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Thursday, 17 December 2015

Towards the Equator - New & Selected Poems - Alex Skovron - Prime Minister's Literary Award 2015 (Poetry)

I didn’t study poetry at University, I didn’t really pay a whole of of attention when we studied poetry in English Literature classes at school. That doesn’t mean I don’t read poetry, I do so, I enjoy reading poetry, I have quite a number of poetry books on my shelves, one day I may even arrange them all in some order, a little corner dedicated to poetry, a bit like the bookshops where you have to dig and delve to find the poetry section, although my collection is a little broader than most of the shops, I have a little more than Keats, Plath, T.S. Eliot, e e cummings…  but when it comes to stanzas, didactic cinquains, etherees, tercets, sestinas, I really don’t know what people are talking about. That probably makes my reviews of poetry seem ignorant, but I’m not writing these as part of a study group, I’m not writing these to show my level of education, I am writing these reviews to highlight an art form that sits on the fringes, a form that I enjoy reading, one that has limited coverage on blogs, and if only I highlight to one single reader a potential new book to purchase then I have helped the publisher and poet sell one more book. So forgive me if I don’t instantly recognise a poetic form when highlighting these structures and works.

My second read from the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Poetry Shortlist was “Towards the Equator – New & Selected Poems” by Alex Skovron. A large volume, weighing in at 288 pages of poems it opens with the book-length new collection Towards the Equator, then continues with poems selected from his five previous collections, book by book, from The Rearrangement (1988) to the prose-poems of Autographs (2008).

Our collection opens with the Serbian village of Kostolac, along the Danube River, travelling on a horse-drawn wagon at night and then we move straight into the existentialist soul, what is it to be human? We have searches for friends in the myriad of fleeting people; “we might grow into lifelong familiars - / to sit with us, debate Heraclitus,/elucidate the essence of the Preludes,/or tell us just who we are?’ (taen from “Possible Friends”.)

A strong theme throughout it memory, and there is even a quote from Kundera, “But the past was there, waiting for him, watching him”, one poem dedicated to the theme:


Memory takes us for a ride, and we it –
Time clocks its vengeance on forgetfulness;
When the god Remembrance comes calling
(Old Eros in a mask) we repossess
In Vain the confabulated latitudes
For our retelling, now tainted and digital;
Far below the long-relinquished Equator
Our analog histories in the original
Lie in dust like the Alexandrian manuscripts
Or sunk, an irretrievable Atlantis;
So we puzzle over what preceded Genesis
As we wait for Revelation to supplant us.
And so history is out cross and our salvation,
We genuflect before its stations, cosily;
From the first sad Romulus to the last
A hundred dozen winters weave a rosary
We can say in one chart or chapter,
And we joy ourselves then, or else we cry;
And we fix memory’s shingle to our future –
We will miss ourselves when we die.

As you can read in a single poem, there are numerous classical references, and this continues throughout, although only in the occasional poem.

As a reader of translated literature I very much appreciated the poem “The Attic”

The Attic
‘For to some degree all great texts contain their
potential translation between the lines…’
                                                - Walter Benjamin
I translate the books of a famous author
before they are written. It’s a daunting task
that obsesses me for weeks and months at a time
until the job is done. As soon as I finish
each new volume, I store it away
in a clandestine attic high above my rooms
to which I alone have the key. There are many
such books waiting now in manuscript
along the dusty corridors of my attic,
but I never consult a single one again until
the original, it its first language, appears
in some quarter of the city. Then my real task
begins: slowly, painstakingly, line by line,
I compare my translation with the masterpiece
the great writer has published. I am never
let down – for while my translation
will correspond faithfully to the original
in syntax, orchestration, construction and sense
(not to mention vocabulary, tone and nuance)
in virtually no tangible respect, I am content
with the result, sensing always between the rows
of my laborious handiwork the truer hand
of the master – who alone would be equipped
to understand how my more perfect understanding
of his inspired words must elevate his creation
to realms even he will have feared unattainable;
and it is only his naïve blend of humility and hubris,
plus the awkward reticence of genius,
which prevents him from acknowledging me
when we pass each other in the arcade, and from
clasping me with emotion to declare a truce at last.

Throughout this collection of works the imagery is striking, for example a woman in palliative care, given 4-6 month to live, “The monitor winks like an understanding uncle, the drip/a laconic sentinel over the bed.” (from ‘Kandukur’). Unlike Stephen Edgar’s ‘Exhibits of the Sun’ (also on the shortlist for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry), the Australian references are here but a lot more subtle, for example, we have a reference to Chloe at Young and Jacksons – a nude by Jules Joseph Lefebvre that hangs in the pub on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets in Melbourne – for those not familiar with the work of art or the history of the hotel you can read more here

This collection of poems moves through a massive array of styles, with “Sin Tacks” using the elasticity of language to create a grammatical mish-mash. The equator, in the title, is a place that once you cross it and continue to travel you will eventually return to cross it again, a never ending journey towards and away from the equator, like our collection, like our lives.

The earlier poetry included here begin with the 1988 collection “The Rearrangement” with the title work about arranging 1,200 books on seven oak bookcases. The obsession with order is something I am sure all avid readers and book collectors have experienced. This collection includes “An Intelligent Conversation” with a nine verse poem, the 1st, 3rd and 4th lines all rhyme, they all end in ‘ing’, and the 2nd and 5th lines semi rhyme (for example, wood, could, brood, you’d, hood, food), all in all an intelligent poem about an intelligent conversation.

We also have the moving “Lines from the Horizon” a ten page history of the poet’s life from Poland to Australia.

The 1992 collection “Sleeve Notes” includes the inspection of the urbane existence, a young troubled life, leading to a job, an unhappy marriage, children, mundane careers, onto aged acre. The title poem is over twelve sections including excerpts from Mozart’s letters, a symphony of his life, strings, flute, clarinet along with canon, codetta and (finally) Lacrimosa.

“The Waterline Poems” reveal Skovron’s childhood, including the writing of poetry:

Juvenilia Waters

And every night I’d settle into bed
or sit myself under the table lamp
to carve another poem in my black
book with the faint blue lines traversing it,
each neat consecutive undrafted find
entered spontaneously, numbered, dated, signed:
a splendid casual arrogance of will
coupled with some evidence of unfolding skill –
those impoverished enjambments where an impulse rowed
and rhymed and divided, ultimately caught
up with its logic or resolved its part
while all along a theme or thread cajoled,
cavorted, sank, or blandly transformed
itself; made drunken by the first flush of art.

The 1999 collection “Infinite City” consists of all shorter, ten line poems split into six and four lines, excluding “The New World” which is four and six lines. “The Man and the Map” from 2003, contains the vibrant imagery of “The Violin-maker, the Forest and the Clock”, seven pages of thatched cottages, forests, music, and finally moving away from the ecstasy as time progresses. We also have the irony of being a well-known poet in the poem “Dreams of Dead Poets”, “all the quarterly reviewers now/drop my old name as if it were a chant.”

The publication ends with the 2008 collection “Autographs”, solid text prose poems.

This is a wonderful collection, spanning close to thirty years of poetry, moving through a raft of themes, tones and techniques. By covering such a vast career and years, we see the development of the poetic art and Skovron’s handling of a complex form, through many styles. Possibly not a book to read from cover to cover, but definitely one that needs revisiting when the mood insists. A fine collection, one that I would have thought would have rated highly in discussions for the winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.

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