Philip Salom, ‘Alterworld’ in The Australian

Philip Salom’s Alterworld is like life with the boring bits taken out


Philip Salom’s almost overwhelmingly intense trilogy Alterworld combines his 1987 work Sky PoemsThe Well Mouth from 2005 and a collection of new work called Alterworld (Puncher & Wattman, 251pp, $29.95). At its simplest it is a kind of reversed version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, moving from a meta-paradise down into a murky underworld and emerging into a world that is rather like everyday life, but with all the boring bits taken out.

Sky Poems imagines a clamorous, overlit “paradise” where all wishes and desires are granted. This is a long way from the pallid herbal tea version of heaven or nirvana that people generally hanker after — there is no morality or reward involved, just actualisation (so in fact it’s a very 1980s heaven).

The dead come back to life, the sick are cured, but always ambivalently. There is passion infidelity, vanity, cupidity; all indulged but often unsatisfyingly shiny. There is cosmetic surgery, wealth and ostentation, but also lightness, colour and flight.

In The Well Mouth there is no colour, no light, and only a murmuring, reluctant kind of life. At the bottom of Salom’s well a murdered woman lies in a ghostly oubliette, acting as a seer and guide to the dead, as they explain their deaths and she absorbs their deaths into the underworld. The dead might seem like grey shades but their deaths have tremendous force, whether accidental, pathetic, or gangsterish and televisual.

The energy generated by their fierce honesty and the well woman’s divinations belies any sense that this is a limbo like the one inhabited by unbaptised babies or virtuous pagans. These people aren’t milling around waiting for anything: they are still fully occupied being themselves. In fact, strangely, it feels more the island of the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey than the eternal Sunday afternoon that Persephone chafed against every year.

This sense of lightness amid sadness flows through into Alterworld, the newly completed third part to this trilogy. After the unreality of the desiring sky and the narcosis of the underworld, there is nowhere to be but the world. But what is a world?

Salom’s is a world of everyday moments, exact and poignant but washed over with a very thin coat of underworld varnish, and of culture as a way of looking and being, and aspiring. Cinema, music, even pataphysics, act as lenses to both focus and diffuse. The first two books seemed to clatter against each other, like two spanners in a box, but Salom has, with this addition, leached some of the clamour from one and the dolour from the other. The Alterworld rings true…

Peter Keneally is a poet, writer and reviewer.

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