Geoff Page Reviews Near the Border

Drambuies of poetry: A well-turned selection
Geoff Page

Andrew Sant is a substantial yet somewhat elusive figure in contemporary Australian poetry. Born in London, he arrived in Melbourne with his parents at age twelve in 1962. Over the years, he has published at least eleven collections, co-founded the literary magazine Island, and been, for a time, a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. More recently, Sant has lived and worked in the United Kingdom, but he clearly retains links with Australia, particularly Tasmania, where he first became known as a poet.

Near the Border: New and selected poems is a generous selection from his work since 1980. At 368 pages, it feels more like a Collected. (Such books by living poets are rare these days.) This reviewer began with the book’s ten new poems and then worked his way back to the beginning.

Such a reading revealed a poet of remarkable consistency, not only in overall quality, but in tone and concerns. Mostly (but not always) set in the United Kingdom or Australia, the poems are typically formal (though hardly ever with structural rhyme) and wryly observant. There is a continuing interest in scale, particularly in the differences between geological and human time. We encounter a sense of distance in many of them, almost as if the twelve-year-old migrant has preserved his memory of the new land’s strangeness and chosen not to become too involved.

This can mean that, compared to the work of, say, a Seamus Heaney or a Les Murray, Sant’s poems can seem muted, not unlike a traveller’s poem which expresses interest and/or bemusement rather than involvement or concern. Paradoxically, Sant’ s unerring craftsmanship can reinforce this effect.

There are, however, some remarkable exceptions to this – often in the longer narrative poems where Sant seems to go more deeply (and more widely) into his material. The most memorable of them is probably ‘Crime Fiction’, where the poet seems persistently to revisit the extent to which the poet and/or his father can be blamed for his mother’s suicide. Running to eight-and-a-half pages, using the narrative structures and ‘hard-boiled’ manner of the eponymous crime fiction, the poem is distinctly memorable arid affecting. Something of its atmosphere can be felt in the following stanza: ‘Now the cop had ammo for the inquest,/ complete with suicide note and empty brown/ bottle of barbiturates. He vamoosed. / There was, I puzzled, more to this case.’

Comparably autobiographical is Sant’s ‘Stories of My Father’, a sequence of eight poems, in which the poet looks back and tries to understand what enabled his father to survive his long widowerhood – and, inevitably, the nature of their father-son relationship. In ‘Personal Pronouns’, for instance,
the poet evokes ‘Father and son at the crossroads, I in a classic round of words, / pronouns circling undeclared verbs … Fixed in binary opposition, / they proved he could / never grow old nor I grow up.// I just wanted to get him off my back./ Now it’s the certain weight I lack.’

Another, comparable achievement is Sant’s long poem ‘The Bicycle Thief’, this time more an extended exercise in ironic empathy. Its beginning is indicative of the slightly ‘Martian’ and playful tone maintained throughout. ‘The absence, next to the wall, / was exactly the size / of my bike. So let me fill you in. / It’s a ten-speed Wanderer, blue, / no guards, some rust I on the handlebars, fairly useless/ brakes, in a crisis.’ The poet then goes on to imagine exactly where, and why, the thief has ridden the bike – including, along the way, a small encounter with the police who reprimand him for not wearing a helmet but are not concerned with issues of ownership.

It is not insignificant, however; that Sant’s biographical note observes that ‘His poems have been widely anthologised’. It may well be better to encounter his poems scattered through anthologies or in separate collections than to attempt them jammed together in an extensive selected where their relative similarities seem more pronounced. Alec Hope used to say that poetry ‘ismore
a liqueur than a beer’. If that is so, 368 pages are a lot of Drambuies.

To get a true sense of how this works, one should probably go directly back to Sant’s early, much-anthologised ‘Homage to the Canal People’, where the poet begins with ‘Steered straight into this century I see narrowboats / loaded with coal, cheese, vats of vinegar trailing / a hard century along behind them … ‘but is soon recreating the distinctive and now-threatened community of the canal people on their ‘three-miles-an-hour journeys’ and their ‘Long damp days scattering moorhens’. The poem culminates in\ a vividly memorable pub scene ‘with gossip flying so fast it was prophetic / the boats outside moored with the children / like all relevant history; in the shadow/ of the Swan or the Bird in Hand’.

Eventually, however, it is more than clear why the poet and his publishers were reluctant to omit any of these well-turned, well-made, often-incisive poems. One hopes that the book’s size will not be a deterrent. In the present climate, to issue such a comprehensive selection by a poet who doesn’t have an ‘angle’ or some extra-literary ‘identity’ is even riskier than poetry publishing normally is. It’s good therefore to see Puncher & Wattmann
maintaining the diversity of their list by insisting on recognisable quality rather than novelty or ‘relevance’. Taken slowly, poem by poem, over weeks, Andrew Sant’s Near the Border will more than repay the reader’s investment.