‘The Gang of One: Selected Poems’ Robert Harris
ISBN 978-0-9946002-2-6 $26.95(AUD)
Robert Harris (1951-1993) stands out as a singular figure among twentieth-century Australian poets. He did not belong to any school or faction; though widely read in a variety of poetic traditions, he was not directly influenced by any master, nor in turn did he seem to influence any follower. Though widely published in literary magazines, anthologies and individual collections Harris did not enjoy the Selected Poems milestone, or nightmare, depending on your experience during the selection process. He is now graced with the fine volume de deserves, albeit posthumously (he died prematurely of a heart attack, aged 42).
Harris is noted for his stylistic range and for the variety of subject matter. Here is the publisher’s endorsement of the book: ‘you turn the page from a suite of poems fired by the World War 2 sinking of HMAS Sydney and then you are in Tudor England, with all the plots and counter-plots surrounding Lady Jane Grey, the “nine-day queen” and martyr. And beyond even the variety there are two things which truly anchor the Harris opus: his commitment to writing of and about Australia (though never to the exclusion of others, nor in any phoney nationalist manner) and his Christian faith, which probably was his poetry’s bedrock. Here is a volume of verse both gritty and humane, by a decided one off.’
Seemingly a lonely figure, Harris nonetheless shares one characteristic with poets of his generation: a marked diffidence towards the poet’s personal feelings and their expression. There is, for example, a sardonic poem titled ‘Keeping a journal’ which ends with the lines:
when eyebrows ask
just who is giving whom this bath?’
As a reluctant diarist, I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s notion of impersonality (from ‘The Anathemata’): ‘The workman must be dead to himself while engaged upon the work, otherwise we have that sort of ‘self-expression’ which is as undesirable in the painter or the writer as in the carpenter, the cantor, the half-back, or the cook.’
The comparison, however, may be fallacious, for while the objectivity of the cook or carpenter is a matter of course, that of the poet is much less obvious. Words, the poet’s material, though a cultural data, do depend on experience, perhaps especially in the case of such an allusive and recessive poet as Robert Harris who abides by Eliot’s advice for poets to ‘work within the limits of his love’,
‘The Gang of One’ is a work of faith, love, and recognition. The book would not have seen the light had it not been for the generous input of poets and critics who knew Robert Harris: Alan Wearne, who got the project up thanks to the financial assistance of fellow poets, Philip Mead, who wrote the insightful introduction and Judith Beveridge, who selected and edited the poems.
I must confess that upon first reading the selection I was puzzled. This puzzlement was nothing other than my own personal response to the sheer diversity of subject matter and voice register coursing through the book. The voice, though, struck me as distinct and constant throughout. It may change tone, pitch, or key, but it is constant and getting more confident despite the doubting sentiments conveyed at times.
The poems of conversion from ‘The Could Passes Over’ mark a more confident phase in Harris’ literary career in that the poet, after having rejected the ‘Frenchified English derived from reading the Symbolist / in translation’ (83) and deconstructed national poetic convention, the poet now seems ready ‘to ‘dismantle any aesthetic / ideal’ (83) and explore and critically scrutinise the universal human urge of belonging. The poems chosen from this period of Harris’ life for ‘The Gang of One’ are introspective and melancholy. In particular ‘Isaiah by Kerosene Lantern’, which is suffused by what Philip Mead calls a ‘defiant aloneness’ (13). And yet it also offers ‘a kind of manifesto for a Gang of One’ (13) in the lines: ‘I believe this wick and this open book / in the light’s oval, and I disbelieve everything this generation has told me’ (85).
In the next two sections comprising poems from ‘Jane Interlinear & Other Poems’ as well as thus far uncollected poems, personal and collective memory interweave, casting light on personal experience. Here, the dominant theme is the power of words to construct and deconstruct perceptions of reality, including the power to make and unmake history. Here, the interlinear and the linear, the mythical and the prosaic, the spiritual and the sensual become metaphors of the Harris’ own divided, ironic and acutely modern mind engaged in an attempt to repossess his own private landscape, his own private history.
One long poem stands out both in its extravagance and restraint: ‘Little Iliad’ (195-203). What makes this sequence of eighteen sonnets so memorable is the control of tone, the colloquial variable of the opening poem, together with the mastery of formal restrictions. Any sense of heroic posturing is countered by a kind of wry gaiety embedded in the vernacular:
‘Achilles is always going to be late.
Though Trojan women punish him with cake.
Hector, true to himself, prepares
all the wrong moves and knows himself a fake.
(If adults may quote The Iliad in Australia
where the issue’s often who owns poetic culture.)
Their drab battalions were made of living men,
they claimed to think about that now and then,
but sniggered at misspellings like ‘Thebarton’,
or hated it if someone mentioned Cranmer.
Anachronisms! they’d cry with old men’s fury,
their virtue taught entire tribes to stammer.
So purifying their dialectics, and by stealth
in different ways, they kept the same bad faith.’
It is not only the pervasiveness of intertextuality in this sequence poems, the urge to connect contrasting things together, nor the variety of expression, that are singular characteristics. It is also the startling comic effects that Harris orchestrates, most often with the deadpan features of the melancholy clown who may well snigger, too, at his own insider jokes. In this poem, Harris questions the function of the conventional lyric voice as the proper way of dealing with issues of origin, ownership, belonging and responsibility.
In this beautifully produced volume, ‘The Gang of One: Selected Poems’, detachment calls for volte-faces and about-faces. Not only do we feel some kind of detached despondency throbbing through a layering of irony, but also the sacred dimension of life. Indeed, Harris tells us that what has to be restored in this world is the movement of life itself.