Geoff Page ‘New Selected Poems’ in Meanjin
Selves and Their Grace Notes: Poetry in Review
Martin Langford reviews six new works of Australian poetry in Meanjin May 2015
One of the key decisions poets make concerns the understandings and reading skills they envisage in their readers. How one imagines one’s poem being read affects the nature of the understandings one invests it with: ultimately, it draws a line around what one thinks one can say. Geoff Page speaks in a manner consistent with the voices he was brought up with—practical, shrewd voices that may surmise a little, but which prefer not to speculate too far. He was, after all, the recipient of his mother’s ‘protestant proverbs’,4 the scion of a family of graziers of many generations. Not that Page sounds exactly like either a grazier or, for that matter, the teacher he became but rather how they might sound if they spoke with a poet’s care—minimalist, attentive, quietly rhythmic, with an awareness of the underlying emotional reality poised against the need to make the next decision. ‘Yellowing Paper’ is characteristic: referring to the benefactors of country museums, he writes
My grandmother, 99,
sat once in your parlours
and heard the pianos,
the steady andantes
of gifted slim girls
awaiting the promise
of serial fiction,
running on beyond that …
In this culture, too much imagination is a weakness: the facts run on beyond it, and have the final say. Although it didn’t think of itself as shying away from uncomfortable thoughts, in practice there were many topics it would not visit—Aboriginal forebears, the undercurrents of the erotic, inappropriate concern for beasts. Page articulates such things more explicitly than one might normally expect but he, too, has some tendency to acknowledge the advent of realities, and to withdraw before them. This is the world of ‘Cassandra Paddocks’, where the son who was sent to Oxford and infected by literature is, among other things, a figure in a fable about the wrong way to run a farm. In ‘The Lid’, a farmer displays an unacceptable lack of restraint over the death of his wife:
His sobbing at the grave, Dad found,
was harder still to bear.
The men in suits, the women in
the best they had to wear
knew deeper down it couldn’t pass,
no matter who had died.
Extravagance like this was always
better kept inside.
The poem ends:
‘Mate, oh mate!’ the man had cried,
releasing all their fears.
The sound of boots on coffin wood
survives them down the years.
as if this were as much as the culture could afford—the odd, jarring note that must never be schematised or assimilated.
Page is a jazz aficionado. He has written a biography of Bernie McGann5 and, more recently, a collection of poems, A Sudden Sentence in the Air,6 about his life as a jazz fan (none of which are included here, presumably because he did not regard them as part of his serious oeuvre). I have sometimes wondered whether jazz is where Page gives expression to the less constrained elements of his imagination. Many poets attempt to push the barriers they are presented with. Page chose to work within his. At its best, this has provided us with important work such as ‘The Clarence Lyric’, his elegy on the death of Earle Page. Better, perhaps, than anyone, he has given us an oeuvre that negotiates the difficult line between the acknowledged and the unexpressed, in a culture in which getting this wrong can jeopardise one’s survival. He has caught the measured, sensible momentum of this world, with his breath-mimetic stresses. His use of imagery displays an unvarying sense of tact. But having isolated the places in which suffering occurs, consistent with the world he is writing from, he has refused to suffer himself. All poets have limits, and within the limits he works in, he has produced an impressive body of work. I could wish he had pushed his limits a little further. But he has honestly explored the culture he comes from, and that can mean accepting its boundaries as well. It is no small thing to have been true to the world one inhabits—to its flaws and evasions, as well as its strengths.
This New Selected replaces the sole previous selection dating from 1991.7 There are now more than two extra decades’ worth of work to consider, but Page has done an excellent job of balancing representation and quality. Since few of his previous collections are now in print, this is an important volume for anyone interested in Australian poetry….
- From ‘My Mother’s God’, in Geoff Page, New Selected Poems, p. 116.
- Geoff Page, Bernie McGann: A Life in Jazz, Kardoorair, Armidale, 1997.
- Geoff Page, A Sudden Sentence in the Air, Extempore, Melbourne, 2011.
- Geoff Page, Selected Poems, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1991