This was the last collection Porter published before his death – which means it’s no surprise that mortality is very much at the forefront. However, it’s not a maudlin collection – there’s enough humour here to give balance to the levity of the subject matter. The short opening poem ‘Better than God’ opens the collection on a note of hope “they can play anything you put in front of them” and this lightness continues through the poems.
The early poems are filled with wisdom and warning as Porter imparts his learnings and observations – humankind’s obsession with the pursuit of knowledge to the detriment of humanity is explore in ‘The Apprentice’s Sorcerer’ , we’re encouraged to embrace silence when necessary in ‘Whereof We Cannot Speak’ and Porter serves a sharp slice of anti-capitalism in ‘Because We Can’. However, as his tone is mainly playful and he swirls classical references with modern lexicon, it doesn’t feel moralistic or didactic – even though it is blunt at times, like in ‘Because We Can.’:
“Yet each Old Baron in his Saturnines,
In the market’s name, does as he pleases.”
It feels autobiographical but in a more abstract way. Instead of delving deeply into the personal, Porter spends a lot of time playfully poking at famous artists of the past – most of the middle third of the collection is devoted to poems such as the wonderfully titled ‘ Henry James and Constipation’ and ‘Voltaire’s Allotment’. He uses these figures as foils through which to examine his own thoughts on the creative process and his feelings about his own cultural achievements such as in ‘To Murder Sleep’ which opens with:
“I’ll dream another worst tonight,
The perfect lines I’ll never write.”
and examines the effects of the popularisation of art and culture – which he picks up later in ‘Discs with Everything’.
Here is a man thinking about his legacy. There are flashes of personal introspection such as in ‘The Dead Have Plans’ with the painful: “But who would measure all the waste in his life?”. Later in the collection he turns his attention to the country of his birth. Poems such as ‘The Burning Fiery Furnace’ and ‘How the Eureka Stockade Led to Boggo Road Gaol’ are openly critical of the creation of the state “colonies got on with making money.”
There is so much to learn from these poems – not just from the endless references to art, literature and other creative pursuits, but from the observances and insights. In ‘Lost Among Lizards’, Porter points out that “no tragedy burns long enough to justify the fuel.” In a world filled with vitriol on social media, this is a lesson we can all learn. he last poem ‘River Quatrains’ opens with the simple observation that:
“You never step in the same river twice
Although it looks just as it did before” and ends with
“My poems wait for me,
They look away, they threaten and they bless.”
I certainly feel blessed from having read this collection.