Philip Salom, ‘The Keeper of Fish’ in ABR
Philip Salom as Fisher King
In his Keepers trilogy, Philip Salom is an Eliotian Fisher King, exploring the fissuring of identity in a triple play of plurality. The first book, Keepers (2010), was written by Salom, but authorship of The Keeper of Fish and Keeping Carter is attributed to Alan Fish and M.A. Carter,respectively. In his role as editor for these two poets, Salom becomes their gatekeeper or, as he states, their ‘amanuensis, editor, mentor and promoter’.
Salom has published fourteen books of poetry and two novels, and has won many awards. He is a charismatic performance poet and lecturer. Fish and Carter are more than Salom’s clients; they are his heteronyms. Fish is a character in Salom’s Keepers; the voice in (and from) the margins. Carter has not appeared in any text prior to Keeping Carter. Salom defined his use of the term ‘heteronyms’ as ‘personalities or identities which I have established because they actually allow a different poetry. Fish and Carter are not me in the sense that I wouldn’t have written those poems.’ The trilogy highlights the ways in which multiplicity can create complexity and richness in a poet’s oeuvre. Fish and Carter allow Salom the freedom to explore different registers in his writing, without taking full responsibility for their poetry.
The use of heteronyms and the title of Fish’s book are nods to Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet famous for his heteronymic writing. The Keeper of Fish references Pessoa’s The Keeper of Sheep (1925), written in the guise ofAlberto Caeiro. While ‘the sheep are [Caiero’s] thoughts’, Fish prefers to make ‘fish’ his totem: salmon, guppies, goldfish, and catfish dart in and out of his poetry. Carter references Pessoa’s isotopic lunacy, he doesn’t need a totem; he is larger than life.
Salom gives Fish and Carter amusing biographies, fleshing out their personalities and their individual poetical styles. At times, these personal details run the risk of usurping the reader’s own discoveries in the text. However, by providing these dossiers, Salom enters into a game with his reader. He is like Gwen Harwood or James McAuley and Harold Stewart, a ‘trickster-prankster’ (Harwood's own term for herself). If these two heteronyms are read as ‘language masquerading as men’, then Fish becomes ‘fishy’ and Carter ‘carts’ his fictive baggage from one page to the next. The game intensifies when Carter’s initials are changed from M.T. (empty) to M.A. (perhaps a Master of Arts) because ‘an / empty carter wasn’t the / thing for a poet whose / muse is embarrassingly / full of it’.
It would be easy to read these texts as nothing more than hoaxes, especially given that three of Carter’s poems were published in So Long Bulletin, a blog referencing Harwood’s celebrated hoax acrostic. Also, some of the self-reflexive, third-person references to the poets, and the many plays on words associated with their surnames, are self-conscious. However, they enhance the comic play of the poems. In this way, the reader tracks their identities, running after the fish and the cart.
Reading The Keeper of Fish is like being initiated into the Japanese game of Go; a game of strategy and territory, using black-and-white stones. Fish becomes Zen in these moments, and the moths and light associated with the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata steal into his poetry: ‘moths bunt onto my desk in soft / anguish, it seems, or I’m projecting.’ Fish views the world through the aquarium glass darkly, or through a fisheye lens. Even Fish’s wife dies from cancer; the astrological sign of the fish. The poems that reference his wife and daughter are haunting. Fish’s skill for writing lyric poetry is the perfect form for the expression of his private griefs:
When she left she took away her beauty and her hair.
Lived for years with another man. When cancer took
her hair, and took away her breast, the man she left
to live with left. These changes were undoing them.
She asked me then: when the final moment came
would I bleach her hair and comb her into blonde
for her end, for the hours, and to be looked upon
after the light had left her. I gave my answer.
If Fish’s fear is living, Carter’s is ageing. If Carter had a game, it would be two-up or ‘Heads or Tails’. His poetry is provocative and, in a series of comic turns, Carter dedicates poems to Des ‘Tuppence’ Moran and Joan Rivers. Carter’s irreverence is the remedy to élitist poetry; it is intellectual but also shockingly humorous. He hates ‘bloody vegans’, he ‘sneezes on sophistry, on atheists, and on / Collingwood supporters’ and ‘fucking parent types’. In ‘Jesus Saves Me’, he references his brother’s heteronym: ‘The fish stares at me like a gullible adult … The fish, it’s said to mean something but I forget / what.’
Salom ‘does not believe that any one poet has any one voice or sound to make’. Fish and Carter are Salom’s homunculi; it remains to be seen if Salom is harbouring any other poets. For their fierce poetic intelligence, their experimentation and their comedy, these books are ‘keepers’.
Cassandra Atherton, Australian Book Review, May 2012