Stone Postcard by Paul Magee reviewed by Bonny Cassidy
by Paul Magee
Reviewed by BONNY CASSIDY
A short poem, “Swimming in Minus”, lies at the centre of Paul Magee’s Stone Postcard. Positioned here, it makes a statement about the collection; the kind of poem that a more predictable writer might have placed at the book’s opening:
Still dark at seven in the morning,
Melbourne winter, and the St Kilda ocean
separates me from my skin-wrapped bones.
Like Descartes, who refused
to believe his body
The thinking words in his mind were him.
Deserving the property title that is cogito.
If I can think then I’m still alive.
Indeed, the poem is an opening of sorts, as it begins the second of the book’s halves. Perversely, Magee delays this little song of survival until we have completed the first part: a series of unflinching, expositional poems on the birth of a son, separation from a partner, and death of a father.
Magee’s poetry has never shied from trauma, nor from reconciliation with mortality; in fact, both his first collection, Cube Root of Book (2006), and Stone Postcard seem to thrive upon traditional relationships between poetic expression and kinds of loss. He worries at loss and losing with a tough, philosophical morbidity. In this sense, Stone Postcard continues the elegiac mode and pensive tone of Cube Root of Book. Now, however, the notes of his poetry are less constrained by the minor scale: Magee’s poetic line is lifted by brevity, and his droll optimism peppers this collection, particularly characterising its second part.
Whereas “Swimming in Minus” takes a reflective perspective on experience, the very first poem in the book tries to represent it proleptically. As its title suggests, “Later” is haunted by knowledge – represented by ominous “shadows” – of events that are to arrive in the following poems. Magee pushes this knowledge to the poem’s unfinished periphery, its form and imagery insisting instead upon the naivety of a baby and the dazed wonder of a new parent:
Our shadows lengthen.
Rupert is four now,
in days, though to him here and there
must seem quite the same.
Day and night will come later, then years, and
metaphors for the new, immense visions for the eyes to see by.
Empty shoes on the floor mark places where their
stepping, then slept.
The house is a map of last movements,
books put down on page three-three-four,
flowers, a balloon,
‘It’s a boy!’
The book’s first part chronicles how the simplicity of the child’s consciousness is gradually paralleled by the complicated break-up of his parents. Magee represents that duality simply through the sequencing of his poems. After a suite of emotionally earnest poems such as “Song”, “Break” and “Ten Houses”, Magee will insert the fleeting and pointless fun of child’s play as exemplified in “Lions in the Beach”. Consider the tonal contrast between these lines:
Just broke up,
in point of fact.
Four years from sudden love.
I’ve lost a life
which was hers. (“Ten Houses”)
Rupert punches policemen in dreams, then blinks
at the beach,
out of sleep leaping and spinning
around in his underpants […] (“Lions in the Beach”)
Magee avoids artificially reconciling or framing such tension, instead dwelling in its awkwardness. Through these stark tonal shifts he is performing the dissonance of beginnings and endings, of course, but this sequencing is also a technique to heighten awareness of light and dark separately.
It’s also an essential relief from poems in which emotionally earnest can become cloyingly confessional. This mode expresses itself in some hyperbolic metaphors: “like kissing/on New Year’s Day over No Man’s Land./Perhaps this truce could last./ […] A trench is no place to be letting go” (“Song”); “Broken homes are what we try to house” (“Break”). In the title sequence, lyrical flourishes are traded for a more urgent voice. The effect reads as stylised therapy:
Here’s your fucking rock, my actions said
to the psychotherapist who had requested
from my six months’ travel in Tierra del Fuego
I bring him back one […]
Actually I was crying a mouth full of grief
an earshot of anger
saying people in glass houses
are obliged to throw stones (“Stone Postcard”)
Magee seems to be deliberately working confessionalism into a poetics of authenticity; as just two comparisons, John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan have also pursued this approach, albeit to different thematic purposes. Giving oneself over to this style will be more or less challenging depending upon Magee’s reader. For me, Magee’s poems deal most memorably with emotional difficulty when it is distilled into imagery: “the distantly approaching,/her face severely/then a smile that melts” (“Red Square”). The epigram “Thought & Fort” contains another example of this:
train of thought
light of thought
carriage of thought
take off armour
A few other, discursive poems in the book’s first part also have this quality. They are not witty in the sense of glinting wordplay or fancy rhetorical footwork but, rather, they have an airy, sketchy quality. Poems like “Here and Now”, “Painting’s Flatness” and “Tautology” see Magee practice quite a different poetics to his expositional mode; often, they are no less sad than his chatty, head-on approaches to pain and rage, but they are less ponderous. They leave space to bring us in:
Rosella bursts out of the tree like a flower.
I want to live in that time spiral.
