Tuesday, August 09, 2011

'Show of Colours: Poems of the Yilgarn' by Glen Phillips

Launched by Patrick West on 3 August 2011 at ECU bookshop, Mt. Lawley - where it is now for sale at $18.


One sign that a writer is operating at the height of his powers is the willingness to take on the most serious and difficult of life’s themes.

This is what Glen Phillips’ latest collection of poetry does. Two themes stand out especially: place as travel and what we might call ‘secular religion’.

The first theme reflects the poet’s ambition to return to the landscape of his youth, the Yilgarn, not in the sense of an attempt to recover lost innocence but so as to launch an investigation into how innocence and experience are always in orbit around each other.

This is not so much ‘travel poetry’ then, though it references many places both real and specific, as ‘travelling poetry’. Place itself becomes the rich site of travel and wandering. These are poems of an endless return to place as a way of re-discovering the endlessness of place… of life, of dreams, of writing itself.

Something like the Victorian writer Gerald Murnane who, in prose, draws threads of memory and innocence/experience through his native landscape of south-western Victoria, Glen draws words out of a landscape that, he suggests and we feel, was somehow his even before the time of his birth. The end of the poem ‘Station 1—Southern Cross’, its poetic philosophy, captures this beautifully:

Nearly twenty years of trains would pass
that station night and day until
my summer birth in white heat.
Strange station prelude for my own
journeying, this singular mission out of night.

Fourteen Stations to Southern Cross, the second section of Glen’s book and to me the heart of the collection, is a re-writing of the 14 Stations of the Cross, Christ’s final hours or Passion.

But the poet’s passion is not Christ’s. This book is a remarkable example of religious poetry but it is the religion of place, of intensely numinous landscapes, that is expressed in its pages, not conventional religion. One could call it a search for belief within the unique inland landscapes of Australia. Glen’s theme here, I think, is ‘secular religion’.

‘Station 14—Southern Cross’ completes, perhaps, the leap from the strange world of ourselves before we appear in the world to the world to come. As children listen for trains so

We still do listen in this country for the next coming,
in this place of skulls, of desert she-oaks,
of spheres and melancholy
with their tones and tunes

The ‘holy’ here subsists within language (‘melancholy’) and equally within landscape. And isn’t the perfect matching of word to place in itself a holy or religious rite?

Glen transforms the flesh of place into the spirit of words. But he makes the word ‘station’—the key word, I suggest, of his collection—bear this immensely serious burden of significance most lightly. Life sings off the pages of this book.

Intensely local and at the same time international (even inter-galactic with its undertones of metaphysical traditions and artifice) this collection marries the Western Australian landscape to those of Italy and China. No place exists in isolation. Perhaps every place contains within it the seeds of every ‘elsewhere’? Glen’s poetry makes us think on such things.

Searingly secular and deeply religious, both very serious and very funny (witness ‘Station 9—Pingelly’ or the juvenile pas de deux of cars and trains of ‘Station 7—Beverley’), wordy and imagistic, vernacular while also conversing with the voices of other poets (Shakespeare, Ezra Pound and others)…. Overall this is a landmark collection of poetry. Glen’s achievement here, and in the body of his work over a lifetime (more to come too, I’m sure!) makes it increasingly difficult to think of the wild places of Western Australia without feeling his words in your heart.

It’s my very great honour to launch this book and I congratulate all involved with its splendid production, especially, after Glen, editor John Charles Ryan.


If you were to join me here
in my country, breathing
quietly aromatic oils
of eucalypt and salt bush
on the old bush tracks, goldfields treks,
the old sandalwood trails
the old songlines
of my stolen country!

If you were here
by me in my country
sighting along my arm
letting the yellow-gold
and old green enter
your eyesockets, pass through
the shadowy aisles
to merge with your own country!

If you were here
I would show the way
I have taken through
sixty summers and winters,
of footsteps in the litter
of bark strippings, the shed leaf debris
in the powdery red dust.
And footsteps wet, on glittering
granite domes in a freezing wind.

If you were here
I would show you those ways
through wheatfields, saltlakes
and salmon gums to my country.

Glen Phillips
'Show of Colours: Poems of the Yilgarn' is available from the ECU bookshop at Mt Lawley for $18.

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