Dennis Haskell

31 Oct

I first met Dennis Haskell in a creative writing class at the University of West Australia. He was very nice toward some fiction I had submitted. Many of his more popular poems embody an aesthetic that begins, as his own poem “For Thomas Hardy” begins,

Start with simple things

Grass, the earth, the roots of grass

Perhaps meaning is found

Only in the minute perception

Of old and familiar objects.

What more do you have?

If you wish to discover

The Gods you must look

To things, not into

Your own mind.

And be specific: kikuyu, the dark soil.

Our discordinate minds

Shake at the roots:

Larkin, to construct a religion,

would choose nothing more solid than water.

Because this can be counted on

To move, and to capture

Every angle contained in colour.

(“For Thomas Hardy”)

You can delineate in a poem like this something of what Geoff Page might have had in mind, writing in the Weekend Australian, “Haskell’s temperament is essentially sceptical but it is also a spiritual one: he is someone who finds the numinous in the small things of everyday life rather than on the road to Tarsus”. Haskell himself would probably concur: the prefatory quotations to his collection All the Time in the World include Simone Weil’s remark, “Only spiritual things are of value, but only physical things have a verifiable existence.” Another quotation, from Derek Walcott, is equally telling: “…the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.”

I’ve chosen to present what I think are two of his best poems here. In both we see how he is capable of negotiating expertly between the mundane and the pantheistic (that invocation of “If you wish to discover/The Gods you must look/To things, not into/Your own mind.”)

“Denials of Choice” and “At Greenwood, a Mediation” are vaguely mystical in tone and reminiscent of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Dante’s La Divina Commedia respectively; the first for its oscillation between the sexual and the inanimate, and the second for shifting from the suburban prowling cat to the thought of “lupin dressed hills” and back again in a way that recalls, at least for me personally, the she-wolf, lion and leopard Dante encounters early on in the Commedia. Interestingly enough, the second was included by John Kinsella in an anthology of Australian poetry that he edited while, I believe, compiling around roughly the same time his own cycle of poems based on the Commedia.

“Denials of Choice”

When we parted, irrevocably, a part of me

stood up and just walked away

towards your smile, simply, your whole face shining,

all sounds eerily cancelled,

as I slid down the unnerving rail

out of shadow, to the track and pattern of sunlight;

and it goes on living somewhere away from me,

this self that is not me, that lies down

beside you, on crisp autumn days

when wind twists the green leaves silver.

I see its surveying hand fly just above

the earth-warming landscape of your thighs

and land gently on the stubbly crop

of hair above your cunt.

Apart, I want to break these thin-boned wishes

and rigid gestures, mere fingersticks of flesh,

have the muscles, and the embers f my blood,

remember our first touching, even the finest

tentative hand hold as we stepped

across the twig and pebble strewn path

that led into what I thought

was determined to be our lives.

I have lost myself. I have grown unshakable

in the syllables of dark sunlight, you smiling,

while the day brightens with shadowy cries

and a scatter of shapes on the path,

at my stick fingers, my silvering hands,

this upright, almost-stone entanglement of bones.

The Dante connection in the next poem, “At Greenwood, a Meditation” is, I suspect, purely personal. It is in the trust sense of the word superficial. It’s probably no more than a personal tendency to connect every appearance of felines in poetry with the appearance of three of them in the Inferno:

I paused to let my weary limbs recover,

and then began to climb the lone hillside,

my fixed foot always lower than the other.

But I had hardly started when I spied

a leopard in my pathway, lithe and fleet,

all covered with a sleek and spotted hide.

And as I faced it, it would not retreat,

but paced before me and so blocked my way

that more than once I had to turn my feet

to retrace my steps. It was the break of day,

the sun was mounting in the morning sky

with the same stars as when that whole array

of lovely things was first given movement by

divine love. The sweet season of the year

and the hour made me think that I might try

to evade that bright-skinned beast as it came near,

but then I felt my good hopes quickly fade

and in an instant I was numbed with fear

to see a lion in my path that made

straight for me, head held high and ravenous,

and seemed to make the very air afraid.

And a she-wolf too, that in its leanness was

laden with every craving. Those who seek

fulfillment there only find wretchedness.

(Inferno trans. Michael Palma, Canto I, 28-51)

Here is Haskell’s poem:

“At Greenwood, a Meditation”

In a humdrum household

occasional cats jackknife over fences,

slink across the path, wide

eyes on guard, whiskers atwitch.

For these dark creatures

my mind wanders

over the other neighbourhood

they sidle silently from

and what water or milk

they hope to lap from

in my head.

Now the hunched and

ricketty figures of houses

slip to one side, in trees

sharply cut blood coloured sap

flows up from each root,

salt scatters from the shaker

over tablecloths lit with stars,

dark, stiff outlines of hills

brood, mysterious, that will

in time become again

suburban, lupin dressed hills…

I never can call to them

nor fix how they come

but when I see a mouth

lick up the dabs of sunlight

celebrate / what has then begun,

the twitch of whiskers,

the startling tongue.

 

Dennis Haskell, November 2012, Nedlands W.A.

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