De Paor, Beach: Poets, Humans Extraordinaire

Louis de Paor, Goban Cre Is Cloch / Sentences of Earth and Stone, Black Pepper 1996
Eric Beach, Weeping for Lost Babylon, A&R 1996

Louis de Paor lives in Brunswick, Melbourne, and is devoted to the preservation and propagation of the Irish language. A very large ask for someone who is a resident of Brunswick, Melbourne. Too large an ask - and Louis de Paor is about to leave us, going home. He may, perhaps, come back - but if not, and for the nonce, we are much the poorer. Louis de Paor is both a great Irishman and more; he is, too, a great observer of the human condition. Thus he also knows Australia and its people; its foibles and rhythms; its lights and darks; its plagues and its promise - and particularly does he know his adopted Melbourne, from its great folk expression, Australian football, that vast all-gathering passion that he shares, to the political phenomenon that is his friend Phil Cleary, whose last quixotic political stand attracted to its defiant banner the wisest Melburnians, and the best.

Louis' parting gift is Goban Cre is Cloch the second of two bilingual poetry collections to have been published in Australia. The first of these, Freckled Weather, was warmly received - perhaps especially so here in Tasmania, where Louis has been a regular visitor, has read to considerable acclaim, and where he has made many friends. To my mind Goban Cre is Cloch actually surpasses Freckled Weather in power and imaginative reach. Though the themes in Goban Cre is Cloch represent a continuity rather than a sea change - finely observed memories of childhood, the liberatory struggle against stultifying moral and cultural closure, the small and profound comforts of loving family relationships - this fine poet here rides new, vibrant currents of language; strikes beyond conventional boundaries of metaphor.

I most enjoy de Paor when he depicts the profound heart within moments apparently small and commonplace. There are many such poems in this book - a young novice goes into a pub to see her mother ('The Novice in the Tavern'); as the poet lies sleepless in bed his partner, for a split second, stops breathing ('Heart Beat'); the same poet, in the same bed, reflects contentedly on his lot in the instant before sleep ('The Lucky Caul'):

I'm so lighthearted and airy
a wren's fart would blow me
clean into the next world

and still I wouldn't go
choosing instead this never
ending moment already gone...

In this mode is 'The Creator', a poem that I think an absolute standout, one upon which Louis de Paor can make a genuine claim on greatness. A woman (the poet's mother?) goes about her early morning chores whilst her dozing husband gently, perhaps a little reluctantly, struggles into wakefulness. This is a beautiful poem; it conveys a small, affectionately observed world of

corn flakes crisp as frosted
grass, handsome eggs with moles
on their cheeks and steaming
tea so strong underfoot a mouse
might trot along on legs of faith
without drowning.

Louis de Paor remains a poet of Irish preoccupations, with an Irish cast of phrase even in the English (vis the marvellous 'this bockety house'), and with the eye and the spirit of an earlier Ireland struggling through today's drear blanket of orthodoxy. This flows inconspicuously through much of the volume, and in 'Believing' it is made explicit, as an old woman reverts to pagan superstition in the time of her dying. The surfacing of such tensions provides some of the most memorable of images, some of these comforting:

the fianna came back
to a hollow in the middle
of the ploughed field,
their laughter smelled of
fermented apples as bonfires
blazed on their flushed cheeks...

some not:

...when the relentless pull
of the music leaves the body
sense less and all the souls
of the dead hurl a demented
yell from the mouths of the living...

A poet of Ireland first and foremost then - but Louis de Paor also brings his unique eye and sensibility to Australia - as many of his countryfolk have done before him. I have already said that I think 'The Creator' a poem of greatness - but two other poems, I think, warrant similar assessment, and these are both overtly Australian poems. One of these is a brilliant and complex linking of the didjeridu with biophysical and spiritual essences of a landscape old beyond telling ('Didjeridu'). The other is a slashing, angry, entirely contemporary tribute to the unmarked convict dead of Port Arthur's Dead Island ('The Isle of the Dead'). I have heard Louis de Paor read this poem (at Port Arthur!). Hear it once, it's never forgotten.

The poem has two distinct segments - in the second de Paor struggles to find a respectful visitor's appropriate demeanour in the presence of the island's dead:

'You should go down on
your knees on this sacred
ground and pray', my pagan
companion counseled but I
will not bend my heart or
my knee. Better to wear a
cowl to hide the shame of
man made nothing, to cover
your face lest the remnant
of light reflected in your eye
absolve the irredeemable dark.

Towards the end of this long poem de Paor does an apparently unpoetic thing. He lists - merely lists - the names and occupations of some of the Irishmen anonymously buried in the mass graves. But it is not in the least prosaic - it is, rather, a moment of sustained emotional power. And then, as the poem ends, de Paor reconsiders, despite himself, his earlier position:

a rollcall unopened,
a snail's trail across
eternity, a shower of rain
without stain that bows
my head and inflexible
knee in supplication
to the earth.

Recent happenings at Port Arthur have so overwhelmed the Tasmanian community that, in the undersandable desire to ensure a respectful remembrance for the dead of 1996, there is a very real possibility that the time and place of the earlier dead, the dead who came here to create Port Arthur, will be obliterated. Louis de Paor's masterful poem stands as a warding against that danger. It will, I hope, become a familiar, much read cornerstone of Tasmanian literature - as Goban Cre is Cloch will become, I hope, a classic of a robust literature of the Irish language.

