Chorale at the Crossing by Peter Porter - book review: Moving lines reveal more of the person behind the poetry

 His brilliant, highly audible forms exist not as entertainment, but to help us understand difficult truths

Fiona Sampson
Monday 14 December 2015 19:46
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When the great Australian poet Peter Porter marked his 80th birthday with 2009's Better Than God, it was hard to avoid wondering what could be “better than Porter”. Arguably the most powerful of his many collections, the book threw down a gauntlet to lazy thinking, flabby verse; even, it seemed, to mortality itself. Porter died a year later, at the height of his powers.

So the publication of more than 30 major poems he was able to complete in those last months is an important event. Chorale at the Crossing is by turns moving, wry and laugh-out-loud funny. It is also in some ways the poet's most intimate work. This generous book is palpably a settling of accounts – but never of scores – with a life that has included personal tragedy as well as happiness, literary gossip as well as deep thought. Generous in another way too, it's a collaboration with two of Porter's poet peers – his editor Don Paterson, and Sean O'Brien who introduces the book – and Porter's wife, psychoanalyst Christine Porter, who acted latterly as his amanuensis. Her afterword is a touching account of the person behind poetry.

The poems themselves revisit Porter's first wife – the subject of his 1978 poem “An Exequy”, though now “I touch but cannot see her face” – and his mother, who died when he was nine. “The Castaway is Washed Ashore” links these losses, “serving my /absurd disintegration”. The poet's own orphaned daughters are refracted through a poem on Tintoretto's daughter.

He memorialises cats; and accompanies a “sixteen-year-old granddaughter” and her dog on their morning stroll, while pondering critical theory. For the literary world is never far away. Old friends and rivals are greeted in the light-hearted “Australian Literary Graffiti”. “Letter to John Kinsella” issues a call to arms: “if Wars of Style /Are all that Poets find worthwhile/And Inspiration's out of reach, /Stop them writing, let them teach!”

For Porter, this is the crux of the matter. His brilliant, highly audible forms exist not as entertainment, but to help us understand difficult truths. Again and again, these subtle, thoughtful poems return to a loneliness at the heart of existence. Near the book's conclusion, his title poem reflects on dead lovers with a clarity and compassion that Philip Larkin's defensive “An Arundel Tomb” cannot achieve: “Now they are seen to be carrying, everyone /The same burden, the command to love”. As heavenly commands go, it's not a bad one.

Fiona Sampson's 'The Catch' is published by Chatto in February.

Pan Macmillan £9.99. Order for £9.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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