over of the self to what is beyond it in the moment, involves being receptive to surprise, since that which is outside the self may be highly contingent, unpredictable.

The Russian critic Victor Shklovsky distinguished between instrumental and poetic language by saying that literary writers – not just poets – have the capacity to ‘make it strange’; in other words, to re-enchant the familiar and routine by re-investing it with the strangeness that is so often lost to habitual adult perception. In Skovron’s prose poem “Dance” the speaker urges us to ‘Drop a thought-shutter, keep it strange, so the mere moment can sing.’ I don’t know whether this is a deliberate echo of Shklovky’s dictum on Skovron’s part, but whether it is or not, it captures something very fundamental about his poetry – the ethos of being receptively present in the moment – and also suggests that he sees this not just as an effect of poetic language but as in some sense the lyric poet’s responsibility. Fine lyric poetry deepens how it feels to be alive. The sense of responsibility – of values infused without dogmatism – runs deep in this book that cares deeply for others and the lives they lead. The sequence “The Waterline Poems” has a prefatory quote from Dante’s Purgatorio which translates as: ‘If the present world would go astray, in you is the cause, in you let it be sought’ (Canto XVI, 82-84).

In Skovron’s poetry, one of the high roads – perhaps the highest road of all – to re-enchantment is music, and there is rewarding scholarly work to be done on the many thematic and allusive ways in which music appears constantly in this poetry, and on the relationship between music and the musicality of Skovron’s poetic language. In the long, haunting and richly dualistic poem “The Violin-maker, the Forest and the Clock” someone says that ‘“The universe makes no sense without music.’”

Re-enchantment also matters immensely in this poetry because it is, among many other things, the poetry of a Jew whose family has been deeply scarred by the Holocaust. Even here, there is a ‘lightness’ of touch, but in various ways the Holocaust, and indeed other genocides, is never far from the surface of the poems, and sometimes breaks that surface: ‘There are some histories my mother won’t discuss’, we read in “Smoke ’62”; and the surreal prose poem “Supplication”, which imagines the tape of history being sent into reverse, declares ‘let…the ovens clang open’. ‘Give me a prejudice and I will move the world’ declares the fundamentalist-totalitarian voice in the poem “Millennium”. The book contains many fine poems of childhood in which some version of the question ‘what is a Jew?’ features recurrently, but even here, in pressing matters of personal identity, the poems are never narcissistically self-absorbed.

When I refer to the quantum quality in this poetry I have in mind the familiar idea that every quantic particle has a dual existence as both particle and wave. This sense of duality runs very deep in fine literature and is often in play when poetry, for instance, succeeds in ‘making it strange’. It is constantly and powerfully – almost magically – in play in Skovron’s verse which often surprises the reader in subtle ways. His use of imagery, symbolism and metaphor is superb in this respect, not least in the volume Infinite City, in which infinitude has indeed a kind quantum life and in which Skovron’s close affinities with the genre of Magic Realism are very much in evidence. (It is in this volume, by the way, that the notion of a ‘lighter knowing’ appears.) The poem “The Castle” alludes to M. C. Escher whose drawings of looping, recursive architectural staircases can be read as metaphors for pointlessness, or as inexplicable pathways to infinitude, or perhaps both. Skovron, we might say, is a sort of Escher among the poets, because the duality – ‘making it strange’ – effects in his poetry often leave us wondering whether we are reading about entrapment or transcendence or perhaps even about both. For instance, included among Skovron’s recurrent metaphors are labyrinths and circular journeys, both of which could routinely be interpreted as bespeaking pointlessness or entrapment. But in poetry of this creative sophistication simple one-to-one correspondences between metaphors and their customary meanings cannot be assumed. The line quoted at the outset refers to a ‘path to wisdom’, and there are innumerable journeys of one kind or another in Towards the Equator; indeed the fabulous poem “Once We Crossed the Equator”, which echoes the book’s title, charts one such journey. Before saying more about the journey aspect as such, I will take this opportunity – for which many of the poems would have been equally well-suited – to note, all too briefly, a few other salient aspects of Skovron’s art.

One is its superb, inventive visual evocativeness, as when the speaker on board the boat in “Once We Crossed the Equator” refers to ‘the breeze awash with a strange exhausted vibrancy’. There it is: the breeze designated as ‘strange’ and described as such, all in one wonderful magical line. The following lines epitomize Skovron’s quiet virtuosity:

  As we crossed into the Polar regions
  we discovered we could no longer discern the birds
  the water became mere ripples
  like the breath of a sleeping infant

Skovron here varies the iambic line so that the ability to see or ‘discern’ the birds is replaced by the recognition that they can now only be seen for the moment in the imagination. The journey leaves nothing behind, but some things, at least at this point of the journey, survive only in memory. And indeed memory is another major Skovron theme, sometimes disclosed with an almost Proustian sense of human consciousness’s fabulously rich and swooping life in time, as in the great line, again from “Once We Crossed the Equator”, ‘at first faint effigies of memories we had not yet dreamed’.

This journey, one of many in an opus almost obsessed with maps, is in fact circular, because once the boat crosses the Equator and approaches one Pole, the passengers necessarily begin to approach the Equator from the other direction. We are always, as it were, engaged in the process of crossing the Equator and then immediately charting a course that will do so again. But the quantum effect of the poem causes the idea of circularity to recede and the idea of being vividly alive in each moment of the journey to become sovereign. Another poem, “The”, contains the line ‘Yet we are now, there is no other time’. Here, in “Once We Crossed the Equator”, and in many other poems in the book, the ‘now’ is actually a circuit-breaking ‘path’ that opens out into transcendence, into a ‘time’ that is not ‘the prisoner of clocks’ (“The Waterline Poems”); time associated with that ‘lighter knowing’ that is ‘wisdom’.

However much literary criticism may be attracted to really fine writing, it knows that, finally, it can never do it justice because fine writing refuses paraphrase, and such is the case here. Towards the Equator is after all a large collection by one of the finest Australian poets of his generation and a poet of substantial international standing.

Editor's Note: This review is based on the speech that Richard Freadman gave to launch Towards the Equator on 30 November 2014. Richard Freadman is Emeritus Professor of English at La Trobe University.

Publication details: Alex Skovron, Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems, Puncher & Wattmann, 2014. 293 pps. ISBN 9781922186553