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Review: Luminous Bodies, by James Charlton

Montpelier Press, Hobart, 2002

This being Hobart, things are connected in strange ways, for this island’s world is compact and condensed.

So it happens that I work close to the coal-face where the liquid words of Luminous Bodies were poured through the production process, that I have heard James Charlton read on many occasions. But this familiarity does not diminish my appreciation for his contribution to the literary oeuvre generated in Tasmania. Charlton’s address to the gathering of Tasmanian writers for ‘Another Country’, where he spoke as part of a panel discussing poetry, impressed me more than any other session: here is a poet certain of his craft, accomplished and modest, serious and deep. It was therefore with much anticipated pleasure I sat down to read ‘Luminous Bodies’.

This work is not condensed, but sits comfortably on its broad canvas. The poet writes from ‘a quiet place/of infinite expansion’. Though I am sometimes puzzled by the spread-eagling of three-line stanzas across the page (as in ‘The Awesome Benefits of Idleness’), I see Charlton as an artist aware of this canvas, of the tangible effect of word on paper as he positions the cursor-point of the reader’s attention precisely where he feels we will see best. Always this artist is leading our eye, a gentle presence or a guide forcing us to see differently — surely one of the tasks of poetry, achieved in this work with an effortlessness that is itself pleasing.

In their subject matter, Charlton’s poems draw attention not to himself but to the ‘other’. Their concern is ‘specific material realities’, be these as fragile as insect observed or as gross as schoolboys’ acts of casual violence. In theme, the poems range widely beyond the inescapable beauty of the Tasmanian landscape (where ‘the hills unravel / in skeins of vapour’) through Aboriginal Australia to Europe, back to the previous century, boyhood memories, into rainforest, the religious life.

In poetry something is, or must be, transcended or transmuted; this is what makes a poem distinct from prose — the ordinary, through the poem, becomes luminous and it is here that this book works well. He makes new connections (a eucalypt’s ‘germicidal leaves’ is one such shock of surprise), he takes the hidden life and describes it in lines as light as a butterfly. Not many dare to use words such as ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, in poetry these days. In Luminous Bodies, these words fit easily alongside the ‘real’. Things are made present and made visible in a new way as the poet writes with, one feels, the spirit’s eyes: in ‘Truganini’s Soliloquy’ we almost see the ‘All-Encompasser’:

One who inhabits the wind,
without being it. One who dwells
within the cutting grass, but is not botanical.

This is tempered with more earthy moments — the advice of Mary Oliver to poets that ‘some pinch of the real world’ inhabit poems is well-heeded in this collection. Writers do well to remember, as South African poet Lionel Abrahams puts it, that they are ‘addressing the stranger-reader’. In this work, the poems though imbued with an inner strength and layers of meaning are always accessible to the reader yet complex enough to retain interest. On the whole there’s a variety of poetic form, from villanelle (‘For Anthony’s Dog Cherokee’) to short prose pieces, and always the form suits content.

In his work, as in the poem ‘On the Rim’, Charlton revels in the ‘practice of stillness’, in ‘holding together opposites’, is ‘pleased to bear the unexplained, the vague’ — though his precision allows nothing vague.

Of all the 46 poems, ‘On the Rim’ in particular seems to me to be the crux of the collection, and is perhaps an exposition of the poet’s beliefs, his poetic aims:

        Touched, somewhere,
by one such being
        with tinctures of this recognition,
we began to be still,
        began to see:

        all that matters is embodiment,
these envelopes of sense and soul.
        To be faithful to the vision,
to the action.
        All that matters
is the experience of communion,

        unspeakable communion
in the silent depths.
        Here is our surrender, beyond all seeking.
Here, the inexhaustible meaning.
        It is not separate from the vision,
from the action. Not separate from This.

What makes someone write poetry? What is it that makes an artist choose this form and not, say, photography, essay? What grammar of logic makes sense to the mind of a poet? Why do people walk this path and not the seemingly easier path of narrative? Who really knows. Pen documents picture. Mind moves spaces around words. And the transforming thing is done. As a first book, Luminous Bodies places Charlton deservedly in the limelight.