Philip Salom, ‘Alterworld’ in The Sydney Morning Herald

Philip Salom's Alterworld: Sky Poems, The Well Mouth, reviewed in The Sydney Morning Herald 

Philip Salom's Alterworld is a useful “three-in-one”. It combines two of his best known but out of print earlier books (Sky Poems 1987 and The Well Mouth 2005) with a new collection in the same vein. Both Sky Poems and The Well Mouth are hard to categorise. They are certainly livres composes while the latter can also be regarded as a kind of verse novel.

What all three collections share is Salom's idiosyncratic approach to the metaphysical. Not for him the certainties of the major religions –  but neither is Salom a scientific literalist asserting that there is nothing beyond the death of the brain. The two earlier collections were extensively reviewed and awarded on their publication, so the main focus of a current review must necessarily be on Alterworld, the most recent of the three. 

Unlike The Well Mouth but perhaps somewhat akin to Sky Poems, Alterworld is a collection of discrete but thematically related poems. There is no sense of an ongoing narrative, as in The Well Mouth. Indeed the poems are so diverse we may feel that, in some cases,  Salom is pushing at the edges of his own provisional definition of the “metaphysical”.

Many of the poems are energetically rhetorical, at times risking opacity. Others, like Point of View, in the sequence Shots, are almost sardonic anecdotes. Somewhere in the middle are poems such as Enigmatic Beauty and Driving into Dawn, in which seemingly personal episodes are lent a sort of metaphysical luminosity, as if they are simultaneously both in and out of this world. 

It may be no coincidence that both these poems take place in cars. The last lines of Enigmatic Beauty illustrate Alterworld's predominant tone. “The car, beautiful or ugly, is hard. We drive / until the sunset rains. And the long yolk of summer / breaks over her, on the car, on me, on everything.”  Images such as “the long yolk of summer” may tend to divide Salom's readers. Some will find it adventurously apposite; others too adventurous altogether.

Among the most satisfying poems in Alterworld are those such as Here Come the Missionaries and The Visitant (in the sequence Creatures of the Alterworld). Here, Salom presents significant episodes from his own life which, in recollection, have retained their metaphysical dimension. In The Visitant it's an unexplained mare which arrives at the gate of a farm where there's been “no horse … for forty years”. The poet clearly sees her as symbolic but can't be sure of what. “I am unable / to leave. I am stroking her unable to make / sense of it but moved out of myself as if / this is more real than sensible.” There's a nice play on the word “sensible” here – which is all part of the book's ambiguities on such matters.

Here Come the Missionaries is more mundane in content – and as much about the poet's father's hardships in rebuilding a bridge the government had mindlessly destroyed on his property during the war as it is about “the bike-clip missionaries” themselves. It's with more than a little irony that the poet ends with: “Now I / say I'm just not interested in God and / justice and bridges. I mean, unable / to bear their eagerness, I lie to them.”

Readers interested in the metaphysical, but not in doctrinal orthodoxy, will enjoy Salom's distinctive take on these matters – and perhaps the convenience and  economy of three books in one. 

Geoff Page

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