From Athens to Boeothia (by way of Atlantis)

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John Kinsella published four volumes of poetry in Australia between 1991 and 1995, but The Undertow: New and Selected Poems (Arc, pounds 7.95) which draws on them, is his first published in England. In introducing him, Michael Hulse uses the distinction made by Kinsella's fellow-Australian Les Murray between the Athenian mode of urban sophistication and the Boeothian of rural plainness. Some such distinction is essential in characterising Kinsella, given the difference between his approachable country poems of parrots and tiger-moths, and the extremely resistant (the word "post- modernist" offers itself as a categorical escape-clause) sequence "Syzygy". The place to start is the third of the book's four sections "The Silo" where poems like "Rock Picking: Building Cairns" (memorably called "these rowdy cities") have some of the unforced reverie quality of Frost. The fourth section, of new poems, is again difficult. It is a curious kind of difficulty too; not the tight scroll which can be unrolled by intellectual application, but an energetic verbal tumult.

Fergus Allen is decidedly on the Athenian side of Murray's divide. The geographical scope of Who Goes There? (Faber, pounds 6.99) extends even beyond the blurb's rather alarming claim that "the poems range in setting from Europe, India and Africa to the Moon." His historical sweep is often ambitious, as in the casual reference to "the Winter Palace /That October". Indeed both kinds of poem - the real geographical, like the fine "Ancestors and Refugees", and the pseudo-anthropological such as "The Factotum" - are best when they have a clear and serious application. The poems are elegantly formed and verbally adroit but seem to confirm Allen as a poet of considerable technical skills who hasn't quite decided what his main subject is, despite impressive successes in several styles.

Since the dramatic impact last year of Atlantis (Cape, pounds 7.00), his first book published in England, there has been little doubt about Mark Doty's central concerns. That book was largely about the effect of his partner's terminal illness on the writer's capacity to view the world.The extraordinary thing was the positive sensuousness of that evocation in the light of tragedy. This is the main subject of Atlantis too; and my impression after several readings is that this is an even more powerful and accomplished book than its predecessor. The title-sequence takes the legend of the submerged city of Atlantis to represent the way a lost past can hold meanings for an emerging future, through dreams and memories. The distinction of Doty's writing is nearly impossible to describe because he has a Midas touch: his easy voice seems to bring weight to all subjects and to survive every risk, from the refusal to mourn the transience of flowers, to the central mourning of friends who died young. His writing is invariably up to the demands of the life-and-death subjects he deals with; the very last words of Atlantis, at the end of the "Notes", are "O World I cannot hold thee close enough". Note how his light teleology shares Elizabeth Bishop's gift of imbuing what seems to be simple description with metaphorical force:

Here, curving out to the farthest reaches,

the breakwater's a causeway of huge stones.

Hard to think these were placed,

these drowsy, inland boulders

awakened, all century, by the seawater's

moon-driven alarm. ('Breakwater')

On the evidence of Atlantis, every word of the rapturous praise that greeted My Alexandria was warranted.

George Mackey Brown's Following A Lark. Poems (John Murray, pounds 8.99) is as elegiac as Doty because he died after it went to press. It is particularly affecting that the two artes poetriae the book finishes with have such a valedictory air to them:

To have got so far, alone

Almost to the seventieth stone

Is a wonder ....

The road winds uphill, but

A wonder will be to sit

On the stone at last -

One star in the west.

The themes here are familiar; there are two more "Stations of the Cross" amid Brown's unhectoring Catholic-Christian world; his cast of local characters, like Ikey the tinker, are paraded again. And his mysterious capacity to fill with vigour and colour what is, in worldly terms, a dying society has never been stronger.

No two societies could be more different than the Athenian-urban of Doty's New York and Brown's Boeothian Orkneys; yet there are all kinds of elegiac similarities. Brown wears the sea as clothing, as Doty wears the city; both use beached and wrecked boats as figures of life-in-death. The explanation of what they share is clear: as elegists, they both (like Yeats) find the taste of life sharpened by transience. But what they have in common even more fundamentally is that they are two of the best poets of our time.