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Peter Steele

After Lizzy Gardiner’s The American Express Gold Card Dress


Well, it’s been waiting all these years, like a poem

            asleep in the word-hoard, its prince to come,

kiss at the ready, and bloom it forth to the world:

            or like a kouros, hauled with pain

from the gnarling waters, smiling gaze intact,

            its maker long put out to sea:

or like that ‘orient and immortal wheat’ that waved

            before Traherne, a child bereft,

and set him claiming Paradise again:

            yes, it’s here for the restless heart –

The American Express Gold Card Dress – and all

                        may now be well at last.

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East of Time by Jacob G. Rosenberg

September 2005, no. 274

Most of a lifetime ago, I read of an exhibit at the Bell Telephone headquarters. It consisted of a box from which, at the turning of a switch, a hand emerged. The hand turned off the switch and returned to its box. If this struck me as sinister, it was because the gambit seemed emblematic of human perversity – of a proneness to self-annulment ...

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Here is an entry in one of A.D. Hope’s notebooks: it is from 1961: ‘Ingenious devices for letting in the light without allowing you to see out, such as modern techniques provide – e.g., glass brick walls, crinkle-glass, sanded glass and so on – remind me very much of most present-day forms of education.’ This is a representative passage from the notebooks. Lucid itself, it bears on elements of frustration or nullification in experience. As such, it testifies to Hope’s recurrent sense that human beings can easily mislocate their ingenuity, with results that are both memorable and regrettable. In a later notebook, in 1978, speaking of the labyrinth as a model of human life, he writes: ‘Looking back one sees that comparatively trivial blind choices have often determined one’s course and that the majority of people do end up in blind alleys.’ One might contest the generalisation, but will not easily forget the analogy.

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Some years ago, at a busy intersection in Chicago, Popeye’s Fried Chicken sported a notice saying, ‘Now Hiring Smiling Faces’. It seemed to cry out for a poem, or at least a memory. If Angus Trumble’s A Brief History of the Smile does not allude to it, this is not for want of curiosity or vivacity on his part.

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Born in Perth, I came as a boy to think of myself as a Yorkist: my summer holidays were often spent in that glittering town, and the first sound I can remember is the intransigent call of crows over the road there from the city. For entirely good reasons, the place is almost a myth to me.

In deeper and more complex ways, that territory is mythic to John Kinsella. His Peripheral Light would look very different, and much the poorer, if it were possible to subtract the mythic dimension from this book. Reading his ‘Wheatbelt Gothic or Discovering a Wyeth’, I am reminded of an essay of Guy Davenport’s in The Geography of the Imagination, in which he details how indebted Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ is to mythological motifs, and how thoroughly Wood has subsumed them. Kinsella, at his best, seems to me equally adept at living with imaginative indebtedness and at parlaying it into an asset.

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Bowed from the supermarket, a week’s rations

      jumbling the plastic, I saw in shadow

my dead father. He crept the pavement, burdened

     as I am not by a lost country.

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W.H. Auden, following Samuel Butler, thought that ‘the true test of imagination is the ability to name a cat’, and plenty of people, poets, and others have believed this: to recast a dictum of Christ’s, if you can’t be trusted with the cats, why should we trust you with the tigers? Gwen Harwood could be trusted with the cats, and with yet more domestic things; here, for example, is her fairly late poem ‘Cups’

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Roger McDonald seems never to do things twice in the same way. To be solemn about it, he has a mind which is both capacious and vivacious: events, experiences, things at large flood in to stock its territory, and become the livelier from their environment. Refreshed himself by Australia, he refreshes some of it in return.

The Tree in Changing Light is a case in point. This is a meditative work whose attention moves easily from the world’s physicalities and fluctuations to the appraising mind itself and back again. It is fluently, but not trivially, dialectical – an example of well-schooled attention which is itself a kind of schooling. Here, for instance, is an early passage:

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The cover illustration of Peter Porter’s selection of essays shows a mosaic from the Basilica di S. Marco, Venezia, in which Noah leans out from the wall of the Ark and releases the questing dove. The last words of the selection go ...

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To dinner as a guest at the Lotos Club, on East 66th St in New York. Named apparently after Tennyson’s Lotos Eaters’ territory – ‘In the afternoon they came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon’, not to be confused with Robert Burton’s ‘afternoon men’, who are permanently smashed. The Latos Club’s 1870 Constitution declares its intent to promote and develop literature, art, sculpture and much else. One thing caught my ear, and one my eye. It was the first time I have heard anybody speak in virtually the same breath of ‘my ancestors’ and ‘residuals’. And I was glad to see that the Club boasted yet another painting of Tom Wolfe in (so to speak) full fig, white on white – glad partly because it reminded me that of all the worthy injunctions offered me as a young Jesuit, that against becoming a ‘clerical fop’ has been obeyed triumphantly. One has to start somewhere …

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