Launch speech: Keepers ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Launch speech: Keepers

It's unlikely to be published anywhere: so here is the celebratory speech I wrote for last night's launch of Philip Salom's new collection of poetry, Keepers, now available from Puncher & Wattman.

I am honoured to be be asked to launch Philip’s new collection, Keepers. And as I‘ve read and reread it, I’ve been pondering how to describe it. What kind of book is this? It’s easy to praise, but far less easy to categorise. Reading it is entering another reality, a reality constructed of language that is as complex and ambiguous as those we inhabit. The conceit – a series of linked poems forming an implicit narrative about the staff and students of a School of Arts – is simple; but its execution belies this apparent simplicity. Here are some attempts at a description:

Keepers is a prodigious act of imagination and thought. It’s a work of poetic virtuosity that wickedly undoes its own virtuosity. It’s a witty, beautiful and moving series of reflection on art and artists that is itself a work of art, that enacts its own argument: “Art is a strangeness come to wake them”. It’s a work of fiction, creating in its slim 100 pages an entire world, populated by a cast of immediately memorable and recognisable characters. It’s a satire of contemporary academia and culture, sometimes stingingly funny, sometimes scathingly black, that exposes and mocks the “health and safety” culture that represses and marginalises the dangerous reaches of the imagination. It’s a memento mori, that reminds us, as the poet says in a meditation on the Japanese board game Go, that the “game of poetry is mortal / accretion”. Perhaps it is, in the end, an opera, a story of love and death.

The art school is like an aquarium, as Salom suggests at one point, or a zoo or a gallery, that becomes a burning glass for emotion: love, hatred, abjection, desire, envy, spite and, increasingly, sorrow. The Keepers of the title are, among others, the staff members in the school. “The students,” as it says in the poem "The Kept Ones", “do not feel kept, but of course they / are kept. Someone or something or some household / keeps them. The staff members keep and are paid to keep keeping.” The poems dance around all the senses of keeping and being kept – the sexual economics, as suggested in the leering lecturer, “his voice in her head like a hand on a thigh”, and the ancient sense too of artists as custodians of knowledge, keeping the flame. Both these meanings – and others – are kept continuously in motion through the book.

Perhaps inevitably, as I spend a ridiculous proportion of my waking life in the theatre, the first word that occurred to me in thinking of Keepers was “play”. Keepers offers some of the most playful language in contemporary Australian poetry: the book is a celebration of poetic forms, and each poem generates a sensually charged language of constant transformation. But it also calls up another sense. Keepers is a kind of theatre: its characters flicker across the darkened stage of the mind, melancholy, estranged, hungering, each poem a spotlight in which we uneasily enter, like voyeurs, their secret thoughts and shames. And here even props have voices: inanimate objects, like "The Printmaker’s Copper Plate", or the plastinated corpses of Gunther von Hagens, articulate their thoughts. Dead artists – Dmitri Shostakovich, Artemisia Gentileschi, Francis Webb, Eadweard Muyerbridge - rise and speak with the living. In a brilliant (and brilliantly funny) series of fantasy lectures, "Lectures They Never Had", ideas lift like acrobats from the page and perform themselves. Keepers is a theatre of hallucinatory memory, of a present haunted by the thickening past of a culture that stirs and breathes in an artificial environment.

The poet himself contains multitudes, but remains invisible, vanishing into his own language. Or does he? Underneath almost every poem is a contrapuntal footnote, ironic, vernacular, prosaic, supposedly extracted from the diary of a character called Alann Fish. Fish is the cleaner and general dogsbody at the art school, and a key character in the unfolding narrative of the poems. He works in the basement, the id of the institution, and is a keen flaneur and a obsessive player of Go. Go is a defining metaphor throughout this book, which introduces another sense of the word “play”: the game of art, the game of life, the game of language. Most of all, the game of poetry. It’s not surprising to learn that Alann Fish is himself a poet, and is planning to release a book.

“I think I am real,” says Fish early on in the story. In the circling narratives of the art school, Fish becomes the work’s emotional centre, the ironic counterpoint of silence to the institution’s voluble artifice. Of course, the more real Fish becomes, the more vertiginous his existence, the more we’re haunted by his inner emptiness. This may be, in the end, a book about loneliness: all of its characters are devastatingly alone, and none more than Fish. One of its more beautiful images is one of the final visions of Fish, unravelling in a soft riot of internal rhymes before a mistakenly kindly neighbour:

Sunlight took his hat off
for him, and doffed it, and the wind that loved
the lorikeets and dried them, blew his shocked
expression off. Only his hands lifted from him
a question that wasn’t a question and therefore
said nothing.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Keepers here, but will leave it to you to discover more of this book’s multiple pleasures for yourself. I recommend it unreservedly, and declare it launched

No comments: