Dennis Haskell has always written in a voice uniquely his, belonging to no movement, being part of no “scene”. But it would be a mistake to assume that he’s not aware of what’s going on in the poetry community around him, or that he is entirely disconnected from this. In some ways Haskell writes as he does despite the intentions of current trends. Haskell’s poetry, so often set in familiar environments and concerned with the day to day “realities” of life, is in fact concerned with questions of the relationship, and tensions therein, between subjectivity and objectivity, the observer and the observed.
His is a meta-process of post-Romantic investigation, a consideration of what the poetic voice means in the “real world”. His consideration of the “observer as link” in the interactive voice of family, friends, literature, community, and spiritual questioning, is a major project, and one that brings the influence of a poet like Kenneth Slessor very much into focus as the Modernist project fragments or at least moves into its later stages. This is poetry deeply (and unselfconsciously) questions the movement of the “I”.
Haskell’s latest volume, The Ghost Names Sing, presents us with subtle poems that are skilfully “available”. These are poems that may seem almost too available on a first reading, but on further investigation the reader realises the “I” is much more fluid than at first thought, that it is positioning itself against our prescribed reading and experiential practices; that there is a constant ironising at work, a self-mocking humour. This is not a case of the poet simply telling us about his or her world, but an investigation of how we as readers build up a “sense” of that world, how we construct perceptions out of the “I”. Even the mostly direct and apparently personal poems are about manipulation of subjectivity. Which is not to say that they are misrepresenting experience, or are “dishonest”, but that they are querying the very process of receptivity, of giving voice to experience, and ultimately the lyrical process. One gets the feeling that Slessor’s “Metempsychosis” is often at the back of Haskell’s mind: “Suddenly to become John Benbow . . . ”
Issues of gender and the domestic, and movement through (or against) perceived masculine and feminine spaces are beautifully and sensitively observed and managed – an uncommon thing in male Australian verse. Haskell writes in “Reality’s Crow”:
Each time we met!I knew you better than I knew.
I love your soft warm flesh,
your gorgeous breasts, I love
the being, the sense, the smell of you –
things Australia at least
would have men too embarrassed to speak.
Surely such happiness, and so enduring,
Australia can allow neither of us to take.”
One gets the feeling that this is something Dransfield missed in his declarations to Australia! The woman-as-object of romantic adulation, or lyrical focus, is undone here – this is a “real” and not simply idealised object – but without losing the sensual. Haskell is able to be so blunt, so conscious of addressing “his lady” by offsetting it against national perceptions of appropriate masculine behaviour. By being direct, familiar, and available to the critical eye, he is undoing the binary. He dares “us” to mock him. Real men don’t do this! Here is a statement of emotional vulnerability and non-shame in the attempt to recognize female subjectivity, something too rarely undertaken. Make no mistake, this is a political poem, as most of the poems in this volume are.
Each poem in this collection is accomplished in some way, and some are small masterpieces. Haskell has a great sense of pace within the line, and from the first poem, “The Empty Room”, with its “Only small rotations of dust”, through to the last “GA873: The meaning of Meaning”, with “billow into pure white waves” timing and control are entire. Questions of “meaning” in the immediate are characteristic of many of these poems, but a poem like “Chilliholicism” undoes the ontology in a classically self-effacing manner. Even in his light-hearted moments – and Haskell often gives the impression of being light-hearted while being deadly serious – Haskell is questioning the role of participant, of observation and response, ironically concluding, “You’d have to be / born to it, a chilliholic; something so unnatural I knew / could never be learnt.”
Throughout the collection there is a play with and against those poets who have influenced Haskell most. Yeats is constantly there, especially in parody like “The Second Going” with its neat satire on WA Inc: “The worst escape conviction, while the best / Are full of voyeuristic intensity.”. But so are Eliot, and Keats, and even cummings.
Many poems in this collection examine the reinvention of childhood experience, of a personal family history; someone coming to grips with how they are in a sense defined by collective experience, but how collective experience is refocussed and reinvented by the individual. Something is necessarily lost in the process. The individual extracts from the collective experience: “I stood there knowing / that the past was our only connection / and had rushed, unreasonably, / out of our lives . . . ” (“The Mighty Wests”). Still there is always an attempt to engage with what it was to be someone other than the observer.
One of the signature poems in this collection is “Romanticism in the 1990s”. It’s worth quoting in full. The use of consciously poetic tropes plays against the reader’s expectation. Closure is resolute and yet defiantly unsatisfying. A “fine horizon” is undercut by “thin, listless cloud”:
Yachtslike gulls with upturned wings
alone in their element
silently flit across
a fine horizon
of thin, listless cloud.
On the shore we stare out to sea
amongst the translucent jellyfish foam,
sand sinking into our toes.
And the yachts look like elegance,
delicacy of action.
Wind spits along the groyne
as they startle west
away from us
across the brackish chop,
chimers billowing colour
before a salt-laden blast.
But here they are
suddenly wrenched towards us
direct, heaving slowly,
Spinnakers grow flaccid
and are roped in.
Bony hulls lift
less and less often
from the water.
The wind comes in clots
The closer and closer
they get to us
the more they become
big, lumbering boats.
The poem ironises its own existence, the role of the poet as “bard”, the requirements of the listener, all in one. But despite “The wind comes in clots”, there is also a beauty that lies in the “isness” of the scene, rather than the poet’s perception: “And the yachts look like elegance, delicacy of action.” The irony consumes itself. The question of time and place, the position of observer and the observed, is an undercurrent, or maybe undertow – again one is reminded of Slessor – “The gulls go down, the body dies and rots, / And Time flows past them like a hundred yachts.” There is also an undercurrent of sexuality. But maybe it’s also grounded like everything else in this anti-romantic (small r) poem: “The closer and closer / they get to us / the more they become / big, lumbering boats.” Here is a poem that deals with questions of quiddity, of referentiality, of the “lyrical “I”, of the “word itself”, without making the slightest allusion to theory or becoming embroiled in the language of exegesis. The wonderful collusion between persona and the “other” in the context of the poem, and the “other” in the sense of the listener / reader, reinforces the undercutting of expected processes of reception: “The closer and closer / they get to us . . .” But it is still a poem about words and the way words work as things-in-themselves.
The poem “As You Are, As We Are” is a brilliant case in point, in the decentring of the romantic observer. The “dynamic equivalent” of the Keatsian voice is captured to perfection. This is a poem in which the “availability” of the Keats mythology, Keatsian poetic voice, and the Romantic tradition are explored. It is a poem written in strong, almost terse language. The sublime is earthed and subdued. And the asides to Shelley – earthed through the death of the child – are a masterly touch – “past the grave of Shelley’s son, / his life so short it made Keats’s seem long.”
This is a rich and varied collection. It is a collection about poetry, about ethics, about aesthetics, the participation in the questioning of “God” –
Yet I can’t dare scorn your beliefs,dare not laugh, suffer nor sneer.
After all, it’s me who’s writing this
as if you’d hear.
” . . . Forgive me C., I
cannot say ‘you’ and believe it -”
and about the position of the poetic voice within the construct of the poem. It is a book in which the “I” of the poem colludes with us, shares with us – shares with “you”, and then slips away. It is a volume that has the reader confronting his or her participation in the personal histories of the poems’ evolutions.