Philip Salom’s ‘The Keeper of Fish’ in The Australian

A lyrical walk on the wild side

Review by Geoff Page in The Australian April 28, 2012

Like Keepers, Philip Salom's previous book, The Keeper of Fish is not exactly a verse novel, an epic poem or a standard collection of poetry but it's closer to a verse novel than anything else.

In the earlier work, Alan Fish, one of Keepers' several key characters, was a technician or “cleaner” in the basement of a creative arts department. Now Fish, the speaker of most of the poems in The Keeper of Fish, has been forced to move on and his life, never great, has taken a turn for the worse. The poems are those of a lonely but not self-pitying man, estranged from his teenage daughter and mourning the de facto wife who left him years ago for another man, and then returned to the poet when she was dying from breast cancer.

It's not quite clear how Fish gets his money but he spends a good deal of his life as a flaneur, a person who walks the city without purpose, detachedly observing its people – and, in this case, returning home to write the secret, unpublished poems that in turn reveal his situation, his personality and his “back-story”.

Collectively, the poems have a slow forward movement but many are meditative and some even lyrical. The mood varies from the sardonic to the unashamedly romantic in works that, we must remember, were never intended for publication. “When she came back to me her hair turned dark. / Unseen happiness grew out through both of us.” The poems about the cancer episode are the book's most moving but Fish's portrayal of his estrangement from his daughter is also convincing. “You wake at 3am and you know beyond all reason / they let themselves feel broken, you broke it in them.”

Like the protean Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under three separate names, Salom goes to some trouble to establish Alan Fish as a real poet “who has no interest whatsoever in appearing anywhere in person”. Given the paradoxically healthy ego of most poets, this seems unlikely – but as a strategy for holding together a verse novel the device works well. Indeed, some of the “Fish” poems are written from the point of view of the poet's dead wife and are among the most moving.

Some readers may be cruel enough to feel Salom should have allowed his creation a truly separate identity (as did Pessoa – and Gwen Harwood, for that matter). They might be mean enough to suggest Salom should not have listed his own name on the title page as editor, but that would hardly have been “a good career move”, as Truman Capote might have said.

A rather different (and simultaneously released) act of ventriloquy can be seen in M.A. Carter's collection, Keeping Carter, edited (we're told) by Salom. Carter (we never learn his first name) is really quite an unpleasant character who “happen(s) to write besmirching poems / at times. Usually when no one else will. / I'm proud of it. Add pride to my sins.” (Nasty Poet).

Carter, unlike Fish, is a poet who looks outward rather than inward and much of what he sees he does not like. Mostly, he doesn't put himself on a higher moral level but he does seem irritated that so many poets these days are so polite and unwilling to take social risks. Among the risks Carter takes are a liberal use of the C-word, scabrous discussions of sex and incitement to cannibalism, among other unpleasantries.

It must be admitted, however, that for a first-time-out poet Carter is unnervingly good. One must suspect that the editor, Salom, provided some quiet assistance here and there – and perhaps got a few unacceptable things off his own chest in the process. In the book's foreword, Salom tells us that Carter “will not be seen in public” – and perhaps that's just as well. His cantankerous poems remind us, however, that poets haven't always been polite. One thinks of Catullus and Rochester, for a start.

In short, if you're not easily offended, Keeping Carter is an enjoyable book. It's littered with memorable poems, among which I would include Tory Pollies, Sweet Nothings (the cannibal poem), Tall Men are No Good and My Table, along with quite quite a few others. I should mention too that Carter, like Wordsworth, keeps house with his sister (who has had, it seems, little success in civilising him). Carter, the misanthrope, prefers cats to dogs or humans. In My Table he pays tribute to his felines and celebrates his chosen lifestyle, finishing up with: “I'm in here. I like it like that. / They sit either side of me, / my cats are like apostrophes”.

Taken together, The Keeper of Fish and Keeping Carter are something of a tour de force – the latter being the more dramatic and the former more narratively driven. Despite the obvious differences between these two closet poets, it's more than a little strange that the musical tastes of both Fish and Carter overlap not only with each other but are almost precisely those of their mutual editor (as revealed in his earlier books). What is it, we might ask, about isolates and classical music?

Geoff Page

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