Simon West ‘Carol and Ahoy’ launch by Chris Andrews
After First Names, The Yellow Gum’s Conversion and The Ladder comes the beautifully titled Carol and Ahoy, Simon West’s fourth book of poems, and it’s a great pleasure to respond to its call today.This book is modest in size and ambitious in design. Reading it once doesn’t require you to sacrifice a large chunk of your time, but the book is made to be read more than once, more than twice, and its legitimate ambition is to secure a place in your memory.
Carol and Ahoy makes its claim on memory in three main ways, I think: by condensing thought, feeling and experience; by offering fresh formulations; and by being about stuff that really matters to the poet. This book has density, originality, and necessity. Density is something that characterizes all of Simon’s work. His poems are dense without being opaque, compressed but never cluttered or clogged. He achieves this partly through an extraordinary sensitivity to his material – words – , to their sounds and connotations and etymologies, which allows him to fit them together snugly, and often to activate more than one of their meanings in a given context. Listen to this, from the end of “River Tracks,” addressed to the Goulburn River:
Round Shepp I walk a tract of park
scooped by your failed forays, trenches
greedy with grass and frog croaks.
Some open to billabongs, those castaways
that await like long-suffering red gums
your next incursion and siege. They dream
of a time when you rise to conquer clay
baked hard and fissured and tinder raw,
when you release each rut of old snags
and your salve spreads like a truce
submerging paddocks and fences,
licking at roads and property,
letting us bide for a bit in common reflection.
This is more than a homage to a landscape; it’s also an invitation to reflect on what resists privatization. The reflection at the end is mental as well as optical, and common because it’s abundant, but also because it’s shared.
Simon achieves density also by abstaining, by not writing, or by not including makeweight pieces in a book like this. For all his craft, he is well aware that poetic composition is not something that an individual can strictly master, much less automate. It’s an inefficient, discontinuous, stop-and-start affair, demanding patience. As Raymond Queneau once said: “the [poet’s] best efforts and intentions are in vain, if the unknown and the unpredictable don’t come, as it were, to confirm the effort, and the intention” (Jouet 169). That is the knowledge lies behind the avowedly “timid” address to the Muse in Carol and Ahoy. The book is dense, then, but also fresh and original, from its appropriation of the eclogue, thoroughly archaizing and modernizing at the same time, down to the consistently surprising rightness of word choices and figures. Take “billabongs, those castaways” in the passage I just read. We usually think of a castaway as surrounded by water, but these castaways are surrounded by dry land, and yet they have been cast away, thrown off, by the river in its snaky, meandering movement across the floodplain. Earlier in the poem, Simon writes of the Goulburn seen from the air: “you’re as unkempt as a camper’s hair” (11). The word choices deviate delightfully though not always in a spectacular way from familiar collocations: the clay, in the passage I read, is not “tinder dry” but “tinder raw,” for example. And raw makes tinder sound like tender. Although Simon’s poetry is clearly informed by his reading in and translation from Italian, there’s an original feature of his style that strikes me as almost anti-Italianate: his fondness for the pebble-like monosyllabic noun with its one vowel enclosed between two consonants, from the learned herm and bole to local, familiar abbreviations like tarp and Shepp.
A further factor of originality is the use of rhyme as a device for springing surprises. Sometimes rhyme appears like a clip to close a stanza. Sometimes the opposite happens: the fastening comes undone at the end. Listen to the effect here, in “Waking on a Summer Morning”
I asked if verse were no more than a toy,
then heard the blackbird’s carol and ahoy
and the traffic’s tidal snare drum sough.
They were absolute, these tones, not thought’s forgotten setting now,
as they washed through open windows and the new-found
arch of door jambs, and echoed round
the room’s old school of shadows. They were glory
of music on the mind’s cool parquet floor.
(I love the way that poem leaves its initial question behind, along with the associated anxiety, but suggests an answer if we care to think back: if the sound of traffic can be glory of music, why not verse as well?)
A dense and original book, this one, but also necessary in that it responds to experiences, places, things in the world that speak to the poet with a special urgency. Private, subtle experiences like hearing birdsong and traffic (both, crucially) as absolute music in the poem that I just read, or being restored to the world’s reality by “Walking in the Bush at Whroo.” But also more socially marked experiences, such as the loss of a parent. The poet’s father is memorialized in a wonderful pair of poems – “Swimming” and “The Twofold Tree” (the second is a version of the cremation of Misenus from book VI of the Aeneid) – which are devoted to private and public mourning respectively.
The places that Simon returns to in this book especially are the forested floodplains of the Goulburn and Broken Rivers, which exercise a lasting fascination. They were imprinted on his sensibility by early experience, but that may not be the only reason why they have stayed with him and drawn him back. In “Floodplains on the Broken River,” he writes:
Bush-ground was time-heavy and intricate,
steeped in the elements, layered like an archeological dig. (16)
And in “Back at the Broken River”:
sitting here again I’m overwhelmed
by the measureless convolution of matter,
the ramifications of complex things as weird
and vast as a vista of mountains. (“Back at the Broken River” 24).
These are places of vertiginous complexity, of decay and regeneration, where the old and the new, the dead and the living are finely entangled. It’s not surprising that they speak powerfully to a poet so sensitive to the layers of the past. As Simon writes in “The Magic Box – Nonna Tells a Fairy Tale”
for all its fears is porous, the past survives. (45)
And it survives in this book not as a monument, but as a space of encounters and tensions, for example between indigenous people and settlers in the thoroughly convincing and rather chilling poem written from the point of view of the squatter E. H. Curr, “The Limits of Parable.” In “Goulburn Valley Eclogue,” the farmer-poet Jim talks back to Robert Frost, saying: “There was never any gift outright”. Theft, as his interlocutor Scott says (“What right have we to sing a stolen land?”), but not gift, neither of land to settlers nor of the settler’s selves to the land. Even though Frost recognizes that “the deed of gift was many deeds of war,” his history of settlement is too neat, and too finished for Jim and Scott, who if they sing will have to sing out of their contrition and fears.
In a famous passage from “The Wall and the Books,” Borges writes: “certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon” (Labyrinths 223). Certain twilights and certain places, different for each of us. One of the things that I admire about Carol and Ahoy is its loyalty to the places and lights, the moments and scapes that Simon feels are trying to tell him something, regardless of their status as subjects for poetry in the current state of the field.
Jim in the eclogue says: “I’ve stayed sharp-eyed and stubborn in the face of expectations.” That’s also a good description of the poetry in this book. There is the stubbornness of any poet in the face of the general expectation that they should do something more useful with their time. And then there is the special stubbornness of the poets who hoe rows all of their own, in the face of the poetry community’s expectations. Simon West’s poetry is not gregarious. It explicitly draws back from gang action in “The Lorikeets” and portrays the poet as “watching from a tangent, / toeing the rim of a field” in “Boundary Line.” But it is deeply companionable poetry because it is never talking to itself, always addressed clearly to us as readers, striving to reach us and stay with us. That is something to be grateful for. Thank you, Simon, and may the song and call of Carol and Ahoy be heard here and far, now and long into the future.