These jasmines overhead, flying by
and everything else
is black. Behind the sky. (“Here and Now”)
Given the dark path that Magee treads in the book’s first part, it is no coincidence that Virgil appears repeatedly throughout Stone Postcard. He hovers; not only in literal form as a translated voice, but also as a guiding device which functions to illumine Magee’s thematic concerns. In the first part, Magee concentrates on Virgil in pastoral mode. His translated excerpts from the Georgics bring a voice of comfort, a lullaby in which mythic order and practical wisdom make a reassuring pattern:
The instant old Deucalion’s hurled stones
hit the earth and turned into snarling men,
who flung at life remain a stone-hard race,
Nature imposed law on the land. Up then,
turn earth, start early in the year so that
the many suns of Summer ripening
to full force can bake the dusty soil.
In contrast to Magee’s confessional poems, his translations of Virgil represent a relationship outside of personality, a realm tangential from immediate experience and yet rich with feeling. Virgil’s command, above, signals a turn in the book’s focus – from the world within the self, to the self within the world. This shift characterises its second part. If the first half is a brave descent, the second is a hopeful climb. There is still turmoil and grief in the second part of the book, but these are treated as studies; politicised and essayed, they see Magee experiment with a satirical and free-wheeling poetic voice.
Observing the world as a stranger – visitor, traveller, fish out of water – Magee is frequently astounded at the weirdness of daily encounters. His responses range from outrage to bemusement. A run of tart didactic poems, for example, echo the political barbs of Catullus and Ovid. A highlight is “Payable Thinking”, an embittered but concise opinion-poem about academic research pressures:
This would be a pampered little gripe,
but universities are a common house for a while
to four in ten of our children.
While Magee is careful to preserve musicality in his translations, elsewhere he values directness of voice over rhythm. While this tendency marks weaker points in the book’s first part, Magee’s loose line and plain diction are used to good effect in a set of impressionistic poems stretching from America to Australia. In one, “Coney Island”, an occasional ode to a hotdog eating contest, he echoes the din of the coliseum (“This is life and death”). Elsewhere, a series of suburban Australian scenes include a Salvos employment workshop (“… ployment, Inemployment, Unumploymnt”) and a misconceived church group display of fruit, “gayer than Satan’s butt” (“Brisbane Royal Exhibition”).
In this second half of Stone Postcard, social satire creates a cumulative sense that civilisation is founded on chaos; history on forgetting. This is particularly clear in Magee’s juxtaposition of his poem, “Smudged Newspaper Photo”, with a final translation from Virgil – this time from his jingoistic mode in the Aeneid – which Magee titles “Turnus Decides”. In “Smudged Newspaper Photo”, Magee contemplates a news report so horrific his speaker does “not know how to read”; Virgil, however, shows him how war can be aestheticised, as well as familiarised, through poetry:
Like huge brands of flame thrown into a woods
– the laurels in there crack as they catch light –
or seething rivers, which suddenly flood
smashing out from the sheer mountains to charge
the fields and plains, Aeneas and Turnus
devastated everything in their path.
Magee’s translation seems to relish the particularly bloody and cinematic nature of this passage, which acts as a climax to the book’s progression through trauma, as Turnus resolves: “The battle is mine/ to win or lose” (“Turnus Decides”). This war cry, which leads skillfully into one final, peaceful poem by Magee, stands far away from the wan voice that opens the book.
A “stone postcard” could mean a number of things. The image of writing in stone is commonly meant to indicate permanence, an indelible action. These are themes in Magee’s book, to be sure: the undoable mark of death upon the living; the hurting memory of a failed partnership. In the title poem it’s a literal rock brought home as a souvenir, as well as a metaphorical rock of anger to peg at somebody, anybody. In light of other poems in the book, it might also be understood as the weight of life that is lovingly transferred from a father to the son (tabula rasa) who is repeatedly addressed in the book’s first part; or, it could refer to Virgil’s epitaph, which Magee translates (“Over Virgil’s Grave”).
Considering the collection as a whole, however, the stone postcard comes to signify paradox: it is both heavy and light, anchored and moveable. The stony harshness of pain is leavened by a sense of the ridiculous; the poet declares himself, but does so with an informal poetic line and the great palimpsest of translation. The book’s two parts represent two faces, but if Magee’s voice can be characterized by one feature, it’s intensity – a word also used in the book’s cover blurb. Magee’s poetry is intense because he refuses to entertain the falsity of synthesis. A stone postcard is the tension between memory and freedom, between experience and the poetry that briefly contains it.
BONNY CASSIDY‘s second poetry collection, Final Theory, was published in July by Giramondo. She teaches creative writing at RMIT University and is feature reviews editor for Cordite Poetry Journal. This year she is a guest of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and the Australian Poetry Tour of Ireland.