Eric Beach is a consummate performer, and it must be entirely on this score that his poetry has not been given the serious regard to which it is entitled - for the strange assumption is yet abroad that poets who write cannot read, whilst poets who read turn to soggy bread on the page. It is true, I suppose, that some of our performance poets disguise mediocrity behind a mask of rhetorical chicanery. But this is not generally true, and it is certainly not true of Eric Beach, whose skill in performance seems to lodge in the very absence of artifice, in a delivery that is understated, gently sardonic, self-deprecatory, droll - and exquisite in its pacing.

With Weeping for Lost Babylon Beach stakes claim to a less one-dimensional reputation, for this is clearly the work of an important poet - and one of rare originality; one who fits no recognisable mould. Weeping for Lost Babylon is fairly long as poetry books go, and there are some recurring preoccupations - memories of childhood and the characters and rituals that peopled it; poems generated by 'in residence' stints, most notably with intellectually 'disabled' people; poems of relationship with people and places; and, to conclude the book, a ten-poem series wrought in elegy on the death of the poet's son.

These last poems constitute a major achievement. The razoring pain of their writing screams at the reader through the little twists of ink on paper - but Beach does it tough, makes no concessions, builds himself no emotional hidey-holes, faces it all the way out. The writing of these poems needed a rare person, let alone a rare poet. I don't mind saying that had it been me I couldn't have ridden the fire through to the last line; I'd have reached for the sly comforts of nostalgia and self-pity. It took enough for me just to read these poems. As with the late Philip Hodgins' leukaemia poems, I felt this to be all too harrowing; that I was being taken where poetry had no right to take me. But then I finished and shut the book, and I knew that this, of course, is precisely where poetry must take its readers if it is to reassert relevance in an age that would consign it to the same dustbin as flat earthism, Keynesian economics and industrial democracy.

I recently reviewed Hodgins' leukaemia poems. It seemed to me then presumptuous and intrusive to quote from them, and I feel the same about Beach's elegaic sequence. But Beach is a poet of the very widest range, and before one reaches the elegies there are the wry and quirky poems, the droll off-beat poems, the poems that people associate with Eric Beach - his 'reading' poems. I'll quote from these till the cows come home. There's the comic classic (in time it will be a classic) 'watching y ant farm'. There's 'losing poems', and 'emus out of genoa':

you look as though you'd swallow nails
or lean out of a clapped out holden & take a bite
out of a breathalyser
'you been drinking?'
'no your honour'
'and can you explain why your breath smelled of alcohol?'
'been eating rotten plums your honour'

A reader more familiar with Beach the performer might be surprised that there are comparatively few of these poems. But Beach's eye for whimsy is ever present, and all but the darkest poems are leavened with observations that may be affectionately wry or that prick at balloons of self-importance. Such poems, read, would certainly induce laughter, but there would be an uncertainly, an ambiguity to the laughter. In one fine poem, 'chaos theory', light and dark insights exist in a tension that makes for marvellous poetry:

I get on well with becky, terry's daughter
she's a carpenter
she makes crosses for others to bear
talk of barefoot spirituality finds her staring at her workboots
she knows hippies don't have nine lives
she wants to know about th generations to come
and why her mother is looking in th other direction, back
to th golden age, before th bomb

For myself, I most enjoy Beach when he is back in New Zealand, growing up. From p.39 there is a 'nest' of these poems, and they are brilliant without exception: poems about 'mum's diary', about dad & shirley & bob & mum & granddad who wrote anti-nuclear poems; about a still-born birth; post-splitting with bill cowley; tui junior's hangi; and george frederick robson gordon, beekeeper and ex-pugilist. We learn 'how I became a poet', and how mum almost did too:

when I did get published in th new zealand listener mum sent them some
if my son can be a poet I can too she wrote them
they knocked her back, my mum likes her adjectives

At the head of this group of poems is a wonderfully crafted piece, 'once was always'. The imagery used here is so inventive as to catch the breath - and it is, too, one of the most flawless instances of Beach's seamless merging of the tragic with the comic:

while gabby women in storied houses
flicked sharp tongues to eat a buzz of gossip
'little pitchers have big ears'
men sank from sight in their weighty world, they came at dark
pipes hooked in their lips
survivors of currents, motionless
pockets of silver, spilling words

Beach is the most effective of performers, and a poet of great skill and range. But he is more. Beach is a person who puts his life where his poetry is - a person of humane commitment; of high and uncompromised principle. If you were to get Beach and de Paor together in the same room you might say that here was chalk and cheese. Yet much that holds true of the one holds for the other. Not even Beach surpasses de Paor in performance. To listen to de Paor is to listen to the cadences of deep, rilling ages, and the moment when the elemental music of the Irish language flows as water into the translation is a rare point of poetic experience. And de Paor, too, is a person of noble, undeflectable passion - for him, too, his life is where his poetry is. This Irishman, this New Zealander, dwelling here on our thus privileged shores, are truly poets and humans extraordinaire.

Poems by Pete Hay

Sunset on the Irish Festival
Flower Cone
Girl Reading Lorca at the Mirador San Nicolas
Dove Lake Tanka

Interviews with Pete Hay

Conversations: an interview with Pete Hay and Richard Flanagan (1995)
A conversation with Pete and Anna Hay (2003)
Island to island: an interview with Pete Hay (2011)


Launch speeches

MATHISON, Robyn: To Be Eaten By Mice
ROBERTS, Bruce: In the Church of Latter Day Consumers
SANT, Andrew: The Islanders


Half-Time with Stout John
Port Arthur: Where Meanings Collide
What I did on my Holidays
Notes within Shadow